Stepping on a Snake

I was working on something else for today’s post, but then I got distracted. My daughter stepped on a snake. Unfortunately it was a copperhead, and it bit her. She’s in the hospital, getting all the appropriate care, and she’ll be fine, but some best-laid plans are out the window. Having your kid in the ER being pumped full of morphine and antivenin makes even a laissez-faire parent like me uneasy, and I found myself thinking about stepping on snakes as a metaphor.

We’ve all stepped on snakes in the past, right? You have if you’re my age — probably several snakes by now. Some of them get you with their toxic venom; others don’t even really bite, in which case you might not even know how lucky you are, stepping on that snake, with no consequences.

It’s an interesting exercise, discovering how people respond to the news when your life goes awry. I have a good friend who stepped on a metaphorical snake a couple of weeks ago. One of HER good friends responded in a way I’m personally familiar with from my own snake-stepping past: that “friend” got busy and delineated all the (illogical, delusional) ways in which that particular snake could have been avoided, and thus how the resulting injury was no more than what one could expect under the circumstances. Now, the reasoning by this “friend” was batshit crazy, but there WAS reasoning. The reasoning looks like this: some people want to believe that when Bad Things Happen then it’s your fault in some way; that if you were just paying more attention it could have been avoided. Because those same people don’t want to believe that on the wrong day, that branch might fall or that bus might swerve or you might trip on the stairs and that’s that and it’s not your fault and there was nothing you could have done.

These thoughts rattled around in my head this morning, a time when my regular approach is to focus on the actual world of flowers and bugs and bunnies and daylight around me on my walk to the subway. I was thinking about the Buddhist notion of “all life is suffering.” I’m not a Buddhist, and that sentiment as rendered in English always seemed irritatingly dreary and vaguely off-message. Recently I read this put forth in a new way that made sense to me: once we pass from the living-in-the-moment stage of childhood into being aware of our own mortality, we spend the rest of our lives trying to find a psychic workaround or an escape or a way to bear the unbearable idea that our existence is finite. We retreat to the past, in memory and wishes about things that could have been different; we look ahead, catastrophizing or trying to ward off evil with planning, endless planning. We are everywhere but here, now. We are seldom (and only with great effort) in the present, wakeful and aware of what’s around us, the now that’s the only real thing, if you think about it.

Sometimes, the hardest thing is not to go down fighting, but to accept what is. Acceptance in this sense is not endorsement; it’s not approval. It’s the sorting of the reality from the fantasy or the nightmare. My daughter stepped on a snake; there’s not much point to her (or me) sitting around thinking about how great it would be if she hadn’t, or that this wouldn’t happen if she never set foot in the woods again. The woods are too beautiful, and the day is too short.

  • Mary says:

    Yikes! Glad she is going to be OK. Your story really resonated with me. I recently broke up with a long-time friend who deals with Bad Things in a similar, unhelpful way. She is very invested in her two almost-grown children, who are outwardly accomplished, and who are also genuinely nice people. In her world, good things happen to people who are deserving, and consequently, if bad things happen to you, then you must have deserved it. So my struggles (not terrible, just pervasive worries about one of my kids) don’t compute, and she is unable to empathize at all. I recently told her that it doesn’t help to tell me that “everything will be OK”. Instead, I just need to hear “that sucks”. I miss her company, but I don’t miss the way this friend made me feel. The older I get, the more I appreciate the Buddhist point of view that in life, stuff happens. What is important is how we deal with it.

  • catmom says:

    I’m sorry that happened to your daughter, and it’s wonderful that she is doing fine. I think “timely” would be a poor word choice here, but is it ok to say I’m so grateful that I saw this post today. We recently had to take my infant daughter to the emergency room for food allergy, and I’ve been overwhelmed by anxiety and the “what-ifs” and saddened by what this all means for her future. A gentle reminder to stay present and that “snakes” are an inevitable part of life, especially in your beautiful writing, March, is exactly what I needed.

  • minette says:

    Hugs to her and to you. And, well-done with this, March. It’s the stories we tell ourselves (and that others sometimes tell us) that add needless suffering. Being alright with whatever IS – remaining in a witness place of neutrality – is not something we are taught, but man, it sure helps! Do you ever read Ram Dass? He is a fun writer, and explains being here now so beautifully.

