Monday, July 10, 2006

Mary

I went back and forth on whether or not to post this entry, which is a little dark for the space. But this is intended to be a parenting journal, reasonably complete, and not just a collection of slow-motion strolls through fields of daisies and “I love you Daddy” hugs.

One of my first cousins died last weekend in a freak accident. She was a beautiful 23-year-old woman with a real life spark, the kind of perpetually sunny person you were always glad to see walk into a room, or to find on the other side of a doorway when you entered one. She struck a really rare balance between being “good” and being “cool,” and had an easy and natural ability to make people feel happy and comfortable in her presence. Goes without saying that she’ll be missed by everyone lucky and blessed enough to have known her, most of all her devastated immediate family.

I’m relatively new at this, but even with my limited experience I don’t think there is anything that approaches the depth of being a parent and worrying about the safety and well-being of your children. The world is a dangerous place, even when you’re being careful, and random and tragic things happen all the time. And sometimes not so random. There are bad people walking out there among us who, if given the opportunity, will do terrible things, even to children. If you disagree or need some additional context read a newspaper, almost any day will do.

Every night before we go to sleep I turn on the hallway light outside our bedroom and check in on the girls. There’s nothing quite like the sight of safe and sleeping children, your children, at the end of the day. And there’s no way to explain the from-the-core-of-your-being joy, reassurance and just plain wellness that moment provides to anyone who hasn’t made that trip and experienced it for themselves.

Being a parent comes with a license to worry, and for the more neurotic among us this condition kicks in before the home pregnancy test pee-stick is dry. By the time the first pre-natal test rolls around, most aspiring parents have qualified for a volume discount on apprehension, to go along with the happy and transformational anticipation.

When Gwen was pregnant with Madison we got a bad result on a test they used to call the “triple screen,” I believe by now they’ve added a fourth “screen.” I don’t remember the exact finding, but the gist was that the probability of a major birth defect was much higher than it should have been, 1 in 200 or so as opposed to the purely age-based estimate of 1 in 2,000 or 2,500.

I was working for a public relations agency at the time and was off-site at a client meeting, Gwen called me on my cell phone in tears. The sky was falling. I tried to calm her down but as soon as I heard the news my mind was racing as well. What’s going on in there? What if something really is wrong? What if our baby isn’t healthy? I called a family friend who is an OB-GYN from right there in the conference room and he talked me back in off the ledge. He told me not to worry and drove home the point by saying something like, “look, with the odds you are talking about there is virtually no chance of a problem. You’d take that bet in Atlantic City or Vegas any day of the week and clean up.”

Tremendous odds aside we went ahead and had an invasive amniocentesis test, and everything turned out fine. Of course once we got that good result I spent the rest of the pregnancy convinced that we’d poked Madison’s eye out in utero with the amnio needle as a result of our uncertainty and need to be “sure.” We got the same odd finding on the same test with Ava, took the same amnio and got the same perfect verdict. But I’ll never forget the grueling uncertainty of those days, which drove home the point for me that when you go down this road – pregnancies, newborns, toddlers, and every other stage of a life you created and are responsible for – you open yourself up to the good and the bad in a singular and powerful way.

The Ava pregnancy actually turned into bit of a worry wonderland, as a result of an unusual and unrelated series of challenges. About five months in, Gwen stumbled while walking out our front door and broke her ankle. We went to the emergency room expecting to emerge with an ace bandage and a “try to stay off it” diagnosis, but before we knew it we were talking about the possible need for surgery, metal pins to hold the bone in place and other fun stuff that becomes considerably more involved when the patient is five months pregnant.

We were luckily able to avoid surgery, Gwen wound up in a cast and was told to not put any weight on the foot and leg in question. She was quickly hopping around the house trying to straighten up using crutches and a walker. We rented a wheelchair for trips into town and bi-weekly ultrasound exams that became necessary early in the pregnancy for reasons I’ll explain now.

