Sunday, August 19, 2007

Far out

I gather that it is a rather common experience for bereaved parents to become hyper-aware of all the dangers lurking out there, those that threaten our partners, our living children, our parents, our friends. The dangers, they can be more or less real. More as in "Honey, I don't think it's a good idea to play with the ball in the middle of that busy 8-way intersection-- a car is bound to come along at some point in the next 1 to 2 seconds." Or less, as in "I am sure that mosquito carried the West Nile virus and I am going to die any moment now." Or anything in between. It's no wonder, of course-- in most cases the death of our children was unexpected, an aberration, a fluke that so rudely and irreversibly impressed upon us that for every 99.9% statistic with a large enough sample space, that 0.1% means real people, real families, real pain. And, it can be you. It's not going to be a lesson easily forgotten.

When I first became aware of this phenomenon, though, it seemed to me I was a poor student. I sat on one of our couches, looking at JD sitting on the other as if he was an alien because right then he might as well have been-- he had just finished telling me why he was planning on pulling Monkey out of gymnastics whether or not she would be cool with it. He was afraid of a training accident, occurring at an unspecified later date, when she is on the team and too hardcore for words. In fact, in the early days the only concession I made to this mindset was that every night when I went in to check on Monkey before going to sleep myself, I had a cold, sinking feeling in my stomach until I could hear her breathe. A therapist one of my rabbis recommended told me that was because I was reliving the moment right before the nice doctor in the triage told me she didn't see a heartbeat on the ultrasound. Once I knew what it was, it never happened again. We only saw the guy that one time because I didn't check thoroughly enough whether my insurance would shell out before making the appointment, and we paid for it out of pocket. Best almost $200 I ever spent in my life.

Somehow though I am much more aware now. I worry about longish-distance drives, especially when Monkey is in the car, but not only. Granted, my father is not what you would call a cautious, defensive driver, but I didn't used to worry about my parents making it to our house from theirs. Now I do. Curiously, I don't seem to worry about my sister when she is driving, even though she has been in three accidents in the last nine months or so. Is it because I think she has satisfied her quota, and the others haven't? I even worry about flying, just a little, but still-- that was never in my arsenal before.

And I am not of too high an opinion of my body these days. I had a plan to exercise myself down to a reasonable size before we try again. I fixed our machine in the basement and bought a couple of new exercise DVDs from the company I used to like years ago. I even started exercising. And then my thyroid went haywire, my heart rate went dangerously high, and that was that. I sit here full 30 lbs heavier than I was when I got pregnant with Monkey, 20 lbs heavier than I was when I got pregnant with A. That 10 lb difference in there was the legacy of my PCOS kicking into overdrive towards the end of my breastfeeding Monkey, the reason I had to stop, in fact, cut in half with the help of medication and some exercise, but not, obviously, vanquished.

The thing about trying (and this here is not by any means a revelation) is that you spend some part of the month wondering whether you might be pregnant and acting accordingly. Some of it is kinda nice, like making JD clean up the fish food I inadvertently dropped on the floor. I mean, he was the one who told me it was poisonous to people. But some of it is a pain in the ass because the absolute last thing I would want to do would be to mess with the implantation magic voodoo, and thus no exercise. I should exercise in the first two weeks of a cycle, I know I should. But even putting aside my cold that seemed to have been overnighted, gift-wrapped and all, from a rather hot place populated with rather unpleasant characters, it's not like my head is usually in a good enough place to get with it once the countdown starts.

So the result is that I am not either fond of or confident in my body. It's not that I hate it. In fact, I have been making a conscious effort to be nice to it. I am just giving it a break, a discount, if you will. Not asking of it more than I am guessing it can handle. Or more than your average 70 year old can handle. Which is, in itself, rather depressing, don't you think?

But something happened two weeks ago that I am still trying to wrap my head around. The cold had been hanging around for a few days then, and since I didn't yet realize it had smuggled in its friend tracheitis for a very unsatisfying threesome, I was looking forward to kicking its bum ass to the curb in a few days. JD left for the rented house on Friday (where his parents have been hanging out with Monkey the previous week), my parents arrived at our house, and the original plan was that I would come on Saturday with my parents, and we would hang out through Sunday evening. But I was feeling bad enough on Saturday that I opted out of going then. On Sunday morning I woke up still stuffed up and coughing, but feeling better enough that the prospect of a nice dip in the ocean and an opportunity to see Monkey for a few hours sounded like it was worth the two hour drive. As a bonus, friends of ours were renting a house nearby that same week, and I knew that they dragged their catamaran sailboat out with them, so there was a possibility of a ride as well.

So my box of tissues and I made the drive. When I got there, everyone was at the beach. I went for a dip with Monkey, JD joined us, and some horseplay and general debauchery ensued. Soon the catamaran came in to change passengers. JD and Monkey got on rather sooner than I realized I should be taking pictures, and off they went. I looked at the rapidly diminishing form of the dark-blue sailed cat, and thought about the fact that I forgot to bring a book and that I didn't think to take any pictures. And then, before I thought any of it through, I grabbed our water-proof camera and headed for the ocean.

