This post is for every mother who has sat next to her child’s hospital bed, sick with worry and praying that their surgery will be successful.
It’s a post for all those mothers and fathers who have spent sleepless nights inside a cramped, semi-dark hospital room tending to their child after surgery. Vigilant and alert. Measuring the days by the number of pain pills that were needed. While watching their child’s heartbeat move like a slow steady, gasp beneath the translucent skin stretched across their chest.
This post for all those young, self-conscious boys who dream of having a normal looking chest.
During his freshman year in high school, my youngest son announced to us that he wanted to have surgery to repair his indented chest, a condition called Pectus Excavatum.
Even though we knew he had inherited this condition (my Dad has a less severe case), we always considered it more of a small, idiosyncratic trait than a physical problem.
Not only were we surprised to learn that our 15 year old had already done his research on the types of surgical procedures available to remedy his condition. We were shocked when we accompanied him to the specialist and watched him remove his shirt.
Up to that point, we had no idea that the hollow space in his chest had continued to deepen throughout puberty, and that his physical endurance and breathing were now being compromised on the playing field.
Somehow we had never questioned the fact that we never saw him shirtless. We missed the subtle ways that he had kept his chest hidden from view. And his self-conscious feelings tucked inside.
On our vacation with family friends, Michael was already beginning to ‘hide’ his chest.
To make a long story short, Michael elected to undergo what is considered to be one of the most painful childhood surgeries there is, the month before his sophomore year in high school.
Because the surgery required that he have a bar inside his chest for a year, it meant giving up his soccer and lacrosse sports and most important, it meant missing out on the precious high school experiences that accompany team sports, the camaraderie with team-mates, the sense of belonging, and the overflow of extracurricular activities.
If your child plays team sports you know the social world that comes along with it. And as a mother, I privately ached for him.
When he left the hospital he had 119 pounds on his weakened, six foot frame and as it turns out, during his next two years of rehab I became his partner in recovery. We spent endless hours sitting together in waiting rooms. We drove back and forth to doctor appointments, seeking second opinions for an unexpected complication. Together, we peeked over the doctor’s scale hoping for weight gain. And we counted off the days and weeks before the doctor gave his ok for Michael’s return to weight lifting.
When Michael finally began his relentless trips to the gym, he told us later that he had lost so much muscle; he would need to lower the weights even after the women were done using the machines
Eventually, like so many new beginnings, he found his way into rowing by pure necessity. He needed a new non-contact sport and the Sacramento State Aquatic Center was right next to our home.
As luck would have it, he fell in love with an endurance sport that would slowly build his body and his confidence. Parents of rowers know all about the grueling, daily work-outs and the necessity of a strong body.
Fast forward a few years.
Last weekend we picked up Patrick from school and went to watch Michael’s boat row at the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships. His boat has had an incredibly successful year, consistently beating their college competition and was ranked #1 entering this Regatta.
However, in the final race they came in second place.
Although they qualified for the Nationals next month, by the looks on their faces and by their own expectations there was nothing to celebrate. It was considered a disappointing loss.
But afterwards, when I watched Michael standing over the boat discussing the race with his team-mates, my focus wasn’t simply on this single race, as big and as important as it was.
Perhaps mothers have a unique perspective in times like these. But I find it impossible not to see faint images from the past superimposed over his big body and to remember where we’ve come from. Embedded in my warm, fuzzy memories are also those worried, sick feelings from the hospital days. Those memories of a fragile body and clothes that hung from a skinny frame. And missed parties and games.
So even though Michael’s body may have healed… my mother’s heart will never be the same.
I will never forget those dark times and I’m glad I won’t. Because it keeps me grateful for the most ordinary moments. Like the joy of watching my son gliding across the water on a sun-drenched day with a body that is strong and healthy.
I see his determination and his work ethic and yes, I now realize that something powerful and good came out of all those difficult months.
But don’t misunderstand, I’m not implying that everything’s “perfect.” Because that’s not real life.
Real life (and real courage) is about keeping up our hope day-to day.
If you are struggling in some way, or if you have a child that is hobbling along though a tough time, I hope you find hope in this post. It’s dedicated to you.