This picture (below) was taken a little over a year ago at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta. We had taken Wy to our local ER and that visit quickly turned traumatic, as we were told he (95% likelihood) had leukemia.
Leukemia. Cancer. The ER doctor said words like “morbidity” and “prognosis”. I didn’t cry. I remember clearly that I, quite uncharacteristically, did not dissolve into a heap of tears. I was angry. Indignant. I came here expecting to hear he has the flu, and now you’re spouting life-expectancy statistics? I was mad. At who? I don’t know. Everyone?
It was close to midnight. I called my dad. We drove home, left our older son with family, packed a bag and traveled to Atlanta to be seen immediately (around 3 am) by an Oncologist. It was a quiet car ride. I texted my Doctor friend and my Mom (who is an RN) the entire time.
In my stomach I felt sure the doctor was wrong. I don’t know how, I just knew he was. Wyatt had fought through so much just to be born. Just to be our son. He can’t have gone through that kind of hell in order to live, just to die two years later. It wasn’t possible. I believed he was well. Sitting in the back seat of my father’s sedan, I felt an overwhelming peace. Wyatt was ok. My job was to be calm for him and to gather information, so that’s what I would do.
Still, it was a tough couple of days. Blood tests, screaming, scouring Google, waiting. Sitting in the Oncologist’s office a few days later we waited to find out the lab results. Wyatt gave in to his exhaustion and fell asleep on the palm of my hand. I was exhausted too. I started giggling. I think it was that nervous kind, like when you laugh at a funeral. None of us had really slept in days.
Thankfully, Wyatt was cleared as quickly as he had been diagnosed. We weren’t given much of an explanation, and frankly I didn’t care for one. I wasn’t mad at the ER doctor and I wasn’t upset at what my family had just been through.
I remember this string of days with enormous gratitude. So much gratitude, it probably seeped from my pores. My big little guy was healthy, and all was right with the world.
This whole fiasco is on my heart today as Wyatt has been very difficult this weekend. I am reminded of how much I cherish him, and how quickly things can change. I take a deep breath, regain composure, and hug him tight. I’ll take a temper tantrum over a night in the ER every day of the week.
Yes, I’m quoting Tom Hanks as Coach Jimmy Dugan in the classic film A League of Their Own. The entirety of the quote is thus:
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
Now, Coach Jimmy was talking about baseball in this clip, but I think this sentiment can be applied to a lot of other things in life. The movie itself is about half the Americans who were a part of what we now call the Greatest Generation. The extraordinary women who held this country together during World War II. Their husbands went away to fight, and these women put on their big girl britches and handled it. They worked in factories, some joined the armed forces themselves and yes, some played professional baseball. We women are magnificent creatures: adaptive, nurturing, capable, with strength unexpected in common hours (to borrow from Thoreau).
Tonight – in the shower, of all places – I got to thinking more about this. It stemmed from a conversation I had earlier today about respect, dignity, equality, and all the things going on in our country and our world today, and this quote is what came to mind. Why? Because I cannot think of a single hero, a single inspirational story, a single great achievement that happened without some pain or struggle or sacrifice.
When we talk about the greatest generation (my grandparents), we talk about their fearlessness. Their work ethic, their grit. Where do you think that came from? Put simply, they had hard lives. Yes, they were happy and yes, they lived at quite an extraordinary time in America’s history, but they definitely carried much on their shoulders. Many of them were mature as kids, holding jobs and carrying a workload at school that was greater than ours (much greater than that of our children). They didn’t have the technology we have or many of the creature comforts that have made us soft. Seems to me there’s something to be said for adversity. Friction. Failure.
Nowadays there are movements to stop bullying, which I believe in and am a part of. There are movements to respect people’s feelings, and I also am fine with that. Movements to keep people from saying things. Movements to keep people from being triggered. I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing this all wrong.
