One of the writing exercises I have my students turn in is a reflection on a transformational moment in their lives. This is my example.
My son was born dead August 24, 2010 at 9:17 a.m. Whether or not he was going to stay that way would be decided in the next several minutes.
About an hour earlier on that cloudless late August blue-sky morning seven years ago, I had looked over at my wife as she stood in the doorway of my home office with blood pouring down her legs. At moments like this everything slows down as the brain struggles to make sense out something it perceives as abnormal that it wishes it could unsee. I swear I could see every crimson drop fall splash on the blond wood floorboards in slow motion befitting a “Life on Earth” nature documentary. “I think I’m spotting,” she said, Buddha-calm. The umbilical cord that was supplying the blood she and my son shared had ruptured and what had supplied the oxygen for more than 49,896,000 heartbeats was now drowning him. The safest place he would have ever known was now the setting for his death.
There are those moments in our lives when our pleasingly satisfied normal gets cracked in half. One’s life dissolves like hot water on a sugar cube and then clarifies into a solid: a before the crack and an after the crack. Before: I’m sitting downstairs at my desk, at 8:15 a.m., preparing for our weekly editors meeting in Wakefield. With a list of what I think is going to happen for the coming five days in my notebook, I am about to get up, go upstairs to say goodbye to my three-year-old son, Nathan, my wife, Hillary, who is in her eighth month of pregnancy with our second son, Trevor Miles. With a sense of well-being and an overwhelming feeling of contentment with my beautiful family and the life I am blessed to possess, I am just about to head south into the promise of a newly-hatched day at the beginning of a newborn week. After: As I swivel to get up Hillary shuffles into the room from the bathroom door, holding a belly filled with the living expectancy of the next chapter of our lives. The realization she is a climber not a shuffler hits me, informs from the subconscious that my personal sword of Damocles threatens to slice the head off my sense of tranquility.
I look at her, drop my gaze to the hem of her robin’s-egg-blue dress and see one liquid drop fall. Blood. I get that heightened, adrenaline-fueled vision and hearing that slows down the drop so I can observe its physics as it falls: a bottom heavy globoid that smacks the floor like a rifle shot and splatters, throwing parts of itself off to all points.
Oh, no. God. God? You there? The response of a foxhole Christian.
My legs are leaden; fear is heavy. They do not want to walk. My tongue is shackled with the thick chains of terror; fear obstructs talk.
Get up. Be an adult, at least play the part. Do the job. That was before was just a dream; this is real life.
I get up . . .
Hillary says she will call Andrea, our midwife. I call her mother, Joyce. Hillary calmly explains to Andrea she is bleeding and doesn’t feel as if she’s in labor. Her mother hears the taut clarity of my description of what’s happening and says she’ll be here in 15 minutes to watch Nathan. I call our sister-in-law, Susan, to ask for some maxi-pads. She asks a question along the lines of “How bad is it?” I choke on the answer. She says she’ll be right over to drive. Our midwife says to go straight to her office and she’ll call our obstetrician, Dr. Jaffe, and get things moving to get us through Triage at Women and Infants Hospital.
Susan is there within minutes and Joyce arrives just after her. By now, a maxi-pad is not adequate to catch the flow of blood and we switch to a training pant diaper. I call work to explain the change in my plans for the day and try to stay level, flat, efficient and useful. Then we help Hillary into the truck. Susan is a capable, quick driver with the side-sensory organs of a schooling fish or migrating starling and the heavy foot of a hooved mammal when controlled speed is called for. She got us into East Providence in about ten minutes without hitting anything or being hit. We park and get out, Hillary walking and holding the diaper in place as I try to at least appear to help. There are rivulets of blood running down her legs, some dried like rivers that can’t find their way to an ocean, and others still glistening, exclamation points on her skin.
Hillary has been around the crisis block. She had provided full-time care for her late husband, Scott, who died a body part at a time over five years from ALS; she saw her father taken from pancreatic cancer practically overnight; she lost a serious live-in boyfriend in a climbing accident when she was barely out of college. Last year our entire family suffered along with a nephew, who lost a son who was to have borne the name Miles in the eighth month of pregnancy. Susan was to have been his grandmother. Our son, Trevor, was to be given the middle name, Miles, to honor him. If there is such a thing as Karma Court, Hillary and Susan should qualify for lenient judgment.
We go to the reception area at the midwife’s and tell the receptionist that Hillary Gibbs is here for Andrea. Impatience barely concealed, she explains she is doing an intake, as the intakee looks at us as if we were unclean carnival trash. Words, wrapped tight in unfocused desperation and unbridled terror, were not available, as if trapped down a wormhole into a universe in which the only words are growls, howls and strangled bleats. Luckily none escaped my lungs to hiss out between my teeth and tongue. Susan saved the day. “Hillary is bleeding heavily down the backs of her legs and I think she’s scaring your other patients,” she says, leaning over the counter as if confiding a secret beauty tip.