I used to be a competitive swimmer when I was a kid. I still have pretty good form, and water is very definitely my element. This was a bay beach and the tide was on its way in. I remember realizing at times that I was over shallow spots and stopping for a few seconds. At first I tried to keep my head above the water because I didn't have my swimming goggles, and then I gave up and just swam, alternating rhythm of proper breast stroke familiar and comforting, dark blue of the cat's sail far in front of me reassuringly constant. When I finally looked back I realized that just like that I was closer to the cat than to the shore, but pretty far away from both. I don't know how long it took me to get there, but I do know that I was not afraid or even concerned. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would be ok. It was then that I decided that my preferred resolution would be to get close enough to the cat to take some pictures and to then climb aboard, but that if I didn't catch them, I would just make for the shore. I knew I would be ok either way. It might have taken me a long while to get back ashore, but I was in no hurry.

Just then the cat tacked and headed for the far side of the shore line, and I aimed to intercept it on the way. In a few minutes it was clear that I wouldn't be able to sneak up on them-- the cat was going too fast. I had to settle for getting their attention, and it turns out that a solid metal camera body on a bright sunny day can be useful for that. It worked, and they headed straight at me, which meant I could finally take the shots I swam all that way for.

Before climbing on board, they tried to pull me behind the boat, you know, water ski-style minus the skis. It was fun for a few seconds before I couldn't avoid breathing in the water any more. Once I got on, Monkey told me she was scared I would drown. I actually laughed, and we talked about how I taught her to swim, and how I am very very comfortable in the water. When we got to the shore, Monkey and I read a book in the tent, and then she went to play in the sand and I tried to fall asleep.

There was this family right next to us on the beach, a large family with a whole bunch of adults and one little girl, maybe 18 months old. The adults dug her a sizable hole in the sand and a shallow arm towards the advancing ocean. As the water started to fill the hole, coming in, as designed, via the shallow arm, the adults, I swear-- all of them-- took turns saying the same thing, in the same annoying tone of voice, "Miss Carlie, there is water in your office." The girl cried every time they said that, and they laughed, every time, and told her that's how it was supposed to be. The little girl's mother than asked for a bucket of water from the ocean to build some silly-sand figurines on the sides of the "office." It occurred to me then that there were more organisms in that bucket of water than people on that whole beach. I found that thought comforting enough that I was able to ignore the family next to me and drift off to sleep.

Later on that afternoon Monkey and I took the last cat joy ride of the day. The wind was not much to speak of, so neither was the speed of the boat. But out there on the ocean Monkey asked if she could actually stand on the boat rather than just sit. Zack, our friend, the captain, and all around nice guy, told her that she can even sit on the hull. And sit she did. Smiling ear to ear, swinging her feet in the water, until, of course, she got cold and we missed making the turn. We caught what remained of the wind eventually, completed the turn, and headed back towards the shore. Monkey spent the ride back dancing on the deck. When we were close enough to the shore to be seen, she climbed back onto a hull and we signaled to JD to take some pictures.

Was it just a nice summer day? A very nice one? Another step towards taming the great risk aversion monster? Is swimming simply outside of my present view of my body? A one-time-only exception? It didn't make me want to run marathons or anything, but I am still thinking about it. And what about you? Are you hyper-aware? And what do you do about it if you are? Besides loosing sleep, I mean.


Beruriah said...

Well perhaps an indication of how hyper-aware I am would be that I was on edge throughout your story, although I'm sure you would have written it differently had there been a truly frightening moment. Children? Yikes. Beaches? More yikes. Children on beaches? Aaagh!

Seriously this sounds like a wonderful day. I am vastly jealous that you got to swim in the ocean. And go you for making it so far! I think it's a sign of how much more enjoyable it is to swim outdoors than indoors, and in natural bodies of water rather than pools. And anything is nicer than a machine in a gym. I also think you must be in much better shape than you think you are.

I am terrified every time Josh goes somewhere on his bike, for example, and I have yet to figure out how to conquer that anxiety. Heroic efforts at distraction to pass the time get me through it, but not over it. Thus I'll be coming back to read other people's suggestions.

Bon said...

