The Greatest Fear: a journal entry in real time

There will probably be some typos, cliches, run-on sentences, and disjointed thoughts here. You’ve been warned.

My husband is asleep in the next room after being home all day, sick. He will not love this post. I have to write it, because I have to get it out of me, and he will not love it, but he will still love me. You cannot know how long it took us to understand that.

This is not about that journey.

I am writing this while he is asleep, not because I wanted to be sneaky or because he cannot know. He follows me on Twitter, for pity’s sake, where all of my posts are broadcast. He will know.

I am writing this while he is asleep because I cannot sleep. Typically, that is true because I have insomnia (thanks, Crohn’s and all my other issues!) and because I have always been more of a night person than a morning person. Tonight, it is true because I have experienced the adrenaline rush of all adrenaline rushes and the only way to come down off that is to crash, and I haven’t crashed, yet. If the good Lord is willing, I will crash very soon.

I have not crashed, yet, because tonight, about 20 minutes before 7 PM, my husband got a call that his daughter did crash. She was not injured, thank God, but my heart stopped anyway.

I need you to understand something before I go any further. I exaggerate. I admit it. I also admit that I love to exaggerate. I’m a storyteller, people. It’s what we do.

So when I say, “my heart stopped,” some might consider that hyperbole – an expression, a figure of speech. Most people use that phrase or a similar one as such.

It is one phrase I do not use lightly. I have enough health issues that I have felt my heart “skip a beat,” as some are wont to say. I have a mild arrhythmia, so it happens more often than I care to admit. I also have a plethora of immune system issues, the least of which presents itself as severe allergies with a side of asthma.

If you’ve ever had an asthma attack, you know what my Christmas Day turned into when I had one (and of course I didn’t have my inhaler). Not only does the feeling of not getting enough oxygen make me want to panic, it also has the side benefit of making me hyper-aware of my body and what’s happening within it. When the attack started, I could feel the weight on my chest as my lungs filled with mucous and my airways tightened. My nose and ribs expanded, painfully, because I was desperate for air, even though it was all around me. I calmly told my husband that as long as my face was just tingly and not totally numb we were good to go, then I asked him to go a little faster down the interstate. I didn’t tell him why. It was because my face was tingly, true – the pins and needles feeling you get after a limb falls asleep and you start moving it to get blood flowing – but I knew I was in trouble because I had completely lost my vision. He figured that out by the time we got home and I couldn’t get out of the car and onto the porch by myself. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t walk. He mostly carried me inside to my inhaler, and down the hall to our room after. (It was heroic.)

For those who have ever wondered what it might feel like to drown, ask someone who has had an asthma attack. Fluid (mucous) fills your lungs (yes, you can feel it), you breathe but you can’t get air, then you get tingly (usually your extremities or your face), you get tunnel vision that quickly worsens, and eventually, right after you can’t see anything but you’re still conscious, you go completely numb. Then, your body forgets how to operate and you can’t walk. It’s at that point that the true danger is apparent, but the problem is that you’ve already gone through the other stages, so you just don’t care anymore. The wheezing stops, so everyone else assumes the danger has passed. It’s called “silent chest.” That’s bad.

I’ll spare you the details. We got home, got to the meds I needed, I didn’t go to the hospital (no point), and I’m fine. The end.

Where was I?

Right – heart stopped.

Fast forward a couple of days, and things were going well. Work hasn’t been too busy, and other than an internet outage that shut us down for an hour or two, nothing major to report.

And then we got a call.

My step-daughter had been in a wreck. Her mom and step-dad live farther out into the county than we do, so her mom called my husband to tell him and we left immediately. I didn’t hear the conversation, but I saw his face and heard, “What happened, where is she?” and I grabbed the keys and my shoes. My heart stopped.

When I was younger, my step-dad and his family would loan the teens in the family vehicles if we asked. They didn’t hold back, but they always held the keys just out of reach and said, “Be careful. The car/truck/convertible is insured and replaceable, but you can’t be replaced.” I knew they meant it, because one of the boys wrecked an Escalade and it wasn’t a big deal after everyone knew he wasn’t hurt. Don’t get me wrong; no one was thrilled that it was totaled, and I’m pretty sure he worked for a while to pay at least a token penalty, but no one made a big deal out of it and all was well. I now know what it must have been like to say that and mean it.

