By: Nell Cunningham
It was my son David’s five-year-old hand in mine that kept me upright as the two of us walked from our small, ranch-styled house in the middle of the block to the corner, where the school bus would soon arrive. On this flawless morning in suburbia, a razor-blue sky stretched overhead. The light September breeze felt cool on my face. Sunshine warmed the back of my neck. At 70 degrees, it was another stunning, Midwestern Autumn day.
I was officially on sick-leave.
The electric jolt reverberating through my legs was the result of spinal cord compressions. They were occurring more and more frequently since I’d fallen and hit my head on the pier at my parents’ cottage in Wisconsin on July 1, which was eight weeks prior.
The electric current clamored up from my feet, through the circuitry of my legs, and into my lumbar spine. It felt similar to the shock from a household current I caught when I was a kid and tried to put a paperclip into a wall socket. Each time the jolt happened now, my knees felt on the verge of collapse. The sensation reminded me of the adolescent antics of my four brothers, when they would rough house and “chop” each other at the backs of their knees, purposely trying to make each other fall down. The onset of these compressions was gradual, but each time this surge happened, I thought I’d involuntarily vault sideways and land on the ground. Each time this surge happened, it sparked a thunderclap of panic that threatened to leap from my mouth and blanket the wide-open suburban sky.
Standing at the bus stop, we unclasped hands when David knelt down to tighten the Velcro straps across his sneakers. Unanchored, I braced myself, my posture adapting to forces invisible to all but me: I clenched my jaw, rounded my shoulders, jutted my hips slightly forward, sank down into the small of my back, and pressed into my heels. Had I put my fists in front of my face, I’d have been a lightweight boxer preparing to fend off a punch.
“Aren’t you going to work, Mommy?” David said, looking up to me.
“Not today. I have a doctor’s appointment later this morning,” I explained.
I was wholly unsure of what kind of burden settled on my son’s small shoulders these days. Eighteen months prior, I’d had two lumpectomies, three weeks apart from each other. While the tumor necessitating the two lumpectomies was benign, I was in no shape for physical play with David at the time. “Mommy has “owies,”was my mantra during the healing phase. I moved slowly then, often protecting my right breast by shielding it with my right arm, but I physically healed within a month or so. The “owies”mantra seemed to work fine for the short time it took to heal from the lumpectomies. But I could not keep up such a charade with a cervical spinal injury, one that would be largely invisible and would take a rigorous surgery, followed by ample recuperation time, in order to heal.
“Will you be here when I get off the bus?” he asked, wide-eyed.
“Yep! I’ll be here when you get home from school this afternoon.” We linked hands again, his palm in mine. I gave it a squeeze. I didn’t elaborate on the fact that I would be home for several months.
As we stood waiting, I noticed that my street, Glenview Road, was a conduit for people fulfilling workday responsibilities: The road hummed with neighbors walking dogs, moms strolling babies to the nearby park, and commuters zipping by in their cars. Landscapers hauled heavy trucks laden with mowers, leaf blowers, rakes, and red gas cans. People filled up cars and trucks at the Shell station, a half-block from the bus stop. I imagined them hustling out of Shell’s little corner store, Styrofoam cups of coffee brimming, car doors slamming, drivers making their way to the expressway nearby to get to their jobs in Chicago.
For a moment, I envisioned David and me as a stranger driving past might see us: Me, a tall blond-haired woman with closely cropped hair, dressed in yoga pants, gym shoes, and a light nylon Adidas jacket, sporting deep set eyes. She is holding her son’s hand, swinging it in a carefree manner, looking the part of the All-American Mom.
The little boy wears a red baseball cap; his blonde curls poke out from underneath it. His ringlets of hair are still baby-fine. The Ninja backpack strapped to his shoulders bulges with a kindergarten boy’s treasures: a sack lunch for a field trip later that morning; and Pokemon cards for trading with newly-made school friends. The little boy holds his mother’s hand, gently swaying it in time with the leaves shimmering in the Cottonwood tree towering above them.
This suburban commuter couldn’t know that tucked beneath the veneer of stability, the twin monsters of spinal injury and traumatic brain injury ravaged the suburban mother’s body. The suburban commuter couldn’t know how all-consuming it was for the suburban mother to fend off the sensation that the sidewalk was slipping beneath her like a sink-hole ready to swallow her whole. The suburban commuter couldn’t know the magnitude of the forces the suburban mother called upon in order to conjure this Norman Rockwell-like moment of a mother accompanying her son to the bus stop this fine September morning.
The yellow bus appeared suddenly. Its imposing heft and puff of diesel fuel made David and me take a step back on the parkway grass until the bus came to a full stop. A screeching noise from the brakes seared through my head, nudging me slightly off kilter as we unlinked our hands. The doors of the bus opened. Standing alone, I fought with myself to maintain balance.
“By, Buster!” I called. “See you later this afternoon.”
“Bye, Mommy!” he said, enthusiastically. “I sit in the back, next to the window. I’ll wave to you when I sit down,” which he did.
As the bus chugged away, I turned to make my way back to the house, unaided by my small son. The smell of grass clippings and lawnmower fuel filled the air. I looked at my feet for guidance. Unsteadiness threatened to make me trip. I feared the humiliation that would follow such a fall. How could I possibly explain myself to a mom with a stroller who might wiz by, startle my sense of balance, and knock me off my feet? How could I explain a phenomenon I wasn’t even aware of at the time: Because my eyes no longer worked in tandem, my ability to properly place my limbs in space was tentative. My gait was as halting as a woman twice my age. My entire being was ungrounded. At the bottom step of my porch, I reached out to the black railing that framed our concrete steps, grateful to hold onto it and steady myself. Once at the top, I pushed open the door to my quiet house to enter my ever-shrinking world.
Inside. I was taxed already. My shins and feet buzzed with the relentless pins and needles sensation that took hold shortly after I fell and hit my head. A headache took shape at the back of my skull and nestled into the occipital lobe. I sat on the blue and white striped love seat in our front room to rest. After a few moments, I pulled aside the curtain that covered our front window and looked out onto Glenview Road. I couldn’t help but be envious of the bustle of everyday life that went on without me. My world was limited to a thirty-yard walk to the bus stop, tethered to my son, and then a solo walk back to our little ranch house where all I seemed capable of was sitting and pondering my perilous condition. Inside: I could sit and not fall over. Inside: I could hold onto walls and chairs to remain upright when walking. Inside. I was becoming relegated to a life of isolation. Inside.