Tag Archives: patience

Fifteen years of longsuffering

It has been the month of patience.

Or, maybe more appropriately, it has been the month of patience being tested.

The last six weeks has held one broken leg (Dominic), two courses of antibiotics for intestinal infections (Mike and me), three trips to Thailand (all of us), and five colds.

It’s been more than a month since Dominic broke his leg and I still don’t want to write about it. Truth be told, I don’t even want to think about it. Because every time I remember hearing the crash after Mike’s mother slipped and landed on the stairs, then the long pause, then that awful, piercing shriek, it breaks my heart all over again.

And it hauls up – like a fishing net from dark depths – a whole slew of emotions.

The agony and helplessness I felt watching Dominic writhe and cry on and off during the thirty hours before we reached the hospital. Anger, because it feels like an accident that didn’t need to happen. Guilt about that anger, because accidents – unexpected and unintentional – happen, they are just part and parcel of this life. Guilt, also, that I didn’t realize immediately that something was seriously wrong. A great compassion for Mike’s mother, because I know she adores Dominic and would have changed places with him in an instant, and because I know how terrible I’d feel if it had been me that slipped on the stairs, and it could have been me. Gratitude that it was Dominic’s leg, not his head, that hit the wood so hard. Terror and an overwhelming desire to vomit whenever I visualize what would have happened if it had been his head.

And with this great mess of emotions – all slippery and flopping around and tangled up together – comes a question that is always lurking around somewhere: Is it worth it, living here?

Now, more than ever, I’m just not sure.

Dominic’s cast came off two weeks ago now. We got up early that day and caught the 7AM flight down to Bangkok. We found our way to a hospital that’s become more familiar to me than any hotel in the city.

I held Dominic in the taxi – me seatbelted in and him strapped to my chest in the baby carrier, my hand cradling the back of his head, my brain trying not to think about the likely outcome if we hit another car on the freeway. Mike held him as he screamed, terrified, while they sawed off the plaster, and then took the pictures that would tell us what was going on inside the reassuringly chubby leg.

Which meant that I was the one looking at the computer screens when the X-rays came up, and I didn’t like what I saw.

The front view showed a straight bone, but the side view showed the femur curved backwards – the spiky back part of the break still dense white and jutting out at an angle underneath the thin grey film of new bone.

The doctors told us that new bone was visible over the entire break site and that it was safe to take off his cast. They told us that bones (like so many other things in life, it seems) need to be subjected to normal daily stressors in order to prompt them to grow.  They told us that we should encourage Dominic to use the leg normally as he learns to sit, crawl, and walk.

They also told us, however, that there was no way of telling whether the femur will straighten out over time and grow normally. Because the break occurred so close to the knee, there is a significant possibility that growth will stall or, even more likely, that the bone will start to grow too fast in all sorts of funny directions.

We need to follow up via X-rays every six months for the next three years and then every year after that until the growth spurts of adolescence are over.

That’s at least fifteen years.

Fifteen years of explaining what happened to every new doctor and new school. Fifteen years of watching, of X-rays, of prayers, of keeping fingers crossed. Fifteen years of regular reminders.

It means that I can’t just leave that slew of painful emotions down in the depths and hope that if I don’t touch the thread of this particular story all those complicated feelings – starved of attention – will just wither away.

It’s early days yet, there’s no way of knowing which particular emotion is most frequently going to leap out of the morass and bite me when circumstances haul that day up from the depths of memory. Guilt? Anger? Frustration at the expense and the giant pain-in-the-ass-factor of all these follow up appointments? Grief over how this might limit Dominic’s mobility? Any of them are possibilities, but only one thing seems certain – this episode is going to push me to exercise patience in ways I’ve never before had to.

The Greek word used in Galatians 5:22 to refer to patience, makrothumia, comes from makros, “long,” and thumos, “temper.” It denotes lenience, fortitude, endurance, and longsuffering.

Before this month of patience started I thought that I had this one in the bag. Even Mike, who has a backstage pass to my life, would say that I am a patient person. I’m very skilled at controlling my reactions in the moment, at taking a deep breath and a step back, at not lashing out when I’m frustrated. It takes a great deal to make me really angry or upset.

