She lifted the young child into her arms and experienced, for the first time, a love so big her heart could not contain it. Hugging the child close and long wasn’t a choice; it was a compulsion. Tears of joy, underscored with the certainty of heartbreak, also defied choice. Love came unbidden, and as yet, unreciprocated.

But it came in a tidal wave of power—passionate and fierce. This was not the fluffy, sugary, cotton candy emotion that as a young girl she had confused with love. And it seemed as if just yesterday she had been that young girl despite the reality of being a successful middle-aged woman.

The call had come yesterday. She’d only been approved just the week before. The social worker had a child to place with her.

It was the same old story, as a hospital administrator, she’d heard it a heart-numbing number of times. A victim of abuse, born to people too young, too poor, or too high to parent, then bounced from relative to relative, then foster home to foster home. Specialized foster care with adoption as the goal was the new tact.

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“She’s no stranger to hospitals,” the social worker warned.

“Neither am I.”

The right man had never come along in her life. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t have a family of her own.

Her intent was to adopt this child.

She used the same cool decisiveness and confidence that made her successful in the workplace to remove herself from the workplace. It took only a few swift communiques to secure an extended leave of absence and liquidate some assets.

This first hug would not be the last. Upon arriving home, it was followed by another, then another. All heart-felt, all long, all just short of bone-crushing. She sat the child on her lap while she read books to her, while she played piano for her, while she surfed the internet with her. While she administered her medications. 

She rocked her to sleep. She rocked her to sleep again when the nightmares came. She held her in the recliner while they both slept so that love would be the first thing the girl saw when she awoke.

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She braided her hair, she taught her to shower, she learned that her little girl had no favorite foods. She took her to the aquarium but discovered she liked the beach better. She took her to concerts in the park but found she liked watching the artists instead.

She took her to the doctor. And then to the specialists. She educated her. There were specialists for that, too.

And occasionally there was the hospital emergency department, the intensive care unit, the home care nurses.

They tried playing dress-up but it was too silly. They attended family get-togethers.  Sometimes they were awkward, but with practice, they were less so. The girl learned to hug. She was taught by her new mom but also by her new cousins, aunt, uncle, and grandparents. Relatives who were there today and every tomorrow.

Her mother held her hand day and night in the hospital, only leaving her side to eat, to spare the patient of the sight and smell of food she wasn’t allowed. There were cards, always there were cards. Get well cards, make-you-laugh cards, and homemade cards from adults and children alike. There were so many friends and family and all of them hugged and some of them kissed. The child hugged them back, sometimes looking to her mother to see if she did it right. She didn’t kiss.

And once she woke up when her mother wasn’t quite quick enough to hide the tears.

The child had never seen nor shed sad tears. Her mother loved to watch movies that she told her daughter were called tearjerkers. The girl passed the tissues often but never used them herself.

The hospital stay was longer this time.

The girl slept more. Her mother took care to open the window blinds during the daytime so if her daughter lost track of whether it was day or night, the sunshine could help her know.

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The instruments beeped. The nurses poked. Her mother raised her voice. The nurses cowered. The doctors did her mother’s bidding.

And then they were home.

Safe and secure with all the right sounds and smells. 

Her mother playing piano, her mother’s perfume.

Her mother’s soft crying.

Naturally, without any thought, the girl reached for her mother’s hand and tugged.

The mother quickly dried her eyes. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry for scaring you.”

The girl shook her head. “No, Mama, you just need a hug.”

And the mother leaned into the bed and accepted a long hug that contained more strength than a sickly girl could possibly possess. They embraced, they held hands, they even kissed.

And when the child’s breath ran out, the mother’s heart gave way to a vulnerability, without which love cannot be love, and shattered into shards.

Holly Kaeppel

Holly Kaeppel is a mother of five who resides with her husband in Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Penn State with a BS in Human Development and Family Studies and has worked professionally and as a volunteer in various capacities serving children and adolescents.