Play Date

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I willed myself to a play date today.  As I watched Eleanor climb and jump I discreetly followed around a young mother who balanced a little blonde boy on her hip while chasing around her active toddler.  The baby didn’t look like Graham, but if I squinted my eyes a little I could imagine he did.  I could see myself instead of her. I could create a world where Graham was here, tasting the rubber bark and pulling himself up on the play equipment.  I would have set him down and chatted with the other moms while he entertained himself and Nora ran circles around us both.  He would have arched his head around now and again to check back in, and grin as I pulled rubber bark out of his mouth.

Instead, I watched as this other child threw his head back to pout when he was set down for a moment and fussed when his mother picked him back up.   I find myself trying to age every baby I see, find the 11 month old in the sea of kids… and then let my mind go a little… None of these babies are my baby.  But they are alive when Graham isn’t.  Pink skin and diapered tushies bring him closer.  Simple movements of pudgy hands make it easier to remember.  I don’t have to fight as hard to conjure up the details that create the essence of who and how he was, and who I was when I was with him.

I fought so hard with all of my children to live in the moment.  To notice the details.  I touch my kids often, absently fingering through their hair, or tracing the outline of their lips.   But no matter how diligent I am in these patterns, the details are small and simple ones, the moments are fleeting and ever-changing, and so evanescent.  The tangible parts of Graham were entirely wrapped up in the feelings of love and joy and exhaustion.  So when I can remember details like the shape of his head or the rhythm of his movements I can get closer to him, lean away from the loss for just a moment.  I watched as the baby grabbed his own paci and stuffed it in his mouth, sleepily creating comfort with repetitive sucking (with Graham, it would have been his thumb).  Living babies don’t bring me sadness.  My sadness comes from emptiness.

I didn’t need to ask how old the child was because I recognized his age easily, but it was a simple way to venture forward with small talk.  The unknowing mother willing shared his age and his name, small details she undoubtedly took for granted… I wanted so badly to tell her about my son, to swap stories and share secrets.

I considered lying – I could pretend Graham was at home, and indulge myself in a fantasy world.  I could try to state things cleverly so he could be alive and gone at the same time and no one would be the wiser.  I could vomit out the whole horrible truth and watch as the mother floundered under the weight of a pain that wasn’t expected and not hers to bear.

I chose not to say anything about my son on that day.  It felt like the best choice for the moment.

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“This is a child that is so loved”

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We navigated the winding hallways, a small women held me in her arms.  This nurse was literally wrapped around me and we walked in step towards a far room.  She whispered descriptions as we moved, trying to create a picture.   I nodded and mumbled, I understood her words, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  I stepped into the room and froze.

A large bore catheter was jammed deep into his left leg bone, unnaturally jutting out of his small limb.  His leg was white and blotchy, bloated and taunt with fluid.  A second IV came from his arm with the tubing caught and tangled in multiple lines attached to an ECG monitor.  He looked like a doll.  A large, long doll.  But he also looked like my son… sort of.  His eyes were partially opened and they were dry and dark.  Absent.  His mouth pulled unnaturally toward the tug of his ET tube.

The machines shrilled loudly, flashing and beeping with urgency.  His entire body shuddered with every punch on his small chest. The bed quivered in unison and his small arms and legs silently flailed with the strength of the movements. Someone pressed air into his lungs, another gave epinephrine, yet another controlled an ultrasound wand… countless more bustled and busied themselves with endless tasks. The room was full and frenzied, unified and synced.

I knew my job was not to impede their work, to do whatever it took so I would not be escorted away, but as I entered the room my voice cried out with desperate intensity, “This is a child that is so loved”. The entire room, as if heaving a collective sigh, in varied voices and indistinct motions responded back, “we know”.  In those moments he was everyone’s son, he was the neighbor kid down the street or their own infant still at home. They were working like he mattered, but they had no idea who HE was.  I wasn’t trying to make them work harder or faster, I trusted their diligence, but I so badly wanted them to remember he was more than a dead doll on a table.  Maybe I was saying it to myself… because I’ll I could see was a dead baby.

I lifted my hands in the air toward him with the nurse’s small, steady frame still entangled around me. My words flowed in quiet, high-pitched tones… my prayers to Jesus morphing into desperate pleas to Graham himself, and then back again to God.

Soon Evan joined me, and we stood together as witnesses.  The doctor stepped toward us and mumbled a string of words, saying things like ‘poor prognosis’ and ‘no response’.  There was no shock or surprise, for I knew full well what was happening in front of me.  In my head I wanted to tell them all to stop, but as soon as I internalized that thought, a guilt-laced voice, screamed back, “You. are. his. Mother. Don’t you dare give up on him.” So I nodded, and I stood there. And I nodded. The doctor finished his comments with the simple statement, “He’s a baby.  We’ll keep trying.  We hope for miracles with babies.”

I moved to closer to Graham, I touched his arm and face, I prayed nonsense in his ear.  His body continued to rock with false pulses and empty breathes, but the room slowed down, tasks that only a moment before had kept everyone so busy were now unnecessary.  With my eyes, I found the doctor leaning against a countertop, resting patienting though alert. He quickly stood upright as I implored with a voice I didn’t recognize, “What are we waiting for? Are we waiting for something?” With a clear mind, I see the foolishness of the question, but I really thought there was some hidden hope, some scientific statistic that they knew when I didn’t.  The doctor’s answer was simple and direct.  “We are waiting for you.”

I exhaled with excruciating relief, “Then stop. Just stop. I want to hold my baby.”  Caught in my selfishness, I looked to Evan, “Right? Am I right?” He let go of a wordless response, and we stood together as Graham was disconnected and unplugged, the machines were silenced, and the room was left suddenly empty.  There we were, in stunned bewilderment, holding a dead Graham in our arms.