But … the thing is … once I do get upset or angry I tend to stay churned up for a long time. Once the tipping point is reached, I hang onto all that dark energy and coddle it like a favorite pet. I feel justified in camping out under a cloud of self-pity. I have imaginary conversations during which I deliver perfect put-downs. I rehearse all the ways I’ve been wronged by others or the universe. I allow the misfortunes of the present to fuel fearful visions of the future.

Although I’ve always known that this is not my most admirable collection of qualities, I’ve never before wondered whether it had anything to do with patience. But perhaps there is more to patience than not getting upset, frustrated or angry in the first place. Perhaps true patience is also manifest in how we set about calming the storms once they’re raging?

I don’t exactly know what being “patient” with fifteen years of uncertainty about the future of that tiny, precious leg should look like. I sense, however, that it will need to move beyond not losing my temper when ugly, unwanted thoughts and feelings well up.

I suspect that weathering fifteen years of longsuffering with a patient grace will mean opening that net-full whenever circumstances haul it up and dump it at my feet. It will mean shaking loose its contents and naming these feelings, then naming the bedrock fears and expectations that have nourished them.

It will mean sifting out the thankfulness and then tossing the dross overboard.

Then turning my eyes from the depths and looking to the horizon.

Again and again.

And again.

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Feeling weighed, measured, and found wanting

I did not stop to seriously consider the implications of my actions before stenciling a giant PATIENCE on Dominic’s cast.

Luang Prabang is a tourist town and it’s the tail end of the cool season here. There are thousands, literally thousands, of tourists in town. Not many of them, however, are walking around with babies, so our little trio already made an unlikely sight even before the accident. Now we’re a downright curiosity.

I watch people watching us when we’re out and about. First they see the stroller. They do a double take and search for the baby with a smile. Then they see the cast and their eyes go wide and a look of voyeuristic concern washes over their faces. Then they tilt their head sideways just a fraction as they take in the artwork adorning Dominic’s leg. Then their eyes jump up to my face.

The gaze seems confused and, sometimes, speculative.

But do you know, not a single person has asked me why on earth that word is on his leg? Plenty of people have asked me what happened to his leg, but no one has followed it up with, “so, uh, what’s the go with patience?”

I sometimes wonder if they know what I now know – that 70% of femur breaks in babies under 1 year old are the result of child abuse. I sometimes wonder if they suspect that the story about a fall down the stairs is just a convenient cover and that I needed a daily black and white reminder to reign in a vicious temper.

I would be willing to bet our first-born chi – OK, our dog – that the specter of feeling judged by strangers on these points has never entered Mike’s mind.

The difference between Mike and I in this regard was apparent long before Dominic’s accident.

Every time we go out walking with Dominic I need to build in several minutes to stop and exchange greetings with people who live on our street. There’s the friendly couple who own the small paper-supply shop and the unfriendly woman who blatantly rips us off at the fruit stand because we’re falang (foreigner) but who adores Dominic – he’s the only one of us she ever smiles at. There’s the disabled teenage boy who occasionally takes my hand when I walk past and gently kisses it. There’s the woman who sells donuts that ooze bright pink custard, and the one who sells organic vegetables from a blue tarp laid down on the sidewalk (sometimes she sells dead rats or cats, too, but let’s not go there). Then, of course, there’s anyone walking past who just wants to stop for a peek at the chubby white baby with coppery hair.

When I walk past with the stroller, none of these people hesitate to tell me when they think that Dominic is too hot or too cold, or that it might rain on us, or that he looks like he needs to sleep, or eat. When I was out with Mike one evening and the second person had stooped over my child, felt his fat little arm and then commented that it was cold and pulled up the wrap to cover him, Mike felt me tense.

“What’s the problem,” he asked as we continued on our way.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” I said. “All these people telling us that we’re getting it wrong? That we’re not taking good enough care of him?”

“What?” Mike said. “That’s not how I take it at all.”

