Little innocents, entitled to love

August 08, 1993|By Barbara Hall

SMALL BARGAINS: CHILDREN

IN CRISIS AND THE MEANING

OF PARENTAL LOVE

William Garrison

Simon & Schuster

240 pages, $22

Have you ever wondered what your doctor was thinking behind his or her professional veneer? If so, and for yet more compelling reasons, you'll appreciate this book.

William Garrison is chairman of the Department of Psychology at Children's National Medical Center in Washington. "Small Bargains" is an intimate account of his experiences with children and parents in harm's way. (He uses pseudonyms throughout. The encounters are a composite, and didn't occur at any one site where he was engaged.)

He begins with Paul Dreiden, who was 15 when Dr. Garrison first met him. The boy was diagnosed as having "genetic short stature." He was small, the doctor writes, but sad and wise beyond his years.

To please his parents, Paul agreed to take a painful, costly growth hormone treatment. It did little good, but the boy remained philosophical: "I figure I'm just going to be short -- I mean smaller than other guys my age. I can live with that. I just wish everyone else would leave me alone."

Next, we're introduced to 8-year-old Jimmy Parkman, Dr. Garrison's first psychiatric patient. Jimmy was a biracial child adopted by Caucasian parents. He was frequently full of rage, particularly when confronted by authority figures.

His adoptive parents gave up on him. "The kid is just damaged goods," Jimmy's adoptive father had pronounced. "Let the rest of the world take care of him for a while."

In Dr. Garrison's estimation, Jimmy's fate would surely be long-term institutionalization, or worse.

"I wonder where Jimmy might be now," muses the author, "and whether any of the interventions had made a difference in his life. I fear he might be incarcerated or perhaps might have become one of the growing number of the homeless who are actually mentally ill. Would he remember me, or any of the others who tried to help him? Would be remember the adults with their good intentions -- the ones who tried to offer him whatever it was he needed?

"Anything, that is, but a parent's love."

And so it continues. There is 7-year-old Frankie Alberson and his early signs of homosexuality. (Writes Dr. Garrison, "I worry for him even now, as I think of all the other Frankies who are scorned and rejected every day for what they are.")

Perhaps the most heartbreaking story is that of Kevin Carson, a child who was born with a half-face, a birth defect. With solid writing, Dr. Garrison brings us close to the infant and his family. We share their pain and horror, and at least on Mrs. Carson's part, her gradual resignation, then unconditional love. (Bob Carson, Kevin's father, couldn't bring himself to see his child. He and his wife divorced.)

We are witness to this breakthrough: "We were not even sure how the next few minutes would unfold. As Natalie slowly looked down at her infant, she sighed a long deep breath, one she'd been holding in for a very long time. Suddenly, the baby felt the warmth of his mother's breath on his imperfect face and then, quite unexpectedly -- for we had been attuned to the mother and not the child -- he gazed up at her. As he did this, the right side of his face pressed closely against her body, leaving his imperfection entirely out of view. Natalie began to smile at him, and then at us, as a stream of tears glistened in tracks down . . . her reddened cheeks. She mumbled something to her baby -- audible but unintelligible. I could see that the baby had reacted. Again, he perked up and focused on the tearful, smiling face of his mother."

The doctor followed Kevin and Natalie Carson through semi-successful surgery, and on. "Strangely, it is as though I JTC cannot behold [the hospital newborns] now, or even my own children, on occasion, without being reminded of him."

There are elements of humor in the trenches. For instance, we're told that medical staff typically refer to preventive medical treatments as "tune-ups."

On balance, though, this is a serious book, meant to remind parents of our own good fortunes.

Dr. Harrison puts it simply and gently. "We adults do have this unfortunate tendency sometimes to take the most important things in our lives for granted."

Ms. Hall is a writer who lives in New York.

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