By “falling apart” I mean how you feel moments after danger has been averted and you are struck with how very close that call was. Like right after a car wreck when, even if everyone makes it out of the ER in one piece, you are still shook to your core thinking of alternative endings. Of course there’s relief, and joy that it’s over, and maybe even sorrow that it happened…but in our case, a wariness that it might not be completely over. Good guess when you are dealing with a chronic mystery illness.
Despite all the joy of seeing her get better, I kept thinking, I just need a good cry all by myself. But I couldn’t cry. I even watched The Last King of Scotland, thinking if anything can make me break down, insanity, genocide, and torture should do it. But no, I took it like a trooper. Instead, a few tiny tears would sneak up on me at all the wrong times, like while watching sitcoms (seriously? Friends re-runs making me blubber???) or worst of all, when my kids were around. This kind of maternal meltdown, IMHO, should be private. But there was never time nor place. After all, I now had an eight-month backlog of work and neglect to slog through.
Meanwhile, since our daughter was growing stronger and eating again, we planned a June trip to Florida. We arrived ready to swim in the Gulf, soak in the sun, explore a new climate, and just BE. Marco Island did not disappoint, but as you can guess, it still took a while (and a few drinks) to calm down. Hard to believe when you look at this view from our balcony:
On the third day we boarded a catamaran to do some serious shelling on a tiny isle off the coast. Sitting on the tarp while Captain Shannon took us out on the open water, I thought, Ok, we are better now. With our arms wrapped around our kids, huddled as a family that had just weathered one bitch of a storm, I began to relax.
Near the end of our trip, we decided to visit the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Now, if you’re from a swampy area you might not get this, but for me, taking a walking tour of a swamp had all the appeal of visiting a water treatment plant. I could not imagine how an oppressively hot and humid setting crawling with alligators and bugs could possibly end well. Even for a nature freak like me. Still, we set off in hopes of seeing real alligators, despite misgivings that there would be nothing between us and them but a boardwalk floating just a few feet above their heads.
As we strolled, I admired the sturdy craftsmanship of the 2.25 miles of boardwalk the Audubon Society had built above the boggy floor of the swamp. It took a while to adjust to the hot, damp air, but I soon got caught up in the signs posted along the way that described the unique flora, fauna, and feathered creatures that dwell in a climate I had always regarded with creepy-crawly disdain. To me a swamp seemed a place where beauty is swallowed whole by the mysterious murk, never to be seen again. Sort of like the last couple seasons of our lives….
After a mile, I began to think that maybe I had underestimated the swamp. Under the shade of bald cypress, strangler figs, and other unfamiliar vegetation, I slowed and let the others walk ahead. I listened to the various birds described on the signs. I noticed their songs were incredibly clear and loud. A few feet later a sign explained that sound carries well in the swamp. It was as if the swamp was reading my thoughts. Maybe it had something to teach me.
Reading, listening, breathing, watching, I learned that a swamp is self-sustaining and vibrant, despite how the thick air seems to hang unmoving, stuck in neutral. It’s an ecosystem of deep, purifying renewal. Yes, beauty is swallowed here, but it is repurposed, resurfacing as a lovely, lacy fungus or a playful, dangling boa of Spanish moss. Yes, the swamp is a place of rapid decay, but as a result, the air itself is so rich with nutrients, it can sustain entire plant species without a single grain of soil. They just sprout up in the crooks of trees, taking all the sustenance they need from the invisible space around them.
When our daughter was so very ill, my mantra quickly went from “one day at a time” to “one half-day at a time”—that was often all we could handle. Then there were times when that shrunk to “one half-hour at a time.” But even in that terrifying morass, I could see God’s tiny light. Things we needed managed to show up right when we couldn’t hold on any more. Racing back to the hospital from my new job, or zipping up the mountains to get our other daughter while my husband did his shift at the hospital, sometimes the miracles were as simple as a gas station appearing just before my car ran out of gas. Or some doctor introducing us to the miraculous use of Benadryl to ease nausea when nothing else had ever worked. I began to lean heavily into my “Just in Time Jesus” as I nicknamed him. His mercies sprung up like air ferns in the most unlikely places.
Strolling the boardwalk, the unease I had always associated with the swamp slowly gave way to respect. In a swamp, where the atmosphere is cloying, plant life blooms with a swift and generous beauty. I studied the swamp’s unique lichen, which is much like spilled paint, compared to the dry, shaggy type that grows in the Rockies. I had never even heard of red lichen, but there it was, among the life dotting every square foot of plank.
Swamp water is black and glassy not to hide menaces, but because the tannins from the leaves that fall into it stain it like tea. In the “sanctuary” we were exploring, swamp water comes from rain, not springs or lakes, and that water rises and falls with the seasons, allowing new life to take hold during the dry spells. I read that an ecotone, that band where two ecosystems touch, such as where a marsh melts into a swamp, is a unique and fertile place for new life to spring forth. Many life forms exist thanks only to the ecotones of this world. Where one thing drops off, another thing emerges, and life goes on.
John Bunyan had his Slough of Despond and I have my Swamp of Epiphany. Today, our daughter is as close to normal as we will get for a while. She will do great for days on end, then for reasons we can’t always figure out, she’ll have a setback. We still don’t know what the original illness was, and while we hope to get answers at the Mayo Clinic sometime this winter, we may never. I admit I can’t relax completely, and I’d still do anything to trade places with her, but I am not on the verge of a meltdown any more. I don’t know where this new path through the swamp will lead, but I do know that what we need most will show up on time. God is in His heaven—and our swamp—and that’s enough.