nine years ago

Nine years ago tonight, I was in labor with baby Elliot, who unexpectedly arrived three weeks early. Three weeks isn't THAT early...unless your lungs aren't yet fully "cooked," and his weren't.

E. was born with pulmonary hypertension of the newborn. He was extremely, critically ill and in the NICU for several weeks. At two points, they told us we should be prepared for him not to make it through the night.

Those weeks were the most horrible experience of my life. No one who has not experienced having a child that sick can imagine what it feels like. As it turned out, Elliot was seriously ill two more times before he left babyhood. Dealing with those illnesses changed me in some soul-deep ways.

I wrote this essay about it:

State of Grace

by Katie Allison Granju

" Oh no. Please God not again."

This was my thought -- my mantra -- as my husband and I carried our three
year old son, Elliot, into the emergency room at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital last week. Limply draped over my shoulder, he winced in pain as I handed him over to a waiting nurse for triage care.

It was quickly determined that Elliot was suffering from meningitis, which required a nightmarish evening of IVs, a spinal tap, a catheter, and eventually, admission to the hospital. The good news was that his meningitis was not bacterial, one of the most dangerous and dreaded of modern childhood infectious illnesses. The bad news was that he was miserably ill, with a throbbing headache and an inability to sleep or
get comfortable.

Elliot was released after several days of IV antibiotics and observation, and we were beyond grateful as we carried him out the sliding doors of the hospital into the muggy Tennessee afternoon heat. This is Elliot’s third major illness in his three short years with us and I no longer take his well-being for granted.

I am aware that it could be worse. He doesn’t have cancer or AIDS or cystic fibrosis. After our many, many weeks in several hospitals since Elliot’s birth, I have met the parents of the children with those illnesses and I always feel guilty in my bald relief that we are not there for the same reasons. However, I also feel blessed in having been in the presence of these mothers, fathers, and grandparents. There is a particular radiant serenity that is immediately apparent in the
countenance and bearing of the parents of critically and chronically ill children.

After spending time with others who are in the clutches of what is almost universally acknowledged as the most indescribably horrible human experience, I come away feeling that I have been in the presence of God.

When a pre-term Elliot was hospitalized in the newborn intensive care nursery at birth, each small, plastic box in the large room held a very sick baby, generally surrounded by a rotating band of hovering mothers, fathers, and grandparents. But the isolette next to ours housed an impossibly small, intubated being that to my frightened, worried eyes appeared incapable of being a real, live baby. This infant never had any visitors. The two pound child lay there day after day, completely alone
but for the attentive nurses and neonatologists who carefully monitored the machines that kept her alive so that she could grow. But no one sang to her, or massaged her pea-sized toes, or whispered in her ear to help her sleep. I began to feel resentful toward these parents I had never seen, wondering what sort of monsters could leave their sickly, premature infant in the care of strangers.

However, on the fourth day after Elliot’s admittance to the NICU, the tiny baby’s mother suddenly appeared at her bedside. She was young, clearly younger than I was, and so thin that her cheap shift hung on her like a leaf on a branch in November. Timidly, she offered up a large, battered cooler to the nurse in attendance, explaining that it contained bottles of the breastmilk she had pumped every four hours around the clock for her hospitalized infant.

And then she settled in to the rocking chair next to her daughter and began speaking to her in a low, shy voice, heavily accented with what I recognized the regional patois of southern Appalachia. In the hour she was there, I heard her explain to the baby that she had no car and thus, couldn’t come to see her as often as she would have liked. She told the child of the several young brothers and sisters who would be
waiting for her when she was able to come home to a mountainous county several hours away. She sang a high, lonesome lullabye I have never heard before or since, as she sat close to the baby she wasn’t yet allowed to hold.

And then a nurse appeared at her side and informed her that her ride was waiting in the lobby. With a grace and beauty I have seen only a few times in my life, the mother rose from her seat beside her child, blew her a kiss, gathered up her now-emptied cooler and quietly left the room.

Tonight I will wrap a freshly-bathed Elliot in a soft blanket and rock him on our wide porch facing the Smoky Mountains off in the distance. I’ll sing to him about the moon and fairies and I’ll count his breaths as he finally drifts off to sleep. I will probably weep a few tears for no good reason other than the almost physical sense of relief I have in the presence of his sweet smell and strong toddler's body. And I’ll say a prayer for the parents all over the world who are spending their evening sitting in emergency rooms and next to hospital beds, drawing on a deep
well of strength they never knew they had.



mamalife said...

To be scared for your ill child is the worst. I knew this fear a year ago when my girl was terribly ill and hospitalized for several days with dehydration from rotovirus. Like you, I counted my blessings that it was not any of the terrible things I see in my job. When the nurses said to me as I stayed with her, "You are handling it so well" I said, "Yes, but it is only a few awful days and then she will be well." It puts it in perspective. When I worked rehab, I had a boy. 13 years old. Quadraplegic from a gunshot injury to his spine. At the hands of his brother, playing with the family gun. Like the little infant you describe, his family was rarely able to visit. They were migrant farm workers living several hours away. You just never know the circumstances others must face.

Anonymous said...

I fell madly in love with Elliot while I sat in ICU and rubbed his brand new feet. That's the only part of him I was allowed to touch. I remember driving toward home, making your father turn around and coming back because I had to rub his feet again - fearful that it might be the last time. Mama

Anonymous said...

You could just use © instead of copyright.