In my family, 2020 had every other bad year folded into it. And certain numbers seemed to burn right through our family history.

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2020 had me thinking about numbers.


I was nine years old when my mother died.

I remember the day they told us she had cancer. My sister and me. My parents sat us down in the living room and explained to us what colon cancer is. They told us that the doctors had discovered the cancer in Mama. My dad cried. My mom hugged us. I wanted to go out and play, too young to understand what it meant, to predict the years of hospitals and “magic” snake oil treatments, of holding onto hope until it died in our living room.

Nine years old.

My son was nine years old the day I headed into the ER with a kidney stone. I’d had a kidney stone before, so I recognized the signs, and when the shooting pains in my back began echoing the agony of the 13 hours of back labor I had endured to bring my nine-year-old into the world, we all loaded into the car and headed to the hospital.

My husband Levi dropped me off at the emergency room door and went to park, while I headed over to check in. Crying, I explained that I was pretty sure I was passing a kidney stone, and the receptionist asked me for my ID.

I couldn’t get my ID.

I opened my wallet, but as I curled my fingers over to grasp the small card, they froze. I couldn’t unbend them, and I couldn’t move my fingers any closer together.

“I can’t move my hand!” I said, bewildered.

I switched hands, but as I desperately tried to pull the card out of its slot, my left hand froze as well.

“I can’t move my hands!” I cried, beginning to panic.

The receptionist gave a look to the nurse beside her as she told me to calm down.

For some reason, bored dismissal didn’t calm me, and I still couldn’t move my hands. Then the cramping began moving up my arms, limiting my movement even further, with my hands stuck into hard fists that I couldn’t unclench.

Staff pulled me around the desk and had me sit for my vitals, at which point my feet began to freeze up.

Frantically, I told them what was happening, sure I was about to fall to the floor as the cramping continued up my legs.

Levi and the boys walked into the lobby. When they approached, the nurse asked Levi if I had anxiety. He told them I did. The nurse turned to me, panicking and sobbing as my limbs were frozen into place, and said, “Honey, you need to calm down. You are doing this to yourself.”

They brought a gurney over, helped me roll onto it, and casually rolled me down the hallway as my body continued to cramp up, new muscles joining the crowd. When the cramping hit my thighs, I started screaming. My body was completely frozen, charlie-horses formed in my clenched muscles, and combined with my kidney stone, I couldn’t stand the pain.

“I CAN’T MOVE MY BODY AT ALL!” I shouted to the nurses pushing me down the hallway. I watched as they exchanged a bored eye-roll without even looking down.

A few seconds later, almost like a release of a contraction in childbirth, my muscles began to unclench, from my stomach outward. As I regained control over each new limb, I informed my caretakers. They barely acknowledged me, but I kept telling them every new change anyway hoping it would help with diagnosis.

Eventually, the cramping completely subsided, and I was left in a room, curtain drawn, with just the kidney stone pain, which seemed almost painless in comparison. As I silently twisted around in my bed, trying to find relief from the kidney pain, I heard the doctors speaking outside my door. “Hyperventilation most likely. She just worked herself up into a frenzy.”

At that point, with stable breath, my fingers began freezing up again. Before I knew it, the whole scene had started anew. Each limb contracting, freezing, forcing themselves into hard lines and painful positions. I began screaming again, the pain just too much to bear.

The nurse came in, slammed the door behind her and scolded me, “Stop it! Stop it right now! We have other patients in here, and your children are out there. You are scaring them. Get a hold of yourself!”

Sobbing, I screamed, “It’s happening again!!”

She walked out of the room, passing Levi on her way out.

Twisted over in pain and terror, I locked eyes with my husband and said, “I think I might die here tonight.”

The scene repeated for hours. My body freezing up in waves, and then releasing. They left me alone in the corner room with no tests, no pain medication for my kidney stone, not even the courtesy of belief. It became clear as the clock ticked on that they thought I was faking, just a drug seeker with a dramatic bent.

I locked eyes with my husband and said, “I think I might die here tonight.”

Eventually, Levi had had enough and stormed into the hallway, screaming at them to help his wife. They called the cops, but they also finally took me down to imaging.

Sure enough, they found the kidney stone, though by the time it was confirmed and the pain medication offered, I had passed it. Likely while my body lay frozen and clenched.

At that find, they became curious and decided to test for other things. And they discovered that I wasn’t faking, nor was I inducing my own full body cramping through panic-driven hyperventilation, but instead my potassium levels were dangerously low, likely a result of the surgery I had just had two months earlier in the same damn hospital.

They didn’t apologize. Not a single one of those fucking assholes.

And the cramps kept coming back. Every two weeks, like clockwork, my body would begin to cramp up, and I would return to the ER, trying to explain to incredulous doctors that they needed to check my potassium levels. Pills wouldn’t bring my levels up. Nor would liquid. The only thing that would offer me a fix, albeit temporary, was a direct IV into my body, and the only way to get that was the Emergency Room. Over and over. For months.

No explanation. The surgeon adamant that it couldn’t be the surgery. The urologist adamant it couldn’t be my kidneys. My primary baffled by the whole thing.

Then four months later, it stopped.

Just like that.

No more cramping.

No more dropping potassium levels. Back to normal.

Well, not normal. Severe and chronic anxiety. Debilitating. A year of it so far. Any change to my health, any slight disturbance to my breathing. Any muscle twinges. Everything sends me back to that emergency room. To dying. To leaving my children.

Nine years old.

My son is nine years old.

I never could imagine myself as a mother to a child older than nine. How do you imagine what you didn’t have? I would have thought I’d have been more prepared for death, less shocked, less traumatized. That’s what I told myself for years, that my early trauma made me flexible, made me resilient, made me strong.

But I wasn’t prepared.

I wasn’t prepared for the news. I was prepared for me. But not for him.

All those months spent in the ER with me in the bed, we didn’t know that he was the sick one. We didn’t know that his body was the one fighting.

It’s cancer.

Levi has cancer.

The same cancer that killed his father when Levi was 10 years old. 2020, the year my nine-year-old turned 10.

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Rachel Klinger Cain

Rachel Klinger Cain is an atheist commentator, educator, and storyteller. She believes that sin does not exist, magic is no less special because we create it ourselves, and author bios are the most challenging...