In 2017, my house burned down in a series of wildfires that devastated Northern California and leveled my entire neighborhood. I was seven months pregnant with a baby with a severe heart defect. My marriage fell apart at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown in April of 2020. I'm currently writing a memoir about my experience.
Chapter 1: Be Brave
Apollo Arthur came into this world both lucky and unlucky. When I was twenty weeks pregnant with him, the doctors knew something was wrong. A flurry of testing eventually revealed that he had a severe heart defect. Believe me, I will spare no detail later, but what matters at this point is that he would need open-heart surgery right after he was born in order to keep breathing. He was not lucky with the genetic cards he was dealt, but he was lucky because we had access to the best medical care a family could hope for. We knew it was going to be a long road for him, but my husband and I had always been good at figuring things out. As long as we had all the data, we could formulate a plan. As long as there was a plan, we would be okay.
And oh, am I good at planning. I typically don’t like to brag, but I have a knack for setting a goal, figuring out a plan to accomplish that goal, and following through on that plan. I’m really fucking good at it.
I planned to own a house by the time I was 30. Done. I planned to get a dog as soon as I had said house. Done. I planned to get pregnant after being married for about five years. Done. I’m great at planning vacations. Booking hotels, plotting the route and finding all the best restaurants. My husband even compliments me on my ability to always find the best places to eat. But the Universe had its own plan. It would present to me a series of obstacles so tragic and so soul-crushing that some might say it’s a miracle that I’m still standing.
When I was seven months pregnant with Apollo, my house burned down in what was, at the time, the most destructive wildfire in California history. After my son was born, he would need a total of four major surgeries by the time he was eight months old, two of them life-saving. He would almost die a third time in a post-op respiratory attack as a result of the common cold. After all of the stresses of the fire, the rebuild, Apollo’s special health needs and scares, I also lost my marriage. In the two-and-a-half years between October 2017 and May 2020, I would suffer losses, heartache and hardship of such high magnitude and in such quick succession that I had no time to recover and get my bearings before having to face the next trial. Every new trauma a sucker punch to the gut, not waiting until I could catch my breath before coming in with a right hook. No amount of begging the Universe for mercy did any good.
Friends or strangers would often say to me, “you are so incredibly strong.” I would always come back to them and say something like, “Yeah, I guess I am. I have to be. I have no choice.” At the time, I really felt as if I did not have any choice but to be brave, be resilient. To take on what life threw at me. But I did have a choice. Every time I woke up to get to the hospital in time for rounds, it was a choice. Every time I pushed forward with the progress on the rebuild, it was a choice. Every question for a doctor, every phone call to insurance, it was a choice. And as anyone who has been through extreme trauma probably knows, it’s often the part that comes after the traumatic event that’s the hardest. For me, that’s when I really understood that survival is itself a choice. That bravery is not just about stepping up when you have to, but choosing to live a better and happier life because you choose to.
Getting back to “normal”, or something resembling normal, was a battle. It still is. A boxing match between me and the Universe. I would stand there and shout “Fuck you, Universe! You can’t do this to me! I haven’t even caught my breath from the last blow!” The Universe would push back, throwing its weight around and remind me just how small I was. That I’m not in control, no matter how much I fight. But in that fight is when I transformed from being a victim of circumstance into being a powerhouse of resilience.
Now, when I say “Universe” it is indeed in reference to the idea of a greater power. Some might call it God, but as a woman with a background in science, I typically try to keep my deities tangible. But having a logical mind does not mean I’m disconnected from my heart. I actually like to think that I have a good balance between being able to logically sort out a situation while also being in tune with my feelings well enough to try and decipher what my mind and my heart want.
In preparation for writing this book, I researched the science of trauma and resilience. Throughout this book, I will tell my story and throw in some fascinating perspectives based on scientific research as well as my own after-the-fact reflections and introspections. My goal is to not just recount my journey, but also help you, the reader, understand that I’m no special case. I believe that survival is a choice and resilience is a skill that can be learned.
One of Apollo’s favorite books to read at night is called “Max the Brave”. It’s a story about a little black cat who likes to chase mice, but first, he must learn what a mouse looks like. He is a brave kitten who stands tall, hands on his hips, proud and mighty, and ready to take on anything. My son likes to mirror this stance, even when he’s laying down in bed. He puts his little hands on his hips and he looks at me and smiles so big and proud. He is brave. If only I could be as brave as him.