“How do you take it then?” I said, wondering how else you could possibly take a phalanx of virtual strangers telling you that you haven’t dressed your child warmly enough.

“I take it as: ‘Wow, you have a beautiful little baby. We all love babies. Let’s find some common point of discussion whereby we can connect with you as parents and demonstrate that we’re paying attention to caring for the baby’s wellbeing,’” Mike said.

“That is a much nicer way to take it,” I said, not completely convinced.

“Do you really feel like people are telling you you’re not doing a good enough job as a mother?” Mike asked, amazed.

“Sometimes,” I admitted.

I wonder if this is only the beginning – whether I’m always going have to fight the instinct to take it personally whenever other people comment on what my child says and does. And I wonder where it comes from – what hidden deficit of self-esteem or deep-seated need for affirmation fuels this tendency to feel judged when others reach into the stroller and tug up my baby’s blanket.

I can tell you one thing though. If, heaven forbid, anything like this tumble down the stairs happens in the near future I won’t be adorning any casts with the words “gentleness” or “self-control”.

When have you felt judged as a parent? What helps you in those moments?

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From Peace to Patience

Every day of life is a gift. Sometimes, however, the daily gift feels a bit like finding polyester socks – the kind that make your feet sweat and itch – under the Christmas tree.

So it has been every day this week. I’ve had a vicious head cold – the kind that makes it impossible to breathe easily and sends sharp pain through your ears. I’m also still breastfeeding, so can’t take any of the good stuff (the stuff that they now sell from behind the pharmacy counter in the US because people were buying it in bulk and using it to make illegal drugs). It’s only this morning, on day four, that I’ve started to feel marginally better and can dare to hope that I’m on the upswing.

Dominic has been grumpier and needier than normal – not that I blame him for that in the slightest. He’s been waking up multiple times a night (and here I must give a shout out to Mike for taking him away at 4 a.m. several times this week so I could try to get another hour or two of sleep). The cast means that several of my normal baby-entertainment strategies are out. Reading stories has been challenging with a sore throat and a stuffy nose, and twice this week I must admit that I sat both of us down in front of the television and watched Glee. Well, we watched Glee for at least nine and a half minutes before someone started crying and throwing things.

For the record: Not that it wasn’t tempting, but that someone wasn’t me.

Everything slows down when you have a baby in a cast, and we have to be particularly careful during these early days given that the break is above the knee. Every time I go to pick him up, change his diaper, carry him anywhere, sit him on the bed, lay him down… every movement has to be slow and gentle – a thoughtful ballet. Sleep training has also gone by the wayside for the time being. I feel I’ve accomplished almost nothing this week except practice patience.

And you know what? That part hasn’t been too hard.

I mean, sure, when he gives me all the tired signals and I put him in his crib and then he starts moaning and flapping and, finally, screaming, it’s still tiresome. When all I’m longing to do is overdose on decongestants and lie on the couch with a good book it’s really, really hard to find energy for baby play.

But then I look at his tiny body weighed down by all that plaster and 99% of the time patience is not that difficult to muster …

***

OK, all of the above was written before 10 a.m, during a brief and glorious half an hour when I was feeling pretty good about myself. You know, along the lines of: So I feel really sick and my baby’s got a broken leg and I’m making zero progress on publishing my book (what book, again? Did I write a book?) but, yeah, I’m rocking this patience thing. Someone should nominate me for sainthood. Or give me a medal. Or at least find me some ice cream.  

But that was this morning. This is this afternoon. This afternoon when my cold has reminded me that it’s not through with me yet, not by a long shot.

This afternoon with a baby who has slept for approximately 47 minutes all day and who is currently lying in his crib wide awake, screeching maniacally and yanking on the crib bars. (Did anyone else’s children basically stop napping as soon as they started eating solid food?)

This afternoon when I was going to finish this post by writing all this great stuff about how patience also seems to be rooted in empathy. But to write that stuff I sort of have to think it through first, and this afternoon I am a bear of very little brain indeed.

Oh, and also? This afternoon when the power tools next door just started up outside Dominic’s window.

