This is not my adventure; this journey belongs to them alone. My two daughters, ages 5 and 7, are dressed in light Swahili wraps—afloat in a dhow with a bright blue hull and a crisp white sail—held adrift in the Indian Ocean. On board the sailboat with them is an Irish boy named Eamon whom they have only known since this morning. They aren’t wearing life preservers.
Is this neglectful parenting? I know they’re safe otherwise I would not have shoved them off from shore myself. They are well on their way to a nearby island, off the coast of Mombasa. The island is auspiciously peeking out from the thick clouds that typically shroud it. I spy through my binoculars, from the end of the long dock, their little sailboat closing in on the small cay.
There are dark and shining fishermen in the shallows around me, just off the end of the dock. They are singing their Swahili fishing song “kuja sumaki” (“come fishy fishy; come fishy fishy, come fishy fishy-come!”) I slip off thin, lime green flip-flops and settle in. I dangle my legs off the edge of the dock, to wait. The morning air smells heavy of salt and frangipani, coconut and coffee beans. The sunlight is blazing—white and piercing.
I know they will be all right—this is one of the safest places in the world. There is no crime, no war, no fighting, no school, no money, and no government. The ruler of this archipelago is a wise and good chief who sleeps under his thatched cottage on stilts during the blazing heat of the day. Each evening, in the gloaming, he paddles his outrigger to each of the shoreline villages to get the “habari” (news) from his community.
What my daughters will see on that island is something that I will never have the opportunity to see with my own eyes. As long as they have the chance to see it and enjoy it—all is good. They’re going to see the infamous giraffes of the island. Giraffes of various shades and colors, not found anywhere else in the world. Dark orange, yellow, shining gold and one fabled lavender baby giraffe that cannot hold his head upright…
“Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom—REALLY BADLY!”
I refocus away from the mystical island and back down to my 7-year-old daughter in the hospital bed. “Why would this be happening?” I wonder allowed and get the ICU nurse from her station outside our door.
“If she has a catheter in, why is she still feeling pressure on her bladder?” I asked the nurse “this is the second time she has said that.”
The nurse, a young and strong woman, gently picks up the bag into which drains dark red blood and fluid away from my daughter.
“We may have a blood clot inside the tube which is preventing draining.”
“OWWWWEEEE MOMMY!!!! I HAVE TO GO NOW!!! She pleads.
“What can we do?” I ask while holding panic at bay by tossing out tempting morsels of “this will be O.K.”
“The only thing we can do is to remove the catheter and let her drain herself.” Says the nurse.
“Let’s do it.” I determine.
“Ok”, she says. “Let me call her surgeon to get his permission to remove it. I know he wanted it to stay in for 48 hours, to protect the surgery site and it has only been 8 hours.” She runs out in to the bright artificial light of the hallway—it is after 3 a.m. and the halls are quiet. She returns quickly with adept female nurse backup.
“I called her surgeon but I am not getting an answer, we have to make an executive decision.” My daughter is screaming loudly in pain, crying for help.
“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE HELP ME MOMMY!!” she is screaming.
“Let’s do it—NOW.” I say.
“Ok” says the nurse. “Mom, you need go to her head and hold her.”
I scurry into place.
“Grab a plastic bin”, she directs the second nurse who quickly grabs a small powder pink plastic bin and positions it under my daughter.
I hold my daughter gently by the shoulders and put my mouth next to her ear “Shhhhhhhh”—she is writhing, I am holding her down.
The head nurse slowly extracts the catheter and a small tidal wave of blood and fluid floods the bin and splashes onto the bed, from my daughter’s insides.
“Here’s the clot”, she says, holding up the tip of the catheter and points to a squished looking cranberry in the tube.
I softly lower my body back down and return to my seat on the edge of the dock. This time I stick my feet down in the cool Indian Ocean; a refreshing relief against the heat of the day. I feel grateful for the linen wide-brimmed hat that is shading me. I deeply inhale the scent of jasmine and orange. I again pick up my strong binoculars and watch the dhow reach the island. I watch the kids tumble out onto the beach.
They lift out the wicker picnic basket and set it on the sand. It is the one that I put together, earlier that morning, with their father. They have cucumber sandwiches (with the crusts cut off) wrapped in fresh blue and white gingham napkins. There are three hard-boiled eggs, each with an eggcup. The eggcups have a periwinkle lotus with green leaves on them. The kids set them up neatly on a large driftwood log that becomes a table. I see Eamon unwrapping a chocolate bar to share. I watch them untie the small pouch carrying three cold ginger beers hanging off the boat, in the water.
By the time the children make their way through the jungle and arrive at the clearing where the giraffes can be found my daughter has drifted back to sleep. I pull my toes from the turquois water and rise from my quiet place on the dock.
I silently make my way around my daughter’s hospital bed to the plastic covered daybed against the wall. I lie back on the bed and gently close the story in my mind, with a bookmark firmly in place, allowing the antiseptic odors to drift back in. Within a few minutes I am almost asleep. The alarm tones that the saline drip, attached to my daughter’s arm, is low and I rouse to find the nurse again.
