The Healing Powers of Joyful Distraction
As I write this, my parents, Diana and Jack, are likely hearing muffled morning sounds from the guest room down the hall. Hard whispers from 4-year-old Jack, tired groans from 2-year-old Maeve, and gurgles or squeaks cutting through the golden light from Gavin the newborn. I know my parents are savoring every second of this visit from their grandchildren, my niece and nephews.
A year ago, my mom probably hadn’t thought she would even meet a third grandchild, who was born after my brother and his wife moved to Illinois. This third baby seems to have given my mom a third wind. She has to stick around for a while now to get to know this third little human.
Knowing that they’re all together right now fills my heart in a way that feels sustainable — a way I can maintain day after day. I know how happy it makes my mom, who, just over a year ago, thought she might not get to see them again.
I’m seeing pictures of her carrying Maeve on her hip — my mom carrying a toddler! This was standard procedure before her spinal surgery and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis diagnosis, after which she could barely lift a cooking pan.
I’m seeing pictures of them hiking in the Marin Headlands. Hooded heads walking into a cloud of fog — my mom hiking up a mountain! This was an important milestone for my dad who hikes every single day. A year and a half ago, my mom needed a mechanical chair to go up the stairs in their house. Now, my parents hike together on the weekends. She takes in the ocean-sprayed air, which is probably the best air for her new lung.
I’m seeing videos of them at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Maeve projecting obvious early signs of an animal lover, literally screaming at each new display of large animals: “Zebra! Out in the open!” she screams, astonished. My mom needs this as much as her lungs need air.
Later, when I talked to her on the phone after the grandkids left, my mom reiterated what she told Maeve and Jack at the end of their trip: “My new lung had to move over for my heart because it is so full of love.”
Immediately, I thought of the movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and that turning-point scene when the sleigh full of presents for Whoville teeters over the edge of the cliff. The Grinch is about to chuck it to smithereens to ruin Christmas, but then he hears Whoville singing anyway, without any presents. He’s so confused that he’s angry. And then, something in him changes.
That inner conflict. That change, right there. You can see it happening; the cartoon version shows a cut of the Grinch’s heart tripling in size and breaking the frame. In the Jim Carrey version, the feeling tackles him to the ground as he clutches his chest in pain. Growth can be painful, both physically and emotionally.
Soon after, the Grinch returns the presents to save Christmas. (Of course, Whoville was going to celebrate with or without gifts anyway.) But what really happens here is that the Who spirit ends up saving him in the end from his own isolation and grief.
I know the feeling. It’s hard to muster up the energy yourself to get out of the house and do the thing. When isolation and pain and frustration sit with you day after day, giving up and going through the motions happens more easily than trying to stay positive.
In the last few years of IPF, lung transplant, and COVID-19 restrictions, my mom has been notoriously high-spirited considering the circumstances. But I can see that waning for her this summer. She’s tired of everything.
Thankfully, as an extrovert, my mom gains energy by being with the ones she loves most. Two weeks straight of tiny grandchildren boosted her spirits in a way no 1,000-piece puzzle or Netflix show could. She’ll ride that high as long as she can, until the next time she gets to squeeze them.
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