The Barn

May 29, 2006 at 2:51 pm (Uncategorized)

Montana in the springtime can give you whiplash. Last week it was over 90 degrees; Saturday, it was snowing, with a high of around 40 degrees. By Thursday, it’s supposed to reach the upper eighties again.

Not only do fifty degree temperature swings wreak havoc on the sinuses, they also seriously mess with travel plans. We were supposed to drive the 200 miles to my parents’ ranch for the long Memorial Day weekend. Having survived several springs in Montana – and thus several canceled visits to my parents’– we should have known better than to mention the trip to Andrew. But we did, and for the past two weeks, the little guy has been telling everyone from random strangers to his babysitter, “I’m going to Grandma and Grandpa’s.”

Unfortunately, Grandma and Grandpa live ten miles up a dirt road. When it’s dry, the road is rutted and bumpy, but certainly passable in our Subaru. But when it rains or snows, the normally dusty dirt turn into a viscous substance the locals call gumbo. The stuff reminds me less of the spicy thick soup of New Orleans, and more of tremendously thick mucous – snot on steroids. Car tires get no traction in gumbo, and quickly mire in it. This is just as true for my parents’ 4-wheel drive trucks.  It doesn’t matter what kind of vehicle you drive, because when it rains on that road, nothing’s getting through. So we canceled our trip and rescheduled for June.

Andrew has been only mediocre at handling his disappointment this weekend, and is seeing a lot of his time-out chair. But I do feel bad for him. Trips to the ranch have a mythic cast for Andrew. For one thing, he has hundreds of empty acres to run around, wholly unfettered. There are also bunnies and birds to feed, and more dirt than all the world’s sand boxes combined. Grandma fulfills her job description and shamelessly spoils him. Grandpa whips him into a frenzy of silliness. Cookies are considered an acceptable lunch, and naps need never interfere with playtime. Andrew spends most of his visits in a state of perpetual dustiness and hyperactivity.

But I’m pretty sure Andrew’s favorite part of the ranch is The Barn. Unlike their neighbors, my parents don’t keep livestock, horses, or even tools and equipment in their giant barn. No, in a decision that I’m sure was designed to lure their hapless grandchildren to rural Montana, my parents filled the enormous structure with nothing but… toys. Every single race car and board game and doll that survived its initial go-round with my three siblings and me is housed in the barn, along with our old tricycles and wagons. There’s a basketball hoop and, in the winter, an indoor ice-skating rink. There’s sidewalk chalk for drawing on the concrete floor, and a little loft that is perfect for holding tea parties. Better yet, most of the toys are at least twenty years old, which means they are likely covered in lead-based paint or don’t meet modern safety standards. Extra fun for all involved!

But it’s not just that The Barn is a 40′ x 60′ x 25′ cathedral of fun with slate grey floors and aluminum siding that clangs loudly when a ball bounces off it. It’s metaphysical. Andrew insists that, when we meet my Mom in Philadelphia this week for my next academic medical experience, he’ll be able to play in The Barn, which he utters in hushed, reverential tones. The Barn is old toys, wild running around with sticks, alone time with Grandma and Grandpa, and handfuls of stale, but very sweet, popcorn. His mother, with her stuffy rules and rigid schedule, holds no sway in The Barn. The Barn is the place of eternal play. In short, it is paradise.

And that’s what we’ve deprived him of this weekend, I try to remind myself, as I struggle not to shake Andrew very hard every time he’s yelled, “NO!!!!” to most everything Jay or I have said over the last three days. I’ve also tried to take a step back and think about the conception of The Barn we each carry within us. Whether we’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, atheist, or something in between, don’t we all nurture an inner sense of paradise just as surely as Andrew does? The perfect world for a two year old involves grime, access to toys, unlimited play time, and no rules. I spent my rainy weekend contemplating the parameters of my Barn, and how it has changed since I had Andrew and got a chronic illness.

