A Day in Emergency

Missy lay back in the emergency room bed, exhausted. After the day she’d had, neither Heather nor I could blame her.

Too much crying. Too much pain. Missy had been done with this long before her medical team had, and that meant she turned into 97 pounds of pint-sized stubborn. The vomiting hadn’t helped, nor had the “I gotta go potty-o” trips that repeatedly produced nothing.

We’d had to come, though. Abdominal pain can’t be ignored. Especially the sort that transforms a face into a living mask of hurt, a tragedy mask wrapped in wordless agony.

So here we were, and here we stayed for the longest five hours on Earth. Heather and I had been this route before – in fact, with my wife’s many chronic illnesses, Heather was something of an emergency room veteran.

But not with Missy. Never for Missy.

In more than six years of caring for our developmentally disabled ward, we had never once had to bring her to the ER. Colds, yes. Bugs, sure. But never anything that needed more than bed rest, patience, and a quiet reminder of “Don’t pull your hair, Missy.”

We could feel the difference now.

At the best of times, Missy is a quiet person. She isn’t non-verbal – in fact, she’s “chattier” than she used to be – but even so, her use of words tends to be pretty sparing. In those moments, translation tends to rely on facial expression, body language, and a glossary of common phrases, filtered through the context of the moment. (For example, “book” can mean an actual book or it can mean her ever-present, filled-past-the-brim purse.)

The three of us communicate well. But when the moment of pain hit, Missy didn’t have the words to explain it. And that’s scary, on both sides of the conversation.

No one likes being helpless. And few things are more helpless than to see someone you love in pain, without being able to do anything about it.

We all know that one, don’t we? Whether it’s a night in the hospital with a relative in pain, or a headline that screams of disaster visiting friends and family across the country, it opens the same doors. That desperate need to help that can’t find resolution, however hard we try.

And when the person involved can do so little to help themselves – the very old, the very young, the disabled – it only gets magnified.

Yes, this is part of how we know we’re human. This is the heart showing that it can feel need, empathize with pain, and spur us beyond ourselves. It’s how we know the depth of our bonds, as a family and a species.

But when all that potential has nowhere to go, it hurts. You find ways to help, but they never seem enough. Maybe they are. Maybe even our smallest gestures mean something on the other side of the divide. I hope so.

It finally seemed to for Missy.

Blood tests. An X-ray. A CT scan.  And in the end, some good news – no appendicitis, no bowel obstruction, none of the worst possibilities that Heather and I had been fearing. The meds were helping her through, the pain was receding. Everyone could go home.

We didn’t have final answers today. For now, those could wait. For now, it was enough to be together, to have been together. To have “normal” back, however fragile it might be.

No, you can never do enough.

But sometimes you can do enough for now.

The Hobbit of a Lifetime

Eighty years ago, Bilbo Baggins greeted the world. And the story has been a compelling Hobbit ever since.

OK, that’s an awful pun to give someone before coffee, even if it does have a certain Ring to it. (All right, all right, put down the hammer, I’ll be good.) Jokes aside, though, this is a good anniversary to tip the hat to. On Sept. 21, 1937, readers first encountered the words “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit” – words that J.R.R. Tolkien had once scribbled down while grading an exam, wondering where they had come from and where they might lead.

Since then, The Hobbit has been there and back again millions of times. We may have racked up a few dozen in our family alone.

Like many of us, I discovered The Hobbit early on. Dad  introduced me to it in third grade for our reading nights, where he and I would each read half a chapter. (We would later spend years doing the same for The Lord of the Rings, as I’ve mentioned in another column.)  The tale expanded both my imagination and my vocabulary as I learned that a mail shirt had nothing to do with envelopes, that a “rent” piece of armor had been torn, and that “quay” was a truly deceptive word, indeed.

I loved it. The goblins and elves, the dwarves and dragons, the riddles in the dark and eagles in the morning all spoke to something inside of me and have ever since. I began reading it to my own family long ago and got asked for an encore, the first volume besides Harry Potter to win that honor from Missy.

I know I’m not alone. And it’s fair to ask why.

The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey may have hit a big part of it, when he noted how we travel the road in Bilbo’s shoes – well, Bilbo’s hairy bare feet, anyway. Bilbo is invited into a world of epic courage, Shippey noted, where he feels immediately that he doesn’t belong. But not only does he ultimately share in the sort of bravery a saga might celebrate, he also discovers a more modern courage of his own that the dwarves might never understand. An internal bravery, discovered in the dark, to do the right thing even if no song would ever celebrate it and no bard would ever know – a duty that a World War I veteran like Tolkien knew far too well.

“He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone,” Tolkien wrote of Bilbo mustering the courage to face the dragon Smaug, “before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”

That’s something I think we all can share in.

