Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Listening for God in Sasebo

The young couple kept waiting to see if their baby would survive. 

The sun kept rising and setting, they supposed, but the lighting and temperature in the hospital stayed the same. It was always too cold. A fluorescent, monochromatic ambiance.

When the couple grew old, they would not agree on how long they waited, how long their son fought for oxygen with the persistence of a Boston Marathoner on Heartbreak Hill. For one, it was four days at the most, the other recalled a week, maybe a day or so more.

It could have been ten years, maybe 20, it didn't matter, they were outside of time.

It was all up to the little guy not to give up, to keep fighting off this "respiratory distress syndrome," not to tire, just breathe, damn it, just breathe and don't stop for God's sake whatever you do, we'll make it worth your while, you'll be glad you stayed alive, it'll be fun, you'll see.

A Navy chaplain came to visit. He wore a khaki uniform with short sleeves. He chewed gum in a way that said "let's get this done," opening his mouth with every chomp. Round-faced, cheerful. He was a Lutheran, which the couple had never heard of, and he was from the Midwest.

He sat by the young wife's bed and chatted, occasionally patting her hand. The weather, this rain, darn it all. Those kamikaze Japanese cab drivers. You know about Sasebo? It's a piece of history. It's where the Japanese practiced bombing Pearl Harbor. We'll go for a ride, I'll show ya.

He asked the young couple if they wanted to come to his house, maybe he called it his "quarters," and "get some grub with me and the wife," asking in a way that was insistent without being rude. "Yeah, I'll drive you two over there. We'll grab some grub."

The chaplain didn't pray with them. He didn't mention Jesus, didn't mention any of the world's great religions' founders. He didn't talk about healing. He chatted, he smiled and chewed his gum and patted her hand.

They went with him and had grub. The conversation at his home could've happened in a 1950s TV show. It was bland, Midwestern, no irony, and no one needed to think. The chaplain's wife was quiet and kind, and surely the food was beef and potatoes and beans, with sticky hot apple pie for dessert.The man and his wife were too young to want coffee with their pie

The young man studied the chaplain and the chaplain's wife for etiquette clues so he wouldn't call attention to his backwoods naivete. This uncertainty, this flirting with embarrassment, this insecurity intermittently distracted him from what his son was doing every second. 

While they grabbed grub In this Navy chaplain's house, the little one kept breathing. 

I won't stop. I'll be fine when you get back to the hospital. I'm not stopping. It's okay.

His florid chest rising and falling, his hands clinched into fists, newborn spasms turning him into a tiny pugilist, a left, then a right, then another left, then an uppercut. 

The chaplain drove them back to the hospital. They knew then they would forget this man's name, but love him forever. His good cheer, his gum-chomping interrupted by smiles, his themeless anecdotes recounting trivial events -- a squeaking windshield wiper that just drove the wife crazy, a cat who always slept in their bathtub -- all of this coexisting easily with a black phone in the next room that could at any second interrupt their dinner with the death knell of three hearts.

Either the next day or years later, the pediatrician told the couple, "Looks like he's gonna make it. Signs are looking good. He's a strong one, fought his heart out. Let's have a talk and get you kids ready to take this baby home."

Upon hearing this, the couple began to feel something they could not put into words, something they hadn't expected. It was quieter than jubilation. It wasn't the male orgy incited by a World Series victory. 

It was a partial feeling, a feeling at its inception, too early to name, or too profound, or both. A feeling too big to know what to do with.The feeling would still be growing, yet incomplete, when the baby became a teenager. 

The couple have grown old now, and the feeling is still developing, nowhere near what it will be upon completion. They would never be able to say it, but others rushed in where the young couple feared to tread: "Your prayers were answered. That boy was spared for a reason. The Good Lord has a plan for that boy. Everything happens for a reason."

No, no. Better to remain silent. The Healing Hand had touched their son, passing over others, and moved on, "nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back." Skip the search for agents and reasons. Take the baby and go home.

The dad's supervisor, Tech Sgt. Lump Gadsden, bought the couple tickets for an express train back to Hakata, so the mother and child would be more comfortable and would be home sooner.

The couple could not wait to have their baby safely home. They could protect him now. Having survived this trial, they thought perhaps they had earned a protective barrier from future plagues. 

The baby slept all the way back, even through the train's rocking, squealing, howling. 

Soon the dad began to believe his son could not hear. When they got home, he spoke loudly into the baby's ear, but got no response. He told his wife, "I don't think he can hear. What if he can't hear? I don't think he can!"

The dad tried one more test. He put a record on the turntable. He turned the volume way up. His son on his chest, he lay down on the tatami floor in front of the speakers.  

The house quivered as Steppenwolf sang "Born to Be Wild": "We were born, born to be wild, / We can climb so high, / I never wanna die!"

The song spoke to the baby immediately, and his little fists clasped his dad's rib cage as if he were falling out of tree. The dad could see his little boy's eyes trying to open. "Like a true nature's child, / We were born, born to be wild." 

The baby could hear alright. And his chest could feel his dad's heart beating beneath it. He held on for a while, his dad patting him lightly on the back, then began the journey he was born for.