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I met a friend from college for dinner in Ashtabula, Ohio, last week for our yearly “has-it-really-been-so-long-aren’t-we-getting-old” chat session. This year, she arrived armed with an recently unearthed photo album (archaic, I know) filled with long-forgotten pictures.
As memories, laughter and bewilderment (gigantic red-framed eyeglasses? Really?) punctuated our conversation, I felt this sudden need to prepare that girl I once was, the one in the pictures with the big bangs and innocent smile.
You think you’re so worldly, mature, insightful, I wanted to say, but you have no idea where your path is headed. You will love more deeply than you can imagine, and you will feel such pain that even tears will not be enough to cleanse the hurt.
You will find the love that seems to be just out of your reach in the most unexpected of places – in a tiny town over an interview table for a job you weren’t even initially interested in. You will get the job, and, a couple years later, a husband.
On your 29th birthday, you will get a phone call and learn that your sister has leukemia. You will visit her every weekend, donate your stem cells, play a million games of Yahtzee – and two and one half years later, you will touch her shoulder as she takes her last breath. You will speak at her funeral, desperately and inadequately trying to find the words that capture her. You will grieve.
You will learn that there is more than one type of grief. “Your pregnancy test is negative. Again.” Five years you will try. Your joy and fear will be equally matched when you finally discover you are pregnant – with twins.
You will have an uncomfortable pregnancy that ends 11 weeks too early. You will watch with horror and awe at the intricate power of the human body as your babies, born far too small, fight to breathe, to eat, to grow. To not die.
You will become eerily addicted to the beeping machines measuring their vital signs. You will learn how to change a diaper through arm holes of their incubators. You will learn to feed them your pumped milk through a syringe. You will learn the softness of preemies’ skin as their tiny, tubed bodies nestle into your chest for the 20 minutes a day you are allowed to hold them. You will learn to hate making phone calls – every morning to the NICU nurse, hesitantly mumbling “How are they?,” not asking your real question: “Are they still alive?” Just as you are beginning to breathe again – after six weeks in the NICU, they are eating, growing and coming home soon – you hear five of the most dreaded words: “Your son has brain damage.” You will be told that the doctors can’t give you a prognosis. You will just have to wait.
So, you do.
You bring the twins home and learn how to survive on 30 minutes of sleep a night. You and your husband rely heavily on one another and you become a family. You marvel at your children and wait and watch.
Shortly thereafter, my God, you are pregnant again. There are no words for your fear – will your body fail once again? Miraculously, 21 months after the twins are born, another baby will enter your life. You still wait.
Finally, there is the diagnosis: You son has cerebral palsy. You grieve. You learn to measure progress in inchstones, not milestones, and realize that “normal” is relative and not a goal.
Alienated from other parents, you hug your son, and revel in the buoyancy of his infectious laughter and wise-for-his age insights. Your children grow and try to make sense of the world around them. You will laugh when you overhear your 7-year-old twins and 6-year-old son arguing over the origin of Saturn’s storms: magic, God, science, or Aunt Heidi’s spirit?
Embrace each moment in your three children’s lives – all too soon, they will be the same age as you, my picture self.
I want to tell you, my teenage-self, that the next 18 years will teach you that it truly is through sorrow that you learn joy, and through death you learn what it means to live, that until you experience the fragility of the human body, you cannot begin to understand the overwhelming strength of its spirit.
That one day, you, too, will love and be loved with a sharpness akin to pain.
And your life, with all its complexity, will be beautiful.