When Your Heart Hangs by a Thread

Two weeks ago, my wife and I found ourselves in the middle of a shared nightmare.

Our eight-month old had been sick intermittently for what seemed like months. After a two-week illness that culminated in pink eye and ear and sinus infections, a round of antibiotics got her free and clear for a couple days, and then something new set into her throat and lungs with a vengeance. We began to notice she was sick again on a Wednesday, and on Friday it took a turn for the worse. “She seemed to be having trouble breathing,” my wife told me after she had put her down to bed for the night.

In our household, I take the overnight shifts. My wife is practically an insomniac, so (at this stage in our baby’s life) she sleeps in a quiet room down in the basement while I stay on the top floor with our two girls, tending to the baby (and sometimes our three-year-old) when she needs help. Since she has reflux, and had been suffering through the gauntlet of heartburn and teething and a seemingly endless series of illnesses, she was still not sleeping through the night. And on nights like these, she awoke frequently and I wouldn’t let her cry for long.

When she awoke that night, however, her skin was burning and her breath was badly labored. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and I considered taking her to the emergency room. It’s one of those awful dilemmas you face as a parent. I think almost every parent has a bit of the catastrophist inside, but when you’re listening to your daughter struggling to breathe at 3am, dark thoughts come to mind. What if she dies before morning? Or what if we take her to the doctor, but the pneumonia is already so advanced that we lose her? Not only would I lose my little girl, but I would be responsible for her death. I tried to tell myself that I was getting carried away, that she would be fine until morning. So I put her back to sleep and sat beside her crib for a long time. She seemed to calm down, so I let her rest.

My baby girl in her hospital crib, in a rare moment of peace.

In the morning we took her to the doctor — who told us to take her to the emergency room immediately — where we were admitted to the hospital and surrounded by doctors with concerned frowns — where she was soon placed in the Intensive Care Unit because she was going downhill fast. The pneumonia was taking possession of her lungs, and its grip was tight. Our baby girl was dazed and lethargic, breathing swiftly but too exhausted to do anything else. She only woke up to fight when they put the IV into her hand or forced the oxygen tubes into her nostrils.

She was caught in a downward spiral, and we were helpless to watch it all. I kept telling myself, Surely my daughter will not die in a major American hospital of pneumonia, right? Right? I felt silly to be such a catastrophist, since the chances of fatality or permanent damage were not high. But possibilities alone — probabilities are not necessary — are more than enough to arouse an extreme anxiety when it comes to the welfare of your precious child.  Most of the time, my mind focused on the task at hand.  But in the moment in-between, when I stopped and watched my daughter sleep through the bars of the crib, and I opened my heart just a sliver to what was happening, I felt tides of emotion crashing within me.

I wanted to write this post today because my good friend P has a daughter undergoing a dramatic surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her leg, and my friend D is confronting possible cancer with his little son. P’s daughter is undergoing a “rotationplasty,” a frightening procedure that nonetheless enables children to live full and healthy lives (with an ankle for a knee and a prosthetic foot). D’s son developed a lump in his neck and will undergo the relevant tests in a matter of days.

The Greeks imagined our lives as slender threads. Of the three Fates, Clotho spun the string that represents your life, Lachesis measured its length to ensure it was precisely the fated length, and Atropos cut the thread when the appointed moment had come. There’s something about the imagery that feels right. Human life, and particularly the lives of our little ones, feels so unspeakably fragile. And when you watch one of your little ones suffering in a hospital bed — broken, or ill, or diseased — it’s staggering to realize how much of your love is enfolded in such a small frame of flesh and bone, and how absolutely devastating it would be to lose it all. You know that your heart is suspended on that thread, and that some part of you would never recover if that thread were cut.

It’s one of God’s great mercies to die before your children. The few people I know well who have lost their children all say how wrong and unnatural it feels to outlive your child. The death of children — like all deaths, but more than most — reminds us that the world we inhabit is not the world for which we were intended, and is not the world for which we are ultimately destined. And the suffering of children, the suffering of pneumonia or cancer or whatever it may be, is a sobering reminder that to be a parent is to be vulnerable, that the things we love the most are the things over which we have the least control, and that our greatest hope is in God whose eye is on the sparrow.

My own little one, after a couple frightening days in the ICU, stabilized and began to improve. I spent the nights with her at the hospital, often sleeping beside her in her cage/crib so that I would notice immediately if her breathing worsened again or if her skin burned hot. I did not sleep much those nights, watching the numbers reported on the machines, feeling her pulse beneath my forefinger, or counting her breaths per minute. But when she recovered, she was as luminous and vivacious as ever,

So to those with children facing great dangers, here are truths to remember.

