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As a convert to cherishing the entirety of my life experiences, my greater worry is not having those experiences at all—good and bad. That was my worry on June 22, 2007—the day our son Henry was to arrive. As we were set to help him discover his life experiences, I was worried that he might not have any at all.
Like most parents, Ann and I awaited Henry's arrival with great anticipation and excitement. Different from many, I expect, we greeted the moment with a heightened level of fear and anxiety—especially for veteran parents. We, mostly my wife of course, had been through this before, and we had a beautiful son, Sammy, as a result. After Sammy, we had adopted Grace from China, and she was just four weeks younger than Sammy—so we had virtual twins. When it came to normal day-to-day parenting, and the worry and effort that comes with it, Ann and I felt like veterans and were self-assured. But we were not self-assured about the smooth and stress-free arrival of our youngest son. With good reason.
Our First Visit to "the Nursery"
Three summers earlier, in 2004, we were at the same hospital ready to become first-time parents. Too excited to be afraid. Maybe too naïve to understand what was ahead. The purity of the moment can never be recaptured. So much anticipation had preceded that day. Each doctor's appointment was magical: listening to the heartbeat, seeing the baby inside, measuring growth, and discussing the next steps leading up to the arrival. After those appointments and for countless hours over that year, we spent much time alone together talking about the baby, whether he was a boy or a girl (I guessed correctly), what we would name him, what he might look like, what we would do with him, what our new family traditions would be, schools he'd attend; the list went on and on. No matter what our topic each day, I distinctly remember the sparkle in my wife's beautiful, big blue eyes. As she spoke, she was almost always smiling. Whether on the outside or not, both of us were smiling on the inside. It was picture perfect, and our plans were well laid.
In addition to talking, we "did" stuff too. Nothing extraordinary or different from anyone else the first time around. We bought all the books—which in retrospect I wish I'd never read, because the possibilities in our minds needed no additional fodder. Though allegedly written to serve that purpose, the books were not comforting, especially to two first-born, first-time parents with type A personalities that generally were always planning for the worst-case scenario. Even then, we spent inordinate amounts of time reading the sections titled "Symptoms," "Diagnosis," and "Problems." Unfortunately prophetic.
But along with worrying, we also had fun and laughed a lot—mostly at my expense. As a proud expectant father, I disregarded my shortcomings and tried to do things that I, personally, had no business meddling with. You see, I am not handy—not at all. My wife, however, is quite skilled in this area. Every once in awhile, I confuse skill with gender and think I should handle "manly" tasks. That happened a lot during this time. It made for great memories and lessons learned.
One afternoon, I decided to "put together" (dangerous words for me) our newly purchased glider. I started by not reading the instructions. I'm not proud; they have just never advanced my cause. More than an hour later, I was in the same spot—except frustrated and drenched in sweat as a result of my efforts. I got out the directions, which were written in several languages. None of them helped me. After almost two hours, I was making progress. It was almost finished; I just couldn't figure out why the glider wasn't balanced well when standing upright. Although she had stayed away for the most part, Ann walked in as I decided we must be missing a part or this glider was defective. She started laughing and said, "You put the top part"—yes, it was only two pieces—"on backward." As soon as my head turned to see the glider tilting so heavily that it was about to fall over, I knew she was right. We laughed until our sides hurt. We shared similar comedic experiences when I tried (for two hours) to put the car seat in the car, when I tried to put together the bassinet, and when I could not get the infant mattress to stop vibrating (missed the "off" switch). I learned a lot, but the bottom line for me was that there are no "manly" or "womanly" tasks. Mostly, we just had fun. I will always cherish that time we had.
Like any new era in life, we saw everything ahead of us with great excitement, hope, and happiness. It was reminiscent of looking at a fresh-driven snow, before anyone or anything disturbed it. No tire marks or footprints. Just snow. Bright, clean, untouched, and pure. We were on a new journey together. We envisioned the path we had planned so carefully. We knew what was supposed to happen.
The doctor's face told me there are no "supposed-to's"—at least not the carefully crafted formula that I lived by. We stood in the hallway outside Ann's room; he had motioned me to the corridor for a private conversation.
"The baby is in distress, and Ann is losing consciousness. We have to take him now." His words didn't make sense given the context. We were in a state-of-the-art hospital—not only in a the medical sense, but aesthetically as well. The private rooms looked like hotel rooms, with all the medical equipment hidden in the walls—behind paintings, in closets, and behind the DVR and television set. After every birth, the proud new parents rang chimes that were heard in the overhead speaker throughout the hospital. We heard the chimes throughout the day, each time more soothing and reassuring that everything was going to be just fine. The entire medical team was positive, happy, and truly service oriented. Even Dr. Bartels, who reminded us both of a slightly older Doogie Howser, had given no indication of concern all day long. It had all run very smoothly. Until that moment.
