The Way Back is a short series of comics I did several years ago. The characters are fictional, but the stories are all based on real events from my life. I have always been a big fan of those absurd and/or magical moments in life we all encounter sometimes. These moments aren’t always fun at the time, but as long as we survive they make a good story.
As Asa got older (the first few grades of elementary school), more socially aware and more medically stable, dealing with the tracheostomy in some ways became more of a social concern and less of a medical one. She had something that looked different, and she sounded different too. Asa’s peers in class quickly got used to the “trach,” but there was always the first day or week to deal with and she still got a lot of stares in public places, and the occasional rude comment. Once a kid in Asa’s fourth grade class went around saying he had seen Asa’s vocal cords, and once, at a museum, a grown man said to Asa, “You sound like Stephen Hawking.”
On the other hand, we sometimes met other kids and families who were kind and curious, and became friends after striking up that first conversation. Once a kid on the playground said to Asa, “I love your marshmallow necklace!” And one friend of Asa’s, a couple of years younger, told his parents he wanted “a cool necklace like Asa’s.”
Sometimes the comments were confusing or frightening to Asa, such as when one of her kindergarten classmates told her that she would die if her trach tube came out. We changed the trach tube at home regularly and I asked Asa if she remembered when we took out the tube the week before. She did. “Did you die?” I asked. She smiled, and said “No.” We had a lot of conversations about all these comments, which gave Asa the context and clarity she needed to deal with it.
Asa wanted to know why she had this problem that other people didn’t have, and we had a lot of conversations on this theme too. To me, it was essential that we frame these talks in a certain way:
A) Problems are a part of life and everyone has them, even if they don’t show on the outside; and
B) We are extremely lucky and have so much to be grateful for.
Asa always wanted to know what kind of problems other people had and we talked about those things. On the gratitude front, we talked about all the things Asa could do, about everything we had and the people who loved us. I liked to mention that I was grateful for the trach tube itself, because it was a life-saver, and allowed Asa to have a healthy, active life. I hope that all this has served as early lessons in compassion and gratitude for Asa, and resilience too.
I’m excited for Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU to reach a larger audience. Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to reveal such a personal story, and personal struggle, in such a public way. For better or worse, I told it all, but I don’t find the public part too hard. This story is something that happened to a human being under difficult circumstances, and as humans we often find ourselves facing ourselves facing difficulty. I believe we can learn a lot from each other when we share those struggles, and by sharing we learn we have permission to have our experiences as we have them. Should we have been stronger in those hard times? Better somehow? Probably not. Did we learn a lot? Totally. My best hope for Spot 12 is that readers find in it a kind of solidarity. Whatever we go through in this life is something we can share.
A routine prenatal exam reveals a dangerous problem, and Jaeckel and her husband find themselves thrust into a world of close calls, sleepless nights, and psychological crises. Surrounded by disagreements and family tensions, death, and questions of faith, Jaeckel struggles to maintain a positive frame of mind. Against the antiseptic, mechanical reality of the NICU, the dedicated doctors and nurses are drawn as sympathetic and wry animal characters. Doctor Eyes and Nurse Gentlehands are two of the caring individuals who do all they can to save Baby Asa. At times Jaeckel and her husband battle feelings of helplessness and despair, but their determination, hope, insight, bravery, and connection ultimately helps keep their little girl alive.