My husband, a sage observer of life, said something the other day that distilled my random, dissonant feelings. “Nobody,” he said, “knows what you and your dad and your brother have been through.”
He did not mean “nobody” in the world; there are millions of people who have lived through the illness of a loved one, many who have experienced not only the tumbler of a long illness but the flat, cold finality of death. He meant that in our small universe, the friends and family outside the innermost circle, there was a long period of uncertainty behind an opaque curtain of privacy and then, a couple of days ago, my mother was “back” making phone calls, receiving visitors, planning with doctors to be released to short-term rehabilitation and then home.
I thought about the Seven Dwarfs, because my mind is strange that way. Since I saw the Disney movie as an anxious and tender-hearted child I have wondered about what happened to Doc, Grumpy et al during the years in which Snow White slept peacefully under her glass canopy. They were sad, we know that, but how did they cope with the uncertainty of knowing she was not dead, but only asleep, that she might, somehow, awaken and return to them? Did they save a spot for her at their tiny table? Did they ease their minds by telling themselves it was over, grieving their loss, and moving on? Did Grumpy give up on her and speak harshly to Happy every time he suggested that “you never know what might happen…?”
The good news, the very good news is that she has overcome everything from a lazy kidney to the after-effects of anesthesia, sedatives and pain meds. Her kidney has awakened and returned to work, her mind is almost entirely “right,” and there are no IV lines, catheters, pureed foods, bed alarms, or wires. She can get out of bed, walk a short distance with a cane or a walker, read a novel and remember what happened five minutes ago or fifty years ago, although her memory still gets a little iffy at night. She remembers nothing between her heart attack twenty-four days ago, and her return to real consciousness three days ago.
Those were the three weeks during which the other three of us, the rest of my Family of Origin, struggled to keep our lives afloat while adjusting our respective emotional temperatures to the news of the day. When she had a major cardiac episode during testing three weeks ago, we prepared for her death. When a stent was miraculously installed, we relaxed. When her kidney failed to return to work, we worried, and for days our conversations focused on whether she had passed the “breathing test” that would allow her caregivers to extubate her and begin the process of allowing her to awaken from her chemically-induced coma. When the tube was out, we breathed a sigh of relief, only to be brought to our knees by her failure to “wake up,” the possibility of brain damage, and the brief but scathing period of All Id All The Time.
Pardon my French, but we are fucking exhausted. The news is good, the sun is shining, but the three of us can’t really dance at the party until our various wounds are healed. My father falls asleep sitting up, the ever-present pain in one foot has been terribly exacerbated by stress, and he is worried about his ability to resume previous duties as full-time caregiver and dispenser of meds. My brother has been balancing his professional relationship with the hospital and his ethics as a physician against his role as The Patient’s Son, helping us navigate tough decisions without stepping on toes, telling us “worst case” when he thinks we need to hear it. My own work has piled up as I tried to get something done in the midst of the endless phone calls, the hospital visits, and the time spent helping my dad. I sleep more than usual, and I find that I am having trouble shifting back to “regular” after three weeks of “crazy.” There is a sore in my mouth that won’t heal, and I wake up with a little whoosh of anxiety that hasn’t shown up for years.
I am happy that my mother is out of the proverbial woods, that she can leave the hospital soon, and that life will return to some new kind of stability. I would be lying, though, if I didn’t cop to a tiny bit of resentment about the fact that Snow White has awakened, all rosy cheeks and dewy eyes, while us Dwarfs are trying to figure out if it’s okay to head back to the mine and get some work done. Nobody knows what we’ve been through, and it isn’t really about us at all, but there is some mild, persistent kind of PTSD that no one seems to talk about. I think of it as Seven Dwarf Syndrome. It makes me smile.