Don’t Go There

Don’t Go There
Still on the Group W Bench together

It started with a writing prompt a few days ago. Write a scene with no more than four characters that happens in one room. It was a good assignment, but at first it took me to some very dark places before I remember I was in control of this story. I don’t have to go there.

I’ve tried to treat the last month of Sparkling (and, at our house, often smudged) Solitude as a gift of time, but, as many people are finding, worrying about loved ones, finances, and the world of suffering happening beyond our driveway more than dulls the sparkle. As I wrote, I realized that, while my own respiratory issues have kept me off the frontlines but not terribly fearful, Thing1’s nearly fatal history with a chronic illness that makes him particularly vulnerable has caused more anxiety than I like to admit.

My prompt response grew into a story about a family cursed with endless time and a dark choice that might save their firstborn. The scene grew out the worst night of Thing1’s illness, but, in the story, the husband and wife debating their children’s fate begin to fall apart, and I couldn’t figure out how to put them back together. I had written myself into a corner, but, as I took a break to finish cleaning the pantry, I remembered that during that seemingly endless night, the Big Guy and I had not fallen apart.

We had pulled together. 

We may have squabbled briefly about how fast the ambulance would arrive in a blizzard or if the emergency room would do anything we weren’t already doing or if we could even get there. We had nothing but bad options as our firstborn faded on the couch. In the end we did the only thing we could do. Pulling ourselves together as a team, we decided everything and every phone number until there was nothing else to try and Thing1 started to improve. 

That night wasn’t a gift. Thing1’s illness hasn’t been a blessing in disguise. Those challenges were crucibles so hot we sometimes felt our resolve begin to melt, but when that heat abated, hope solidified around our family, forging an infinitely stronger bond. 

So now I’m back to my made-up husband and wife, still at a terrible crossroads with endless time and a horrible illness and choice in front of them. There is a temptation — for the sake of art – to finish tearing them apart. There is the option to treat the endless time and choice as a curse. 

But I don’t want to go there.

Care in the Age of Corona

Care in the Age of Corona

A few weeks before exams, Thing1’s school sends around a mailer that lets parents fill out a greeting card and select an assortment of “healthy” candies and snack foods to get through the rigors of studying and testing. Most of the letters from Thing1’s college are pleas for money for one reason or another, but this one always gives me the giggles.

The first mailer instantly had me mentally grumbling, “When I was your age we used to walk 50 miles in the snow without any care packages to take our exams”.  College these days seems a bit like summer camp but with amenities like all night cookie delivery and bubble tea joints on every corner (and, in the case of Massachusetts, actual joint joints on more than a few corners).

Care packages seem more than a little redundant.

But this week there’s something I didn’t have when I was his age. In addition to the suppressed immunity I never had at any age, Thing1, who has faced his mortality more than once in the last two years, is hearing all the same news we are about the new Corona virus going around.

The new virus which has people suddenly washing their hands (who were these people who weren’t buying hand soap before last week?) and giving Vulcan “Live long and prosper” greetings instead of handshakes is the next thing we’re worrying about for him.

Thing1 takes things in stride, but his school has decided to keep dorms open over spring break to encourage people not to travel. His hospital has reported cases and is discouraging scheduling of new surgeries, including the next one he needs, in anticipation of an increased case load. I know that, despite his ability to take life’s little challenges one day at a time, this virus and all its potential implications are at least in the back of his mind.

Most of the time, COVID-19 news interests but doesn’t overly worry me. I’m mostly healthy. Thing2 is abundantly healthy, and the Big Guy is a rock.

The implications for Thing1, however, are on the top of my mind when I think too long about this new virus. So, even though I’m going to remind him that, back in the dark ages, we had to study for exams by candlelight and write our essays on bark using charcoal when we were his age, I’m sending him a a little care in the form of some hermetically sealed candy and snack food.

And there will be at least one giggle when I hit send.

Living in Lessons

Living in Lessons

Tree of the Knowledge of Good

I don’t tend to be a mourner. I shed a few tears, maybe a sob here and there, and then the person I love lives on in my memories and, if I’m lucky, in the lessons I’ve absorbed from them.

I’m blessed to have been born with a small army of Great Aunts. I don’t mean that  they were a generation removed from mine. I mean that they were and truly are great – awesome. They adventure. They dive into learning. They are helpers and nurturers. They have always been what I want to be when I (eventually) grow up. Kind. Brave. Extraordinary.

One of my League of Extraordinary Women passed away on Sunday night. She was a prominent fixture in our lives when Thing1 was born, helping us navigate the German healthcare system (where he was born). A counselor and mother, she helped me learn to trust myself and my love of Thing1 when I was getting my parenting sea legs.

I am thinking of her even more intensely this evening as I take a break from writing IEPs to absorb Thing1’s news from his latest visit to Dartmouth Hitchcock where he spent a good part of his senior year and what should have been his freshman year of college. We are learning, yet again, that having a chronic illness means that he has, what his doctor once warned was, a permanent diagnosis, inspite of having had a colectomy.  Now, instead of thinking about summer jobs, he is faced with another, riskier surgery or the very real possibility of cancer by the time he’s in his thirties.

He always seems to take the news in stride, but I know he’s frustrated and a little frightened. Hidden in my office where he can’t see me, I give into a few sobs before acting on the lessons my very awesome aunt taught me everyday.

I know if she were here, she would offer a hug and tell me to trust my love for Thing1 as we help him over this next hurdle. She would remind us that we have the strength to get through this together and that it’s okay to cry. And, as she showed us everyday of her life, even when her own child faced a debilitating illness, she would remind us to care for others around us. She would show us how not let fear steal the happiness we do have with each other.

