I was searching for a luggage cart in a quiet hotel corridor at 11:00 on a Saturday night. It was a long, hot drive, and the last task of the day was to transport the bags from the car to the room. I slung my purse over my shoulder, walked inside, and was greeted by cool air that was a welcome relief since outside it was around 90 degrees. No cart was in sight, so I rounded the corner and headed toward the lobby, even though my husband hadn’t found a cart there earlier. I had no idea what happened at first – it was like a ghost swung a bat at my ankles while the weight of my entire body (folded into a “V”) came down onto my elbow. There was a cracking sound, and my breathe escaped my lungs like a balloon being pierced by a pin. My purse took off like a boomerang. My sunglasses slid. Even my shoes came off.
I found myself suddenly sprawled on a laminate floor; my head inches from the corner of two walls. A bad combination of wet carpet, poor signage, and sleek laminate did me in. There was no breath to cry or yell for help until I refilled my lungs. Then came the realization that I could not lift my left arm. I screamed out “Somebody help me! I’m in the hallway!” I was tempted to use the phrase I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! but thought it might come across as a joke. It was 11:15 PM, I was sprawled on the floor of a hotel hallway, and this was no joke.
I’ve never broken a bone (except the occasional toe), and my mind was telling me your arm is broken. A hotel guest came out of his room and offered to help me up, but giving him my arm was both frightening and not possible. So there I lay while someone collected my belongings, and a woman ran to the front desk. I noticed her prosthetic leg under a long tee shirt and squeaked out a thank you. I wish I had been able to properly thank her for getting someone to help me, but I didn’t see her again.
Minutes later, my family appeared in the deceptively dry-looking but wet hallway. The silver lining to getting injured while on vacation was that I had family with me. Parents, sister, aunt, uncle, cousins, nieces. In urgent care I awaited X-ray results and sobbed in my mom’s arms. She didn’t shush me. She just cradled me while my nose and eyes leaked all over her arms. If love could have mended that elbow I’d have walked out of that room with a bionic arm.
When the chaos of the moment passed, and my elbow was bandaged and supported by a sling, I cried another ugly cry. I kept trying to stop the tears, but it was futile. I’m not “good with pain” (that seems oxymoronic) but it was more than that. The thought of vacation being ruined was part of it. But, being incapacitated filled me with dread. Like a TV news ticker, the text ran repeatedly across my mind: YOU HAVE A TEENAGER WITH AUTISM…YOU CAN’T BE INJURED…YOU DON’T GET TIME OFF TO HEAL…The sharp jolts of level 9 pain said otherwise.
I know that my injuries could have been much worse. A broken hip. A fractured femur. Stitches to the head. I’ve seen friends and family members fall and need surgery, only to spend months rehabilitating. It’s brutal. I took some comfort in the fact that, like my sister said, my arm would heal and be normal again. She assured me that Zach would understand in his own way. He might even try to be careful around me. My mom had offered to come help me once home if I found that I could not function well around the house. I knew I could care for myself fairly well (I actually didn’t know that, but hoped for that); my tears weren’t about that. The distress arose from knowing – keenly knowing – that being injured and weakened and caring for a kid with severe autism is a rather hideous combination. Even more pressing was the thought of him causing more harm to my busted elbow while it took its time healing.
You see, there are aggressive episodes now and then. Sometimes daily. Sometimes hourly. And it can get scary very quickly. Things can break, iPads can fly, arms can be twisted. How on earth was I supposed to be “on” with Zach by myself after vacation with my elbow messed up and in a sling? I couldn’t even change my shirt. At one point, just two days after the fall, Zach heard a baby screaming in a department store, and I, out of six people we were with, stood nearest to him when his long, strong fingers reached out in frustration and panic and grabbed hold of my hair. He would not let go. He pulled. Hard. And I was helpless to stop it. One good arm was not enough to combat the force of his grasp. It scared me to realize I was going to be very vulnerable until the injury healed.
No one relishes being in pain, and forced downtime doesn’t equal peaceful relaxation. It’s undoubtedly difficult for anyone, any parent, to carve out time for dedicated healing and recuperation. When hit by influenza or a nasty stomach bug, parents can’t easily curl up in bed and be responsibility-free! There’s always something to interfere with true rest. Dare I say (but it’s reality) that special needs parents reeeeeeally don’t get adequate downtime to nurse themselves when sickness or injury strikes. A TV commercial for DayQuil tells viewers that Moms don’t take sick days; Moms take DayQuil. Yep, the ever-present reality: moms must keep going. There’s no time for nurturing! Virtual Energizer Bunnies we must be. Sunglasses on, drumsticks in hand. Marching on despite pain even though there’s a critical need to power down.