1.  Life is a gift. God did not need to create life.  God is self-sufficient.  God created out of an overflowing abundance of love, a love that so powerfully seeks an object that it brings an object into being.  Since God is the only necessary being, all other things and other beings are contingent.  Which means, God is not only the maker but the sustainer.  God not only brought all things into being, but he holds all things in being even now.  If God wished, all things could cease to be in an instant.  If that sounds frightening, perhaps it should be.  To some extent we sense this “nothingness” over which we are suspended.  We sense our contingency, our powerlessness, our need for God not only for help and guidance but for being itself.  But the opposite side of that fear is the truly astonishing realization that all of being is a gift.  Every moment we exist, every moment we enjoy one another, every moment in which we have the possibility of loving and being loved by others and by God, is a sheer gift.  God doesn’t need it; you don’t deserve it.  Call it the pure grace that there is anything at all, or the simple gift of the moment.  You and your children — every person — is blessed to have been and blessed to be.  And does it not make sense that an eternal Father who brought forth children will bring those who choose him, those who love him, into eternity with him?  Whatever happens from this moment forward, you and your children have received extraordinary gifts from God, and your fellowship with your children will never end.

2.  Life is made and sustained by Love. This, I’m convinced, is one of the great mysteries of human love and sexuality, and one of the ways in which we are called to image the Triune God.  When love and sexuality are properly expressed (in the marital covenant where two become one), it is from a self-surrendering union of two loves that new life is born.  New life is intended to be made through love.  But the important thing to remember here is the greater truth to which it points.  While you and your spouse are the vessels, the true Maker of life is God, and God is Love.  Your children sprang from the love of God, and the very same love that made them and has sustained them year after year even now holds them in being.  That Love is changeless.  It never fades, never lapses, never fails.  Whatever happens to your children, they rest in the hands of the One to whom they truly belong, the same loving hands that made the heavens and the earth and the same loving hands that have always held them in being.  Even when you are not aware of it, even when you sleep, a God of Love holds your children in being — and it is that same Love that holds their fate now.  How grateful we should be that our children’s fates rest not in our own hands, which are weak and misguided, changing and unwise, but in the hands of God.

3.  Your children were bought with a price.  If you adopted a child for $50,000, would you refuse to treat a life-threatening illness in that child because it cost $500?  Of course not.  Christ died for your children, paying a priceless cost.  This is the length to which he will go for your child.  He seeks your child with an everlasting love, and will never leave or forsake him or her.  For all its blood and death and brutality, the cross speaks of something vital and beautiful.  There are no assurances here against outcomes you do not want.  There is no promise that your children, if you pray for them hard enough, will be perfectly fine.  The beautiful promise is that they are in the hands of a God who so loved them that he went to the cross for them, and no one who pays the absolute price for your child will refuse to pay a lesser cost.  God loves them more than you do.  God knows the beginning and the end.  And even when we do not understand it, even when we rage against it, we strive in faith to believe that God — a God like this, a God of the cross — will be relentless and tireless in seeking what is best for them.

If others have found some truths to hold onto in the midst of such crises, please share them in the comments.  And, well, my little girl turned out fine (picture below), but pray for the children still at risk.  Children’s Hospitals are among the most heartbreaking and among the most amazing places on earth.  Pray for the children and their parents.

As though a bulb of joy shines from within...I don't think I have ever known a more joyful child. She gets it from her mother.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

  • Steve Billingsley

    Timothy,
    As a father of 3 boys whose youngest had an episode of what turned out to be merely asthma 2 years ago, I can empathize with what you and your wife experienced. There are few things in this world that could possibly be more scary and heart-wrenching. My prayers are with you and your family.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • http://iam2.org/blog Galen Dalrymple

    As has been said before, “The more love you give, the more you have to give.” Picture what that means to a God who is infinite in Love. He will never, ever run out of love for His children. And we are to be like Him!

  • Jean Grant

    Made me cry, praise God, and really ponder the creator above and what he has done for us.

  • Susan

    So glad your little girl is okay. My middle son has had four heart surgeries. He’s 14 now and doing well (with some rhythm issues we watch closely), although he recently was hospitalized with a staph infection in his bloodstream and hip joint. It had been 11 years since he’d been in the hospital, but I felt the same feelings you felt. At the same time, I was blessed with a sort of numbness that I can only liken to God muting my senses and holding me close. It wasn’t until after he was released from the hospital that the reality of what could have happened hit me (and hit me hard). When I thought back to his infant/toddler surgeries, I realized I felt the same numbness then. Of course I was scared, but the full import of the doctors words, both 14 years ago and two months ago, didn’t hit me when I had to be strong. I’m a rational, analytical person, so clearly Jesus knew he had to step in to protect me…

  • lee

    Tim, and Tim’s readers—
    Umm—I mean this in the nicest way possible–somewhere, somebody didn’t get the message to you folks that babies have virtually no margin of error—half an hour’s difference here with your little one could have had a totally different outcome. And breathing is an absolutely essential function for life.
    Fevers are also a sign that things aren’t good.
    Together—easily fatal, as a fever greatly increases a need for oxygen while “trouble breathing” means you aren’t delivering it.