Julia, this was beautiful...the pictures and meandering of the story as it took us deeper and deeper into your own relationship to yourself and A's death...all those things. a great post.

for me, the question you posed is hard to answer. i have a mother who - while she never lost a child - experienced such extensive loss in her life that by the time she was left alone at 23, newly and unwillingly divorced with baby me, she'd become hyper-aware of danger, and not always in rational ways. she drives under the speed limit, gives lectures about choking everytime someone puts food in their mouth...all in all, growing up with her was a constant battle against warnings, against her fear of loss. so i have, ingrained in me, the habit of fighting kneejerk against caution, and a longstanding running narrrative of rational defense against irrational levels of timidity.

funnily, when Finn died, i didn't decide my mother was right...that strikes me as funny now that i write it down. i became both fearful and destructive - but the fear (and with it, anger) was confined to things related to baby-making, pregnancy stats, other people's blase attitudes. because i had no living child, i was freed, briefly and undesirably, to struggle with that anger in terms of destructive behavior - i took up smoking again that summer after Finn died, though only for two months...and i drank myself into oblivion more than is considered healthy. but these, for me, were conscious choices - i wanted to find a way of hurting myself that wasn't critical, nor permanent. conversely, i also took up running, so as to try to get my body ready to try again. by day i ran, to hope, by night i drank, to cope.

that place is behind me now but there are still two narratives in my head about fear - one is my mother's voice, fearing O will hurt himself, that he will get cancer, i will get cancer, Dave will get cancer, blah blah blah...because, like you say, i know that i can be that 0.01%. but the other voice is the one that's fought my mother's fear all my life and refuses to fully believe those things. the further out we get from having been hit with that kind of vulnerability, the stronger the second voice becomes.

sorry for the novel...perhaps i should make this a post? :)

S. said...

Ah, Julia! Swimming, fear, exercise and taking care of our bodies ... I think instead of taking over your comment field by reproducing my entire blog here, I should just say whenever you're in Philly we're due for a long, long coffee date.

See you in the deep end, absolutely. ;)

Phantom Scribbler said...

Swimming is one of the things I gave up because of body-image issues (and other things). I would love to experience a moment like that, chasing a catamaran across the water.

The day I realized that I'd have to learn to live with my hyper-awareness is, alas, unbloggable. Maybe someday over lattes...

niobe said...

Y'know, I don't really worry about the dangers out there because "worry" implies the possibility that, just maybe, the bad things won't happen. I'm completely convinced that every horrific thing possible is going to descend on me sooner or later. So, no worries for me. None at all.

And I so wish I could swim. I mean, I *can* swim in that I know how and I love the water. But, unless I'm prepared to pony up big bucks for new ones, I can't wear my contact lenses while I swim. And my vision is so bad that if I don't wear them, I doubt if I'd be able to find my way back to the shore.

S. said...

Niobe, I have prescription goggles.

meg said...

Julia, I am terrified of everyone dying and/or getting hurt. I was always nervous about this before, but since the losses, I've become so much worse. I always remember to say "Drive safely" when D. leaves the house, somehow I think if I don't say it, something bad will happen. I worry about him going out to see a band and walking home, despite our neighborhood being quite safe. I worry about the puppy dying, or escaping from the house and being hit by a car (he has escaped and I was nearly hyper ventilating until he stopped running around). I don't think there's anything I can do about it--I'm just gonna be a freak about it, for now.

You day at the beach looks lovely--great pictures. I love swimming too and I'm thinking of giving it a try, despite how scary I will look in a bathing suit right now. Our puppy is a water dog, so I might go with him. There's something about seeing him enjoy the water, that I figure might help me enjoy it (and for a bonus, he doesn't care what I look like in a bathing suit!)

Julia said...

Thank you, all. I always like it a lot when a post sparks these very personal, very interesting comments. Makes me feel like we are sitting around till all hours of the night, boozing it up and having these deep discussions. Ah.. I miss college :).

Niobe, they have one day disposable lenses now-- very convenient.

The Oneliner (Christina) said...

holy cow those are beautiful pictures. it sounds like maybe you are inching your way back to where you once were?

B said...

I too understand that fear and have written similarly (without the beautiful story of the day sailing).

bon - I have also entered that place of self destruction which has involved alcohol and hurting myself (but never enough to do serious damage, just enough to feel pain).

God how does anyone survive this.... but look at as all..... having these moments of, normalness? goodness?

How does it happen?

Beruriah said...

Makes me feel like we are sitting around till all hours of the night, boozing it up and having these deep discussions.

Maybe someday we will?

I completely relate to Bon's reaction - I didn't smoke in the aftermath, but we spent a lot on wine....

Julia said...

Oh, Bon and Beruriah-- I know about the booze. I never smoked-- gives me a migraine. But there were weeks when I needed a drink or three every single night. Some days it made it easier to write, and some days-- just to breathe. I bought a nice new drink mix before I left for my parents'. If this cycle didn't work, I will be spending quality time with it shortly.

Hi, B! Nice to meet you.

wannabe mom said...

Thanks for sharing such beautiful pictures and a beautiful day. I am infinitely jealous that you feel so comfortable in the water/ocean. I only do when my feets are touching bottom. In the tub.

Sometimes I think of what I would do if something happened to wannabe dad. I would sell everything, make arrangements to move my girls, and go home to mommy. I am also very careful, probably even more careful than before.