I have a friend living my life of 10 years ago—an echo of young motherhood, foreign hospitals, unusual cultural recommendations, language mishaps. An update on her son’s respiratory problems sent my mind reeling to the scent of burning coal, the layer of soot on mirrors, the hoarse and desperate cough in the middle of the night, and the raspy breathing of an infant…
Friend, what I would want to share with you, or what I would say to my younger self of a decade ago, is to face the fear and uncertainty with others by your side.
Our first health scare in Turkey was not the first with our son. We had already crossed ER lines holding a yellowing eight-day-old baby. Then, a year later, we were pushing an umbrella stroller whose plastic wheels were not made for ancient cobblestone. A red-faced, cranky boy squirmed and demanded release, and an initial graze across the forehead brought alarm and strategizing. Where was the closest emergency room? What did we have time for?
Nearby, an Ottoman mansion had been converted to a children’s medical facility. Its white wood-planked facade was charming, and its silent interior at first felt welcoming, and calming. It is unclear if their ensuing frantic attention stemmed from our foreignness, the fact that we were their only clients, or the fear of a burning-hot toddler. Ice packs were placed in every crevice, and the doctor began suggesting extreme measures. It was our first taste of medical authority and our first attempt at navigating the landscape alone.
The following year found us in another ER, again alone. I sat uncomfortably in a hospital chair, a growing new baby inside me, while my husband was wheeled to surgery. He had been stabbed. On the way home from a student meeting, in what we came to believe was a failed mugging, two guys lunged a blade 10 centimeters into his thigh, narrowly missing his artery. Teammates came to watch our two-year-old while I taxied to the hospital. At 2:00 AM I texted a friend.
She admonished me later for not calling. Why would I sit alone in another country in a foreign hospital, filled with fear from the stabbing and unanswered questions: was he targeted? Had he been followed? Was our entire team at risk? Was he going to be okay? And I merely sent a text. Alone.
I can describe the interior of two—no, three—hospitals in Turkey with impeccable detail. Many hours were spent getting shots, ultrasounds, nebulizers, and tests. They hold so much memory in my mind that I can see and smell them as if it was yesterday: the room where my nine-month-old rolled off the examining table, the stairwell I fell down at eight months pregnant, the wing where my two oldest disappeared in sight but not sound. Always in my memory, it is me and my kids, alone. Sometimes my husband is with me, but usually I am forging the language and culture and mama-bear fear alone.
It was to one of these hospitals that we fled in the middle of the night with our five-month-old who was struggling for breath after weeks of bronchiolitis, nebulizer treatments, and steroids. My husband held her in a taxi while I waited behind for a friend to come to stay with the other two. I had called for help. Finally.
On the way myself, I called another and another friend. Waking them up in the middle of the night, weeping in fear, I asked them to pray. It was the face of a friend I looked to hours later; holding a stabilized baby, I burst into sobs.
It took me so long to choose to not be alone—so many years before I embraced weakness and need, before I allowed my own vulnerability to be nurtured by others.
I think of the stress of living cross-culturally, of fully grasping another language, of raising children to be healthy and safe—and too many of my memories are of doing it alone. What did I miss out on, by not involving others? By not offering my weakness and need to another, robbing them of the joy of serving me and loving me in the ways I needed? By setting some sort of standard or expectation that “I can do it”? Sadly, in doing so I virtually communicated to my team: you should too!
Ironically, that which I miss most about our years of living overseas, on a team with shared purpose and distance from loved ones, is that which I took for granted while there. We were a surrogate family. In the absence of cousins and aunts, we filled in for each other. Through celebrations, holidays, and shared trauma, we created kinship.
I wonder if my self-protection and reluctance to express vulnerability to that “family” is a reflection of how I behave with my own blood, here and now. What if my decade-ago self is still alive?
What I can say, this side of that journey, is that I wish I had not done so much of it alone. The richness of what awaits you and your team when you invite them in, to stand with you in the fear of raspy breathing and the confusion of medical terminology and the complete otherness of foreign hospitals, is God Himself.
Question to consider: How do you allow your “own vulnerability to be nurtured by others.”