Therapeutic Tears

Also published: https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2018/05/a-doctor-cries-therapeutic-tears-with-her-patient.html

He wasn’t particularly likable on first encounter. He wasn’t apt to answer questions asked. He had a long pause and a long drawl and a tangential, winded story–and back story–all of which he was bound and determined to tell to its detailed completion. With an irregular heart rate in the 170’s and a respiratory rate in the 30’s, I tried to steer him in the direction of concise answers so I could obtain as much information as possible and do my job. This is an emergency. He is an emergency. An emergency who had waited until the last possible millisecond; we did not have the luxury of time.

But he was not to be rushed. My mind raced around his long pauses. My hands flitted around. Feeling his pulse, feeling his distended abdomen. Feeling the smoldering, red, hot cancer that took over his right thigh. I had never seen anything like it. It took my breath away and chilled me with impending fear of the extent of disease yet to be uncovered.

I tried to redirect him, but each interruption was met with a pause, and an indignant return to where he had left off in his storytelling.

It had been three years since he found out. Then, it was just a small bump. They told him it was cancer. It was easily covered up with clothing and easy to deny. He muffled it’s pervading presence with his stubbornness. He was indignant. This wasn’t happening. But it continued to happen. With or without his permission. It grew and grew and grew. And now, it was an undeniable monster. Growing on his thigh, in his liver, in his lungs. Filling up all his space, causing him to take staccato, labored breaths. Fighting to steal some room for oxygen every moment of his days.

His heart medications had gotten mixed up, confused, or refused. It was hard to completely tease out what had happened, as he wasn’t ready to be completely forthcoming. His stories took us farther away with every follow-up question asked. Now his heart worked in an overloaded chaotic state.

Infection had found its window of opportunity and seeped its way in to make sickness sicker—his organs on the cusp of failing.

His last name ended in an “-er”, like “Tyler” or “Kramer”. I brought the consent form for the procedure, he turned his head sharply towards me; we were practically nose to nose, as I had leaned in close so he could hear me in his good ear. “That’s not me. My name has no ‘S’” he said. I looked at the name I had written a top the consent form. I had mistakenly added an “S” to the end of the “-er”, like “Tylers” or “Kramers”. “You’re right”, I said. He gave me a gruff, indignant grunt.

We did what we could to stabilize him. I prepared for a procedure. “Have you done this before, Doc?” He looked suspicious. “No.” I said resolutely. “But I just looked it up on YouTube, and it looked really easy.” He was startled and appalled. I winked and smiled. “Oh, you got me. You got me good. That was good.” He let out a bellowing laugh like a man with all of his breath and strength. It filled the room. We both needed to share that.

I spent my time in Room 7 with him. Fluids, antibiotics, labs, imaging, procedures, talking. I softened. I grew to see his heart. His light. And I grew to like him very much.

I ultimately admitted him to the hospital. He may not have too much more time.

The next day was a day off clinical work, but I was at the hospital for meetings. My mind settled time and time again on Mr. “-er” with no “s”. I wandered between meetings up to his hospital room.

It took him a second to register who I was. My hair was down, and I wore normal clothes, not scrubs. “Oh hi Doc. Well, what are you doing here?” He asked breathlessly.

“I was just thinking I wanted to see how you were doing.”

“You want an update? Well, I can’t says it’s looking good Doc.”

He recounted his last 24 hours.

“I think I waited too long, Doc. And now my wife, you know. She’s home. She needs someone to take care of her. So, you know. We have to figure out how to tell her. My son was here, you know. He slept here last night. You just missed him.”

We sat for a long time. I watched his monitor. An irregular fast heart rate still in the 140’s. I listened to the rapid jagged, sharp breaths he sucked in and out.

“This must be tough. You have to remove yourself. You can’t let yourself feel. You see terrible things. All the time. But you have to Do, not Feel. It must wear on you.” In a moment about him, he made it about me.

“Well,” I said. “I just want you to know you have touched my heart.”

