A few months ago, I was living the “grown up” life I’d always imagined—husband, three kids, a teaching job, and evenings spent running my kids to their various activities, grading papers, writing, and exercising. I was the mom who appeared to have it all together.
Except I didn’t. Not even close. I went to yoga and while in shavasana, compiled my to-do list for later in the day. I ran three miles and then came home and ate chips and salsa. I had wine and chocolate every night as I watched mindless television while surfing the Internet. I suffered headaches, could barely survive without weekend power naps, and for the first time in my life, was told that my blood pressure was getting a bit high.
I counted down the days to the weekend as if my life could only be lived between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. That’s not to say that I didn’t love my job, but rather that weekends seemed the time to do what I wanted to do where weekdays were meant to tackle the things I had to do.
I was living the life I was supposed to live, or at least pretending to, when on a sunny February day, everything changed.
As with every other Sunday, that afternoon was filled with errands and an ever-present to-do list. I dropped my fifteen-year-old off at the indoor baseball facility for practice, gassed up the car for the week, grabbed some groceries, and drove back to the facility two hours later, to pick up my son.
I parked and waited, checking my email and responding to text messages on my phone. When he came out to the car nearly fifteen minutes late, he was crying. He’d been hit in the head with a ball while fielding at a first base station. I drove straight to an urgent care facility, figuring he had a concussion. After all, I’d signed the concussion waiver for every sport my children played. We were informed how to recognize the signs and symptoms. What else could it be?
Three hours, one referral to the emergency room, and a CT scan later, a doctor stood in front of me. Your son has a fractured skull and is bleeding in his brain. His condition is life- threatening. The pediatric neurologist is on his way to discuss surgical options. We’re admitting him to ICU.
The room filled with doctors and nurses. I signed consent forms, looking from my son to the stack of papers I’d been grading as we awaited his test results. The words emergency brain surgery still hung in the air as the surgeon and anesthesiologist arrived. My son was wheeled down the hall as my husband and I followed behind. They assured us they were going to do everything they could, they believed they caught it in time and he’d be okay, but even I, the mom who appeared to have it all together, couldn’t help but wonder if I was saying goodbye to my second born. And what had I been doing at the hospital? Rather than focusing solely on my injured son, I’d been grading math assessments. I was overcome with regret and shame.
I knelt in front of a chair in the deserted waiting room, surrounded by toys, and prayed, pleaded, and begged for my son’s life. I closed my eyes and pictured him walking into a room, his casual sway and signature grin. I thought about his love of pop tarts and how he always roots for the villain, rather than the hero. I could do nothing but hope that I’d once again hear his voice, watch a ball game with him, and see him relentlessly tease his sisters.
I’ve always considered myself to be a strong person, but this realization, that I may lose my son was beyond anything I’d ever been dealt, and I’d survived a lot. My oldest were two and four the first time my husband was deployed to Iraq. By the second deployment, we’d added another child and a shih Tzu to our family. That added up to three kids piling into my bed every night and a dog who needed to be bribed to pee outside. While he braved the sands of Mosul, I fought the tantrums and homework power struggles on the home front. Believe me, if anything is going to break at home, it will happen exactly one hour after a deployed-spouse lands on foreign soil. It’s one of those unspoken rules they don’t tell you about when your soldier signs on the dotted line. I was strong and self-sufficient.
Or so I thought.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in those minutes and hours, as I tried not to focus on the what ifs, I was also coming to terms with the fact that although I was a great pretender, I was no longer the mom I wanted to be, or the person I thought I was.
My husband and I stood beside our son’s hospital bed when he was wheeled into ICU following surgery. There would be more tests, visits with specialists, and constant checks for neurological responses. Despite our joy that he was responding to our voices, we had to keep the room dark and quiet to allow his brain to rest. He was easily agitated and stress made his blood pressure rise rapidly. He fought fevers and couldn’t get comfortable because the side of his head that he normally slept on now had over three dozen staples holding his skull in place. But he was alive and it was more than I could hope for.
Four days later, I walked beside his wheelchair when he was released from the hospital.
He’s responding well. His brain looks good. An amazing recovery. He’s a fighter. I became aware of our surroundings for the first time, as I’d never strayed more than fifty feet from his bedside in the hours he was admitted. He came home to heal from his brain injury and surgery, as we all tried to adjust to a new normal. The fear of him going into a seizure or bleeding internally was never far from my mind, despite reassurances that he was expected to make a complete recovery.
When he told a joke, I said a silent thank you that he was alive to make me laugh. When he said, “I love you too, Mom,” I cried remember how I’d feared I’d never hear those words again. I monitored his medications, coordinated a plan with his high school counselor, and limited his activity and technology so his brain could heal.
Three days after he came home, I headed to Tacoma for my daughter’s state gymnastic meet. After driving through traffic, finding there was no parking, and fearing I was going to miss her first event, I completely lost my shit, for lack of a better word. I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed. I cried from exhaustion, pounded on the steering wheel with frustration, and hated myself more than I ever had before because I’d been correcting those math assessments in the hospital.
Why had they mattered so much? Why hadn’t I gone in to look for him when he was late coming out of practice? Why didn’t I have the foresight to take him straight to the emergency room? Would he be in less pain now? Would his brain have suffered less trauma? Would it have made a difference?
Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but for me it did. Almost losing my son had changed me. In the days and weeks that followed I realized that living for the weekends was not enough. Every day held the possibility of amazing things, and I no longer wanted to waste them. I finally accepted the fact that it’s okay to be overwhelmed and to say no once in a while, and that there’s no sense suffering through exercises that make you feel like crap.
I started cooking more at home, and making salads and vegetables rather than grabbing dinner on the run. I stopped bringing papers home to grade, opting instead to do it during my planning or have my students grade their work in class, and found out that no one, aside from myself, noticed. I gave up the nightly glasses of wine and chocolate and stopped mindlessly watching television to go for walks or work in the yard. Most importantly, I realized that if you’re not doing what you enjoy, there’s really no point to it.
I started dropping everything and reading more, spent less time worrying about the perception others had of me, and lost weight. My head aches dissipated and my skin cleared up. At a recent doctor’s appointment, my blood pressure was low and I celebrated by going for a long walk.
I’ll never understand why my son had to go through what he did. I don’t know if he’ll ever play baseball again, and I’m certain that I’ll never be the person I was before this experience. What I do know is that almost losing him reminded me of what’s important in life. It’s not the to-do list, which never ends, the decorated (and immaculate) house, or the perception of the perfect mom who is what everyone else aspires to be and looks fashionable whether along the sideline of a soccer match or behind the dugout at a baseball game. I’m never going to be the person who has it all together, and that’s okay.
There will always be an abundance of activities to take my kids to, but when I think of the alternative, I find it difficult to breath as I force the what ifs from my mind. Whether stopping for Starbucks or singing along with the radio in the car on the way, time spent driving my kids around is time well spent. Never again will I forget what matters because life can change in an instant, and the most important thing you can do, beyond everything else, is to just live.