Monday, November 16, 2009

how's it gonna be?

It is midnight, and my son wakes up crying, drenched in sweat. He snuggles in close and through his tears I hear him say "eh-mo"; so I start singing the la-la-la's of "Elmo's Song". His cries taper off and he reaches up a tiny hand, strokes my face lightly, and in a soft voice says, "that, dadu... that". We are lying side by side on a hospital bed at Carolina Medical Center in Monroe, where he was admitted two nights ago with a high fever and difficulty breathing.

My wife had called and, unable to speak through her tears, passed the phone off to the closest nurse, who explained that he seemed to have pneumonia and that they would be admitting him into the hospital. As I drove down the highway towards the pediatric center the sun, which for two days had been blocked out by torrential rainstorms, poked through the evening sky, setting the already blazing leaves of fall afire. It seemed as though the top halves of all the trees are burning, and I was tempted to start making metaphors of death right there - but the glowing beauty of it all against the deep blue sky stopped me and I thought instead of rainbows, and hope.

I cry a fair bit on this drive, thinking about death and the fragility of my toddler son's life. But then I slap myself hard a few times, insisting that I "suck it up and be a man". My wife and son need me to be strong, I insist, so I say a little prayer for strength and drive on, tears drying.

When I get to the hospital she is indeed falling apart a bit, although Mateo is bouncing off the walls in Motrin-induced good spirits. I give her a hug and then try to anchor down my son, who soon crashes and spends the rest of our two days in the hospital alternating between being a pale, sickly-looking whimper-worm and a full-throated, screaming hellion. I can't blame him - every couple of hours someone comes into the room and pokes him with something, or makes him breathe wet air from a hissing, spitting tube, or jiggles one of the multiple tubes and wires connected to his body.

At long last, the tubes come off and the boy is freed. They say he may have asthma. I drive him home and put him down for a nap while my wife goes to a pharmacy to pick up his drugs. After two hours, he wakes up sweating and screaming, so I force-feed him some more Motrin and then take him out of the "grandmother apartment" where we live and into the house where his grandmother actually lives, so he can watch TV whilst I subject him to some more moist air from the home nebulizer they gave (sold) us at the hospital.

This does not make him happy, and sets off another three-hour session of crying, screaming and coughing, with occasional blips of calm. After dinner - which he does not eat - I begin force-feeding him the four syringes of antibiotics and steroids I am required to give him. At the final squirt of the final syringe he vomits, losing all the medicine and the cup of milk he has drunk all over himself, the couch, and me. My parents have by then dropped in to help, and so I snap at mom to cuddle him while I rinse some contact-cement puke off his clothes.

As I do this, I can't help thinking, "It's not supposed to be like this." It is a phrase I hate, not just because of the "correct", non-existent reality that it presumes, but also because it implies that I, in my infinite wisdom, know what that reality ought to be. It is a phrase my wife used to say when we argued and it infuriated me because, I reasoned (in that annoying way of husbands who are oblivious to what it would take to defuse a situation), it kept us from dealing with the situation as it actually was.

Nonetheless, I say it - repeat it, in fact, over and over in my head, as I pour more of the milky-white antibiotic from its container into the small plastic cap and then knock it over as I clumsily try to fill the syringe with one hand - my other arm wrapped across Mateo's chest. I start to cry, and when mom gives me a little sympathetic one-hand back rub I snap at her again, "Not helping, mom", I say, adding, "I know you're trying to help, mom... thanks, but it just doesn't help right now". I have long been mean to my mother, and it comes out worst when I am sleep-deprived and stressed. Maybe that's why my wife is not here, I think.

She always seems to know how to calm Mateo down, and everything I am doing right now just upsets him more. As I give him the medicine a second time he struggles and cries, "Sleepy, Dadu. Sleep now. Bed." I assure him that we'll go to bed as soon as he gets all his medicine, and although he weekly says, "oh-kay", he keeps on crying.

We finish the last syringe and it stays down. At long last he quiets, nods, and begins to fall away. I put him to bed and go to apologize to mom (and, of course, to ask her to wash the puke-laundry for me. I'm not entirely a jerk, but my washing machine is broken).

