In God we trust

by Amy Morris-Young

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"Breathe, dummy."

This is pretty much what I find I need to tell myself, over and over, these days.

"Breathe, dummy."

Because right now, this moment, I am holding my breath.

Our granddaughter Mary Elizabeth is seven and a half months old. At her six-month check-up, it was discovered that she has scoliosis. She is being evaluated at Seattle Children's Hospital now for spinal surgery when she reaches the age of two. Whatever happens -- however this diagnosis changes her health and life -- will be Mary's "normal," but I am terrified about the possible outcomes.

I am watching, helpless, doing my best to remember to stay hopeful, and keep breathing.

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, and our Mom would pile us four kids into the wood-paneled Mercury station wagon, loaded with towels and sandwiches and our dog Sparky, and drive us through the curvy canyons to Zuma Beach.

My brother Tim and I would jump out of the car, our chunky legs pounding on the hot sand, and leap into the pounding surf. Guilt-free, we left brothers Joe and Tom behind us, to help Mom load out the gear onto some spot on the sand, high above the tide line. Mom would coat her already brown skin with baby oil, and settle in with the latest edition of Good Housekeeping or Redbook.

Sparky would sit sentry at the bottom of Mom's beach towel, watching as the littler boys edged closer to the dark line of seaweed, and sit heads together over a wet pit, digging out sandcrabs with neon colored plastic shovels, dropping blobs of goopy sand from their muddy hands, forming tiny trees.

These were the days before kids were slathered in sunscreen, covered with swim shirts and hats, kept hydrated with water bottles full of Gatorade. We were desert rats, and beach babies. By the second week of summer, our skin was purple brown. Our Mom called us her "little raisins."

As we pushed our heads and shoulders through the oncoming waves, jumping up and finding our footing as each one crashed over us, I would look over at Tim, and see his brown plump body glistening, his black hair slicked down over his eyes, his huge grin. He would keep a sidelong eye on me, as well. We were forever competitive, separate and grating on each other, but also a team. A pair of grouchy sea lions, forming ourselves in play with and against one another.

Soon we were out beyond the line of waves, bobbing together as the long smooth swells moved us up and down, up and down. We would find each other's eyes, then. Smile and stick out our tongues at each other. Out here, beyond the earshot of our Mom, we also tried out cusswords we had heard at school, and candidly, from her. Our Mom swore like a sailor, but our unspoken family fiction was that we only learned those choice words from other kids.

Instinctively, our bodies would start to time the swells, to feel the rhythm as they passed under us then crashed along the shoreline. I don't remember ever actually counting, or saying anything out loud. We both just knew, and understood, and became part of the pattern. And again, without a word, we would both see the green line of the big one out there, rising over the others and moving towards us, and align our bodies to wait for it. We would give each other one last look, and start paddling with our arms as quickly as we could.

The one we had chosen would rear up under us, a great fluid horse of motion and force. Sometimes, our short arms couldn't catch it, and it would move on without us. Again, without words, we would share a quick disappointed glance, and swim back out to the smooth swelling waiting place.

But when we caught it, or more factually, when it caught us, we would be lifted in the glorious surge, pushed along and part of the great rush of power. And there was a moment, right as the wave curled and before gravity pulled it down, where we hung. Faces and chests and arms half out of the wave, the rest of us behind, transfixed for an eternal moment, hanging over the naked rocks and shells and sand. And we would look down and know that this was going to hurt. Bad.

But there was no stopping now. And instinctively, we took mighty breaths in that last moment. Filled our small lungs and shut our eyes and got ready to take whatever came next.

And then the explosion of the crash. And being upside down and airless in foam, not knowing which way was up or down. And getting scratched and bruised and torn on the bottom, seaweed swirling, sand in our mouths, salt in our eyes.

And then the sudden knowing that we had to get up, up, up and out, to breathe. Or die. And somehow instinctively finding the bottom, although the undertow of the departing wave was already trying to pull us back with it, under the next one. But we would plant our sturdy legs, and push up through the foamy water. And suddenly we were upright, and gulping air and spray. We would immediately churn around, to find where the other had landed, to make sure we were both okay.

And there would be my brother, his chunky body slick and bronzed, turning to find me. And our eyes would meet, and we would both punch our hands into the air, a soggy "V" of victory, and shout our newest cusswords into the wind, hoping our Mom was still too far away and too distracted to hear.

And with one grin, one glance, we would turn in unison and dive back into the oncoming waves, to do it all again. And again. Until Mom called us in for a sandwich, or until one of us got hurt.

It was joy. It was terror. It was wonderful.

There have been so many times in my adult life when I became suddenly and keenly aware that I was right back on the edge of that wave. Hanging out. Looking down at those rocks and shells. Knowing that I was hurtling directly at something that I couldn't and wouldn't pull back from. Terror. Joy. And trying to remember to tell myself to "breathe, dummy."

