Far away, a five-month-old baby is struggling for breath. Each in, each out is a victory won with the help of a ventilator. Ordinary life milestones have been replaced by daily notations whether he has opened his eyes, whether he moves his arms or legs in response to stimuli (arms sometimes, legs not yet). Watching, hoping for the day when he will show signs of a gag reflex. Reducing the ventilator gradually, going too fast, and having to return to previous levels.
Far away, a young mother and father massage this baby’s limbs, rubbing and squeezing in an attempt to relieve the spastic tightening of his muscles. Wondering whether to thank the heavy sedation for its success in–so far–stalling repeat experiences of the extensive, debilitating seizures that rocked his body and robbed his breath. Or whether they should curse the overpowering drugs for the inevitable short and long term effects they will have on this baby’s emotional, physical, and cognitive development.
One day, someone dear to me had a newborn baby who smiled, laughed, and gurgled like most newborn babies do.
The next, our family transformed into an unceasing prayer vigil.
One day, this baby’s parents delighted in feeding him cereal for the first time, wondering when he would begin crawling, and perhaps fussing that he was too short, too skinny, too chubby, or too slow. The way parents always are able to do, no matter how perfect their baby might be.
The next, there was only one thought on everyone’s minds:
Let him live.
And as the days passed and the hope for improvement grew steadily less, perhaps only I was the one to wonder:
Are we praying for the wrong thing? How can a five-month-old body go through this and come out all right?
The human body has an amazing capacity to heal, and yet in many cases it can not.
The human soul has an amazing capacity to heal, and yet in many cases it can not.
We can look on the positive, we can preach sermons about faith and miracles and not giving up, but when it comes right down to it?
Losing my child would be the worst thing that could ever happen to me. People have healed from such a loss. I could not.
I read about a society in which parents who lost children were considered bad luck. The bodies of the children were not allowed to be buried, and they were left to rot.
One of the cruelest things about human nature is our tendency to isolate, shame, and blame those who have already suffered. It makes us feel a tiny less uncomfortable. To face the unspeakable loss of another, we must convince ourselves that we are different, we deserve better, and our relative good fortune is due to something we did or did not do. The thought of undeserved, completely random suffering sends fear to the strongest of hearts.
Yet if we face our own fears of the worst things that could happen to us, we find a strength, a resiliency, and a compassion that enables us to understand each other. We are all terrified of what could happen to our loved ones. If we acknowledge that fear, acknowledge the randomness of who experiences these losses…we affirm what it means to be human. To be human, at its most basic level, is to love one another.
Today, I hold onto the news that this five-month-old baby was able to draw a breath on his own. In between using the ventilator, he had one unassisted breath of air. His lungs and body cooperated in order to draw in air, filter out the unnecessary components, and send oxygen coursing through his body to keep his vital organs functioning.
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know what eighteen years from now will bring, or what kind of quality we will have.
For now, we simply have the breath of a child.
And we are grateful.