  • caseymaureen says:

    I found your reflections really thought provoking especially when it comes to dealing with the “rationalisers” who convince themselves that nothing bad can happen to them or their loved ones if only the following precautions are taken. I think that is a modern delusion born out of living in the relative safety of first world environments and not a reality that even our grandparent (who lived through war, emigration and medicine without access to antibiotics, insulin etc) would recognise.
    This side of the pond we have fewer animal related dangers but Ive also given some thought to the human snakes one can inadvertently step on and we have plenty of them!
    Finally being a mother of grown up children I can really empathise with the stomach churning nature of emergencies at a distance.

  • mikasminion says:

    Ooh, copperheads are nasty. I’ve never been bitten by a terribly venomous snake (an eastern hog nose bit me once, didn’t like my perfume oddly enough, but they really have to chew to inject venom) but even a non-venomous bite is traumatic and painful. I remember being thrilled as a kid to be allowed to carry a .22 target pistol when we went certain places copperhead infested, until I had to blast one that was coming up behind a friend. They are surprisingly aggressive.
    I’m glad your daughter is ok and hope the mental scars heal as quickly as the physical.

  • Sun Mi says:

    Ah, I’m so sorry to hear this but glad to know that in the end she will be fine and hopefully you will too. As a relatively “new” mother (my son is 14 months old), I was struck by the extremely visceral sense of vulnerability that struck me as soon as Walden was born – and I’m sure that I’ll have plenty of these scares myself in the future. I hope to get through them with the grace you are demonstrating. Cheers to your family – and forget everyone that doesn’t have your back. Life is short, and too short for them indeed!

  • Ann says:

    Oh, March, bless your (and her) heart! So very sorry to hear this. But I am so glad that she is doing well and will recover. The fragility of life really hits home when something like this happens (my son was in four hospitals for over a month, so I definitely understand). When you’re a parent and you get that “call” — yikes! But you are handling it remarkably well, and as you said,never mind to those who want to point fingers, etc. I will be thinking good thoughts for you all and praying up a storm! Sending you big, comforting hugs and lots of virtual tea …

  • Musette says:

    And Miss Crunchy will be fine, thank Floyd. Though it’s gonna hurt like hell for awhile. I thought of her, as I waded into waist-high weeds in the tomato garden. Hoped I wouldn’t yank up a snake, like my mom did – 50 yrs later I can still hear the screaming! That poor snake.

  • Musette says:

    One of the things that has all but cured me of not living in the moment was nearly dying. Not a snake – but a motorcycle crash. One minute, sailing along on Miguel at 60mph (though El O will insist that I was ONLY GOING 55!)…the next, sailing through the air….and the next….well, who knows persackly what happened. But things shifted in that nanosecond. As Life is wont to do.

    A weird Copperhead/El O story: so …awhile back, El O got a phone call – his mom, calling to give him several bits of news.

    1. His sister walked out on her deck that morning and stepped on a copperhead’s neck, crushing it. Before it died, though, it bit her on the toe.
    2. At the hospital, her husband complained to the doctor about a pain in his ocular region. X-rays revealed an egg-sized tumor
    3. His mother found all this out while she was visiting her boyfriend who was being treated for cancer.

    El O hangs up the phone and, looking stricken, tells me this and says “I have to get checked out RIGHT AWAY!” – when I say ‘why?’ he responds “my entire family is ill!!!

    at which point I said “um..hon? Not to disparage your Holler ways but unless you are related to your mother’s BOYFRIEND or your sister’s HUSBAND – I’m thinking you’re okay. And the snake is dead so it can’t get on a plane and come up here from Tennessee to bite you in the toe’

    He was unamused.


  • Mals86 says:

    Oh WOW. (Just yesterday I was telling a friend the story of The Evening My Sister Stepped Over a Stick on the Driveway on Her Way In From a Date, But THen My Dad Went Out For Something He’d Left In the Car and It Wasn’t Really a Stick. Yes, copperhead. Mean little buggers.)

    You know, I think sometimes we like to imagine that we’re more in control of what happens to us than we really are, and the friend you mention with all the how-you-could-have-avoided-this advice is maybe more frightened than most people of not being in control. Maybe. Dunno, but I’m married to one of those.

    Sending get-well wishes and general well-wishes. Mwah.

  • Tena says:

    I am deeply amazed at the way in which you manage to keep a clear head in such a situation. May the time of snakes, physical and meta, be at an end for you and your family, and may your daughter’s healing be quick and uneventful.

  • Kathryn says:

    OMG, March. I’m so glad that your daughter is on the mend and getting good care. I often think that being a parent is like having a bowling alley in your brain. You set up all your pins of certainty, safety, etc. and then something happens that knocks them all down. Then you just go and set them up again. Onward and upward, as my own Mom used to say. Spritzing on a bit of Mandragore in solidarity.