We cried. That awful stifling cry where so much needs to come out of what feels like a pinhole. I gripped his forearm with its weathered, dry skin. My finger scraped the edge of the medical tape that held his IV in place. He patted my hand with his other hand until the blood pressure cycled and forced him to straighten it out.

“Oh Doc. Thank you. For your therapeutic tears. They are warming. You worked last night, and now here you are. Right next to me. What a doc you are. What a doc you are.”

He lay with his eyes closed. Tired. Silent. Just his labored breathing.

Mr. “-er”, no “-s”, you are on my mind. Know that I’ll be here. Right next to you.

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How Was Your Shift?

Also published: https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2018/03/emergency-physicians-shift-really-went.html

She is 61 and she can’t help but smack her lips together repetitively. She has no teeth and the curvature of her spine makes her a miniature version of what she once was. Her frizzy hair is a purple-gray tone, and there are dark particles of something in the knots alongside her left temple. Her clothes are too loose and there are food stains on her shirt. The ambulance arrived at her home and there were pills strewn all over her floor and scattered pill bottles. She tells me that it wasn’t her. That someone had been in her apartment. That they were putting different pills in those bottles that weren’t hers. That pills were showing up on her floor. She was being followed when she went places. Her lips smacked harder as her anxiety mounted. She had to flush all the pills down the toilet because they weren’t her pills and so she didn’t have her own to take.   I ask if there is family I may call.  She stares back at me with hollowed eyes and does not respond.  She had just been released from the hospital a week ago for paranoid thoughts, but it is clear she will need to come back in.

He is 70 and his anxiety is like a storm cloud exploding in the room. He is overwhelmed because he cannot pay the bills and someone has stolen his identity. His furnace is broken and he is afraid the pipes will explode. He is concerned there is a carbon monoxide leak in their home and they are all being poisoned. At times he cannot speak because he is so overcome with his panic. He stutters and spits and cannot get the words out. I hold his hand and rock it back and forth as if to relieve the tremors that riddle his body.  I tell him it is okay over and over as I hold on; at times he appears momentarily calmed and is again able to speak until the next wave of emotions takes prey over him. His family arrives, and there are tears of fear, pain and love filling their eyes. None of this is real. No one has stolen his identity.  There are no broken furnaces and no carbon monoxide leaks. He paces at home and cannot eat or sleep. They have even called the fire department to the house to prove to him that there is no carbon monoxide leak. But it has not helped. These delusions have become his reality.

He is 57 and drinks every day and lives on the streets. He comes in one to two times a week for pain. Sometimes, he says his pain is so bad he wants to shoot himself. He says he has guns at his son’s house. This time he said he fell and his hip hurts. I help him take his pants off and he smells of urine and stool. Where can he go to take a shower? There are no bruises, scrapes, or cuts, but I x-ray his hip and there are no fractures. He says he won’t actually shoot himself if he can have a sandwich and bus tokens to go. He asks for a sandwich and bus tokens with every visit. He says his pain is 10 out of 10 and immediately falls asleep. It is the warmest and quietest place he will sleep until he comes back next week.

He is 20 and he overdosed on heroin. He was not breathing when the ambulance arrived. They gave him medication and resuscitated him and now his heart is racing and he looks bewildered as if he is on fire with anger. He says he knows it is dangerous. He has seen his friend dead in a car from a heroin overdose with the needle still in his arm. Maybe this is his rock bottom. I ask him if he is ready for me to help him get help so he doesn’t die too. He was really close this time. He says he understands what I am saying and he appreciates it. He says he is ready to stop, but he just doesn’t need help today.

These were four people I met on my evening shift last night. There are endless more stories like theirs. I don’t know where they were before they got to here, but I know life has not handed them anything. Their days are constant, steep uphill climbs. It may be addiction. It may be mental illness. It may be violence. It may be homelessness. It clasps its grip around them and won’t let them go. Day to day it swallows them and pulls them back down deep. There is little voice that advocates for and represents them. There is endless judgment that looks down upon them.

Friends and family will ask me how my shift went. I often don’t know what to say. Sometimes I feel I can help and do great things. Sometimes it is a vat of endless hopeless stories in a system with limited resources that continually seems to fail in one way or another. We will keep showing up and keep doing what we can, but it certainly is not enough.

