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.
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.