June 10

Mud Puddles and Tidal Waves

The stress of parenting can lead to some strange side effects.  Twenty-three years ago I started having dreams–nightmares really– about water, large amounts of angry, raging water. The dreams would come, I noticed, at times that I was feeling stressed. Sometimes money troubles would spark them. Other times when my husband was out of town for long periods of time they would resurface, but they only came when I somehow felt that my life was “out of control,” and they ALWAYS included my children…always.

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I remember one particularly frightening one. It came when the girls were very young, Steph was only about four, Tammy two and Jenny just an infant. They were about the same ages in my dream. I remember that in my dream we were standing on one of those long rope bridges that you often see strung between mountain passes. Except OUR bridge had only every other board to step on. In between those you could look down at a rapidly rising, angry, churning river. I watched, horrified, as the river splintered huge logs on the rocks below us.

I reached out to steady myself, but the “handles” of the bridge were made of just one thin piece of string on either side. The bridge rocked wildly in the strong wind as a storm whipped around us. We struggled to stay standing. I didn’t want to cross, but we were standing halfway across already. (How did we get here? I wondered.) I looked behind me as waves were beginning to crash across the side of the bridge we had just come from, and they were moving in our direction. We HAD to move forward. We had no choice.

But . . . my girls, …. they were so very little. So fragile. Babies. There was no way I could hold on to them all. I couldn’t take the steps for them. I couldn’t put them on the sides of me and watch and guide as they took each step. The bridge was too narrow and I was afraid they’d fall through the space between the string and the rickety “floor”. I was terrified. What do I do? God?? Help me! Please!

I remember waking up literally gasping for air….grateful to discover that it was just a dream, but still left with a nagging, sickly feeling of helplessness.

A later dream involved the ocean…. my girls a bit older– They were making sand castles and giggling as I drifted off to sleep in the sun. In my dream I woke to Stephanie shaking me and asking me how we were going to get out of the water. I looked around and the tide had come in. We were in the water, and the beach was gone. Behind us was a high brick wall. There was nowhere to go. I looked out at the ocean at huge, 25-foot waves that were now charging straight toward us.

The undertow pulled us toward the rising water. I frantically clawed for the girls and attempted to tread water as the waves began crashing over us…. I remember seeing my kids being sucked under the first wave…little hands reaching toward me…. cries muffled…

I think you get the picture. … bad, bad dreams. Twenty-three very long years of very bad dreams.

Well this morning it happened again, but with a twist. This time, my girls were grown. Steph, 23. Tammy 21. Jenny 19. In my dream I’m babysitting my nieces and nephews who are also grown. (So why am I babysitting? I don’t know!) Most of the kids go upstairs to play, but it’s time for Jen’s nap, so I have her lay in a bed that I can see from my kitchen table. She sleeps peacefully there while I visit with my friends.

Jane and Rosemary are chatting about the kids when Michelle calmly says “Oh my God.” I turned around to find that water is coming up through the floorboards. It was rising rapidly. It had already cut off my path to Jenny in the bed and also to the stairs where I would need to go to get the other kids. I started to panic and scream. As I did so, the water reached Jenny and she began to flail and cough and choke. I froze with terror.

Friends called to me…They pulled on my arms. Michelle yelled at me to “Calm Down, Mama!” But I am wracked with grief and horror. I can’t focus on what they are trying to tell me.

“I can’t!” I plead. “My kids! My kids!!”

“Look!” Michelle told me, pointing toward the stairs.

“LOOK!” Jane said sternly.

“Hol, just looook,” Rosemary encouraged.

So I turned slowly. I looked.

From around the corner of the stairs came Stephanie first. She was arm-in-arm with Tammy and Cory. They were laughing and talking and kicking and splashing in the water. I looked at Jenny on the bed. She was standing now. I caught a glimpse of her just in time to see her dive in. She came up out of the water smiling.

“They can swim, Mama,” Jane told me.

I began to cry.

“It’s life,” a man’s voice said. (Where’d he come from?)

“What…is life?” I asked the old Native man.

“The water. It is life. It always has been,” he explained. “Sometimes the river is peaceful. Other times it is playful as it babbles like a brook. And sometimes it’s raging like in river rapids, but it’s always the same water. Only the circumstances it flows around change. The water is life.”

“What?” . . . I am still dazed, but the realization began to settle in…

“You’ve been afraid of your children navigating life, but, my dear child? Look. Your babies can swim. You taught them well.” He points.

…. chills engulf me.

He goes on…. “You don’t want them to be like your sister, do you? Afraid to enter the river? She stands on the banks watching life flow by… She fools herself into believing that she is safe, but she lives in fear, and so she does not live at all. She sits still like a puddle of putrid mud, drying up in the heat of the sun. Shriveling in her own fear.”

NO! I don’t. I don’t want that. I think to myself. I want them to live…. to be happy… I stand watching through tear-filled eyes as they play…

Is it over? Is it finally over? I don’t have to be afraid anymore? I wondered.

