“Mom, please can I sleep in your bed tonight?” pleaded two sets of still-awake eyes. My eyes responded with a head shake, side-to-side. But those two sets of still-awake eyes wouldn’t give into that single rejection.
“Come on, Mom! We can have story time with flash-lights tonight! And we will sleep with all of the pillows on the bed!” squealed my daughter in pure delight.
“Mom, let’s go! I’ll turn on the night-night music and we will be tired in about 2 hours,” chimes my very bright, but not-yet -understanding-of-time, daughter.
There really was no choice now. The kids snuggled into my king size bed and built pillow walls around the exterior of their small bodies (only to be knocked down by the night-time kicking and turning). They snuggled their blankets under their arms and giggled at each other. I’m sure somewhere in their telepathic minds they were telling each other, “We won! We did it! We got into Mom’s bed!”
And then I snuggled into bed, too. I pulled out some of our favorite books and began to take my kids on a journey through words and pictures. Voices lulled and only small breaths, in-and-out could be heard. When one book ended I then turned to look at my children: one child still awake and another already into her slumber land.
“Should we read another book, Buddy?” I ask, reaching for his favorite dinosaur encyclopedia book. I can read a few pages from your favorite.
“Yea, Mom. Let me pick-out the page,” and Buddy reached across his sister to get the dinosaur book. He paused mid-reach. He put his right hand over his chest.
“Mom, I hurt,” said Buddy in one of those voices that no mother wants to hear.
With sister in the middle, her rat-a-tat hair all over the pillow and blanket now covering her face, I whisper to my son, “where do you hurt, Buddy?”
“My heart hurts, Mom!” he cries out in pain. “Mom, my heart hurts! It is running really fast. I can feel it ticking right now. And it feels like a sword inside. Like it is moving around and around. Mom, my heart hurts!” he continued.
“Alright,” I say with a calm voice. “How about we try some water? Maybe you are dehydrated.” I respond as I crawl out of bed and head toward the kitchen, which is only about five steps from my bedroom.
And then I hear shrieks of pain. It is a nail shattering a piece of glass. It is a sound that puts all mothers on alert, high alert. It is the sound of your child in pain.
Quick steps lead me back into my bedroom where my son is now screaming in pain. His small body is tucked into a fetal position and his skin is dewy and warm. Small tear-drops of sweat bead at his hairline and he begins to breathe very heavily. I scoop him into my arms, protecting my daughter from the distress call, the panic, and the absence of her unicorn-filled dreams. Closing the bedroom door, I rush my son to the couch, literally on the other side of my bedroom wall. Laying him down he continues to wail and scream and thrash. He screams, “my heart hurts, my heart hurts, my heart hurts!” Then he follows with “my heart is on fire!”
I breath in.
I breath out.
Picking up the phone, I call my own mother, a registered nurse with a lifetime of experience. She would know what to do, I tell myself.
And when she picks-up the phone and also hears the wailing in the background from my son, and the panic in my voice, and the knowing that it is me, just me, at my condo with my kids. She knows this feeling. And then she says, “You need to call 9-1-1, right now. I’ll call your sister. You need to hang up the phone and call 9-1-1.”
And I do.
And I can’t remember my address, so I scurry into my kitchen cabinet to pull out a bill with my address on it. My reminder of where I live. And my code to the building. What is the code to my building? I can’t remember that either.
“It’s okay, our guys can still get into your building,” the operator responds.
And then I panic, again, because I realize my daughter is slumbering in my bedroom. She is tucked in tight with her pillows and her blanket and her rat-a-tat hair all over the pillow. My daughter! What if we go to the hospital? I tell the emergency operator that I’m getting off the phone because now I have to find a neighbor, someone to keep eyes on my girl for me. My son continues to wail and scream even more because he sees the panic in my body. He feels the energy shift from a mom who has her shit together – to a mom who has just dropped all the puzzle pieces on the floor.
Pound, pound, pound.
Knock, knock, knock.
Pound, pound, pound.
My banging and pounding and knocking do nothing. My neighbors are either asleep or are gone for the evening. Dripping with fear, I walk my son back to the couch and cover him with his weighted blanket. I look into his eyes, asking him to take deep breath for me.
I breath in with him.
And then I breath out with him.
And then there is a crew of 11 humans in my living room made for just 3. There are wires hooked up to a box. There are stickers placed on Buddy’s chest. An arm band is wrapped around his small bicep. And my son continues to point to his chest; however, now there are no words. There are 11 humans in our living room. The air is hot and sticks to our bodies. The paramedics talk in hushed tones. They each try to convince Buddy to allow them to rearrange the stickers on his small chest. Buddy refuses, pulling his body under his weighted blanket.
I look at the paramedics and explain that my son is on the autism spectrum. He often won’t use words when he is feeling scared. This is one of those times.
And the paramedics pause … wondering what this might actually mean in this moment. Rather than explaining, I poke my head under Buddy’s blanket, talking in hushed tones about how the stickers came from the ambulance parked out front. And the stickers are really important because they would help us know what your heart was feeling. Buddy shook his head, again. Then he said, pointedly, “No!” And this continued for another 10 minutes.