Our journeys, like Bilbo’s,  come without warning. They ask us to face fears and dangers we never prepared for, and sometimes aren’t sure we can survive. More than once, we want to step back to a cozy home with pocket handkerchiefs close to hand and tea on the fire – or at least somewhere where our worries can be about the Broncos’ choices on fourth down instead of family concerns, financial strains, and headlines that savage us like a pack of Wargs.

But in the journey, we can find ourselves. We discover new friends and unexpected gifts. And while tears are still a part of the story, they need not be faced without hope.

We don’t need to be an iron-muscled hero. We just need to be ourselves, ready to face the next steps with what we have. For who we love. For what we’ve promised. For who we are inside.

That’s a lot to carry in one children’s book.

And we need it like we need a hole in the head. A hobbit hole in the head, that is.

For that, Professor Tolkien promised us, means comfort.

The Oddest Corners

The record of human brilliance stretches across centuries, with numerous landmarks to light its way. The invention of the wheel. The discovery of the smallpox vaccine. Ideas that helped us unlock the structure of genetics, the movements of the heavens, and the creation of computer games that keep you up until 3 in the morning. (Ahem.)

And then – there are the other achievements.

Like the brassiere that converts into a pair of protective face masks.

Or the use of live crocodiles to encourage or discourage gamblers.

Or the recipe to partially un-boil an egg.

For this sort of thing, you want the Ig Nobel Prizes, given out since 1991 for unlikely discoveries that “make people laugh and then make them think,” according to the organizers. Some of the awards have been tongue-in-cheek, such as the ones given to Dan Quayle for demonstrating the need for better science education, or to Volkswagen for their, uh, creative approach to the problem of reducing vehicle emissions. But most reflect actual study or achievement, even if the project is a bit … unlikely? Bizarre? Even silly?

I love this kind of stuff.

Mind you, I have nothing against awards for excellence – I’ve won a few and written about many more. But as anyone who’s watched a four-hour Oscar ceremony knows, the concept can get a little over-the-top. (Especially in years when you go on for four hours and then give out the wrong Oscar, but, hey, I’m sure that’ll only be remembered for two or three centuries.)

So we get things like the Razzies, honoring the worst movies ever made. Or the Darwins, recognizing those who improved the gene pool by leaving it. Distinctions that present a cautionary tale and a reason to laugh at ourselves.

By itself, that might be enough justification for the Ig Nobels. Heaven knows we need all the laughter we can get in today’s world. But I especially like the Igs (can I call them Igs? Thank you.) because of a larger concept they illustrate – that ANYTHING can be thought about in a scientific way.

Science encourages questions, even about the seemingly obvious. In that, it has a lot in common with my old field of journalism, where one of the fundamental maxims is “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Ask, explore, discover, and ask again.

But as a species, we are horrible at questioning ourselves. Five minutes on any social media platform will show how quickly we grow defensive and how rarely we listen. Even in the offline world, conversations often become less about exchanging ideas and experiences, and more about waiting for an opening to grab the microphone. Our assumptions become positions to defend and hills to die on, rather than invitations to actually learn.

And so, I treasure anything that encourages asking questions. Even silly ones. After all, if we get practice in asking the odd questions, how much more likely do the reasonable ones become?

And sometimes, even the odd questions yield something useful. It turns out that playing a digeridoo actually can help sleep apnea a little bit (breathing exercises are breathing exercises), that roller coasters may help some symptoms of asthma, and that looking at pretty pictures might affect how much pain you feel while being shot in the hand with a laser.

OK, so that last one may not be all that useful except to Luke Skywalker. But give it time.  And in that time, keep asking more questions.

It’s a noble pursuit. Or even an Ig Nobel one.

Burrowing In

As I brought Missy to her bedroom, all the familiar comforts were waiting. Her Hogwarts pillows. Her bedtime story on the nightstand. And 95 pounds of midnight-colored canine, sprawled across the carpet.

Sigh. “Hi, Blake.”

Big Blake hasn’t always been part of the bedtime routine. In the past, our English Lab preferred to camp out in the master bedroom with Heather, waiting for her attention to wander so he could sneak off and raid the Christmas trash. But sometime last June and July, when the fireworks turned into a Normandy-level barrage, Blake decided it was time to relocate.

For a while he hid under my desk, which was a little like trying to fit a genie back into its lamp and about as miraculous. So after a while, he chose the comforts of Missy’s room instead. Even after the fireworks stopped, he’d plunk himself down, just in time for storytime.

I can hear everyone saying “Awww!” And yes, it makes a rather cute sight. But after the book gets put away and the last good-night hugs are shared, there remains the Herculean task of getting Blake to leave the room.

“C’mon, buddy.” Pause. “No, really, it’s time, let’s go.” Pause. “Blake ….”

