Fighting Fear: Peace Like A River

Last month I wrote about how much I miss the promise and illusion of safety the developed world offers when my baby is sick over here in Laos. I know, however, that the fears that underpin my longings aren’t caused by living in Laos. They are only magnified.

This month I thought I’d take another look at those fears from a different angle, and share a piece that I wrote almost a year ago now, Peace Like A River. In one of life’s painful ironies, this essay was published the day before the accident that broke Dominic’s femur. It is a piece I’ve returned to several times since then, and the triangular relationship between peace, fear and love is one I continue to puzzle over.

 Peace Like A River

Two weeks after Dominic was born, my husband, Mike, announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.

Fear.

In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if”. After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller, and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers. But they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

What does peace mean to you? What does it look like?
If you live overseas, have you learned anything new about peace from your host culture?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

When my child is sick: Missing the promise and illusion of safety

On Friday my fifteen-month old baby, Dominic, started running a fever for the first time in his life. We live in Northern Laos. The hospital beds here are full of dengue fever patients at the moment, and fevers of any kind aren’t to be taken lightly.

I did what any worried mama living out of reach of good medical care does nowadays … I googled. And after 24 hours of fever and fussiness, my husband and I put Dominic in his stroller and set out for the doctor who runs an after-hours clinic out of her house down at the end of the little dirt lane we live on.

Going to the doctor here is a little different than going to a doctor at home. There is no such thing as an appointment. The clinic opens when the doctor comes home from her work at the hospital at about 5:30pm, and she sees patients on a first come first served basis.

When you arrive at the clinic you take off your shoes and pick up a number outside the door. Then you wait your turn on a bench in the front of the room while Dr Payang sees people in the back of the room where she has set up a desk, a chair and a camp bed. Only a large dresser that acts as a partial screen separates the waiting room and the consultation area.

We waited our turn with half a dozen other families, and exhaled in relief when the tired doctor peered into Dominic’s mouth with a small flashlight and then showed us the source of all that heat – a throat infection. She handed over some antibiotics, wrote down the dosage instructions on a sheet of paper to make sure that we had the details right, and we headed home.

Living outside the reach of carpeted, colorful pediatricians’ offices is possibly my least favorite aspect of our life in Laos. I miss ambulances with their purposeful sirens and English speaking paramedics. I miss emergency hotlines. I miss gleaming hospitals with their bright lights and shiny instruments and reliable X-ray machines. I look at my baby when he’s running a fever and I really miss the promise and illusion of safety that all provides.

I say promise because, let’s face it, medically-speaking, Dominic would be safer if we were living in the more developed world. Malaria, dengue fever, and the tropical parasites that thrive in our garden here don’t even exist in most of Australia. And some of the more globally equitable childhood maladies, like meningitis, you really want to catch and address fast. As we learned the hard way when Dominic broke his femur at five months of age, you can’t address things fast when you live in a small town in Northern Laos.

But I say illusion because living right next door to the best hospital in the world can’t guarantee you safety or grant you total control. It just can’t. No matter how much we might want to shield our children from catastrophic injury or illness, we never erase those risks entirely. In fact, Dominic would be more at risk of experiencing something like a car accident in that situation. We don’t own a car here in Laos, so he rarely rides in one. The same could not be said if we were still living in our previous home, Los Angeles.

So the questions that I must continually confront are these: How do we calculate risk? How much risk are we willing to tolerate, and to what end? What do I do about fear? We are living in Laos because my husband is doing work we both believe makes an important, tangible difference in the lives of people poorer and much more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life than we are. Is that a good enough reason to have my baby risk dengue fever? On average, the answer to that question so far has been yes. On average.

Now, three days after starting antibiotics, Dominic’s fever is gone. He had seemed to be much improved, but two hours after going to bed last night we woke to the sounds of retching and screaming. It heralded the start of Dominic’s first all-night vomiting marathon. This morning has brought more vomiting for him and more questions for me.

So now I’m off to consult google again, this time about oral rehydration. If only I could search out answers to all of my questions so easily.

Do you feel any tension over how your choices impact your children?
How do you resolve that tension?

——————-

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red