Gail started a new position at NorthwesternMemorialHospital in April of 2003 that came with better pay and a much-improved insurance plan. Shortly after, Deb went in for a checkup where she was diagnosed with early stage thyroid cancer. When the doctor made the diagnosis she asked Gail why she hadn’t caught the cancer, being in the medical profession herself. After that, they found a new doctor and developed a treatment plan, but they both worried about what was to come. Surgery to excise the tumor was planned for August after they took the grandchildren back to Indiana.
In June of that year, they went to pick up the children right after school was out for the summer. The three older kids would attend summer day camp while Gail worked and Deb finished up a summer teaching assignment, but Mollie was to stay with her mother until July 1st. The conditions Heather and her children lived in were squalid, and they were deeply conflicted about leaving Mollie in her mother’s care, but they simply had no way to take care of her during the day. When they came back for her at the beginning of July, Heather looked worse than ever and Mollie was in desperate need of help. She was nine months old and couldn’t even roll herself over. Deb describes their story with Mollie and her journey to accepting her role as a parent in an essay she wrote, entitled “Darkness, Then Light”. Included below is a passage on that first summer.
Sad baby. I had to wake her during feedings or she wouldn’t eat. She never got chubby, but looked stronger, had a little better color — pale porcelain instead of bluish translucence.
She howled at bath times — I don’t think she’d ever had a bath before. I showed her how to smack the water. “Splash, splash, splash,” I’d say. Sad little eyes watching me. In steps we got there, her tiny hand smacking the water. She got to like bathing.
That August, when the children were nearly due back in Indiana and Deb’s surgery to remove the thyroid cancer drew closer, they got a call from Heather informing them that she had a court date as a result of a drug arrest, meaning their drop-off date would need to be delayed. Gail had to work the day her grandchildren were supposed to be returned, so Deb drove the kids by herself, and cried the whole way back to Chicago. While at first she was resistant to developing an attachment to Mollie for fear of losing her to the neglect that would surely claim her life, they bonded that summer. With both Deb & Gail’s constant nurturing encouragement, she had begun on a path to recovery. To take her back to the awful conditions at home where all of the gains they had made would be lost was too much for Deb. “It just felt wrong,” she recalls, but with her surgery looming and her lack of any legal ties to any of the children, she was forced to press on.
Fortunately the surgery went well, and all of the cancer was removed. No radiation treatments were even necessary, but the close call with something that could destroy their union shook them both.
During Labor Day that year, Gail and Deb visited Gail’s mother and brother in Ohio. They received another call from Heather stating that she was going to prison and that if they didn’t pick up Mollie in the next few hours she would be put in foster care. The couple immediately piled in the car and raced to get Mollie.
Gail spoke with Heather to work out the custody agreement while Deb cared for Mollie in an adjacent room, realizing, as she had predicted, that any inroads they had made with Mollie’s development over the summer had been reversed. She appeared worse off than before with open sores covering her bottom. She refused to look Deb in the eye. The spark of life they had coaxed into the baby during her stay with them had been snuffed out by her mother’s neglect. Though she put on a tough exterior and tried her best to deny that she had parental leanings of any kind, Deb loved that little girl. Whether she was ready to be a parent or not, this child needed both Deb and Gail if she had any chance of surviving.
Gail became Mollie’s legal guardian, and they both set about the seemingly impossible task of helping their infant recover from the abuse that had nearly killed her. Gail got Mollie the medical help she needed, and Deb, even while recovering from surgery, taught Mollie to splash again. Though she hadn’t worked there long, the doctors and nurses at Northwestern threw her a “grandma shower” where they received cash, gift cards, toys, and hand-me-down clothes to help them buy all of the baby necessities; bed, stroller, car seat, diapers. From then on all of their energy would be devoted to giving their little girl a place to thrive. For her part, Mollie’s natural curiosity and tenacity blossomed, and was soon a happy, healthy baby.
“I feel like I’ve had to grow up a lot more,” Deb recalls. “You think you’re an adult when you have an apartment and you pay your own bills, and you’re not, you know?” The pressures of raising a child were nothing new to Gail, but doing so with the support of someone she loved only deepened their bond. The transition wasn’t as easy for Deb. Gail could no longer attend all of her readings and social functions, because someone had to take care of Mollie. Deb would have to rush home from class to relieve the baby sitter, and fought to find time for her writing.
When combined with her near brush with death and the growth pangs of being forced out of her comfort zone with teaching, the stresses of Deb’s situation began to take their toll. “I would stand in the kitchen just screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘I never wanted to be a house wife or a mother, and now all I do is clean dirty dishes and clean shitty diapers,’” Deb recalls of the time. “I think it was really, really hard, especially the first couple years, because there’s no energy for anything outside the kid.” But whenever it seemed as if her new responsibilities would get the best of her, watching Mollie begin to open up and smile and laugh and act how any child should, Deb’s desire for independence, for disassociating from the traditional roles of gender and marriage, would melt away. They still played by their own rules, but with the addition of Mollie to their little family, those rules shifted dramatically.