Mateo sleeps nearly through the night, waking only a couple of times with a few short cries, but falling promptly away again. In the morning I hear him calling softly for milk, so I get him a sippy cup and then sit by him as he re-arranges his pillow, pulls a blanket over himself, and drinks the whole thing. His fever is gone and he is mostly happy. We make a Doctor's appointment and at nine-forty-five his mother shows up and we head back up the highway to Monroe. She is again her happy, smiling self, and I enjoy her company but cannot understand why she jokes with me and laughs when I start singing a silly song to calm Mateo. She has been gone less than two months, and the wound is still very raw and tender.

Our doctor is a black woman, an African. She is not a big woman, but fills the room with the force of her personality. She speaks loudly from only a few feet away in her somewhat thick accent, and seems to be unaware of the strength of her voice. It is a pleasant voice, though, so I am not offended by it. "Nobody in the house is smoking?", she demands, as if daring us to say otherwise. I say no and she leans in close with a friendly smile on her face, saying, "You would not lie to me, would you? Because I am watching you... I see."

Even though I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, I feel embarrassed and want to start confessing things.

My wife, feeling for me in my discomfort, interjects, "See, what happened is we're separated, and the place where I live my roommate smokes in the other room and..." the doctor doesn't even let her finish, "Whaat!", she asks, "Why you want to do something like that for? You are so young! You look like nice people - what is there so bad you cannot work through it for the good of the child!?!" As she says this she leans close to me again, and I once again feel the urge to confess. "I, um. I don't know." I say, avoiding her eyes and my wife's.

I want to tell this strange, powerful black woman that it is not my idea or my fault. That it kills me. That I would do anything to convince my wife to come back. But this is not entirely the truth. The truth is, all I can say for certain is that I do not understand what happened, and that every time I see my wife, I notice again how beautiful she is. I want to throw myself at her feet and beg her to come back to me, to change her mind. Again and again I think those ugly words: "it shouldn't be like this", and feel waves and waves of rage, sorrow, and confusion crashing against the walls of her determination.

I read something recently about strong black women, and how although they get a lot of flack for what is perceived as a domineering attitude, it is a way of operating that they have been forced into by a generation of black men who, for complicated reasons, have abdicated the place of leadership in the black community. This doctor reminds me of them and makes me think that perhaps this strength is not a forced response to an ugly reality, but a vestigial genetic heritage, handed down through generations from a wild past on a dangerous continent, where village women still carry the heaviest loads and form the backbone of deep, rooted communities.

I want to turn to this woman, to look her in the eyes and ask, "Why?"

Why does it seem so clear to her  - this woman so unaffected by our ugly, broken culture that she can speak her mind with love shining in her eyes - that we should just work it out for the good of our child? She is herself, in a sense, a child - unfettered by a culture that equates lies with maturity, and assumes that ugliness ought to be excused, apologized for, walked away from, or ignored. I want to ask her how she has done this, but she has already flown back into an explanation of Mateo's medical issues. She takes a final crack later, saying, "he is crying  because he thinks if he cries more it will force his parents to stay together. They know... they do" and then she calls a nurse to check his blood oxygen and is out the door and on to other patients.

I avoid eye contact with my wife as we leave the room. I am awkward and nervous, afraid of what she will say about this woman. I feel her memory as a beautiful, elemental force, and I do not wish to hear her maligned. We put Mateo in the car, and as I pull out of our parking spot my wife turns to me and says, "Apart from barely understanding what she was saying with that accent, I like that doctor. I think maybe we should stay with her. What do you think?" I mumble agreement as we pull into the street.

This world - this life - is a beautiful mystery. I do not understand even the smallest things. The sun shines hot in mid-November. Mateo whimpers and falls asleep in the back seat as my wife leans back to cradle his head with her hand, so he won't be jostled. I catch myself quietly singing a line from some song I don't really know, "I say a little prayer for you". I sing it over and over, so softly that I am almost humming. My wife laughs, folds some cloth to prop Mateo's head, and settles back into her seat, coughing.

She tells me of her plans to get the rest of her things moved into her new place this evening. She is smiling, and I do not understand. I sing it again, and again she laughs and adds, "you know I'm going to have that stuck in my head all night." We drive as a family in silence down the road, between rows of gold and crimson oak trees, and I catch myself thinking, "this is how it should be".

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