A Bearclaw and a Lesson

11/15/2013 05:15 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Life sucks. We've all uttered this at least once in our lifetime and no, this isn't a "woe is me" blog. The economy hasn't been kind to my family. I am dependent on the state for medical services. I am not proud -- in fact, I am ashamed.

My part-time employment doesn't offer health benefits, and if I paid out of pocket we would be living underneath the 10 freeway in a refrigerator box.

On Monday afternoon I got a call from school to pick up my feverish daughter. After some chamomile, Tylenol and Sponge Bob I was convinced it was a "back to school flu." A restless night followed, and my daughter woke up to golf balls sprouting in the back of her throat.

A few hours passed and I realized it was time for the inevitable. The trip to ... (ominous music) the clinic.

Going to the clinic is very different than a visit to your typical pediatrician's office. There are no organic lollipops, Highlights magazines or Disney Band-Aids. Going to the clinic tends to feel like a trip through a dark alley where your fight or flight senses take over. It also involves a trip into the self-deprecating part of your psyche where words resembling "loser, low-life and don't deserve to have a child" live.

After a 30-second therapy session with myself, it was time to put the "responsible parent hat" on. We live in Los Angeles, surrounded by all walks of life. My kids are public schooled and have friends of all colors, nationalities and backgrounds. Going to the clinic shouldn't be such a shocker then, should it? Surprise!

After bribing my daughter (aka Golfballs) with frozen yogurt and a trip to Justice for a shiny puppy T-shirt, she reluctantly climbed into the car. Like Thelma and Louise, I sped away in the mommy mobile, just in case she changed her mind.

I soon pulled into the clinic lot. I heard my unintelligible daughter mumble something and point to a donut shop. Apparently, I promised her a bear claw at the bargaining table.

We passed two very polite gentlemen asking for money, food or work as we waited to be buzzed in by the receptionist.

Our particular clinic can be considered retro and modern day. It is a cross between Sanford and Son and Orange is the New Black.

The waiting area was filled with toddlers, strollers, a handful of elderly folk. There were plenty of pamphlets about flu shots and vaccines for your reading pleasure and a Spanish cartoon was playing on the TV.

There were seven names ahead of us, which meant it was going to be a long wait. I did warn the receptionist that my daughter was probably contagious and should be seen ASAP. While we waited, I could feel my daughter getting hotter by the minute.

I compare the clinic waiting room to the NYC subway in the '80s and try to follow the same rules as I did then.

1) Don't stare at anyone for more than 5 seconds,

2) Speak to no one

3) Don't get involved -- you know nothing (like Colonel Klink)

As my daughter began to nod off we were startled by a loud commotion outside. A heavyset woman in her 60s holding a toddler and a phone entered screaming.

"She's not your baby -- she's mine! God help you if you try to take her from me."

"You talk to my worker, you know what that judge said!" and with that she hung up. My daughter grabbed my hand and was more shocked than scared.

Golfballs has heard her fair share of arguing, usually about bills and money-related issues. She has never heard anything about judges, police or social workers or witnessed raw, primal love for a child whose well being is threatened.

The incensed woman sat down directly across from Golfballs and myself. I nudged my daughter not to stare even though I couldn't stop gazing. I wasn't entirely clear on the story but I was deeply intrigued.
I already broke two of my subway rules: I was staring and listening.

Her phone rang again and she muttered a few colorful words to the party on the other end, along with "stay away, restraining order, drug testing and sorry ass."

I was hooked. Who was trying to take this baby from her? Drugs? Restraining order? Was someone trying to hurt her?

How would I ever find out the fate of this woman and child?

I decided to read the vaccine brochure to distract me from the frustration this woman was experiencing. All was quiet until a very wet piece of cookie fell into my lap. I looked down and the cutest little girl (sans Golfballs) was grabbing her cookie back. I smiled.

"Come back here to gramma," echoed the woman across from me.

Ahh. So the woman was this toddler's grandma. It was all coming together now.

