I Was Scared
Last night I watched Parenthood and was scared. I do not usually watch that television show so was not expecting that the subject would be a mother and wife’s hospitalization on Christmas Eve for a very low white blood cell count and septic shock. It took about two minutes after the character started to show signs of a lung infection for me to feel the first symptoms of stress. I stopped grading papers. I felt my jaw tighten. My fingertips started to tingle. My brows drew together. Her husband insisted they go to the hospital because the doctor had warned them to be alert for signs of infection after her most recent dose of chemotherapy. I did not know her, but I was afraid for her.
The doctors told her husband that it was possible for her condition to continue its decline or improve. They were busy. Sometimes the doctor appeared not to know what was going on. My eyes teared up. My bottom lip trembled. Her husband became angry. He sent his father away at first. He sat at his wife’s side in a yellow gown, a mask, and gloves. He was helpless to do anything else but stand vigil. His father returned with a laptop computer, some clothes, and a snack. They hugged. The father promised everyone at home was being taken care of. The husband watched a video “good-bye” taped by his wife. She wanted her children to know how much she loved them. My nose started to run.
There were other story lines. I was so nervous. I did not want this to be a sad holiday story. I needed to know that the woman would be okay.
It is happening everywhere. I read this week on Laura’s blog the big scary “C” word about how she worried over whether she could travel or see a nutritionist because her white blood cell count was so low after her last dose of chemotherapy. It seems like everyone I know who has had cancer has suffered from some close call with a terrible infection during treatment.
Last year I was dealing with one of my own. And I spent Christmas week in the county hospital. It was more awful than anything else that I have ever experienced in my life. It was worse than losing so much blood that I had to have eight packs of blood by transfusion before I could have surgery. It was worse than learning I had cancer. It was worse than surgery or recovery. It was worse than when I thought my cancer was at stage three. It was even worse than losing my job because my boss thought all cancer patients made unreliable employees. It was worse than chemotherapy and radiation (and they took quite a toll). I was alone in an environment that was as toxic as the infection that sent me into the hospital.
I remember feeling fear that I might not get out alive.
I have been afraid before. How many times have I watched as some other driver lost control of a vehicle in snow or on ice? How many times have I feared that my own car could not be controlled? There is that moment when every nerve from extremity to brain seems fried. I once was confronted on a street by a man with a gun who demanded my purse. I was a little bit under the influence of alcohol at the time. I remember feeling that my fear had to spread through jelly before my limbs felt it and I formulated the illogical but (on that occasion) effective plan of running away.
I once was attacked on the street by ten men. I was on foot delivering a package to a D.C. residence during a cab strike when the men decided to follow me. I had to push past them to climb the stairs of that home and I prayed mightily that someone would be home. No one was home so I had to walk back down those stairs and through a gauntlet of pinches, bruising squeezes, bumps, and threats of violence until I made it to the next big street. I remember that I was so scared that I lost my voice. I longed to scream, but not a squeak came out of me. Moreover, no one who observed what was happening to me lifted a hand to help.
I once was grabbed in an elevator by a man who tried to force me down onto the elevator floor. He was determined to sexually assault me in the elevator. I remember throwing my hands out to hit every button on the elevator’s control panel. I crawled out of that elevator when the doors opened. That man held onto my skirt, but I managed to claw my way out far enough that the elevator doors were trying to close and my waist was in the way. That time I was overcome with adrenaline and absolutely determined not to be anyone’s victim. I know I landed at least one kick of my high-heeled shoe into the man’s upper torso in making my escape.
Working in hotels had its frightening moments. I once was attacked by a coworker and had to talk my way out of being hurt. I blocked a person’s attempt to enter the hotel by thrusting my arms up into the door’s opening mechanism to prevent its movement. I brandished a telephone in a hotel room when the two prostitutes I was intent on ejecting physically threatened me. I was young then. I faced my fears with the certainty that I would survive. The fear surged through me with so much adrenaline attached to it that I found the strength I needed to fight off what threatened me.
But there are big bad scary threats that I cannot fend off with adrenaline, fast reactions, defensive maneuvers, kicks, claws, wit, or wile. Cancer and its accompanying threats proved much more challenging than any threat to my well-being that came before it. I was trapped in a hospital with no family or friends to fight for me. I was in terrible pain, barely managed by painkillers. Pain came in waves that went on for hours at a time. I had a couple of nurses who had no time, skill, or resources to help me. My doctors were occupied with their own holiday revelry. My infection had me fevered and begging for relief. I went several days without sleep and had no more reserves of adrenaline. I had cried out for hours and no one even came to look at me. I prayed until my words became incomprehensible.
I have learned something from my own overwhelming fear. It is like a bully. It separates you from everyone and everything that would make you strong. You must fight it on your own. No matter how weak or miserable or hopeless you feel, the only way to overcome it is to face it and determine not to give in to it. You long for reinforcements. I have heard that song sung several years ago at Christmas by Carrie Underwood–Jesus Take the Wheel. It’s a wonderful idea. Faith can be your friend in times of trouble. Family and friends can be your allies. But you still have to fight. Some of us fight with will that combats infection at a cellular level. Some of us persevere through dark days by showing the grit to hang on until we find or build the strength to overcome. Some of us put up our fists or kick with our feet. Some of us draw on adrenaline. Some of us scream. Some of us win and some of us lose. All of these battles are easier to wage with the support and assistance of others.
The character on TV made it through the night. I was relieved even though I don’t even recall what her name was or what the name of the actress who played her was. While I was chewing on my lips over the medical condition of an actress in a TV show, there were real people hiding in a Portland, Oregon mall from a gunman intent on killing strangers before he took his own life. Soldiers walked streets in Afghanistan without the ability to tell friends from foes. Mothers and fathers tried to put children to bed in neighborhoods where gun violence makes no place safe. Other parents and grandparents watched their children or grandchildren pray for moms and dads serving in dangerous places overseas or on our own cities’ streets. People sat in hospitals across the country willing loved ones to get better or wishing loved ones would find peace by letting go. Some people huddled over grates, in their cars, or in shelters and tried to find sleep because they were homeless. Others slept in comfortable beds with demons that kept them from resting–disease, addictions, insecurities, loneliness, or something else.
There are people all around us at the holidays who are engaged in battles with fear. Some are sick. Some are watching a loved one suffer. Some are living in dangerous times. Some are living in dangerous places. Some are facing economic ruin. Some are alone. Some face threats to which they cannot put a face or name.
Anyone can be scared. Instead of letting fear divide us, let’s look for ways to overcome it together. Toss some money in a Salvation Army kettle. Make a contribution to the Red Cross. Give blood at an area blood bank. Donate something you do not use any longer to a charity. Thank a member of our military for his or her service. Ask a caregiver if he or she could use a break to take a nap, a shower, or do some shopping. Visit someone who doesn’t seem to get out anymore. Greet an acquaintance with a kind word. Let go of a grudge. Say a prayer for a stranger if your pockets are empty this season. When someone cuts you off on the highway let it go. If you know someone going through tough times make a phone call, send a card, or make a visit. If you cannot help a troubled soul, then consider calling for help from the community at large. Talk about what scares you so that someone else can reassure you. Everyone is afraid of something. It is society that helps get us past what scares us. It often is by others’ caring that those who are scared find the strength to face their fears. It is caring that makes life’s battles less lonely.
For those of you facing battles that test your mettle, I wish you the strength to overcome your foes, your fetters, your fatigue, and your fears.