This post has been weighing on my heart since Avery's surgery, but life (or spring break, in this case) has a way of pressing a mute button on everything except for family time for weeks (or months) at a time. I don't mind and I know you don't either. Babies before blogs, am I right?
Maybe it's the bleak sterility of the hospital or the clarity that pain brings, but the times around Avery's surgeries or illnesses often bring words bubbling to the surface. No matter how much I try to ignore others or mind my own business with my face buried in a book and a steaming cup of coffee in my hand, I always find myself people watching, analyzing and diagnosing. Human suffering is a horrible, fascinating study that makes me want to write. Often I choose to write about my own suffering, but I want to speak to yours. The truth is that we're all suffering, have suffered or will suffer. There are miscarriages, broken limbs, job losses and broken hearts. There is suffering so dark that merely witnessing it imprints a painful memory on the observer. Pain is not a one-time punch. It is a reverberating, echoing, boomeranging ache that comes back time and time again. It's the tide of the ocean. Pain is sharp and then dull, searing and then a pin-prick. So, I want to write about the waves - the times when grief from a memory comes to consume you.
For me, the waves are not often, but the first time I pick Avery up after her surgery and smell the surgical washes and remnants of dried blood in her hair, I have to let my soul acknowledge the artful butchering of her skull that has just happened by artists who deal in flesh and bones. I nod to the pain of knowing she has been scalped and pieces of her anatomy are being mindlessly tossed in the garbage along with the other medical waste. My mind sees her entire blood volume in small pools around the surgical field and as I hold her in my arms, I accept that the transfusion coursing through her veins is the generous gift of a donor. That blood is not yet her own. I can't fight the wave - its strength will always win. My only option is to acknowledge the reality of the pain, let it hit me and then let it go.
A wave came on the second night after Avery's last surgery. Cody had chosen to stay in the ICU with her, so it was well after midnight when I walked the halls of the Ronald McDonald House towards my room for a few blessed hours of sleep. Interestingly, the room to which I was drawing near was the exact room in which I had stayed for the first week after Avery's birth. Suddenly, as though I were "watching the scene from the rafters" (the terminology of trauma - an experience that usually means something terrible has happened here), I saw myself from two years ago, walking these halls every two hours throughout the night.
I was not even seventy-two hours postpartum, waking to the piercing shrills of an alarm every two hours to pump milk for my newborn baby. The NICU staff had recommended pumping for twenty minutes, every three hours, but fear drove me to reason that if pumping every three hours was good, then pumping every two hours was better. I pushed my body to the limit and dragged it down the hall throughout the night to deliver the breastmilk to the freezer the common area. Every time the alarm sounded, I was jolted awake to grieve my new reality, over and over again and the walk to the freezer was a death march for my dreams. My baby was broken. My family was ripped apart. My prayers hadn't been answered. My miracle had not come.
When I remembered this girl from two years ago, staring at the floor as she trudged the empty hall in the dark of night, my stomach lurched. Those feelings of helplessness settled on my chest like a weight and I walked those same steps to that same room with a sadness that I hadn't felt in so long. Life is not fair sometimes. My baby has suffered; my family has suffered; I have suffered. Welcome, Wave.
So, what do you do when you smell your mother's cooking, only to remember the excruciating reality that she's gone and you remember her cooking, but have forgotten her laugh?
How do you not crumble to the floor and never rise again when you see your child's empty clothes - clothes that they will never wear for the rest of your life because accident, malicious intent, negligence of a medical provider, or the sporadic genetic mutations of cell regulators doomed them to an early, tragic death?
What can you do when you are sitting in the Starbucks of a cancer center and a man in his forties is wheeled in with his wife and children in tow? His skin is florescent and yellow from the met that has exploded into his liver (or because his disease originated there) and the look in his eyes is one of either resignation or perhaps a lack of complete lucidity. He is hardly awake and you're dragged into memories of your husband at the end, your father, your grandfather or your best friend.
What is your response when you've spent your life savings on treatments and needles that make you feel crazy, only to hear that the result of all your work is "negative" again? This dream of being a mother is draining your resources, your strength and your marriage. It's disappointment at a primal level.
What can you say when you pass the street on which she used to live? His old place of work? The one that got away is out there in the world and out of your arms. Okay- let me stop there, because I don't believe there is such thing as the "one who got away". You're missing an idea, not a person. There's a whole wide world out there and thousands of potential mates with whom you could be equally happy. You are not hollow, though you may feel it. You have not "missed" anything and the only thing you're wasting is precious time. Don't get lost over someone. The sun isn't gone... You were meant to be someone else's moon and stars. (I should really make this another post for another day.)
What do you do when the waves hit? What can you do when your lungs are burning? You've been under for so long that you don't remember how to swim back to the surface. The waves are coming too quickly to recover and the trauma is still so close you can still taste it.
So, if you've lost someone or something, if you're far from home and feeling the distance, if love has recently escaped you, if tragedy is knocking on your door, if disappointment or embarrassment has you in its clutches... Just hold on.
You will come up for air. This wave will not kill you. Your heart was broken and crushed and will be again and again as the memories came back, but eventually it will hold better and better over time. You'll catch your breath faster. You'll learn not to fight the wave. You'll let it drag you down, softly close your eyes and know with greater confidence that your lungs have the capacity for the duration at this depth.
You'll miss him at Thanksgiving. You'll celebrate her birthday. You'll picture him stringing the lights on the tree at Christmas. You'll see her in your mind's eye, walking that beach along with you or splashing in the waves with her siblings like she would be doing if that tumor hadn't grown where it did.
Suffering is the price of doing business in this world... it's the price of being alive. Humans are magnificent creatures capable of withstanding, persevering and showing great courage in the face of unspeakable evil and pain. Humans are resilient.
Don't fight the wave. You will go under, but you will always have the strength to come back up. Just hold on. Faith, hope and love will be your oxygen and Jesus will hold your hand in the depths - the deep is His specialty.
"I have told you these things, so that in me you have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." - John 16:33