The husband and the father is supposed to be there even when he isn’t.
Very early this morning, I received a Skype message from my wife. We’re apart at the moment—I’m in Lithuania while she was visiting her folks in Ukraine—and we’ve been using Skype each day to communicate for the past two weeks. Still, there was something foreboding about a Skype message at 3:00 AM.
Only a day before my family had to board a plane for the States, my four year-old daughter fell on cement and had to be taken by ambulance to a children’s hospital in Kiev. They stitched her up, bandaged her head and gave her medicine, apparently (I’m assuming) clearing her to fly. My wife’s message asked me to find someone to drive them from O’Hare to our home—as we normally ride the train to and from the airport. She said she feared the girl would be too weak for the train. She also feared the wound might open on the plane.
This line about a wound opening on the plane immediately lit the projector of my imagination’s cinema. I saw a red wound like an open mouth, black and broken medical threads, the angel white bone of my daughter’s skull. That image triggered others. Fears arose. What if this wound did open on the flight? What if they were forced to land in some crazy end of Ireland and Canada and would have no one to come help them?
I have waking nightmares all the time, see myself holding a phone just before some authoritarian cop, smug with the sense of his absolute necessity to society, will call to confirm my worst fears. “Your kids and wife are dead.” I imagine this phone call any time the wife and kids take off in a car without me. Later, I’ll imagine the car rolled off the road, it’s doors blasted open, a macabre scene I won’t describe. I’ve learned these are symptoms of PTSD—the traumatized mind protects itself, ironically, by imagining the worst possible horror always looming around the corner. The violence I imagine seconds before I’m to enter my own home would be banned from Cannes.
I spent the morning scrambling to figure out which of my friends were still in Chicago, which ones could get to my house to use my car—after all, you need car seats. In the meantime, my children and wife were in an airplane where a wound was about to open. Without any information beyond my wife’s message and my in-laws’ rudimentary attempt to explain things over the telephone—their English is very weak, my Russian only a hair better—my imagination got to work.
I tried to shut down the horror cinema. My method was to concentrate on the locations of people in my list of friends, and to organize which ones to reach by Facebook, which ones by Viber, which ones by Skype. This sounds good on paper. But any time I am stressed about the welfare of my loved ones, a Greek Chorus appears to yell and call me names.
You are trying to avoid imagining your daughter’s wound? You are heartless. You are a bastard. Take your mind off it, go ahead, distract yourself. Why don’t you go smoke some grass while you’re at it—here, some of your Facebook friends have gone to the beach. Check out these bikini pictures. You slop magnet, you selfish septic tank. Where are you when your family needs you? Here in Vilnius, city of undiscovered supermodels, working on writing, selling yourself to translators, wasting time.
This Greek Chorus will be interrupted by a hippy.
Look man, back off the guy. He can’t be everywhere at once. It’s like, man, you gotta feel for him, okay. It ain’t easy. Like, it’s tough these days, he’s tryin’ to make a couple of bucks, that’s all, so you don’t have to gang up like that. By the way, you guys got any spare change?
The hippy will cast his shadow through the sudden projection of the cinema. Aware that he’s disturbing the show, he’ll look around and sit. Now it will be just me and the wounds, purple and black, in a disaster film about an airplane about to crash into the Arctic Ocean. I’ll be powerless against the disaster, powerless to tend to my daughter’s pain or my wife’s exhaustion, even to hold my sleeping son, not yet two, and give my wife a break. At a great distance, one ever-increasing as the plane flies west, there’s no way to cut the plane off, step out of my Tardis in O’Hare. I won’t be able to drive my family home, carry as much of the burden as I can, even if it’s nothing more than a heavy suitcase.
What kind of a husband is that? Our mythology makes it clear: if you’re a husband and a father, you’re supposed to be Indiana Jones and Prince Charming and Dr. Oz and Fred Rogers and that guy from The Mentalist all rolled into one. At the same time, you’re supposed to be the cool cucumber, the one that doesn’t sweat when pulled from the fridge on a hot day.
When my daughter is wounded in an airplane, essentially in the care of strangers, I realize I cannot be or do any of those things. I was never able to in the first place. Even if I could be a fraction of this myth, right now I’m in the worst possible place.
Image by cpt_hun / flickr