Reading a book 200 times is a surefire way to find out whether you love it or want to throw its rhyming llama couplets into the diaper pail. Children's books especially do a tricky dance for an audience of squinty-eyed parents and wide-eyed tots: the best ones, like a syringe of infant-suspension Tylenol, have a little something for the parent at the end. These are the ones we are celebrating in This Book Belongs To — the books that send us back to the days of our own footed pajamas, and make us feel only half-exhausted when our tiny overlords ask to read them one more time.
My wife Jessica and I homeschool our daughter Namine (pronounced NAH-me-nay), who is currently in fifth grade. My wife teaches most subjects during the day, and in the evening I read with her and teach programming. Namine is learning about China this semester, and many of the books we’re reading are either historical or historical fiction in nature. That's how we came across Homesick: My Own Story.
The author, Jean Fritz, was an American born in China in 1915, and the book is fictional telling of her history, full of the humor, attitude, and personality of a child who knows exactly who she wants to be, even if not everyone around her agrees. It's illustrated by Margot Tomes, and captures the excitement and loneliness of feeling like you're in a land far from home.
Early on in the book — which is only seven chapters — Jean tells of the birth and death of her baby brother, who was born six weeks premature and passed away only a few days after he was born. This struck an emotional chord with me: I remembered how close my own daughter had come to dying.
I can still clearly recall how purple Namine was; I remember chasing after the doctors as they rushed her away, baptismal cup in hand, splashing water as I ran.
Namine almost died during her delivery. She has several birth defects, the two most severe being Double Inlet Heart Defect (DILV) and Pierre Robin Sequence (PRS), the latter of which resulted in a regressed jaw, blocking her airway. The combination of theses two defects meant that when she was born, Namine would be unable to breathe and would require immediate heart surgery. When she was born, a month early, she was immediately rushed to be intubated: a breathing tube was put in her airway, allowing her to breathe.
I was beside my wife for the delivery, dressed in scrubs and watching the doctors, waiting to see our daughter. I can still clearly recall how purple Namine was; I remember chasing after the doctors as they rushed her away, baptismal cup in hand, splashing water as I ran. I remember my hands shaking as I dipped my fingers into the cup. I remember tracing wet crosses on her head and heart, scarcely able to whisper the words of baptism, hoping that God would hear me anyway.
Even now, ten years later, I still can’t watch a baptism without crying.
As I read the chapter in Homesick, all these memories came flooding back. I managed not to cry while I was still reading, but once I was done, I did. I cried in front of Namine. She held me until I was okay again. Then she gave me another hug for good measure.
'Homesick: My Own Story' by Jean Fritz, illustrated by Margot Tomes
After I tucked Namine into bed, I went back into the living room and cried all over again. Jessica held me too, letting me cry until I was too exhausted to cry anymore. I felt ashamed of myself, but neither she nor my daughter was ashamed. They understood. I wanted to apologize, but Jessica told me there was nothing to be sorry for. There’s no need for one person to be stronger — we’re just there for each other, as Jessica was there for me.
What Namine went through as an infant was traumatic. I feel a little guilty making the claim that it was traumatic for me and Jessica; after all, Namine is the one in the wheelchair. But it’s true: caring for a child with disabilities is stressful and worrisome, and their parents do experience PTSD.
There is a stigma that I feel and a silence that must be overcome. Yes, I’m a man, and I cry. There is this feeling, this sentiment, that men ought to be the strong ones in the family and must not show weakness. While I make no claim to stronger than anyone else, I am here to tell you that everyone needs to lean on someone else from time to time. (I would also point out that crying is not weakness.)
This is a discussion that everyone needs to have. I’m still working on it, myself; there are still days when I feel ashamed about it. I’m not yet completely comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to cry, but I’m working on it. It’s a journey. Fortunately, it’s not a journey I need to take alone.