Life Letters

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. ---Antoine de Saint Exupery, "The Little Prince"

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Location: MD, United States

Travel is my passion. I also have celiac disease. Combining the two is what "Way of the Celiac Traveler" is all about. "Way of the Gluten Free Diner" is about specific restaurants, mostly in the DC Metro Area. "Life Letters" is, well, letters about my life!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Breathing In Life

We are on our way to a Saturday morning soccer game when we come upon the scene of the accident. Police cars block the road in both directions, their sober blue lights flashing despondently against cold gray skies, forcing us to turn around and find a different path to the fields. Since I’m driving, being careful not to put the minivan into the ditch as I make a three-point turn on the two-lane road, my husband observes the site. But there really isn’t much to see – a tow truck pulling a battered car from the roadside, a dangling utility pole, and a few police officers making notes for their reports. If there’d been an ambulance, it is now nowhere to be seen. The crash must’ve occurred in the early hours of the morning.

I know this stretch of road well. It’s the last straight and wide-open section of a Maryland state route that drivers traverse on their way to the small town where we live in western Montgomery County. Punctuated by gentle hills and valleys reminiscent of an old-fashioned wooden rollercoaster, this segment has on numerous occasions enticed our youngest son Matthew to wonder out loud what it’d feel like to drive it at 100 mph.

“Probably a teenage driver coming home late at night,” I say with a noticeable sigh. “He was most likely driving too fast.” Matthew wants to know why I’m so sure of this. He is only 12, yet conversations between him and his 14-year old brother Jordan regularly veer toward the day they will drive – fast. In sports cars, naturally, going places and hanging out with their friends.

I want to explain to Matthew and Jordan that mile for mile, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers. That according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, inexperience and immaturity, combined with factors such as speed, nighttime driving, alcohol and drug use, not wearing seat belts, and distracted driving (cell phone use, loud music, and other teen passengers), worsen this problem.

But I say nothing. They should know all of this already.


It was 8:15 at night when the phone rang, nine months earlier. We were all just getting up from the dining room table, carrying plates and serving dishes to the kitchen after a family gathering to celebrate our oldest son Peter’s upcoming high school graduation. My mother-in-law was visiting from New York; my parents and grandmother, who live nearby, were there, too. Peter and a friend had left about fifteen minutes beforehand, on their way to a graduation party.

My husband answered the phone while I commenced loading the dishwasher. Mildly aware of a shift in the jovial lilt of his voice, I glanced uneasily at the clock. Fifteen minutes. It had been 15 minutes since Peter and his friend left. Or was it 30? Why hadn’t I paid more attention to the time? Opening the back door, my husband walked out onto the deck and then turned and called my name. I didn’t like his serious tone. I didn’t want to go. If I didn’t go, I reasoned, he couldn’t tell me what my heart seemed to already know. So I continued to rinse the dishes. Again he called my name.

There was no need for words as I stepped outside and looked into the deep sorrowful eyes of the man I married over 21 years ago, the phone still pressed to his ear. But I had to hear the truth. There had been an accident. Peter’s friend was driving too fast. The car went off the road on a curve, smashing into several large trees on the passenger side, rendering our son unconscious. The rescue squad used the “Jaws of Life” to get him out of the vehicle. I closed my eyes in silent acceptance of the words, aware that even the sweet evening breeze was holding its breath, while my mind exploded with the sounds of shrieking, crumpling metal. “He regained consciousness as they loaded him into the ambulance.” My eyes snapped open and the universe gasped. We had to go. Quickly. When I questioned aloud why the ambulance was going to a hospital farther from our home, my mother answered in a trembling voice, “It’s known for its trauma unit.”


Peter wasn’t afraid of ambulances. Not that he liked them either. He just had been in enough of them to know what to expect. Of course, he wouldn’t remember his first ambulance ride, which took place seven weeks before he was supposed to be born.

I was in the early stages of the third trimester of my pregnancy when we moved to the high altitude city of Colorado Springs from Athens, Greece. We’d enjoyed living in Greece for the previous three years while my husband, a military officer, was assigned to the U.S. Air Force base there. Yet we welcomed this new assignment along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and, after having endured one miscarriage in a Greek hospital, we were glad our child would be born in the United States.

Things might’ve been better, however, if we’d known in advance about a correlation between traveling or moving to high altitude locations and premature births. But we found out soon enough when my contractions started five days after our arrival. Our son was born 10 days later, and then promptly whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, separated from me for nearly 24 hours until he was stabilized. There, with sensors attached to his chest, wires entangling his limbs, and intravenous needles piercing his fragile body, I was so afraid to hold him, so afraid of causing him pain. Most of the time, though, all I could do was look at him through the incubator walls; he was so small, so alone. He would need supplemental oxygen and an apnea/heart monitor for the first several months of his life.


The only condition we knew about Peter after the car accident was that he had regained consciousness. That’s all the police officer would say on the phone. So I grasped onto that knowledge and tried not to let my mind wander to the places it wanted to go, or to attach myself to the thoughts that filled the silence while we drove to the hospital. Years of practicing yoga had taught me to use my breath to focus my mind. So I consciously breathed deeply, feeling my belly expand like a balloon - inhaling life - and then slowly released my breath, letting the diaphragm relax, returning to the cosmos what I didn’t need. I didn’t need those images of a mangled vehicle, of a wracked body, of my son being alone. I breathed in my desires for him to know we were coming, for him not to be suffering or afraid. Every breath was a supplication. Please let him be all right. Please. He’s already been through so much.

