Before a storm there’s an energy in the air, a rushing through leaves and branches, an inevitability that hasn’t yet reached down and touched you here on the ground. Life’s big changes often start like this, but sometimes the seismic shifts in our lives begin with a trickle, a few grains of sand, a small pebble that rolls barely noticed downhill. Life’s busy; you’re hardly aware of the whisper of draining sand, but it continues, slowly, steadily, at the pace of erosion, until suddenly your mountain slides into rubble. I imagine many a dream, a career, and marriage have slid down that mountain, victim to our disregard. Status quo is so much simpler than change. Until you look up and see the boulders falling onto you.
When Jim and I were first married I remember thinking we were too happy, that it couldn’t last. But it did. We weren’t wealthy, but we were blessed with two apt and engaged boys, two bright and inventive girls, and with some major penny pinching, I was able to stay home with them full time. I shopped consignment stores, and refinished furniture, and took our good fortune for granted. Then a pebble bounced from overhead and landed at my feet. We lost our income. Times were tight and jobs were scarce so after a few months of looking for work, we decided to start a business. We faced a lean and nervous year, but strangely, what I felt was a sense of relief. Hardship had finally arrived, but the money problems we faced were the best kind of problem to have.
Then a rock fell. My father was diagnosed with both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, along with the myriad of health problems he already had. I became responsible for his care and finances, as well as his rental properties in another state. Life became physically demanding, but it was the emotional and moral stress that made it harder and harder to crawl out of bed and face the day. What kind of daughter would take her father to court and have him committed? What kind of daughter would obey her father’s wishes and leave him where he was, ill and alone? A bear-sized man who often fell down and couldn’t get up and now wandered, lost and afraid, in his own home? I was the one person he trusted to make the right choice. I did, but it wasn’t easy.
And then the big boulders began to hit.
On our epic family vacation traveling up the east coast from Florida to Maine, our son, Matt, became ill. Really ill. Grey, shaky, and scarily ill. Starting a business with six mouths to feed is frightening. Signing a Do Not Resuscitate for a dying parent will rend you in two. But seeing an echo cardiogram of the quarter-sized hole in the middle of your son’s heart stops your own. For nine terrified months we waited and fretted over Matt’s open heart surgery. I worried that he would be in pain. I mourned that his perfect skin would scar. I couldn’t face — or shove away — the thought that he might die. When they rolled him into the operating room, I couldn’t breathe.
Seated terrified and unfocused in the waiting room, I grew to hate the clock on the wall for its sheer, niggardly movement of time. Eventually Jim and I walked to the operating room’s swinging doors and stood outside waiting, cross-armed and waiting, wanting to reassure each other but lost for words. We had been warned that the heart-lung machine would add dangerous air bubbles to Matt’s bloodstream. A stroke, heart-attack, or blood clot could happen.
The doors banged open. We rushed forward as Matt’s bed rolled out, surrounded by a team of white-clad medical staff. Jim and I looked at each other. Our son was smiling sleepily and joking with the doctor. We grasped hands and exhaled, humble with gratitude.
But the landslide wasn’t over. Eight months after Matt’s operation, I woke up in pain. The growth inside my kidney appeared to be cancer, and I certainly looked and felt as if that were the case. Purple bruises grew under my eyes. I washed dishes with my knees locked and teeth clenched. The last month before the operation I was awake barely 2 or 3 hours a day, and I spent them thinking about our children who might not have a mother much longer. My husband who had so dearly and thoroughly loved me since high school. The novel I would never finish writing, the countries I wouldn’t visit, the foods I’d never taste, the music I would not hear. I would miss my children’s graduations, their falling in love, have grandchildren I would never hold. And then I grew too tired to care.
The doctors created an opening in their schedule, and on the Fourth of July they removed the diseased kidney. My recovery was overnight. A few days later, the doctor called, elated. No cancer. We had dodged the worst once again. When our youngest son, Anthony, needed an emergency appendectomy the next month, we hardly blinked. But in shades of that old movie, “And Then There Were None,” I did catch Jim and the girls glancing sideways at each other, wondering who would be next.
After those three years our lives settled down, but we emerged from them changed. Life is sweeter, relationships dearer, and we know now to spend each day like the precarious commodity it is. Funny thing about trickling sand, every grain that erodes accumulates someplace else. Those three hard years when we feared the avalanche would overwhelm us were the same years we saw our family and friends shelter us with their love and support. They lifted every boulder. And it is the mountain of warmth and affection they raised that lifts these ordinary days to the pinnacle.