  • Pixel says:

    I had a close encounter with a copperhead as a kid, just pure luck I wasn’t bitten. I was skipping down a trail with some friends (young enough to be skipping!), didn’t notice that the ‘stick’ was a snake, and literally accidentally kicked it in the head when it reared up to bite me. Luck, luck, luck. Hope your girl recovers quickly!

    Yeah people can say the dumbest things when something bad happens to you. Sometimes I think that pointing fingers is their way of telling themselves “this couldn’t happen to me”. But of course, it could.

  • Patty says:

    Holy crap, honey! I’m glad she’s okay. I read my daily meditation a couple of days ago, and it went something like, people get so afraid of the bee that might sting them, they will avoid or destroy any part of the world that might cause them harm in an effort to stay safe. Your corollary to always wanting a reason for anything bad that happens. We live in a world that sometimes bites us. Give her an extra hug fro me.

  • Nina Z says:

    You expressed yourself so beautifully, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. Although it is a great challenge–perhaps my life’s work–I’m trying to take a yogic approach to both the bad and good things that I cannot control.

    “He who hates no light, nor busy activity, nor even darkness, when they are near, neither longs for them when they are far.

    Who unperturbed by changing conditions sits apart and watches and says “the powers of nature go round”, and remains firm and shakes not.

    Who dwells in his inner self, and is the same in pleasure and pain; to whom gold or stones or earth are one, and what is pleasing or displeasing leave him in peace; who is beyond both praise and blame, and whose mind is steady and quiet.” —The Bhagavad Gita

    How this fits in with a love of perfume I have no idea 😉

  • tammy says:

    We have a nest of copperheads at the bottom of our property where it’s woody, and water moccasins by our pond, (rural Arkansas) but thankfully I have only ever stepped on black snakes and King snakes. Your daughter’s calmness probably helped a great deal in things going well. I’m glad her mama is calm enough to post for us!

    What shall be, shall be. We can’t let snakes or our fear of them rob us of our joy in life, especially the metaphorical ones.

    Is she near Richmond, Bristol or Danville, by any chance? I have family there that I know would be happy to check on her while she recovers.

    • March says:

      That’s so sweet of you! She’s about an hour from Charlottesville, out in the country. But she’s very clear that she doesn’t want her mama hovering.

      • tammy says:

        I’ve got people in Staunton and Sweet Briar, too, so if she wouldn’t mind total strangers hovering a bit, please let me know!

  • Dina C. says:

    So sorry to hear that this happened to your daughter, March. What a scary ordeal. So glad to hear that all will be well. Your reflections upon the event were uplilfting.

  • sarahpatto says:

    Agreed. A thoughtful piece.

  • AllGirlMafia says:

    March, I just want to tell you your writing is always so human and heartfelt and always a beautiful addition to the day.

  • poodle says:

    The poor thing! And poor you too! I’ve never been bitten by a snake but I have been startled by a few while gardening. They’re pretty easy to not see so stepping on one seems pretty easy too. I hope she has a speedy recovery. You do find out who your true friends are when things get rough. Hopefully you do have a few people who you can lean on for some support. Bad things really do happen to good people even when they try their hardest to avoid them.

    • March says:

      Lots of friends to lean on, here and IRL. Yeah, I’ve almost stepped on black snakes and garters a few times in the grass… and even came close to a rattler a time or two when I lived in New Mexico, although they gave me a heads up so I could skedaddle.

  • Portia says:

    Hey March,
    I really stepped on a snake when I was a youngster too. It was an Eastern Brown Snake and it couldn’t get away fast enough. Fortunately, it was my lucky day. Those things are killers and we were on Cadet Camp hundreds of miles from anything vaguely resembling a hospital.
    Fingers crossed your baby is perfectly recovered as soon as.
    Portia xx

    • March says:

      I thought of you! Being in a country with all sorts of poisonous/dangerous creatures. Glad you were so lucky!

  • Sonia Lopez says:

    Just wanted to say I wish your daughter a speedy recovery. It must have been frightening for both of you.Glad she’s ok.
    And yes, there are poisonous snakes and sometimes we step on them and we can recover. S–t happens.

  • cinnamon says:

    How scary for you and her, March. Thank goodness she’s being taken care of. I don’t think there are ‘lessons’ in these sorts of incidents. They happen. Years ago a friend’s son lost control of his bike, slid on the pavement, and ended up with a major concussion. It was very scary, but he got better and the moral of the story wasn’t: don’t ride your bike fast on a rainy day.