The MIA Parent

Also published: https://www.scarymommy.com/want-people-know-about-absent-parents/

In hushed voices, I heard them. The seven-year-old boy stood, still in full practice hockey gear, hockey helmet pressed against the window of the double doors, waiting for an adult to arrive. “His mom is never here, poor thing.” came one hushed whisper. “If I knew which bag was his, I’d help him change myself!” came the hushed response back.

This parent thing is a hustle, isn’t it? Making it on time to this hockey practice, to this football game, to gymnastics practice. Remembering to pack a cardboard cereal box for the next school project, remembering to buy Valentine’s cards for the school Valentine’s party. Remembering to sign permission slips and pay for the school party. RSVP’ing to your son’s school friend’s birthday party, then hurrying to the store the day before to buy a birthday gift. Not forgetting to pack the mid-morning school snack when packing the lunch you made last night. Buying the right dance shoes for your daughter’s dance competitions. Getting new skates for your son’s growing feet. New snow pants for your seven-year-old daughter that has been squeezing into too tight pants for an embarrassingly long amount of time. Having dinner ready. Making sure your kids have their shoes and boots for school. And a hat. And gloves. Lining up all drop-offs and pick-ups so your kids are never the late ones or the last ones to get picked up.

Maybe your hustle looks different than my hustle, but it is all in the wizadry of scheduling and mental notes floating in our minds when it all falls into place day after day after day.

Listening to those moms at that hockey practice, I felt a pang in my heart. I felt a pang in my heart for the multitude of times I was that MIA mom. When I am that mom that cannot drop off and pick up my daughter at dance practice. When I cannot stay and watch my son play football. When I cannot be the one to pick them up or drop them off at school. When I could not be there at their 1st grade winter party. That time I almost missed my 3-year-old’s first daycare program and nearly broke my back figuring out a way to make it there.

That MIA mom has been me time and time again. But I do want to make one thing clear. I am not always there, but I am always there. I packed the snack in my daughter’s dance bag, I counted her shoes to make sure she had her jazz, ballet, tap shoes. I laid out those dance clothes you see her wearing. I made sure my son had his mouth guard, full water bottle, and flag football jersey and all flags accounted for and laid out on his bed before I left for work. I pre-prepare dinner for my kids, even when I cannot be there to eat with them. I laid out their boots, coats, hats, gloves in front of the garage door, I fastened their snowpants to their backpacks. I packed my daughter’s daycare pillow and blanket for naptime and hung it on the door. I hunted down the school library books in the darkness and jammed it into my son’s bookbag all before I hurried out the door for work at 6 am. You may not always see me, but I am always there.

My physical absence has no correlation with how much I care about my children. No matter where I am, my presence and heart are always with my family. All of our families look different. But the bottom line is that we cannot compare or judge one another by our outer appearances. We all have different capacities and priorities come in all different forms. They come in the form of work, in the form of aging parents, in the form of friends, in the form of spouses or single parenting, or other siblings. Everyone’s circus is made differently.

Two weeks ago, I was in Whistler, Canada with my husband. He was the chair of a conference, and I, along with friends, were along for the ski adventures that laid on those gorgeous mountains. I ran into a friend who asked me if this was the first time I had left my children behind for an extended period of time. It was not. I explained to her that while it was not without its flurry of emotions of guilt, anxiety, sadness to leave my children at home, it was also with excitement, happiness, and anticipation that I looked forward to dedicating undivided attention to my husband and friends. I explained that I felt it was healthy for my kids to realize that the world did not revolve around them. That I loved them intensely and loved spending as much time with them as possible, but I am also committed to tending to the other parts of my life that make my life full and make me a whole person. She tilted her head, mind blown, and said, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Sometimes it is out of our control. I have to go to work when I have to go to work. But sometimes, a night out or a weekend away is something worth prioritizing. The bottom line is my life revolves around my kids, but it also revolves around showing them the strength of who I am as an individual and reminding them that they are one part of a greater world around them.