I will sob for a few more minutes before I get back to writing IEPs, and then I’m going to remember her by living her lessons.

 

Keep Walking

Keep Walking

On his good days, Thing1 can still Demonstrate that he’s still stronger and faster than we are,and, after a transfusion or infusion, that he still has endurance for some of his favorite activities.

We do try to get him out to hit a few holes or drive a bit. They have minimal impact on his health one where the other, but they keep them connected to his old way of life and, or importantly, what he is determined will be his way of life in the future once again.

We’re always wary of denial on all our parts, but determination is not that. after all, whether it’s getting up a hill at the public golf course in the town nearby, getting over this next hurdle, determination is the only thing that will keep him putting 1 foot in front of the other.

And I’m willing to feed that.

Yes, at the Dinner Table

Yes, at the Dinner Table

Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. It’s a pitcher of Kool-Aid, and as the heatwave wore on into its fifth day on Thursday, Thing1 and I were sporting faint purple mustaches, reality about to crash through the walls — again.

 

Heat advisories all week had included warnings for people with chronic illness. The advisories didn’t specify what care the chronically ill should take beyond staying out of the heat. Thing1 and I, however, still mentally had him in the ‘warning doesn’t apply here’ category, and, when Thing2 suggested going to the driving range, I got my keys.

 

It was 92 degrees by the time we put our money in the honor box in the barn that doubled as a pro shop and plant nursery. Thing2 and I were happy to make contact with the ball. For Thing1, every shot matters. He’ll hit one 200 yard ball for every three his eleven-year-old brother knocks into the ruff. Thursday Thing2 swung his way through half the basket before Thing1 had teed off four times.

 

“I need to sit down in the shade.” Thing1 grabbed his water and headed down the small hill to the car. He sat on the shady side, hand resting on the open door, sipping and breathing slowly.

 

“Do you want to go?” I asked, ready to put my foot down and force an exit. Thing1’s illness, however, has kept him indoors most of the summer. I wanted him to enjoy a normal day out.

 

He shook his head ‘no’, waited a few more minutes, and trudged back up the hill for a few more shots. We quickly realized practice was over for him, and he went back to the car for a minute while Thing2 hit the rest of the bucket. We headed home thinking Thing1 only needed a dip in the Green River and some rest to be better for work the next day.

 

Friday morning, Thing1 woke up with a fever and a phone call from the hospital telling us that his latest blood test showed his anemia — a side effect of the ongoing six month flare up — was worse. Neither of us was surprised. His lips had no color. His energy level, briefly improved in June, was almost non-existent again. He didn’t work Friday and stayed in bed all Saturday, determined to go to work today.

 

This morning he woke early and got breakfast. He headed out for his shift, and I took another mental sip of Kool Aid hoping he was over the worst.

 

<<I’m coming home.>> It was three hours into his four hour shift when the text came. <<If I stay any longer I won’t be able to drive.>>

 

We texted back and forth, arguing if should be driven. He was already on the way home by the time he managed to text enough teen tone to convince me of his alertness. He spent the rest of the day on the couch, hydrating to control a new fever, once wondering aloud if his body will ever let him out of limbo. Thing2 waited on him, bringing him water while I worked.

 

When work was done, the Big Guy and I sat on the deck as he grilled burgers for dinner. We talked about the fragility of Thing1’s plans for school in the fall and beyond. The wall of reality was crashing in.

 

Thing1 used his last bit of energy for the day moving from the couch to the table. He looked at the burgers.

 

“I’m not really hungry,” he said. “It smells great. I know I need it, I just don’t have have any desire for it.”

 

Thing2 had spent the day monitoring his brother in an unnatural state of quiet and was bubbling with energy as the Big Guy served the burgers. He waltzed to his seat, a speaker-connected iPad in his hands and a devilish grin on his face. He tapped the screen and a loud fart emanated from the speaker. He tapped again and a Beavis and Butthead laugh echoed into the surrounding forest.

 

Tap, fart. Tap, goat laugh. Tap bark causing the pets to look in our direction andThing1 to smile and then quietly chuckle.

 

“All that science and technology for a fart joke,” Thing1 murmured. Then he grinned at me and the Big Guy and reached for a burger. Thing2, never one to let an audience down, serenaded his older brother with more creative fart sounds as he ate until, as happens with all great jokes, the farts grew stale. But the farts and the technology had served a higher purpose.

 

It’s still early evening. Thing1 is already in bed as I write this. We have a visit to the hospital this week, and I’m pretty sure both of us are no longer drinking the Kool Aid. Thing1 is in the ‘really chronically ill, better heed the warnings category. He’s in the ‘no idea what his plans are past tomorrow category’. We’re off the sugar high of denial, but just because the walls fell in, doesn’t mean we’ve fallen down.

 

One of my favorite books growing up was Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy which traces the voluntary circumcision of Tashi, an African woman trying to mediate her gender and and cultural identity. Through her physical and emotional recovery in the aftermath of the mutilation, she discovers and reveals to the reader that “resistance is the secret of joy.” I’ve never wanted or been able to forget the story and the beauty of Walker’s writing, but that missive burned itself into my subconscious. It resurfaces in chaotic times, it is guidance.

 

Since Thing1’s illness intensified this year, my resistance has been finding the right drug, the right strategy to get him well enough to start his adult life. As squeaky gassy sounds from the iPad surround us at the dinner table, however, it becomes clear that resistance is not about finding the solution to every problem. It’s about recognizing that some problems won’t be solved, but life will go on, and, if you’re willing to seize it, joy — however dinner table inappropriate — happens anyway.