When Gwen was just a couple of month pregnant with Ava, Madison came down with a short-term rash and high fever our pediatrician diagnosed as the Coxsackie virus, a common childhood illness. Madison was fine within a couple of days but a little Web research (the information available on the Internet can be both a blessing and the worst kind of curse) and a call to Gwen’s doctor confirmed our fears – Coxsackie can cause major complications for a developing fetus, especially early stage. Gwen’s blood was tested for Coxsackie “titers” and, sure enough, there they were.

At that point we were referred to a “high-risk” pregnancy specialist who wanted to submit Madison – then about 18 months old – to a battery of blood tests to try to confirm that the virus in Gwen’s system came from Madison’s outbreak.

We were about to reluctantly begin this testing when I got some well-timed and merciful advice from a fraternity brother who had gone on to become a physician. Mike’s simplistically brilliant counsel essentially amounted to: “Why? Who cares if it’s the same strain? Why would you stick Madison full of needles to prove a single source of the virus? If Gwen has the titers then Gwen has the titers, and you have to deal with that, but what’s the point of turning your 18-month-old into a pin cushion to definitively trace the source.” I remain grateful for this advice to this day.

So we overruled the specialist’s prescribed blood test regimen (he reluctantly had to admit he saw the reasoning in Mike’s position), but he had his revenge. The next thing I knew we were sitting in a cramped consultation room and he was explaining that given Gwen’s exposure we would have to visit his office every couple of weeks for a very detailed ultrasound test… basically the equivalent of a 20-week ultrasound, over and over again.

“OK, and what exactly are we looking for?” we asked. “Oh, any number of abnormalities… primarily calcification of the heart, or the brain, or other major organs.”

“Come again?”

Ava must have been one of the most ultrasounded babies in history, I have vivid memories of pushing Gwen in and out of that doctor’s office in her wheelchair, week after week, through the snow on the sidewalk, Madison in her arms, so we could gel up her belly and search for the elusive “calcification” through the nausea and cold sweats. But when she was delivered early one January morning Ava was absolutely perfect, breezed through Apgar and we haven’t looked back.

Of course the delivery is just the beginning. After a couple of days in the hospital and everything it takes to get to that point they hand you this little being, and along with the Similac samples and the extra hospital diapers and blankets you are able to steal you take along with you a lifetime of worry opportunities.

Before your child can communicate you worry that they’re not getting enough food, enough sleep, enough burps. You visit their crib every minute on the minute to make sure they’re still breathing, avoid baths early on because you don’t want to break them, and count every ounce of weight gain like you hit the lottery.

Then you get to the point where they can actually tell you what they want and you move to worry stage two, followed immediately by stages three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten. Then repeat.

At 3 and 5, I worry about the girls riding around in cars – even the ones we’re driving – worry about them running across a field, falling down the stairs or off a swing, getting curious about an electrical outlet or drinking some kind of vividly-colored cleaning fluid that happened to be left in reach. We haven’t even gotten into the big stuff yet, the “where is this party and who is driving?” worry, the “taking a semester abroad” worry, the “who is this boy?” worry, the “is that a new piercing?” worry, the “is she still online? Who is she talking to?” worry, or the “why is she suddenly so sullen?” worry. I’m just scratching the surface here. So much worry, so little time.

It’s not all bad, of course, or foreboding, and there’s more than enough goodness and light in each day to make up for the dark clouds of uncertainty that are hovering off in the distance, usually out of sight and hopefully out of range, until they emerge at a moment’s notice and explode, like they did over Mary and her family.

If asked, they’d say that they were glad to have had her in their lives, as a daughter and a sister and a beautiful shining light for her 23 years. Of course that’s true, and that’s what you have to think, how you have to get through the unbearable pain of the loss, through the reluctant and grudging realization that the worst has happened.

There’s good and there’s bad, unbelievable joy and pride, and the prospect of profound despair, and when you become a parent you sign on for all of it. And no matter how things turn out, you know in your heart that if given the opportunity to go back in time and make the decision again you’d do exactly the same thing, because it’s all worth it. One moment is enough, one smile, and hopefully you’re one of the lucky ones who wind up with a lifetime of them.

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