The drive to the hospital lasted an eternity. Once there, though, it felt like I was hurtling through time and space. Because that’s what parenting has always felt like to me. A never ending, exhausting, and uncontrollable race to stay one step ahead of my children - pointing out the cracks in the sidewalk so they wouldn’t trip, cautioning them against touching the hot stove, reminding them to hold on tight when I noticed them loosening their grip as I pushed them on the swings. But how could I anticipate that an overzealous parent playing soccer with nine-year old kids would miss the ball and kick Peter instead, breaking his tibia and necessitating a couple of months on crutches? Or that the one time I let him go for a whirl on his friend’s brand new scooter without a helmet would be the one time he’d fall, landing him in the emergency room with his first concussion?

Peter was only 11 when he took his first solo ambulance ride. Playing basketball at school, he got knocked over, cracking his skull on the shiny wooden floor, ending up with his second head injury. He told me he wasn’t afraid. When he was 12, he chipped a hip bone and tore a quad muscle from overuse playing soccer. At age 13 it was a broken wrist while bicycling with a friend. He went skiing when he was 14. I should’ve known better. The ski patrol first had to get him off the slope before the ambulance could take him to the hospital. A few days later Peter had his first surgery, to screw his splintered ankle back together.


My husband and I were met in the emergency room waiting area by Peter’s friend who had been driving the car, and the friend’s mother. Since he never lost consciousness, the friend had crawled out the car’s shattered back window, flagged down a passerby for assistance, and then used a cell phone to call his mother. The boy was physically unscathed; his emotional status was a different matter. “I’m so sorry,” were the only words he could conjure from the depths of his guilt while his body shuddered with sorrow and he stumbled into my open arms.

Finally, the attending EMT emerged from the ER. “The boys were wearing their seatbelts,” he informed us. “If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have survived the crash.” The words echoed inside my brain. How close were we to tragedy? Once again I pulled my attention to my breath, refusing to play the “what if” game. “Oh, and about Peter,” the EMT continued, “I think he’s going to be OK. He talked a lot in the ambulance. But he’s very concerned about his lungs, so the doctors are running some extra tests.”


Peter was 15 years old when he went to the high school nurse’s office complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. The discomfort eventually dissipated and he went back to class, but something led the nurse to get in touch with me, suggesting I take Peter to the doctor, just to see if anything unusual was going on. There was. Within two hours of entering the doctor’s office, including a side trip to the radiologist, our teenage son was packed into an ambulance, an oxygen mask on his face, and sent to the hospital for emergency surgery. Diagnosis: spontaneous pneumothorax, or collapsed lung.

We were living in northern Italy, near Aviano Air Base. It was the latest assignment in my husband’s long military career. The base had only a medical clinic, so Peter was sent to an Italian hospital where an American military doctor surgically inserted a tube between his ribs to release the air that had accumulated on the wrong side of the collapsed lung and which was exerting dangerous pressure on other vital organs. He remained in the hospital for ten days. Three months later there was another spontaneous pneumothorax. Fortunately, this one was small, and only a little air escaped the lung before whatever responsible defect sealed itself up and the lung re-expanded on its own. When his left lung collapsed a third time, however, Peter returned to the Italian hospital for one more painful chest tube insertion, and then was aero-medically evacuated to a large U.S. military hospital in Germany for a three-week stay and a procedure called apical pleurectomy. It involved snipping off the tip of his faulty lung, and then “burning” the lung to the chest wall, thus preventing any future problems. The doctors never could tell us why the collapses occurred. Just that it sometimes happened to tall skinny boys.


The ER nurse at last admitted us through the doors that stated Authorized Personnel Only. “Does your son have a sarcastic wit?” he asked. Glancing at each other with crazy grins, my husband I replied that yes, he did indeed. Alas, one shaped by misfortune. But for us, that one question meant Peter was still conscious, he was coherent, and was acting normal. Tears flowed down my cheeks with this revelation and I exhaled a quiet prayer of thanks.

Several hours passed in the emergency room while medical personnel continued to monitor Peter’s condition. The countless images that were taken of his head, neck, spine, and lungs had to be read and were in time reported to us. There were no broken bones or internal injuries. His lungs were fine. A skin abrasion where the seatbelt held him in place and slight bruising from the airbag impact were the extent of the external damages. The attending trauma physician was concerned about Peter’s concussion, though, as there was still the possibility of intracranial swelling and hemorrhage. He was eventually transferred to the Intensive Care Unit for round-the-clock monitoring. Less than 24 hours after the accident, Peter was allowed to go home. He couldn’t remember much about the crash, and repeatedly asked us what happened. The doctor said our son was an extremely lucky guy. Many are not.


A group of teenagers is now gathered at the location where we saw the accident this morning on our way to the soccer game. In the freshly churned up earth a small wooden cross has been planted. The snapped utility pole sways in the crisp air, and a pony-tailed girl raises her hand to wipe the tears rolling down her cheeks. Slowing down as we drive past, I scan the faces, looking, and yet hoping I won’t recognize anyone there. My husband searches the group, too. Jordan thinks some of the kids are from the local high school. Matthew remains quiet. We all know what’s happened here.

Continuing homeward along the familiar and well-worn path, our individual thoughts of sadness slowly swirl into a collective fog of sorrow that presses heavily against my chest, making it hard to breathe. My mind loses its focus and wanders to the places it wants to go, where it shouldn’t go. That’s when I realize I’m holding my breath. And consciously exhale.  


Blogger Emma said...


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Blogger Emma said...


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