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Time travel in the MRI suite

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

Returning to the MRI suite today was like walking into a memory. Three years ago and just to my left, I was sitting on a hospital bed with a 9lb version of Alden in my arms. He was breast feeding, eyelids heavy. The point of this feed was not sustenance, it was sedation. He was about to be swaddled and strapped into an MRI machine to look at his brain. 

It was May 2020, and I had driven to the hospital two days prior because my anxiety had reached its limit.  My son was getting a full in-patient work-up because I just knew in my mommy heart that something was wrong. The clues had been subtle; so subtle that his primary care physician had said all was well just a week prior. So a part of me was hopeful that we were going to be discharged with a clean bill of health for Alden and diagnosis of severe maternal anxiety for me; that would have been the best case scenario. 

He finished breast feeding, and the nurse helped me wrap him in a warm blanket. He squirmed for a moment, and then settled in as they velcroed him into a little bassinet that would slide right into the MRI. I was directed to a seat in the corner - a seat that I will learn, 3 years later, is still there today. I wonder how many other mothers have sat there, as the monstrous tubular machine cranks out pictures of malformations. I wonder how much sorrow has been captured, right here. Trauma in 2D. 

Today I have a 28lb version of Alden in my arms. Arms that often ache with the weight of what they carry. Arms that are no doubt stronger than the last time my son and I were here. I remember peering through the glass wall at the radiologist who was scrolling through the images of my 4-month old son’s brain as they were produced. I can remember her face and the occasional look of concern that made it hard for me to breathe. I told myself not to read into it; and yet, I thought I might puke. 

Two hours later, his neurologist would come to tell me - and my husband on speaker phone (due to the one-parent-only rules of COVID) - that our lives would never be the same. She used skillful and supportive language as she told us a story of disability - physical and mental, moderate to severe - that sounded at that time like a nightmare from which we would not wake.  

Today Alden has an anesthesiology team, because breastfeeding and swaddling is no longer an option. He kicks and wriggles against it, but I hold him as he is sedated. His consciousness recedes and the nurse helps me lay him down and let go. The doctor says, “Good job Mom,” as I turn to walk out of the MRI suite. I try to smile. “You don't know the half of it,” I think, as I glance at the ghost of myself sitting in the chair in the corner of this MRI suite three years ago. I can see my past-self, arms crossed, as if trying to hold my heart inside my chest, as if I knew it was about to be shattered with the results of the first MRI. 

Today I am escorted to a waiting room, where I sit with a stroller, empty but for two little unlaced sneakers and a miniature toy school bus. And that is where I sit now, typing and wondering what I can say to that version of me still inside the MRI suite 3 years ago. Perhaps I could comfort her with some cliché like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or perhaps offer advice like, “Remember what you love,” and, “It is an extraordinary journey — lead with gratitude.” But it all falls short. Here at the hospital today, the painful edges of acute grief that poke out of the past are not soothed by words. 

And so I stop typing and I close my eyes.  I imagine standing up, stepping through time, and pushing open the door of that MRI suite of 3 years past. I walk inside and my past-self stands, arms falling to her sides as the door swings shut behind me. I open my arms. We lock eyes briefly, then I hug my fear-riddled body, heart to heart, past and present. And together we know: we can trust our future self will be strong enough for whatever comes next. 

"Keep your gaze on the wounded place, that is where the light enters." - Rumi

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