monks have their vigil
This past Easter I was experiencing a weird foot pain that kept getting worse. It culminated at the Paschal vigil itself, where it hurt even to take a few steps, and I was wincing in a pair of flimsy sandals as Jeff and I walked toward the entrance of the Greek Orthodox Church in the darkness of 11 p.m. By the time everyone’s candles were lit, I was sitting on the pew in tears and asking Jeff to take me back home. My Pascha was spent on the internet googling “pregnancy and foot pain,” which yielded some illuminating search results about a thing called overpronation, which is a fancy word for when your arches collapse. Turns out this is “common” in pregnancy due to relaxed ligaments and redistribution of weight. More surprising for me than the pain itself was the fact that though I had been acquainted with many pregnant women, none had ever warned me of this supposedly “common” experience of pregnancy.
Now I see that there is a long list of “common” things life has in store that no one warned me about. Just the amount of work and personal investment it takes to launch a new life into the world makes my head spin. We all arrived here as babies and someone had to take care of us; you can’t get any more common than that. When I think about the word “population,” I can’t get over it.
This week I found out that croup is common in children three months to five years of age. Croup is “scary for parents” (per Mayo Clinic website), because you see that your child is struggling to get air and has a characteristic cough that sounds like a seal’s bark. The first night Esme wasn’t too bad, and as long as I nursed her, then held her indefinitely until she was in a deep sleep, she wouldn’t cough. The second night it was obviously worse. We stood with her in the bathroom near the hot shower making steam; we had the cool mist humidifier going in her room; I nursed her and held her as long as I could, but this wasn’t doing the trick anymore. I went to the baby books: croup lasts five nights and the second and third night are the worst. But otherwise the information seemed like a mixed bag of “croup is scary,” and “croup often clears up with steam or with exposure to the cool night air on the way to the hospital.” Hmm. I couldn’t hold her next to the running shower all night long and she needed sleep. So how do you know when to really worry? Should we take her to the emergency room only to have it clear up on the way? Having a doctor look at you with a “you are a paranoid parent” look in his eye is belittling. A snow storm was moving in and about to dump ten inches on us. I called my parents, who naturally panicked and cast their vote for the emergency room. I called a trusted friend in town with four kids and asked her. She said croup only tends to get worse as the night wears on. We could wake up at 1 a.m. and she could be having a very hard time breathing, and that would be terrible– better safe than sorry. We bundled her and ourselves up and drove to the hospital. By this time, it was 10:45 p.m. By midnight, she was receiving a little shot of steroids to clear the inflammation of the airway.
I didn’t mention that Jeff and I had both had a stomach virus two nights before this, and I was about to collapse from it all. The doctor, who was very kind, and I think felt sorry for us in our frazzled, obviously exhausted state, said that the shot wouldn’t really kick in for a while, so we would still be awake with her that night. This turned out to be, mercifully, not true. She slept heavily the rest of the night, only waking briefly to eat. I camped out on the floor beside her, hyper-alert to every sound she made, and fed her when she woke, until about 4 a.m. when Jeff took over so I could sleep comfortably in our bed.
After the night was over and I reflected on it, I felt that there was something personally purifying about it. Esme’s godfather, who attended Bishop Kallistos Ware’s parish in Oxford, quoted him as saying that monks have their vigil, and parents have theirs. This remark pleases me because it makes me feel like all this work is being recognized for its spiritual value; it helps me to value it in that way. But there was something remarkably vigil-like about this night (not to mention all the other wakeful nights since her birth) that took me out of myself, almost the same as if I were standing on two stiff legs in a dark church with candles and a lone canter, like at a compline service, past the point where your legs feel like they’re going to fall off, and into a place where you stop noticing your body and its pathetic fatigue and finally begin praying instead of having your own thoughts.
At seminary, I knew a single guy who said he liked to spend time at the apartment of his married friend with kids, because thier problems seemed more real. I’m not sure. I was single for twenty-six years and had problems. A lot of times they kept me awake during the night as I tortured myself mentally. Maybe the problems were more phantasmal than being at the hospital on a snowy night with a sick child, or looking at yourself in the mirror and feeling like ten years were deducted from your body by childbirth; but maybe that makes them even worse– illusive and gnawing. Maybe the “common” problems of singlehood, like self-doubt, or lonliness, also make for a good night’s vigil. Monks have their vigil, parents have theirs, and so do single people who don’t live in monasteries. Maybe life has its suffering and purifying opportunities for everyone.