No matter how hard I try, there is so much that I cannot control. Strike that. I cannot control anything no matter how hard I try. A few months ago I came home from a doctor’s appointment in the mid-afternoon and my almost three-year-old son Jonah was cuddled up on the couch with my father who was visiting from away. My father draped his arm around my son and declared that they were two “Fat Cats.” I observed more closely that they were eating buttered (white) toast and watching Some Like it Hot, on the television, Marilyn Monroe, all steamy and kissing on Tony Curtis. Or was it Jack Lemmon? Jonah could tell you and he did in fact tell someone a few days later that he very much enjoyed watching Marilyn Bunroe with his Grandad when he had visited. All of this was potentially concerning to me because we are an almost no TV household, generally geared toward whole grains and fairly observant of naptimes. After the months I’d experienced leading up to this incident though, the kind of letting go and relinquishing control that I needed to exercise in this moment was a piece of cake. I very quickly got to the idea that my son was connecting with my father, making sweet memories, no matter how greasy my couch was getting or what ideas about kissing might be forming in my young child’s impressionable brain.
Relinquishing control when your infant son is suddenly very ill and in need of emergency surgery is another story. Normally, a 101 degree temperature and short breast-feeding hiatus would not have sent my husband Josh and me to the emergency room at 1:00 am. I was blessed with a strong intuition though, and it was this inner-knowing, more than any outward symptoms, that kept us driving south to the nearest major medical center in Portland, Maine, even as our seven month old son Adrian cooed in the back seat playing happily with his stuffed “guitar dog.” A random jingle from the toy announced his presence in the darkness every few minutes. I knew in my heart that something wasn’t right and I trusted that feeling to guide us. It took many hours and a blood test (that my husband insisted upon) announcing a white blood cell count of 30,000 for the investigation of what was going on with our sweet baby to kick into high gear. Around this time a red circle began forming around my son’s belly button. It seemed highly suspect to me and I was certain it wasn’t there previously. More than one doctor attempted to explain it away as so much poking and prodding on sensitive skin. A highly attuned nurse and a bright intern took our growing concerns about this new symptom seriously and began noting the circle’s expansion by drawing a circle around the original redness. A CT-Scan soon revealed that our son had an infected abscess in his abdomen in danger of rupture and would require immediate surgery.
Within an hour of this discovery our son was out of our arms, under general anesthetic, and in the hands of a surgeon. He was in the hands of his own little – yet powerful – life force, a force, again, that I had faith in. Even up to this point I remained very calm. When my husband talked to his parents after the surgery, I heard them ask how I was handling all of this. He replied, “cool as can be.” My sister later said to me, “I’ve been crying so much, worried about Adrian. You must have been a mess!” But I wasn’t. And it wasn’t denial or shock or stoicism. I felt fully connected to the gravity of the situation. I just didn’t feel panicked or paralyzed or distraught. I was able to release on a level I was comfortable with. I felt trusting of my instincts, of the surgeon, of my son even. I drew on my many years of spiritual study and experience. I knew release. I knew surrender. I had exercised this spiritual muscle in so many ways over many years. This is an important point. It was this level of unexpected events that I was comfortable with and that I could make my way through with seeming ease.
In the weeks that followed we found out that Adrian would need a second surgery to remove the remnant from the Urachal cyst that had wreaked such havoc on his little body. In the meantime more fluid had collected in the cyst and it was a very uncomfortable time with little sleep and much anticipation for the second surgery. We plodded along and gave thanks for each moment with our cherubic baby. His smile continued to shine despite the long nights and tummy troubles. We made it through a second surgery, second hospital stay and second separation from our older son Jonah. I exhibited further comfort with the lack of control I had in all of this. People kept telling me how strong I was. What a great attitude I had. I prayed a lot. I stared at both of my children constantly, taking in their brilliance, the way they radiated with new life. I would pick Adrian up from his crib for the hundredth time in the middle of the black night and smell his neck, kiss his cheeks over and over, giving thanks for this spirit who was limiting my sleep so much. I very clearly recognized him as a being whom I would give my life for. I talked with Jonah, this other precious child in my life, attempting to glean from him how all of this made him feel and spent as much time as I could playing with him, dancing freely and giving voice to the endless line of stuffed animals who he wanted to talk.
