When fear overcomes
The most anxiety-inducing, fear-mongering event in my parenting career happened last week. While the kids were prepping a dining room dinner date for Greg and me, we were interrupted minutes after sitting down by a loud thud, followed by a scream and a shriek.
5:37 p.m. Wednesday, December 15th
We ran to the kitchen, where I found my son, Zach, splayed face-down on our tile floor and my other two children huddled together on the floor in the corner. (We later learned that he was swinging himself between the countertops and lost his grip on the forward swing.) I began lifting up Zach to examine him, anticipating blood everywhere. Memories of him busting his face open on the bed railing a couple years ago flooded to the front of my mind. But there was no blood. I said out loud to everyone else, "He's not bleeding. He's okay." But as I held onto him and walked him over to a chair to sit down, I realized he was barely holding himself upright. We grabbed ice as he wailed in pain. I moved him to the couch and as his face turned white as a ghost there, I laid him back and elevated his feet to keep him from fainting.
He was not okay.
I wasn't sure what was wrong, but I knew something serious had happened. We gave him ibuprofen and continued icing his chin as we played the wait-and-see game for minutes that ticked by like hours. He lay on the couch, whimpering in pain. I texted the orthodontist and then called my dad, a retired orthodontist. Based on the story, my dad said he needed to get an x-ray. When our orthodontist called back, he agreed, but couldn't take one until the next day. We wanted to avoid the emergency room for so many reasons. And then Zach threw up. I figured it was from the pain and taking ibuprofen on an empty stomach.
Our periodontist friend agreed to head to his office and take a CT scan of Zach's jaw with a fancy machine. Bless his heart, I actually cried I was so grateful. By this time, Zach had thrown up a few more times and we suspected he also had a concussion.
Greg called from the periodontist's office to say his lower jaw didn't look broken, but we needed a second opinion. He also said our friend gave him a concussion examination and said it checked out, but the constant vomiting probably necessitated the E.R. I had a moment of celebration that his jaw might be okay, but my gut wouldn't settle. While my brain knew this news should be comforting and bring some peace to my very worked-up disposition, it didn't. By this point, Zach was throwing up pretty constantly, which I didn't know until Greg returned, wanting to keep him home. While I had no experience with concussion, I knew the vomiting was an issue. While we watched him and debated, I texted with many friends for prayer. I called our pediatrician friend, who said to go straight to the E.R. for a brain scan.
Greg headed to the hospital with Zach. I busied myself with laundry and dishes to pass the time. Greg texted me a photo at 9:54 of the full waiting room with the words, "See you Friday." He has always been so good in times of distress, able to make me laugh even for a moment. I responded that he should get in fast with a vomiting head trauma pediatric patient. He didn't respond. In fact, I heard nothing back until around 1 a.m. And it was during the three hours between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. that my greatest fear - losing my child - overtook me.
Fear, with its evil what ifs and worst case scenarios, spoke death into my mind.
When I say overtook, I mean I was consumed. Despite my best efforts, I was fixated. I tried to sleep, but dozed for about 30 minutes before waking, panicked, and then after texting Greg and getting no response yet again, my hysteria rose. I writhed in my bed, reminding myself that I knew this hospital didn't have good reception inside its thick walls. I tried so valiantly to talk myself off the ledge of fearing somehow my son had a massive brain injury and the time it took to get him help would be detrimental. I spoke the truth that not hearing anything meant that he was being seen and there wasn't anything to share yet. But then fear, with its evil what ifs and worst case scenarios, spoke death into my mind, that my son was probably already gone and I just didn't know it yet.
This is what fear does. It irrationally hijacks the parts of our brains that can think and renders us helpless and hopeless to do anything about it. It's like a room with a closed door that's blocked with a thousand-pound weight, and we push up against the door with rationality, reality, adrenaline-induced strength and hope, but the barrier won't budge. I fought and pushed as hard as I could. I turned to God throughout, praying constantly for relief, for faith, for peace, for comfort. I named some things I was thankful for, knowing that anxiety cannot thrive alongside gratefulness. I prayed that my Zach was okay. I begged. I received a one sentence reply.
Do you really trust me?
I knew what those words meant. They simultaneously brought both comfort and discomfort: comfort in knowing God knew what was going on with Zach, God was with him and He was with me; but the word "really" meant that even if the worst had happened, did I still trust I would be okay?
No parent is ever ready to say goodbye to her child. It doesn't matter if the positive pregnancy test is still lying on the counter when a miscarriage happens, or whether you're 91, like my extended family member is, who lost her daughter to stroke a couple months ago. Like Sally Field's character laments in Steel Magnolias, WE ARE SUPPOSED TO GO FIRST. My reply to God was a "Yes, but ... ". But please make him be okay. But please let his brain be fine. But please let him return to normal. Please please please. I don't want to live on this earth if he's not here. The idea of being separated from my son until I got to meet him in Heaven sounded agonizing at best.
And in reflecting on the idea of losing my son, not even the reality of it, the Christmas story took on new meaning. God, who had spent millennia in Heaven in perfect unity with Jesus, sent his son to earth to be with us to teach us about who He is. He willingly separated himself to sacrifice for us so we could know God. Then Jesus turned just about all the religious rules upside down and spent his ministry loving the unloved, dining with the discarded, and healing the outcasts - showing us what really matters in God's kingdom. And in order to pay the price for our free will to choose Him or choose sin, God severed his relationship with his son completely for three days. When Jesus died, God knew the pain of every single parent on earth who has ever lost a child. I am in awe that the God of the universe who I trust not only understands, but empathizes with my greatest fears.
12:56 a.m., Thursday, December 16th
Greg finally called me back just before 1 a.m. Zach's brain scan looked good, praise the Lord. But even with anti-nausea medicine, he continued vomiting at the hospital. They also said he needed to see an oral surgeon, because they didn't have one on-call at that time and the brain scan caused concern about a broken jaw in the back. With how full the E.R. was, we were all thrilled for him to come home. Of course I barely slept while keeping a watch on Zach, grateful for every breath I heard him breathe. We did find out on Thursday afternoon that indeed, he broke his jaw on both sides in the back. His jaw was immediately wired shut. Over the past several days as we've dealt with his injury, I've spontaneously burst into tears at least a dozen times. Tears of sadness, of lost hopes for what the holidays would be, of potential long-term implications for his jaw growth, and mostly, tears of gratefulness that it isn't worse and he is here and himself and okay.
The thing about our worst fears is that they rarely happen. I still have so much to learn about facing mine. One thing I have learned for sure is that God wastes none of his people's experiences. I already have hope that sharing this will make a difference for someone who is overcome by fear.