There was this art project that I used to love to do as a kid: we would take an egg and make a tiny little hole in each end with a pin. Then we would blow through one end, and all the raw egg inside would come shooting out. Once you got all those pesky insides out, you would have a perfect eggshell to decorate. It would be fragile, of course. But unlike a regular egg that would eventually fester and rot, the eggshell could last forever if treated carefully. The idea is so simple: remove the parts that can go bad, and the shell will endure. It is preservation at its finest. But, I never really appreciated the idea of preservation. When I was a kid, I just liked blowing out all the disgusting raw egg into my friends’ faces… and by “when I was a kid” I mean yesterday.
When my baby boy was three months old, I mentioned to my pediatrician that he had a slightly odd birthmark on his back. It was something my husband and I had noticed about him from the day he was born. It was tiny and hidden right above his butt crack, a place no one would but a parent would ever examine closely enough to notice. I didn’t mention it to my doctor until my son was three months old because it seemed innocent enough: a cute little birthmark. The human body is an amazing thing though, and sometimes these innocent little markings are warnings of something much more nefarious.
My doctor told me it was probably nothing, but we should get it checked out to make sure. She told me that I shouldn’t lose any sleep over it. But of course, I lost sleep over it. A lot of sleep. Luckily I had a toddler and a three-month-old baby, so I wasn’t sleeping much anyway.
After an ultra-sound, an MRI and a few meetings with a neurosurgeon, we discovered that my son had something called a tethered spinal cord, and would need surgery to correct it. A tethered cord is a birth defect, where the spinal cord is literally tethered down by something (in this case a fatty growth called a lypoma) so that it cannot hang freely as it normally would, and instead stretches and pulls, damaging the big bundle of nerves that make up the spinal cord. That big bundle of nerves is tied to many different things: legs, feet, bladder, bowels, and brain to name a few. If not corrected, it can cause any assortment of developmental and physical difficulties. In addition, that innocent-looking birthmark was actually a tract that ran directly from the spinal cord to the outside of his back. So that cute little marking actually put him at risk for meningitis and other infections. Scary right? You don’t know the half of it. At least, I hope you never do.
Before Jan 13th, I didn’t know the half of it either. But on that day, the day of my baby’s three-month doctor appointment, and the months that followed, I learned what scary really meant. And it wasn’t just sleep I lost over those months, it was everything. Sadness, guilt, anger, and THE FEAR plagued me every minute of every day. My perfect baby was not perfect. My sweet little boy would have to undergo surgery and so much more. And there were so many unanswered questions, so much we wouldn’t know until it was possibly too late. How could I sleep? How could I think of everything else?!
There was a brief moment of each day that I forgot THE FEAR: each morning when I woke up and scooped my delicious bundle out of his bassinet and looked into his smiling face, I got at least two minutes of unadulterated joy. Two whole minutes of staring at his perfect face. Of breathing in his sweet smell. Two luscious minutes of reveling in the perfection of him before – BAM!!! – my memory, and with it THE FEAR, would return with such force that it took my breath away. Every. Single. Day.
So, I couldn’t sleep at night. I would spend hours crying during the day. I couldn’t play with my wonderful daughter, or even enjoy the sweet miracle that was my baby son. All I had was my sadness, my guilt, my anger and THE FEAR. I was drowning in them all. So I did what I had to do to endure. I made myself stop crying. I made myself stop thinking and stop feeling. I removed everything inside me that was festering and rotting, and I became a shell – fragile yet enduring. It was self-preservation at its finest.
The problem with hollowing yourself out like that, is that you cannot choose what stays and what goes. You cannot remove the sadness without removing the joy. You cannot remove THE FEAR while leaving the hope. So I became an empty. I went about my daily life, of course. I did what needed to be done. I took my daughter to school and to dance class. I took my son to his doctor’s appointments. I made dinner, I fed my children. I sometimes fed myself. I even went out with friends. I laughed at their jokes. I drank too much wine. From the outside, everything looked normal. But on the inside, I was empty.
Slowly but surely, though, little cracks began to show. Maybe not big enough for everyone to see, especially because I was master at painting myself up to look the same as I was before. I began to hide out to protect myself. I shut out most of my friends, because I didn’t want to take a chance of having to talk about what I was feeling. I picked fights with my husband about anything other than what I was really upset about. I stopped writing. I quit doing anything that would force me to be honest about myself, because I felt like if I was honest, then my cracks would spread and I would break into a million pieces. I thought that if I really started crying that I would never stop. And mommies can’t do that.
But I endured. My son had his surgery almost two months ago, and he is doing great. Kids are amazing in their resilience. His scar, that takes up almost half of his back, is quickly fading. But somehow, my scars are still angry and raw. I thought that once the surgery was done and life went back to normal, the FEAR would go away and that I would go back to normal too. But I guess once you empty yourself out like that, it’s hard to fill yourself back up. I guess once THE FEAR finds you, it’s really hard to ever chase it away.
I am trying. I am trying to be brave enough to let go of THE FEAR. I am trying to be brave enough to allow myself to be filled with emotions, both good and bad. The strange thing is that I cry now more than I ever did. But I smile more too. I am repairing my cracks, little by little. I think the first step is to let my cracks show, and to realize that admitting that you are broken doesn’t mean that you can’t be put back together.