I was driving home from the grocery store the other night and started to sob. A chest heaving, can not catch your breath sort of sob. Nothing had happened that day or during the shopping trip that warranted tears. As I was leaving the store, Rich and I exchanged texts. He and Peter were finishing up changing Nathaniel's tracheostomy ties and he was putting Nathaniel to bed. "Will you be home to say goodnight?" - the last text from Rich that I read before the convulsive gasps gripped my torso like fingers grip a steering wheel when driving in a torrential rain.
Changing trach ties was scary before airway surgery. I have written many times about the incidents when Nathaniel's tracheostomy tube came out while we provided the nightly routine care. But I do not think I have ever been able to explain the intensity of those moments well. Experiencing it once was once too many. And while doctors or others would hear our stories and quickly disregard the impact of the trauma and instead compliment the way we handled the crisis, they knew nothing of holding Nathaniel's teen brothers as they wept, curled in a fetal position in my arms, hours after Nathaniel's tube was safely replaced and his breathing restored with puffs from the ambu bag. I remember the night one of them said, "The hard part isn't what happened tonight, Mom. It all worked out okay. The hard part is that it could happen again tomorrow." The conscious decision to dwell or not dwell in fear of the what-ifs was a daily reality.
The heavy sobbing and choking of breath from our lungs became familiar over the last few years. Because we are not rescuers or first responders or doctors or life savers. And Nathaniel is not a patient only. We are a family. We are lovers of each other. Parents. Teens. And that little red-headed boy stole our hearts. There were tears when there were accidents. Tears of gratefulness when there were no accidents. There were still tears on the way home from the grocery store last week. Because I left the house, went shopping, and forgot to worry about or plan for changing trach ties. I forgot the fear. I cried. Because sometimes it is only when we put down a box or burden that we have carried for a very long time that we realize the weight.
Tuesday was my fiftieth birthday. As a side note - I am very happy to be fifty. I have been looking forward to it for a couple years. I let my hair go gray in preparation. I started claiming the decade months ago. "We're in our fifties..." I would say in reference to Rich's and my ages. Embracing fifty with gusto made Tuesday fun. There were many texts, Facebook posts, and phone calls from friends and family. A friend brought lunch, flowers, and a necklace. "She knew she could be brave, because she was His" is written on the necklace pendant. "You are the bravest mom I know," my friend said. Words, spoken in love, are an amazing gift.
I read the pendant over while Nathaniel slept in my arms after she left. Brave is not how I would have described myself over the last few years. I wondered, "Did she know that removing two small pieces of material from around Nathaniel's neck caused me so much anxiety? Did she know how scared I was that an accident would happen when I was not home and the teenagers would forever blame themselves?" Yes, she is a close friend. She knew. She gave me a necklace about bravery anyway.
I looked up Isaiah 43, the scripture verse that the pendant references.
But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine."
Perhaps bravery is not the absence of fear, but the refusal to be paralyzed by it. Perhaps there is bravery in admitting we are scared. Perhaps recognizing we need help is the bravest thing of all. When the older boys would lament having to change trach ties the night after an accident, I would offer them the only thing I was clinging to myself. "God showed up tonight and helped us care for Nathaniel. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He will help us when the next accident happens."
We are His. It is the only way we can be brave.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Isaiah 43: 2-3