Everyday Superpowers (and Superlimitations)

Do you know that feeling of being overtaken by a wave? One moment you’re happily body surfing, watching with curiosity as a wave takes shape and approaches, and the next moment—wham!—you’re underwater, being dragged across the sand by the current. You’re not in any real danger—the water is about two feet deep—but you are sore, and also: embarrassed. You stand up and look around to see if anybody saw that. You wade a little deeper and try to see if it’s possible to discreetly tug at your bathing suit and rinse some of the sand from your craw.

Dear Reader, that’s exactly what the second half of April has felt like. Here’s my best attempt to break it down.

  1. I caught a cold and tried to ignore it. We had a lot going on (see #2) and so I told myself this illness would take care of itself. I continued to eat cheese, drink wine, to miss hours of sleep, to live as if I were feeling fine. And when, after a full week of this, the cold turned into asthma and irrepressible coughing, I just bumped up the dose on my inhalers, and waited for the meds to kick in. But that didn’t work either. Gradually, over the course of the second week, my asthma got worse, not better. I woke every morning coughing and gasping for air. The inhalers took the edge off, but they didn’t pull me out of illness. It turned out I needed a doctor, and Prednisone, and rest.
  1. Kellie and I found a spacious mid-century house priced at the very upper edge of our price range. We’ve been on the fence about buying a house for years. We both want more space—we want things like a big room where the kids can mess everything up and be crazy loud and we can close the door—but the thought of a bigger mortgage makes us both tremble in our boots a little bit. We kept making decisions and then doubting those decisions; we took turns staying up all night; I spent an hour on the phone with a mortgage broker, and hours at the kitchen table with a pen and scrap paper and a calculator. Kellie and I kept calling each other at random moments during the workday to re-discuss the finer points until finally we decided to GO FOR IT!—and then, once again, we second-guessed ourselves. After hours of further discussion, we made an offer, and were amazed at how peaceful we finally felt. We went to sleep imagining our family spreading out in a house with two floors.

 And then the next day we learned that we’d been outbid.

  1. I had an essay go live that I was excited to share with the world—and within an hour of its release, I just wanted to hide beneath my covers. The essay was about the exhaustive decision-making process I went through with Kellie when deciding to have our first child. (See similar decision-making process as represented in #2 above. This is how we roll.) For a couple to negotiate different views on having kids struck me as a normal phenomenon, and it just plain never occurred to me that someone would read about that experience and judge me.

But twenty minutes after my essay went live, a commenter accused me of being emotionally abusive to Kellie, of coercing her into having a child. A whole thread of comments followed debating my character—was I totally reprehensible, or just a little bit manipulative? This was the real sneaker wave of April. I hadn’t predicted this reaction, nor could I have anticipated how totally raw and exposed a bunch of online commenters would make me feel.

To make things worse, the website where the essay appeared was set up to email me a notification every time someone commented. Throughout the day, I’d check my email and my heart would race each time I saw a comment notification. I held my breath and clicked on it, wondering what awful conclusions the most recent readers had drawn about me. It felt kind of like this:

Film: Repulsion, 1965
Film: Repulsion, 1965
  1. Two days after the comments fiasco unfolded, my car started rattling. It began a half a block away from my house as I was preparing to drop off my kids and continue on to work. Though the rattling was undeniable, I tried for a moment to pretend it wasn’t happening. I asked myself if maybe I could possibly just keep driving to work?

The answer was no. Within the next half block, the rattling got progressively worse, and I parked on the side of the road to investigate. Was my car about to explode? Or maybe it was something simple—was my muffler dragging on the ground? No, but my front right tire was completely flat.

Kellie had forgotten her cell phone that day, so I was on my own. I left the car where I parked it and walked the kids a mile to the bus terminal downtown. This involved alternately corralling Stump and carrying him against his will.

Later that evening, Kellie replaced the flat tire and as she lowered the body of the car back down over the brand new wheel, it slowly became clear to us that the spare was flat too. I filled it with my bike pump and drove it directly to Les Schwab—which had closed. I left it to sit and deflate overnight.

  1. When I came home the next day from picking up my car with brand new front tires, this had happened:

gutter

Actually, this one just turned out to be a cosmic joke. When Kellie came home, she fixed it in twenty minutes.

 While all of this has been going on, Stump has been cultivating a superhero alter-ego. He’s reached that stage in life where he wants to be—needs to be—a superhero all of the time. He wants to wear armbands day and night, and won’t take them off for the bath. He wants to wear a cape over his t-shirt. To Stump, this isn’t about wearing a costume; he’s claiming his personal style.

superheroIn the midst of a sleepless night last week (see #2 & #3) I realized that this was exactly the way that I needed to see myself, that even though I’d hit a point where I felt tired and wounded and embarrassed and tired again, I needed to put on my armbands, put a cape on over my work clothes, cultivate my everyday superpowers, and surrender to my superlimitations. It was two in the morning at that point, and as I lay there I took stock:

Superpower: My body can heal itself.