I believe that we all want to be there for our kids, the best we can. The best we can sometimes means we are late to pick them up from hockey practice because their younger sibling has gymnastics practice across town that consistently runs late. The best we can might mean we have a baby-sitter take them to dance practice when I work predominately evenings. The best we can might mean we spend a weekend away with our spouse to care for our marriage. The best we can might mean clearing our day to volunteer at their 1st grade Valentine’s Day party. The best we can might mean saying no to a work meeting to be there for our daughter’s first dance competition.

Being the MIA mom does not mean you are not doing the best you can. I know that better than anyone. So, to that MIA hockey mom or dad. I see you and your presence in your son’s well-fitting hockey helmet, jersey, and skates. I know you are present and the best you can do with your circus is absolute perfection to me.

Grandpa by Claire

Grandpa hasn’t picked us up in a long time. When he gets done in the hospital I’m going to show him something. I wish it hasn’t been a long time.

These are the words my three-year-old said out of the blue tonight when I was tucking her in. A wave came over me; I sunk my face farther into her Lightning McQueen pillow and let my tears disappear into the red fabric underneath my cheek. I was thankful we were snuggling in the dark, crammed together in her toddler bed.

11 months ago when my father-in-law died, one of the things that brought me the greatest grief was the thought that my children’s memories of him would fade with time. Especially my youngest that adored her grandpa so much. My heart ached thinking that these memories of what Grandpa looked like, how Grandpa laughed, how Grandpa hugged would become blurrier and blurrier with time. As if with each year, we would lose more of him as the memories became more faint.

Out of the blue tonight, my youngest reminded me that Grandpa is still alive through her. The grief resurfaced from the undercurrents of the daily bustle. The waves stopped crashing and the wind settled, and the hollow that he left burned like fire.

I listened to her musings. The shadow of her face cast against the column of light that spilled through her cracked bedroom door. She looked so thoughtful as she pondered how long it had been since she had seen Grandpa. I wondered for a second if I should ask her what she was going to show Grandpa. But it was too beautiful and too heartbreaking of a moment; I decided to let my big-hearted three-year-old have that special moment with her grandpa to herself.

The holidays are nearing, and by nearing, I mean that we will be smacking face-first into them here as we turn the corner. It is a time when everything about the people you love is heightened. You are thrust together in a haphazardly coordinated fashion. You have idealistic expectations while simultaneously bracing yourself for the worst. You are excited to celebrate the best time of year with those that mean the most to you all the while knowing that they will likely get under your skin in 7 seconds flat. You have an idea which of your inadequacies will be immediately brought to your attention under the guise of “we’re just worried about you.” You will try to dart behind the children for distraction. Unless parenting is one of the points of criticism you are trying to deflect.

All cynicism and family dynamics aside, the holidays are a time of magic. Of festive lights brightening common, everyday fixtures. Of holiday stories, decorative cookies, and yearly traditions. It is a time to come together and celebrate and show with our own touch how we love those that we love most.

Unless someone we love most is no longer here. Then holidays become harder. Especially that first holiday without them. A void we never anticipated being part of the holidays sits loudly in the center of the room and throbs in our hearts. We see the joy of the holidays through a lens of aching—part of us remaining idly empty.   We move through the motions and we daydream about rewinding time to last holiday when the greatest stressor was what your inappropriate uncle was going to say in front of your kids. You crave being able to fret about the petty things that had occupied your thoughts, because that meant there were no waves of hollowness widely sweeping over you and making you gasp for air like there are now.

It is hard to feel festive when loneliness so definitively puts its arm around your shoulder. It is hard to let the excitement and joy win.

Tonight, I learned from my three-year-old. The best way to keep my father-in-law a part of our lives is to flood these holidays with his memories. To make him an integral part of our celebrations. To make sure he doesn’t fade in the eyes of our kids. To create new memories with the memories of him. This holiday, we won’t let the loneliness sidle up to us. We’ll inch it out with his presence in our hearts and in our traditions. Grandpa will be with us. And we will show him something over the holidays so it will not have been so long since we last saw him.

