“My toe hurts,” Ilsa complained one day several weeks ago. Sure enough, she was starting an ingrown toenail—on both sides, like her nail was confused and growing out instead of up. It looked nasty but not terrible. We had her soak it in hot water, and managed to get the nail out to the surface. No biggie.

Then, suddenly, she was complaining again and it was terrible. Infected, oozing, angry red—you name it. We tried the home care again, and it seemed to get better and then came back. When we took her in to the doctor, she took one look at it then looked at me and said, “Madame, you have waited too long.”

Yeah, that made me feel good.

She referred us to a surgeon and didn’t charge us for her office visit, since she said she hadn’t done anything, which I don’t think happens very often in America. “Go right away,” she told us, obviously having pegged us as neglectful parents. So, feeling two inches tall, we trudged off to the surgeon, who told us he would like to take the nail off entirely.

He made an appointment for Friday morning. “Isn’t that a holiday?” I asked. It was—Muslim New Year. The surgeon shrugged. “Not a holiday for medical people,” he said.

So on the first day of Christmas vacation, Donn and I took Ilsa  to a clinic just across the river in Salé, Rabat’s sister city. Ilsa was mopey, not because she was worried about the surgery, but because she’d wanted to sleep as late as she could that first day.

The clinic was fine but basic. We sat in the waiting room for about 15 minutes before a nurse came and whisked Ilsa away. She told Donn and I that we needed to stay in the waiting room. I wasn’t thrilled about that—I’d pictured being with her. It was only a local anesthetic, but they didn’t want us back there. Why? I sat in the waiting room, prey to doubts and strange imaginings.

When we’d been sitting there about 15 minutes, a group of talkative men, about 5 of them, entered and walked straight back down the hall. They looked religious—bearded, wearing robes and caps. We sort of wondered about them, but I thought maybe they were visiting a friend.

About 10 minutes later they came back, one of them pushing a bassinet with a cover over it. I looked at it and got a very bad feeling. They congregated at the far end of the waiting room, where they proceeded to take out of the bassinet two very tiny bodies, which they lay on the seats and wrapped in white cloths for burial, tying them at each end. They weren’t ungentle, but they were very matter-of-fact. At one point a cell phone rang, an Islamic chant for the ring tone, and one of them answered it and chatted briefly.

I glanced around at the waiting room. There were 3 other women and 1 man. He kept reading his paper, but we women (and Donn) were mesmerized. We were all pretty traumatized, staring bleakly at the tableau at the far end of room. One woman groped blindly in her handbag for a kleenex. Although the thought of the tiny twins disturbed me, I myself did not start crying until a woman walked out, her face tight, leaning on an older man, and was swallowed up by the swinging doors at the entrance.

The men finished. Two bore the heartbreakingly-small bodies off, and the others took pillows and cloths and dusted down the seats, as if death was contagious, as if the white burial cloths that swaddled the bodies might have left some invisible but tangible residue, a brush of mortality on the plastic green cushions.

A stillness descended on the waiting room with their absence. It’s not that we were talkative before but now, we didn’t move or speak. It was another 10 minutes before Ilsa was wheeled out, a shoe and her book in her lap and an enormous white bandage on her toe.

A nurse stayed with her while Donn and I were shooed off to pay. One of the doctors told Donn that our daughter was “trés courageuse.” “She read the entire time,” he said in amazement. I laughed. This is Ilsa.

We were sent off with no after care, clutching a prescription for painkillers which turned out to be for the local version of Tylenol. Um, shouldn’t you get something a bit stronger in return for having your entire toenail removed? On top of it, this particular kind of paracetamol is dissolved in water and drunk, and it made Ilsa sick. I had to give her advil instead.

We bore Ilsa home, established her in a sort of nest on the couch, and let her run the show the rest of the day. She was very good and did not abuse her privilege in any way, and although she had a few bad moments, was incredibly calm about the whole thing. I whined more about being forced to sit through another showing of “Lord of the Rings” than she did about the pain!

I watched my tough, spirited daughter nursing her toe on the couch, gritting her teeth and proclaiming it didn’t hurt so that we’d let her go ice-skating on Sunday with the Youth Group Christmas party. Her twin sprawled on the floor next to her in front of the TV. But my mind kept drifting back to those silent twins already laid in the ground, to their mother walking out into the crisp bright air, going silently home to a quiet house.

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