heartbreak hotels

Every time I visit Calvin’s grade school it’s like checking into a heartbreak hotel. I walk the long corridors, my boots scuffing on buffed linoleum tiles as little munchkins pass me by swift and stealthy as fairies. This week the hallways are plastered with large cut-and-glue portraits of Native Americans carved from thick sheets of paper. The images create a melange of brown, russet and tan hues reminiscent of desert, wild horses, prairie and suede. I look closer to see feathers sprouting from headdresses, dramatic face paint and cut-fringe garments. These scores of native faces stare silently as I make my way to Calvin’s life skills class located near the end of what feels like an indigenous longhouse.

Halfway down the empty hall a little girl about seven or eight brushes a soft blond curl from her forehead as our eyes meet. She smiles up at me forming a dimple in her cheek. I am reminded of the daughter I might have had, the one whose eyes I could look into and they’d look back at me—something my son rarely does. I feel her sweet warm breeze just as a hollow pit gnaws into my gut. Again, I regard the students’ work on the walls, remembering the artist I had been in school and thinking, if things hadn’t gone so wrong, one of these portraits would’ve been Calvin’s.

Once in the life skills room I must step around a thin girl dressed in purple lying prone on the floor. She has bluish fingers. I see her dusky hands and mouth, the flickering of her eyes, and wonder if she’s having some sort of seizure. Another boy is at the sink cupping his hands under a tap of running water and crying. It breaks my heart—he can’t tell us why. They say it’s because he isn’t getting his way, but it breaks my heart nonetheless, and I feel the urge to rescue him. An older boy rests supine on a mat receiving physical therapy from his aide: a handsome young man who is patient, kind and strong. None of these children can speak. Then Calvin emerges from the bathroom, his aide holding his harness and hand. “Hi Calvin! It’s Mama,” I say, kneeling as I wrap my arms around his twiggy waist. He smiles and returns my embrace with fervor, gives me a slobbery, open-mouthed kiss on the nose. I think he knows it’s me.

I visit with Calvin’s aide for a spell, give her the supplements I’d forgotten to pack in his lunch. Then I head down the long corridor again, passing several kids reading books aloud as they go. Calvin can barely walk and can’t read, much less do them both at the same time. I feel a satisfying warmth wash over me as I swim amongst these most extraordinary, ordinary kids. Then I feel the aching pit again, sinking my soul. Later, at the pediatrician’s office, I feel it again as I listen to the whispers of three children and their mother. They're excitedly remarking on the colorful fish in the waiting room tank that I wonder if Calvin has ever noticed, even though I've shown him. I watch a bespectacled mother and son quietly reading books side by side. And I feel it again when I sit alone in the empty room waiting for Calvin’s doctor to come and discuss his weight loss, his seizure drugs, his paltry appetite, his urinalysis, his blood draw, his seizures, his behavior, his well-being, my sleep deprivation, my stress.

And I realize that wherever I go, I check into a heartbreak hotel, because no matter if it’s a school or a doctor’s office or the grocer or the sidewalk right outside my window, I see constant reminders of how wonderful children are and how, even with a boy as loving as Calvin, I’ll never be quite so lucky.

photo by Michael Kolster


  1. I don't know what to say, here, so instead I'll just listen. I'm listening, my heart is aching a bit for you and your loss and your aches and pain.

  2. I'm sorry, Christy. People in Ecuador often say "mandando abrazos" (sending hugs), usually an understatement for the amount of sympathy that's meant. So I'll say the same to you. I think of you often when I see disabled children on the Ecovia, the overcrowded, air-polluting Quito bus I ride frequently. I hope that you are taking care of yourself as much as is possible.