The Moment I Opened My Eyes It Was Gone

It’s a reaction to terror so primal that it actually takes my brain longer to process news that I already know. I retreat into myself and enter a cognitive bubble while the rest of the world continues whirling around me.

I can hear them talking, as if I’m underwater, and I know that my husband is barraging the surgeon with questions we had prepared beforehand. All I can hear are the doctor’s words: The spinal cord is very unforgiving. You’re playing with fire. I’m talking about permanent paralysis from the injury down.

I should have perceived the danger. I wasn’t able to sleep well because any time I laid down I lost sensation to my body, a tingling numbness similar to when a limb falls asleep. I roamed our home at night until exhaustion overrode the pain, and I’d fall asleep for a few hours while sitting up on our couch. During the day I had to be careful when lifting my head because it made me feel like I was teetering on consciousness.

The signs were there.

A few weeks prior, the surgeon called me during the witching hour—that time between dinner and bedtime when everyone is tired. My two little girls—ages six and three—were hunting up a pile of books for me to read to them, and the doctor had my partial attention until the word “surgery” was uttered. I quickly exited the family room, so that I could focus on what he was saying. Apparently my MRI was not good. We scheduled an appointment to discuss the results and recommended surgery.

I hung up the phone visibly shaken and stared out our kitchen window toward the leaf-strewn backyard as sorrow engulfed me. I suffered through months of physical therapy and spinal injections for nothing! Thankfully, the girls had not come searching for me yet. I laid my head down on the counter and silently sobbed in defeat.

I collected myself, wiped the tears away and dialed my husband at work. Upon hearing his voice, I burst into tears again, told him the bad news, and babbled incoherently: What am I going to do? Who is going to take care of the girls? I’m their sole caregiver. How can I possibly have surgery? We have no family or friends here! You have a demanding job in the city, 30 miles away. It’s just me. This can’t be happening.

Besides him, I felt so desperately alone. Just three months ago we moved over 1,000 miles away from all of our friends and family. I had barely gotten our home settled, and I certainly didn’t have any local support system.

My husband hushed me in a soothing way. In hindsight, perhaps he saw it coming. He was the one who researched the surgeon when he witnessed me unable to plug in a lamp or open our front door, arm symptoms we were told to watch for by my previous doctor. To him all of my worries were overshadowed by the concern he felt for me, everything else was inconsequential. He told me not to worry, we would figure it out.

My worst fear during our move was that I was going to end up on the operating table at the end of it. Thankfully I didn’t know then what I know now — there is something worse than pain and surgery to fear. I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to parent without the use of my body.

Dealing with the pain had been hard enough, a pain so unrelenting that there were only a few moments during the previous year that I was without it. My husband commented that the pain was changing me, and I worried about how it affected my mothering. There were physical limitations for sure. I could no longer pick up and hold my toddler in my arms, I braced myself when anyone tried to hug me, and I was always cautious when I bent down to eye level with my girls. Other aspects of parenting were being tested to Herculean efforts, and those were much more painful to me than the physical hurt.

I lost my temper when the girls would accidentally make the pain worse by pulling on one of my arms. My sweet babies knew they could not touch my neck, that there was an invisible “owie” there. I worried that my youngest would have no memories of what it was like to have a mother who wasn’t always in incredible pain. My oldest was very energetic, as six-year-olds are prone to be, and I couldn’t handle the constant vibrations made by her bouncing, bumping, and jumping.  My patience was non-existent. Everyday life accidents, like cleaning up spilled milk, left me feeling resentful of the able-bodied. I felt my loving, sweet, calm, and patient nature slipping away from me while I waited on a distant shore full of worry, doubt, pain, and fear.

This was not the fallout of some nightmarish accident, but a spontaneous rupture of one of my discs due to a degenerative spinal condition. While the MRI showed the complete extent of the damage, anyone could see the horrible condition of my spine just from the x-ray. My neck was shaped like a “C” with my head resting over to the side, and it was dangerously unstable. How was I even functioning? If I’m honest, I was in denial. I foolishly thought I could conquer my pain and power through it. My spine imploding was not part of the picture I painted in my mind of motherhood, so I continued to care for my girls even though my body was beginning to fail me.

Like all mothers, I knew my children needed me, and I wasn’t willing to risk spinal surgery unless it was absolutely necessary. When the surgeon told us I’d be running the risk of becoming a quadriplegic without the operation, I knew the decision had been made for me. The potential loss now outweighed the peril of surgery.

We scheduled it as quickly as possible, within the month. In hindsight, it was a blessing that I didn’t have much time for contemplation. Since my girls were still so young, their needs consumed most of my days. Without my husband knowing, I awkwardly spoke with his mother when she arrived for the surgery. I didn’t know how to bring it up, so I blurted out while we had a moment alone in the kitchen, “If I die, he’s going to need help, and we both know he will not ask for it. Please promise me you will help him raise the girls in the unlikely event that something happens to me.” I startled her, but she knew I was serious. She responded, “I will.”

We did not tell the girls until the morning of the surgery. We told them the doctor said it was time for me to have my neck fixed, and that I would be home soon. Hugging and saying goodbye to them that morning was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, as if I was going out for a cup of coffee, chipper and confident. Inside, I was terrified. If the worst happened, I didn’t want my girls’ last memories of me to be sad or hysterical. I wanted them to remember my strength and love for them.

My husband was a quiet, steady presence at my side that day. He watched while they hooked my entire body up to electrodes, while they put on the compression stockings, and prepared me for surgery. It wasn’t until I handed him my glasses and told him I loved him that I saw tears well in his eyes, but not one fell. My husband has always been the strong, stoic type. In the 15 years I’ve known him, I have only seen him cry once, when his grandfather died unexpectedly.

I knew what it cost him to remain strong, to keep the tears at bay for me.

I walked myself into the operating room to see an enormous computer that would read all of my body’s nerve signals from the attached electrodes. That’s what they were for; it wasn’t going to be a game of Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, and I was oddly comforted. I laughed at the thought and wished my husband could see that they weren’t going in there all willy nilly. I wanted to comfort him. As I climbed onto the operating table the anesthesiologist commented that I was very aware of my surroundings. He indicated that most people are in sensory overload at this point, and he quickly gave me something to knock me out.

That’s the last thing I remember.

From the moment I opened my eyes, the horrible pain that had become my steady companion was gone. My body felt blissfully warm all the way to my wiggling toes. The nurses allowed my husband into recovery briefly to see me. He gently took my hand and bent down to hear my raspy whisper, “it worked,” and I crushed his hand as hard as I could, so that he would understand what I meant.

He gasped, “Please let go,” and I did.

I smiled to see him shaking his head in relief. I was equally relieved to know that I was going to walk away. Maybe not to the life I envisioned when I became a mother, but one filled with tremendous gratitude. 

Guest post written by Stephanie Mouton. She grew up in various spots around the country, from rural Wyoming to the urban sprawl of Houston, before settling in Texas with her Louisiana-raised husband. She now resides in the Chicago area, where she has taught her husband and daughters about the joy of sledding and the agony of getting up early to shovel snow. She loves reading and writing about the pleasures and challenges of parenthood. You can follow her on Twitter.

Photo by Melissa Atle