I've been writing a long time about facing fear, about how it cracks open wide your life, and - to paraphrase Leonard Cohen - lets the light in. But I've just discovered it's one thing to face a fear of drowning by whitewater rafting, or of heights by paragliding off a mountain. It's another thing entirely to face a fear that you will not be strong enough to take care of your family when they need you most.
Almost a year ago exactly my father fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae in a fall. He could have - should have, really - died. But he survived and after hours in our local hospital was transferred by ambulance 90 miles to a medical center with specialists more capable of handling his injury. While I was with him in the ER, T stayed with my mother. She's not really able anymore to spend much time alone. She's got emphysema, is on oxygen 24/7, is in almost constant pain from a distintegrating spine and is beginning to show signs of what I'm afraid is dementia.
Once, not long after my brother's death, she was so confused that my father and I had to show her a photo of Gunnar and gently explain to her that her son was never coming home.
"He died, Mom," I told her. "He's gone." I held her as she sobbed, thinking there was really not any way that I was going to survive the moment. It hurt too much. You always hear tell about how life is cruel, but until then I didn't understand just gleefully cruel it could be.
The night my dad broke his neck my uncle and cousin came to stay with my mother, so T could be with me. We followed behind the ambulance bearing my father, the stars shining down on us with a brillance that only seems possible on the very coldest rural Pennsylvania nights. After Dad was tucked in to the ICU we checked into a motel. I remember I was afraid to go to sleep, terrified the phone would ring and a voice on the other end would tell me my father was dead.
We were there three nights, the whole while my aunt and uncle watching over my mom at their house. Finally my father was stable enough to be transferred to a rehab facility in our town, where he stayed for two weeks. But I'd spent a lot of the time he was recovering in ICU numb with fear that I was going to lose him. The rest I'd pondered what I would have done without T. How could I have coped if I'd been without his quiet, steadfast support? What if, after spending all day at Dad's bedside in ICU, I would have had to go back to that motel and crawl into that cold bed, alone?
I used to believe I would have broken apart. Maybe I would have. But I'm no longer the woman I once was. The pain of losing T - and my ability to negotiate that pain, as unlovely as the process has been - has honed me. I think it has sharpened my abilities to bear trauma and stress. If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger. Eventually, that is, after it's first torn you apart, left you bloodied in a ditch by the side of the road. But if you rise up out of that place, the seams where you've stitched yourself together are more solid than you would have believed possible.
Three days ago my father went to see his doctor. He wasn't feeling well. Before he could make it in he nearly collapsed in the parking lot. A creatinine blood test revealed he was in kidney failure. I took Dad to the ER, the same ER I'd taken him almost a year ago, after his fall, and waited four or five hours while they ran more tests. Although the ER physician believed his issues were only caused by dehydration, they admitted him. I was forced to leave mom alone. T, of course, is long gone, a memory I'm willing to become more faded, dull, like a Poloroid picture that never quite developed. My mother did fine. I did, too, on my own, taking care of my father.
They discovered the next day that both of my Dad's kidneys were blocked by stones, which he's suffered from his whole life. I get them, too. They scheduled him for surgery, to implant stents to drain his kidneys and restore their function. Sometime that day, while Mom and I were visiting Dad in the hospital, our pug dog, Lola, injured herself. When we came home she was having trouble standing on her back legs.
I spent yesterday getting Lola to the vet and Mom and me to the hospital, picking up Lola and taking her and my mother back home, making dinner and finally going back alone to the hospital tonight to spend time with my dad. It was stressful. It was exhausting. Mom and I got into a couple of arguments. I need to have so much more patience. Because she's scared, too, just like me.
But it looks like Dad is going to be fine, though I just heard they're keeping him another night. We're hopeful Lola will mend, too. My Dad and I have had our issues, our blowups. But last night I was able to sit with him for a spell, reading aloud to him as the hospital quieted around us. I'll never forget it, that time. I'm grateful for it.
I'm grateful, too, that I was able to handle everything, all of it, on my own. Not perfectly, or gracefully, or with as much good humor or equanimity as I would like. I want to do better. Unfortunately, I know I'll have the chance to try. But there is comfort in knowing that I didn't fail my parents. In knowing that I'm stronger than I once was - and less strong than I will someday be.
is a journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Her new column about travel, adventure, love, loss, heartbreak and healing can be found on the Woman's Day website. She has contributed to Country Living, Gothamist, Washingtonian, EDGE Media Network, Canadian Traveller, Country, Country Woman, and a host of other festive publications and websites. She is the travel editor for the nation's most beautiful publication, Faerie Magazine. Her column, Rebooted, is published across Pennsylvania. She does not have a death wish.