This morning, I slipped out of the living room door with my oldest son, Owen, and stepped onto the balcony. I sipped my coffee while he blew bubbles from a long turquoise wand. We watched them float down past the balcony to our lower left, the one with the French blue and white patio chairs where a young woman sits every weekday wearing white noise-cancelling headphones and speaking to her laptop words that many of us say these days — “I think you’re muted” or “hang on, I’m having trouble sharing my screen.”
We are in this strange apartment with a balcony because, three weeks ago, my husband and I learned that our youngest son, Gabriel, needed a third foot and leg surgery, and that it would be a serious one. Due to a neurogenetic disorder and a long list of unknowns, Gabriel was born with clubfoot and lack of muscle tissue below the knee, no motion in his feet or toes, and abnormal nerve responses throughout his limbs. Sometimes you wouldn’t know this about our five-year-old, but post-surgery it will be obvious when he rolls past the apartment complex’s pool in a wheelchair, his legs in plaster casts.
We were living at my in-laws’ house when we learned about the surgery. Last summer, we sold our home and eighty percent of our belongings with the intention of moving to Ireland. And then, in January, my husband went to visit the Dublin church that wanted to hire him, and he loved it, but things didn’t work out the way we had hoped. As 2020 began, we tried to imagine another life for our family.
The future was murky, hazy, indecipherable. Then spring break came and Covid-19 with it. And finally, the news that our child needed surgery, again. In a cosmic display of sovereignty and generosity, we were provided with this temporary apartment near the hospital just five days after we got the surgery news. It’s furnished, and subsidized, and it has elevators, which would have been enough to convince my children to move here sight unseen.
As for me, well, I did not think that my life would look like this at age thirty-two. Sometimes I can’t believe that I owned a home in my mid-twenties. I have a picture of the slab a few days after it was poured — I’m standing on it in a tank top and shorts with a ten-month-old Owen on my hip, the smile on my face indicating that I understand the trajectory my family’s life will take — we will build up and occupy, we will own, we will fill all five of these bedrooms with children — biological, foster, adopted. We will house those facing uncertainty and instability in our unchanging haven.
We will house those facing uncertainty and instability in our unchanging haven.
We did, I suppose, live a version of that for a few years. We got licensed as foster parents and hosted two sibling groups for respite care the summer that I was pregnant with Gabriel. A few years later, after he’d had the first two surgeries and more rounds of leg casts than I can remember, we invited a woman and her son to move in with us until they could get back into a transitional housing program. One morning, she and I staked out the parking lot of the housing complex at the break of dawn, awaiting the arrival of the daytime staff. As they began to pull in, we got out of the car and implored the program directors to give her a second chance.
“I have everything right here,” she said, pointing at the bags of belongings in my backseat. “I’m ready to move in right now and try again.”
I have so much more stability and certainty than she did. I have a job, a spouse, a safety net. Yet I find myself thinking of that early morning in the parking lot often these days.
Her words linger: “I have everything right here. I’m ready to… try again.”
I look around this apartment — exactly half the size of our old house — that contains the personal belongings that fit inside a few car trips, and I feel like I have everything right here, and I both love it and can’t comprehend it. My son had his legs wrapped in pre-operative casts yesterday, and these dishes we’re eating on are not mine, and I do not know where my children are going to school in the fall, or where we will live after this, or what Gabriel’s surgery will reveal or — more likely — not reveal about his future.
Instead of being a haven of certainty for others, my family is now in a place of uncertainty. We are not in immediate danger, and that’s saying something at a time like this, when the front page of the New York Times documents over 100,000 lives lost to Covid-19 in the United States. Every time I think I’ve reached the bottom of the pit of my personal unknowns, I remember that we are also living through a global pandemic. I remember that Black mothers are marching in the streets to protect the lives of their baby boys, even as I stay home to protect mine from the novel coronavirus, which doctors say could affect his body in uniquely dangerous ways.
Instead of being a haven of certainty for others, my family is now in a place of uncertainty.
There is only one event on our calendar: on a morning in early June, I will wake Gabriel up just after 5 AM and we will put on our masks — mine floral, his Pokemon — and we will drive to the hospital, just the two of us. Only one parent is allowed to accompany him due to the pandemic, which he will have been tested for a few days prior. The orthopedist who has known Gabriel since he was nine days old will operate on him for the third time, and I will sit in a waiting room alone, which I cannot begin to wrap my mind around and also feel absurd even mentioning because so many people are alone in horrific circumstances these days. But I am a mother, and he is my five-year-old son whose life will likely be filled with surgeries like these, and I cannot think myself out of the associated feelings even if I believe I should.
Until then, I keep myself tethered to the day at hand, the one in which my family has plenty to eat and plenty to do and read and say. I measure this day in yeses — yes, one more board game, one more snuggle, one more night of Gabriel sleeping in our bed. Yes, one more refusal to shrink back from discussing race, one more nuanced conversation, one more book read or recommended.
Perhaps, those yeses are mine, in a way, that the certain and stable haven never was and never needed to be. Maybe I do have everything right here in the midst of uncertainty.