The Island of the Rainbow Giraffes became an integral part of our lives over two years ago. It was then that my daughter began waking nightly with stomach pains. I went to our pediatrician. We tested her urine and she did not have a bladder infection. We tested her stool and she had no signs of parasites and no blood in the stool. We tested for Crones disease, Grave disease and Celiac. The results were all negative. But still the pain persisted. I gave her daily doses of probiotics. I took dairy and gluten from her diet and still she would wake every night in pain. I did what I could with hot water bottles, lullabies, herbal teas, oatmeal, homeopathic remedies, but the pain persisted. I returned to the pediatrician.
He asked me, “What do you do when she says she can’t sleep?” I responded saying, “Everything that I can think of in terms of comfort therapy, I’ll even take a warm bath with her in the middle of the night”.
“You need to stop all comfort therapy”, the doctor-man said through his spectacles.
“What?” I said.
“I think she is doing this for your attention,” he said, “you need to stop everything that you are doing when she wakes you up—just put her back to bed.”
“Are you telling me that you think my daughter is lying?” I said.
“Yes.” He said, matter of fact.
I changed pediatricians two more times in the next six months and still nothing—no answers—persistent pain. All three pediatricians concluded that my daughter was constipated and I needed to get a grip. No ultrasounds were going to be preformed.
“We are NOT performing any further testing”, stated the matriarch pediatrician.
We then began seeing an empathetic homeopathic specialist who listened well and started her on a barrage of potential remedies. I drove 18 hours from Missoula down to Vail, Colorado to meet with a world-renown acupressure specialist who opened my daughter’s energy chakras and removed blockages—for pretty penny. I prayed to God every night. Still nothing relived her pain and sleeplessness.
It was desperation that caused me to create the Island of the Rainbow Giraffes. When nothing else would bring peace to my daughter, we went to the Island. Sometimes my stories would last for hours before she would fall asleep, but she always did—eventually. When she would finally fall asleep I hoped that she was dreaming of our far away refuge and not of the pain that was eating up her life.
In the dark nights when the monster of pain came and grabbed her, I would grab her back and jump in our dhow and head for the Island, it was the only refuge we had. I have heard stories of how prisoners of war use mind control techniques designed to maintain sanity while in enemy hands. One method is to build an entire house, board-by-board, tile-by-tile, all in your mind, until the house is complete. We, on the other hand, built The Island of the Rainbow Giraffes, one grain of sand at a time.
The best part was the giraffes that inhabited the island. They came in all colors of the rainbow: blue, pink, black, green, & lavender. There were even two invisible giraffes that were constantly playing tricks on the others. Their island was a cay, covered in a palm tree jungle with a fresh water stream that flowed through the middle. The spring created a lagoon where the giraffes came to rest and drink. There were sea turtles that swam beside the girls’ dhow as it journeyed from Mombasa where the girls lived. Of course, all the animals talked, even the tiny peacock named “Bing” who rode between the front shoulder blades of the smallest lavender giraffe named “Bingo”.
My daughters, who were always together in these adventures, would sail their dhow back to the mainland every evening and walk up the same sandy path, through the kiosk market, to the light blue bungalow with white gingerbread trim. They had a lovely white bedroom that they shared with mosquito netting over the twin mahogany beds. In their bedroom they had a little pet parrot named Limey, who was an avid reader of the classics and a tiny bush baby named Emerald, who was obsessed with costume jewelry.
The day finally came when we could take the pain no more. I arrived to pick my girls up from school one day and my 7-year-old was unable to walk. I brought her on piggyback to my car, then onto the ER. The blood test concluded a CT scan was necessary. Her white blood cell count was 20,000. I bribed my daughter to drink her radiation cocktail by withholding bits and pieces of the next scene from The Island until she finished the drink. The results of the CT came in at 3:30 am with the Pediatric Hospitalist. She had a congenital defect—a UPJ Obstruction. One kidney was not draining due to an artery that was crossing over the top of her ureter. That kidney was swollen four times the normal size. A decision had to be made whether to put her on a helicopter to Seattle or to perform surgery in Missoula. “We have to pick and choose our life-flight cases to Children’s Hospital in Seattle”, the Pediatric Hospitalist said deeply and thoughtfully, “we are going to prepare her for surgery here at 7:00 am.”
When the Urologist arrived a few hours later, he then made a wise decision to wait a day to get more information about the obstruction. We left the hospital that morning and returned home. After a flurry of research and countless phone calls, my two daughters and I headed for Seattle Children’s Hospital five days later for a four-hour surgery to detach her ureter from her kidney and re-attach it properly, free from obstruction.
While in Seattle, for those two weeks, we spent as much time on the Island of the Rainbow Giraffes as we possibly could. Our friends were all there and island life continued to evolve nicely, we were not strangers in a strange land. The weather was perfect—balmy and beautiful, not cold and rainy, as it appeared outside our hospital window. The air was fresh and perfumed, not filled with the smell of blood and urine, alcohol and cleaning solution. The Swahili fishermen continued to sing their songs, drowning out the sounds of children screams and cries echoing down the hallway. When my daughter’s morphine started to wear off, before the next painkiller kicked in, an entire troop of baby peacocks was found living happily in a Victorian doll house on the beach.
It has been over a year since this successful surgery and my daughter continues to heal and grow every day. We have not visited the Island of the Rainbow Giraffes recently. It is not because we don’t want to it’s because we don’t need to. If we ever need to return, it is a quick and easy trip. I hope we never do.