This week we will feature an essay each day at The Sunlight Press.
by Georgene Smith Goodin
On a searing July day in 2018, I picked up my former foster daughters. In the year since they had been reunified with their birth family, my husband and I frequently visited them or helped with childcare.
The youngest of the three girls was only two years old. We affectionately referred to her as The Littlest Hermana. On that awful July day, I took her to the hospital in an ambulance. She had been brutally physically abused since our last visit and required four surgeries to repair the damage to her internal organs.
When The Littlest Hermana was released from the hospital, we became her foster parents again. She was expected to make a full recovery but, as a temporary measure, the valve between her stomach and intestines had been stitched shut. The doctors had placed one tube to drain her stomach acid into a bag that we kept clipped to her clothes, and another tube, called a J tube, into her intestines so she could be fed.
Even though The Littlest Hermana was only two, she learned to help my husband clean the tubes’ entry points and to do some of the other routine maintenance herself. The entry points were arranged above and below her surgical scar in a way that resembled a percent sign. I liked to tell her this was appropriate because she had beaten all the odds.
The J tube feedings were administered automatically through a pump and lasted 18 hours a day. The Littlest Hermana took this like a champ, prancing around to show off the black backpack that housed the pump.
The Littlest Hermana also needed blood thinner every morning, which had to be injected into the taut flesh of her abdomen. This she did not take like a champ, and her screams of anticipation ricocheted around our home. I imagined how she must have screamed when she was being abused and wondered how anyone could have so egregiously hurt the sweet girl I’d come to love.
The Littlest Hermana saw a psychologist weekly. Normally, the birth family participates in these sessions, but due to the horrific nature of the circumstances, my husband and I did so instead. We were asked to help “craft her narrative,” to shape her experiences into a simple story her young brain could process.
The writer in me resisted. I knew all too well the power of a story, how the excluded details matters as much as the included ones. I knew enough about how memory works to know she’d be more likely to remember what she was repeatedly told than what she could currently recall but not voice. The psychologist assured me we weren’t going to tamper with The Littlest Hermana’s memories; we were simply going to lay out the known facts in a child-friendly way. Still, I hesitated.
At a court-ordered visit, The Littlest Hermana’s birth family expressed revulsion toward the granulation tissue that had developed around her tubes; they wanted to know if she would always have it. The tissue was bulging, red and shiny. The Littlest Hermana was oblivious to her family’s comments – she was always indifferent at these visits – but I was shocked that their concern was focused on something merely cosmetic.
I loved The Littlest Hermana’s granulation tissue—and all of its grotesqueness—because it was a byproduct of the very tubes that were keeping her alive. For me, the granulation tissue symbolized her determination to survive an unimaginable horror, and her birth family’s aversion to it dissipated my reluctance to help craft her narrative.
At the next therapy appointment, I told the psychologist I wanted The Littlest Hermana to be proud of the scars she would have when her tubes were removed. I wanted her to see them as a testament to her resilience—to her body’s ability to heal. The words “I did it” made it into the narrative, along with multiple references to her strength and bravery. Her scars were labeled “badges of honor.”
My husband and I delivered the narrative at a therapy session. While we read it to her, The Littlest Hermana continued to play with the dolls and doll houses in the session room, as she normally did. It was hard to know what she heard or understood—to know if the words had any effect on how she was processing what had happened.
I forgot about the narrative until a few months later. While we were walking down the street, The Littlest Hermana pulled up her shirt to show the scars on her belly to a perfect stranger.
“Somebody hurt me,” she said in a sing-song voice, “but I better than them.”