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  • Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing from America's Favorite Humorist
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Worth the Work

In November, after receiving an immunotherapy injection, I had a systemic reaction.  I’ll spare you the details but I was fortunate to have great care and receive two injections of epinephrine (one in each leg) to halt the symptoms.  Now, you might be thinking that I handled it well because I’m such a Zen-like person anyway.  People are always saying that to me: “Julie, you’re like a human version of a tranquil lake.”  And I always say, “Of course.  That’s where you’re right.”  Then I smile and gaze to the horizon as the music swells.

So because I’m so calm (the first word everyone uses to describe me), I definitely didn’t cry on the little table, choking down saltines and thinking, “Is this how I die?  Surrounded by saltine crumbs?”  I didn’t picture scenes from ER, with a TV doctor pumping someone’s chest and shouting, “PUSH ANOTHER EPI!”  When the PA came in to check on me and she asked me about my non-allergic activities, I didn’t have to hold back from shouting hysterically, “Does it MATTER?!”  (I would like points for calmly discussing Barbara Kingsolver novels instead of grabbing her jacket and sobbing.) 

I recognized the reaction in time.  The doctors and nurses know what to do.  I didn’t develop any acute breathing problems.  But it was quite a scare.  And because the epinephrine pumps through your system like eighteen cups of coffee, your body sends you one message: this is absolutely the time to panic. 

So when I went back for the follow-up, I walked into the office and immediately felt some of those same symptoms.  It was a little panic attack.  I blinked back tears in the waiting room, then went back and sobbed to the doctor for a while.  And the bonus is that my doctor has a scribe that follows her around, so that meant TWO people got to witness my meltdown (although the doctor reassured me it was the follow-up steroids making me weepy). 

I chose to stop the treatments.  It’s been a lesson in panic attacks, and letting go, and not being so ridiculously hard on myself.  But because I take the boys to their injections (from which they’re having incredible results), it’s also been a lesson in panic.  The first few injections involved me hovering over them like a lunatic, asking them every five minutes if they were feeling itchy or weird; I was hyper-vigilant.  I would leave the office and cry in relief, then spend the evening chasing the kids around, checking the back of their arms.  The boys would roll their eyes and say, “Mom, I’m FINE,” in that blasé, annoyed of teenagers through the ages.  It’s the carefully measured mix of exasperation and “Oh, well; let’s indulge the old bat.”

But every time we walked in that shot room, I had to take a moment and face the fact: these shots carry a risk.  The boys could have a reaction (though thankfully it’s unlikely).  My visceral, physical memory left me tired and fearful.   

I left the office one day and watched the boys jumping off concrete barriers (in flip-flops, which is how Nolan broke his foot a few years back; “HAVE WE LEARNED NOTHING?!” is a phrase I’ve shouted in public more than once).  But there it was: shots are risky, yes.  Also, life is risky.  Jumping off things onto uneven ground in improper footwear is risky.  Eli got hit in the face with a baseball just last night.  It’s all dangerous and delicate and insane all the time and my mama heart is just so fragile and tired.  How can I love my people and accept the precarious nature of it all?  How can I know the risk of this life (for lives bend and break and end) and still find the strength to brush my teeth?  To tell someone else to brush his teeth? 

But my heart is pliable and, mercy of mercies: the heart understands contradiction even when my mind refuses.  I can feel the fear and simultaneously feel its counterpart: deep, welling gratitude for each fleeting moment.  I can tuck them both into my heart, finding space for the truths that should reside there, creating a wellspring.  For if I welcome them in, then I am wiser for it.

Oh, but it’s so challenging.  For I think of it all: the senseless tragedies and the human trafficking and the loved ones who had to leave early.  I’m flooded with thankfulness and grief; I see briefly through a thin spot in the veil and know peace lies outside of circumstances and my personal brokenness, our collective brokenness.  I'm on my bike and inhaling a beautiful sky and thanking God for beauty.  And then in the next second I’m annoyed with homework, because homework is the devil’s work (we all know this).  I’m shouting at someone for not picking up his stuff.  I’m resenting the time and head space required for parenting small people.  I’m being petty and callous and it’s a terrible look.  I’m driving someone to baseball practice.  I’m driving someone else to baseball practice.  There you have it: peaceful insight to quiet rage in thirty seconds flat.



But the work is precisely that: work.  What if I accepted that it’s impossible to maintain a state of proper perspective at all times?  What if I accepted that having children is the best hardest work I will ever do?  What if I believed that it’s like this, that it’s supposed to be like this, that life is hard and that I wasn’t born for leisure and year-round happiness?  If my work is wisdom and love and peace-seeking, won’t it require work? 

I think it will.  Turning the fear into wisdom: work.  Loving messy, complicated people (including me): work.  Disciplining my mind to see the joy in this day, this one that’s happening today with all its turns and thorns and puddles: work.  Accepting the risks: work.  

Worth the work?  Indeed.