I am not yet at the end of my patience rope. Not quite. But I can see that frayed knot from here.

When do you find yourself running short on patience? What is it about those situations (or people) that push your buttons?

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Conversations in hospitals

As you can probably imagine, Mike and I have talked about many things since Dominic’s accident. Much of what we’ve been mulling over is serious, hard stuff and nowhere near funny. These two snippets, however, I can share. They’re as close as we came to laughing this week.

In the doctor’s office, staring at Dominic’s X-rays on the computer screen while three specialists debated out in the hallway about whether Dominic needed surgery:

“I think I should quit the fruits of the spirit project,” I said.

“What?” Mike said.

“Think about it,” I said. “It took me more than a month after Dominic’s birth to untangle how I felt about the fact that maternal love hadn’t swamped me upon delivery. Then the month of joy was full of days that felt decidedly joyless. During the month of peace a friend dies and one of my worst fears fulfilled – now the month is ending with my baby in a cast. If I wanted to speak Christianese, I might say that I was under spiritual attack. Now, I sort of have to do the month of patience given what’s in front of us during Dominic’s recovery, but after that I think I should quit.”

Mike laughed.

“I wouldn’t laugh,” I said. “You know what comes after the month of patience? The month of kindness, then the month of faithfulness. I would want me to quit if I were you.”

Day three in the hospital. I’ve only left the room once each day, briefly, to go downstairs to the lobby and procure a caramel macchiato and a cream cheese muffin. Mike is trying to do some work and I’m on the bed pretending a toy bear is looking for honey in Dominic’s ear. When that stops working in about 23 seconds I will move on to fake sneezing, because that’s always good for a smile at the moment.

“Remember last time we were here?” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said.

“I mean, I know you had an IV stuck in the back of your hand and all,” I said. “But once we knew the staph was under control it was sort of fun, wasn’t it? We ate French fries and ice cream sundaes. We got to hang together all week and work, then cuddle up in the evenings in the hospital bed and watch movies on the big screen TV.”

“And go for walks in the evening down to the nursery to look at all the babies,” Mike said. “And now we have one of our own.”

We both looked at our baby. He looked frustrated and needy.

“Last time was sort of like a little holiday, wasn’t it?” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “It sort of was.”

Yes, folks. We were reminiscing about previous medical evacuations … wistfully. It was that sort of week.

We’re back in Laos now. Dominic seems to be doing OK. Not well, but OK. He still needs pain medication every couple of hours, which is a bit problematic because he’s decided he hates the taste of the infant nurofen (not that I blame him, it’s sickly sweet and orange-flavoured).

“You think I’m going to take that nurofen nicely? Think again.

Every time we try to dose him with nurofen it’s a trial that starts with locked lips and glaring and inevitably progresses to screaming and sticky orange goo all over his face and clothes. The strawberry-flavored panadol, however, he gulps down like a starving piglet and doesn’t let a single drop escape. This week has so ruined his taste buds for broccoli and carrots.

Now the countdown begins. We take Dominic back to Bangkok for more X-rays and (hopefully) the removal of his cast three weeks from yesterday. My parents will be in town then, so on that day we were hoping to land in Bangkok at 9:30, clear immigration and customs, get to the hospital, get X-rays, see the orthopedic specialists and get the cast off, see a pediatrician and get 6 month vaccinations (sorry little guy, you’re just having the worst run at the moment), and make it back to the airport by noon at the very latest so that we can fly back to Laos at 1:30 that afternoon rather than overnighting in Thailand.

After seeing the lines at Bangkok airport immigration yesterday I think our chances of all that unfolding on schedule are … (insert appropriate idiom here). I’m tempted to go with “a snowball’s chance in hell”, but Mike thinks we can do it. Anyone want to place a bet?

Finally, here’s how today’s introduction to rice cereal went:

“Oooh, what’s that? Maybe it’s strawberry-flavored Panadol!

“Yuck! Rice cereal tastes worse than nurofen!”

“Why are you torturing me like this? What did I ever do to you?”

“How many times do I have to say no?”