“You never had need to be afraid,” he told me … I heard his voice trail off just as Andy’s alarm clock blared it’s rude awakening, and I awoke…this time gasping a different kind of gasp for air–as if it were my very first….

Like I had just emerged from a watery womb and took my first breath of air….and greeted a brand new life.

A brand new day.

And I wondered, “Where will life take me today?”

June 10

Tragedy and Triumph, Love and Loss.

Tragedy and Triumph. Love and Loss. I’ve seen both this week. Polar opposites of life itself.  I haven’t cried this hard or cheered this loudly in a very long time. Awestruck. That’s what I am. People amaze me. My kids amaze me.  And during a time that most would like to forget, I’m making it a point to remember.

First, hurrying into the hospital that day, I tripped over a 2 x 6 that someone left along the edge of the parking lot. Such creeps!  It’s a hospital! Couldn’t they find someplace else to dump their trash?

Then, later during the week it was raining, and the parking lot was full.  I walked across the lawn and came upon deep tire ruts in the mud along the edge of the parking lot. Someone had parked along the edge of the lot rather than out on the street.  Probably in a hurry to get in, and when they came out later, their car had sunken hopelessly into the mud. But, what luck. Someone who had evidently been through this before was nice enough to have left a nice long 2 x 6 right there along the edge of the pavement for them to place under their tire. They’d found it and used it to back out of the rut. It was still stuck in the mud. I smiled realizing that I had judged someone too quickly, and I was happy to be wrong.

2. The hand-written love letters from her fiancé who laid unconscious and fighting for life. Unabashedly raw demonstrations of private thoughts. Clearly stated, permanent mementos of an absolute adoration and acceptance of my daughter, just as she is. Tiny little packages of pure love. What a beautiful gift to have left behind.  I used to write those for my love too, but it’d been years.  Too many years.

3. Sisterhood at its finest. My babies. My girls. The same girls who nearly tore each other’s hair out just a few years ago.  This week was pure selfless acts of kindness. I’m completely humbled by each one of them.

4. Bravery and Courage.   My brain is unable to comprehend the horror of what she woke up to. Yet she remained calm.  I ask myself if I could do what she did.  Could I do mouth to mouth on a person who is already ashen gray with death?  Who has vomit in their mouth?  Could I love that strongly?   I am in absolute awe of Steph. She is my hero.

5. Some of the most heart-warming lessons came from the fiance’s family. Open. Giving. Loving. There was always a room full. Very young to very old. Men, women and children. And they always arrived at the hospital with a lot of bustle and carrying care packages for ALL who were there–whether they had met you previously or not. Lasagna. Soup. Pizza. Coffee. Money. Blankets. Sweaters. You name it. Oh and real dishes because no self-respecting Italian family would have you eat Italian soup out of paper cups. Yeah. They brought dishes.

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There was no sense of grudgingly-done, duty-driven responsibility to their actions. There was no sense of inconvenience. There was just pure love. And when they left, they hugged and kissed everyone in the room and THANKED each person for being there.

They told me I was beautiful for sitting with them during their difficult time. Me.  I couldn’t help thinking that one of the reasons I was still sitting there was because I couldn’t stop watching and listening to them. They amazed me. I wanted to be part of that family. I wanted to be part of that bond that they have with each other. I found myself selfishly thinking that if Steph’s fiancé got well, I’d see them again at the wedding and at family events. I was happy to know that I would see them again…and that they’d recognize me and hug me again, and that I would actually be family.

6. Bleeps, blips, numbers, and other indicators. Ohh how those test results all began to blur. The numbers on the life support machine became constant indicators of how well or not well that poor,wracked body was doing. I began to curse them. Why? Why do we have to have things in our face like that?  Damn you technology!

Then, as we sat staring into empty space, my middle daughter Tammy casually handed a picture to me.  It was from an ultrasound. I knew immediately that a new life was coming into our family. I felt a different kind of tear fall down my cheek, and I was so grateful for such a clear and palpable piece of evidence of that life that she carries with her now.  Technology is amazing.

7. Then there is my husband Andy. Now I watch him fall asleep each night, and I see that big strong man as somehow just a little bit vulnerable. I try to remind myself that it could be the last time I see him sleeping.  I had forgotten how much I would miss him if he left us. So now I tell him more often. And I write him love letters….like I used to… And I watch him breathe and thank God for that breath–even when it comes out as a loud snore–the same loud snore that used to irritate me.

So  many lessons learned.   And now, as I head off shopping for funeral clothes with Steph. I have a feeling that even this will bring forth its own set of unique memories. And even when they arise out of grief, something good will be among them because that’s the way life works. There can be no polar end without it’s equal and opposite end. They’re always there in equal proportions. Sometimes you just have to search for them.

Take care everyone. Hug your family. Appreciate them. Love them like today is their last day.

(Originally written in 2006) –Holly Connors