We were in the yard yesterday, the kids in shorts and bare feet, running through the muddy grass, delighting in the 75 degree temperatures just a few days after Christmas.
I watched Patrick tense, his body visibly tighten, and stare out at the road. “I think there’s a cyclist down.” I took off running, peeling my gardening gloves off and tossing them on our driveway. Down the block, just two houses away, there were people gathered around a woman who was crouched in the middle of the street, her head hanging over a basket, as though she was about to vomit.
I caught the eye of one of the bystanders and mouthed, “What happened?” She mimed that the woman had fallen off her bike and onto the street, hard. I stepped into the street and waved off several cars as the adults helped the woman stand and walk to the curb. A stranger had stopped his car and was helping to assess her injuries, although it became clear he had no medical expertise and was just trying to take control of the situation. The injured woman’s daughter was with her and had called her father, who was on the way.
I ran home for ice packs and water, and then sat down beside her and introduced myself. The first thing she said to me was, “I feel so stupid. I can’t believe I did that.” She tried to wave away the ice, but I gently insisted, saying that these were just used last week for a bumped knee by my two very active boys. She kept deferring discussion of how badly she was hurt. “I’m fine. I can stand. I feel so silly,” and “There’s no need for you to stay. My husband will be here in a minute.” I smiled at her and said, “But isn’t it nice to have so many people ready to help? We’re more than happy to just wait with you.” I laughed with her about the unusual weather, and got the very concerned but calm daughter to smile. I listened to her speech patterns, watched her movements, and kept her talking a little bit at at time, as the other stranger kept trying to put his hands on her injuries and insist upon a certain treatment (as a side note: people – please ask for permission before touching anyone, especially when they’re hurt).
When Dad pulled up in his car and walked Mom to the seat, I helped the daughter load their bicycles on the back of the car. “I didn’t want to worry your Mom, but my husband was in a bad bicycle accident, and I think it would be a great idea to have someone look at her injuries. It’s better to know she doesn’t have a head injury or broken bones, than to worry about it all night.” I waved at them from the sidewalk and said goodbye to the very concerned, handsy stranger, and walked home into Patrick’s arms, while we both shook, holding each other and trying not to cry.
That mom, so excited to have her daughter home from LA, so joyous at the gorgeous weather, so happy to get on her bike and head out to the trail – that mom hadn’t been wearing a helmet. Her head slammed into the pavement, but she had gotten up and walked to the curb. That could have been it for her. That moment of impact. Brains on the pavement.
I adore Christmas, but we’ve had a hard run of a few years of horrific illness, conflict, and trauma around the holidays. Christmas was so wonderful this year – we actually made it all the way until the wee hours of the morning on the 26th before Wyatt spiked a horrific fever with all the accompanying body and abdominal aches and distress. We kicked into quarantine mode and wiped every surface with bleach, got out the sick buckets and towels, made up every bed and couch with double layered blankets and pillows and hunkered down, ready for the rest of us to bite it. And we waited. And waited. And Wyatt got better exactly 24 hours later and is back to his normal perky self, and I cautiously put away the chux pads and towels and buckets. And I tried not to freak out about getting sick. Maybe this was just a normal kiddo virus that the rest of us had already been exposed to? Maybe? God, I hope. I counted small blessings that this virus didn’t have a respiratory component, and I cancelled our trip to Urgent Care to have him swabbed for the flu so that we could be ready if it took the rest of us down.
I know incubation periods for most major viral strains by heart. I can recite Tylenol and Benadryl doses by pediatric weight. I know how to get a dehydrated toddler to take Pedialyte (hint, slushy freezer pops). I refuse to let people in my house who have been exposed to something within a CDC recognized period of contagiousness. Hand sanitizer by the gallon. Rocking a sobbing, feverish child for hours until they pass out, no matter how many muscles I strain or how numb my arms get. But I don’t know how to not be anxious about getting sick.
I wasn’t feeling my best this afternoon. I was tired, the prolonged state of constant sinus infection that I harbor every winter was exhausting me and I hadn’t been eating well since Wyatt was sick. Only mild, simple foods. And my stomach was off. And then my heart rate was up. And then I started to feel warm. Too warm. And by the time Patrick got home, I was well on my way into a self-induced cycle of panic and adrenaline. Or was I getting sick? How would I know?
In the lowest of low periods of Patrick’s recovery, we started referring to all the ways to help us through difficult moments as our toolbox. I really like saying “Deploy the Toolbox!” as though I was a pirate yelling “Release the Kraken!” Our toolbox is full of strategies, some small, some significant, some silly, some quiet, some energetic. A little bit of everything we’ve found over the past 2 years to help us alleviate the panic and fear and despair that come from surviving and caring for a spinal injury (and two small children). Things like make a cup of tea, do a yoga sequence, meditate, laugh, make something with your hands (playdoh, Legos), put on music, hide in a pillow fort with the boys (or alone, that’s cool too), clean something in the house, call a friend, do something to help someone else, cry, blow bubbles, play the piano, smell lavender, repeat a positive mantra. It’s a rather long list.
I opened my toolbox tonight and yoga’d my way right out of my panic attack after about 30 minutes, kicking up that parasympathetic nervous system with every strategy I knew. I put my legs up the wall and rested in viparita karani. I flowed through peaceful digestive poses and twists. I drank some ginger ale. I focused on the feeling of my breath coming in and out of my nose. I played through some gorgeous songs from my new book of piano solos. I thppt’d my upper lip (really – this is so funny, but it’s a recognized way to stimulate your vagus nerve to release anti-stress hormones to counteract the fight or flight response). I counted my breaths (my favorite pattern is in for 4, hold for 4, out for 6, hold for 2, repeat). I meditated with Sean (we’ve been doing 10 minute Headspace sessions together). I sang Wyatt a song. I changed my internal dialogue of fear at what was coming to something more peaceful and positive. I called a dear friend and talked through it, and I heard myself saying something that I didn’t realize I was holding onto:
I feel so stupid. I feel so silly. I feel so guilty for demanding this attention for my own flaws and fears and anxieties.
I could hear it in that Mom’s voice yesterday, too.
I wish I could hug her and tell her not to feel silly or stupid. Just wear a helmet next time and know that shit happens, and we are so lucky to have people to help us when we need it most. Like the neighbors that I called on the 26th to say “if we get sick, will you be around for a pharmacy run for us?” Or my Mom who graciously stayed far away from us this Christmas as her gift to us after being sick with a gnarly cold for several weeks. Or my brother who calmly and honestly reassured my worries about his family’s health before we were going to get together. Or Patrick who doesn’t blink an eye when I say that I don’t feel well or that I’m anxious – just asks what he can do to help. Or my kids who are learning that it’s as important to care for your body as it is for your mind.
Shit happens. And if we’re lucky, we get to live through it.