Just lately, several people have written to me or left comments on the blog, wondering where I am, whether I’m ok. The happy-spin answer is that I’ve been taking some time off, basking in the glow of the love of my family. The truth is, it’s felt a lot more like hanging on by the skin of my teeth, and so I’ve found myself cutting out anything that’s not about what needs to be done now. With the emphasis firmly on needs and now.
Things began ramping up round about the time we ended up in the Emergency Room three times in five weeks. That’s going to be a rough time by any standard but, more than that, it was the fear and unsettling of it that exhausted me. Would it always be like this? Is this a spate of bad luck, or is this the beginning? And I wanted to go to bed and curl up for a while.
But there was no going to bed, and no curling up. There was work, work, and extra work to be done: holding and loving and comforting and night-feeds and breath-watching and breathing treatments and lots of cleaning up. All mess and the putting away and tidying up seemed to multiply exponentially, and I don’t know why. But it did and it called my name and I had to answer, because I am the only one who hears it.
And then there was the book-balancing. For every trip to ER, there was a follow up appointment with the paediatrician (or sometimes two) and then maybe one with the allergist as well (or two), and a prescription (or… many), and maybe even a vaccine just for good measure. And so for every one of those, there is also a co-pay. In a matter of weeks, we racked up hundreds — hundreds — in co-pays. And this at the same time that M’s hours were going through (yet another) stage of fluctuating wildly. One week he’d barely get 40 hours, the next he’s scramble to clock up 30… and then would come a week of 60-plus hours, which provided the blessed relief that almost brought us into the black but also tore the stuffing out of M in the process. And then start over: short week, short week, work-to-death week; short week, short week, work-to-death week. M was shattered, I was trying to ride this financial roller coaster, and the copays cut right through whatever cushion we might have had.
And the pressure on M to workandworkandwork was immense. Every day that he came home early felt like storm clouds gathering. Every day that he worked late was… oh so good as I looked at the clock and watched the hours mount up, but his work is back-breaking and those extra hours exhausted him, and then the girls went to bed before he got home again. And then the on-call rota changed: instead of being on call every four weeks, it would now be every three — which sounds more benign than it is. Because they line up the jobs for the on-call days, what this effectively means is that he works a normal week, then twelve days in a row, and then a normal week, and then twelve days in a row… Combined with the fluctuating paycheques and the feeling that work had become everything and everything was work, the pressure on M cranked up another notch.
M has never been one to handle stress in a particularly healthy way. He internalises everything, expresses nothing, pushes everyone else away, and allows his mind to run away with worries. And then the worry increases his stress, and he falls into a vicious spiral, and he can’t break free. And as I watch him go down and down and down like this, I feel that I must do something — I must do something — to lift the pressure from him. And then I am heaping the pressure on myself: I must get a job, I must start a business, I must clean the house more… or maybe better. I must keep the children quiet, I must give him more room, I must try to talk more, I must draw him out, I must leave him alone. et répéter: I must make some money, I must get a job… or work from home… start a business. And he asks me when I’m going to start a business, when I’m going to pull in some money. And my mother asks me why I don’t just start a business, or find a job working from home… And a quiet voice in my head tries to point out that if starting a business were easy or work-from-home jobs weren’t like hens’ teeth… but I feel the criticism so keenly that it never gets much further than that.
The truth is, I don’t know how I’d do it. The balance between us is off-balance: he works (so hard!), and does the grocery run, he takes the trash out, and cooks about half the time; and I do everything else. By that I mean everything else that keeps our lives running: not just all the housework and the childcare 24/7, but the taxes, the banking, the bill-paying, the letter opening, the form-filling, all the problem solving, the bureaucracy navigation, the appointment making, the car maintaining… Every decision that impacts our lives rests squarely on my shoulders. And the more stressed he is, the more I try to take on to lighten his load. His pressure spills over to become my pressure too. I want to take as much of his burden as I can, but thought of adding a job to that — or starting a business – just stops me frozen in my tracks. And so there I stood, frozen, right next to him, frozen.
So it makes sense that, one day a few months ago, something inside him finally snapped — quite literally. He came home from work and showed me a protrusion in his lower abdomen, an area about the size of his palm where the muscle wall had torn and his intestine was pushing through under his skin. It’s not the first time he’d had a hernia — he’d had an umbilical hernia all his life that he’d finally had corrected about eight years ago — but that was nothing like this. This was big and, with his kind of work, it was only going to get worse. So a specialist was consulted (co-pay!) and a surgery date was scheduled. And I asked… how long is the recovery? How long? Because he gets no paid sickdays.
And here was a bright spark of good news! The hernia was caused by work, so the surgery and recovery would be paid by Workers’ Compensation. Oh, thank goodness for that. And though Workers’ Comp pays reduced wages in order to encourage you back to work as soon as possible, it would be enough. It would be enough.
Ten days before his surgery, I felt a tickle in the back of my throat. M could not get sick — a delay would put the surgery to the other side of Christmas and mess everything up. I got worse, he stayed away. I felt rotten — rotten — and then E1 fell ill too, and he couldn’t take care of either of us. So I did everything — all the childcare, all the comforting, all the while just wanting to crawl into bed — and waited for E2 to come down and the inevitable trip to ER. It would surely end in the trip to ER…
And here was another bright spark, shining through the dark: E2 not only didn’t end up in ER, she actually never even got sick. This child who has not been able to come within ten feet of a single germ without coming to the brink of not breathing, without scaring us all half to death… this child kissed us, she cuddled us, she shared a drink with her sister (aughhhh!!!) and yet she never even so much as coughed. Saints be praised! Steroids, how wrong I was to distrust you!
And then, one last bright, shining spark. The surgery is done, the patient recovering and, by coincidental timing, he is enjoying what is truly Christmas for him: days on end away from work. Days and days and days to just rest and relax, in a way that I haven’t seen him do since we arrived in the States. And as the days have passed, the worry has fallen away, the vicious spiral has stopped swirling around him and… he has changed. Today, I caught him looking at E2 in wonder — the kind of wonder that parents should have when they contemplate the miracle of their own children… but which I haven’t seen on his face in months… or even years? I had forgotten what that looks like. And yesterday, as I as dashing out to the shop, he floored me by suddenly looking up and suggesting to the girls that they make the gingerbread house that had been overlooked in the run up to Christmas. He offered to make the gingerbread house! I left the house in shock. Dear reader, I say this in all honesty: I had forgotten what it was to have a partner who wanted to be a part of the family. I had spent so long watching him want to escape us — really wanting to escape us and the bother and the chaos — and suddenly here he was, sitting the girls at the table and breaking out the icing sugar… Volunteering to do something with them. I left the house hardly recognising my own husband.
And as I drove to the shops, I felt like I was floating on air. Floating on air! The way I felt inside, in that space right behind my ribs — so light, so warm — I can hardly describe. Like… like maybe we weren’t falling apart. And suddenly I realised that, with a little more of that behind me — just a little more — I could do anything. I could do everything! I could keep this house running, I could make some money, I can put our world on track. I can get us home. I just need the love in the house, I just need the strength it gives.
I worry that when he goes back to work, the spell will be broken. I worry that life will overcome us both again and we will slide down again. But at least we have seen it, seen how it might be if we can make things change. …If we can make things change, and keep ourselves up here, up here with our heads above the surface.
Here’s to a fresh start and God’s blessings in 2010. Happy New Year, everyone.
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