Moments

There was a moment three nights ago when I was plunging the kids bathroom toilet with all kinds of odors swirling around and splashes of unpleasantries splattering on my arms. I was still in my work scrubs. I had three little kids with wet, dripping, just-bathed hair half-dressed in pajamas, mesmerized by the grossness of what was unfolding, occasionally yelping at the top of their lungs when their feet got a drop of the “YUUUUCK!!!!!”  “Get back”, I mustered to meekly say to them.  That was the moment three nights ago that I just felt ready to collapse.  It was the moment of the day.  “You can’t do this.  You need to go to sleep.”  Is what my brain and body ached and pleaded.  But I was the one for the job, and by the one–I mean, the only one.  So I unclogged the toilet, helped dry my kids’ hair, and got them ready and in bed.  I was ready for bed myself, but Laundry.

There was a moment four nights ago when a patient was unresponsive and I wasn’t sure she was going to make it.  Another patient was on the brink of going into liver failure and was refusing life-saving medications.  Another patient had an infection spreading up his above the knee amputation and was at risk for losing more of his leg.  Along with all other patients in the department that had been impatiently and patiently waiting for hours.  It was the moment of the day.  I was the one for the job.  So I worked with my team to stabilize my patient, I talked to my other patient about the importance of continuing her medications, I started my third patient on antibiotics, and I kept moving as fast as possible.

There was a moment two nights ago when I had gotten home from work–I was so relieved to finally have my husband back in town after his week of travel and ready to finally have a day off.  It was the last night my parents were in town, and all I wanted to do was enjoy a night of nothing but just being together with everyone I loved most in my life.  And then I got the message that I was needed the next day on my day off to cover a morning shift.  My husband saw the sleepless stress brimming in my eyes, and quickly said he would take care of the kids and take my parents to the airport.  There was a pit in my stomach as we moved through the rest of our night.  I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to my parents just yet.  And then there was the moment. Except this time, I just couldn’t anymore. There we were, brushing the kids teeth and putting on pajamas–“I got this”, I cheerleaded myself. But then the tears started in my gut and like unstoppable soldiers marching steadily to battle, they rose in my chest, into my throat, and poured out.  My husband held me, and I just couldn’t stop.  My 6-year-olds slowed their teeth brushing strokes, and my 3-year-old instinctively walked between my legs and hugged me, “It’s okay, mommy.” I heard her say.  I’m not sure she has seen me cry before.

There was a moment last night. I had been on call and had therefore scheduled a baby-sitter to help with the kids in case I got called in. I had yet to be called in and my husband had come home early for a dentist appointment. We decided to have a night to ourselves; I packed our work bags and our work-out bags and planned for a productive night of getting work done while just spending some uninterrupted time together. My husband picked me up and as we drove away, he asked me if instead, I wanted to go somewhere and watch the post-season Cubs baseball game, already in progress. Yes. This was for sure the more attractive option. So we drove to a local sports bar, ordered fried and cheesy appetizers and cheered, cheered for the Cubbies. No one else at the bar appeared to be a Cubs fan. So it was just the two of us, hooting, and hollering, yelling and high-fiving as the Cubs went on to win against the Nationals. It was a close game which made the victory that much sweeter. This was the moment. The moment when despite the rush, the pull, the overwhelming, we pushed it all aside for just a night cheering for our favorite team. We got home just in time to tuck the kids into bed. It was the highs of a perfectly ordinary night–the Reset that I needed.

There are moments that we barrel through because we are tough and we are strong and we can do it all.  There are moments when it all topples and no deep breathing can make it less overwhelming. There are moments when we remember that beneath it all, there is so much for which we are thankful. We are trying our best to do it all, but it is not easy and we just may be balancing between doing it all, hitting our breaking point, and finding the joy sprinkled through all of it.

Anytime anyone comments on how they think I have it all together, it makes me want to take a nap.  It is with every last fiber of muscle, every last brain cell, every last particle of stamina in my body that I try to pull and hold together this life of career and family and home.  And I know I do not stand alone.  That all you capable, multi-tasking parents out there are on my team.