It wasn’t until after the dust had settled from this tumultuous time that I experienced the real pain of surrender. It turns out there was a point where I would no longer stay calm and trust. Thankfully, it happened in an almost comical way. It was a very beautiful fall day in Southern Maine. The water glistened with a warm Indian Summer sunlight. The leaves painted the landscape in gold and burgundy. There were no further surgeries scheduled and a dear friend had come to our home for a visit with her daughter. We decided to go for a walk to “Jonah’s tree” – a tree we had discovered a few years back on a neighbor’s property. It was a favorite destination and we had through the years marked Jonah’s growth with photos under this tree. Its’ draping branches created a cozy nook perfect for learning about roots and branches and such. At first Adrian was content with watching us from his stroller as we explored under the tree but soon he wanted to be included. Who could blame him? I picked him up and ducked under a large branch to bring him closer to Jonah and our friends. I was talking and enjoying the moment when all of a sudden Adrian reached up and pulled a leaf off of the tree and quickly put it in his mouth, biting off a piece with his two small teeth – all in one motion! I took the remaining leaf from his hand and rushed out from under the tree so that I might see better and hopefully remove the gnawed-off leaf from his little mouth. I was panicked at the idea of him either choking on the tiny leaf or being poisoned. Out from under the tree, in the light, I could see the bright green leaf under his darting tongue and then it was gone. I felt my body grow cold and my stomach turn upside down. I looked at my friend wide eyed and we began discussing whether or not I knew what kind of tree this was. I did not. I had often wondered and even asked a few people but had never found out. We quickly gathered the other children together and headed back to the house, my friend asking if I had a number for poison control. I don’t know whether or not I revealed this outwardly, but I fell apart inside for a moment. I could not bare the idea of my son going through anything else. What if he needed his stomach pumped? What if I had to call an ambulance? My husband was going to kill me! Just about then Adrian coughed a little. My heart stopped briefly. We picked up our pace.
Once back home, Adrian was happy as a clam but I was scouring the internet trying to discover the name of the tree. My wise friend had the wherewithal to bring a branch home with us. I sheepishly called my pediatrician, embarrassed at such lack of care for my infant who had recently undergone not one, but two, major surgeries! They referred me to poison control who assured me that Adrian was going to be fine. It turns out that there are very few poisonous plants indigenous to Maine and even if the tree were toxic, in such a small amount, it would be nearly harmless. The real risk had been choking and we had already passed that potentiality. My friend and I let out a deep sigh and managed to laugh a little at the irony that that my breaking point turned out to be a leaf. I imagined a lone leaf drifting through the air, making its’ way down and settling gracefully onto the ground.
I have reflected greatly on this experience and my eyes have truly been opened to the profound way in which we cannot control how life’s lessons will be presented to us or how our enlightenment will occur. This is not to stay that we are powerless by any means or that we do not have the opportunity to create our own realities. I believe wholeheartedly that we do. It’s just that I’ve come to know deeply that the world will speak to us according to its own wisdom. If we are lucky it will do so with humor or irony. May we ride the wave? Yes. Steer? We can try. I’ve learned that I could take my son to the best hospital and trust in the best surgeon and know that machines would be monitoring him and pray and give thanks and trust and trust and trust but I could not control his reaching spontaneously for a leaf and quickly putting it in his mouth. I will continue to try to protect my children in the very best way that I know how for as long as I can all the while knowing that they have a journey of their own to live out and I am just along for the ride.
** This is a walking meditation. Find a quiet place in nature where you can walk. Be conscious of your footsteps and observe your surrounding as if for the first time. With each step imagine your grip loosening on areas of your life that you may have been trying to control.
** Find a handful of pebbles and along your path allow these pebbles to represent ways in which you try to control what cannot be controlled. Release the fear of losing, release all of the talking and release the judgment of yourself and others.
** Commit to an afternoon of play with your little ones where you allow them to be exactly who they are. Allow them to get too dirty. Allow them to talk too loud. Witness where they take you if you let them.