Nearly a year ago, our family took a road trip to visit some friends. Zach loves to ride in the car and will do anything he can to get in and stay in! This drive to Central New York is generally only five or six hours long, but on this particular Saturday it required nearly eight hours to get to our final destination.

We were thrilled to arrive and catch up with our friends. There was a barbecue dinner made, candles lit, wine breathing and lots of laughter! We were so excited and relieved to finally get there.

After a bit of settling in, I noticed that Zach was not in the kitchen with the rest of us. By that point, we’d carried in our gear, used the facilities and started munching and relaxing.

Where is Zach? I asked.

After rounding the corner in search of his small but mighty presence, I saw the bathroom door closed.

Zach, you ok? I called into him.

Yeah. Zach responded.

After the extended travel time, it was not at all surprising to me that Zach needed some time in the men’s room and maybe just a few minutes to himself in general. So, I continued to visit with our friends and watched for the bathroom door to open, checking in with Zach every so often.

At some point, I became concerned. It was a long time for Zach to be in the bathroom, even for him. When I asked if he was alright this time, he responded with a different tone of voice, a panicked tone, and said OPEN DOOR.

To my surprise, when I attempted to turn the door handle, it spun. It was an older home and within seconds I realized the doorknob and lock were not functional, just decorative. So, I leaned into it and tried to push my way into the small bathroom. No luck.

In the calmest voice I could muster up, I got very close to the door and said:

Zach, turn the lock. Buddy, you need to unlock to the door. Whatever you turned, or moved, please turn it back. I can’t open the door from out here.

Zach replied:

OPEN DOOR.

OPEN DOOR. HELP MOM. OPEN DOOR! OPEN!

His yells for help became aggressive and more desperate, as he began banging on the door itself.

By this time the others had gathered near the bathroom door as well. We all realized we had a crisis brewing. In case you don’t know Zach, at age 25 he weighs 70 pounds and has very poor fine motor skills. He’d locked me out of the house once when he was a toddler, but other than that he’d never had any issue locking doors or getting stuck somewhere.

To heighten my sense of fear, I realized there was a lit candle on the pedestal sink in the small bathroom. It was within his reach and although he wouldn’t normally mess with a candle, I was scared he could knock it over while panicking.

Zach was in real danger.

We went outside to access the bathroom through a small window but could not. And it couldn’t be broken, since it was made of that thick privacy glass used to let light in but nothing else.

Back indoors, we sized up the door frame itself, and as we were determining that breaking into it could also injure Zach in the process, the wisest among us called 911 and we waited.

Those few minutes listening for the fire department to arrive seemed like an eternity. I dropped to the floor and placed my face right against the door as I spoke slowly and steadily to Zach who was now in full blown panic.

Honey, everything is ok. Zach we are ok. I have a surprise for you. Remember all the firefighters and fire trucks we sometimes see on TV? Or driving on the highway? Well guess what!?! Pretty soon you will hear sirens and this time they are coming to help us! It’s our turn to have some fun!

Zach received little to no comfort from my words, and in usual Zach fashion just repeated what he was saying, as if I’d said nothing at all.

MOM? DADDY! HELP! OUT! OPEN! HELP! OPEN! HELP! HELP! HELP! OUT!

I told him, we were right outside the door and to listen for the sirens. And they came, thank God.

Zach, honey you have a lot of cool firefighters here to help us out. They are all here to make sure you are safe and good. Don’t be scared. They are here to help, but you will hear some loud noises. Try to move away from the door. We are right here…Don’t be afraid of the banging, just back away from the door.

From start to finish, the whole rescue ordeal couldn’t have lasted more than 15 minutes which I thought was pretty incredible. But they were long, stressful minutes. They were the kind that pump floods of adrenaline coursing through every cell of the body.

The door and frame came down, and out Zach moved. Stressed, flushed, scared and maybe even in shock I threw my arms around him and said something to assure him this was a game that was over, and how cool it was that he got to play. I asked him if we could take a picture of all the firefighters to share with our friends.

We did.

Later that evening, everyone was settled back in to the familiar scene of dinner, libations and flickering candles. It was hard to believe that had even happened. I was still a little in shock myself, but tried to focus on cultivating gratitude that the danger was behind us.

Weeks later, and well after our return home, we worked with our friends to replace the door and frame for their bathroom. It is now lovely, modern and functional all at the same time. And we named it The Z Suite, for obvious reasons.

There are several components of this experience that stood out to me. The first, was the reminder of just how quickly things can go south, especially when kids or specially gifted adults are involved.

The second is just how important it is to take control in a dangerous situation, not just of the actions, but also of the narrative. Getting hysterical, crying, or yelling would have only added fuel to the fire for all of us, and especially Zach. I learned early as a parent that our children see the world through our eyes.

If we can keep calm, at least in the throws of a tough situation, like a blood draw, an X-ray, or a locked bathroom door, it gives others a chance to do the same. We can always have a crisis hangover later, but making it a game in real time, rather than a crisis is one way to let cooler heads prevail.

The third component of these events and the one that inspired me to write about it, has to do with self-imprisonment, especially as it pertains to grief. So often we reach for safety, security, comfort or distraction even.

I am not certain how Zach came to somehow lock that door from the inside. He might have been fidgeting as he sat on the throne. He may have been curious. Or he may have wanted to secure the door. We can’t really know.

But as I have tried to navigate grief on a fairly regular basis, I too have been fidgety. I have sought relief, comfort and security. I have played with ways to not feel. I have tried to lock the door so nothing else could hurt me.

And what I have learned is the same thing that Zach so genuinely illustrated that night in Central New York. The very mechanisms that we call on to protect us, if misused or misguided (or in the case the antiquated door and its solely for appearances decorative lock) can imprison us.

When we clamp down or hold too tightly to safety, insulation or just plain tune out from the world around us, we are not setting ourselves free. We move from protection to shackles. What once brought us comfort now puts us in danger. And we may not be lucky enough to find our way out.

Next time you want to push the envelope on just how far you can go to stop hurting, bring to mind The Z Suite. Remember just how quickly locking doors can turn into a pressure cooker, with a lit candle and no way in our out.

It’s healthy to take breaks from our pain, but just on the other side of the grief we seek to outrun, is a locked door with a thick glass window that not even our parents can get into. And that is not a place where healing can arise. It’s just one more trauma that we have to recover from after the fire trucks leave.

 

 

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