    I would add an aside to your post: that sometimes a metaphorical snake bites and you aren’t affected for years. But then, boom! You realise you’d been bitten and there are all the nasty emotional after-effects. I think for me the moral might be don’t let things that you can’t control make you angry and bitter — it only hurts you.

    • March says:

      Yes, the lesson learned there is: there is no lesson, really. The hoops some people jump through to try to assign blame! Also there’s a great quote about resentments I remind myself of on a regular basis: resentment is the poison you drink every day, hoping someone else will die.

  • Neva says:

    Dear March, there’s always something good, even in the worst situation: you daughter arrived in the hospital in time, she’s in good care and will be perfectly all right soon. Every single one of us reading your post will be sending positive thoughts to her and it will enhance her healing process. You can be sure of that!
    I wish our parents and teachers in school were teaching us things like “acceptance”, “living in the present” etc. Most of us have to learn it ourselves at some point in life. Our life goes constantly up and down, it’s like an ECG and that is its normal state. The moment the line is flat – the life is over. So, let’s look forward to more ups and downs 😉

    • March says:

      Yes, to all of these things — when I got the call she was already at the ER, and I did marvel that she could go from “the middle of nowhere” and be at a good hospital with doctors who knew what they were doing in less than an hour. Absolutely, I learned nothing about acceptance except through life as an adult.

  • N says:

    I admire how you keep things in perspective. I have learned the most from the trials and tribulations and mistakes of my life. Acceptance is important because there is no point in wishing things to be different and dwelling on the what ifs because you can’t change the past. Staying in the now and carrying on is all we can do really. Copperhead snakes have a pattern that camouflages them against the dead leaves on the ground in woods and it is easy to step on them since you can’t see them. I hope your daughter gets well soon and I wish you both the best.

    • March says:

      lol if there’s one thing life has given me, it’s perspective. Yes, it was dark, and she had a flashlight — she simply didn’t see it. And as I learned, copperheads are one of the more aggressive snakes — they bite faster than most, with less provocation.

      • Shelly says:

        Your poor daughter! And poor you -the worried mama!
        Copperheads ARE nasty. I had a teacher in high school who was also an avid hunter. He told us, by way of warning, that he feared, not the ubiquitous rattlesnake, but the boring, dull copperhead. He said that the rattler would sound a warning and do its best to slither away. The copperhead gives no warning, doesn’t attempt to get out of harms’ way, and is a master at camouflage. It just waits till you’re close enough and then strikes. Ugh…

  • shylotus says:

    Oh my gosh March, I do hope she will fully heal. Your words today really struck resonance with me. Thanks for that, and my best wishes.

  • Maya says:

    When your life goes awry, you can find out who your real friends are. There can be some interesting surprises both positive and negative. I’ve stepped on a few snakes and met some too. 😉 I love the interpretation of the old Buddhist idea, especially the reference to “here, now”. It made me realize why I love Hawaii so much. It’s a beautiful place but there are other places even more lovely. I never plan anything when I go there. I have only a few loose ideas of what to do. I’m always in the “here, now” in Hawaii and I think that’s why so many unbelievable and magical things happen to me there.

  • taleofahare says:

    Glad she is doing well. I think many folk want to devalue our experiences for a host of reasons. Sometimes they think they are being helpful and they aren’t; like listing the even more horrible things that could have happened. Then others who divert to how awful their day was and thereby trivializing your experience. Horse crap on all of them. I usually keep the weird/odd/scary/etc. events among those who I know will ask me how I feel. How does my daughter feel. Can we help in any way, what would you like us to do. Do you want us to just shut up? That way it doesn’t add to my already “what if I had done it this way” self guilt talk and keeps me more realistic about the fact that life happens.

    • March says:

      Ugh to all of these esp. the people who either point out the ways it could be worse, or talk about their own drama. How is that supposed to make you feel better?

  • Rina says:

    As a Sister Momma Bear who’s cub has spent too much time in hospitals, my heart is with you both. Healing vibes and hugs to you both. I wish you both a speedy recovery!

    • March says:

      Thanks! She’s doing pretty well — this is my 18-year-old daughter living on a farm in rural VA, by the way. She’s a tough cookie.

  • bevfred says:

    I live in Toronto, Canada and in the the city we don’t encounter many literal snakes. I can certainly empathise with your daughter being in hospital and the fierce Mama Bear reaction the situation brings out in one. Other people’s reactions to illness or infirmity are something else, aren’t they?
    I send my best wishes to both of you.

    • March says:

      Thanks so much. This is our first brush with poisonous snakes and I’ve learned a lot, most of it reassuring.