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?

On Horses, Hijinks, and What Happens When I Go Home

So, I was super busy with life and parenting and life and stuff over the weekend, but in case you missed it, here’s what happened:

Saturday: the Kentucky Derby

Sunday: Mother’s Day

Here’s the thing: the Kentucky Derby is one of my favorite days/things (ever) that we do in my home state. We grow up with it; Kentucky children learn “My Old Kentucky Home” when we’re in elementary school.  (Granted, many do forget the words – that song is crazy long – but we all know the tune and they put the words on the TV screens before the derby, so we’re good.) The boutiques on every Main Street in the state carry derby hats almost year-round, but they stock up around Valentine’s Day and keep adding to their stock until the week of the big event. Some women – you know, the ones with lots of local friends – even have “hat parties,” which is really an excuse to drink mint juleps, mimosas, and sangria, buy out the floral/ribbon stock at the local Hobby Lobby, and get crazy with a glue gun for the sake of creating a one-of-a-kind (and usually fallen-apart-in-the-humidity-and-revelry-of-the-actual-day) crowning glory. For three weeks before the race, Louisville is in Kentucky Derby Festival mode, offering more than 70 events that include things like one of the nation’s largest half-marathons, a steamboat race, the Pegasus Parade, a concert series on the waterfront of the Ohio River, and the largest annual fireworks show in North America – Thunder Over Louisville. We bring out the Hot Browns, the burgoo, and Mint Juleps, and we celebrate our heritage and the launch of the US Triple Crown.

All of this is to say that this year, I’ve been reminded of a time a few years ago, around Derby week, when I was visiting my parents’ place with my family and we were out riding the horses. They used to take in retired thoroughbreds and exercise horses alike, and had a couple other quarter horses and one cutting horse (he was my favorite – I won’t lie). Our son was about 5 years old, our daughter was 10, and my 6-year-old niece was there, too. They were all taking turns riding with my mom, my brother, and myself. Everything went well for about an hour, then before we went inside the house, Trenton (our youngest) asked if he could ride by himself.  We negotiated, since that’s his favorite thing to do, and we agreed that he could ride on Classy, our most docile quarter horse, if I had the lead rope and walked him around so the horse wouldn’t go too fast.

Unfortunately, all we had was a training lead rather than a standard lead (training leads are much longer to allow the horse more movement), so we had to wrap it into a coil a bit to shorten its length.  Also unfortunately, when I handed the coiled lead to my brother while I was dealing with the saddle, he set said lead on the ground as I was adjusting the stirrups and getting Trenton settled. Classy was moving only slightly as she grazed and waited for me to finish, but when she moved her front right foot, she got it tangled in the lead rope.

(Note: we probably should have done better at adulting and made better decisions. It happens.)

I don’t know how much you know about horses, but they can shy away from things and panic if they can’t see what’s happening. They’re tall, and it’s not easy for them to just look down at their feet, so when something gets wrapped around their foot – say, a lead rope – they don’t know if it’s a harmless rope or if it’s a copperhead (both wildly prevalent in these here parts). Needless to say, Classy was not pleased.  She did okay, though, just prancing a little bit, chestnut flanks twitching and gleaming in the sun but otherwise calm, and I told Trenton to hold onto his reins and pommel while I took care of her for a minute and talked to her. I had soothed her pretty well after a second or two, but my idiot brother then broke rule number one when working with horses: he rushed up to her in a panic of his own because he wanted to unwrap the rope and keep Trenton safe. (This is still a bit frustrating for me, of course, for two reasons: one, we were raised with horses basically from birth and both of us know better than to do that, and two, my son was on that horse.)

Feeding off his panic, the horse bolted, Trenton seated firmly atop her. My mother and I still had hold of the lead rope and were trying to pull her head down to calm her, but Mom lost her grip and stumbled right as I dug in my heels, and Classy, rearing and screaming, pulled the rope out of my fingers (leaving 2nd degree rope burns in its wake, because I despite multiple college degrees I was not smart enough to wear gloves).

Then everyone else panicked. My brother started running after Classy (idiot, like he could catch her), my sister-in-law grabbed her daughter and mine and pulled them out of harm’s way (obviously smarter than her husband), and I started yelling for Trenton to hang on and not let go no matter what…

…until the remainder of the lead rope that had gotten wrapped around my leg during the struggle pulled taught and dropped me onto my face into the field, cutting off all my air and sound. Classy then proceeded to drag me over a hundred yards across the paddock (think about that for a moment…yeah, it was as gross as you imagine).

I managed to flip onto my back and remove my shoe, on which the rope was stuck, so I got free as the horse continued to gallop across the field. I started sprinting (rapidly hobbling) for the barn that bisects the center of the field while Trenton and the still-panicked Classy took a sharp turn at the far corner of the fence and came barreling across the ground toward the opposite side of the barn. By the time they were halfway across the field, I noticed our other quarter horse, Sage, galloping toward Classy. He’s the Alpha in the group, so my wonderful and clearly-more-intelligent-than-her-eldest-son mother had released him from his stall and slapped his flank to send him running to Classy. He corralled her back to the barn and escorted the panicked mare to her stall, Trenton still hanging onto the reins, his knuckles as white as his sun-bleached blond hair.

I was taking stock of possible injury, gauging everyone else’s reaction so we didn’t scare any of the other horses, and soothing my crying daughter – who couldn’t tell me why she was crying since everyone was fine – when I saw and heard what followed.

Once Classy was settled in her stall and sniffing through the feed in her bucket, Trenton, oblivious to the chaos behind him when his mighty steed (okay, mare) bolted, had thrown his leg over the saddle, slid down to the ground gracefully, and had run out of the stall with bright eyes and a huge grin. He went straight to the barn door to my sweet, calm mother, reaching up to her to be picked up and saying with all the excitement in his little heart, “Mimi! Mimi! Did you see that?! I was on that horse on that saddle and I had the reins and she went so fast and I rode her fast as fast as she could go all the way around without letting go and I did it all by myself!”

To which Mimi (she’s too southern and too young to be called Grandma, she says) replied, “You sure did,” and patted him on the head.  She is and always has been eternally graceful, calm, and collected. (I do not take after her, in case you’re wondering.)

Then Trenton, without bothering to notice anyone else, asked Mimi if he could have a cookie, switching topics as children do, and she walked him and the girls to the house.

And honestly? I’ve never laughed so hard, because what looked to us like impending tragedy was the most brilliant and fun day of his life, and he had no idea what was happening just behind him.  You know how I know that? He looked at me this past Saturday – over 6 years later – while we watched Nyquist, his favorite (his school number is 13, like the thoroughbred), win the Run for the Roses and said, “Hey… do you remember that time we went to Mimi’s and I rode that one horse real, real, real fast all by myself?”

I said of course I remembered. Who could forget?

Then he said, “I bet I could ride in the derby with Nyquist and win all by myself, too. I would ride even faster than I did at Mimi’s!”

So of course I said, “You sure would,” and then I patted him on the head.