When my water broke before my first baby was born. When labor was induced for my second baby. When I discovered I was carrying twins. The greatest joy. The greatest fear. The knowing that this was going to hurt. Perhaps kill me. But I was moving inexorably forward, at the speed of life.

Years later, when I had three kids and was a single mom, I got hurt on my job. A disk in my neck was herniated, and I was in crazy teeth-chattering pain for about a year, while the doctors and Labor and Industries folks decided what to do with me.

Finally, surgery was scheduled. I was so relieved at the prospect of finally being out of pain, but the night before, I knew I was hanging out of that wave, once again. I looked out over the possibility of something going wrong, of becoming paralyzed or worse. The terrifying possibility of dying and leaving my kids without me. All I could do to finally fall asleep that night was to pray, and remind myself to "breathe, dummy."

Surgery went well, the pain was gone, and for about a day, all seemed fine. Then the pain in the wound started. We went back to the doctor, and he didn't even look at it. He just wrote out a prescription for antibiotics, handed me the piece of paper and sent me home. But in the car in front of the pharmacy, as we waited for the prescription to be filled, I started howling.

Like a coyote or wolf. Howling. It was completely out of my control. Something was deeply, seriously wrong, and my animal self was inconsolable.

The rest of that day is a blur, as I was sent by ambulance back to the hospital. I learned through brief clearings in the haze that somehow, someone in my operating room had put MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphococcus Aureus) into the opening in my neck, either on a gloved finger or an operating utensil. I heard vaguely that the four other patients who had surgery in that same room had all had their front cavities opened for some small repairs, and all had gone septic and died. I was the only survivor, but I had gone septic down my spine.

I came to understand that Vancomycin was the only antibiotic strong enough to kill MRSA, but that since the bacteria responds and mutates, there was a good chance they couldn't kill it before it killed me.

The nurses loaded Vancomycin into the IVs in first my right arm, then left, blowing holes in both veins, and exploding my forearms into Popeye-like cartoons of pain. This was to make sure I could tolerate the Drano-like medicine. It was then loaded via a pic-line directly into my heart.

During all of this, I was in and out, consumed by a fire that must have been the sepsis pain, the MRSA eating my flesh from the inside out.

All I knew was that I kept slipping over the edge of consciousness, and falling away towards death. I would use every morsel of strength I had, and claw myself back to this side of that dark line … only to start slipping towards it again.

Over and over I yanked myself back, but each time with a little less strength. Finally, alone in the middle of the night, I was just worn out. I could feel myself laying on the line between here and there. I called out to God. I said: "What is this about? What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to die, or what?"

The answer, which came clearly and deeply, had to be authentic. Because it was definitely not what I wanted to hear.

The voice said, around me and through me: "It doesn't matter. Either way you are in my hand."

I immediately argued, hot tears streaming down my cheeks: "But what about my kids? What about Chelsea and Nick and Duncan? They need me!"

The voice was infuriatingly calm. It said: "They are in my hand, as well."

I didn't like this answer. Not one bit. I was somebody. I was important. I was their mom, and I worked hard, and they needed me.

But looking out of that wave, seeing the rocks and shells, knowing the crash was coming, I suddenly knew all the way through me that I was powerless. Small. Humble. But clearly, not alone.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath … and let go.

I fell away then, forever and ever.

To someplace black and endless.

I didn't go to the light. I was simply gone. Disappeared. There was no Me, anymore.


The next morning, I opened my eyes. What a surprise. I was still alive.

The pain was still there, but somehow muted and contained in my back. It no longer encompassed me. I was separate from it.

From the nurses who bustled in and out of my room, I heard hushed words like "miracle" and "no explanation" and "turned the corner." They looked at me funny, sidelong and furtive. I wondered if I had a great green booger on my face, or something. I wondered if I still even looked like myself, since I had lost myself, totally.

But, amazingly, I was still here. And I understood, finally and fully, that being here was a total gift from God. Completely out of my control. And that any control I had ever felt was a delusion, or illusion, what I needed to get from day to day.

I had a whole new understanding that my being awake and aware and functioning was absolutely up to God. His choice, not mine.

The words "thy will be done" from the Our Father prayer took on a new and literal meaning.

I am here because God puts me here. Period.

And while my ego hated to hear it, my individual life truly doesn't matter -- "either way you are in my hand."

Every morning I awake, every moment I breathe, is very simply, a gift.

I am challenged as life moves forward, to remember this. That I am here on loan from God, as is every single person I love. That each one of us is on our own journey, and each one is in His hand.

Right now, I am scared about Mary's upcoming spine surgery. About possible infection -- since I have lived out that scenario -- as well as about all the other possible effects, from disability to death.

But, of course, none of this is in my control.

I love her fiercely, but ultimately, she is only on loan to me. She belongs to God, and her fate is in His hand. Which, as her Nonna, is both comforting and infuriating.

After all my hard work, and trying, and pushing and pulling, the only option really left to me is to trust God. To do my level best to enjoy the ride as the wave moves me forward. And to occasionally remember to "breathe, dummy."

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

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