“Abracadabra! Make Grandma and Grandpa disappear!” was the final desperate attempt of two persistent little girls in the back seat to get their way. At ages four and three, Maggie and Serrah had given it their all. They had come up with reason after reason why Grandpa should turn the car toward our home in West Fargo. At first Grandma and Grandpa had employed reason and patience. Soon, they had agreed to simply not respond as the two girls continued to work at getting that steering wheel to yield to their will. I had experienced plenty of our two little girls’ backseat antics. Maggie, who gave new meaning to the word, “precocious,” would instigate and Serrah, blue eyes wide with curiosity and wonder at her older sister, would follow her lead eagerly.
Only a few days before, under Lyle’s watchful eyes, Maggie sat with her brand new baby brother, Ben, in her lap at my hospital room, as Serrah sat with Maxie staring up at her with eyes that seemingly adored every female face they peered into. They were babies holding smaller babies, really. Twenty-month-old Emily cuddled with me on my hospital bed as I battled, what was later determined to be, a “spinal headache.” A young couple, ages twenty-five and twenty-three, with five children under the age of five, we were still undaunted by the task of raising this beautiful brood. They had been entrusted to us, and life would be good.
Finally, a very thorough nurse practitioner doing her rounds diagnosed the spinal headache that had been plaguing me for the past two days. There was a simple and nearly instant fix for it. An anesthesiologist performed a procedure to “patch” the leak in my spinal column, created by the spinal block that had been performed on me before the C-section. Ah, yes. My inability to “arch like a Halloween cat,” the waiver, and the explanation that came with it, I was taking a health risk, a one in five hundred chance of getting a spinal headache. I had signed on that dotted line, eager to get on with it. I had rolled the dice and wound up being the “one”, rather than any of the four hundred ninety-nine who skipped the pain of having brain rest on bone, as spinal fluid leaked out. Spinal fluid, I was told, replenished itself continuously. It was crazy. Now, the anesthesiologist drew blood from my arm, injected it into the site where the block had been on my spine, creating a patch, then I laid flat on my back for a half hour, and viola! The worst headache imaginable was instantly gone.
This, all while Maggie and Serrah were getting ready for their church Christmas program. I was sad to be missing it, but ready to get through the rigmarole of paperwork and get home with the babies. Our two eldest would be, very reluctantly, returning to Bismarck with my folks, and Emily would remain behind with the rest of us.
Of course, the girls were given plenty of TLC in Bismarck. My seventeen-year old sister, Carmen, took them to see Santa at the mall. Maggie, true to precocious form, tugged at Mall Santa’s beard and asked, “Are you for real?” A few days later, Carmen ran errands with Maggie’s “assistance.” They made a quick stop at the mall, and Carmen truly believed that they could slip by the North Mall Pole without incident. My poor naive sister and dear Saint Nick were reminded of the beard pulling incident too soon, as Maggie called to him in passing, “Hey, Santa, remember me?!” As if the poor man would ever forget.
Meanwhile, back in Fargo, we were about to experience true trauma of nightmarish proportions. Lyle had run to Sam’s Club for diapers and Seven-Up, the baby gate was up, and Emily was safely playing with some toys. I settled in on the couch to nurse the babies. I grabbed the portable phone at the last minute, certain that all of the bases were now covered. Maxie was beside me on the couch, laying on his back, so that I could talk to him while I nursed Ben first. Soon after Benjamen latched on and began nursing, he seemed to fall asleep. That was odd, because he had been crying and hungry. I looked down at him, perplexed because it wasn’t a sleeping infant I was looking at, it was my unbreathing child! I rubbed his back, changed his position, and then more vigorously rubbed his arms and legs, as he turned blue. “911-What is your emergency?” “My baby isn’t breathing, I need help, NOW,” was my tearful plea. The rest is fuzzy. By the time she began giving me further instructions, he was breathing again and soon, the firemen were at our door.
This was the scene that Lyle returned to, coming home from Sam’s. He was terrified as he drove up the street, first seeing lights flashing, and then finding that the lights were at HIS own home, where he had left his wife and three of his children less than an hour before. He couldn’t get out of the car and through that door fast enough. Lyle was flooded with relief at finding everyone inside OK. That moment was short lived, as Bennie was loaded onto the ambulance. We left Emily with neighbors accross the street, trapped Max into his infant seat in our car, and followed the ambulance to the hospital.
We moved in a fog through the hospital. The doctor gave us his initial theory, which I believe to be the truth to this day, “Your son has had an apnea episode, and I think the explanation is simple. When your baby started to nurse, the letdown of the milk pelted the back of his throat, causing his breathing to shut down, which is a good reflex. It’s like holding your breath until you pass out. He stopped breathing, and as soon as he passed out, he started breathing again. However, we have to rule out all possibilities before we’ll be able to release him to you.” Next, we went through the whole scrubbing lesson with the nurse, so that we were able to enter the NICU and see our, now incubated, baby boy. “He looks huge compared to these other babies. He seemed so tiny until now.” He had weighed 6.5 lbs. at birth. “Some of these little ones weigh less than a pound,” was the nurse’s response.
While we sat in the waiting room, waiting for our pastor to arrive, an even bigger baby came in. His daddy joined us in the waiting room, while his infant was settled inside the NICU. There was an awkward unspoken curiosity that wasn’t missed by this man who tried haltingly to explain that his baby boy had been born in Sioux Falls South Dakota, weighed 8.1 lbs., and was healthy except for the one complication. We looked quizzically at him, waiting for the next part. He hesitated, “He was… um… born without… um… without a… Well, he was born without a butt hole.” “Oh my gosh. Will he be OK?” I responded quickly, because any awkward silence would be almost unbearable for all of us at this point. Lyle, I suppose as precocious as his eldest daughter, never minced words, “So… what do they do for THAT?” I was glad he had asked the question. “Well, he does have… like… He has an opening, but it’s way too small for him to pass stool, so they’ll do a surgery to dilate it, and that should solve the problem.” He seemed relieved as if speaking the words out loud had helped him realize that his son was going to be alright. When he got up to go through the scrubbing and entering lesson, Lyle and I exchanged glances that silently spoke our shared thought, “This could be worse. That is batshit crazy!”
Pastor arrived, scrubbed and went in with Lyle to baptize Ben. I suppose we should have had Maxie baptized at the same time. I was so thankful to have him in my arms. Empty arms would have been so devastating, even though we were confident that Ben was going to be fine. I was grateful for the warmth of Maxie and the heaviness of that newborn baby bottom as I patted it, standing in that waiting room, rocking back and forth, and praying for my incubated baby on the other side of those double doors. We weren’t allowed to bring Max onto the unit because of the health risk he could potentially pose to immuno-suppressed infants inside. So we took turns going in to see Ben. Eventually the doctor urged us to return home, which we knew we needed to do anyway. It was as if we needed the permission and he understood that. Our neighbors had work in the morning, and we needed to collect Emily and get her home to bed as well.
I slept, that night, with Maxie on my chest. Every fiber of me was intensely aware of his presence. Every fiber of me was just as intensely aware of Benjamen’s absence. It was such a mixture of sorrow and joy, comfort and agony. I stared at him in wonder as I nursed him when he woke, studying every part of him as new mothers do. I was present and in the moment, and yet I knew that across town was my babe in an incubator, being fed from a bottle by a woman whose name I would probably never know.