    ANY breathing problems in a child warrants immediate evaluation–and doctor’s offices are NOT equipped to make the kind of interventions they may need. Emergency rooms are.

    Don’t ever put a baby or child down for the night who is having trouble breathing.
    What you think is tiredness may well be oxygen deprivation and pending respiratory arrest.

    I’ve always thought that OBs so miss the boat by not having child CPR and emergency medicine videos
    for expectant moms and dads to watch while in the waiting room—and this confirms it.

    I know you are both very intelligent people–and this is simple ignorance.

    Dr. Mom

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Well, it’s never comfortable to have your parenting decisions criticized, and I don’t think this was exactly expressed in the nicest way possible (I would have just focused on what to do in future), but I basically agree and it was one of my hopes that this story would encourage others to err on the side of over-reaction. I understood that it was probably pneumonia, but I was not aware of how quickly pneumonia can develop and just how threatening it can be. As I was holding her at home in the middle of the night, the night before we took her to the doctor (which we did first thing, at 8am on a Saturday), I was reading our books and testing her breathing rate and so forth. It was about 3am. By the time the Ibuprofen brought her fever down, her breathing rate was back within normal range, so I made the (wrong) judgment that waiting until the doctor’s office opened would be all right. It seemed possible to me that she was just having a fever spike from the onset of a virus – perhaps rosacea, which had given our first daughter a febrile seizure when it set in. But honestly, my wife often thinks I over-react to these things, so I probably let that voice ring a little too loudly in my imagination as I was debating with myself in the wee hours of the morning.

      We have taken child/infant CPR classes and done pretty extensive reading on medical care issues. It just seemed like a marginal case to me at the time. In retrospect, I wish I *had* taken her directly to the emergency room, of course. But that was my thinking at the time.

      In any case, it’s a good word for all of us: if your child is having trouble breathing, the ER is never an over-reaction. And of course it’s better to over-react than under-react.

  • Amy Henry

    A touching, heart-rending post, Tim. Gosh, we love our babies, don’t we? And your little one is just too precious for words. I’m so glad she is well, and that she has such parents who recognize and appreciate both the fragility and the beauty of life.

  • Leslie

    “If you adopted a child for $50,000, would you refuse to treat a life-threatening illness in that child because it cost $500? ”

    This is a terrible analogy and quite offensive to me as an adoptive parent of 4 children by adoption and 2 by birth.
    You don’t adopt a child for X amount. You do have to pay fees associated with adoption just as doctors and other professionals who ASSIST in a birth expect payment as well.

    I’m sorry but really could you not have made your point differently? How about “If you birthed a child for $10,000, would you refuse to treat a life-threatening illness in that child because it costs $500?”

    How does that sound?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Leslie, Romans 8 describes us as God’s adopted children. I was building on the analogy. My sister is adopted, most of my friends have adopted, we plan to adopt, and we’ve given a lot of time and resources to adoption ministries. No disrespect was intended. It is costly to adopt. I didn’t say “If you *bought* your child” or something crass like that. I just meant, if you spent $50k to adopt someone, you would not spurn lesser costs. I thought it would be clear that I was referring to the passage later in Romans 8 where the gist is that anyone who paid the ultimate price for a child (sacrificing his only son for us) will not refuse to give us lesser goods.

      And your example (using birth) sounds perfectly fine to me. I think you were a bit too quick to take offense here.

  • http://www.susyflory.com Susy Flory

    This is so powerful. You’ve given a voice and words to a parent’s worst nightmare–the possibility that you’ve made the wrong decision and hurt your child. The whole first year of my son’s life I was afraid I was going to kill him accidentally, one way or another (he’s 22 now, so we made it through).
    You’re an amazing father.

  • http://fromtheheart-anna.blogspot.com Anna

    I am glad to read of her recovery. My oldest three has asthma issues so i remember the feeling all too well.I am the one that over reacts therefore causing me to second guess myself. We are presently in the midst of a medical issue with number 4 that has me wishing I didn’t have to go to bed tonight. But I know that come what may, we can do this. Thank you for sharing.


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