They tell me I can’t stay with him. They are going to do their best to heal my son. He is four years old and getting weaker by the minute.
“Please!” Andrew calls out as the medical team in their scrubs forcibly restrain him. “I’m not ready!” As if blond hair matted with fever, and not even in kindergarten, he is marshaling his resources and can get ready if they will just give him time.
The surgeon stops on his way to the operating room to explain what this emergency operation will entail and to suggest we wait up in Andrew’s room on the pediatric floor. The doctor’s surgical mask dangles limply around his neck. He is handsome and very young. We could have easily been in the same AP biology class at Northeast High, a public school in a working-class neighborhood.
Upstairs in Andrew’s room, my husband and I sit awkwardly on two straight-backed chairs, afraid to touch anything, as if by being very good waiting parents, we can somehow help our son. An infection has lodged in his elbow that could move to his brain or heart at any time. The doctor says the result would be “unacceptable.” Down the hall, I hear the muffled sounds of a child crying, and for a moment, I picture my life without Andrew. I turn to his father. “Do you ever think about losing one of the children?”
“Of course not,” is the immediate response. I marvel at his unpreparedness. His brazen assumption that the universe is a place of abundance. This will be the difference between us for a long, long time.
Hours pass, and the door opens. The surgeon stands silhouetted in the frame. “Your son did great,” he reports. “He’s in recovery and should be waking up soon.” Relief floods the room like light from the hall. For the next six weeks, Andrew will require intravenous antibiotics around the clock, but with a port left in his slender arm, we can be taught to administer them at home. My husband is jubilant. Once again, his expectations have been rewarded.
The door bumps open, and strangers lift Andrew from a gurney onto the waiting bed. He is incoherent, eyes closed, and over the next several hours his face crumples into silent, waterless tears in his sleep. It is almost as if it is not his pain they anesthetized but his ability to communicate it. I fight an impulse to slip off my shoes and climb onto the bed to cover him, healing his body with my own. Gratitude so intense I understand it is joy, makes me believe that I can.
Twelve years later, my husband and I are outside stacking the woodpile. It is a blue and gold fall afternoon, unseasonably warm. I want to take off my work gloves, but the gleeful dog will run off with them.
Andrew slept late and has been in his room most of the day. Occasionally I hear the bathroom door open and close, but no Nirvana blasting down the steps, no telephone. Still, he is home and that means safe, so I go about my chores until suppertime.
Climbing the stairs, I see there is no light on in Andrew’s room even though the sun has sunk beneath the horizon. There is a soft groan from the bed. He doesn’t feel well he says, and I am shocked to see he is actually under the navy spread. His head hurts; he was up all night, that’s why he’s been trying to sleep. I’m the mother of a teenage boy and skeptical. His father and I went to a movie last night. Maybe someone came over. Cheek to forehead, I feel for fever, bring him ice water and Tylenol, straighten his covers, and go back downstairs, worried about all the wrong things.
I’m scrubbing the pan in which I caramelized pork chops when an apparition appears. Andrew, his face white, squints in the painful light. His head hurts so badly, he says. He grasps the back of a kitchen chair and utters an explicative that is so out of character it breaks the spell of doubt. There are no longer skeptics in the room, only one very sick boy and two suddenly terrified parents.
We ease Andrew into a chair to ask more detailed questions. When his father asks him to touch his chin to his chest and he can’t, I run for a blanket and the keys to the car. I’ve just reviewed the symptoms of spinal meningitis, and Andrew has all of them.
In the emergency room, he is in so much pain he can barely stay conscious. The pediatrician on duty is a tiny young woman with barrettes in her long dark hair whose shoes must be the size of our seven-year-olds. Andrew lies on the table while she attempts a spinal tap, and my husband grips Andrew’s hands in his own. Every wave of pain that crosses Andrew’s face sweeps across his father’s a second later. He has the position I want in the small room, but I was delayed registering our insurance information. Also, my husband has so rarely been home that there is something sacred about my exclusion. I stand mesmerized, watching as if I don’t know them when in this moment, they are all that I know.
Again and again, the doctor attempts to get the needle in Andrew’s spine. Her face is flushed; it distresses her to hurt him. She swabs Andrew’s spine, her small deft hands puncturing him again and again. She’s a pediatrician, a children’s doctor. My son, an adolescent, is as tall as his father–a boy in a man’s body. “Stop! It’s the needle,” I say. “The needle must be too small.”
Things go quickly, then. The tap complete, Andrew is admitted. He does indeed have spinal meningitis.
Over the next week, Andrew is kept on intravenous antibiotics and painkillers. His sickness is viral, excruciating, but non-fatal. We bring him pajamas, flowers, and photos of Kaya, his dog. His little sister comes along delighted with the drama and envious that Andrew gets tapioca on a tray. Red Jello. He offers her both with a smile.
We visit every day. Totally present. While Andrew sleeps, I listen to a mother across the hall reading to her child. Her voice is soft with a Japanese accent. “And if you become a boat, I’ll become the wind, and blow you home to me.”
To pass the time, we recount Andrew’s exploits as a boy– the raft made from detergent bottles, the racing go-cart he designed with the cinderblock brake on a string. And we laugh, touching each other lightly on a shoulder or sleeve, then hush ourselves as if we’ve spoken aloud in a library.
We recall the sleepless nights of the intravenous IVs when Andrew was four, and as the days wear on, the room fills with such tenderness that I’m afraid to acknowledge it for fear it will disappear.
The day Andrew is discharged, I take down photos taped to the cupboard doors, throw out flowers that have withered. In my exuberance over his recovery, I have to keep myself from talking too much; from repeating the discharge instructions more times than necessary. Parental love is different from other kinds, I think as we drive home. There is an intensity born of gratitude, an element of faith, or at least hope implied in its endurance.
And then you let go. The grand design of the universe requires relentless relinquishment. Your kids move about the world, create families, dream new dreams, and life becomes an effort to stay off stage but in the auditorium. To witness without wanting. They tell me I can’t stay with him.
If you become a boat, I think, I won’t become the wind, trying to blow you home to me. I’ll become the sea, carrying you wherever you need to go.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.