Presence and power. They have an interesting relationship. Sometimes you have presence; someone with you or you with them. A tangible comfort and companionship, an unspoken support. Sometimes you have power; you are able to make choices, changes and the freedom to execute them as you deem fit. Parenting, particularly when your children are going through difficulties is a varying concoction in its ratios of presence and power. Parents and children both need each other’s presence. Time in each other’s company. As they grow, they become less dependent on that presence and they begin to exercise the power to manage the level of presence they require. Parents and children both need power. They need the ability to make their own choices, make changes and feel a sense of personal power in their own life experiences. We are all at our best when we have a sense of both presence (active enhancing support with us) and power (ability to make choices and changes). If you’ll come on the journey as I recount my daughter’s recent surgery, you’ll notice the way presence and power flow through our experiences and the impact of their fluctuations.
I’ve spent a couple of weeks feeling power-less. I’ve had mostly presence, but not power. I’ve sat bedside to my daughter undergoing spinal fusion surgery and felt utterly powerless. I’ve donned the scrubs to be able to walk her into the operating theatre and hold her hand only to stand there powerless. I clasped her hand between both of mine as the tears cascaded silently across her cheeks and into her hair net as I tried feebly to reassure her. I stood by as she got herself onto the hard and narrow surgical table. I took her hand and reminded her that I love her and that it will be ok as the anaesthetist put her to sleep. As they pronounce her ‘gone’ they nod quietly as you ask them – somewhat powerlessly – but with desperation – to please look after her. To hold ‘presence’ where I was unable. I rested her hand down on her chest in that icy cold room and was ushered out with café recommendations and instructions to go out of the hospital and distract yourself – this will take several hours… You can’t help but feel powerless. You’ve laid your heart on a table for other people to work on and been shuffled out the door. Unnecessary. Powerless. Not present.
Surgery hours go by like a hazy fog. You are walking, talking, in the world but not really engaged in any of it. It’s as though because you can’t be present where you long to be, you can’t be present anywhere. You find a job you can focus on – something you need to get at the shop, or a place you wanted to see. We planned to go get breaky after fasting with our girl for the morning, yet as we drove out of the hospital carpark warm salty liquid leaked in continuous streams from my heart through my eyes. It was unstoppable. Cafés were no longer appropriate, so we headed for our apartment. Breakfast. Mindless chewing. Distance gazing. Can’t hold a thought. Pray. Cuddle. Worship music on. Blanket cocooning for warmth. Pray. Doze… Presence with another soothes. No words are needed as you hold presence in the fog.
We awoke with a task to accomplish so we set ourselves for that though the heart is absent and focus fuzzy. We made a second attempt at a café for lunch on the staff’s recommendation. We sit. We order. We don’t know what we want. We’re not sure we’re hungry. The clock feels louder now. The heart more strained. The joyful chatter of friends catching up around you is overwhelming to the pain you sit right next to them in. Saltwater begins leaking. We change our order ‘to go’ and eat in the park by the hospital. Not fit for public patronage our hearts draw us back to our girl. We can no longer do anything other than sit and wait inside the hospital. We cannot do anything else. We cannot be anywhere else. We want nothing else. We long to be present with her and for her presence, yet are powerless to make that choice.
Surgery hours are longer than normal hours, the tick seems to ring out an endless echo before daring to tick another second. You wait and watch the door. Your eyes rise with hope at any person passing by, ‘will this be news for us?’ And every time it’s not. Desperate. Powerless. Confined to waiting. Finally, the café recommending nurse walked past… and as our desperate eyes lifted, she caught them and couldn’t look away. ‘Surgery went well’. ‘She is in recovery, she did a good job.’ The wave of relief was refreshing but simultaneously makes the next portion of time harder. We need to see our girl. My heart was pulling me to hunt her out, but my head knew I’m not allowed. Powerless. Presence-less.
