the days and weeks when we hold our breath

it started out, the story of a sprain. a plain old twisted ankle. only drama here, i thought, was that it happened on a hilly winding road along a godforsaken lake the other eve, not long past dusk, when the murky fingers of the night creep in from the woods, make it hard to see and be seen. and when you’re a boy who’s had a bump or two on trails, you know, learned the hard way, that you don’t go out for runs or rides without a way of calling home.

well, he called home, all right, when he went down, when the ankle curled and caved and came screeching to a halt.

only, silly parents, we didn’t get the calls. and there were 12 of them. kept calling me, he did, but i was on the phone with my dear aunt, and didn’t know the incessant beeping noise was something other than a battery winding down, running out of phone-call juice. and his papa, well, he’s not so attached to that little ringing box we call the cell phone, so he’d left his out in the car.

poor kid rang and rang and rang. no one answered. and the murky light got murkier, near dark. and there he was, miles from home, and not even hobbling, and way up north in michigan, where just the summer before he’d ached so bad in the woods it took months and months for him to heal, to heal in ways that don’t involve just muscles.

at last, after turning down 911’s offer for an ambulance (he thought that a bit much to arrive home a la siren for a simple twisted ankle), he got through.

at last, i’d hung up with dear aunt nanc, and heard my little ringing box do its ring dance.

right away i saw the name, his name. looked out the window, saw the dark. thought, oh geez, please no. please just be calling me to say the moon is swell, i oughta get down to the dock and drink it in.

but no.

no.

i heard the tears, the where-in-the-world-have-you-been, the i-am-hurting-and-it’s-dark, mom, and i’m-2.4-miles-down-a-long-and-winding-road, and i-can’t-walk, mom.

i barely touched each step of the stairs as i bounded down. got to the bottom, said, it’s will, he’s hurt, and as we ran we heard the moans coming up from all of us, all three of us, who’d once before picked that boy up off a trail, when he came to us bloodied and broken and asking if he’d die.

your insides don’t forget those days, and they all come rushing back when it is dark and you have just heard tears on the other end of the line.

the little one, especially, gets sick with worry when it comes to his big brother. couldn’t let go of me in the back seat, as his papa drove, like it was some northwoods speedway, the hilly lakeshore-hugging road, and i stayed on the phone, talking the hurting one through each turn and twist and up and down of that old country road. we’re coming, i kept saying. we’ll be right there. we’re coming ’round the bend.

but that’s not why i’m telling you this story.

i’m telling it because i thought it was a story about a twist, and then it became a story with a twist.

we got the boy home, of course. slapped on some ice, popped some anti-swelling pills, and drove back from the lake early the next dawn, racing home for, of all things, dinner with a dear, dear friend who happens to be an ER doc. he’s the one who told us, get an x-ray, there might be something there.

we got the x-ray monday afternoon. i was right there, looking at the screen, because when it’s a kid, they let the mamas tag along.

right away i thought i saw the crack in question. saw a big egg-shaped spot right where the twist had come–or so i thought. even the x-ray tech standing next to me thought the same.

go sit down, they said, someone will come out with the news. so the nice man came. said it wasn’t fractured, just a bad sprain. call the doctor in the morning.

dodged that bullet, we all thought as the lanky one hobbled home. hmm, i swore i saw a crack. oh, well. that’s why i’m a mama now and not an x-ray guru.

tuesday morn, that ol’ ankle was still throbbing some, and the hobbler was due to school in an hour or so, due to take a tour of the big new halls he transfers to as a sophomore. i called the pediatrician. said i was wondering what about the sprain. what should we do to make walking just a little easier?

and that’s when it took a long, long time for the nurse to come on the line. and when she finally came, she apologized. said she’d needed to grab his chart, talk to the doctor. hmm, thought i, for simple instructions about a sprain?

and that’s when she told me that they’d found something not on the leg bone in question, but on the other one. don’t freak out, she told me, but it was one of those words that ends in “oma.” most likely, she told me, it was benign. but we needed to see an orthopedic surgeon right away. and we needed to go straight downtown, not muck around near home.

all signs, in my head, start spinning toward that slot on the dial i’d rather skip over. this is starting to feel, i thought, like a phone call i can’t believe i’m having.

turns out we’re going to see the surgeon they call the “lumps and bumps doc,” the one they lured, the nurses told me proudly, from sloane-kettering in new york, the one i happen to know is mostly a cancer center. and since i used to be a cancer nurse, these are words that start to trespass into territory that’s not where i, the mother, want to be.

