When my second child was three weeks old, we rushed her to the emergency room. She had a fever, wasn’t eating properly, and when she woke up from her afternoon nap, her entire right side went rigid as she began to have a seizure.
A terrible night ensued, of spinal taps, of multiple seizures and strokes, of watching doctors try to hold a too-large oxygen mask over my newborn daughter’s face. My husband and I hovered in the hall, or in stark, sterile waiting rooms while we waited to find out if our child would survive the night.
The next day brought a diagnosis of spinal meningitis, along with gowns and masks and isolation rooms, and direct orders that we could not touch our daughter without washing our hands before and after for fear of contamination.
Once my daughter was stabilized, my husband was able to go home and pack up a few things for my stay at the hospital. She would need to be there for at least two weeks, and I had arrived at the emergency room with little more than the clothes on my back and a healthy measure of stifled panic. On top of the list of everyday necessities I gave to my husband, I also told him to bring back several blank notebooks and a handful of pens.
I had endured a tremendous amount of stress and fear. I was exhausted, hungry, and hadn’t bathed properly for days. But I wanted to write. I needed to write. I felt an overwhelming need to siphon all the tangled thoughts from inside my head and scribble them out onto the page.
My husband didn’t blink an eye. He knew exactly what had spurred on my request. And so he returned a few hours later, with clothes, toiletries, and three blank, spiral-bound notebooks, along with every pen he could find. Some of the doctors and nurses, however, gave me an odd look when, while my daughter was resting, I curled up on my cot, hunched over my writing while a half dozen machines beeped and whirred around me.
Perhaps I should have done more stereotypical things to show my stress and worry. Perhaps I should have torn tissues to bits, or rocked back and forth in a chair, or watched endless hours of terrible cable television while picking at trays of hospital food. But instead, I wrote. I wrote about what had happened, what the doctors told me on their rounds, the way the room looked, how I felt at any given moment, how my daughter looked—a tiny little creature, curled up in her oversized hospital bed. And I wrote stories, sad and humorous and scary stories, anything to keep my mind occupied in between nursing my daughter and watching the nurses check up on her for the thousandth time.
My daughter is now three years old. She’s healthy and well, despite all the warnings that there might be neurological damage, or damage to her heart, or that she would lose her hearing. And I still have those notebooks from those weeks I spent in the hospital with her.
Jump ahead to two weeks ago, when another of my family members ended up in the Intensive Care Unit after an accident. There was the same stress and worry, the same chaos as our world was upended in such a way we couldn’t be certain it would ever be set to rights. And in those hours when I was waiting for progress reports, and wanting to sleep, and not eating properly, and telling my kids that everything was going to be fine, I again picked up paper and pen, and I began to write.
This most recent incident made me wonder: Is it a way of coping with stress, to plant myself in front of the blank page, or a blank computer screen, and create a river of words so that I can be swept away in its current? It might be. But it also shows that there is no wrong time to write, or to acknowledge that your brain never stops working or wanting to create. You do not have to wait for things to be happy, to be safe and calm in order to sit down and pen some great manuscript. The words come when they will, even at times when things are awful. And sometimes, during those awful moments, it’s those very words that are what help you to make it through.