Superlimitation: I actually have to slow down and help it.

Superpower: I am capable of radical oversharing. Lately, the more I write, the more it seems like this craft is about discovering the most revealing, vulnerable thing that I am capable of saying and then saying it.

Superlimitation: I am completely unable to control or even predict how that writing will be received.

Superpower-limitation: I’m the only one who can save me. On the morning of my flat tire, I called Kellie’s work office to tell her about the problem. “I can’t get a hold of her until the afternoon,” he co-worker explained. “That’s fine,” I told him. “I made it to work already.” “Oh, so you don’t need rescuing?” he clarified. When I got off the phone, I realized how badly I’d wanted rescuing all week. I wanted someone to make my asthma go away, to get rid of those critical commenters, to wave a magic wand and give me a new house that suited all our family needs without a mortgage. But at the end of the day, it’s just me in my sweaty human clothes lifting my fists to the sky like Superman, trying to up-up-and-away myself.

When Our Children Struggle to Breathe

candle

It’s one in the morning, and my two-year-old son has finally returned to sleep after two hours of crying and struggling to breathe. I listen to his breathing; I track it. After twenty minutes with the nebulizer he’s finally found a smoother rhythm, but it’s shallow and ragged—he hems audibly between each inhalation. My own body has adapted to his; I can’t breathe deeply enough. Each time he coughs, my own lungs tickle.

I wonder if it would be okay for me to fall asleep here next to him, if I can trust the design of his body, or the design of my instincts to wake me if his breathing worsens.

At four am, I wake halfway. I note that he is struggling, but the heaviness of sleep draws me back in. I doze until he wakes wheezing and then crying in frustration.

Many times tonight I’ve considered taking Stump to the E.R., but Kellie’s still in the Mojave Desert, and Smoke is sleeping soundly in the next room. I’d either have to drag him along, or find someone to keep vigil on our couch. There’s a list in my head of people I could call in the middle of the night, but I wonder who sleeps with their phone by the bed, and who would answer the call.

Also, by now I know what means to bring a wheezing toddler to the ER. I’ve done it when Smoke was the same age that Stump is now. I know what they’d do. They’d move us into an empty room and make us wait. They’d hand me a children’s gown and I’d have to strip him of his warm clothing. They’d give him a nebulizer treatment and force-feed him a dose of prednisone.

I’ve got my own nebulizer here at home. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at 8:45. I know what signs to look for: cold hands, blue lips. I make a deal with myself that I will stay awake and bear witness. I will call for an ambulance if his lips turn blue. But still, it seems to me that if his breathing got any thinner, well then he’d barely be breathing at all.

Stump stops crying for a moment and leans into me. “Peabody Sherman?” he whispers.

I wipe snot from his face with my sleeve. “You want to watch Mr. Peabody and Sherman?” I ask.

“Yes,” he answers, nodding.

fnd_mc_mrpeabodyshermanIt is four in the morning and we are watching Mr. Peabody and Sherman while the nebulizer runs. Stump sits quietly, transfixed, his mouth around the mouthpiece, plumes of medicine vanishing each time he inhales. The machine is as loud as a hair dryer, and I’ve got the TV volume turned up to compensate. I expect that any moment Smoke will emerge from his room, rub at his eyes, and join us on the couch. If this happens, if Smoke starts his day at four am, then my tomorrow will really be a mess. But somehow, even through there’s one thin door between this noise and his room, Smoke sleeps through it. I’m amazed by this, just as I am amazed that Stump’s tears have stopped, that he’s willing to sit still, willing to take his medicine, that he seems to have learned that there’s relief inside that nebulizer chamber.

I remember how it was to be a child with asthma. I remember lying on the couch all day with one hand curled around my inhaler. I remember tracking hours, waiting for the relief of my next puff. I remember coming to recognize the heft of a new inhaler vs. the lightness of a spent one. I remember sometimes waking in the night from dreams where I could not catch my breath to discover that I truly could not catch my breath. I remember how sometimes the inhaler relaxed my airways just enough to ease the panic, but still I panted and wheezed.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that my mother confessed to me how nervous my asthma had made her, how she would stay up at night listening to my breathing. She told me this before Stump was born, and before Smoke had developed asthma, but the depth of her worry made sense to me, and I hoped I might be spared the same experience.

But sometimes, inevitably, those things we wish won’t happen happen and we are surprisingly prepared.

My experience of parenting so far has been this: every night I go to bed hoping I might sleep well, and I dread the sleepless nights of teething, the ear infections, the vomiting. When I think about these nights, and I know they will arrive, I worry for my future sleepless self. How will I stay awake when I’m already so fucking tired?

But my worry provides the momentum to move us forward into morning, when his breathing will improve just a little, when the doctor will listen with her stethoscope and tell me that his breathing sounds labored, but clear.