"That your baby?" I heard the question and prayed that it wasn't directed to me. I panicked. Did she think I was trying to take her baby away? What if she thought I was in cahoots with the person on the other end of the phone?

I slowly looked up and my eyes locked on a set of eyes gazing deeply into mine.

She was speaking to me and was referring to my daughter, who was getting hotter by the minute.

"Yes, she is my baby, she's my middle girl," I said, breaking rule #2, again, not really knowing why I was divulging information.

"Is that your baby?" I asked, realizing that if it were her baby she would of had her at 65 (but we're in LA -- it's all possible).

"She's my grandbaby, I am raising her and her three sisters -- so they are mine, and nobody gonna take them away from me."

I was caught, a prisoner of curiosity and this grandma's kind eyes.

She stared at Golfballs,

"Your baby is sick, she don't look good." And by the end of her sentence she was at the receptionist's window pointing to my daughter. Not more than a minute later a nurse was taking Golfball's temperature (103) and giving her some syrupy orange liquid to take the fever down. We were escorted back to the waiting room and found grandma and baby looking at an "Elmo goes potty" book.

"They give her something to take her fever down?" asked Grandma.

"Yes, it was pretty nasty," I said and Golfballs smiled at the memory of her own Elmo book.

And then, it happened. Grandma spoke to me. She uttered simple words wrapped in some very tough love, in a way only someone with stamina and wisdom could do.

"You want something in this world, you ask for it, don't you wait for someone to cater to you, speak up or people gonna walk all over you."

Wow! She was better than all my shrinks put together! She just called it as she saw it and didn't even bring my parents into it.

"Why'd you just sit there while your baby was burning with fever? You should have demanded they give her medicine, you need to speak up girl!"

And with that she went back to her book and I sunk my head in shame. My daughter looked at me and all I could do was wonder if she was right. Why didn't I demand medicine right away?

Was I so meek and frightened like a cork on the water? Was I so trained to do the right thing and wait? This complete stranger demanded my daughter get treated. She had the strength that I didn't have.
"You're right!" I said rather loudly, and grandma looked up.

I felt like Norma Rae. I did have a voice, I am strong and I am my child's advocate!

My daughter rolled her eyes (I guess the Tylenol was kicking in) and the toddler threw the book and let out a happy scream.

And that's when it happened. Grandma began to speak.

"Her mama's in jail, I should be on a cruise at my age but I am raising my grandbabies."

"Why is she in jail?" I asked, feeling like Lois Lane.

"My daughter was caught dealing drugs and the baby's father is still dealing and he's out walking free. She's not and she has a baby, why is that?"

Did she really want me to answer that ? Was it my turn to play therapist? I had to remind myself that this was very real, not an imaginary play area.

"He's trying to get the baby but I have a restraining order because his girlfriend burnt the baby with a cigarette. Court says he can't go near this baby and he keep coming to my house."

Her tough demeanor began to melt and morph into a mix of sadness and desperation.

"I worked all my life, I'm a nurse, I got awards for best employee 17 years in a row. I should be retired and traveling,"

I listened and imagined her with her patients, offering support and guidance. I desperately wanted to help her. I could offer to babysit or cook meals for them. Suddenly this brash woman had a name and a history and purpose. No longer was she another just another seat holder at the clinic.

"Margaret," a nurse called out.

What a perfect name I thought as I watched her and grandbaby walk to the examination room. I noticed they left the Elmo book on the chair. I quickly got up and gave it to Margaret. She turned to me and our eyes locked.

"Thank you, " I said. "I hope everything works out with your daughter, I really do."

"It will. I have faith and pray every day," she said as walked away.

I looked at my daugher and was ready to begin the "don't judge a book by its cover" conversation, and saw her smiling. A knowing smile someone gets when they have an "ah ha moment."

I hugged my daughter and couldn't wait to buy her that bearclaw. I felt humbled and gracious. We never really know the paths others walk. I broke my rules that day and was offered a touch of humility instead.