My eyes squinched, I could see a montage of wistful blue-eyed Jesuses from bible illustrations and Sunday-school pamphlets. I could see the hackneyed image of a white-robed, floating, old white guy with stern eyes and a Santa Clause beard, but even my 20-year-old brain rejected that one and tried to display an invisible That Which Is, the Great I Am, emanating from the Universe's fecund hub.
Sitting in a dimly lit stairwell, I continued to plead for my son's life as best I could, what with my brain playing "which is more like God, A or B?" About 50 feet from me, he lay fettered and punctured like a bound St. Sebastian in what appeared to be a small aquarium, his red flesh immersed not in water but oxygen.
His little chest rose and fell with the furious rhythm of an exhausted dog's panting. His lungs were not prepared to provide his body with oxygen in the natural way, so our little son, shortly after he emerged with a clenched fist and a geyser piss, had to get it all on his own.
As soon as my wife had the strength for it, she joined me in the stairwell of the old Naval Air Base hospital in Sasebo, Japan. We prayed silently, intensely. We were desperate, far beyond the realms of doctrine and dogma. We would accept anybody's help.
We cried plenty on those stairs. Big, healthy, convulsing cries, momentarily and only partially relieving this indescribably heavy burden. We knew if our prayers weren't answered, that burden would be a part of us forever.
We suspected our baby's desperate fight for his life could be blamed on the OB's decision to unnecessarily force labor because it was late Friday afternoon and maybe he was in a rush to leave work.
But we could not explain this crisis on an existential level. Why do such things happen, when they are obviously unspeakably painful? Why would a baby be born, only to die almost immediately? And why would God allow this to happen to us, two naive country kids brought up with bible verses always jangling in our heads, both of us having gone through relatively long periods -- for our age -- of piety and devotion?
Was it a test? Had the Accuser once more pointed earthward and said, "Take these two recently married bible thumpers and introduce them to real tragedy, and see how they turn on you like a bee-stung Doberman!"
We didn't want to be in a test! We just wanted to be a family.
Why us, Lord? Why anybody?
A pediatrician would occasionally stop by to check our baby's vital signs, then walk over to give us an update, my wife still in her bed, me sitting nearby honing my caretaking skills. For days, he said the same thing: "Sameo, sameo. Not much change. It's all up to him. If he can keep breathing at this pace, he will survive."
We couldn't help but ask about the odds. "Does he have a good chance of, you know, is it likely . . .?"
And always, "It's up to him. He has to keep working. Can't say anything other than that. Sameo, sameo, okay? And Mom, you need to get some rest."
I have been a pessimist all my days, always expecting the worst. I saw no reason to believe our son would live. No one was even suggesting that.
|Sasebo by night|
Still, one day early in this ordeal, I walked over to the window where all the newborns were on display. He was in the back in his aquarium, his chest rising and falling, unnaturally fast, on and on he went, day and night. I could see his little legs, slender, lanky. "He'll be a forward," I thought. "Play under the basket and snatch down rebounds. When he is 15, I'll be 35. We can play one-on-one and horse."
But I knew that would never happen.
My own dad was too old to play any game with me. He was a product of the World War II era, I of the Vietnam. I was embarrassed by and ashamed of his view of the world, and he was of mine. So he seemed even older than he really was.
Early in my wife's pregnancy, when we were at Goodfellow Air Base in Texas, I would sit on what was left of an ancient easy-chair in our ratty apartment and listen to the White Album on headsets -- the Beatles' stereophonic shenanigans seeming to make a parabolic leap from one ear to the other -- and picture the Rockwellian days ahead, free from the Air Force, able to talk to my son in his own language, still young enough to play burnout with a baseball, invite him to play alongside me on a city-league softball team. I could play second base, he would play first base. "Son, you may as well put those long, lanky legs to good use!"
Unlike my dad, I would understand him when he told me about what mattered to him, about his heroes and his dreams. I would not dismiss his music as mere "yelling and screaming." I would not make light of his adolescent love interests. I would be Andy to his Opie.
(I could hear Ringo singing "Now it's time to say goodnight, / Good night, sleep tight." Maybe this could be my son's lullaby, no more of this terrifying "down will come baby, cradle and all" malarkey.)
But now he was going die? Why would I even want to go on living? Why would my wife? Why aspire, why dream, why make plans or have goals with some damn rusty dagger lodged forever in my withered heart?
I walked to the stairwell and prayed some more, by myself. More crying, loud, scary crying, this time in despair and resignation. Asking, begging, having already conceded.
Finally, I dried my eyes and tried to think of something I didn't hate.