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The 3,000-Miles-Away Dilemma

KATHLEEN MCCLEARY'S NOVEL, "Houst and Home," will be out in paperback in July.
KATHLEEN MCCLEARY'S NOVEL, "Houst and Home," will be out in paperback in July.

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By Kathleen McCleary
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Okay, I admit it; I'm something of a micromanager. So it was a big step for me to take a weeklong research trip to the West Coast in the fall of 2007, leaving my husband and daughters, Grace and Emma, then ages 13 and 10, to manage without me. I left a lot of lists. I made a list of the kids' doctors. I made a list of the various drugs, animals and other substances that provoke the girls' allergies. I made a list of friends who could help out in an emergency and a list of things to remember, such as watering the orchid in the dining room window and taking out the trash and recycling on Thursday night. I wrote down instructions on how to sort the laundry, what buttons to push on the washer and dryer. My family collectively rolled their eyes and said yes, they'd take care of everything, and didn't I need to get to the airport?

Four days into the trip, I was on a ferry in Washington state's San Juan Islands, drinking in the heart-stopping beauty of the pale November sky, the rock-strewn beaches, the eagles wheeling in great arcs overhead. My work was going well, and I was starting to feel really good. My husband had called a couple of times to let me know that things were fine at home. I couldn't even remember the last time I had traveled alone like this. Then the cellphone in my pocket beeped. There was a long text message from my husband, something to the effect of "Grace kicked in the head at soccer. Might have blacked out. Now throwing up at school. Stomach bug? Concussion? Dunno. Going to ER."

I tried to call him, but my cellphone reception was spotty. Kicked in the head? Concussion? What if she lapses into a coma? What if she dies and I'm not there?

This is the two-edged sword of a vivid imagination. As a writer, I'm often grateful and astonished that I've been able to make a living out of the whirling apparitions in my brain. But then there are the darker scenes, the ability to envision catastrophe, death, destruction, in painstaking detail. I imagined my daughter calling for me. I anticipated coming home to her cold, still body, her lively eyes and quick smile frozen, stilled, gone. What do you wear to your child's funeral? I thought. How do you ever live in the world again?

The ferry docked, depositing me on an island more than 3,000 miles from home. Miraculously, my cellphone actually rang as I stood on the pier, trying to decide what to do next. It was my father, in Michigan, calling to let me know that he had rushed my mother to the emergency room that morning with what seemed to be a severe case of pancreatitis. She was very sick. The doctors were running more tests.

I stood there, on the edge of a town so small that it has no traffic lights, and watched the last ferry of the day head back to the mainland. There was simply no way for me to get anywhere in less than 24 hours -- probably more. My daughter and mother were both in emergency rooms, one in Virginia, one in Michigan. I didn't know if either one of them was truly all right, would be all right. But there was absolutely nothing I could do. Whatever was going to unfold over the next 24 hours would indeed unfold; I couldn't direct it. So, for perhaps the first time in my life, I let go.

I checked in to my motel, ate a meal, gazed at the bounty of stars in the blackness of the night sky, so far from anything, and hoped for the best. And at that moment, in the midst of all that worry, I felt an enormous sense of relief.

I reached my husband later that night. He had taken Grace straight to the hospital; her CT scan was normal; a mild concussion was the diagnosis. Two days later I flew to Michigan to help my mother home from the hospital.

Now, more than a year later, everyone is fine. Of course, I still give too many instructions, try too hard to remember every detail, over-prepare for every eventuality. But at the same time, I haven't forgotten what it felt like to be on that island. So I know I can only do what we all do, try to hold tight to what I love, knowing that the time will come when, again, I have to let go.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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