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A Remarkably Unremarkable Thing

Exactly fifteen years ago, an unusual sound coming from my son’s bedroom stirred me awake. The sound of fear…the sound of the unknown…a sound that definitely meant something wasn’t right. Still, so long between now and that day, I can hear, and nearly feel, the unsettling rhythm that was generated from somewhere deep within my brave ten-year-old’s brain on that cold January day when he had a frightening seizure, the culmination of a season -long medical mystery which ultimately resulted in the discovery of his brain tumor.

So he’s twenty-five, newly married, healthy, and well. Though haunted by that sound on the occasion of its fleeting memory, I am certainly no longer consumed by the health issue that stole a year from our family. For certain, we are lucky. It was a big deal. Now, it’s really not…at least if you ask my Sam, who doesn’t mark the days or, likely, think of himself as anything but a young man looking out at what his future holds.

For a time, I was consumed by the questions, most unanswerable, the insurance referrals, the appointments, the concerns, and the unspeakable anxiety that would accompany anyone in my situation. Dare I read too much: five similar types of tumors had been reported in a study that I had come across online. All patients eventually had recurring symptoms, and all died. We filled the spaces where the worst fears crept by selling caps to raise money for pediatric brain tumor research and, really, to distract ourselves from what was overwhelming.

People…kind people…came forward. Neighbors brought casseroles, bought caps, and offered rides for the other children. Time passed. The brain scans were clean: monthly, quarterly, biannually, every year, then five years between.

My hair dreaded slowly over several years. I stopped combing it altogether one day, as a sort of tribute to a dear friend that left us way too early, and because I had always admired how my sister wore her hair. I had my hair tended by a stylist four times over five years, the last time just before my son’s wedding this summer, and I ripped them apart from each other regularly so as to avoid getting one giant stuck-together mass of hair, which was kind of what is is anyway.

I loved them, especially the last few years, when I could tie them up. Never did I think too deeply about how I was perceived by others; my dreads felt right for me. They grew heavier, obviously, and the weekly shampoo became more brutal, taking a day and a night to dry, resulting in stiff shoulders, soaked sweaters, and hard frozen dreads on bitter winter mornings when chicken chores could not be avoided. This leads to another situation: when a chicken got stuck on my head. I guess, in some ways, I had had enough. Maybe it was time to cut my hair. It had to have been a bit traumatic for the chicken, too.

I thought about it, a lot. Maybe I would have been brave enough to shave my head fifteen years ago, when we wore our caps in solidarity with Sam, but I do not have the courage for such a drastic measure in my middle age. Or maybe that’s not what it is at all.

I have started cutting and combing them, one knotty dread at a time. It’s making me sad, and I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do, but, as with so much else, it’s what I’m doing.

Five years ago, a lot was different. So much was locked up in each of these knots: fear and hope, certainly, happiness and hardness, trials, cowardice, loss, bravery, hurt, disappointment, determination, and unnamed emotions that have yet to come free. I have broken three combs to the point of uselessness, but I still have two thirds of my work ahead of me.

Fifteen years ago, a lot was different. Nineteen of the children that would be part of our tribe for even a fleeting moment of time had yet to come through our doors. We hadn’t known the emotional trials that would follow the darkness and subsequent healing of what happened to our then ten-year-old. We hadn’t known the fight that would empty us out on the other side. We hadn’t yet known the power of our strongest march. Maybe we were confused. Maybe we still are.

I understand that there’s no scientific rationale for time passing more quickly when one grows older, but somewhere deep in my soul, there seems to be some validity to this concept. The seemingly endless nighttime awakenings, the hours spent studying leading up to finals, half-a-day spent sitting in a hospital waiting room, the months waiting for a sibling waiver to add a brother to our band, the thirty-some hours spent combing out hair that was allowed to freeform for five years…these things that consume us swiftly become part of our history as we await the next task, our next adventure, however unremarkable it may be. If we turn around through our moment of drudgery and uncertainty, it will soon be a reflection from where we have come…five, fifteen, a hundred years gone.

Elliott left this morning to fly back to California, to the university where he has now nearly finished his PhD. He encouraged me this week as I unleashed my first few dreads, assuring me that this uncertainty would soon pass, and that I would “watch it go” like so many other things.

In a week’s time, I should have combed out all the knots. Maybe there will be a sense of freedom…or sadness…or regret. Time, though, will carry me along, as always. I am trying to see this task before me, now armed with a new, much stronger comb, made of metal, as a release of what has bound me, and as a tribute to what is yet to come.

So here’s to one last clean scan, continues forward marching, and a Happy New Year with no more chickens stuck to my head.

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