July 2011

One year ago today, I started running again after many years. My resolutions from The Great Burnout last year were to run and change my diet. That was basically it, though each involved massive lifestyle changes. But my what changes they have wrought in my life. If you’ll indulge me a bit, here are some things I learned over the past year. Hopefully at least one of them will mean something to you, too.

As with many attempts to improve one’s life, the part not long after I started was the hardest. If you think about it, just starting something new is perhaps the easiest part. Many of us do it every year with New Year’s resolutions. Often they might last a few days or weeks (or hours) because it’s the next step after you start where it’s usually the hardest. The honeymoon is the easy part. It’s when you have to commit to the day in and day out relationship that the work begins. Often, there’s not as much passion and glamour in this ongoing work as we’d hoped there would be. We have to draw our energy from somewhere else.

For exercise and health-related changes, I tend to call this the ‘Rocky Training Montage Problem’. In the Rocky movies, Rocky Balboa has some life crisis, some period of doubt where he thinks about giving up, something then happens to inspire him, and then cue the epic music and grunting in the gym where Rocky transforms into a perfect physical specimen ready to face and defeat an invincible foe, all in the span of about four minutes. The all-day, everyday devotion to the training and hard work required to get there are left on the editing floor. That’s where the really great stuff happens, but it’s also where most of us give up.

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In case you’ve wondered where we’ve been, we’ve had quite the chaos this month. The main crisis involved the rapid deterioration of Mary’s health early in the month. She started getting sick, and it got much worse. She was admitted to the hospital about three weeks ago, and she had major surgery a few days later.

I won’t go into all the gory details. I’ll let her do that if she wants to. The good news is that she should have a complete recovery. The scary news is that had she not understood her body well enough to know something was wrong and then gone to the hospital, she most likely would have died from this. Writing that sentence nearly caused me to go into hysterics just now.

The surgery was scheduled for 2-2.5 hours. She went back about 7:20AM. Surgery began at 8:00. About 10:00 I waited expectantly for the receptionist to answer the frequently-ringing phone and give us news that the surgeon would see us in Consult Room number whatever. At 11:00, we got a call that things were “going well” but they were still working, which can readily be translated to “we found some things we didn’t expect, and it’s going to take us longer than we thought.”

I sat in the surgical waiting area clamping down so hard on my teeth that I thought my jaws might break. I felt like there was some crazed animal inside me, a wave of terror I was going to vomit out. You don’t really begin to understand your life with clarity until you feel like you’re standing on the edge of an abyss.

11:30 came, then noon, then 12:30 – nothing. At 12:45, news that they were finishing up. It’d be 30-45 minutes. 1:30 passed, then 1:45 – nothing.

We all have nightmares of losing someone we love. Some live the nightmare for real. For those minutes, I was terrified about which side of that divide I was on. Every terror I could conjure roared through me. I’ve had a lifelong fear of water, and even the thought of drowning can send me into a full panic. In that waiting room, it’s that panic times ten that I started to feel. I clutched the “everything is going well it’s just taking longer” message like a life preserver.

After the longest half hour I can remember, at 2:00 the surgeon finally came in and told us things “went well” but that her condition had been more severe than they originally thought. She would recover and be OK, though it would and will take a while. But if she’d not had the surgery, she could have died. The nightmare was closer than we had known. I exhaled.

She would need a couple of hours in recovery, so I went and got something to eat. I wandered aimlessly in the little cafe in the hospital. I finally ended up sitting alone at a table eating a calzone. I started crying. Much of that was relief like a prisoner whose life was spared. The rest arose from the sheer enormity of what could have happened.

You wake up one day trying to plan for the start of kindergarten and what we might attempt to cobble together for a pseudo-staycation this summer, something to help us regroup even a little. Next thing you know you’re sidestepping death and living in a hospital for a couple of weeks.

It puts a lot of our regular chaos into perspective. I’d give anything right now for one of our so-called crazy, typical days at home. I’ve barely seen the kids in two weeks. Mary’s seen them basically once in the last three. They went to stay with Mary’s parents – 3.5 hours away – while we were at the hospital and to let Mary get home and begin to recover. Nothing is normal, and it won’t be for a while yet.

So I went back and forth the first week taking the J-Man to and from camp, getting him and Dale Jr. through the important parts of the day, attempting to help them understand something about what’s going on with Mama, running between the hospital and home, and trying to spend some time with Mary as she dealt with all this. Then there’s the day to day chores and administrivia of life that don’t take the month off just because you can’t handle it right now.

I lived at the hospital almost around the clock for a week and a half, running home when friends or family came by to relieve me so I could shower, do chores, and catch up on a few things. I miss the kids terribly. I just want to curl up with them in the recliner and watch the same TV show over and over again.

For as long as we can remember, we already felt like we’re going at 100% capacity all the time. Then something like this happens and you realize that it is somehow possible to deal with more. This then is some consolation we can carry forward from here on, but it would be nice if at some point things were easy even if just for a while.

What I’ve become most aware of this month is how good Mary and I are as a team. You never know how important someone is to you until you face an enormous challenge together and overcome it. Not just survive it, which is of course important in its own right, but overcome it by coming out better together on the other side.

This also has been true with our years with autism. It’s been our greatest challenge, and I think we’ve risen to meet it well. This month feels like a confirmation of that. Together we are strong. Our wedding anniversary is in a couple of weeks – our ninth – and through this we’ve learned that the most meaningful gift we can give to each other is each other and this confirmation of our combined strength.

I admit a certain jealousy for those parents with extensive local support networks of family and friends who allow them the option to work regularly, see movies in public, and generally have a life. But we’ve also learned that in the event of a great emergency, we have a support network of caring family and friends ready to step in. Without them, I don’t know how we would have gotten through this.

Now we’re home, Mary is recovering well, and the kids are coming back in a few hours. Life is returning slowly to normal. Sometimes life just gets blown to hell and you have no choice but to let all your daily things go. In one way, it’s strangely liberating. You’re forced to understand what really matters in life. The stuff of the everyday – even if it does have its own level of importance – takes its rightful place. There is a time to pay bills and a time to fill out forms. There is a time to vacuum floors and a time to do dishes. But more importantly, there is a time to enjoy your family and a time to love and be loved.

And there is a time to rejoice that what was almost lost has been made whole again and a time to take nothing for granted.

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