In my youth…
Ugh, it pains me to say that: “In my youth…”
While still technically in my late thirties (very late thirties), the last year has aged me physically and emotionally well into late middle age.
When my daughter got sick, I chopped all my hair off into a pretty severe mom pixie. At the time, I was sleeping in vinyl pull-out chairs and washing it in restroom sinks. It’s a little longer these days, but I’ve added two significant grey patches that are now growing into full-on streaks. I’m doing this, in part because I’m lazy, but also because I feel I’ve earned the right to not give a fuck about dying my hair. One advantage of being a full time caregiver is that literally nobody cares what you look like, including, most of the time, me.
I am, however, trying really hard to be healthy…not fit, not sexy, just healthy. I’m terrified of not being well enough or strong enough to care for my daughter or to keep my family running. My partner is busting his ass keeping us afloat financially through all this. My job is to stay standing, and at this age basic maintenance requires a significant effort. I can’t go down…not for a cold, or a sprained ankle (which I generally do a couple times a year), or (God-forbid), anything more serious.
The long and short of it all is that I feel old. Older than I am. Wiser than I was. More cynical than ever, but also, in dark and serious ways, more capable than ever. And this brings me back to what I originally intended to talk about here.
In my youth, I played a lot of sports. I was never particularly good at any of them, but I was, generally speaking, athletic enough to make a team, committed enough to feel I should pull my weight, and cool-headed enough to get the job done in a pinch. I wasn’t particularly competitive (which is good, because I wasn’t particularly gifted) but I was consistent. I was a solid, second (sometimes third) string volleyball player who could reliably serve the ball over the net when the pressure was on, or at least get the ball to the setter so someone else could hammer it. Not a lot of power or glory in that, but I could pull it together if people were counting on me to stay level-headed. In life, I’ve not always been so level-headed. I’ve always had a temper and sometimes my anxiety and imagination get the best of me. But, I think I can say that when it has really mattered, I’ve generally been able to put on my Game Face and get shit done.
The last 10 months have involved a lot of Game Face; ludicrous amounts of it. With all the ups and downs of diagnosis, treatment, surprises and setbacks, I have developed Olympic-level Game Face. This isn’t to say I don’t fall apart. I do. A lot. With swears and tears and gnashing of teeth. But there are points everyday where that reaction simply will…not…do.
With the best of intentions and love, friends and family praise and wonder at “how you do it” or “how you’re holding it together.” But there really isn’t a choice. (At least no one’s given me a choice. Is there a choice? Somebody better fucking tell me if there’s a choice.)
As parents in our kind of situation can attest, big kid pants are frequently the only option in the closet.
I remember, about a month into all this mess, a late night wander through the hospital halls. There was a hand written sign on the wall that read: “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.” The internet tells me this is a Bob Marley quote. It was a literal sign, written by one of the teens in the hospital’s mental health program. (Want to talk about strength? Look there.)
Throughout our extended stay at the hospital, I’d see pencil crayon-coloured signs like this go up and down. One or two of them, including a rainbow “Never give up.” sign, posted by the elevator near the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), is still roughly taped up nearly a year later.
Sometimes this kind of thing feels like a platitude and other times it feels like a giant pile of relevant shit. At that point, we were the ones on the ward that the nursing staff was, to quote one individual, “praying for.” It’s a secular hospital, so that wasn’t as encouraging as that individual probably meant it to be. It reinforced the feeling that our situation, from the perspective of someone who had seen a lot of bad, was definitely not good. There were a lot of questions. Things were as hard as they could be.
To me, that night, that sign (“You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.”) felt like at least one other person, beside my partner and I, had been in it, good and deep, and had waded through it simply because it was the thing to do. At least one other person (though I’d go on to meet many, many other families who were in shit situations like ours) had been in a place where Game Face was the only option. We were not warriors, or soldiers, or amazing parents…just people who had to get through because our kids needed us to.
