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  • Emma Won't Get Better
  • Daniel Stolar (bio)

Emma won't get better. For several days my wife, Lana, and I said these words to each other with one part normal parental concern and one part head-shaking admiration. As if it were just another instance of her willfulness. Our little head-waggling, snaggle-toothed, toddling one-year-old was refusing to get all the way better out of sheer orneriness. Over the next several months, after seventy-three needles, fourteen catheters and a number of scans and x-rays, all of which required holding her down, these four words became the doctors' consensus and the central fact of our lives: Emma won't get better. The pain might subside for a while, the fever would come and go. But Emma won't get better. [End Page 148] [Begin Page 150]

It started as a fever. A little fireball radiating heat in the sagging California King that had come with our apartment, where Emma slept nestled under Lana's arm, curled above Lana's bent legs, so intertwined with Lana that they seemed like a single organism. And in fact I liked to joke that they were "a single contiguous system" because of Emma's incessant night nursing. When Lana dutifully poured her bedtime glass of water to take the horse-pill prenatal vitamins she'd been taking since pregnancy, I saluted the glass. "See you in Emma's diaper." The jokes were holdovers from our first daughter, Maddie, now five, and they'd become a hallmark of our marriage—little sayings we repeated over and over again. They marked the time and made it ours, like a present-tense nostalgia. And they bolstered us when we were new-parent tired and couldn't live up to the parenting style we'd prescribed for ourselves.

One hundred and three-point-eight degrees under the arm. We paged the pediatrician on call. She called back ten minutes later. She said Tylenol, which we'd already done, and she assured us that 103.8 in itself was not something to worry about, which showed how much I knew. If it went up significantly, we should go to the emergency room. I told her we'd already be there if Emma hadn't finally fallen back asleep. The doctor chuckled along with me. It was quarter to three in the morning. Emma already felt cooler to the touch—the Tylenol was working. The doctor assured me again that the fever would have to be significantly higher to be dangerous on its own. "You have treated the parents wonderfully," I said. The doctor said it was a big part of her job.

The next morning at the Tucson Children's Practice, there were no immediate signs of infection in the nose or throat or ears, so they collected urine. The nurse pushed apart Emma's labia, suddenly exposing the raw pink inside part of her, and taped on a clear plastic bag, and we closed it up in her Elmo diaper and walked her around for the next two hours, waiting for her to pee. We walked through the hardscrabble parking lot and then headed west on Speedway—the only pedestrians for miles in this part of the city. Every couple minutes we checked her diaper. "She'll show us," we said. Lana and I joked about a family stroll on Speedway, once written about as the ugliest ten-mile strip of roadway in America. We tried to get Emma to drink from her sippy cup, but she pushed it away with her fingers emphatically outspread. Even that can be cute in a one-year-old.

Her urine came back positive for blood and white cells. She had a urinary tract infection. Lana leaned against the examination table with Emma stretched sideways across her, nursing below Lana's pushed-up sweater. At [End Page 150] this point, nursing was the only way Emma would keep quiet. Lana blanched as the doctor spoke. Lana comes from the kind of working-class people who are intimidated by doctors. "Antibiotics," I said quickly. "Antibiotics should take care of that, right?"

The doctor agreed, but it was unusual...


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pp. 148-169
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