My son went limp and grey in my arms in the span of twenty seconds.
That was a year ago.
A year ago, on the day before Christmas Eve, we spent the day and night in the Emergency Room watching our nine month old son being poked and prodded with needles. We watched him pale and vomiting and crying and we watched as doctor after doctor walked into the room and each told us something different. A year ago, we watched our son go under anesthesia as a procedure was attempted to save us from being life-flighted out of state on the night before Christmas so our son could undergo emergency surgery.
We were told on two separate occasions to make arrangements as we would be getting on the aircraft that night. And then very late that night, we were sent home – told if anything else went wrong before Monday to prepare to be life-flighted immediately.
We made it through the weekend and he had surgery at the beginning of the week.
I felt it almost immediately as the first snow hit. Then even more deeply as daylight savings time stole an extra hour of sunshine from our days.
A few weeks ago I was doing laundry and needed to throw on a sweatshirt – I pulled that one out. In the span of one second the neon yellow brought me back as a wave of nausea hit me. I think I grabbed it that day because I saw it first and we literally didn’t have a second to spare. I threw it on as we were sprinting out the door, didn’t even get my coat on despite the below freezing temperatures. I remember pacing the halls in it. I remember tearing it off the moment they told me it was safe to let him nurse. I hadn’t touched it since.
This year I found myself procrastinating on putting up the Christmas decorations. Trying to craft an argument in my head that wouldn’t sound completely insane to my husband. Something that wouldn’t scare my kids. Something that didn’t involve magical thinking, the belief that if the decorations didn’t go up, nothing that bad could happen again.
The terror followed us home after the hospital. It stayed with us all winter – every sickness, every bout of inconsolable crying. Is this something more? Are we missing something?
And then in February we missed it again. His Owlet alarm went off for low oxygen – he had a cold, we knew that – but he seemed so happy and untroubled by it. A late night return to the ER, a night spent hospitalized with oxygen in his nose, and I was completely undone.
People probably wondered what was up with me – why every fever from there on out, every sore throat, every cough made me spin out of control. How I could feel instant sweat prickling my armpits the second I noticed the slightest change in behavior in either of my kids. My stomach would churn, my mind race, my heart rate would skyrocket. This was the state of normal for December through April of last year.
When Spring came, when I saw the first pink blossoms on the apricot tree, I swear to God tears of relief instantly sprung to my eyes.
We had made it.
We. Had. Made. It.
The Summer was one of the sweetest I’ve ever known, even though my health made a swift decline. Six months almost to the date after that day in December I was hit with stomach bug after stomach bug. I knew exactly what it was, and the fact that not a single member of my family had any symptoms whatsoever only reinforced my belief. I had been in survival mode for months, once the heat slid around my shoulders and the sun kissed my skin and the moon didn’t hit the sky until 10 pm I knew I was safe. My body took a breath, a sigh of relief and all the built up stress came crashing down. I spent the bulk of the summer sick to my stomach, with terrible bugs, running to the bathroom, in pain, often unable to eat anything besides bread and butter for days.
But it didn’t even matter – because they were ok. My kids were ok. We had made it. There were no dark days and nights that lasted for what felt like weeks in the summer.
I knew the winter would return. And I knew that it was inevitable that I would have to deal with the fallout from that day in December. So as I sit here, just weeks away from the one year anniversary – what have I learned?
I have never taken a bath like the one I took the night we got home from the ER. I climbed into the hot, bubbly waters after I nursed and kissed and prayed and held my son to sleep. Hot tears slid down my cheeks, down my neck, into the water. All I could say, over and over again, was thank you.
Thank you that that night my son was safe in his bed. That we were together under the same roof, and not separated by thousands of miles with one of us in a hospital room alone with our soon hooked up to machines and tubes. The pure, simple gratitude of us all being alive, safe, and together brought me literally to my knees that night, and has continued to on many nights since then.
