I never considered that, when I became a parent, a major part of my job description would include fighting death. But it’s true: at its most basic, parenting is about trying to keep your kids alive into adulthood. No easy task, that. Every day I fight to keep my children and myself alive. I know it’s crazy to think that I have any control over death, that it’s something I can “fight.” I know that death is inevitable. But, inasmuch as I can control anything, I want to see my daughters flourish during the time that we all have.
And it’s not just my children and myself; these days I’m also responsible for the lives of three houseplants, numerous garden plants, four chickens, and one monarch caterpillar.
I’m starting to feel like my resume for 2011-12 should read: Anti-Death Warrior. [Anti-Death Warrior is a deceptively glamorous term for a job that, most days, involves managing food on one end and poop on the other. But still.]
I’ve had varying degrees of success in my attempt to keep the living things within my orbit alive and prospering. Thus far, I’ve been most successful with the girls. The garden plants are doing well, although truth be told they receive the least of my efforts. I may have managed to kill one of our houseplants, a gift from my parents with the promise that “It’s IMPOSSIBLE to kill.” It’s not dead yet, but it’s pretty brown around the edges.
And a few weeks ago, it looked like things were really falling apart for the chickens and me.
One of our new chicks started limping for no obvious reason, a development that filled me with the alternating emotions of fear (Could it be a disease that would wipe out the whole flock?), guilt (Was it something I did, or failed to see?), and indecision (Do I take her to a vet? Or just wait and see?).
And then there was me.
You may recall that, about a month ago, I was treated for Lyme disease. It now seems that I didn’t have Lyme disease, after all, but during the last few weeks of August I wished I did. Compared with what I was going through, Lyme disease looked simple, clear-cut, and treatable.
I’ll spare you all the medical details, except to say that a second round of blood tests for my Lyme-like symptoms — joint pain, headaches, fatigue — revealed elevated muscle enzymes, suggesting that my muscles were inflamed, possibly to the point of breakdown. In an instant, I found myself in medical hell: during the course of ONE WEEK, I went back and forth from the hospital for FOUR separate rounds of bloodwork and a brain MRI. I received daily voicemail updates from my doctor, including reassuring statements like, “By the way, I’m very concerned.” I alternately hugged my girls too tightly and snapped at them. I teared up at the smallest things, like Fiona saying, “Mommy, this winter I’m planning to make a HUGE snowman!” And I learned that sometimes, the more medical attention you receive, the sicker you feel.
My medical drama happened during the SAME week that our chick started limping. Everything was crashing.
I’d like to tell you that I handled all of this like a rooster in a sack: by getting still and quiet, meditative and contemplative. But I handled it more like a stressed hen: flapping and fighting and squawking. I cried so hard in that space-age, clanging MRI tube when the Coldplay song “Fix You” was piped in over the speakers from my iPod, that the technician came over the intercom to ask if I’d fallen asleep: “We’re getting some motion in the pictures.” I was furious at God for what was, in my humble opinion, his terrible timing: I have young kids, Erick’s semester was about to start, and this put a stop — either temporary or permanent — to various plans we’d been making. I was terrified that the tests results would turn up something truly awful, but I was also terrified that they’d turn up nothing; that all this drama and trauma would leave us just as stupefied as we were now, that I’d be achy and exhausted forever with no clear reason. I wanted a reason, I wanted a treatment, and I wanted a NAME.
I also spent inordinate amounts of time out by the chicken coop, watching our limping chick and wondering what I should do. “Why is Mommy always with the chickens?” Fiona complained to Erick when she came downstairs one morning to find that I was out at the coop again.
Then, that same week — the week of the limping chicken and my elevated enzymes — I just happened to read an article in the June 25 issue of The New Yorker by Jill Lepore, about Barack Obama’s family history. It turns out that when Obama’s grandfather, Stanley Dunham, was a young man, he was supposed to go with some friends to the movies. His grandmother kept him at home, and his friends’ car swerved to avoid a cow on the road and crashed into a tanker truck, killing all passengers. Lepore concludes: “Every family has a chancy cow or two roaming the meadows of its past.”
It’s a beautiful thought, but that week it struck me as a massive understatement. No, I thought to myself, it’s more like every PERSON has a HERD of chancy cows roaming the meadows of their life. By “chancy cows,” I mean things that could have happened but didn’t — or things that DID happen but might not have — due to something that seemed insignificant at the time. Like a cow in the road, or a grandmother’s decision.
Even right smack in the middle of that crappiest of crappy weeks, I could see chancy cows all over the place.
For instance, the reason I was being sent to the hospital for repeated lab tests, instead of sitting at home wondering why my knees were still hurting after I’d finished the antibiotics for Lyme, is that we just happen to live next door to a doctor — an experienced diagnostician whose practice is closed to new patients. And we just happen to be seeing a lot of this doctor lately, because he happens to have a Golden Retriever puppy named Brinkley whom our girls have adopted, so the doctor often has to trek through the woods to our yard, to retrieve his Retriever. The other week, when this doctor came to take Brinkley home, Erick just happened to mention that I was being treated for Lyme. “Well,” said the doctor, “you need additional tests. Call my office and I’ll fit you in.”
See? Chancy cows everywhere. And if it sounds like I’m saying that a Golden Retriever puppy might just be an agent of God, it’s because I am. Chancy cows are like God’s fingerprints; they reassure me, even when everything seems to be crashing at the worst possible time, that I’m part of a larger story that’s still unfolding. There’s a reason why we all love those movies in which seemingly random, disparate plotlines turn out to be connected at the end; I think it’s because we know, deep inside, that these movies are a lot like life.
Where life and movies diverge, of course, is that movies usually have neatly tied-up endings. Life, not so much.
Later that week, Fiona called to me one morning: “Mommy? I think that chick’s walking just fine now.” And she was right; I can’t explain what made our chick limp to begin with, or how it got better, but out of nowhere it made a full recovery.
On the other hand, our monarch caterpillar spun a gorgeous sparkly green chrysalis, and then never hatched. This happens — the monarch dies in utero — and it’s been happening a lot more lately now that farmers are spraying their crops with NPV, which is a deadly virus for caterpillars.
And me? After a clean MRI but continuing funky bloodwork, my doctor referred me to a neurologist up in Burlington. Last week I drove an hour in order to have little needles stuck into my muscles, and to be told that it’s still unclear what’s going on. I have no answers, just orders for MORE bloodwork and another MRI.
Driving back from Burlington, through the cow fields (seriously!), I decided I didn’t care anymore about finding a name for what ails me. I’m tired of doctors and tests, and I’m satisfied that whatever’s going on, it’s nothing life-threatening. I’ll do this next round of tests to humor my doctor, and then I’m going to stop and accept that my “new normal” may include some aches and fatigue.
I’m okay with all of that. I may not have answers, but I know I’m not in a free fall — there are two many chancy cows wandering around for that. Who knows? Looking back, this whole episode may turn out to have been just another chancy cow.