The next time you are standing in your kids’ bathroom, whispering sweet nothings to plead your kids’ clogged toilet to flush, know that we stand together in willing for that sudden gush and swirl of the water in that toilet bowl so you can put that chapter behind you. Know that in that moment of nothing great, there will be moments of sheer happiness that will follow, and Reset us, until that toilet clogs again.

The Secret to Our Marriage

“What is the secret?  I feel like we are already failing.”

A close friend of mine that recently had her first born asked me what was the secret. What was the secret to getting through these tough years with a young family and coming out whole on the other side? How was it possible to maintain some semblance of your identity and maintain this relationship you had with your husband before these small, yet all-consuming little beings enveloped our lives? I sat for awhile, stumped by this question. I couldn’t fathom why she would be asking me. I felt I was still trying to pull myself out of the knee-deep sinkhole of parenthood, marriage, career, and just standing upright to do life every day. What was the secret. Was there a secret? For the first time in a very long while, I felt speechless. We walked away from the conversation, me feeling astounded that I didn’t have some know-it-all response, and my friend feeling defeated that I had no feel-good, sisterhood pep-talk to fill her hopeless vat of newborn, sleepless despair.

It’s such a cliche question, “What is the secret to marriage?” With so many knee-jerk cliche answers. “Never go to bed angry.” “She is always right.” “Happy wife, happy life.” “Communication.” Sure, sure. In the ideal world. All of these are the answers we should live by. But unfortunately, none of us live in this picture-perfect, well-rested ideal world we so easily tout about. We live in a world where our patience is worn down, our frustrations and irritations are threatening to erupt out of the running bath of bubbles, and we never feel quite on top of everything that demands our attention. It is exponentially easier to promise to “never go to bed angry” amidst the warm glow of a candle-lit wedding reception, sitting on satin-covered chairs, eating square pieces of marble cake with fluffy icing, than in the midst of real life with kids and careers and communities where it becomes much easier to stray from these words of cliche wisdom.

My husband and I fell in love when we were two college kids with nothing on our minds but finals and future dreams. We studied abroad together and followed one another around Barcelona. We studied in the library on campus and ate pop-tarts out of the package and ramen out of styrofoam bowls. We had great aspirations and all the time we wanted to dedicate to them. I remember being in graduate school on a warm, sunny day and driving the three and a half hours to New York City where my husband was in graduate school. I remember spending a Saturday in the longest post office line just waiting to deliver some boxes. I vividly remember that feeling that something so mundane and seemingly irritating was in fact enjoyable because here at my side was the person I loved.  I felt so lucky.

Fast forward through the years. We checked off college, then graduate school, then residency, then finding jobs, then saying “I do”, then buying a house, then starting our family. We would soon realize that through all of the obstacles, all of the setbacks, all of the losses, disappointments, proud moments, the most intense would be the raising of a family. There was absolutely nothing quite like taking care of twin newborns through days upon weeks of sleep deprivation. No 30 hour shift in residency, no marathon all-nighter studying in graduate school could compare. No, the sleep deprivation of newborns was epically unparalleled. We stumbled our way through it. We took turns, we did it together, we stepped up when the other was crumbling. There was no science, there was no set of rules to follow. We just took it as it came and barreled through. And somehow, we came out on the other side still a team.

Fast forward every day of every year since we had our twins, then our third child, and it has been much of the same–though I am happy to report, the increments of sleep have become appreciably greater. Every day, every week seems like a two person relay where we alternate sprinting legs of the race and work so insanely hard at optimizing a seamless transfer of the baton that doesn’t end in a falter, a loss of stride, or worse, a drop of the baton or disqualification. The load becomes greater with each year. We add demanding careers, community responsibilities, kids’ school obligations, kids’ activities, taking care of extended family, the maintaining of a house, and the weight of the load becomes harder to toss between the two of us. The mere organizing of a week of schedules–who needs to be where when, who is working, who is out-of-town, who will be picking up/dropping off/staying with our kids feels like the putting together of a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that needs putting together week after week. We scramble to organize the chaos and stay on top of it, but it seeps at the seams and sifts through our fingertips.

