I’m visiting a good friend, a fellow writer, on her farm. The visit serves many purposes, but the main one is to meet her newborn daughter, and to spend time writing in the tiny house on her property where I stay. The two of us walk together inside the fenced-in enclosure of her backyard; she pushes the stroller, and I hold a glass of red wine. The fertile fields stretch out far behind us, all the way back to the distant treeline. A lone tractor crawls through the dirt, up and down the rows, laying seed or plowing, or we’re not exactly sure what. The dust makes it hard to tell what piece of farm equipment is attached to the tractor. I would have no idea anyway. I point to the tractor moving steadily through the field, kicking up a fine red cloud as it goes, and I say to my friend, “There’s a metaphor there.”
I arrive at the farm riding the electric waves of energy that come with receiving good news. I am admitted into a competitive writing program, awarded one of six spots. One of the essays from my collection-in-progress is a finalist in a Canada-wide competition out of 489 submissions. Job prospects are opening up. Requests are coming in. “Congratulations to you and your forthcoming book,” a respected literary friend writes, “it won’t be long now…” I am the tractor kicking up all kinds of dust in the field, sowing the seeds for a fruitful writing career.
But, if you have an idea of how stories go, and what happens once you reach the peak, perhaps you can predict the direction my life goes next.
Maybe I am not the tractor. Maybe I am the dirt.
A simple text arrives as I’m laughing with my friend, perhaps even holding her baby snuggled in my arms. The fine dust aroma of sweet earth that covers everything fills my nostrils. “Just spoke to Sick Kids, need to talk to you.” My husband texts, and my stomach drops.
“I have to call Dan, it’s Sick Kids.” My friend gives me a knowing look, takes the baby.
I’m outside, shooing the pesky black flies and mosquitos, trying to reach my husband by phone who suddenly seems so far away. He answers, but can’t hear me properly, so I make my way to the front of the house where reception is better.
If I was the one to write the narrative for my daughter’s life, some things I would rewrite, others I would edit out completely. My narrative for her wouldn’t include Down syndrome (in short, it’s the low societal expectations, the lack of supports, the prevalent ableism in our society, the associated health concerns…) If I was writing her story, I would take away her dental troubles that have caused her pain and infection, and spared her the need to be sedated, and the impending dental surgery. I certainly wouldn’t give her Crohn’s disease, as no one ever wants to be told their child must have a high tolerance for pain, because their insides are raw, let alone go through that experience. E has endured horrible pain. But like every story, at some point, the narrative shifts, turns, and for her it has indeed. She is being seen by some of Canada’s best and brightest physicians, for her G.I. issues and her teeth. Her Crohn’s is being managed by a team of medical professionals, we have a dental surgery date, and she’s on her way to healing. I would like to end the story there.
But that text.
My life is the field, peaceful and calm, and then the tractor comes and shreds the soil to bits. What seems known and certain is turned, mixed up.
E was born with a congenital heart defect and a leaky valve. Two small holes between the chambers of her heart that shouldn’t be there. She’s been followed by cardiologists for her heart since birth. Fifty percent of kids with Down syndrome need heart surgery, and so we felt lucky we’d dodged that particular bullet. Covid contributed to delaying E’s heart appointments by several years, but we weren’t overly concerned. We got caught up last week with a routine cardiologist check-up, and when the doctor looked at her echocardiogram, the message was what we wanted to hear: “The images are the same as four years ago.”
The cardiologist felt confident we could safely do nothing regarding the holes in her heart at this time. “But I will present her case at rounds and see what the whole team thinks.”
I forgot about holes in hearts, rounds, cardiologists, and let the entire pulsing mess slip from my mind.
Dan doesn’t mince words. “The team was unanimous in deciding that they want to go ahead with heart surgery.”
“In five to six months. They want to do it coming from the side so they don’t have to cut through her chest wall.”
And now that tractor is tearing along my chest, shredding my insides, throwing dirt up in my face.
The time has come for the holes to be fixed. She is big enough. The holes did not fix themselves over time, as was originally hoped. Surgery was always on the table, the question was when. Why hadn’t I realized this? Why is this news coming as such a surprise?
I am stunned.
I walk laps in the backfield with my friend, clutching my glass of red, and listen to the low rumble of the tractor in the distance. Dust flies up and I shield my eyes, but there’s no avoiding the sandy-soil that stains my shoes, settles in my mouth and coats my notebooks in grit through the tiny house windows. I squint against the sky to watch as the tractor plods closer, and what I feel most keenly is my inability to control its movement, to make it stop. I am helpless in the face of such machinery.
I turn my back to the mustard horizon, the roar of the tractor’s engine in my ears, away from the dirt clouds blood-red. My heart pounds and pumps in my head as I think about E.
And for now, that is where the story ends.