Tonight, the 15 minutes between getting that call and getting to the scene was scarier than all of the following, which I have also experienced: being stalked, being threatened, getting a phone call about my brother (a police officer), getting a phone call about one of my step-brothers (both Marines), getting calls about parents/grandparents, almost drowning (there was one actual time in water that I remember, two others I apparently don’t remember – my childhood was… well), asphyxiating, being put to sleep for major surgery, repelling down the side of a 7-story building, cliff diving, enduring a fever of 107 for over 8 hours (3rd grade was rough), PTSD, paranoia, and basically anything else I can think of right now.

There are no words.

I know her mother felt the same thing, if not more acutely. (Fact: it is incredibly difficult for me to imagine that, because I am incapable of imagining a bigger hurt or fear than what I experienced tonight. I may never fall asleep again, and at this rate I’ll be wrapping up this post and alphabetizing all of our dishes and canned goods throughout the night if I can’t get some sleep. I am not a big enough egomaniac, though, to think my feelings are any deeper or purer than another human being’s, let alone her mother’s. I love this kid like she is mine and there is nothing on this earth that will change that, but I am not the only part of this equation. That is another journal entry or ten (thousand) for another day.)

I can say I also saw the differences in parents, tonight. The dads (it’s just easier to say that) were focused on logistics, next steps, process, etc. Her mom and I showed up at different times and went straight to the hugs, the letting her cry while we held her, the assurance that not a single one of us gives a flying flip in space about the car, the stuff in it, or where the money will come from to get another one. The only real thing that matters is that she’s okay. (And yes, she is okay. I may never be the same, but by the time we left her mom had talked her into food, a hot bath, and some ibuprofen, so she’s good, y’all.)

There is no greater fear than that of a parent for their child. There is no greater relief than that of holding your child safe in your arms.

I don’t care if you’re a biological parent, adoptive, step, surrogate, whatever. And I don’t care if your kid is 2 years old or 20. It doesn’t vary. At one point, I was dumb enough to think it might – that I would worry less the older they got.

I was an idiot.

Ask anyone who has lived through a heart attack what it feels like and the answers will vary. Ask anyone who has had a near-death experience what it was like in their mind before, during, and after and you’ll hear harrowing tales of darkness and redemption.

I have felt my heart stop, skip a beat, and start again. I have watched the light fade as I ran out of oxygen and I have come out the other side. I keep telling God there must be a reason he keeps saving me and he’s welcome to show that to me any day, now. It cannot possibly be only to nag my husband and his son to scrape and rinse their plates before they leave them in the sink. And yet…

I can tell you without hesitation that if – in that moment – I would have had the choice to put myself bodily between my step-daughter’s vehicle and the other one, I wouldn’t have asked questions, I wouldn’t have put in a stipulation that I would do it only if the collision were going to be fatal, I wouldn’t think, I wouldn’t wait, I wouldn’t blink or even twitch an eye before I chose to step in and keep her from going through this. I would lay down in front of a moving train. No take-backs.

There is a saying that having a child is like watching your heart walk around outside your body. Maybe for some that’s true.

I’ll tell you this.

That child is not mine – not really. Her mother is alive and well and very present, and forced to loan her to me for this lifetime. That cannot be easy. They enjoy a pretty good relationship for a mom and her teenager. I came into the scene when she was six years old, long after their history had been established.

And that girl, with her knack for high drama, her mama’s nerves, her daddy’s dimples and sense of humor, with her snark and her brains and everything else, is more than my heart walking around outside my body. She and her brother are worth far more than just my heart.

I have desperately wanted my own child for over a decade, but after tonight I am re-evaluating whether I can do all of this again. Her brother is only 13, so we have just now entered into the valley of darkness with him. I’m 35, but after tonight and what small indication I have about how the next 5 years will go, I’m pretty sure that by the time he’s 18 I’ll be 90.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some alphabetizing to do, followed by a collection of 1273 classic works of fiction I just found on my hard drive that I was supposed to move to my Kindle. If that doesn’t put me to sleep, I might even learn a new language.

Has anyone seen my inhaler?