Something Stronger, Something Better

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Excerpt From Jane's World

As we near the end of February, I think of a quote from Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy.”

Although February is the shortest month of the year, it’s been a long month of challenges for my family. The weather seems to mimic my sentiments. We’ve had a warm spell, a thunderstorm, snow, and now more rain and ice.

This evening I’m driving home from Milwaukee, on the expressway, and I’m scared. My windshield wiper is broken, the rubber edge is hanging off, and every time the wiper goes back and forth on my windshield, there’s a horrible scratching sound.

Only the bottom left side of the window is clear enough to look through. The larger area that I desperately need to see out of remains smudged. It’s like looking through cheesecloth to see the road—dirty cheesecloth. Because it’s night and raining, the glare of oncoming headlights makes it even harder to see where I’m going. I’m wide awake, driving in a nightmare situation.

I try to focus on my breathing. Both hands gripping the steering wheel, I try scooting down in my seat to peer through the tiny clear area. I am not happy. I am not safe. And worse, the people around me, the ones passing me at 100 miles an hour, blasting their horns, are not safe either.

I think of my grandson Ethan, whom I’ve just visited in the hospital. At the old age of 18, he had received a “bravery award” the morning of my visit. When I saw it taped up in his room, it made me smile. Ethan is brave indeed. I try to channel his bravery to calm my nerves and relax my death grip on the steering wheel. I can’t even see well enough to pull over or find an exit until I’m halfway to Madison. Finally, I’m able to get off the expressway.

I see a large, brightly lit hotel sign on top of a hill. It takes me several tries to find the right road to get to it, in the mix of rain, snow, heavy fog, and darkness—a dangerous combination even with working wipers.

Later, lying in the starchy hotel sheets, I think again of Ethan and his bravery award usually meant for younger children. I’ll bet the nurses at Children's Hospital had fun presenting the certificate to him. Being awarded anything at the age of 18, when you feel your life is passing you by, is appreciated.

Ethan asked the surgeon about participating in track, his favorite sport. The surgeon asked when the season starts. Ethan chuckled, answered, “Now,” and lowered his head. The surgeon’s gaze was level as he told Ethan it’s not going to happen. Maybe next year. Ethan explained this is hislast year, his senior year. The surgeon asked if he’s a good runner—the star of the team? Now Ethan laughed in earnest as he said no, not even close, and we all—my daughter, her husband and I—joined in the laughter.

Early the next morning I check out of the hotel only to discover my windshield is thick with ice. I try using the scraper, but it’s useless. Leaving the car running with the defrost on, I go back inside and pour myself a cup of tea from the breakfast nook. The front desk gal tries to make conversation with me. I’m not rude, but I’m not engaging. I’m not coming home from a grand adventure, nor driving to one. I simply wanted to see my grandson and have him know how much I love him.

It’s still a miserable 39 miles to Madison. I find cleaning my windshield before I left the hotel parking lot was for nothing, once the first passing truck splashes it with muddy mist. I’m back to peering through a smokescreen. In Madison, I get off the expressway, then ask three different people directions to navigate through the city, a route I normally don’t take. I pass two different auto parts stores. Neither is open yet.

Finally, I’m through Madison, the sun has come out, and although my windshield hasn’t improved, with the extra sunlight I can see well enough to increase my driving speed, relax my grip on the wheel, and drive the familiar highway. Less than a couple hours from home now.

I remember Ethan’s first visit alone to my house. Having nicknamed me “Grandma Riley” when he was barely old enough to talk, he was eager to come and stay at Grandma Riley’s house on his own.

He came to visit in early winter to see the Twinklefest parade. It was a snowy, wet, miserable evening. We went out for pizza first, a big hit. The parade, not so much—Ethan wasn’t impressed with standing outside watching cars go by. He felt it would be better if we were at my house, dry and warm. But on the way home he said, “Grandma Riley, it’s too dark here. You need to come live with us where there are lights.” He was thinking of the well-lit streets where he lives in a Milwaukee suburb as we drove through the darkness of rural Viola.

Ethan has always worried about everybody else, and now we’re all worried about him. He has a disease called pancolitis. It’s a form of ulcerative colitis (UC) that affects his entire large intestine. Currently, there’s no cure for this lifelong, chronic condition. It’s one of a group of conditions known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Statistics tell us that around 20 percent of people with UC have pancolitis. Yesterday his surgeon told us that he wouldn’t wish pancolitis on anyone. Ethan quickly agreed.

In Richland Center, I spy an automotive store that’s open and I pull in. Within 15 minutes I’m back on the road with new deluxe wiper blades. I turn them on and in one swipe, one damn swipe, I can see! I’m so excited that I’m doing the happy dance as I drive along. It dawns on me how easy it was to fix my car and how there is no cure for Ethan—no easy fix.

It’s Ethan’s senior year and he has college to look forward to. He’s been a drummer since he was four years old, and he loves to play in his band. He’s also a history fanatic and an outstanding brother to his younger sister. And he loves track. He may not be the fastest runner but last year he broke his own personal record. Ethan has been trying hard to manage his disease and his life. He is tired, both physically and mentally.

As I drive down Highway 56, nearing home, the sky is a brilliant blue, and the ice-covered trees glisten as they begin to drip with the warmth of the sun. It’s the end of February, and my thoughts are with Ethan and his first of three surgeries. I think again of the bravery award taped to Ethan's hospital bed and how well he deserves it.

I’m reminded of the rest of the Camus quote, which seems to speak of Ethan and his courage: “For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger—something better, pushing right back.”

 Originally Published March 2nd, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

*Jane shares excerpts from her column on her website weekly. Occasionally she shares the whole column!