The recovery nurse came after the surgeon in this twilight zone of time stretching. Finally, permission to go – for one of us only. Before I can consider politeness or kindness, my body was on my feet, ‘can that be me?’ I ask whilst glancing now backwards to my gracious husband. My feet moving toward the door and the nurse. They are having trouble waking her. They are hoping I can help. I search each door we go past looking for her, longing to lay eyes on her at first opportunity. There she is. On her back, oxygen mask on, wires and tubes connected, screens beeping, two nurses and the anaesthetist are around her bed, calling her name, telling her it’s time to wake up. They encourage me to talk to her, that I can take my mask down and kiss her. I kiss her warm, anesthetised feeling forehead. I touch her cheek. Relief washes over me in a gush. Presence has been restored. I start talking to her, reminding her I love her, that it’s all over, that it’s time to wake up now. She turns her head to my voice, eyes still closed. She too seeks presence with me. I ask if she can open her eyes. They stay shut but she moves toward me as though to get up. The nurses hold her down, you can’t be rolling around straight from spinal fusion! I find her hand and hold it. She starts to shake and shiver and nods her head when asked if she’s cold. The nurses jump to action and I look at her longing to see those greeny/blue eyes return mine. The anaesthetist can’t leave until she sees her come out of it and it’s been a while now. We continue trying to wake her. I’m this close, I’m touching her and yet feel like I can’t reach her. Powerless.
I feel the blood drain from my head and the overwhelm flood my entire being. I try desperately to talk myself out of fainting. That’s not being a good mum! Things start to go hazy and I let the nurse beside me know I just need to sit down for a minute. She takes one look at me and gets me on the floor, gets a chair, gets juice… I feel ridiculous. I’m the one who deals with blood and vomit in our house, totally fine with all of it… but standing bedside watching my girl struggle to come out of the drug induced sleep, watching her trying to get out of the bed too me, to shiver, to be unresponsive and my reserves are gone. A few minutes and it passes so I can resume bedside standing, talking, kissing and requesting to wake up… presence restored.
Her eyes flutter open for just a moment; unable to focus, they close. Waiting. Watching. Open, roll, close. Open, roll, close. Open, look, lock on mine, close. What joy to see those eyes and to see them lock mine! She is warming now and starting to awaken. First words come next. ‘Thirsty’. ‘Is it done?’ It’s another twilight zone of time where you hang off every word, hypervigilant to every nuance of her being and every monitor reporting her stats. You stand there poised, ready for anything, hoping that your presence counts when you are powerless to offer anything other than that. You hand hold, you kiss, you talk, you tell them they’re going to be ok. It’s been a big day and finally she’s off to ICU. Though minimal, as consciousness returns, power is able to trickle charge back to her.
ICU nurses are a kind all of their own. They’re quick, they’re quiet, they’re clean. They hold control of the room and are acutely aware of all that is going on within it. They think multiple steps in advance and are an amazing combo of gentle and forthright. They’re efficiency and diligence are calming. It’s a reassuring place for a parent because you get to be present as a parent while all the care is handled, often before you were aware a need was arising. My bed was made up beside Ava’s… menus for our meals on the bed. Everything I didn’t know I needed was already provided. The nurses hold power and presence, but in a way that is used for your benefit. Custodians that return power to patients and parents alike. I slept bedside in the centre of ICU, opposite the nurses station and I slept deep; secure in their care and being present bedside. Finally, presence was not partnered with powerlessness.
Transitioning to the ward was rough. From hypervigilant, highly monitored care, to needing to fight for your nurse’s attention. We needed to ask for linen to make up my bed in the room, to call for medications or they’d be delayed or missed, to remind them of Ava’s hygiene needs, to remind them she can’t swallow tablets… every single time… on every single shift. We became experts on sorting the catheter and learning how often she could have each medication for otherwise she was uncomfortable and in pain. It felt like a fight, advocating for your daughter at every turn. While frustrating it was a definite re-awakening of power. Choices and changes could now be instigated – and need to be instigated – by you. Presence and power came back together, two necessary parenting ingredients returned and they opened the exit door of hospital and into the next leg of the recovery journey.
We all need presence. We all need power. We need trusted people to have presence with. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of presence when you feel powerless. There were multiple times where standing bedside, hovering, hand holding, praying, sleeping bedside felt so insignificant. Yet, when you are vulnerable and in pain, it’s not power you seek – it’s the comfort and reassurance of presence with you. To not be alone and to be loved is a tremendous gift.
While this post is very much my experience with recent surgery, I want to encourage you if you are feeling powerless to help someone you love who’s in a tough situation, just keep showing up. Sit next too, drop by, hand hold, smile, pray. It does count and it is powerful. You can’t be presence for yourself. We need people. Sometimes you can’t find power for yourself, so empowering others to make some choices and changes for themselves can remind them the power they do have. May you value those present with you, your presence with those around you and be reminded that you are more powerful than you realise… just by being you and being there.