When my daughter spent six days in the hospital for the cardiac surgery that would change her life, I saw daylight and felt fresh air only for a few moments a day on my way from the garage to the hospital or vice versa. When we went home, we resigned ourselves to staying inside some more.
Sammi was cozied into a corner of the couch that her older sister had lovingly lined with soft blankets and fluffy pillows, but she was itching to move. Unfortunately, doctors’ orders were that she not only sit still, but that as long as she stayed on strong pain medication, she also needed to be accompanied up and down stairs by an adult and watched when she was in the bathroom. She grumbled and sometimes outright cried about this state of affairs. I did neither, but the emotions I’d kept in check in her presence for the last week were beginning to bubble close to the surface. Though I’ve never had trouble staying calm and steady for her, I knew there was a limit to the holding-it-together I had in me. Sooner or later, I needed to get out.
When my husband went back to work, there were still two weeks of at-home healing left for Sammi. One of my close friends had offered to come over one day and sit with Sammi so that I could get out, just for an hour or so. Deciding to take her up on it was hard for me, though I knew all the platitudes about mothers needing to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their children. I needed the break, and I also needed to be watching Sammi at all times for any sign that something — some undefined something — was going wrong.
In the end, I accepted.
My friend, who loves Sammi dearly, came over and plopped right down on the couch next to her. Turning to the latest Disney show to which her children and mine had recently become addicted, she looked up at me with mock annoyance.
“GO,” she said. “Get out of here. We’re busy.”
With tears of gratitude and excitement, I laced up my running shoes and walked outside into a day with deep blue skies and bright sun. I set off down my alley and, turning right and then left, up our only tiny hill to the main road.
For the past several years, I’d been using running as an excuse to take photos, or perhaps taking photos as an excuse to go running. The two are bound together for me, and it’s my habit to search during my runs for snatches of beauty or interest to photograph. In the beginning, these photos were an excuse to stop often — being new to running, I needed the breaks — but they have become a way of keeping my focus on the moment, the experience, and the way that being on foot connects me more closely to the place I live. How else would I know the locations of the lushest gardens in my neighborhood? The place along the lakefront where, between two giant rocks, one can get a perfect photo of the rising sun? The spots where the sprinklers, on early summer mornings, create a part-halo, part-rainbow effect when I approach them from just the right angle?
So that day in late April, I ran up the main road just a few blocks from my house and looked for signs of spring life. I looked for signs from the universe that would tell me what the next few months of my life might look like.
I only took three photos that day — a small number for me, but I was just waking up to a world of sun again, after months in the grey. They’re not as good as photos I often take while running. As weeks went on, I see now that the photos I took on my runs became brighter and less bleak with the warming of the earth and, maybe, with the relaxing of my heart. That day, though, I looked up once to see the sky and found the trees still bare. Snap. I looked down to see the first blooming flowers of the season (snap!), but then looked again and saw the dried remains of last season’s blossoms (snap).
The world, for me, was still so unsure. Sammi was at home resting, but I was not yet resting in any kind of security about her future.
Still, I had gone outside. I had taken the first steps away from Sammi, accepted help from my friend, and — what’s more — when I realized later that it was the birthday of the very friend who had helped me, I managed to forgive myself for forgetting. There was, I had known but only just then fully absorbed, a limit to what I could do on my own during that time.
I went outside. It was a start. Later that day, I wrapped Sammi in a warm jacket, lined the chairs on our porch with cushions, and brought her outside, too.
P.S. Much later, I learned about Jennifer Pastiloff’s project of “beauty hunting,” which sounds an awful lot like my running practice of taking beautiful photos along the path. It’s been so meaningful to me, both as I navigated all the medical complications in my daughter and in other parts of my life. I’m curious if any of you do “beauty hunting” or something like it. Does it help when you’re in periods of stress or depression? Let me know in the comments.