Shrinking this down to include only my household, I think that in my efforts to provide my kids with a soft place to land, I may be inadvertently depriving them of their potential. I think that I am part of a generation that may be working too hard to protect ourselves and each other from the very things that will make us – and them – great. Perhaps our kids will live up exactly to the standards we set for them. Perhaps that bar is getting lower and lower all the time.
Does that make sense? Maybe not, but let’s follow the thread and unravel the sweater and see what’s left behind. My dad said something to me today about his work environment being so different than it was even 15 years ago. “What do you mean?”, I asked him. “Well, nowadays, if you say something that even slightly comes off as harsh, you hurt someone’s feelings, they’ll just quit on ya.” I am so surprised by this because Dad works in construction, which historically is a field chock-full of gruff guys who can take a bit of criticism. What – if anything – does it say about society that a man can’t correct another man’s work for fear of hurting his feelings? Are we at a point now that we cannot hear criticism or we do not wish to improve, or we shut down and quit a job each time a situation is uncomfortable? Is this what happens when every kid in a tournament receives a participation trophy? Is this what I create when I run to the school every time my kid gets picked on?
Further down the rabbit hole, I think about the stories I’ve read or heard about great women in history. Strong women. (Women in particular because that’s who I identify with. Powerful, defiant, rebellious ones – well, for the same reason.) Fiery. Fierce. Independent. Defiant. The world changers. WHY were they so strong? HOW did they become so? WHAT was so important to them that they were willing to risk their lives? WHY are we still talking about them today? Would we know their names at all if they hadn’t experienced some injustice that lit a fire within them to reshape their world?
Would ANY of these women have made history without first being told they couldn’t?
In a word… no.
I put it in perspective for myself and ask the same questions. Would I be me if I hadn’t been hurt before? Would I feel so triumphant if I hadn’t had to figure out how to claw myself up from rock bottom? Would I be so passionate if no one who spoke to me was ever allowed to hurt my feelings? I think not. Granted, a certain amount of fire is in my blood, and I was more or less “born this way”, but I don’t think I would be this version of me if I hadn’t had to go a few rounds in the ring.
I think that kids learn resilience from standing up. I remember some parts of my own childhood and the feeling of pride that swelled in me when I finally conquered something I had been working on for ages. I don’t believe I would have felt that pride – or felt anything at all – if someone had done the hard work for me. Now, I have this thought when I watch my own kids struggling. Of course I want to run to them when they are frustrated about trying something for the twentieth time. I want to reach down, swoop them up in my arms, complete the task for them and make it all better. If I’m honest, though, that’s got nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I want to make ME feel better. I want to soothe my OWN heartache. I want to keep myself from hurting because when they are upset, of course I feel it.
I’ve resolved to hike up my boots and get the fuck over that.
You see, before they can stand, they have to be allowed to fall down. We do them no favors by shielding them from ugly and uncomfortable parts of life. In fact, we do them a great disservice. We underestimate their capabilities when we don’t let them handle difficult tasks on their own. They need to find their own voices, and then they need to figure out what they want to use those voices to say. Without adversity, they cannot ever truly discover who they are and why they believe what they do.
Life is hard for all of us. It’s a struggle. It is, and I know it is, and I am not making light of that or trying to minimize it in any way. There are big hurdles for each of us, and each journey is different. Divorce. Death. Sickness. Pain. Heartache. I have been hurt a lot in my life, many times by people I love and trust. That’s very hard to go through. It’s hard to heal from. Hard to talk about, and hard to forgive. Hard to move forward, hard to grow, and hard not to get stuck in resentment or bitterness. The hard, though, is part of the journey. Without the trials, there couldn’t be triumph. We cannot be victors if we are unwilling to step into the skirmish for fear of having our feelings hurt.
(I say this with love, as I am one of the MOST sensitive souls out here. I’m not advocating for rudeness, but I know that rude people exist. My kids will either crumble into dust at their first unpleasant conversation, or they will know how to handle it and feel secure in themselves. I want them to be bold and confident and capable. That’s what I’m getting at with all this.)