"Will, I need you to sign the consent," Dr. Bartels said somewhat sternly. This man, who didn't seem to rattle, was rattled. His stare was unrelenting. He quickly pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his slippery nose. He was sweating. He was saying something. I couldn't make out exactly what, but words weren't necessary to understand his urgency. As he put his hand on my shoulder, it was as if he had flipped a switch. The heart and fetal monitors beeped loudly. The flashing alarm was on the monitor next to the painting. One of the nurses was putting more medicine in Ann's IV, the pole now entirely blocking the TV. Another nurse, who had joked with Ann all day long, was standing beside Dr. Bartels with tears running down her face. I hadn't heard the chimes for a long time. The hotel-like features were gone. There could be no question that this was a hospital. And we were in trouble. Things were not going as planned. I remember thinking, We're not safe. We're not safe.
The imagery was overwhelming. Dr. Bartels's piercing stare. The look on the nurse's face. The medical equipment, flashing, blinking, pulsating. And Ann lying on the gurney, just now regaining consciousness. She was helpless, and so was our baby. The noises grew louder and louder. The beeping. The talking. The machines. It was too much.
And then, nothing. Next, I remember sitting, waiting, in a long, cold hallway. I was alone, and it was extremely quiet. It felt safe again. I was in a surgical suit, with a mask in my hand. I was outside the operating room. I remember thinking, Well, guess I signed the consent. Not that I gave it a second thought, but I just didn't remember doing it. I didn't remember putting on the garb I was wearing, or getting to the cold hallway. It was as if I had been dreaming and had just woken up. I really didn't think twice about it at the time. Seemed like a normal reaction to nerves, given the situation. And poor Ann; this was actually happening to her.
"Dad, are you ready?" called a woman's voice from the door inside Operating Room 2.I got up and put my mask on. The woman, herself covered from head to toe, helped me with the mask and tied the back of the garment. As we entered the OR, I saw Ann on the operating table, and the doctor motioned me over to a chair near her head. I sat down, and held Ann's hand. She seemed chipper, even talking with the doctors. As we sat there, I thought about all the time we had spent over the last year talking about our baby. Though we didn't verbalize it then, we later shared that we were both hoping and praying that our little boy would be fine.
Before we knew it, they had lifted Sammy out of Ann. Someone asked me if I wanted to cut the umbilical cord. That seems pretty standard. So everything was fine? Sammy's "team" was working with him, and a nurse asked if I wanted to take pictures. Well, of course. Was this where our plans, that had taken an unexpected deviation, got back on track? I got our camera out. "Apgar 4," reported a nurse in the background. I kept taking pictures, ignoring her, but knowing from reading the supposedly "comforting" books that this was not good. "Come on, little guy, cry," said the neonatologist as she pushed his feet back and forth and put oxygen on him. Weird if I take a picture of him with the mask on? I thought to myself.
He didn't cry; he was so quiet. Maybe he's a "good" baby already? As the nurse tightly wrapped a blanket around him, the doctor said, "We're going to take him to the nursery while Mom rests a little. You can carry him over there." The nurse handed Sammy to me. His eyes were open, and looking around. He was warm. He was alive. But he still hadn't cried. As I took him over to see Ann, I was intent on making him cry—jostling him up and down—almost unconsciously. I realized the vigor of my efforts only when I bent down to let Ann give him a kiss and he was such a moving target in my arms that she said something about it.
Off to the nursery. We walked down and out of the long, cold hallway where I had sat before Sammy was born. After that trek, we turned into another, shorter corridor. At the end were double doors with a sign that said "Neonatal Intensive Care Unit." Wait a minute. This isn't a "nursery" at all, I thought. As the double doors swung open, I realized how silly I had been to take the term nursery so literally. Were they really going to have newborns "playing" together? No, this was for sick kids—always was. My mind just didn't let me go there until I had to.
And now, I definitely had to. Before the doors shut behind us, a new "team" greeted us. They gently took Sammy from me, but let me follow them into his room, which was decorated with a larger-than-life butterfly mural. The machine after machine used to keep these babies alive seemed out of place in front of the butterflies' wings that were larger than life. Not the other way around. The doctor explained that this was not highly unusual; birth is a shocking experience, and sometimes babies get liquid in their lungs. "Not to worry," said the NICU doctor. "We're going to take care of your little boy." Needless to say, I was going to worry.
