It was a fairly typical morning during Ethan’s year-long hospital stay. By mid-morning, post breakfast, his breathing became more difficult. So I helped him put on his bi-pap mask and he settled down for a nap. I watched the monitor to make sure all his numbers were in the safe range and he was comfortable. His breathing eased and the hum of the bi-pap machine filled the room. I checked in with his nurse and then headed to the lobby for some food and coffee.
On this particular day as I sat in the lobby, I noticed a woman walking with her son in a wheelchair. If you have ever sat in the lobby of a major children’s hospital you know that at all hours the place is buzzing with people. You see everything, kids running, kids in wheelchairs, kids with oxygen and tracheostomies. You see able-bodied kids and kids that are not. You see kids with diseases you can “see” and those with some you cannot.
She pushed her son who had blondish hair. He was about seven or nine years old. It was clear he probably didn’t walk and likely had some cognitive impairment. She had all kinds of bags strapped to her and his chair. She looked rushed and tired. At this point in time, Ethan had been in the hospital for nine months and I was tired down to my bones. So, I knew a tired mom when I saw her.
As she raced by me for the main elevators, I thought to myself.
“At least Ethan walks and talks. At least he can tell me he loves me and I can enjoy his personality. At least we travel easily with him (by this time he’d been lots of places on an airplane). At least if we can get his heart healthier, he will developmentally be pretty typical.
The reality was that Ethan was very sick. His heart was not healing the way his team had hoped and I was feeling desperate. I had just given birth to Chase, we’d been living away from home for months, and every day I was watching my son suffer. I couldn’t see a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. I was scared.
I didn’t know the first thing about the woman I judged that day. I didn’t know anything about that boy. I hadn’t the first clue about her story, her life, her dreams, her disappointments, her support system, her sacrifice, her talents. But I was certain I didn’t want her life.
Now I don’t think my thoughts are particularly unusual. When life is frayed all around us, we grasp for something to hold on to. We tell ourselves stories about who we are and who others are around us. Survival mode does all kinds of things to our hearts and minds.
Fast forward 6 months Ethan would die after 13 months in the hospital. And two years later I would give birth to Bodey who arrived on earth with a rare muscular dystrophy. And in a split second, I became that woman. The one pushing the wheelchair. The one navigating daily life in a world that doesn’t accommodate people on wheels. A world where people look and may think to themselves “at least I’m not her”. Or maybe they are just curious, but they don’t have the courage to just ask. I also became a woman who knows the incredible bond you can have with a child who does not speak.
I don’t know why I recalled this rather simple, ordinary morning so many years later. On some level, I believe I knew I’d be Bodey’s mom. I believe that who we are and what we are capable of has already been pre-wired within us. Life’s events, whatever they are, reveal these parts of ourselves. We always have the free will, the choice of how to respond. But the ingredients are there, waiting to be revealed.
How many times have you looked at another woman and made the “at least” list?
At least I’m not single.
At least I’m not in her position in life.
At least I’m not sick like her.
At least my kid isn’t sick like her’s. I have no idea how she does it.
At least I live here and not there.
At least my husband isn’t like that.
At least I don’t struggle with ______.
At least….at least…
We all do this at one time or another. I think it is simply human nature. When life is hard (as it is) we grasp for straws. We want to feel like we have a handle on things. Even when it’s not hard, we all want to tell ourselves a story about what our life is like. We often do that in comparison to others.
That morning in the hospital I was exhausted and Ethan was so very sick. I was trying to tell myself a story about my life that made it bearable on that day. Our minds reach for “at least” when life feels out of control and not the way we hoped it to be. Similarly, stories that we don’t understand or that scare us often create distance between us and others.
Gratitude is, of course, thankfulness. But it can also be judgment masked as gratitude. We are always invited to crawl inside the stories of others. No, we cannot absorb the pain of this world. If we did, we wouldn’t leave our beds. But we can see with more compassionate eyes. We can seek to know more about our neighbors and those we cross paths with each day. We can be honest about our own sadness and disappointment in life. We can make a call, bring flowers, send a note or just a direct message. We can choose to “see” each other in a new way.
When we feel the urge to look at someone else and say “at least”, we are invited, instead to look inside ourselves. To piece through the parts that hurt, that don’t we don’t understand, or want to see. In those spaces, we have the opportunity to sift, learn, and grow into a more beautiful version of ourselves.
I find it interesting that we are able to hold the collective pains of the world so much easier than the individual ones. We band together to help with fires and famines and shootings. We donate money, share the cause on social media and talk about it with friends. But it’s just that, it’s collective, it’s at a distance. Individual ones are harder because we have to face what these pains manifest. We have to see what these “at leasts” look like with skin on.
This holiday season I invite you to do two things:
Number One :
Crawl inside someone’s story. Consider that she is so much like you. She probably wants so many of the same things you do. Think to yourself, “This is her calling. In this space is her invitation. It seems hard, but within her is already the person needed to answer this call. What can I do to support her? Can I listen? Can I encourage? Can I just drop off a note or a coffee and tell her that I see her?
If you don’t know her, you can just send her love, you can open the space of your heart that connects all of us and whisper a prayer for her, send her some of your strength.
Examine the areas in your own heart where you often look at others and say, “at least”. Journal about the spaces within you that need love, healing, and understanding. Work through them in writing or reading or even sharing with a friend.
May this Holiday Season be one of reflection and fulfillment as we seek to become more whole women who love others well.
Sunday Love to you.