One of the chapters of Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies is an account of a health scare she had with her son Sam. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective (and mental health), we had a similar experience this week with Gabe. But before I tell you about that, I want to show you this picture by Toni Frissell, a female photographer in the 1940’s and 50’s.
It’s from an underwater shoot of models all wearing white, fluidy gowns. To me, it evokes many things: surrender, descent, freedom, and something of the seductive power of depression. It also reminds me of the scene in “The Piano” where Holly Hunter almost drowns because she lets her leg get tangled up with her piano when it falls overboard. (Hunter plays a mute woman in the 1850’s who is sent to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. Her piano is, quite literally, her voice). She is very calm at first, quietly observing the water around her, gracefully allowing herself to be pulled down, down, down. Then suddenly it’s like she wakes up and realizes what is happening, and she struggles to free herself and swim to the surface. The camera shows her discarded boot sinking slowly deeper, while she swims up, towards a life that she is not sure she wants, certainly one she knows nothing about, but one she is not ready to give up.
I love this scene, not so much because she chooses to live, but because she is willing to see what happens if she follows a critical piece of her whole identity anywhere it goes. And then she chooses to live. When she realizes that if she doesn’t let go of this piece of who she is, she will die, she lets go. This scene is true to the experience of depression, and perhaps suffering in general, because there is something to learn if we follow these experiences for a while. Especially if what we learn is: “I’ve done this as long as I need to do it, and now I’m ready to do something else.”
So Gabe woke up last Friday in terrible pain, saying that he could not walk. Indeed he could not walk, could not straighten out his left leg, and would not put weight on it. It was very awful. I took him to our pediatrician, whom we all love, and he went into full-alarm mode, ordering blood tests and x-rays, which were also very awful. The tests all came out fine, and by Saturday evening, Gabe was walking again.
A few days later, his daycare called me to say that he had woken up from his nap in pain, and would not walk on his leg. I went to get him, calling the doctor on my way. His nurse called back: “He wants you to do a triple-phase bone scan.” She started telling me how to get to the Radiology Department—“Park in the South lot, go down to the basement, walk through two doors, turn left then right, jump four times, spin around in a circle, find the troll under the bridge, blah blah blah.” My mind was completely paralyzed. She was talking but all I heard was, “bone scan, bone scan, bone scan…”
When I got to our daycare, Gabe was sitting on the floor quietly playing with a ViewMaster. We hobbled out to the car, went home, and went straight to bed, where we stayed for the next 48 hours, waiting for the bone scan. We watched Tom and Jerry and Batman (the TV shows, not the scary movies), ate cheese sticks, peanut butter and jelly, and waited. I called everyone, including a physical therapist and pediatric chiropractor, and they all said that it would be fine, that it was probably just a pinched nerve or a muscle cramp. That felt reassuring until I remembered the doctor’s face, the nurse’s voice, and thought, “bone scan, bone scan, bone scan…”
Many people are of the “don’t put up your umbrella until it rains” school of thought. People like my dad who says, “Don’t worry until you know you have something to worry about.” This is so far beyond my ability that when I see people doing it, I feel confused and extremely hostile. Plus every time I watched Gabe crawl to the bathroom or limp around the bed, my body felt like a tuning fork that would not stop vibrating. Thankfully, at some point in the odyssey of waiting, I remembered that I believe in God. I started reading Anne Lamott and short interpretations of scripture passages—the most my brain could concentrate on. I remembered to pray.
One of the prayers that I’ve said about 87,000 times in my life, but have never, ever meant is: “Thy will be done.” Mostly what I’ve meant is captured perfectly in this line from Carrie Newcomer’s song, “The Clean Edge of Change:” “I thought if I tried hard enough/With endless motion, like a bribe/As if by this the will of God/Could be bent to my version of right.” Somehow “Thy will be done” seems like the scariest prayer ever, as if you are giving someone permission to let anything happen to you, anything at all, as if you are laying yourself out on a train track, just waiting for life to mow you down.
I couldn’t ask God to spare my son, because that seemed ridiculous when so many people aren’t spared. But I could ask Him for love and protection. For guidance and stamina. For the faith to trust in His will for us, for Gabe. For a glimpse of what that even really means.
By the morning of the bone scan, I was so petrified that I could barely walk. I had to go to work for a meeting and I couldn’t get out of the car for about 5 minutes. It felt like the insides and outsides of my body had been scrubbed with a Brillo pad. Making eye contact with anyone caused me to cry, so I had to stay in my office until the meeting, and then keep my eyes on the conference table, hoping that no one would think I was hungover or insane.
Martin took Gabe to the bone scan and returned with the unwelcome news that they had to go back for the second part of the test three hours later. In between and afterwards it was Tom and Jerry and Batman, and some ice cream from Baskin Robbins. It was Gabe carrying on as he had all along with his patient good cheer. It was waiting. Then it was the nurse calling to say that the scan was completely normal, and me sobbing hysterically into the phone, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” (If anything serious were wrong with Gabe, anything requiring some horrible treatments, I could already picture the nurses looking at me and whispering, “Oh Christ, it’s that mother again. Be careful, she’s a little…rickety”).
Gabe still can’t walk right, but we’re pretty sure that something’s off in his hip and pelvic joints, and a combination of chiropractic treatment and massage will fix it. I’m thanking God that Gabe is okay, and also for the reminder that we’re already out on the train tracks; agreeing to look for and follow His will doesn’t put us out there. But I’m pretty sure that doing that is what gives us at chance at some shelter.
The most shameful moment of this whole experience for me was that when I first got the sense something could be really wrong with Gabe, for a millisecond, some black reptilian piece of my brain spewed acrid, mean thoughts about how I wouldn’t miss him that much, that he could die and I would survive it because he is so young, as if he were just some plant that I tried to grow that didn’t quite make it. The first batch of pancakes you always have to throw away. That’s how tight and afraid I was, how intensely I wanted to avoid feeling any part of what was happening. Luckily my body and spirit knew better.
When Anne Lamott finds out that her son is fine, her Jesuit priest friend Tom says to her, “Baby? Sometimes deliverance is as cool as the air in a redwood grove.” I’ve never been in a redwood grove, but Amen to that. And I’m going to continue praying for the grace to keep swimming up and choosing to feel it.
The woman in the first photo above? I used to think she was sinking; now I believe that she’s actually dancing.