This journey is beyond my control.
I crawled across the living room and almost made it to the bathroom before collapsing in the hall. Upon seeing me go prone, my eldest daughter grabbed a bowl of fruit and started passing out breakfast to her three younger siblings. My five-year-old, the middle child and only son, Sam, stood near me with silent tears falling down his cheeks until my daughter grabbed his hand and said, “Dad will be here soon, and she’ll be okay, and here’s an apple. Don’t worry, Sam.”
But Sam worried. It’s what he does. He always wants to know the end of the story at the beginning of the book to make sure everyone will be okay. His prayers follow the script of, “Dear God, please just let everyone, everywhere, be okay, and just let everything work out.” He does not like surprises in general because they might throw off the correctness of the world at that moment.
Later that week, after we found out my condition had a name, was chronic, and symptom management was our only option, my husband and I sat down with our kids and explained that this was now part of our normal. “Sometimes mommy gets out of bed and the world spins.” They knew what that meant; they’d been seeing it on and off for a year. But Sam, my child whose emotions never stray far from the surface, struggled as my brokenness weighed on him, threatened to disrupt his hopes for a burden-free future.
The park is full of parents standing on the sidelines six days after one of my world-spinning episodes. I’m standing with them, the sun on my back a welcome gift as I try to keep myself steady.
“Mom, can you spend time with me?” Sam asks. My husband is in the car with the two sleeping toddlers, and my oldest daughter already dropped us for a group of girls on the edge of the park. “I am yours,” I respond, and Sam’s earth-colored eyes light up.
Our first stop is the spinning thing, a pole stuck in the ground that spins quickly, an accelerated carousel for one. It is my personal idea of hell, but I push Sam as he squeals with glee, my feet anchored to the ground.
As he hops off the spinner and runs, I see in his eyes the look that means chase. My balance is still questionable, but I carefully take off as he darts beneath play structures. He climbs up the small, plastic climbing wall onto the walkway, and I follow behind telling myself that I am not broken. I can keep up, I chant internally. Sam’s eyes dart back and search for me, the slightest bit of concern inching in when he can’t immediately verify my whereabouts and that I am still vertical. When I catch his eye and wave, a smile plastered on my face, he exhales and keeps going.
I’m halfway up the climbing wall, taking my time just to be safe, when I hear, “You’re too old to be up here!” I look up to see a child about my son’s age, his public scolding ringing in my ears. The comment stings more than it should because in it I hear truth. I hear too old and too broken for parks and races and the kind of fun my kids use as a measurement for love. That truth is why I need to reassure myself and Sam that, yes, in fact, everything might be okay and everyone could be fine, and it might work out. So I keep climbing, attempting to avoid the obvious: this illness will be a jump off point for hard conversations about limits and the ending of things.
By the time I find it in myself to smile at the child who has called me old, I’ve made it to the top of the climbing wall. Sam has taken the slide to arrive at the bottom. I reach the ground in time to catch a glimpse of his green Ninja Turtle sandal kicking up sand as he heads for the can’t tag spot. He looks back and I know what he is thinking this time as his smile widens. It’s the same thought I always had when I looked back and saw my dad falling behind when we raced: my parent, a real grown up, can’t keep up with me! Except in this case, it’s true. If he wanted, he could keep running and I wouldn’t be able to reach him short of a burst of adrenaline like the kind people say cause mothers to be able to lift cars off their children. I am not doing what my dad did for me when I was a child and letting him win. I’m just losing.
As we leave the park, Sam takes out for the van, screams over his shoulder, “First one there has to eat a rotten egg!”
“Uh, Sam, I think I know why no one tries to beat you!” I yell back and laugh. I watch his tiny legs steer his body forward, his thick brown hair fly in the breeze as he basks in the moment, careless. He is five and the park trip was successful in his eyes, so the world is rose colored and full. I am 36, and though on my feet today, I realize all I am capable of after my playground acrobatics is a foot-dragging walk. Blood is pumping in my inner ears and I hear the ringing that means I may soon have another vertigo episode.
This journey is beyond my control, and I want Sam to realize it’s beyond his as well, as are most things we long to hold in our hands and manipulate. I hope my only son carries his empathy into every part of his life, but I would love to modify it, tame it so he won’t be broken by the weight he feels to make sure everything is right. It will not always be. God willing, his journey will continue without me as he runs to the next destination while I slow to a halt. I won’t be fully stopped by a disorder that snatches pieces of my hearing and gives me violent vertigo, but something one day will manage to keep me from getting back up.
What I want more than to be able to catch up or stop time is for Sam to be okay, to be able to prepare him to march on without me and without looking behind. As I slow down and he accelerates, I want him to embrace the normalcy of that process, to know it’s okay for him to keep running when I fall. I want to tell him in words that will comfort him that the world will spin even when I’m not in it, and all will still be as it should.