By Carrie Kempisty
I sit draped in a thin, blue sheet. Waiting. Chill bumps cover my bare legs and feet dangling from the crinkle-papered exam table. The tests have been run; I’ve been poked and prodded. My brain spins in circles of anticipation, like an airplane without clearance to land. The sudden, mysterious, physical pain that has been slowly crippling my body may, after today, have a name. Up to now, I’d mentally escaped inside a self-protecting, impenetrable bubble that’s been relentlessly bombarded on all sides. Fears, potential disaster, over reaction, denial, and sadness have all threatened to burst through the protective barrier.
My two young children used to ask me if I could play. Now they ask if I hurt, which I vehemently deny. This seemingly overnight change in my physical well-being has been frightening for all of us. I am an active, fit, energetic stay-at-home mom. I don’t often skip days of going to the gym to lift weights, run, or swim laps. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed a healthy dose of competition in running, biking, and swimming events. I was a personal fitness trainer for over ten years before I became a mother. It was hard enough to admit my pain to my athletic husband. How can I admit to my children that their mother has suddenly become less than the energized, non-stop, cheer and activity leader they’ve always known? Where’s the line between protecting them from witnessing my pain and outright lying to them?
It all started one day when I woke up with a lion yawn and a stretch of my arms over my head. Something in my upper back caught and I could no longer turn my head to the left, or right, or up and down. I was locked in place. I struggled for four months to think of it as temporary. When I finally succumbed to x-rays and MRI’s, I was told I had two ruptured discs due to cervical degenerative disc disease. It sounds terrible, and it was, but the doctor said the body could heal itself over time. That I could handle. To me it meant I had a permanent prescription, a perpetual hall-pass to maintain my current lifestyle of staying fit with extra motivation to strengthen my spine.
The next phase began after a family summer road trip that culminated at my kids’ first visit to the ocean. When we returned home, I felt stiff. I blamed the hours in the car. The backs of my legs would not loosen up. I ran. I stretched. I ran. I stretched again. My husband helped me stretch. The tightness set up camp in my hip joints. I couldn’t get out of bed without help. I couldn’t get into bed without help.
My mommy friends at the bus stop have begun to tilt their heads and squint, quite puzzled they seem, as I uncharacteristically hobble with my daughter to join the giddy mass of kids waiting for the school bus. They don’t say anything about my progressive gait changes. I smile and shrug and jump into Simon Says with my child. Morning and afternoon they play along with my charade even as it takes me longer and longer to make the short trip from my front door, down the sidewalk, to the street corner.
Then one afternoon my daughter, returning from kindergarten, seemingly bursting with incredible news, ran from the bus and leaped into my arms. My arms couldn’t hold her. I felt a terrible, abnormal jerk in my shoulders, both elbows locked automatically. To save her from a nasty spill on the sidewalk, I yanked her over on top of me and we fell together into the neighbor’s grassy lawn. She thought it was great fun and giggled her way back up. I tried laughing it off too, but I couldn’t get up. I rolled to my stomach and tried to push up, but my shoulder strength failed. I used an elbow to push up to my hands and knees and managed a lunge position. My hip joints were so stiff I had to stay there. I kept laughing despite all of it and asked my six-year-old daughter if she could help pull me up. Yet, all I could think was: No! I’m not broken. Not me.
So here I’ve been, in this bubble of denial. Where I sit has become like the throne of the Emperor in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Remember the tale where two swindlers come to town and trick the vain Emperor into believing he could have the most extravagant new outfit, weaved from the most luxurious thread? In the story, the deception was that the thread was invisible, but no one would dare expose the truth to the Emperor. Everyone in town would lie to the Emperor as to how splendid he looked, and even the Emperor would lie to himself. No one would admit they couldn’t see the magnificent clothes.
I await the diagnosis from my throne while the swindlers spin their superb invisible yarn for my outfit. I continue to pay them for their weaving skills with my fake smiles, my delightful greetings, my denials, and secret sadness. My husband graciously helps me in to and out of bed; he helps me dress before my children wake. I take my kids to the gym for the sake of routine. Though in truth, I log more time in the dressing room and in the hot tub, rather then face the fact that I physically can’t accomplish much on the gym floor.
“But he hasn’t got anything on,” the little child says in the story to the Emperor as his mantle bearers pretend to lift his flowing train and hold it up high.
My daughter asked me to pick her up so she could put the star on top of our Christmas tree. I looked down at her sweet cherub face as tears suddenly blurred my view. My mouth dropped open to say something silly, some false remark that would inevitably turn into a tickle attack. Instead, I paused for a moment. I looked into her eyes and confessed the burden of pride, frustration, and dread I’d been carrying around on my broken joints in two whispered words. “I can’t.”
“It’s okay Mom,” she said with a knowing smile. “We can figure it out.” She turned around and left to return with a stool.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, I think the Emperor had known the child was right. He didn’t want to be the one to point out the clothes were invisible, that he’d been bamboozled, or that he feared a disabling diagnosis. The Emperor’s parade had to go on. Does mine?
I’ve been hiding behind my own lavish, newly spun cloak of nothing-is-wrong-with-me. I suspect the doctor’s words will finally penetrate my bubble, my safe space. Will an answer finally end this holding pattern? What will it look like? I fear, in that moment, the bus stop mothers will nod their heads, my friends will drop their gazes to the floor, and my family will step backwards and look at me sadly. Then I will be forced to see my invisible new clothes for what they are. Shameful pride. A lie. A sin. A place where I am naked and alone.
Everyone else can see how I’m struggling, but I have refused to see myself in their eyes. It’s time to admit the truth. My parade has to end. I’m not only lying to my children, I’m lying to myself. I’m scared. It’s true I don’t actually know the truth yet, but I know I’ve been covering my eyes and bashing my face into the mountain of fear in front of me instead of facing it straight on with eyes wide open. I can only hope there are medicines and physical therapies to help me get back to the active, independent life I’ve always known. But if that’s not possible, then at least now I see sitting on this throne is unnecessary. I can step out of its deception and allow the attacks to strike and face them one by one. I’m not alone, not really. My God is with me. My family is in this exam room with me. My kids are strong as long as I am honest.
My husband walks over to sit with me on the exam table. There’s a double knock on the door. My kids jump up to each grab one of my pale, shaking hands. We’ll face my brokenness, together.
Carrie Kempisty wonders, worries, writes, and then goes and cleans something. She currently resides in Ohio with her active-duty military husband and her two young children. Her work can be found at Mothers Always Write, The Good Mother Project, and Parent.co. Carrie’s website is www.CarrieKempisty.com and her Twitter handle is @CarrieKempisty.