The God of Wailing and Rocking
For a few days before and after my youngest child’s sixth birthday, I was very emotional. I couldn’t stop sobbing in the little moments of my day. It was mildly alarming, until, of course, I softened enough for a memory to resurface.
“How long has it been since you’ve held your baby?” the nurse asked, after introducing himself and giving me an update with medical jargon and test numbers I didn’t fully compute.
“Ok, it’s time. Let’s make it happen.”
When I brought my newborn home from the hospital, my two-year-old had a cold, and my newborn caught it. My spouse took him to the pediatrician on a Friday afternoon. The doctor took one look at his chest and called an ambulance. After a night in the emergency room, we landed in the pediatric intensive care unit.
There, I marked time by pumping breast milk every two hours and touching un-swaddled baby skin during blood gas labs drawn every four hours. I received glances laced with pity. My baby had a severe case of RSV. His lungs and heart were very sick. He was unconscious, intubated, and hooked up to machines that were feeding him and breathing for him. He was living in the expansive plateau between getting worse and getting better. I was stunned, scared, and unclear what my role was in keeping him alive.
I couldn’t think or feel. I was at the mercy of the medical team, or fate, or medicine, or God. I wasn’t sure which. The virus was running its course. I watched. I waited. I was in pure agony. I tucked a part of my love for him away like a caged, hoarding animal in case the worst happened. In case he died.
In the PICU, every patient has a nurse focusing on them fulltime. My baby’s newest nurse, the one busy rearranging the room, was new to me. He was talkative and energetic. He was the first of a line of nurses to prioritize me holding my baby as something that might matter.
I shimmied the blue vinyl rocker up toward the hospital crib while the nurse wheeled the beeping machines closer so that the central line, feeding tube, and breathing tube all reached comfortably. I propped my limbs with pillows, and he gently handed me my swaddled newborn. I searched his body for any sign of affection, recognition, or life. I looked for a piece of skin to touch between all the tubes taped on his tiny face. I was afraid to move.
“So, what do you do for work?” the nurse asked, leaning on the crib.
“I work with teenagers.”
“At a church,” I said. I dreaded this line of questioning but appreciated the company.
“First Lutheran. Just south of here.”
“Oh, so you knew Mathias?”
My breath caught. I did know Mathias. Mathias could balance spoons on his nose, chin and both cheeks simultaneously. He regularly skipped high school English class, climbed into a hammock he strung from the theater rafters and incessantly texted his friend in math class. He’d break from flirting just long enough to challenge my theology lessons with a gleam in his eye. A few months ago, in the fall of his sophomore year, Mathias shaved his head and hung himself from a tree.
“How did you know Mathias?” I asked.
“His parents are good friends. His girlfriend is my daughter’s best friend. He was over all the time, and he loved going on my sailboat.” After a long pause he looked out the window and continued, “I thought about inviting him out with us on the boat the night before he died. The sky was stunning that night. Maybe I could have helped, you know, by showing him the stars.”
His eyelids were red, and tears rolled behind his facemask. He grabbed a Kleenex from the shelf and offered me the box. I wanted to keep holding my baby with both arms, but I reached and took it.
“It’s not your fault,” is all I could think to say.
In the long silence, the ever-present beeping became more pronounced. He turned his head again, gazing far away. “Fifty-seven kids have died here on my watch. Every single parent makes the exact same noise when their child dies,” his voice caught in his throat. “When Mathias died, my daughter made that sound. No parent should ever have to hear their child make that noise.”
I nodded slowly and pushed the linoleum floor with my foot. I didn’t remember the sound of my baby’s cry.
After three horrendous weeks in the PICU, a resident suggested they try steroids on my son’s tiny body. It worked. He got better as fast as he had gotten worse, and was discharged. It felt like whiplash. It felt like mercy. On our way out, after teaching us how to wean our newborn off steroids, the doctor told me to not parent him scared, to not treat him like the runt of the litter. He also told me there could be serious bronchial repercussions for the first five to six years of his life.
Unbeknownst to my mind, my body had set a timer to brace like hell for six years, to stand guard and be on watch and love my son so well every day that nothing bad would happen to him until we got to the other side. Every few nights, I would lay by his bed and listen to him breathe. Every single day, I would marvel that I got to raise this delightful boy. When he turned six and I finally exhaled, I sobbed in all the quiet moments from the exhaustion of holding my breath, waiting.
Today, my child is thriving. We are both breathing easier.
Only now, all these years later, can I see that it was more than a little cruel of the nurse to ask so much of me while I was holding my newborn baby who was himself struggling to stay alive. Couldn’t he see I could have become one of those wailing parents at any moment?
In the hospital room, I was incapable of imagining the worst. There was something in my body that would not allow me to feel everything there is to feel. I was detached, and his story bounced off of the armor I had put up to survive. It didn’t dawn on me in the moment that I could be the fifty-eighth parent making that animal cry. Instead, all I could do was notice the weight of my baby barely registering in my arms. I searched for any sign of vitality against my forearm. I rocked him. I rocked us.
Now, when my baby is a thriving boy, can I think about those fifty-seven children. I let myself imagine the sound of their parent’s cries.
And it is now, looking back, that I think I might be able to feel God holding us all – me, my baby, the nurse, his daughter, Mathias, the fifty-seven children and their parents. I hear God wailing with us. I sense God waiting with us. I experience God as the love that meets us in our primal, shattered weeping, rocking each of us at the cadence of our innermost, infinite rhythm.