since he’s a doc who sees kids only once a week, they are squeezing us right in. but it won’t be for a week, and it will be the first day of school for my second grader, the one who already is asking me if i might stay nearby till lunchtime the first few days, since he already feels so homesick.

so, already, i am feeling torn. but of course, i go with the one going to see the lumps and bumps doc. and the little one rides with his papa in his papa’s new car, which somehow seems to have distracted him–for now–from the fact that i won’t be there, waving at the schoolhouse door.

but all of that, i tell you, is preamble. preamble for the tidal wave of thought that tumbled over me, all day yesterday; still now.

there is every chance in the world that this will all turn out to be a blip, that the doc will take a look and say, let’s watch it. oh, sure he might say, let’s operate. but i will get to that when we get there.

for now i am consumed with how suddenly we find out that what we take for granted is really all a flimsy curtain cascading there before the box with all the switches and the levers.

i am thinking how the halls of hospitals are filled with lovely people who’d been going about the business of their humdrum lives when, suddenly, they were tapped on the shoulder, told that fever in your little boy, it’s leukemia. that tumbly toddler who can’t keep from falling down, it’s a tumor in her brain. your father who you thought was driving home from the movie rental store, well, he got hit; he won’t be coming home.

and so, knowing all of that, feeling that much closer to the far side of the line between the lucky ones and the not so, i will spend this long week ahead looking down at my tall one’s leg. i will pray and pray some more. i will scan his face for signs of wan and ashen color. i will offer up my leg, and both arms too if it will help, just so he gets the all-clear sign.

i think of all the hours in our lives when we are holding our breath, between inhale and exhale, thrust into that netherworld where suddenly everything is more vividly colored.

where we notice the wind, taste the bite of the coffee, behold the grace of a butterfly wing gliding onto the basil that grows just beyond the kitchen sill.

where every unfettered hour feels like a swing on the trapeze. where we understand, finally, thuddingly, that just making a dumb old grocery list–with nothing else to clutter our thoughts–is pure mercy, unfiltered.

it is these days and weeks of breath-holding that put the bas relief into our lives. without the undulation and shadow, it’s all washed-out and blindingly white.

the breath-holding, of course, comes in a zillion forms–waiting for the phone call from the boss, sitting outside the x-ray department, clicking on the computer to see if the email from the college, the boyfriend, the madwoman, has come.

it is the interstitial hours, i believe, that sharpen who we are in the midst of lives we start to take for granted.

it is in the not-breathing when the sharp outlines come, and the blurriness fades away. when we look and see not just a boy who leaves his room a mess more often than i care to discover, but an almost-man whose brilliance, whose sheer force of belief in how he’ll change this world, better it, gives me hope, and, more importantly, faith.

this breath-holding, maybe, is every bit as essential as the breathing.

we would be numb to all the days of making beds and pouring coffee into mugs, of shuffling papers on our desks, and clocking miles on the track, if not for the occasional lapses into holy fear.

when it all comes clear. when we see how close the bullet grazes our heads. when we wake up from our stupor and tingle down our spine at all the ways the spinner falls in our favor.

and yes, mostly, more often than we deserve maybe, at the end of these protracted hours, the great rush of hallelujah, how-narrowly-we-escaped comes. we kiss the ground. we thank the skies, the leaves, the blades of grass. we pay attention to the clouds that day. taste the succulent tomato. douse it all in extra olive oil. what the heck.

we fill our lungs. feel the sweet soft air soak into crevices and dark places that had gone without sustenance for the days of our worry.

we return to living. and, if we’re smart, we carry with us the knowledge that at any minute the nurse can get on the line and tell us there is something growing where it shouldn’t be. and it’s the leg bone of a boy we love, we birthed, at stake here.

it is a recipe of fractions and milliseconds and happenstance, this thing called life.

and if, in between our breathing, we can take in the blessed holy miracle of the ones we love, the rustling of the leaves, or birdsong in the dawn, well then we are making art of the filling of our lungs.

forgive me if i got dark there. blame it on my irish. or on the simple fact that i am old enough and wise enough to understand the roulette of the everyday. my hope, and my intent, was to raise up these hours of fear and examine how it is that they weave what matters most into our very being. have you had chapters of breath-holding? and were you able, in any way, to hold onto a piece of that to make you pay attention to the colors all around?

turned out last week while i was away was another week of breath-holding for all of us at the newspaper where i still happen to work. some 80 souls got phone calls that their time was up; i didn’t get the call, not this this time. for those 80 i send up prayer after prayer. these are breathholding times indeed, and may each of you find your colors once the fog and tears are cleared. we will carry on, those of us still newspapering, and try our damnedest to make you proud for what you started, and did so blessed well.