If there was DayQuil for injuries, I’d get some. If I could siphon some pink energy from the Bunny, I’d do it (as long as needles aren’t involved). It’s no easy breezy feat to carry on with the tasks of child care when you’re wounded or unwell. Hell…in such condition, you’re lucky if your teeth get brushed. Preparing three homemade meals + snacks while doing laundry, keeping your kid from drawing on the walls or stuffing the contents of your purse on the pantry shelves, and finding fun activities to do while you are convalescing — fuggedaboutit.
While on our trip, I had my village. My husband unglued Zach’s fingers from my tangled hair that day. My mom washed my hair for me in the kitchen sink. My aunt made up plates of food for me and served Zach all the sorbet he wanted. I was helped in and out of the car. Pillows for my arm were fluffed. My uncle even cut my asparagus spears into fork-sized pieces. Returning home, however, would be a different story. Once American Airlines carried me home, I’d be on my own with an unbending, purpleyellowgreen arm, swollen fingers, and an unpredictable 5’ 6” tall young man with autism by my side all day long. Summer break: no day time activity or program for him, no summer school, no camp, no play dates, no community rec center he can go to. Another lovely perk of severe autism; the usual childhood and teen summertime experiences that kids tend to like and parents tend to rely on are just not available. No one is set up to properly serve these kids. Not many have the training or experience necessary to handle non-speaking teens with seizures, migraines, food allergies, gut issues, and OCD. And even if the training and skill set were there, finding trustworthy people with a passion for special needs is like finding a golden needle in a mountainous haystack floating on quicksand.
Returning to my California abode, armed with Arnicare Gel, arnica montana, lemongrass essential oil, lavender essential oil, button down shirts, Epsom salts, and ice packs, I began feeling determined to heal and handle it. I really didn’t want to leave Illinois and the people I hold close to my heart. I didn’t want to fly, especially with a dysfunctional arm. But, I gathered up whatever fortitude I could find within and faced it. The thoughts that fueled my fear were, in fact, the thoughts that catapulted my healing.
When I reflected on it, I found myself feeling daunted by the task of balancing Zach’s needs and my own. I think most moms, most parents, feel that way on a daily basis. With injury, that intensifies. How does one fully and effectively care for a child, or children, while fully and satisfyingly caring for oneself? It is an age-old dilemma. Most moms out there, at least the ones I know, carry on with this phrase in mind: You do what you gotta do. So, if I was gonna be there for Zach to do what I normally and necessarily need to do, I had to regain movement and strength in my arm. If I was impaired, I would not be able to carry on like usual, and I risked a compound injury if Zach grabbed my bad arm. Compromised temporarily, I kept willing my bones and ligaments to mend. The only way fully function and adequately protect myself (if aggression set in) was to heal.
There is a scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Grandpa Joe, his wife, and Charlie’s other two grandparents are lying in a bed propped up with pillows and tucked under the covers. It is where they exist. In bursts Charlie waving a golden ticket he found inside a Wonka bar. The bedridden group does not believe that Charlie has something valid. Grandpa Joe has Charlie show him the ticket. Charlie is convinced it’s real, and he knows what it represents: admission to the famous, albeit mysterious, chocolate factory. A chance to see something most would never see in their lifetime. An opportunity for something magical to happen. We know that, in a broader sense, the ticket is admission to a better future. And suddenly, knowing that he will serve as Charlie’s escort, Grandpa Joe gets out of bed. He proclaims he hasn’t been up in 20 years. He rises up, stumbles, steadies himself, laughs, wobbles, focuses on the golden ticket, and determines to polish himself up for the big day. The color was rushing to his cheeks, and his eyes were wide open, shining with joy…a little spark of wild excitement was slowly dancing. (Roald Dahl). He had been down, and counted himself as out, until a thin piece of paper and love for his grandson pulled him up.
Zach has been my golden ticket since day one. I couldn’t die when he was born. I couldn’t collapse in my bed and drown in tears when he was diagnosed. It’s tempting sometimes…crawling under the covers and not coming out. But I like Charlie’s determination in finding that ticket and never giving up hope that he’d have it. And of course, Grandpa Joe’s example. Concentrate on the ticket. Believe in its validity. Steady yourself. You’re going to wobble. You will fall at times. But laughing and sprucing yourself up is what matters most. Look to those you love, put on your best coat, and smile. With your golden ticket in hand and love in your heart, anything’s possible. It’s the key to healing.