I want my kids to know that life is good, that it’s full of love and light and good people and potential and promise. There’s another side to that coin, though. I also want them to know that life is grind and sweat and conflict and strife and it’s fucking hard. I never want to see them hurt. I do want to see them succeed – and I want to see fire in their eyes when they do. I’d much rather have world-changers as kids than comfortable semi-adults who can’t handle confrontation. It’s SUPPOSED to be hard. After all, the hard is what makes it great.
Did you see it? Did you notice them? Were you, like my family, standing outside, looking up, ignoring the icy cold in order *hopefully* catch a glimpse of something magical?
We stood in the parking lot, the four of us, looking up. We laughed and talked and danced. Yes, we danced to stay warm. We counted twinkles, identified constellations, and hugged each other while giggling about the possibility that if we kept our gaze up long enough, our necks might get stuck this way.
We connected and played and enjoyed each other, imagining dragons as we exhaled smoky white clouds of breath. We talked about distant planets and galaxies and the undiscovered life that might be staring up at us at the same time. There were jokes about aliens, stories of great Roman warriors who now live among the stars, and scientific questions about just what those stars are made of and why they appear to twinkle.
I saw one! I was looking in the right place at the right time, and I saw a star go from here to there, ever so quickly and quietly. Before I could point it out to anyone, it was gone. I mumbled a belated wish to the heavens, but the truth is that in that moment, with my tribe, I was already living my best life. What else could I ask for?
The Gemenid meteor shower came and went, and we lugged our chilly bodies up the stairs to our front door and into the warm, welcoming space we currently call home. Each of us tiptoed like baby birds to our respective nests, and without any more mention of stars, prepared for bedtime.
As I lie in bed waiting for sleep to come, I realized the depth and importance of what felt in the moment like goofiness…
Moments like this are what make childhoods worth reminiscing on. Moments like this become memories that will amuse us, comfort us, remind us for the rest of our lives of the happy, silly time we had “that night”, looking up at the sky, cracking up at what the neighbors must be thinking about us, musing that we might be waiting for our mother-ship to come and whisk us away to the next universe. (Did we bring towels?)
Yes, the stars showed up and twinkled brightly for us, but it was we who brought magic to the night.
My son sprained his ankle yesterday at school. He didn’t tell anyone and the teacher didn’t see, so no one called me. When he got home, he told me all about his day but he didn’t mention his injury. In the evening, when he was winding down, he finally mentioned his foot pain. After some interrogation I got the story and proceeded to perform Mommy Triage. Everything seemed ok, just a bit swollen, so I gave him Motrin and an ice pack.
Everything was fine.
An hour or so later, my son walked over to me and began to cry, almost inconsolably. He was cold, he said. So cold it hurt and he couldn’t get warm. I took his temperature, expecting a fever, but what I saw was the opposite. His temperature was dropping. His skin was cold and clammy to the touch. I carried him, still crying, back to his bed.
As a mom I feel like I’m constantly walking a line between not reacting ENOUGH and TOTALLY FREAKING OUT. There is not much in between for me, unfortunately for my calm, collected, level-headed husband. Husband, of course, thought our son was overreacting, but I had a feeling he was telling the truth. His tears, hot and streaming down his face, were real. The fear on his face was real.
Externally, I tried to comfort him by saying things like “It’s going to be OK”. Internally, I was making a list of who to call, what to ask, and what to pack for the hospital. I called my mom, who is a nurse, and with her guiding me, checked his pulse, his temperature, examined his body for bruising, and put a heating pad in his bed to help him get warm. After watching a couple of episodes of Transformers on Netflix, he fell asleep. I took out the heating pad and left the room, still feeling some anxiety in my gut.
I checked on Emmett every two hours until the morning, taking his temperature, feeling his skin, and watching him breathe. I felt very strongly that he should get x-rays, since he just sprained this same ankle a month or so ago.