The kindness of friends, family, and strangers. All it takes is remembering the people who reached out to us – who took time out of their Christmas to sit with us, to make phone calls on our behalf, to offer up their homes, to ask their churches to pray – I can’t even type these things without tears brimming. People I’ve never met in real life, Instagram friends, friends of friends messaged us their phone numbers and addresses, promising us places to stay if we were flown out of state. Several friends who were literally camped out in the hospitals already with their husbands or children reached out with gifts or offers to come sit with us. I spent Christmas day crying on the phone with a woman I’d never met who I’d been connected to by people who cared and knew she had the medical background to answer my specific questions. My best friend called and emailed all of her contacts on our behalf, came and sat with us late at night. All of this on Christmas. On the weekend of the year when everyone is already busy, already has plans and traditions and so much on their own plates. I will never, as long as I live, forget the kindness we were shown.
I have been taught that we only get this moment. After months and months of terror, fear, paralyzing panic – I had to accept that I don’t get to control, worry, or plan my way out of experiencing pain. Believe me, I’ve tried. I spent the better part of the last year trying to figure out how I could prevent anything like that every happening again, to the point of obsession. And I don’t know if I prevented calamity. I do know this year wiped me out – brought me to a new kind of bone-deep fear that sucked the life out of me. It’s as if I wanted to prepare myself mentally, emotionally for future pain that might happen. That in doing so it might hurt less when it actually arrived. But nothing horrific happened, all that happened was that I was drained of joy for most of the year.
And I’ve learned I can handle more than I think. That night I paced the ER hallways, shaking and wired with fear. I kept repeating to myself NO. I. CAN’T. DO. THIS. With every IV insertion, every procedure, every time Eli vomited, every time he woke up crying, every piece of bad news the medical team brought us I was internally chanting I. CAN’T. DO. THIS. When the last doctor came in and told Will he should start trying to find a plane ticket because Eli and I were going now in my head I was screaming NO. I. CAN’T. DO. THIS.
The morning we woke up for his surgery I held him and promised myself I wouldn’t cry or be afraid. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to do it. There was no wishing my way out of it. And I did it. I did another hospitalization where I lay on the cement of the hospital floor with my coat as my pillow. I hated every second, but I did it. And when the sun came up the following morning and we hadn’t slept a single minute all night, I felt a little crazy but I just started to dance. And Eli smiled with the tubes taped to his puffy little face and the dark circles under his eyes crinkled up and he let out a little giggle. We did it. We just did it.
Two weeks ago I sat in our dining room, placing little orange slices and diced cheese and pieces of granola on my son’s tray. The sun was shining in, lighting up his hair from behind, like he was glowing. His little feet pressed against my knees as I sat across from him. He smiled and swung his legs and munched away.
A couple times in my life I’ve felt the presence of something- something, well, else. The experiences have been so surreal and so sacred to me that I’ve not written about them – I just feel like it’s one of those things I don’t have the skill yet to explain in words. But that day I sat and looked at him, and I felt with a surety I cannot explain adequately that I was being looked at by my future self. At the risk of sounding a little too woo-woo – I sometimes send my past self messages from the future. Messages like “this all works out, I PROMISE” or “this is totally going to be worth it, even though it doesn’t feel like it now”. I concentrate on sending them to younger me – hoping they are like little breadcrumbs along the way. I’ve felt them on multiple occasions in my life.
And that day, the November sun gold and warm streaming in on us together – I felt it again. A vision of 18-year-old, maybe 20-year-old Eli flashed across my mind and I felt future me right there with me, promising me it was all going to be okay. My eyes welled up and the warmth of the moment stole my breath for a moment. Because I believed her.
It’s snowing again today and my daughter is sick for what feels like the 87th time this fall. I’m grumpy because I was supposed to get alone time tonight but instead I get to do dinner and evening routines with the kids by myself. Everywhere I look its gray and I can feel a headache building from my tensed shoulders. My son woke up far too early crying from his nap. It’s the kind of day where it doesn’t take much for my mind to go tumbling into all the what-ifs that were planted there last year.
Last winter was hard. It was scary and taxing and pushed me to the edge of all my capabilities.
But we did it.
And this winter we did put up decorations, and Eli’s face lit up like he was seeing real, actual magic. This winter we move forward with more stamina, strength and appreciation than the last. We move forward knowing we have so many people in our lives who have our backs. I move forward with the prayer that I said that night one year ago in the bathtub –
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.