I keep a good neurotic’s calendar, and it’s three years, to the day, since Seymour killed himself. Did I ever tell you what happened when I went down to Florida to bring back the body? I wept like a slob on the plane for five solid hours. Carefully adjusting my veil from time to time so that no one across the aisle could see me—I had a seat to myself, thank God. About five minutes before the plane landed, I became aware of people talking in the seat behind me. A woman was saying, with all of Back Bay Boston and most of Harvard Square in her voice, “. . . and the next morning, mind you, they took a pint of pus out of that lovely young body of hers.” That’s all I remember hearing, but when I got off the plane a few minutes later and the Bereaved Widow came toward me all in Bergdorf Goodman black, I had the Wrong Expression on my face. I was grinning. Which is exactly the way I feel today, for no really good reason. Against my better judgment, I feel certain that somewhere very near here—the first house down the road, maybe—there’s a good poet dying, but also somewhere very near here somebody’s having a hilarious pint of pus taken from her lovely young body, and I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight.
–J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
If you ever want to know what you’re really made of, have a kid. I’m not talking about the having; that part is comparatively easy. It’s everything after the having that will fuck you up in ways you cannot possibly imagine when you’re squatting or lying or floating in a birthing tub. Your first night at home alone with this tiny thing that will not stop screaming, when you have sutures holding your vagina together. Your first trip to the emergency room. The first day of school, when you watch in slow-motion as your hand releases from hers and you deliver her to a world without you. And those are just the firsts.
I’ve never served in military combat, but I can tell you that spending time in a children’s hospital with your sick kid throws you into what I imagine must be a similar mode of surreality, sensory overload, and hopped-up reflexes. One day you’re a normal person living a more or less normal life and the next day you’re having a discussion with a pediatric team about the relative antibiotic resistance of various strains of MRSA, which may be causing the abscess in your daughter’s leg. Decisions must be made quickly, and they have to be right. Hysteria isn’t an option. You deal with things or you go home and sleep it off. If you can’t stand watching your child writhe in agony, have multiple tubes, wires, and needles inserted, or zone out on morphine, you had better leave, but leave with the understanding that walking away at this moment means you’re abandoning her at the worst point of her life so far, and she may remember it and hold it between you until you die.
Hospitals throw you into a time paradox: When you spend days in one as a patient’s caretaker, time in the outside world goes on without you, while inside things speed by and then jerk to a sudden stop. Here I am signing a consent form, and there she goes into surgery—whoosh! And then she’s in surgery for what seems like a year. I don’t really care what’s going on in geopolitics at this point, but as I stop to read the headlines at the newspaper machines in the cafeteria, I find that I can’t grasp their meaning. I feel like I’m reading headlines from another country.
On the other hand, there are plenty of empty hours in which to plan for the home-going. So when we’re finally discharged and riding home and I say that our terrier, who is a one-dog circus act, will have to be leashed inside the house to keep her from tearing out the drainage tube and collection bag that have been surgically inserted into our daughter’s leg, and my husband begins to dissect the plan and look for alternatives, I am in no mood for democracy. I’m still in battlefield mode. I’m tense and impatient and ready to strike because I’ve got a plan—a goddamned good plan that I’ve been working over in my head for days in the quiet hours when the painkillers do their job and I’m in our room with nothing else to do. I turn my head and look out the window, watching the gray Detroit freeway speed by. “This is going to be the worst part, you know—being home,” I say. “Too many variables.” “But at least we’re all together,” Dan says. He hates when we’re not all together. “Exactly,” I reply. “Variables.”
An hour later, Circus Dog has been leashed and our other dog, a large elderly mutt who barks incessantly when he is happy, is finally quiet. The little patient is reclining comfortably on the couch, Dad is checking all the e-mails he’s missed, Little Brother is temporarily quiet and calm, the cats have been fed, and I’m lying on the floor with both dogs. I should be happy, and in a way I certainly am. Fifteen mLs of pus were drained from my kid’s leg, but she’s going to be okay. We’re home. Yet I feel like I’m going to explode. My body is pulsing with urgent energy. There’s a sob caught in my throat, but I don’t really feel like I’m going to cry. I could do something psychotic, like run around the neighborhood screaming, but that’s not really my MO. I need to do something. I need to take care of these people. I jump up and say, “What does everybody want for dinner?” I take their carry-out order and say to Dan, “I have to be alone in the car for awhile.” He pats me on the shoulder and says, “Take your time.”
So I put on some heavy metal as loud as I can stand it and drive. I’m back in control. I order Thai, buy some dry shampoo and baby wipes, get my daughter’s favorite egg-drop soup and pork dumplings. I can use the lingering trauma of the past few days to get things done—to take care of my family. My mother could never stand seeing me in pain. She made the pain her own and then collapsed under its weight. Her grief always carried her away from difficult situations with her kids, where she would linger in a place of avoidance and denial until it was safe to return. Parenthood has taught me that I can stay in the crisis without going to pieces. I can clean a wound, suction off pus, develop a plan, administer meds, do triage, trust myself. I can bend without breaking. I might even make a good soldier.
There may be no exercise in life more grueling than motherhood. Fifteen mLs of pus. But you can still choose the path to high delight. Truth be told, you really have no choice.