Laying in the Peruvian emergency room, a few hours after breaking my leg and with the shock of the pain wearing off, I looked over at Margaret, my currently designated “responsible family member” and said, “I’m wondering what the message is from the Universe in this one.” She smiled at me, but having known me only about ten days, didn’t quite know what to say. “Be careful on stairs? That seems like the logical lesson.” Logical, yes, but not a sign from the Universe.
Signs from the Universe may seem a little hokey. But when I started working at Marquette and learned that most of my students were from right where I grew up, it felt like a wink from the Universe that, although I might miss Mexico and Madison and every place I had been before, I was right where I was supposed to be. Or the week before Paul died, when weather and colds kept us housebound, it was a sign and a gift to cherish time together. Or back in college, when I so desperately wanted to be a travel writer and kept getting rejected during the spring application cycles. I tried again, and again, and again, and finally got to do it — a reminder that not everything was going to come easy and that persistence meant more than anything else. Signs from the Universe.
It’s not that I think there is some omniscient being out there purposely manipulating my life to teach me things. It’s not that the Universe is actively doing anything at all, other than existing in its mind-blowing expanses. But all around us in those mind-blowing expanses there are lessons to be learned, if only you look beyond the immediate.
So there I was, flat on my back on a wooden stretcher, staring up at a yellowed ceiling and florescent light, trying too soon to figure out the lesson in this one. Stop trying to be cute and instead just wear practical shoes? Lose weight? Carry a lighter backpack? All true, but I knew that wasn't it. The Universe needed more time to reveal this particular lesson to me.
I am not the best mom. I am not the best spouse. But I do my best to be in my family, and while I might sometimes yell or get short or shut them out, I love them. And I know, without a doubt, that my little nuclear family also knows, without a doubt, how much I love them. I try to show them, but I also tell them, over and over and over every single day: I love you. I love you. I love you. I want them to feel it in their bones and never doubt for one instant, even if it's one of my most imperfect instants, how much I love them.
That said, I have a full and rich life outside of my family. That’s why I’m here in Peru, doing the kind of work I love even though it takes me away from them for a month at a time. I love them, but I also value myself. And I’ve been working really hard to balance these two commitments.
Flash forward a week after the break. I’ve just been released from the hospital, and I’m settling into my room at the Jesuit residence, where I’ll be on descanso médico until I return to the US. My surgeon here, like surgeons everywhere, was brisk and breezy, only sort of answering the questions I asked. He was confident that everything was great and so, as long as I was directly under his care in the hospital, I was also confident that everything was great. But now, alone in my quarters and too exhausted to try to converse with my hosts in rapid-fire Spanish, I’m not so sure. I mean, I know I broke my leg and had a robust surgery, but still: Night sweats? Spasms in my leg? Weird red splotches all up and down the knee and thigh? Windedness when I go to the bathroom? These can’t be good signs. Plus, my orthopedist friend in the US was asking me if I was on blood thinners because of the risk of pulmonary embolisms, and if the doctor had done ten thousand other things that he had not in fact done, and so laying in my little bed with the lights of Lima twinkling beyond, I know in my bones: clearly things are not alright.
What not to do when you are recuperating from surgery in a foreign country, 15 hours of travel away from your family: Search for pulmonary embolisms on the internet.
But I did. And the internet wormhole of medical self-diagnosis led me to believe, around 3:47am my second night out of the hospital, that I was in fact about to die from a pulmonary embolism. And I kind of knew in the moment that I was just scared and this was crazy, but what I didn’t expect was where my brain went next: If I die of a pulmonary embolism in Peru right now, I will never see my family. Deep breaths. I might never see my family again. And I felt for a minute the tiny weight of my children’s arms as they hug me. I felt Rory’s feet tucked under me as he sleeps deeply beside me. I felt Anna’s tight handhold as we walk to some adventure. And I felt the width of Ross’s back, my arms wrapped around him, head resting in that notch in his chest that brings me such comfort. I might never see my family again. The shortness of breath started, but not from the pulmonary embolism. No, it was panic that I had just put our little family in so much jeopardy.
