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12 years ago today my wife and I became parents. This very personal post is an attempt of accounting for the occasion of a twelfth birthday that didn’t come to pass.
12 years ago at 2:30 in the afternoon I am humming my son to sleep.
My wife has given birth to him three hours before via Cesarian, and from his first breath on there has been all sorts of bright lights and clinical noise and a tube down his tiny nose.
Even though the voices he already knows—we, his parents—have been around all the time accompanied by his mother’s energy, smell and touch, I figure he must have felt a huge relief when they finally removed that tube from his nose.
So at last, now is the time for him to rest. Except that time will not end, he’s going to rest forever. And it is my time to hold him and hum him asleep, as good fathers do.
I have had good parents (and thank God, they both are still alive and healthy).
As a child, I can say in hindsight, I got everything I needed, and a lot more. There was an abundance of affection and care-taking for my younger brother and me as we grew up at my mother’s, being co-raised by two amazing grandmothers. Our father would make sure he spent time with us every other weekend, would take us on a two-weeks vacation every summer and generally would make himself available for us even though he didn’t live together with our mom anymore.
Like in every family, there were issues and quarrels and problems, too, but looking back at it as a grown-up man, I honestly don’t see or feel anything to complain or hold a grudge about. There also were lots of touch and cuddling and considerate awareness for the physical wants and emotional needs of us children, so generally speaking, we grew up well protected and cared for. (Paint the picture backwards from the fact that my mother and her husband and my father and his wife usually celebrate Christmas altogether these days, and you’ll get the idea of how everyone involved must have done their very best over the years to contribute to a happy outcome like that.)
Fast forward back to 8th of August, 2003. I am feeling the warm, soft skin of my baby son on mine as I’m holding him. I had read about the sweet smell of babies, but now I’m experiencing it for real. I’m a dad, holding my first-born.
What feels very unreal is the situation as a whole. Four of us have entered this quiet, private room a couple of minutes ago: my wife, our closest friend at the time, myself, and our baby. Three of us are going to leave this room breathing. And at least three of us have learned about that significant fact months ago.
“You have got a problem”
“You have got a problem”, the practitioner had started the conversation in which then we learned about a chain of consequences of one single symptom, all leading to the fact that our child would not be able to breathe enough air for him to be living on this planet.
What I value most from that conversation to this day is how my wife reacted, but that’s not for me to tell here.
What I value second most is how that practitioner guided us through the first hour of what back then seemed hell on earth.
- He stuck to facts, without losing his empathy.
- He honestly told us everything he knew, everything he could see and what it meant from his decades of experience,
- as well as that everything he was telling us could, in fact, mean nothing after a month or two in case symptoms would change (which from his experience seemed possible, though not very likely).
From the symptoms at hand, there was very little hope for the diagnosis to change in time. Yet the practitioner was perfectly aware and clear that it wasn’t for him to define what that tiny bit of hope should mean for us as the parents. He gave us all the information he had for us, to the best of his expertise (including the key perspective that our baby wasn’t hurting at all, nor would until after birth when the breathing problems would kick in).
When we had no more questions, he had his staff guide us to a private room in order for us to have some very much needed privacy—to cry, to hold each other and, finally, to make a decision.
The decision was for my wife to stay pregnant and for the two of us to become parents.
His breath has faded.
We had been told he wouldn’t hurt. In fact it would be a very peaceful way of dying, like slowly dozing away. Thank God, that’s exactly the way he looks like: peacefully asleep. I keep holding him for a while, trying to burn the memory of feeling his skin on mine into my synapses so it may never leave me. (It has, though. Only the visual picture was strong enough to remain.)
Then I give him to his mother.
Life after death
As amazingly supportive and sensitive the hospital staff had been on labor ward, as shockingly cold and ignorant the doctor and nurse on women’s ward behaved the next morning. We went home as soon as possible after a couple of days, greeted by our neighbors who, of course, were expecting a new-born.
We didn’t talk much and send an e-mail out about what had happened and that we didn’t feel like talking, but appreciated e-mails. Through all of the seemingly unreal, yet way too real situation, we received a tremendeous amount of support from our families and friends—last but not least financially.
Does it sound silly speaking of the death of a child and money at the same time? I can tell you it sure feels not only silly, but devastating—particularly not having the money to give your own child a proper funeral. Few people have an idea of the cost a dead body causes, at least in my part of the world. You can’t just go ahead and spread the ashes. You may not want to, either. Having a place to go to for mourning, a grave, can mean a whole lot during those first years.
We buried his body. We mourned.
We often heard people expressing their respect for how we were coping with the situation that seemed beyond imagination for them. How we seemed to embrace life despite the grief and pain. Let me make this clear: there isn’t much of a choice. If you’re not clinically depressive, you’ll want life to go on. That’s it, you don’t need much more, it goes on by itself if you let it. Except you’re going to have to deal with your own grief and the fact you probably won’t “function” as reliably as you may have before for a couple of years.
We tried to have another baby and finally, after it hadn’t worked out for some years, accepted we would not. Babies were born to neighbors and friends very soon after the death of ours, so we never lacked contact to children. Currently, I’m observing something like a “second wave” of babies around us as a number of younger co-workers and WordPress acquaintances have become parents lately, or will soon.
12 years have passed. We’re still married.
A hero and a wimp
When my wife and I agreed we wanted a child and she became pregnant, I didn’t feel ready to provide for a family. I did feel, however, I was ready to be a father and work out the provision part on the way, together with her. I was scared like shit and confident at the same time. But somehow, we both thought we were going to make it.
When we learned we were not, for reasons so totally unexpected, I noticed the scared part in me ushering a strange, unwelcome sensation of relief: I would not have to be responsible for the life of another human being besides myself (which at that time often seemed complicated enough).
That feeling was even more unwelcome, of course, because I so wanted to be “better”—a husband and father providing for my own family, a hero in one word.
When I became aware a part of myself obviously reacted positively to the perspective we would not see our child grow up, guilt and shame hit hard. How on earth would one feel anything but pain, grief and despair facing the probable death of their own child?
Given the situation in which my wife and I had agreed to keep our hope up and give nature a chance to sort things out for the better, I became terribly afraid of the wimp in me.
To this day I’m not sure I can honestly say that I’ve learned to live with that part of myself, but I’m on my way. The wimp in me entered stage during what possibly has been the most critical, demanding and exhausting time in my life. When I so wanted to be a hero and nothing else, that old wimp showed me I clearly wasn’t.
After 12 years I try not being as hard as a judge, but rather accepting the fact I’m just not so very special. Somewhere in between the hero and the wimp, or beyond the two, lives a man who is constantly learning to love life with everything in it, the good news and the bad.
That man deeply owes to our son who was born and died on the 8th of August, 2003.