We are so tirelessly tired. We often feel like hollowed-out shells of those two lovebirds that followed one another around Barcelona. But as we find ourselves still knee-deep in these trenches, we do as we always do. We pass it back and forth. We lean on one another.  We do it together. We do it with respect and with humor. We stand strong when the other falters. We take on one another’s priorities as our own. We remember that the emotions that resound at times when we lack sleep, when we are stretched our thinnest, when we are at our most stressed are not the emotions that are truly beneath it all.  We appreciate one another and know we are both giving it our all.

This past weekend was my husband’s birthday. I packed the weekend full of birthday celebrations. In the middle of it all, I planned a dinner for the two of us and an overnight stay away from home. In that short, less than 24 hours away, we were reminded of us. We let those daily strains and stretches slough to the side and just remembered that at the real center of it all is still just the two of us. And while we stood in that bustling line waiting to order our coffee on that Sunday morning, I was transported back to that long post office line. Here I still was, enjoying a mundane wait in line, because here at my side, was still this person I loved. I feel so lucky.

I can’t say I know the secret to marriage. Those that have been married 25 years, 35 years, 45 years may hold the secret, but all I know is what has carried us through these tough first years as a young family of five. We stick together. We stick together in our unified voice as parents. We stick together in taking care of our family and friends. We stick together in how we prioritize our careers, families, and each other. We are an eternal team. And while we are never perfect, and are still at the beginning of this long relay run, we will keep passing the baton back and forth the best we can.

Raising of Human Beings

It started with a lanky 6-year-old that had no interest in learning to swing. He sat on the swing and his legs dangled like two lackadaisical twigs in the stagnant humidity of summer. His twin sister next to him pumped her legs and swang high into the sky, back and forth, higher and higher, her long brown hair whipping behind her and across her face. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I wasn’t sure if he truly just couldn’t figure out how to swing or if he just had no interest. Both my husband and I would both go through painfully detailed tutorials with him: you lean back, you straighten out your legs, you lean forward, you pull your legs back . . . He kicked and flitted, and remained dangling upright. He’d quickly lose interest and tackle the next adventure.

I suppose it was okay when he was four. And five. But now it was summer and he was six. It should be part of the 6-year-old experience to feel that wind whirling by your ears, that weightless tingling sensation in your stomach as the swing swung low, the lightness of flight as the swing swung high.  While this certainly wasn’t the end all be all milestone of a 6-year-old, it was time to try a different angle. This is how we came up with the ingenious idea of making it a competition. Our kids, and let’s be honest, my husband and Ihave a bit of a competitive fire in our hearts. Make something into a competition, and we will roll up our sleeves and dive in.

Here were the terms we set forth at the beginning of the summer:
By the end of the summer, my son needed to learn to swing and I needed to learn to do a headstand. Best one to complete their goal got to plan the date of their choice for the two of us.
My husband and 6-year-old daughter made a similar bet. They both needed to learn to braid hair. Best hair braided at the end of the summer got to plan the date.

The competition was on. All summer, it was a fun, energetic banter as we “competed” to perfect our end goals. By the end of the summer, my son was soaring high on the swing and both my husband and daughter had mastered the art of the braid. My headstand was a little shaky, but my feet were up in the air and that was good enough for me.

We allowed my parents to judge our competitions and I should have known their grandparent-biased would throw the results. Both my son and daughter won the competition. It was a clean sweep by the 6-year-olds.

The summer was over well before a blink of anyone’s eye, and the grand prize of an end-of-summer date never happened before we rolled into the school year. We promised them up and down that the first Friday after school started would be our date night. It was in fact the only free weekend night we had for the month of September.  That entire first week of school, they could hardly contain themselves, planning their dates, changing their minds over and over. My relentless persistence even paid off as my son carved a stop at Starbucks into our date night. Friday came and that morning started with every light switch in the house seemingly flipped on. “Happy Date Friday, Mommy!!!” The kids bounced about their morning in anticipation for the end of the school day.