(I know what you’re thinking: Pain meds. But in actuality, they sent me home with glorified ibuprofen, so that’s not the culprit of sudden onset hypochondria. And also, every single symptom was explainable, if you're as worried as my sister was when she first read this.)
Here’s the thing, and it’s embarrassing to admit: I’ve never felt that before, that feeling about my family. I love them with my whole heart, but usually when people say things like, “You must miss your family,” when I’m traveling, I nod, even though my missing is more of an intellectual than a visceral longing. When people say things like, “I’d die for my children,” I know logically that’s true, but I also have never felt that in my gut. And even though I try to tell them and show them at every single opportunity how much I love them, I’ve often wondered, do I really? Or is there something wrong with me and I can’t really love people the way others do? Shouldn’t I be loving them more? Or am I like the Grinch, with a heart that runs just a few sizes too small?
Well, I felt it now. And I felt my eyes well at the thought of seeing them when I land in Milwaukee, kissing those freckled cheeks on all three of them and hugging each of them as tightly and wholly as I know how. And so I asked the Universe: Please let me see them again. Please let me go home. Please let me hug them all again, even if it’s just one more time. Please let us be whole.
Before surgery, they take off all your jewelry. Or I should say, they try to take off all your jewelry. But Ross and I have been married almost eleven years, and in all that time, I haven’t taken my rings off. Like, never. Not even when I’m snorkeling and the barracudas are coming for the shiny shiny things. I never take those rings off, which was obvious as the nurses slathered my hand in every lubricant possible to squeeze them off my swollen finger. The engagement ring, it came off pretty easily. But the wedding band—this millimeter-tall band of white gold—it wouldn’t budge. They called in the big guns: The hospital manicurist. I’m not kidding when I say that it took her fifteen minutes to wiggle that thing off my finger. I kept telling them they could cut it off, but they were adamant: there would be absolutely NO cutting of my wedding ring.
When it finally came off, the nurse massaged my finger and suggested I wear it like a charm on a necklace instead. Please, she implored, don’t try to put that back on your finger. I looked at the deep groove worn into my flesh from eleven years wearing an increasingly-too-tight ring. Still, my hand felt empty. “I’ll get a tattoo ring,” I said, and the nurse smiled at me. “A tattoo is permanent, just like my marriage and my family. I should get a tattoo ring.”
When Ross called me later that night, I told him about the ring fiasco. And the tattoo. I could hear him roll his eyes. “But it’s permanent,” I said. “Like us.”
And so here is what I’ve deciphered as the message from the Universe in this ordeal: I am here in Peru doing what I love, with the full support of my family. Just like I went to Bali and India this winter and Peru the summer before, with the full support of my family. This work and this exploration, it matters to me. But what I know now, in my bones, is that my family matters more. That my heart would break if I were ripped from them. And that means that we have to find a way to be whole together, to not leave each other to go off and be the rest of ourselves out in the world, but to be our whole selves together. I think the rest of my family knows this already, but it’s taken me, a headstrong independent girl, a little longer to understand this. I've never been very good at balance, and I'm going to have a permanent reminder of that fact with my soon-to-be-scar, so rather than balance between opposing forces, it's time to integrate them into a single, strong whole. It's only taken me eleven years of marriage and seven years of parenthood to figure this out.
So I hear you, Universe, and your sneaky ways of communicating. I would have preferred to have this lesson revealed to me without a three-hour surgery, but I’ll take what I get. In its own twisted and fractured way, this break has shown me that I am not whole without my family. And I’m not going to put that too small ring back on. It may be a necklace, or it may go in a drawer as an heirloom. Instead, I’m going to mark my commitment in a new way, a tattooed ring that says, The Gibwaters, with a little heart where we loop back around my finger to make ourselves whole.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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