“The roots that grow underground
Are as big as the tree that you see.
If not, it will fall down.”
– “Grassroots,” 311 (1994)
I think of those lyrics often.
If not those lyrics, then the idea that an ocean island’s mass is many times greater below the surface than the walkable land above.
To me, it’s an allegory for recovery.
That the path back to equilibrium is at least as long as the path to the bottom.
Three or six years of hurt is not fixed by one month of bliss.
Yes, I no longer break into the sleepless sweats at the first sign of Beckett getting sick (both bouts of Guillain-Barre, after all, start with a simple cold), but I can’t simply brush them off with the ease of a veteran parent who has nursed a virus-ridden child to many a recovery.
No, quite the contrary.
A few weeks ago, when he woke up on a Saturday morning with a mystery eye ailment – itchy, scratchy, red – I was able to play the normal parent.
I showed him how to rinse his eye in the faucet. When that didn’t work, I bought him an eye wash kit. And when that failed, I told him to wait it out.
But as his complaints persisted through the morning and into the early afternoon, I could bear it no longer.
I started taking pictures to compare for incremental changes (both bouts of GBS featured eye problems and drooping) and by 2 in the afternoon, I snapped.
I found him an emergency eye doctor at a local shopping mall and carted him off for an exam.
The doctor could find nothing.
Of course they couldn’t, I thought.
No mall doctor could diagnose my kid correctly.
I took more pictures. Bought eye drops to ease his pain. Worried myself into a state where I was unable to eat.
I tried to watch bad movies to take my mind off of the deep, dark places my post-traumatic brain was going.
Then I took pictures. And more pictures.
I compared them side by side looking for some hint of horror, some sign of muscular drooping.
Sent them to Heidi, who was visiting a friend a few towns over.
I peppered him with questions: What does it feel like? Is it numb? Is it tingling? Does anything else feel weird?
He’s been down this road enough with me to know where I was going.
He knew the fear was returning.
He deflected. Downplayed. Tried to act normal.
“Dad,” he said. “It’s fine. It’s not Guillan-Barre.”
I wanted to barf.
My stomach went from churning, to knots, to sick.
At 10 p.m., he went to bed.
It was 2 a.m. before I could fall asleep.
The next morning at 7 a.m., he woke up normal. Eye pain gone.
Allergic reaction? Probably.
Just like the mall doctor said.
* * *
This is just one example.
There are so many like them.
Muscle spasms from baseball. Knee pain from running. Tight calves from squatting in the catcher’s position.
Every single announcement of one of these sets forth a battle in mind – a battle between the logical side that says “the most obvious cause is almost always the cause” and the emotional side that says, “I can’t do another bout in the hospital again.”
I used to do it with his epilepsy, too.
For years, I’d lie in my bedroom – after Heidi went to sleep, Brody went to sleep, he went to sleep – and listen through the walls for the first sound of a seizure.
The house settling, him shifting in bed, one of the kids going to the bathroom – any single one of these would send my heart-rate jolting 40 points. It went on like this for a year or more during his worst epileptic year: 2015.
And amid all this, I went into a master’s degree program. Almost without thinking it through.
Work was going to pay. It was an opportunity to repair a mistake I’d sometimes regretted (though, not always): giving up a Computer Science bachelors for the relative comfort of a journalism degree.
Those years are well documented.
The endless 2 a.m. nights. The countless weeks of 3 hours of sleep or less.
It all wrapped up in May.
And suddenly, there was an endless sea of free time in front of me.
“What are you doing with all your free time?” people ask.
I rarely tell them the truth: sleeping, watching TV, drinking, writing, listening to music long after the kids go to bed.
I think this is healing.
But “healing” isn’t what I tell them.
Healing isn’t what it always feels like.
But healing it is.
The return from the pathway down is not marked by some sprint to the top.
The climb back to the surface is slow and measured, complete with cliffs and trips and falls.
Dust off your jeans and shirt.
And keep on walking.
* * *
What a strange journey it is, by the way.
Getting the feels back again.
Allowing emotion back in.
An emotionally starved being is a vulnerable one. Prone to ecstatic bursts of joy and dark periods of blah.
I’ve slept sooooo much. Sometimes going to bed at 8:30 at night. Sometimes waking at 10 in the morning.
Sometimes full of kick-off-the-sheets pep; sometimes full of bury-my-face-in-the-pillow-to-hide-the-light stubbornness.
I’ve completed a triathlon. Traveled a ton. Sought out a safety net of friends emerged in some version of the same struggle.
I’ve rediscovered love. Almost cried. Made plans with the best of intentions, and many times broke them.
I’ve been hard on myself. Convinced myself I’m worthless.
I’ve been forgiving. Tried hard to love who I am. Tried hard to give myself permission to fail.
I have failed. Bad.
But I’ve also done right.
I’ve come to accept we are, at our best, complicated messes.
Twisted like the roots above; overgrown and bound to tip over like the unkempt tree – lest someone prune us and guide us.
* * *
Our family card game is Hearts.
We carry a deck of cards with us everywhere.
Tonight, we went to a local brewery restaurant. Had pizza and nachos and all the bad (fun, yummy) things and played a couple rounds.
I keep the scores of the current game in the Notes section of my iPhone.
Beck lost tonight, I won. Brody second. Heidi third.
The kids both had too much caffeine – parenting fail – and the kids literally shook the minivan at each traffic light on the way home.
Foo Fighters was on the radio and their soda-fueled dancing made for plenty of entertainment.
Arms flailing. Them intentionally hitting each other with each dance move. The laughter of siblings flirting along the dangerous line between fun and that place where one arm swing is too intense, and the whole thing breaks down into a fight, and tears, and accusations of, “You did that on purpose.”
But it never got there.
Instead, we paced through the city streets – sulfur lights overhead – and merely basked in the sounds of Thursday.
As normal as normal can be in our little slice of suburbia, I suppose.
Hours later, when the caffeine wore off, Beck started sniffling.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said.
I brushed it off. Told him it’d be fine.
And it will be. It will be.
For him, and for me.
A little longer than the time before.