Two hours into their school day, I got a message that my mother-in-law was feeling short of breath. She was going to the emergency department. I was car-less at the moment–my parents were visiting and out buying every bulk package at Costco they could possibly fit in my minivan. My husband had left work and was on the way to the hospital to make sure my mother-in-law was okay. Ultimately, my mother-in-law was admitted to the hospital. I thought about the rest of our weekend. I worked the rest of the weekend evenings, and the mornings were inundated with kids’ activities. Every slot of time was spoken for. I thought about how it was important for us to go visit my mother-in-law and important for the kids to go visit her and show their support and love for her. I thought about this sacred Friday night that was the culmination of a summer’s worth of teasing, afternoons spent practicing swinging, and mornings spent biting my lip as my daughter doused my hair in water and pulled and knotted it into braids. I thought about their little bodies buzzing with anticipation. I thought about their longing for alone time with their parents.

As a parent, a piece of your heart aches deeply when your child experiences disappointment. Your natural instinct is to shield them with bubble wrap to protect them from the crash. Your natural instinct is to leap forward onto that mud hole so they don’t stumble and land face first in wet, cold, sticky dirt. Your natural instinct is to try to hold up the dam and patch the holes before the big cartoon tears start to spurt out of the corners of their eyes. But what do we do when we shield them from disappointment? We raise children that miss an opportunity to learn to cope. To learn to encounter deflation and devastation and realize that on the other side of that is healing and acceptance. We raise children with the attitude that everything goes “right” and will easily fall into place with no understanding of the brick walls that will hit them in the face even when they do everything they are supposed to do and swing as high as they can and braid as nicely as they have been practicing to do.

Disappointment is just a part of reality. And it hit me that perhaps I was approaching this all wrong. All this time, I have been working so hard to raise these children. All this time, I have been trying to create fun and memories and hit milestones. What I really want, is to raise human beings. Human beings that put fun and prizes aside to be there for their family when they are needed. Who learn the importance of dropping everything and seeing their grandma in the hospital when she is sick. Even if it is just to sit at her bedside and eat a meal with her. That even though, this Friday date was the culmination of summer and the most important thing they had in their 6-year-old lives, there is absolutely nothing more important than family and being there for one another.

I thought about how to address this when I picked them up from school. I knew that they would be enveloped in the heaviness of disappointment that made my every maternal instinct cramp. But facing and coping with disappointment is also part of the raising of a human being.

We set down our backpacks and sat on the family room floor. I have something to talk to you about. I said. Grandma was having a hard time breathing today, so she went to the hospital and they decided to keep her there tonight so they could help her breathe better. We talked about being sick and how that felt. We talked about being alone and sick and how that must feel. We talked about being sick, alone, and in a hospital bed and how that must feel. We talked about how if they were sick, they probably wouldn’t want everyone in their family to leave them by themselves in a foreign place and go out and have a really great time. We talked about the importance of being there for family and putting everything else aside. We talked about putting our date on hold and going to see grandma in the hospital.

My daughter looked at me. Her face fell for a transient second. You probably wouldn’t even catch her reaction if you didn’t look closely because it was quickly replaced with a bright smile and a nod. This is how she responds. My son broke out into immediate tears. His cheeks got flushed. His whole body became hot and sweaty, and he crumbled into me with large heaves. This is disappointment, and this is how my 6-year-olds express it differently. We talked through their feelings. Their reactions. That disappointments are tough and both their reactions are valid. We talked about how each setback and how we react and move forward will help us the next time.

I allowed them their time to process. And when they felt better, they both knew that it really just came down to family.

That night, we spent in a hospital room. The kids ate their dinners with french fries with full kid-energy and kid-joy. They bounced around grandma’s big hospital room. They gave her hugs, lifted her spirits, and they let us tickle them until they were full on squealing. We left after a full night of being together and the night ended the same as if we had gone one our date nights—with exhausted kids asleep in the van from another full night.

And that’s how I came to realize that in the day-to-day choices we make in raising our children, we are ultimately raising human beings.