Leaving the door open at night isn’t really an option, since it’s harder for Missy to sleep. Leaving them alone together is a little like leaving the Marx Brothers with a cream pie and a society matron close to hand. Lifting him up and out … I did mention this was 95 pounds of Lab, right?

So we coax. We call. We lay trails of food to lure him or ring the doorbell to get him charging out. We always feel a little bad about it, since we know it’s a comfort spot for him. But sooner or later, he needs to move.

I think more than a few of us can identify with that.

There has been a lot going on over the last year or so – enough that I sometimes wonder if the Cubs broke the space-time continuum with their World Series win. Hurricanes and wildfires. Torches and Nazis. And of course, the political becoming perpetual, with every day seeming to bring a new issue to discuss … no, debate … all right, argue.

Now, I worked in the media long enough to know that we’re never completely at Condition Green. We live in a world where we can instantly know every crisis and feel pain from half a world away. Not every alarm bell is necessary, but sorting out the ones that must be dealt with is a non-trivial task, even in the best of times.

Even so, the volume has been creeping up as surely as Missy’s stereo. And it’s being felt. I regularly see people who just want to disengage and break off from it all. Turn off the TV, put down the paper, clear off anything on the Facebook wall that isn’t puppies and flowers. Find a good bedroom at storytime, and plunk down on the carpet, away from everything else.

I understand. And to a certain extent, it’s necessary. No one can battle all the time, everyone needs a time and place where they can pull back, regroup, and recover. Having a space, online or off, that’s a “No Politics” zone can be essential to sanity.

But while it’s a great place to visit, we can’t live there.

In a free society, politics is everyone’s business. In an interconnected society, no decision leaves anyone untouched. And in this society, pulling back from a situation because it’s stressful doesn’t mean the situation will go away – it just means that you’ve removed any voice you might have had about how to deal with it.

And the voices that stay are not guaranteed to have your best interests at heart.

Yes, rest. Recover. Care for yourself, renew your joy and your strength. No job can be 24 hours, including our job as citizens. But remember that recuperation is different from surrender. Sooner or later, however comfy the place, we have to move back to where we need to be.

Trust me. You’ll be dog-gone glad you did.

Bigger Things

Water rising in the streets. Highways cut off. Neighborhoods turned into islands as their residents hunker down to shelter from the deluge.

We know this story.

Oh, not on the scale that Houston has seen and endured, to be sure, with its millions of people and trillions of gallons of water. But our own memories of floodwater are still raw and fresh, not quite four years old. We still recall the power of the storm.

We remember river channels moving and attacking from new directions. We remember south Longmont isolated and Lyons evacuated. We remember the rain, steady, unhurried, relentless, never seeming to leave.

And one thing more. That even as floods divided the city, they united its people. For a while, the usual controversies didn’t matter. What mattered was reaching out to the next guy, and the next, and the next.

The scale has changed but the impulse hasn’t. A storm focuses attention to an amazing degree. All at once, people line up to offer shelter, or supplies, or even a hastily assembled fleet of boats like a second Dunkirk. I can’t say all criticism or animosities were forgotten – among 300 million people, that may be an impossibility – but for a while, they were eclipsed by something bigger.

Come to think of it, that’s a timely word. After all, it hasn’t been so long since that was literally true as well.

Just a couple of weeks ago, much of the country took a break from what it was doing to watch a hole in the sky. For some, it was transformative as totality turned the midday sky into a magical darkness. Even those of us just out of the main path of the solar eclipse were transfixed by shadow, reflections, and the hint of sun still visible through darkened glasses.

Again, it didn’t lift us completely above our controversies and arguments. But it did seem to put life on pause for a few minutes, to make the contention smaller as we stood and watched together.

For a moment, the scale changed. And our perspective with it.

For a moment, our focus was captured by something larger than ourselves.

It doesn’t last. Maybe it can’t. The author Terry Pratchett once noted that “Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.” We still are different people with different views, and when that singular focus has passed, we still have to figure out how to build a life together day by day.

But we can keep that common purpose on a deeper level. We can remember why we come together in times of disaster and wonder.

Because your life matters as much as mine. Because we share a world bigger than any of us. Because it’s not just about ourselves, but about the others in this world who are just as worthy of respect and dignity and help – and that each of us is an “other” to someone, who may someday need an outstretched hand and an open heart.

We may each of us see the road differently. But if we’re striving for the same destination, to reach a place that lifts all of us up and holds none of us down, then we can travel together. It won’t always be a peaceful journey – what family road trip ever is? – but if we can agree that helping each other is more important than scoring points or revenging wrongs,  it will at least move us all down the road.

A hurricane makes it obvious. But storms move on.

It’s up to us to make sure something bigger remains behind.