Things then move quickly and the three of us are alone in an examination room, waiting for Andrea. She comes in and sees the diaper in which there is, along with a lot of blood, some gleaming material, like calf’s liver. Andrea takes a look at it, then studies Hillary in between the stirrups of the exam chair. She tells her she has only dilated two centimeters and doesn’t appear to be in labor. “I don’t know what I am seeing,” she says. It’s is only later it dawns on me that since there are only a handful of possibilities including the possibilities in movies such as “Rosemary’s Baby,” Andrea is trying to keep us calm. Everyone except Hillary that is, because she has been the calm one all along, walking slowly with an economy of movement and an inscrutable look on her face.
Then we enter into one of those preludes to a big moment, the looking over the edge of a cliff to see how far away is the ground, beneath – what’s the potential damage to be done if the earth onto which we are grasping slips away? We are silent, a holy, transformational moment full of import that we know will be forever trapped in our mind’s amber. We are all mouthing the word, ‘Please.’ Andrea rubs a gelatinous smear onto Hillary’s belly and puts the ultrasound microphone into the jelly. Thump-ump. Thump-ump. It’s fast, too fast; Trevor’s in crisis. but there.
God, please stay with us. Please stay with Trevor.
Andrea tells us she will clear our passage through emergency and she makes sure I am not the one driving. I wear my heart on my sleeve even while grocery shopping, which tends to cloud the eyes with salt water. Susan gets us there in about the time it takes to make an omelet from a warmed-up pan. We go in through the emergency room doors and are whisked into an examination room and onto a table. The blood flow by now is more along the lines of mammal versus car on highway, and my Fear mutates, splits into two and starts to divide by four, eight and sixteen before I shut down that atavistic part of my mind and begin to pray. Hard.
Hillary has remained calm, quiet and tearless throughout. I can’t help but think of The Mona Lisa, a hint of smile on her face as she transfers her strength to her son. A mother showing her love by facing down and defeating fear with serenity. “Everything’s going to be fine,” I whisper, brushing her hair from her eyes. I have no idea if I believe it.
Several doctors and nurses circle the bed in a complicated choreography, asking questions in turns, starting an IV and a transfusion line. At the same time another ultrasound is taken, and there is still a heartbeat, but it is slower and fainter now, a heart still shrouded in darkness and running out of time. ‘Things are going to move very quickly,” a doctor tells us. “We are going to go upstairs and save your baby’s life.” This said by a 120-pound female, who is also pregnant, with a stethoscope around her neck. She is decisive and efficient, as heroic-seeming as John Wayne, only she is a real person really storming a real beach. “Let’s go, ask your questions on the way,” she tells all of the attendants. “Dr. Jaffe is in the building. Let’s make sure we’re ready.”
Upstairs, several nurses and doctors, about seven in all, wheel Hillary into an operating room, and I am told what to expect. Hillary is having a severe abruption of the placenta; it has split and come apart form her uterine wall. There may be a need for a general anesthesia because she is bleeding profusely and it is not clotting. They would rather use a Dura morph injection to take away all sensation from the waist down. “Please save her life,” I say, squeaking wetly. “We will,” says one of them from behind her blue surgical mask. “Someone will come down and get you into scrubs so you can be with her.”
Another squad of blue-clad nurses and doctors comes marching swiftly down the hall, slipper-covered shoes slapping purposefully on the tiled floor, like a team of Ninja sleepwalkers. They turn right, crisp as a marching band, toward the operating room. The Trevor Miles Team. I know this, like every other game, is time-dependent. I try to run the time elapsed since blood invaded the womb with how much time we are allowed to live without oxygen. I stop, knowing numbers bouncing around in my skull aren’t going to help anything. I start again: He could die from lack of oxygenated blood now that he is no longer hooked up to his mother. Lifeblood, I think. Or he could drown in the blood filling the womb. Deathblood, I counter. “Be good for my son,” I whisper to their backs as they bang through the double doors and disappear.
A nurse comes and helps me fumble and lurch into some scrubs, an action that resembles dressing up a large clumsy dog in a paper dress from the 1960s as a party prank. It seems vaguely silly for such a solemn mission. I am led into a room full of steel, chrome and purpose. My head is full of radio static. I don’t want to go in; I want to run. I am terrified.
The fear I feel stems partly from contrast in the experience between this and the birth of Nathan four years prior. Our first son was brought into the world gently and naturally in a room with just us and our midwife, lights turned low and words of murmured encouragement. It was truly mystical moment, unfolding like a timeless and magical ritual dating back to the Day When God was Born. Celine Dion might as well have been there singing while Anne Geddes took photographs. When Nathan came out and I cut the cord, I felt as if we were in the back of a cave, closing the circle on a sacred, ancient life passage and about to start a new open-ended adventure. He was responsible for changing my name from Jon to Dad: and what would Trevor change my name to?
