Turned out it was pink eye. Pretty much not a big deal; the doctor prescribed an antibiotic ointment and she stayed home with her granddaddy for a few days. She didn’t even seem to mind the itchy eyes, and she remained her usual bubbly, adventurous self. She’s back to daycare today and things are back to normal.
But before I knew any of this, there was that moment immediately after “Something’s wrong.” It’s hard to describe, but it felt like a physical weight settling in my chest and stomach, and sudden fit of panic seizing my guts. I could feel myself go cold even as warm water poured over me in the shower and for a moment all of the plans and routines of the week, which seem so carefully laid out before us on a Monday morning, disintegrate into the possibility of… well, nothingness is what it felt like. Writing this down, it feels a bit like an over-reaction. After all, pink eye is not life-threatening and very common. And the “Something’s wrong” was followed by my wife explaining, “Her eyes are red and swollen.” And when I heard that, I immediately thought: Pink eye. But just hearing that something was wrong brought me into a moment of panic and anxiety that – for a moment, at least – made the world seem to collapse.
Let me claim here that I have been known to experience panic attacks and have had my own history with anxiety disorder. So for any parents reading this blog and thinking, What’s wrong with this guy? – that’s what’s wrong with this guy. But I’ll also claim right away that whatever propensity I have towards anxiety has intensified now that I’m a parent. Well, perhaps I should clarify: the propensity is actually the same; it’s the substance that’s intensified. I don’t get anxious more often; but when I do get anxious, it’s far more intense. And focused entirely on my child.
I’m scared to death that she’ll die. Sometimes it literally keeps me awake at night. I had miniature panic attacks when she started rolling over in her sleep, suddenly fearful that this would cause SIDS. I would get up in the middle of the night and walk across our dark bedroom to the monitor, listening for her breathing. I would sneak into her room and hold my finger beneath her nose to feel for her breath. This fixation on her dying in her sleep has relaxed some for me, but I still find myself perseverating on the infinite fatal possibilities still to be overcome on a daily basis. What if she sticks her finger in an electrical socket? Yes, we’ve put plug protectors in, but what if we take one out and forget to put it back in? What if the next illness is a big deal? What if she chokes?
Of course, I could fill this blog with possibilities of death. And truth is, in most moments, I don’t worry about these things. But I’m amazed that when I worry about death, which is quite often – remember, I’m a hospital chaplain who spends a lot of his time dealing with people who are either directly or indirectly dealing with death – it’s always about her death. Thoughts of my own death bother me only insomuch as it makes me sad for my daughter that she wouldn’t have her daddy; I could give a shit about me. I’m suddenly so focused on this beautiful little creature that it overwhelms me how powerless I really am.
I think this is a common theme of parenthood, in varying degrees of seriousness. (In just a few years, she will discover the power to say “No,” and it’s a downhill struggle from there.) It frightens me. Yes, I have more of a tendency to lean towards irrational worry; I’ll own that. But I have to believe that being a parent significantly ramps up one’s general anxiety. The more you love, the more you have to lose; and I’ve never loved anyone with this kind of crazy fierce love.
I don’t have any answers or solutions for this. You don’t either, even if you think you do. That’s just the risk of love, I suppose. I’m so grateful it was pink eye, and the next time it will most likely be something equally non-major. But who knows. It’s a terrible world where people who shouldn’t die do and I’m not in control. I just love and hope. And, from time to time, I worry with unbearably singular concentration, which is another function of love.