A few nights before Christmas I stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes. I stacked, dried and put away then moved on to the picking up of Eliza’s snow pants, Lucille’s dancing dress and everyone’s shoes. It’s been a coping mechanism most of my life, the cleaning. I’ve tidied as long as I can remember. I think when I clean. Somewhere between a sink full of dishes and a long line of snow boots ordered along the wall I sort things out.
A friend of mine once said she’s the type of person who can’t write her paper until her room is clean. Oh, I thought, she’s one of my people. I feel the same way. And lately my room has been decidedly not clean.
On this particular night, Seth was doing all he could do: lying on his back, trying to put the kids to sleep. He’d barely been able to sit or stand that day because of the bulging disk in his back. His face was drawn into a tight frown and he groaned when he walked. He was in the worst pain I’ve ever seen him in and I could tell he was just trying not to panic.
He was finally marginally comfortable and offered to take Eliza and Lucille upstairs. With the kids out of my charge for the first time in what seemed like weeks, I set about to try to order my surroundings one plastic pink plate at a time. I wiped the kitchen table clean of vanilla yogurt and dislodged dried apples from one of the kitchen chairs. I pushed all of the chairs under the table, an act, like flushing the toilet, which seems to escape everyone in our house but me. I swept up carpets of dog hair and straightened rugs. I pushed couch cushion back in place, wiped hot chocolate rings off tables in the living room and fished juice cups from under the chair. When everything was in its place I sat down, head in my hands. What are we going to do if his back doesn’t get better, I thought.
Since the week after Thanksgiving, when Seth’s back starting causing him trouble again, we’d had little time to talk. But when we could get a few words in here or there we were both saying the same things. We will get through this. Let’s remember we have options, we are lucky in that. I’m so sorry this is happening. Why us? Looks like our tables have turned. This time he was the one who was sick, I was the one picking up the pieces. Neither place is easy, we’ve discovered.
Seth hadn’t been able to sleep at night because of the pain, he had to miss part of the progressive dinner we’d planned for weeks with neighbors on Christmas Eve and he spent much of Christmas Day trying to celebrate even though he was clearly hurting. The day after Christmas, the stasis that surrounded us started to feel threatening. We could all feel it. We were worried deep and to the core. So I tidied, he rested and Eliza and Lucille jumped and twirled all around us.
The Monday after Christmas I went to the Y and ran for an hour on the treadmill. I don’t regularly run on treadmills. I don’t like running on treadmills. But I was desperate. I ran for 52 minutes hard before I even looked down at how long I’d been running. I was finally taking deep breaths for the first time in what felt like months.
By the time I got home we’d both had a little time to think and strangely had come to the same conclusions. We are going to be okay. This doesn’t have to derail us. Let’s take it one day at a time. And finally, let’s call our dads.
In the Savage Quackenbush household, calling our dads is like sending up the bat signal. It’s Houston, we have a problem. It’s we’re here, again, and we need you.
We both stole away, called our dads and explained all that had been going on. Yes we are here, they said in their own ways. We can help.
If I am able to show unconditional love for my children it will be because my dad has shown it to me, so many times. When I called him from the hospital the morning I woke up there with meningitis he didn’t ask me if I wanted him to come to Montana. “Do you want me to come today or tomorrow?” he said. And he was standing at the foot of my bed the next day. When I called him the other day, there was none of the judgment I’d heaped upon myself. None of the your-are-35-years-old-can’t-you-take-care-of-yourself business that had been running through my head. He just listened and asked me what I needed.
Things seem to have shifted since that conversation. The sun came out this week metaphorically and otherwise. I took the kids swimming, sledding and skiing. Seth did his physical therapy and rested. He is able to walk without the same amount of pain and I saw, a few days ago, a softness return to his face that I haven’t seen for some time.
Today I vacuumed the living room, the kitchen and stopped short of Eliza and Lucille’s room because, well, there was really no point vacuuming when I couldn’t see the floor. Seth is going to try to work this week, I start my new job and Seth’s dad arrives Monday to hopefully give us the last little boost we need to get back on our feet.
I only have a glimpse of it now but I think I’m starting to understand that we are parents forever. If Eliza or Lucille ever called me from a hospital bed – no matter if they were 34 or 54 — I would hop on a plane and fly across the country without blinking twice. I would write the check if they needed the money. And when the time comes for me to parent them in this way, even if they are all grown up, I’ll do it without judgment but with grace and humor because that’s how someone did it for me.