Early this morning we arrived at the Pediatric ER. The staff was courteous, if a bit incredulous that I wanted x-rays on what was obviously a sprain.
Fast forward to lunch time, and my sweet boy is in a splint. He has a distal fracture of the fibula that, due to the location of the break, did not present as such. The break is on the growth plate, which means we will see an orthopedic doctor next week to discuss next steps. His “just a sprain” turned out to be a broken leg.
[On the bright side, his cast is red and festive.]
This was a sneaky break. A painless fracture. There is internal damage on a pretty important part of the body. Fluid has pooled in his ankle and heel. The fracture wasn’t visible, so no one I talked to believed it was there. Only after looking inside did they realize how seriously he was hurt.
Considering this, I am reminded to be more conscious of others. What I can see with my eyes doesn’t often betray what’s going on underneath. A person may look like they have it all together when they are crumbling on the inside. They may not look to me like someone I could befriend, when we actually have a lot in common. NOTHING is ever what it seems on the surface. While I don’t have X-Ray vision, I do have opportunity to dig deeper. I have an obligation to look deeper. To investigate. To find out what’s going on in the heart, the mind, and the spirit.
Finding out about an injury is the first step to healing. Knowing a person, really understanding them takes time, but it is the first step to helping them heal and grow. Stepping out of comfort zones, crossing invisible lines we’ve drawn for ourselves, choosing to let go of old beliefs in order to embrace new friends. These can only lead to good things – things like love, peace, and community.
I am grateful for this awareness, particularly at this time of year.
This holiday season, and always, may you see others – and may you be seen – for the magical, powerful, gorgeous creature that you (we, they) truly are.
Sitting cross-legged in my bed tonight, I’m staring at my computer screen while my 7 year old is sleeps right next to me. This last week he’s had trouble sleeping in his own bed, which is on the other side of our apartment. I’m not sure what’s causing his dis-ease, I just know I’m doing my best to help him find peaceful rest and security. If I had to guess, I’d say there are two things on his mind:
A scary cartoon he watched without permission last week. This I take full responsibility for, I was distracted and didn’t realize he had floated from something authorized to something that might frighten him.
Loneliness. He was an only child for 6 years before Kid 2 came along, and it’s tough being the Big Brother. There are times he feels (and is) brushed aside a bit because baby screams are priority. He misses his time with his Daddy and me. Exacerbating this, his room is clear on the other side of the apartment from ours, so I’d imagine it feels a little uncomfortable for him to make the long trek over there, be tucked in and kissed goodnight, and then watch the rest of the family go back to the other side of the living space.
I am not an expert Mommy. I do not always get it right. In fact, I screw up on the daily. It does not feel good, but I do the best I can to keep moving forward. To be totally honest most of the time I feel like a trapeze artist who is working without a net. My parents didn’t teach me how to parent (which is a blog series for another day). Basically what I say, how I act, what I’m aware of, it’s all guesswork. Every bit of it of every decision I make comes down to equal parts research (thanks, internet and Mom Bloggers), what I imagine I would want or need emotionally if I were in the situation as a 7 year old, and blindly attempting to calculate the most logical answer to whatever scenario we are currently knee-deep in.
All of that said, I do have compassion in spades and with a sensitive child like mine, it’s basically my super power. In this tender moment between my son and I, a question formed in my mind: What is courage?
The word courage brings to mind many different images, from soldiers fighting in battle, to patients who battle diseases like cancer, all the way to Mel Gibson’s blue-painted face in the movie Braveheart, in which he portrayed the great warrior and freedom fighter William Wallace, who was willing to give his life for his ideals and his people.
What if courage manifests in other ways? I mean, what does courage look like to a 7 year old? Well, for a child this age, courage might look something like jumping off the monkey bars, or standing up to a friend who is being a bully. Maybe, though, courage is having the guts to verbalize fear and ask for help when you can’t sleep and you’ve tried thinking positive thoughts and now you really don’t know what to do. Maybe courage is walking out of the room and risking chastisement in order to escape a yucky situation.
