A Long December, the Cheshire Cat, and Reflections on the Aftermath
Every morning at 5:30, Alice fell down the hole. She searched for ways to escape her convoluted situation, assisted only by confusion and chaos. Finally, she realized what ailed her was in her own head, her personal nightmare.
Ah, yes, I thought, nursing my newborn son, Sam, as my two-year-old daughter, Wren, zoned out to television. That is life exactly.
This remained the morning routine for the first three months of 2011, months where we were quarantined lest my son encounter a germ that could make its way back to his lungs, the drowning sensation of pneumonia taking him under again.
By the time the twins were born two years later, I couldn’t watch Alice in Wonderland. I took walks or suddenly felt inspired to fold laundry in the back bedroom when the tell-tale sound of the opening music blared. Why, after almost losing a child to pneumonia, was a children’s movie the reminder that could break me?
After paying enough attention, I realized Alice wasn’t the only one. The idea that we were all processing trauma, living in the aftermath of the extreme, didn’t occur to me until hindsight made it impossible not to see.
My high-risk pregnancy with the twins landed me back at the door of Children’s Hospital in 2012. I had avoided even driving by the building unless forced. When forced, I felt short of breath. For these appointments, I found a way through the automatic doors without having to walk down the corridor that I will always associate with spinal taps, lack of oxygen, and the pediatric intensive care unit.
The microwave broke and we never replaced it. Being rid of the beeping that notified us our food was warm also got rid of the fear that throbbed when it went off. It sounded like the beep of the blood ox alarm from the hospital.
I constantly heard “A Long December” by the Counting Crows, my husband “Layla” by Eric Clapton, on the way to and from the hospital when Sam was sick. Neither of us talked about it, but my husband almost sliced through his hand while cutting a tomato when the Clapton song came on one day at home. He was crying too hard to see what he was doing, and I knew.
My daughter, previously only having spent three nights away from me in her first two years of life, broke down when I was in and out of her life for the thirteen days her brother fought to live. “Where is Sam? Is he going to come home?”
When it was over, she still cried often and slept little. Alice was the only constant.
In his toddler nightmares, a monster chased Sam and he couldn’t breathe. My husband and I never failed to see the significance, remembering the hospital room filling up with doctors and nurses when his body was deprived of air for too long.
“The monster didn’t catch you,” we assured him each time it happened. But the monster left his mark on all of us.
It’s 2018 and Sam’s cough is deep and frequent. I start listing off what we’ve tried to handle it: steroids, Flonase, Flovent, Albuterol, Singulair, vitamin C, vitamin D, lemon water, humidifier. All were administered in the last 12 hours.
The doctor gives me permission to use Benadryl, and after he swallows the maximum dose, seven-year-old Sam agrees to meditate with me.
We use an app, and the woman tells us to simply breathe, just like that.
“But my nose,” he says, his mouth sounding full of cotton.
“Just breathe any way you can. It’s just about focusing on your body doing what it was made to do.”
He tries to relax into my arms, and I try to release the grip I have that betrays the stress still running through my body after all these years.
“In and out, please. You were made to do this.”
When the meditation ends, he mumbles, “I think that helped” before falling into a deep sleep. I watch him breathe for the next thirty minutes.
I’m reading Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski in 2019, memories of our hospital days nowhere near. I am simply looking for relief from the daily burnout that comes with parenting four kids while picking up freelance work and not sleeping enough.
An early chapter focuses on how important it is to end the stress cycle on a regular basis. “Just because you dealt with the stressor doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress.” I catch my breath and read that sentence again and again and again.
When we returned home with Sam, I made a commitment not to complain and not to look back. I avoided anything that drug my mind back to that room, that hospital, those alarms. I understood that children died and that we were lucky. You should be grateful, and grateful people go on, I reminded myself on a daily basis. The threat was over for the moment. I tried to go on. In doing so, I attempted to sidestep the ever-present stress because the stressor was behind us.
The stress showed up anyway. It manifested in my adrenal glands crashing. It showed up as severe anxiety and high-functioning depression. It stepped forward every time Sam coughed in his sleep and I sat in his room for hours watching him breathe.
In refusing to face the stress, I surrounded myself with it. Like Alice, I couldn’t find my way out. I needed to break the cycle.
I finally sit down to watch Alice in Wonderland with my family when the Cheshire Cat is on screen. It seems like a start. “We’re all a little mad,” he tells Alice, and it’s true. I look around the living room, at my fellow allies in the trenches, all of us carrying our scars in different ways.
What makes us scared is the fear that any of us could fall back down that hole where all sorts of scary things happen, unable to catch each other. And yes, it makes us a little mad, but it’s also manageable when faced.
There will always be reminders. Sometimes, I still count five breaths when my son is sleeping, checking for any catch or hesitation that could mean trouble. Adam Duritz crooning The smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls will never simply remind me of making out in high school, but I can actually hear it without crying now. Those days of Alice on a loop somehow remain in Technicolor, a reminder that we could fall again, but they don’t shake me as hard as they used to.
Alice and I fell together, but we are finding our way out. We’re a little mad, but we’re still here.
Kristy Ramirez writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, love letters, and grocery lists. Her work has appeared online in Mothers Always Write, Dodging the Rain, and SheLoves Magazine, among other places. She lives in Texas with her husband and four children.