When We Thought You Might Die

“Six years old,” I say to myself, looking at my son from across the little MacDonald’s booth. He is disassembling his bacon, egg and cheese biscuit. I tell him he can eat it like a sandwich.

“I know,” he says smiling, continuing to pull his food apart. He is always confident, but today is his birthday. He can do whatever he wants.

Six years. How could it be six years. It was yesterday. No, it was a hundred years ago.

“Sam, I haven’t told you much about your heart. Do you know how worried your mom and I were for you when you were born?”

“No,” he says, ripping out a piece of bacon.

“We found out your heart had a problem right when you were a tiny baby. Real tiny. And we were scared.”

“Why were you scared?”

I swallow. We have never spelled this out to him before.

“Because sometimes little babies who have heart problems don’t live.” There it is.

“You thought I might die?”

“Yes.”

*****

I grew up crisis free.

My parents loved me. I never wondered whether they were proud of me because they told me they were. My family was whole. My teachers were encouraging, my friends were loyal, and I had only the tiniest acquaintance with death. It all added up to an unsettling form of insecurity. I knew my good fortune would not last forever. I knew crisis would find me. And I wasn’t sure if I would be able to survive it when it did.

When Sam was born, his heart sounded like Darth Vader. They called it a murmur, but I heard a breathy, almost squishy sound. They sent us to San Francisco for tests. I was on edge when the nurse called us back for the results.

“Come on in. Take a seat.”

My heart–my healthy heart–pounded when I stepped into the cardiologist’s office. My eyes went straight past the thin, gray haired man to the giant window overlooking Golden Gate Park. It had to be one of the finest office views on the planet. I clench the back of the leather chair, not wanting to move.

The doctor looked up at me with feigned nonchalance.

“Why don’t you sit down,” he said.

One thought dominated all others: “So this is what crisis feels like.”

*****

Sam is soaking it all in.

He listens intently while taking small bites and staring out the window. This is his thoughtful posture, where he goes from ninja-hero-superspy-cowboy to tiny young adult. He could be a therapist. Tomorrow.

“The doctor wanted to fix your heart, but you were so small, and it is very dangerous to try to fix a little baby’s heart. So Mommy had to keep you alone at home. Just you and her and Jack. Nobody could come over and visit you because we didn’t want you to get sick.”

“He wanted me to get bigger so he could fix my heart?”

“Yeah.”

*****

We sat with him in a small room adjacent to the big metal doors.

sam_6 months

The scariest doors in San Fransisco. A lady came out in a mask and blue scrubs. She knelt in front of us.

“Hi little guy,” she cooed.

He smiled the greatest six month old smile that ever was. Then again, he always smiled. Sam had broken all Hague baby protocols by refusing to cry. It was the greatest relief in our nine year marriage: this child, of all children, did not cry. His cardiologist had warned us that crying could deplete the oxygen in his blood. He could wear himself out and turn blue. He could pass out. It could cause brain damage. It could…

“Oh, look at that smile. You want to come see me? Come here.” He reaches for her like he reaches for any happy face.

I squeeze my wife’s hand. We wear phony grins. Lumps like softballs are lodged in our throats. Our eyes are wet with fear.

“You want to come with me little man? Okay. Let’s go. Say goodbye to mommy and daddy.”

We wave. They disappear behind those doors. Those wicked, violent, life-saving doors. And all of creation stands still.

*****

“So the doctors had to cut open your heart so they could fix it.”

I take a sip of my coffee.

“I didn’t feel it?” he says, already knowing this part. He takes great pride in the scars on his chest, like any boy would.

“No, because they gave you medicine. They poked you with a needle and the medicine made you fall asleep. You couldn’t feel anything.”

“Could I hear anything?”

“Nothing.”

“Not even the cars?”

I grin. “Not even the cars.”

*****

We spent four hours in the waiting room.

My wife sent out texts to family, and I read a spy novel. Three hours passed, and I put the book down. Now I was concerned, but not for my son. I was concerned for me, because I felt I should be concerned for my son but I wasn’t anymore. I had been on edge for the past six months. But now, in the very moment that his most vital organ was being sliced open, I felt nothing but peace and confidence. And I was sure I had broken something inside myself. Some emotional muscle.

And the angels giggled above me. For they know the mystery of a “peace that passes all understanding.”

******

Sam sips his orange juice, drinking it in slowly with the tale.

sam_born“Now you’re six years old. You will still have to see doctors about your heart. That’s why we went to Portland a few months ago. And they will have to fix your heart again. But we’re not scared anymore. It’s not an emergency now. God protected you.”

“Mmm-hmmm,” he says with a grown up sigh. “God always protects his people.”

Six years old. I look down on him, thinking about the complexities of life and theology. How sometimes even God’s people go through horrendous pain. How there will be unanswered prayers and sickness, and heartache. I think about his big brother, whose life has been defined by his “severe autism” diagnosis. How his mind might be whole for all we know, but whose mouth is still held hostage by his uncooperative body. How his diagnosis came on the heels of Sam’s surgery. How that double crisis had us reeling for months on end, leaving us feeling decidedly unprotected.

Yes, there will be many questions Sam will have to wrestle through. So much uncertainty. And more crisis. But I know this boy will be all right, because he will never be alone. God always protects His people. Sometimes through doctors. Sometimes through miracles. And sometimes through the comfort that follows the river of tears.

We walk to school together, and he hands me his orange juice because his hands are getting cold. I smile and ask him what he wants to do this year. His seventh year.

“You want to become a spy? Or a Dallas Cowboys football player?”

He skips in front of me. “Yeah. Just whatever.”

Just whatever. He can be whatever. Because he is whole. The angels are giggling again. And I can hear them whisper, “Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights.”

3 replies
  1. Melody Eisenbach
    Melody Eisenbach says:

    Happy Birthday Sam! What a sweet birthday breakfast. One of my greatest childhood memories is waking up early and eating breakfast with just my dad. I’ll pray for Sam and your family. Miss y’all!

    Reply
  2. Grace Audet
    Grace Audet says:

    I remember staying with Em, Jenna, & Jack while you & Sara stayed at the hospital. It took Doreen & me both to do what either one of you could have probably done alone. We enjoyed it, but we realized even then what amazing parents you are to our grandchildren!

    Reply

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