Filling in the Dead Space

“I’m not unhappy,” I told a friend the other day.

Most days, that is true.

Today is not one of the those days. I am messy. I am terrified, and sad, and angry, and depressed, and trying, trying to find some footholds along this path. There’s too much rattling through my head. I ask Michael and Matthew to tag-team in watching Mark for a couple hours, and I set off for the park. I need to clear my head.

I stick in my earbuds and turn on my Spotify playlist. For the first mile, the things I love — the trail and wetlands and plants and birds — don’t come into focus. My mind churns. Everything is a blur.

The neurosurgeon’s phrase keeps playing in my head: “fill in the dead space with something living.” He means it literally. I think about that for a while. The technical aspects of it. Mark’s brain and skull and skin.

Then I think about it figuratively. This is what we each have to do when we encounter difficulty, right? The dead space could be fear or sadness. The dead space can be loss. The dead space can be change. The dead space can be the pause we take at the fork in the road. Which is the next best step to take?

I’ve hit dead spaces in my life, over and over, I try reminding myself. We all do. At times, I seize up and become very, very still. Waiting for something ephemeral to brush past me, showing me the way. Sometimes, when a particularly rough patch occurs, I navigate through the turbulence by creating my own. I pick a physical goal. Something sizable and concrete. A test for my body, or at least a distraction, while my mind rassles down something else. How to adjust to reaching the ripe age of 50? I trained for and rode my bike from Pittsburgh to D.C. How to get through relationship hurdles in my 20’s? I trained for and ran a marathon. How to find my way out of a rather debilitating eating disorder in my teens? I walked 800 miles to benefit Habitat for Humanity.

The preparation is always equal in importance to the accomplishment of each goal. The training provides months of focus. The challenge provides adventure and a sense of achievement. With each of these endurance projects, I’ve been surrounded by massive support from family. My brother Scott, sister-in-law Karen, niece Allison and her wife Kelsey and their 3-month-old Ellie joined me for the bike ride to D.C. My brother Dale took on the marathon challenge with me as a long-distance running buddy. Dale also was my companion and support on the Habitat for Humanity walk that took us from Maine to North Carolina. My parents have supported me in every way, from trusting that their tiny little 19 year old daughter could survive walking an average of 25 calorie-gulping miles a day for a couple months, to coming to Point State Park to cheer on the start of our big bike ride.

Each of these events is a long story in and of itself. But my takeaway from my experiment with this life is this: challenges remind me that I can do hard things. I have to do it myself, but I never have to do it alone. All it takes to be an endurance athlete is to keep going. That, I can do.

This journey with Mark pushes me to be an endurance athlete of a different kind. Yes, I can occasionally get out and take a long hike or bike ride. This is very good for me. But mostly, the endurance being tested and exercised is that of maintaining my strength, hope, and focus on a journey with no clear destination, other than the very core of survival. His survival. My survival. And his kids, too. We need happiness as well. I think we have it, most days. I tease the boys. I find ways to be playful with Mark, which is usually verbal goofiness. We spent quite a bit of time playing with the word “twiddle” the other day, which is derived from “fiddle” and “twirl.” Mark would say, “twiddle” and I’d say “fiddle” and he’d say “twirl” and we’d loop back and start again. You’d be surprised how much of the day we can pass like this. Punctuated by naps on the couch.

I know I can get through whatever is next, but the memory of Mark’s medical trauma haunts me, cropping up in what feels like a muscle memory. The falls and seizures and ambulances and surgeries. The doctor asking me what his wishes are, should his heart stop. The surgeon saying, “It’s not an emergency, but we’d like to admit him right now.”

With last week’s call from the neurosurgeon, I am alert. I know that in the next few months, I again will experience trauma. The soft gauze covering my delicate psychological and emotional wounds will be ripped off, and I’ll have to see what needs to be done to patch me back up. It can’t be avoided, even if everything goes well with Mark from a surgical point of view. You can’t see your loved one be chopped up and reassembled without it being traumatic.

I’ve done this before, I thought on my hike. I can do it again. Breathe. Repeat.

It was around mile two that the trailside began to come into focus. The blanket of spring beauties and hepatica splashing the forest floor with pink and white. The single, fragile bloodroot blossom being hugged by its emergent leaves. Two trout lilies leading the pack in blooming along the creek. One red trillium heralding the arrival of the soon-to-be thousands that will join it in blooming over the next couple weeks. Blue cohosh rising high in the floodplain. A single mayapple leaf beginning to unfurl.

I kept going. Three miles, four miles, five miles, six miles, seven.

There’s really not much I can do to train for what is next in our lives. I am trying to rest. Rest my head, rest my heart, rest my body. Sometimes resting looks like being very still. Sometimes it looks like calling a friend, or sitting quietly on the porch holding Mark’s hand, or laying next to him listening to him breathe.

Something is coming. We will need to face it. I think we can.