My life had always responded to my will and even my whim. The times of my life were dictated by me. During high school I had a great time. I didn’t try very hard but I got by. Any girlfriends I’d had I broke it off with them. I never had my heart broken. In college I studied hard and had lots of fun. And when it came to finding a wife I looked for an Irish Catholic accounting major and found exactly who I wanted. I married her shortly after graduating. When I looked for a career after college I walked into a newspaper and told them I’d work seven nights a week for free for a month and if they liked what I wrote they could start paying me. They did.
It’s not that everything came easy necessarily, much of it required hard work. But it came on my time table.
With the introduction of children, my life didn’t correspond exactly to my schedule. Feeding time. Fussy time. Burping time. None of these times were times I scheduled. But I was a stay-at-home father working from home and I had my children on a schedule. And we stuck to the plan.
They always say if you want to make God laugh make a plan. Well, I didn’t hear God laugh that morning in March 2002 when the baby didn’t cry in the morning. I’d spent so much time trying to quiet babies that it took a while to realize the moment when the silence from the bassinet was the kind of silence that makes parents stop whatever they’re doing and come running.
We had just moved into our house and the two year old was so happy that she just ran around in a circle from the playroom through the laundry room to the front room through the kitchen and back to the playroom from the time she woke up until the moment she went to bed.
When I picked up the baby she screamed the kind of scream that even made the two year old stop. I lifted the baby out and made my way immediately to the phone. I walked carefully because any movement made the baby scream and I could feel the heat from her forehead on my shoulder. She was burning up with a 103 degree fever.
The doctor on the phone told me to bring her in right away.
It’s funny how we don’t imagine the big and terrible things that happen to us will happen on a random Thursday. Somehow it didn’t feel like the day when the big and terrible thing was supposed to happen. It felt like…a random Thursday. But it wasn’t.
The doctor was concerned from the moment she saw the baby. The two year old even sensed something was wrong because she wouldn’t leave the baby’s side and she held her hand as she laid on the table. I got nervous when the doctor brought her senior partner in to examine the baby. I got scared when she told me she was going to admit the baby in the hospital down the street. And I got downright frightened when the doctor gave me her home phone number to keep her up to date.
I kept it together because that’s what I do. On the outside. I called my wife and tried to downplay the entire affair with calming tones. But she saw through me and left work immediately for the hospital. My wife’s mother came and picked up the two year old and when I arrived at the hospital a young woman doctor was just inside the emergency room waiting for us. She’d been expecting us. Now that totally freaked me out. When doctors wait for you, you know it’s bad.
After a quick examination right there in the waiting room the doctor announced that it might be meningitis. Now I didn’t know a lot about meningitis but I’d been a reporter long enough to have written stories about children who’d died from it.
They admitted my daughter who by then was running a fever of 104 degrees and they told me that there were two kinds of meningitis. Viral or bacterial. They told me they’d start an IV with antibiotics in case it was bacterial and they’d administer steroids to ease any brain swelling. And they’d have to do a lumbar puncture which meant they were going to stick the biggest needle you’ve ever seen into my baby’s spine to extract spinal fluid for testing.
They took my baby away from me into another room around 11 at night. They asked my wife and I to wait down the hall but I couldn’t walk away. I had to be as close as possible to my daughter. I had to hear. I listened to her screams in that empty hallway.
Hearing my daughter’s screams behind a locked door was the toughest thing I’d ever done. And when the screaming subsided a nurse came out and explained in apologetic terms that because the baby was so small they needed to get someone else to do it again because they’d missed what they were going for.
And I was powerless. I waited for a doctor to arrive and disappear behind the locked door. I watched him punch in the code for the door. 3-6-9-5. I don’t even know why I wanted to know the code. A way of feeling some control, I guess, just in case I had to get in there.
First there was silence. And then the screams again. And finally silence.
And then they brought the baby out gasping and hiccuping. I laid her in her hospital bed and placed my hand in hers as she fell asleep.
And the nurse came in and explained that it would take about 48 hours for the test results to come back to determine whether it was bacterial and possibly fatal or viral meningitis.
48 hours. The longest 48 hours of my life. Powerless. My will didn’t matter. This was out of my control. I could do nothing but pray. For the first time in my life powerlessness wasn’t theoretical. There was nothing I could do. My wife wept and prayed quietly in the dark so as not to wake the baby. I sat next to the baby touching her hand under some misguided notion that as long as I touched her nothing truly terrible could happen.
I still somehow thought that I could protect her. That night I went through the thoughts of making some kind of deal with God. Take me for her if it comes to that. I’d make that deal gladly without blinking an eye. And then I thought it was a test to see how hard I’d pray. I prayed all night with my wife. But I realized at some point over the next 48 hours that it wasn’t about me. There were things that happened outside of my control. No matter how much I loved, no matter how much I prayed, and no matter how much I willed I didn’t really have control.
These little girls as much as I wanted to control them and protect them I couldn’t. Life happens. And all I can do is prepare them for it. Love them. Pray for them. Help them. But at some level we’re all at the door listening. And as badly as we want to solve everything we can’t. And that’s a heartbreaking thought for a father.
My daughter turned out to have viral meningitis and she recovered and now she’s a wonderful eight year old. And she’s an emotional little thing. She cries at television shows, she cries at the casual cruelty which people show. But she laughs at every little joy and dances at the sound of any music. And I can’t control any of it. But I can still hold her hand as long as she’ll let me.