Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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In the middle of a December night, in the maternity ward on the ninth floor of a hospital, you receive the secret knowledge of the universe. It is this: Everything dies. And no one, anywhere, knows when or how it’s going to happen. You knew this, of course. But still, when it comes to you, like all truths, it seems so obvious — the one truth upon which all other truths are built. The things you thought you could control, you can’t. And you tried — you really did. You pleaded with doctors you’d never met for a miracle they couldn’t deliver. You promised your life. Anything. But no deal was struck, no terms agreed on. And now you’re left sitting behind a flimsy blue curtain in the recovery room of a New York City hospital at 3 AM, cradling your dead son in your arms, the one and only time in your life you will hold him.
Six hours earlier you are sitting next to your wife, chanting, “Push, push, push,” with a roomful of laughing nurses and a no-nonsense doctor who seems to swap out her soaked rubber gloves once a minute. You’ve named the baby Willie, and one of the nurses asks, “What was that movie — Free Willy?” and that becomes your battle cry: “Free Willie!” Four hours of pushing, groaning, tears, and contractions, and finally he comes. Slowly and then all at once, he is a part of the world — bloody and wriggling and one of us. But silent. You cut the cord, and the pediatrician whisks him off to the far corner, where she examines him: “Come on, give me a cry, come on,” you hear her plead. You caress your wife’s head and tell her everything’s fine. He’s beautiful. It’s over. You did it.
After a couple of minutes your son passes in front of you, bundled and squirming, on his way to the neonatal intensive-care unit. The doctor assures you this is not a big deal. Probably a lung infection. Happens all the time. They’re going to take him up and get him stabilized, and you can see him in an hour.
“Hi, Willie.” You wave even though he’s just inches from you. “Hi, Willie.” This is you, meeting your son. Then they hurry him away.
You and your wife split a tuna-fish sandwich and nag the nurses: “Can we see him?” Soon, they say. You call parents, friends. Two hours later a doctor comes down and tells you that Willie, your baby boy, is in dire condition. He can’t breathe. Something needs to be opened up, his vocal cords or his larynx — they’re not sure. There are forms to sign. Consent needs to be given.
Your wife looks at the doctor and desperately chokes out, “Please, save my baby.”
Despite the jutting rail of the hospital bed, you lean over and hold your wife, aware of the tubes in her arms, the beep of the heart monitor growing faster, the hollow rattle of the building’s ventilation system. This sound will stay with you in the weeks and months to come. It’s everywhere: the sound of the world collapsing.
Three doctors suddenly appear. There will be no heroics. No miracles.
Three expressionless doctors.
You’ve never held a newborn baby before. It’s a shock to discover just how small he is, how light. Six pounds. Your wife says he is perfect, and you look up at her, both of you smiling for a moment with the realization that, yes, he is just that. Perfect. With a face you know; you just didn’t know you knew it — equal parts her and you and him, which combined make something unexpected. The whole cosmic marvel of time and existence lies limp before you. All that might have been. A perfect child, magical and dead.
The minutes pass as you and your wife rock him gently, taking turns, passing him back and forth. If you squint hard enough, you can almost see the parents you were going to be — exhausted, baffled, terrified; at the start of your journey, not the end of it. You take a picture with the camera you bought expressly for this moment, a single picture of your wife holding him. A trickle of blood runs from his nose, and the spell is broken. You fumble for a kleenex and, in your only act of paternal care, wipe away the blood like it’s a runny nose. “There, there. It’s OK, buddy.” He is silent and still.
How do you say goodbye to someone who’s just been born?
How did I?
I held him close and whispered into his ear, “You were everything to us, Willie. Just everything.” And with that, I placed him back into his hospital cart and nodded to the nurses huddled in the hall and watched as they wheeled him around a corner, and he was gone.
You saw his ultrasound image so many times, texted photographs of his little alien face to your parents. Endless, emoji-filled texts. New ones keep coming now, your phone buzzing:
So happy for you.
Can’t wait to meet him.
You want to write back, He died. You want your hurt to be the world’s hurt. This pain is what was born tonight. It’s a palpable, physical thing, an object of infinite dimension that can be looked at from many angles, held closely or at a distance, and always there is some new aspect of the sorrow. You think about the many-worlds theory: maybe the family you would have been still exists in some alternate parallel universe where everything is fine and happy and whole. Then you pick up the phone, step into the hallway, and begin to make the calls. People answer, tired, confused. You try to tell them the news, but nothing comes — not at first anyway. Then you manage to say, “He didn’t make it.” He didn’t make it into this world. He withdrew. Everything does, eventually. But now you’ve seen it with your own eyes, felt it in your heart. Something can be there and then disappear. The happiest day of your life can become the worst.
In the weeks and months ahead you will cry everywhere — on subway cars and at restaurants and in office bathrooms. There will be no resisting it. This is what it feels like to be split open and emptied out, all your defenses disabled. You will learn what it feels like to call about autopsy results, arrange for a cremation, pick up a tiny plastic bag of ashes from a funeral home.
But for now there is nothing left to do except sign some more forms and shuffle out to a taxi in the frozen dawn, placing the carefully packed bag of baby clothes in the trunk, along with the box of keepsakes the nurses were kind enough to put together for you: his hand- and footprints, a lock of his hair. As the cab works its way down FDR Drive, you hold your wife’s hand in silence and watch as the light over the East River shifts from night to almost-dawn. The sky purple. One star left. All of it fathomless.
This essay previously appeared on the website Fatherly.com.
We very happily welcomed a second son, Arlo, into the world nearly a year ago. Despite being born nine weeks premature (and, in an unexpected twist of fate, in the exact room in which our son Willie was born), he is thriving and brings us endless love.
Brady Emerson’s essay “Hello, Goodbye” [January 2019] struck an intimate chord. In December 2018 I gave birth to twin daughters, one of whom — Rowan — had been diagnosed with a genetic condition at twenty weeks gestation. We knew Rowan would not survive long past birth, but still we wanted to meet her in person. Instead she was saved the physical trauma of birth and died two weeks before in what I can only hope was a peaceful state. Like Emerson, we marveled at what a perfect baby she was. He conveys well the confusion and heartbreak of losing a child so close to birth.
Fortunately for us we were able to leave the hospital with a beautiful and healthy baby girl — her twin sister, Linden.
As a retired certified nurse-midwife, I cried through Brady Emerson’s essay “Hello, Goodbye” [January 2019]. The Emersons’ loss was heartbreaking.
Most babies are born healthy and do well. When the unexpected happens, the parents are almost always left terrified as the infant is summarily whisked away to the nursery. Even then, though, the efforts are often successful.
I hope the Emersons went on to have more children — not because another child could take the place of Willie, but because most births have good outcomes. I would love to hear that they are OK.