Sammy had three "roommates." Each of them was much smaller than him; the tiniest, Madison, had been in the NICU for several weeks. She was several weeks premature, we learned from her parents. Her hands were so small, yet picture perfect. Madison also had trouble breathing, among other things, but just when you might feel sorry for her, she would let out an enormous scream. It was as if she were telling the world that she was here to stay. And she was.
Despite the reason for being there, and Sammy's predicament, I felt like he was in a safe place. A place where people cared about him and would protect him. Then I realized I was surrounded by "fighters"—from the kids, to the parents, to the staff and doctors. Their fight, their determination to live and keep these kids alive in the face of tremendous challenges, was a common thread in each person in that nursery. Strength, hope, courage, wisdom, and kindness. Amazing that all of this could be found in this room. It was impossible to ignore.
And Sammy was one of those fighters. It turned out that his cord had been wrapped around his neck four times—the reason for the distress. Within the first few hours in the nursery, he started doing much better. And he cried. It was music to our ears. After a few days, he was ready to go home. But there was no "planned" track. When he was just eleven days old, the doctors told us Sammy did not have a functioning thyroid (discovered early, thanks to the heel prick test that they do in the hospital). Around that time, he started having what appeared to be mild seizures and leg tremors. He would be on medicine for the rest of his life, would need routine blood work, would be monitored regularly, and was followed by a neurologist for a year.
None of it was in the "plan," but we quickly adjusted. Not that it was easy to see Sammy go through these challenges, or to know that he would have them for the rest of his life. We felt the same emotions that most parents in that situation likely feel: sadness, guilt, anger, and disbelief, to name a few. But we had our son, our beautiful baby boy. He was a fighter and here to stay. It wasn't the journey that we expected, but just like the surprise filling in the dark-covered chocolate, the experience was rich and well worth it.
The Nursery Revisited?
The anticipation that we felt for the arrival of our youngest son culminated that early morning in June 2007 as we drove to the hospital. But planners never learn. Despite the unplanned events with Sammy three years before, we kept planning, strategizing, and thinking that we had some measure of control this time around. From the time Ann told me that she was pregnant with Henry until the drive to the hospital that early morning in 2007, we were envisioning what would, or could, happen this time around. Like good planners, we had taken into account our past experience. Sammy had some issues. It was a bit bumpy, but everything turned out just fine. We asked the doctors a lot of questions. We read a lot about delivery complications, what Sammy had gone through, genetic components of hypothyroidism, and other disorders. Each of us spent a lot of time doing our own research, looking into possible problems. We both wanted to be prepared; it was as if we were going to be delivering and treating Henry like his doctors, not his parents. We knew every symptom imaginable, and had read "the" pregnancy book so many times that we were confident we could write the next edition.
As with most things, I took the "planning" a step further than Ann. I often went through the "worst case" so that I could figure out what we should do and how we should react in each scenario. The process made sense to me; it had always made me feel prepared. So before we got in the car, I was confident that we were prepared. Or I thought we were.
We were wrong. As we drove to the hospital, I realized—for the first time—that we had prepared as clinicians for the technical and medical possibilities. But we hadn't prepared, as parents, for the emotional aspects of just becoming parents again, even without complications. With the air conditioning on full blast, I felt sweat form on my forehead. My mind raced. We hadn't even talked about how excited we were to welcome our little boy into this world. Or about what he'd be when he grew up, what he would look like, or the color of his hair. As is the case with many "experienced" parents, the children following the first got less "face time" while growing inside. Not because parents care about them any less. But when you have kids running around, you're busy, and the uterus is the perfect babysitter.
We also hadn't talked about how scared we were—how nervous we were that Henry, like Sammy, could have problems at birth. Or worse, end up in the "nursery." Come to find out later, both of us had spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about those fears. Never, not once, did we mention them to each other—as if not discussing them would make the reality less likely. Instead, we played out the scenarios in our heads—alone—determined that the personal torture was well worth the trade of not having anything go wrong. Superstitious? Irrational? Silly? Certainly. But we were not above it—any of it—if in return, we could trade our fruitless worry for a healthy Henry. Though we did not know it then, this concept of "tradesies" was something that would become commonplace for us.
Excerpted from Three Candles by Will Corcoran Copyright © 2011 by Will Corcoran. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 17, 2012
This is a book about joy and finding joy in unexpected places and experiences. Well written, thoughtful, memorable. I highly recommend it. What a positive outlook the author has and he expresses it so eloquently. There are some very tough passages to read, but Will always leaves the conversation on a note of hope.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.