Leapfrog

posted January 23, 2022
photo by Katryna Nields

At the pediatrician’s, I’m trying to count the fish swimming in the aquarium. I think there are eight. There are a lot of impediments to counting, including a plastic statue of ET. I wonder aloud who’s responsible for cleaning this sparkling tank.

My daughter shrugs. She’s watching the fish, too. Neither of us reaches for cell phones. 

Last Sunday, my family went for a full-moon skate on the river. I stayed home, read Louise Erdrich before bed. My husband called at 11:30, waking me from a deep sleep. He told me not to worry, but our daughter had hit her head and was in an ambulance headed to the hospital not fully able to remember what had happened.

I’m the kind of person you can count on to function well in disaster. A cool calm overtakes me and I seem instinctively to know what to do. Not this time.

I tried to get up, but my head spun. I forced myself out of bed, onto my knees, praying for help, but I was overcome with nausea. My head on the floor, I took deep breaths, felt no better, but I had to get to the hospital. I still don’t know how I did it. I was sobbing the whole way, entered the ER a wreck. My husband met me at triage and told me to pull myself together—it wouldn’t help our child to see me this way. 

photo by Katryna Nields

Lately, I seem to cry every day. I don’t think this is a bad thing. It feels, rather, like the correct response to the events of the past few years. When the pandemic began, I felt secretly relieved. I’d been doing too much, teaching three youth choruses, multiple in-person writing groups, coaching, traveling for shows on weekends, socializing on the off weekends, running two book groups, volunteering in my kids’ schools, cheering at the edge of the soccer field, ferrying kids to violin lessons. Suddenly, there was nothing to do, nothing to be done. A perfect peace descended on our cities. There was time to watch videos about wildlife crossing empty highways. 

I adapted to a new life at home, which included the mostly delightful presence of my family members. We fell into a new, enclosed routine. We watched Marvel movies. We did jigsaw puzzles, leisurely stopping to fit in a piece, then moving on to check the sour dough starter. The noise of the world diminished. 

Who exactly abhors a vacuum? After a few months of relative peace, it occurred to me to go to graduate school. The busyness returned. Soon, weekends were sacrificed to marathon writing sessions. I revised and rewrote my first novel, began a second. I wrote a critical thesis, finished my second novel and started a third. I read 85 books. My kids outgrew their shoes, grew their hair, then cut it short.  Family members got older; some got sick. Our friend Michael––our son’s godfather, my muse––lost his long battle with cancer. I didn’t so much lose friends as forget that I had them. I am a hugger. I learned not to hug.

photo by Katryna Nields

At the hospital, only one parent could be on the other side of the ER door due to COVID. I sat next to her stretcher and held her hand. 

In this moment, she is alive. She is awake. She can talk.

What happened exactly? she asked me again. 

You fell on the ice.

How?

I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Do you want me to ask your dad?

No.  

Abigail the RN wheeled her away for a CT scan. I put my head on the cold floor and closed my eyes. Help me help me help me.

When she was returned to the ER hallway, my daughter asked again, 

What happened exactly?

You fell on the ice.

I said, “Do you remember getting a CT scan?

She did not. 

photo by Katryna Nields

My band performs weekly on YouTube. We’re lucky to have these platforms, luckier still to have fans who want to see us, who support us through donations and tips. Luckiest of all to have each other, to have music. Lately I’ve been too busy with my MFA to practice the piano. Sometimes I have to remind myself to listen to music. When I learned our one live show had been cancelled due to Omicron. I felt the tears come, then felt the freeze before they fell. 

After Michael died, I expected to hear from him. I looked for him in the usual places—birds, wildlife, a gentle sense of presence. But his only hint was the sudden appearance of a daffodil in the middle of the lawn near our St. Francis garden the day after he passed. It seemed obligatory; he was making the rounds. I understood. He’s got a wonderful wife, four amazing kids, grandchildren, siblings. I believed he’d pay me a visit eventually. But months passed, and no Michael. I tried not to resent this. 