It was at this point that the decision was made for Buddy to ride in the ambulance to the hospital. Because Buddy refused to speak and continued to show signs of pain in his chest, the paramedics took the side of caution.
“Okay, but I can’t leave just yet. My daughter is asleep in my bedroom.” I respond to the paramedics.
“I need to wait for my sister to arrive,” I say hurriedly. And I glance at my phone, hoping that a text message will soon pop up that she is almost at my condo.
“Alright, but we need to leave soon to get your son checked-out. We don’t know what is going on and it is better if he is seen by a doctor,” responded the paramedic.
“Yes, yes. I know,” I say in a worried tone.
What is a mother supposed to do in this situation? Her son is in pain and getting ready to be transported to the hospital and her daughter is lost in slumber-land. Do I wake my daughter, potentially causing trauma for her? Do I send my son in the ambulance and then drive separately? Why do I need to make this choice – I ask myself.
And, then, my sister appears in the doorway with a small overnight bag and calm smile. She steps assertively into my condo and finds Buddy’s slippers and his favorite stuffed gecko. She packs a spare change of clothes in case we need to stay at the hospital. Then she hands everything to me. She takes care of it all for me. “Go, I can sleep next to Sissy,” she says in a reassuring voice.
“Thank you. Not sure how I would do this without you,” I say. With a quick hug goodbye, I dash down to the ambulance to meet my son who is snuggled into the ambulance with his weighted blanket and his stuffed gecko. I sit next to him, holding his hand, answering questions from the paramedics, and trying to keep track of everything that is being said to me.
The rest of the night – the long night – consisted of tests and more tests and almost two viewings of the Harry Potter movie on the hospital TV screen. I talked with cardiac specialist, the pediatric resident, and other doctors, too. And the conclusion: my son had a panic attack.
What? A panic attack? He is only 8-years old. How can he possibly be having a panic attack?
But, his heart hurts.
And his chest is in pain.
And his breathing is labored.
Yes. These are all signs of a panic attack.
And then, the doctors put in the discharge papers and scoot us out the door at 4:00 AM. I couldn’t possibly call anyone in my tribe this early – it was the hour of REM sleep. So, I called for a Lyft. The ride home smelled of the gas-station vanilla air freshener and sounded like rap music that never quite made the top-10 list. I wanted to yell at the driver, “Do you know what kind of a night we’ve just had? Do you know that my son had a panic attack? Do you know that your music is doing nothing to calm him … me?” And when I look over at my son, slumped next to me, his eyes are closed, and his breathing is gentle and soft.
I don’t yell at the driver. How he could possibly understand the context of this very moment? How could understand the days leading up to the panic attack with sour tummy aches and bad dreams? How could he understand the worry that also consumed me when I received phone calls in the middle of his school days, reporting him running out of the classroom and then trying to escape from school. And what about the stacks of supplements that I hid into Buddy’s food each day – hoping that somehow his body and mind would find some peace. And what would be the purpose in sharing any of this with a complete stranger?
Alas, I assure myself, he is driving us home at 4:00 AM. And I wonder what his story might be?
I breathed in.
I breathed out.
Then we reached our small condo on 64th Lane. I scooped my son into my arms from the Lyft car that sounded like rap music that never quite made the top-10 list, and I carried up to the 2nd floor. I methodically opened the front door and quietly took off my shoes and then tip-toed to my son’s room and put his head on the pillow.
“Amen,” I whispered to my son. “You are perfect and wonderful just as you are,” I said as he rolled over and drifted away into his own slumber-land.
And then I walked into the kitchen where my sister stood waiting for me. She had her bag draped across her shoulder and she smiled her reassuring smile, again. “How was it,” she asked?
“Just a panic attack,” I responded in a weary tone.
I could see the exhaustion in my sister’s eyes. I could see that she hadn’t slept either – only laid her pillow next to my daughter’s rat-a-tat hair all over the pillow and her soft breathing.
“She never woke up,” shared my sister. “I don’t think she even knows that you were gone and that I was here,” she said with a smile. Embracing my sister with a hug, I watched her find her car keys and then head out the front door because in a mere two hours she would need to be at work.
And when I finally slipped into my bed next to my daughter, I crashed into a deep, hard sleep. And within an hour, I was to be awakened by a giggly voice chiming, “Hi Mommy! How was your sleep time?” I curled my daughter into my arms, knowing that she only remembers drifting into her slumber-land from the previous night. “I’d like to hear about your sleep time, Sis,” I respond with a smile. “Well, I had mermaids swimming in my dream. And then there was a sparkly cupcake with pink frosting and …”
And that was the moment that I remembered my power as a mother. I had the power to protect my daughter from my own internal turmoil. I possessed the power to listen to her dream and snuggle with her in the morning. I created my reassuring response to this world that circled around me and my children. And, I wanted my response to be that of loving honesty.
“Sissy,” I said in gentle voice, “I can tell you about my night. Your brother and I had an adventure last night in an ambulance. …” Sharing the small parts of the story gave my daughter the perspective she needed to understand and also to move forward with her day. “Okay, Mommy, so Buddy will be okay? Right?” she questioned. And with a reassuring nod, I watched Sissy hop out of my bed and waltz into her day.