The Barn, for the pre-child, pre-prednisone me, was an internal landscape of what I’ll call Big Dreams. I wanted to be a successful writer, and my definition of success was quite narrow. It meant getting into the New Yorker, Harper’s or the Atlantic. Anything short of that was mediocrity. I also wanted to be an athlete. I had begun to acknowledge that I probably wouldn’t be an Olympic champion, but it was still damn important that I be in the best shape possible. Jay and I liked riding centuries together and teaming up for different events. When he ran a marathon in Lake Tahoe, I did the 10K (running has never been my strong suit). We kayaked ninety-five miles down the coast of Palau together. But our biggest dream was to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail (a path from Canada to Mexico that traverses some of the most spectacular land in this country) in one long trip. Having good friends was definitely part of this older model of The Barn, as was my relationship with Jay. Those of you single folks can hold your noses and gag, but I’ve never doubted the concept of true love since Jay and I met.

A lot has changed in the past two and a half years, so it shouldn’t surprise me that The Barn within me has modified itself with the developments. Health was never part of my earlier vision of paradise. Like almost everyone else who has never been sick for an extended time, I took my health for granted. Of course I would always be able to travel where and when I wanted; of course I would always have the physical stamina to lug a heavy pack on a multi-day hiking trip; of course I would always be able to stay up for four days to finish a deadline. Now I know what a gift it is to be able to do these things, and when I think of my Barn, I visualize a reality where I don’t wheeze walking up a hill or have chest pains wake me in the middle of the night.

Andrew was never in the earlier Barn. His coming into the world has launched a revolution in my own. I don’t think I’m a different person after his birth; rather I am the same person with radically different priorities and ways of seeing the world. My new Barn has Andrew in the center, and Andrew is healthy, happy, and full of love. Of course, Jay has been a constant in both Barns. He has consistently made me a better person and pushed me to become myself more fully. But in my new Barn, Jay has to hold less of the world on his shoulders than he does now, juggling finances, a child, and my ongoing health crises.

The major difference is my sense of goals. The ambitions of my dreams haven’t changed as much as they’ve shrunk. And I mean this in a positive way. Hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail seems far less crucial than being able to hike on our local trails with my family. My definition of success in writing has evolved as well. This blog reflects that. It feels important to share my experiences with others, especially if they are struggling to make sense of how a chronic illness can meld with paying the bills, getting the kids to school, and staying sane. I also started teaching writing classes for beginners. The joy I’ve uncovered here is almost shocking. I never expected to find pleasure in hearing other writers discover their voices and gather the courage to write every day.

But before we all get too cozy in this new Barn, let me tear some of the threads of homey simplicity I’ve been spinning on my loom. If getting sarcoidosis has forced me to reduce my expectations to more appropriate, and possibly more fulfilling levels, aren’t I implicitly suggesting that illness is a moral force – that getting sick somehow made me more whole and internally healthier? This may be true in some ways (a radical mortality check can be helpful to one’s sense of perspective), but this view also deeply chafes at me. If there’s one thing I believe, it is that we, as a society, need to shed our Pilgrim skins and stop viewing illness as something other than its physical manifestations. Saying that getting sick made me a better person is only a hop, skip, and a jump from saying that God punishes people by giving them cancer or AIDS. I always come back to Susan Sontag in Illness as a Metaphor. Sickness is sickness, she said. And that’s that.

But is it really healthier to dream only of being alive for my son’s graduation or to have the strength to walk along a flat road instead of a mountain? Is it really personal progress to limit my Barn to the immediately tangible, not the castles in the air I built when I was younger? Besides, I do still want to get my work in the New Yorker, race my bike again, and hike for nearly a thousand miles. If I give up on these dreams, and tell myself that really, I only want to live another day, then I think I truly am giving up and letting this disease fill my Barn with its shriveled droppings. So, let’s just leave it that my notions of paradise have shrunk and swollen. I have scaled them back, but I conceive of this more as pruning than dying. This is a Barn I can sleep in at night.

As for Andrew, we’ve been patient with him this weekend. After all, he feels like we stole his Nirvana away. He doesn’t understand how rain and mud – the sheer physical muck of this life – can get in the way of The Barn. I hope it’s a long time before he learns this.

1 Comment

  1. Roz Weiner said,

    ah Bec,
    how much you have to teach us.
    don’t you limit your barn…if life does, then it does…but you, lovely daughter of my heart, you keep right on dreaming big.

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