On Saturday morning I awoke with a searing pain in my right ear. Oh, I thought, this is what an ear infection feels like. But, of course, I had two children clamoring for attention and breakfast and not a lot of time to feel sorry for myself. I mostly just hoped it would go away if I didn't think about it anymore.
No such luck.
While standing over the waffle maker I became conscious that the pain wasn't confined to just my ear. I could barely touch the scalp on the right side of my head without a great deal of discomfort. The pain was radiating from my ear to the entire right side of my head. This wasn't any ordinary earache, I thought. It must be a brain tumor; some horribly malignant kind of tumor was pushing against my skull from the inside. Then: Who would take care of my children? Who would help Oliver?
I told Nik right then and there that I had to go to the emergency room. He looked kind of surprised given that I normally have to be coaxed into taking even the mildest aspirin. And I don't get sick. I can count on one hand how many headaches I've had in my whole life. But if this brain tumor really was growing substantially by the second I wanted to know about it sooner rather than later.
I haven't lead an incredibly charmed life. It got off to kind of a rough start. But in my early twenties I learned some things about being content and in general life started to work out more in my favor than against it. Even when I had the occasional bit of bad luck things generally worked out for the good in the long run. And I began to believe that I had gotten all of my bad karma out of the way while I was still very young and that the rest of it would be smooth sailing.
And then came autism. I don't mean to say that as though autism is the worst thing that could happen to anyone. It isn't. And I've made some peace with it. But in the scheme of things where the absolute worst case scenario in the world is something that negatively affects your child's lifelong health, welfare and happiness, it feels pretty bad. Add to that the feelings of utter incompetence and powerlessness that I felt at the start and you'll understand why I began to feel so vulnerable and why the world began to seem such a random and incomprehensible place. And why it seemed perfectly reasonable to me that I would be dead and my children motherless within a month when I succumbed to brain cancer.
I once suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I couldn't cross the street without my heart racing and without visually and physically imagining what it would be like if a car slammed into my body from behind. I imagined the the feeling of impact, the sound it would make and then of flying through the air before hitting the pavement. In my head I knew that there were no cars coming. I had checked and re-checked before stepping off the curb. But in my mind there was always that possibility. The event that caused the PTSD had nothing at all to do with getting hit by a car. But it had left me with this very powerful feeling of physical vulnerability. And in a way, this is very similar to the emotional vulnerability that I have discovered in the wake of Oliver's diagnosis. It isn't something I think about very often and I think I am still a pretty positive, see the sunny-side of things, person overall. But my palate of paint has a few darker tones than it once did. And it affects me in often unexpected ways.
So this is why, standing over the waffle iron at 8:45 on Saturday morning, I found myself worrying if Nik's future new wife and my life insurance policy would be enough to help Oliver through his teenage years. I must make Nik take pictures of me, I thought. There are none of me and Sam will forget what I look like.
"Do you want me to drive you there," Nik asked.
No. It's probably just an ear infection. Either that or a brain tumor, I said, and looked at him sideways to see his reaction; to see if he was thinking the same thing. But he was already deeply involved in negotiating with Sam about which waffle he should have -- the cow, the pig or the barn. Oliver took the chicken.
When I got to the ER the doctor quizzed me about my symptoms for a few minutes and conducted a brief exam. As he was writing something down I tried the same thing on him. I hesitated for a brief second because I really didn't want to give him any more ideas but then said: "I figure it is either an ear infection or a brain tumor. Either way, anytime you have shooting pains through your skull I figure you should have it checked out."
Much to my relief his expression didn't take on a new look of interest. "Nope. TMJ," he said feeling my jaw once again. "Have you been under any more stress than usual? Has anyone ever told you that you grind your teeth?"
"Really? It's not a brain tumor?"
"Not likely," he laughed and handed me a prescription. And with that laugh I exhaled for the first time since I stood over the waffle maker.
It all seems pretty silly to me now as I stop to remind myself so many times throughout the day to stop clenching my teeth and just relax. Living, learning, growing, healing. It is all such a process and at times so very perplexing to me. But I guess I'll take the process over a brain tumor any day.