The sign reminded me of the evening my partner called from the hospital to tell me about our daughter’s stroke. The brain surgery had gone as planned. Her brain, however, had reacted poorly to the shuffle. She’d lost all movement on her right side. She wasn’t talking. I’d just arrived home from a sleepless night in the PICU. It was my turn to recover a bit and connect with our six-year-old son. My phone rang and I stepped away from dinner with my in-laws to take the call in my office. My partner was understandably a mess. The medical team had walked in shortly after I left. The doctor hadn’t been particularly delicate about it. We didn’t know why it had happened or if she would recover any speech or functionality. There was nothing to do but wait. It was fucked, but there was nothing to be gained from going back to the hospital to stew and wait. My partner and I needed each other, but our son (at home) needed me too. We were trying to support him as much as we could. He’d already been passed around quite a bit.
I got off the phone, told my in-laws I needed to clean up and didn’t mention the call. My partner would fill them in later. In the shower, I shook. I didn’t cry because I couldn’t. If I’d started there would not have been an end to it. I got dressed, finished dinner, hung out with my son and put him to bed. Four straight hours of the most intense Game Face I’ve ever worn, followed by another two hours of silent ugly crying into a pillow.
A week later I took my son to baseball practice. I gave him a thumbs-up and a smile as he played. I watched the preschoolers playing soccer on the grass two fields over. Three weeks prior, our daughter had been running with that exact group. She’d shouted “Watch me coach!” with a hilarious Boston-y accent every time she kicked the ball. As far as I knew, she wouldn’t do that again. I ground my teeth and compulsively checked messages on my phone to hold it together. Game Face.
Countless times we’ve held our daughter writhing in our arms, doing anything to distract her as she’s poked and prodded, scanned and swabbed, knocked out and injected. Game Face. Game Face. Game Face.
Game Face is a skill. It has been learned terribly and traumatically, but I am proud of it. I am proud of what my partner and I have managed to endure. I wish I could put it on my resume. I also wish we could have learned it, as a couple, without all this.
It does not mean that we are not shaken.
It does not mean that we do not fall apart.
Those things have to happen, because the solid truth of Game Face is that you cannot wear it all the time. It can’t just become your face. Nobody wants that face.
You have to feel and to move through it at some point or the nasty manifests in an outburst, or a breakdown, or a break up, or an illness of your own. Game Face is not sustainable without consequence.
This means we have to tag team.
This means we have to find a balance between Game Face and allowing ourselves to actually feel things. You need a team for this kind of game; one person to hold it together until the other one has unloaded and recovered.
Game Face can be hard to shake and it’s important to notice when your partner is reaching their limit so you can put yours on. How do we do it? We talk a lot. We talk pretty candidly. We also shut the hell up sometimes. That’s important too. Especially when we’re deep into a procedure or when the demands of life outside our family’s medical experience need to be managed.
Strength, as a parent, is not something you just have. It’s not instinctual and it doesn’t come naturally. You learn it in the early days when your infant is screaming and you don’t know why. You learn it when your kid scrapes their knee and you manage to calm them down. You learn it when they go off to daycare or school and you discover that they are actual human beings that make mistakes and cause drama and you need to figure out how to help them navigate it. This year, we have learned strength in dark rooms with beeping monitors. We have learned strength in cold hallways and crowded exam rooms. We have learned strength in hospitals, rehab centres, and at home.
In my youth, I was proud of my Game Face. I still am, though the shift in context from high school volleyball to the extensive world of modern medicine and treatment is more than a little overwhelming. Truth be told, Game Face often teeters on the border of being a pretty unhealthy smoke and mirrors trick. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and I’ll use every tool I’ve got to get by, one week to the next. We haven’t had more than a couple months of calm between any particular upheaval, so for now, I’ll buy into the illusion that we can handle this. My expectation is that in time, it’ll translate into genuine, enduring resilience, because our particular situation isn’t getting any lighter. My hope, is that somehow, someone, somewhere, will give us a way to opt out of the need for Game Face altogether.