I was numb. The fear of what was possible and unknown was twisting inside of me and clamping down on me.
It was humid, raining, and I felt like jumping out of my skin and flying over all of the cars ahead of me and fast enough to leave everything I had heard behind me. Traffic crawled along but I simply just stared at the tail lights ahead of me with resignation and accelerated with the mass of vehicles and decelerated without much notice. I had just gotten off the phone with my husband and the doctor appointment was behind me but so much lay ahead of me.
For the last few years I suspected that I had Ehlers Danlos (I’ll wait while you Google that) but getting a diagnosis is a struggle not all that unlike the process we went through for our children being diagnosed with autism. I didn’t worry as much as wonder since I had so many other concerns that absorbed my attention (see “children”). Yet as the stress of life built up over these past two years and then sped up to a frenzy in the last few months something shifted. I was in pain. Not just with certain activities or phases. It was there when I tried to sleep. It was waiting for me when I woke.
Nothing was comfortable anymore. Sitting, laying down, nothing gave me relief from aching. I didn’t want to take pills to stave it off and be living in a fog. A dangerous proposition if you’re meant to be running after children but I found I couldn’t keep up. Not just from exhaustion but physically my body wasn’t responding when I needed it to.
I stared at the Hyundai in front of me. The man was gesturing like an enraged mime at the chaos around him. As if silent reasoning was possible with this quagmire of metal boxes. The car across from him held up their middle finger. It was an elderly lady with a multitude of bumper stickers. It shook me out of my haze for a moment and I laughed. It was that last defense that fell away across the surface of my bubble and it burst. My laughter turned to tears and I wept in the privacy of my car as I helplessly sat in traffic.
Because this was my life now. Helpless to the current of traffic as much as I was to the outcome of further testing. It had been written in my DNA and nothing I’d done or could do would change the facts. I simply had to face the pragmatic logistics of booking the appointments for further testing and wait. Waiting was more of a feeling than an action in my opinion and I found it most infuriating when it was to be done in unpleasant conditions (see “adolescence”).
I didn’t want to share my news with the kids until I knew everything with certainty yet they both had a knack for eavesdropping and were keenly sneaky when there was something behind withheld from them. As careful as I thought I was being, making phone calls when they weren’t around me. They noticed that I was in pain, they were confused as to why our walks together had become more rare, and they wanted to know why they couldn’t bounce on my lap.
It was a few days later, early in the evening but I struggled to keep my eyes open so I waited until I had the kids to bed and then went to bed myself. Not long after I heard the soft step of Leonora coming down the hall. She looked fearful and concerned. I pulled the covers back for her and held her. Her face was upturned to the ceiling as she laid her head on my chest but I could tell she was crying.
“I can’t stop thinking about death.”
She sighed and exhaled so deeply I could tell that it was a huge relief for her to speak the words. I squeezed her tight and stroked her hair. These are the moments that parents dread. It’s like seeing your child falling in slow motion yet this is our emotional well-being that is in free fall and you must catch them or risk permanent injury.
“There’s nothing to fear. Death is part of life and we can’t change that… It’s a surprise awaiting all of us, the last great adventure, and to fear it is natural but it’s pointless to worry. Every time we cut a flower we’re watching birth, life, and death all in one vase. Life is beautiful but everything ends, the good and the bad.”
She breathed slowly and calmed. I could feel her becoming heavier as she relaxed and thought about my words. I wondered how she was interpreting them. It occurred to me that she loves my stories and that maybe I could explain it with one.
“Did I ever tell you about Brandon?” She shook her head and I continued, “He was a classmate of mine. We were on school break and during the holiday he had an accident and died suddenly.”
I let my words sink in for a moment before resuming. I left out that it was from riding his bike into the street. Or that his mother and brother had to witness the event. All of those details were too painful to recount and would only heighten her anxiety.
All of us in his class and in the school were in shock when we heard the news and then had to go back to school the next day and behave normally. It was surreally horrific. The bus ride to school that day was silent. We filed into class and sat at our seats robotically, waiting for someone to tell us how to behave, waiting for an adult to make all of this feel ok again.
Mr. West, Richard West (“Dick” for short and he had no shame in informing people) was my fifth grade teacher and the first truly kind man I had ever met. He showed me that men could be trusted and were redeemable. I was his favorite student. Me?! The forgotten, bullied, silent girl who the teachers pushed aside or ridiculed right along with the bullies in my clothes that were 20 years out of date and my hairdo that belonged in the journals of emotional torture all the world over. Mr. West was one of the shining lights in my childhood.
“I had a teacher, Mr. West, he was the kindest man I’ve ever met. He got up in front of the class that next day, with tears in his eyes, and told us this: “Brandon will be missed. He was a good boy and all of us are in shock at what happened and grieving. Death is part of life. Brandon will always be with us as long as you remember him. That’s where we go when we pass on. We always live on in people’s memories of us. To be truly loved is to be remembered.”
And I agree with him, when we die we don’t disappear we simply continue on in the memories of those we’ve loved and those who have loved us. Like Mary Poppins said, “Nothing’s gone forever, Only out of place.” And I believe that too. I’ll always love you, I’ll always be with you, and I’ll always be in your memories.”
Then I told her the lie that all parents tell their children. It might be a different translation but the sentiment is the same, “But that’s nothing for you to worry about because I intend to be around for a long time.”
She hugged me and we laid there for awhile simply thinking our own thoughts. Hers unspoken and mine ruminating over the uncertainties of life and the retrospective judgment of our actions, particularly parents. Whether it’s us raking ourselves over the coals or the hurt expression we fear seeing on our child’s face and knowing we inspired its appearance.
Eventually I offered to help her back to her bed and laid down next to her, singing and stroking her hair, until she fell asleep. As I left the room, I looked over at Owen’s sleeping form and saw his feet ajar from the blanket and his head dramatically craned towards his stuffed owl. I smiled, tucked him back in, and choked on a laugh as he harrumphed in his sleep and folded his bottom into the air.
I can only hope that things turn out right and that if they don’t, my children find me where the lost things go.