My daughter made an effort to remember. She pointed out another RN. “Patrick?” she asked. His name was, indeed, Patrick. She recognized Abigail, even though she still didn’t remember her CT scan. Her doctor finally arrived to tell her that the scan was normal. “Just a concussion. No bleeding on the brain,” he said, which caused me to lie on the floor again. 

“Don’t mind me,” I said. “I faint easily. I’ll just be listening from down here.” 

“You do you,” he said, and informed us that we were free to go. 

Recovering from a concussion requires lots of boredom toleration. No screens, drawn curtains, no vigorous exercise. Determined to offer solidarity, I hung out with my daughter doing nothing. I input her guesses for Wordle into her phone (even without looking, she kept getting the right answer within three tries). Her cousin brought her a Marvel coloring book, and she’s been diligently filling in all the superheroes. We go for slow walks around the park. 

Yesterday as we were navigating the icy paths in YakTraks, I felt Michael join us. It was as if he never left. I smiled at the snow. Why now?

photo by Katryna Nields

At the pediatrician’s, the doctor and I said the usual things: I can’t believe it’s been two years, and I don’t know how to be social anymore. How strange for her to keep her distance from my daughter whom she has known since infancy. “I want to hug you!” she said. 

“Yes,” I said, “Hugging’s what I miss most. I feel like that part of me has died.”

“Not died,” she said. “In a coma?”

I heard Michael say, “You told me once that you’re a pro at leapfrogging grief. Remember that?”

“I said that?’

“You did. You said your superpower was to see the bright side, but that meant you sometimes skipped the grieving part.”

“It doesn’t work, does it.”

Michael made the face he often made when he didn’t want to answer: nose-wrinkled, tongue-extended. “Not really. Not in the long run.”

Our pediatrician performed a neuro test on my daughter and declared her well. We came home and solved the Wordle (ROBOT). She got to work coloring in Iron Man, and I started to write a list of people I miss, a list of people I will seek out when it’s time to finally emerge. A list of people I would hug, if it ever becomes safe to do so, if I ever remember how.

photo by Katryna Nields

The Comments

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  1. Oh Nerissa my love – I am so sorry you and Laila and Tom and Johnny had to go Theo this and so glad it is okay now – thank you for your essay which is a gift to all of us – I will see you tomorrow in the virtual world – all my love Kathy

  2. Oh my goodness. This made me cry. Your writing is stunningly good. I’m a grief leapfrogger, too, and a hugger whose whole being feels the coma. Thank you for this, Nerissa. Blessings to you and your beautiful family.

  3. ” I am a hugger. I learned not to hug.” – what a perfect description of the saddest impact of the COVID pandemic.
    Thank you for this, Nerissa.

  4. Both heart breaking and full of joy, much like your music.I’ve always been a grief leapfrog. Tonight, I played your song “Tyrants always fall” on the I-phone to my cousin. She was skeptical–When I see you, I believe it.
    I will see you online tonight; you have a wonderful influence on my life.

  5. You are doing it right, brave Nerissa. The hard parts of parenthood are never something we’re prepared for. I remember when my kid hit his head on ice chasing a dog, which gave him a mild concussion. He still gets headaches under certain circumstances, and thrives better when home-schooling, but he’s mostly recovered. Your daughter will get better, and you are making a difference in that!

    BTW ~ I loved “Tyrants Always Fall” too!

  6. . . .and I’m so glad that Michael’s spirit came to walk beside you and share his good counsel and company. He’s a great soul of great timing. Hugs can be spiritual as well as physical, and so, thank God, can smiles. No doubt to a certain sensibility this will sound extremely maudlin and so forth, but I couldn’t care less, as it is simply so: my beloved papa, who is mostly busy sailing and playing baseball and dancing with my mother on the astral plane, has spirit to spare that lodges in me to help me on this short or longer journey home, and he smiles from the back of my heart whenever something happens that always made him glad. And that smile smiles me, if you know what I mean.

  7. This is so profoundly touching as you express so fully and honestly your emotions. Thank goodness your angel is on the mend. Please feel the gentle but long hugs that I am sending you.❤️

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