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Excerpted from

Keeping Katherine : A Mother's Journey to Acceptance


Kat drank the water. It looked pure and fresh. We had no idea how much we would come to regret that innocent drink.

When Katherine was eleven months old, we backpacked in Colorado's Collegiate Range with our friends Luke and Rosa. We had clear skies as Kat and her floppy blue doll traveled to alpine meadows on my back. The second day out, we stopped for a picnic near a mountain stream. We sat in mountain grasses chasing butterflies with our hands. Paul scooped water from the stream and gave it to Kat to drink with her banana. She grabbed the aluminum cup and drank, spilling water all over her doll and overalls. I took several large gulps as I ate my cheese sandwich. We were high up, where water came from snowmelt. Paul didn't use purification pills.

Soon after that, trip, I became ill. My body ached and I felt dizzy when I stood. I continued nursing Katherine, not drinking much of it. After several days, my fever crept over 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

I spent a week in the hospital with a high fever and a splitting headache, drifting in and out of sleep. After administering scores of tests, the doctors couldn't diagnose the illness, but I knew it was the water that had made me ill.

That week I weaned Katherine, culling out I he morning and evening breast-feedings I'd never wanted to end. I slopped reluctantly-loo sick to keep on and afraid of what I might pass to her.

Mother came out to help. Every day she brought Katherine to visit. Kat sat at the end of my hospital bed full of giggles and smiles as she tossed her blue doll in the air. My daytime nurse told me how lucky I was to have Katherine. "She's a living doll," she said and then told me about her seven-year-old son who had cerebral palsy. "It happened at birth. We never knew what went wrong." She pulled from her wallet a picture of a thin blond child lying over a huge, multicolored ball with a smile lighting his face. His beauty and his mother's love for him struck me, but at that point in my life I could muster only detached sympathy.

Finally, my fever broke. The hospital released me the day before Kat turned one. A cousin with a daughter Kat's age invited us to celebrate together. By then her daughter was walking and climbing all over furniture. Kat had just learned to get from her stomach lo a sitting position.

In photos from that first birthday party, Kat wears a dark-blue dress with red smocking, while lights, and while leather shoes. Her hair is cut chin length. She looks like an old-fashioned doll with big eyes and chubby cheeks. In every picture, she clutches a toy or stuffs cake in her mouth.

Mother and I sat in my kitchen. I still felt weak and light- headed from the illness. Katherine grabbed chunks of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich off the tray of her high chair. A window fan circulated the hot September air. Mother sipped instant coffee. She watched Katherine too closely. I acted as if I didn't notice. "Why isn't she standing, pushing up on furniture? She's a year old. She seems slow. Sue."

A lump settled in my stomach. I quickly told her everything Kat could do. "She says Mommy and Daddy. She picks up Cheerios. She moves all over the place on her tummy. She smiles, laughs, greets us."

I took her in for a one-year checkup. Her pediatrician said everything looked fine. "Don't worry about the delay. She's well within the curve."

Later that month, we visited my parents in New Haven. After a weekend in New York. Paul stayed in the city for business and I returned alone to New Haven by train to be with Katherine. On the ride hack, I couldn't read. I couldn't concentrate. I had an ominous sense I needed to get back to Katherine as quickly as possible.

Down the corridor in the New Haven station, I saw a baby sitting on a middle-aged woman's lap. The child wore pink overalls and a white turtleneck and had pink bows in her dark hair. Candy wrappers littered the floor. A crowd pushed its way out of the dingy station to waiting cars.

I saw her from a distance and thought, "What a pretty child." As I got closer, I noticed her body slumped. Her head drooped over her chest. She didn't make eye contact. Her eyes crossed. She looked around hut didn't focus. A shiver ran down my spine when I realized it was Katherine silting on Mother's lap.

In dreams, this image finds me: my first view of Katherine as a hurl child. In the dreams I don't know who the woman and child are. I have to walk very near the orange plastic chair to recognize them.

When I was little, Mother smelled of cinnamon and Jergens lotion. Her body wrapped around me soft and warm as I cuddled on her lap. Night after night, she scratched my back, massaged the growing pains out of my legs, and put a hot-water bottle at my feet. If I needed a hug or a talk or a companion, I knew where to go.

In my memory, Mother sits in a wingback chair, talking as her needles work wool into sweaters with cables and designs. I sit on the floor beside her, my hands struggling to control the unwieldy spears, trying to match her grace and ease, but losing loops of yarn. I knot over the mistakes, proud when I finish a line. Mother, when she sees the imperfections, takes the needles gently from me and tears out the work to the place before the gaps. I falter as her needles dance circles with the wool.

She sits at the sewing machine, making drapes for a house we will soon leave. She stands in the background as we play with friends, half in shadows watching from a distance, allowing us to make mistakes but ready to swoop down immediately to save us from real harm.

Mother's life revolved around the warm nests she created time and again as Dad was transferred and the family uprooted. Wherever we put down shallow roots, she made a home of fine curtains and plush carpets.

Once Mother saw something was wrong with Katherine, she held her less and seemed to have a hard time looking at her. She kept frantically telling us Katherine wasn't normal, perhaps desperate for us to do something to help Kat. Paul and I shook our heads in disbelief.

Tags: Health