Yep, I think for my boy to pour out his heart to us and then ask to not be left alone tonight took some serious guts. I mean, let’s be honest, many of us adults have trouble doing this! I’m proud of him for speaking up.
So on nights like tonight, when it’s been a long day and we all just want rest and the dishes can wait because my hip is hurting and I still have an article to write, when my husband texts me from the living room to say “he is out of bed again and refusing to go back”, I have to get this right. I have to match this courage with benevolence.
This consideration – the idea that kids are people, too – is something I think about fairly often in my job as Mommy, mainly because it’s not something I was given as a child. On one hand, I don’t want my son to think he’s too delicate to face minor challenges. On the other hand, I refuse to invalidate his feelings just because he’s 7. They’re his feelings, and they are real to him.
I walk quietly into the living room, around the sleeping baby, and take my oldest boy’s hand. We walk to his bed, where I plop down cross-legged and begin to investigate (as moms do). He is in tears before I can ask the first question, so I change tactics and just hold him for a while. A few moments later, I try again. He says he’s not sure what’s wrong, but he doesn’t want to sleep by himself tonight. “That’s ok”, I say without hesitation, “you don’t have to”. I continue to speak life to his little spirit, saying what I believe are helpful statements like, “it’s alright to feel afraid” and “you are safe here”. I don’t know if this is right, but I’m trying my best, against the loud sighs coming from my husband, who has been working to keep his annoyance hidden while we get this sorted out.
((Side note: My husband is not a man who thinks guys have to be “macho”. Thank goodness, he doesn’t say things like “boys don’t cry”. He is, however, a man who works very long hours at a demanding job and greatly values his rest time, so the quicker this gets resolved, the better.))
We arrive at the bed that my son and I will now share this evening, him promptly crawling beneath the covers and me grappling with the idea of being kicked, punched, and snored at all night. I know this is right, I tell my husband. I know that when I was a child and I was afraid, all I wanted was for someone to tell me I was safe. I wanted someone to say “you don’t have to be alone”, someone to validate my feelings and not force me to lie in bed, terrified of whatever thought was tormenting me at the time. Being a kid is tough enough without having your protectors leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable.
When my son thinks back over his life, and when he remembers our relationship and what kind of mom I was, so much of it won’t matter. It won’t matter what we had for dinner tonight, but it will matter that I cooked and we all sat at the table and talked and laughed and connected. It won’t matter what kind of car I drove, as much as it will matter that I was there every afternoon after school, happy to see him. It won’t matter one bit that this apartment is not always clean and sometimes (ok, at ALL times) there are clothes and toys strewn about, but it will matter that this place felt like home to him. It will matter that he felt safe here. It will matter that he had (and for as long as I’m living, he will have) a place he can go and just shake the world off. A place where he doesn’t have to live up to anything, he never needs to feel embarrassed, a place where he’s not pressured to fit into someone else’s idea of who he should be or what he should think or feel. It will matter that he didn’t have to question whether he was part of our tribe.
Deep in the depths of my soul, I want that. As a mother, it is what I strive for above anything else.
Again, I ask: What is courage? Courage is the soldier, the cancer patient, and William Wallace. Yes, all those people are brave, possibly beyond measure. But in MY life, in MY circumstance, what is courage? For a mom like me, courage is the willingness to give my boy what his soul thirsts for, even if no one else understands it. Courage is parenting him and him only, without stopping to think about what other moms (even my own) might think. Courage is stepping away from traditional beliefs and from how I was raised in order to do it better, in order to raise a whole individual, fully functional and free from emotional baggage.
So tonight, clacking away at my old laptop with my firstborn snoring next to me, I rejoice in this budding courage – his and mine – and in the knowing that this time, I got it right.