We are deep into week two of sickness. One bug followed by an even bigger, meaner bug and day five of the all-night brigade to alleviate breathing passages, soothe, and pray desperately for the much-needed mercy of sweet, deep healing sleep. This is only the second major bout with illness for my son but our first experience with the awful choking cough that in the middle of the night would send a lightning bolt through maternal slumber a hundred miles away. Add an infection of the ear.
People outside your mucous-plastered, sleepless dark hole of a sick-house mostly do not really understand what you mean when you tell them your kid is sick. It sounds like just another fact such as, “it’s raining today” or “I locked my keys in the car this morning” but what it really means is that your world has temporarily entered some sort of time warp. Your are living temporarily in a parallel universe. Your child being sick IS the only fact, is the only thing that is happening in your life. You are processing little else. Perhaps it is because I am a first-time mom and my son is still kind of little and so real sickness is still scary. Though I know that it is something that will pass, I know that it is not tuberculosis or pneumonia or whooping cough – at 2am trying to comfort the flailing, hacking, miserable baby (to me he suddenly reverts to being a “baby” again, instead of almost a preschooler) it looks and feels every bit like tuberculosis, pneumonia or whooping cough.
I called my mom friend of three little ones and pleaded with her to divulge any time-tested antidotes or strategies. I told her all of my $70 worth of herbal treatments and tinctures and teas. “Keep going if you feel like they are helping” she said, “But you know, friend – those are mainly for you.”
Uuuuuuuggggggghhhh. She was right.
As I write I am preparing to depart for three days for a work conference 85 miles away. I am packing to leave my snotty, sorrowful, sleepless son in the midst of his suffering, whom, day or night, only wants his mama. Once again, I recall one of the many precious things my midwife said to me shortly after my son’s entry to the world. All he would do was scream, fall asleep for 45 minutes and wake up again, try to eat and scream. For days, for weeks. It was a bitter, steep learning curve for both of us.
And there is a way this wise woman, my midwife, speaks that makes you drop everything and listen. She gives you her whole-hearted presence and attention. Her eyes shine with that acumen born from having seen tremendous loss and returned stronger in the broken places. And yet with other-wordly joy as if the flames of suffering have somehow burned away the outermost layers to reveal the bareness and beauty of the soul, without the mantle of fears and insecurity most of us walk around in. We’ve all get to know people like this, if we are lucky. “It is not possible nor is it your job to protect your baby from all forms of suffering. But you make the commitment to be with him through it.”
All week I had been running around, trying to finish up work projects, preparing for my trip and keeping to a rigid schedule of home cold and flu remedies, certain that I would find the right combination for relief, that I would “fix” the discomfort, I would find the right thing to do. I looked at the kitchen table, littered with cardboard packaging that promised to make my kid feel better and then I looked down at him. “Mama, hold yoooooooooou.” he sniffed.
I tried hard not to feel like an asshole.
We used all those little colorful cardboard boxes to built a tower and then with scotch tape, made a tunnel for his toy cars to drive through. We played on the floor for a good part of the afternoon. After awhile I realized it was the most content he had been all day. He didn’t really need me to fix anything after all. He just needed me to be there with him, okay enough to be present in his discomfort, to hold space for him to find his way through to the other side.
I wonder how many times I will do this for him. How many times will I grapple and resist and fight and flail and finally having tried it all, resolve to simply sit and stay? Having faith, holding space for his own organic process, offering just the comfort of my commitment to be there in the struggle.
Oh, grant me the serenity. Grant me the courage.
Beloved Buddhist nun, teacher, and author Pema Chödrön notes that parents with young children – especially when they are ill – have the most natural capacity for the practice of Tonglen: connection with the suffering of others. We most effectively experience this identification with our own children and the desperation for the alleviation of their afflictions but the goal is to expand our compassion to the suffering of all beings, including the ones we find least lovable. Pema offers some beautiful, and simple instructions on Tonglen practice to alleviate suffering of loved ones, oppressed peoples of the world, nations, or animals on our planet. I love Pema. This short video is really wonderful, I hope you watch it: