My Face Looks the Way the World Feels
I can’t recall if my head hit the porcelain slab before or after my legs slid out from under me. All I remember was the steady cascade of crimson blood staining my shower curtain, drizzling down the side of the tub, and pooling on the tile. In the seconds that lapsed between a careless fall in the shower and my pleas for help, a lifetime-worth of fears surged through me, flooding my mind at lightning speed…What if I broke a bone? They’ll have to take me to the hospital…… What if I fell on my stoma and crushed it? They’ll have to take me to the hospital……What if I need stitches? They’ll have to take me to the hospital. In my mind, going to the hospital was synonymous with contracting COVID-19, which instantly generated images of me gasping for air, being placed on a ventilator, and never coming home.
I’m used to facing the unknown.
I’m used to living in a constant state of fragile health and making cautious choices.
I’m used to assessing invitations and determining if my disabilities and health constraints will keep me from participating.
I thought having lived with an autoimmune disease, scleroderma, for 35 years had uniquely prepared me for aspects of this pandemic.
I thought having survived 218 days in the hospital, nine major surgeries, the loss of two organs, temporary paralysis, and a myriad of other life-threatening conditions had built my reserves of resilience and optimism to overflowing capacity.
I thought having been isolated in the ICU for months, unable to see my children, speak or move had given me a powerful perspective on what really matters in life.
I thought I was better equipped than most to handle the shelter-in-place order.
I thought wrong.
All it took was a slip in the shower to crack the facade wide open.
As my contorted body lay crumpled and bleeding, my mind spun wildly out of control. Convinced I was headed to the hospital, my thoughts plummeted to the darkest caverns of my mind. I began bellowing for help, doing a quick inventory of my family member’s possible locations. My 17-year-old son was still asleep. The kid is famous for sleeping through multiple alarm clocks, so I knew there wasn’t a chance in hell my screaming would awaken him. I wasn’t sure where in the house my 13-year-old daughter was, but if her ear buds were in, I was out of luck. As has been the case so often in our relationship, all my hopes lay squarely on my husband’s shoulders. Panic rippled through me as a multitude of outcomes danced before me.; most concluding with my funeral.
I hear the familiar sound of my husband’s footsteps drawing near. Within moments, he is draping towels over me and gently hoisting me out of the tub. After a quick inspection, he calmly says, “Lisa, you’re fine, it’s just your nose that’s bleeding.” He knows me well enough to swiftly add, “You’re not going to need to go to the hospital.” He leads me to sit down on our bed and then begins the task of cleaning up the mess in the bathroom with our daughter.
Alone in our bedroom, my body convulses with the deeply rooted terror I carry, yet rarely allow to bubble to the surface. Only those who live in a chronic state of fragile health can really understand the special brand of vulnerability that serves as our constant companion. Living with the fear that a simple tumble in the tub can have catastrophic health consequences is simply a way of life for us. It is a burden we learn to bear because it’s our only option. Even with my husband’s assurance that I was fine, time was suspended in the moment I fell. I was tethered to the horror and couldn’t break free.
The gravity of my recent fall hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. The logical part of my brain that told me I was lucky nothing happened was no match for the catastrophic spiraling that gripped me. I sobbed with deep primal trembling for about 20 minutes. Slowly, I got dressed, cleansed and bandaged my minor wounds and began icing the plum- sized swelling that was already sprouting on my forehead and eye. I spent the day (who am I kidding- the week) on the couch binge watching Amazon Prime’s Hunters. A series about World War II Nazis being brought to the U.S. to run NASA is a sure- fire way to lift one’s spirits- right? Don’t worry, I wasn’t just slumped on the couch watching television. To maintain some degree of productivity, I simultaneously inhaled Hershey bars like the plane was going down.
The earth keeps spinning despite the need to shelter-in-place. Americans are comparing this to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, but I think this is different. It is not just our country sharing a collective trauma-it’s the whole world. Across the globe, we are all terrified of one wrong move, like a simple tumble in the shower. Some of us are laying in that tub wondering if anyone is coming to lift us to safety. Some of us will recover from the ordeal with just a few lingering bruises and others will lose their lives. We are all carrying the fear of knowing our fates hinge on the decisions of strangers. Whether it be the loss of a job, a small business crumbling, hunger, or worse, we are all screaming for help, hoping like hell that someone will hear us.
It’s been three weeks since I fell. My bruises are barely visible and the wounds on my face are disappearing. I’ve gotten up off the couch and back to the “new normal” that my privileged life affords me. As we trudge through this remarkable time together, I hope that more of us will come out the other side merely with faded bruises, loved ones who helped us, and strangers who did the right thing. And for the loved ones that are lost, the world will gently hoist up the mourners, drape them in comfort, and tend to the wounds that will never fully heal.