“Much better. You got any panadol around, though? Cuz I’m sorta hungry, you know.”

A time to wait

The good news is that everything is proceeding well regarding the house we found and liked a couple of weeks ago – lucky number 29. We’ve agreed on the terms of the lease, and the owners have signed the contract. Now we’re waiting for the right people at headquarters down in Vientiane to review it, sign it, and issue payment.

So the bad news is that we’re still waiting to move in.

Mike’s been living out of a suitcase now since April when he left for Laos. Or, perhaps since March, when he was in Malawi? Or January, when he was in Australia? I don’t know. But one thing is for sure, between his trips, my jaunts to London, Jakarta, and Phnom Penh, and our holiday in Alaska and Canada before coming here… there have been a lot of suitcases and a lot of living packed into the first half of this year.

You might think that in the midst of all this activity during the last six months I wouldn’t have had a lot of time to feel that I was waiting for anything. But I did. I often caught myself scouting the future for planned or hoped-for landmarks. Waiting to leave on the next plane, or to return. Waiting for Mike to leave on the next plane, or to return. Waiting.

Before we made the decision to move to Laos I often felt as if I were waiting and longing for our season of uncertainty about what to do next to just be over. Surely, I thought, once we know we’ll feel more grounded, more present.

And it’s true that in one sense, we did.

But when we decided to make the jump from California this sparked five months of preparing, of waiting, for the move. Surely, I thought, once we actually make the move we’ll feel more grounded, more present.

And it’s true that in one sense, we have.

But the thing is, this sense I have of “waiting” never seems to be completely assuaged.

Whether big or small, there always seem to be things to wait for. Now we’re here we’re waiting for Mike’s visa and the extra level of certainty and protection that it should bring. We’re waiting for our shipment – which has not even left California yet, and won’t until the visa is in hand. We often have to wait on an internet connection that’s not nearly as fast as I would like. Then there’s the daily temptation to wait to start writing until my genie shows up and gifts me inspiration.

And, of course, there’s waiting to move into a house that we will – at least temporarily – be able to call ours. There’s waiting to finally unpack some of those suitcases.

But I know that after we do, there will just be something else to wait for.

There’s a famous Bible passage in Ecclesiastes 3 that starts; “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…” It talks about times to be born and times to die, to plant and uproot, to weep and laugh. In fact, it lists twenty-eight different times.

Not one of them is a time to wait.

I’d guess that’s because, on some level, it’s always a time to wait. Right up until it’s time to die there is always going to be another coming season to anticipate, to dread, to hope and long for, to fear.

To wait for.

I don’t particularly like what this implies… That I can’t just ride out periodic seasons of waiting and enjoy perfect and peaceful times in between. That it’s less about whether I’m waiting, maybe even less about what I’m waiting for, and more about how I’m waiting. And that it is largely up to me whether I marry the word “waiting” to the word “worry” or, conversely, miss the complex beauty of the present because I am living in a haze of anticipation.

No, I don’t like waiting. I don’t like the pre-eminence I can sometimes grant it. And I resent how focusing too much on an illusion of the future can rob me of the full experience of now.

Except when I’m at the dentist. Then I’ll pretty much take the future, any version of the future, over the present.

I count myself lucky that there are no dentists in Luang Prabang.

There are, however, plenty of things I’m waiting on at the moment. But while I’m waiting I’m also enjoying the generosity of some new friends who have lent us their house while they are in Thailand for a month. I am enjoying their air conditioner, and the quiet of these back lanes. I am definitely enjoying the fact that right down the street is the Laos Red Cross.

I wandered in there yesterday. Signs inside the gate direct you to go left to give blood, and right to reach the sauna and massage rooms. Five dollars bought me an hour of massage and a receipt thanking me for supporting the work of the Lao Red Cross. Thanking me. It was, hands down, the most fun I’ve ever had supporting the work of the Red Cross. I may just go back today and support them some more.

So there are far worse places in this world to practice waiting for a house to be ready. And, as for writerly inspiration, Jack London perhaps put it best…

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

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