This birth was nothing like our first experience. The operating room was lit like the surface of a full Moon, uniform in illumination; there were no shadows, therefore no place for fear – or hope – to hide, just a bright no-nonsense light to show the facts for science to address. A hive full of people of science, and books, and hours of practice at their collective professions were all murmuring directions and counting off numbers that all added up to a cacophony.
But this was not a time for just science. At least not for me, or for Hillary, or for Trevor. As I leaned in to Hillary, with her arms spread wide to either side and tied to a post on the side of the surgical screen facing the door, one arm receiving blood from a bag attached to the top of the screen, and an IV of saline attached to the other, I kiss her forehead and we are head to head. I address her late husband, Scott, whose ashes were scattered in a garden in the front of the house we now live in, and ask for him to help her. The Ghost in the Yard. I address Miles, our nephew’s late son, employing him as a Spirit-Guide, picturing him as sitting in a tree outside the hospital. The angel in the tree. Miles, please help my son. We’ll honor who you would have been. We’ll earn this. And I talk to a God of my Understanding, which is limited, of course. I don’t deserve your help; I need your help.
There is nothing that brings a husband and wife closer than being forehead to forehead, tear duct to tear duct, whispered prayer to whispered prayer on the non-slippery side of a surgical screen. This, while a team of doctors on the other side work with great, quick urgency to save her life and that of your unborn, but struggling, son. And there is nothing like the knowledge they might not succeed to push you farther away from your hold on your own sanity and your will to keep living in a world without them. To nudge you toward a belief in something bigger than ourselves; or to push you violently away from faith that is conditional.
As I pray for my wife and Trevor amidst the bustle of the surgery team and the whooshes, and the bleats and the pings of the machinery, I have the thought that this is purgatory pinball machine we’re in. The ball is bouncing off the bells and making the walls bleat until this situation is resolved to whatever result. I free-associate as I stumble over desperate, inarticulate prayers and, oddly, remember Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous posing of the question “Is God dead?” and turn it around for my circumstance of my entreaty: “Are the dead parts of God? If Trevor dies, will I ever know him?” My mind stills and I remember to keep it simple, and I ask God to save them, making that timeworn bargain: “Take me instead of them and just give one second to see Hillary and Trevor safe and alive before you put two shiny pennies on my eyes and rake some leaves over my dead body.” Faith doesn’t work that way, I know, but still . .
Hillary looks up at me and asks me how I’m doing. She’s getting sliced from hip to hip at the top of her pelvis so that we can have a second child, and she asks me how I’m doing. (Well, dear, I don’t know about you, but my blood sugar’s a little low about now because I never really had a proper breakfast . . .) I don’t say anything that stupid, breaking my own personal record of always. I just choke on tiny, squeaky words.
And then it happens. Something is lifted over and to the left of the surgical screen and I see a small form, a baby, out of the corner of my eye. It’s a baby. It’s got to be Trevor, I think to myself. It can’t be Trevor, I think to myself: this baby is plum-colored with an ashy look. He’s not moving. I look away, and I am ashamed at myself. I owe it to him to look at him, I tell myself.
But first, I hedge my bets and ask the eyes above a mask on a figure sitting in front of my wife, “Is everything okay?”
“If it wasn’t going to be okay, you wouldn’t be in the room,” he says not unkindly, ending the need for further conversation.
Breaking away from the gravitational pull of terror, I look over to a small table chest-level high against the wall. There are six people, twelve arms attached to hands with instruments working in synchronic harmony like an octopus on my son, inserting a respirator mask over his face, intubating him, sticking needles in his hands while banging on his tiny chest to get it going. They are all working at once, but never get in each others’ way, thanking each other for every act of assistance. “He’s pinking up,” someone says. Time passes slower than I knew possible. It seems as if Ice Ages come and go, life forms sprout, flourish for millenniums then die and disappear. Finally: “Okay, we got a breath,” someone says. I watch this application of modern medicine that looks like an impossibly complicated card trick – now you see it, now you don’t – feeling as if I am a part of what’s going on but unequal to their abilities and station, like someone selling paintings of Elvis on black velvet outside the Louvre.
“You can come see your son,” someone says to me, gently touching my shoulder with a surgical gloved hand. I get up like someone granted a stay of execution at one minute past midnight, and know I am all I need to be right now, I am this beautiful baby boy’s father. He’s incredibly small, and yet with a tube down his throat and hunks of metal connected to wires stuck to his heart and belly, he’s as big as the entire Universe to me. I drop a pea pod-sized tear on his forehead and whisper his name “Hi, Trevor, it’s Daddy.” And he opens his eyes. As God is my witness – and He was – he opened his eyes.
Nearly nine months of expectant joy, watching the process of a life begin, and then having everything thrown into question, including two lives in peril, another boy’s life at home, and my own sober sanity. I used to think the Universe was an impossibly wide-open and vast place, unbounded and ever widening, never-ending. I believed the grandness of the Universe lay in its awesome size, in its incomprehensible denseness and its unknowable perimeter.
Now, I know better.