When he comes downstairs this morning I say, "Happy birthday." Just like I say to my other children on their birthdays. I direct him to the chocolate donuts he requested. When he walks away I think about how, no matter how many birthdays he celebrates, his will always be different than the other children's. Because while it's his birthday, it's an anniversary of sorts for me. The anniversary of the day my safe and predictable life got turned on its ear. It was, in truth, one of the worst days of my life. And yet, all that pain was necessary to make me who I am today. On this day 17 years ago I was forever changed.
When he was born, he couldn't breathe. They held him up and we could see he was struggling, his chest collapsing in on itself. They tried to hand him to me but changed their minds when they saw that he was turning blue. They ran him out of the room and my husband and I were left there, just the two of us in the evacuated room, blinking at each other in this sudden uncomfortable silence, wondering what had just happened. Had we just had a baby? Did we still have a baby?
The reports throughout the day weren't good. They didn't know what was wrong with him. He had a collapsed lung. He didn't have a collapsed lung. He had a syndrome so rare they couldn't properly identify it. He had other issues. They didn't know if they could even nail down what those issues were. They were hopeful. They were grim. They were calling in specialists, each one making the trek down to the little maternity center where he was born. He was supposed to be, you see, a healthy baby. No risk involved. Just a quick stop in, a birth, and home again with our little bundle in 3 short, joy-filled days. That had been the plan and, until that day, my plans always worked. I had a not 2 year old and a not 4 year old at home. They had been healthy and perfect. Why wouldn't he be?
Night was falling when the last specialist arrived, beleaguered and harried from a long day of helping others, he came into the room, his red hair sticking up in little tufts on his head. He said his name was David Matthews. I quipped "Like the band?" And he smiled, surprised by my joke. I was surprised too. That a joke was still within me. I would learn later that my capacity to laugh would always be there, a survival technique that buoyed me during dark, dark times to come. But we didn't know anything about those dark times that night. Not yet. We were still hoping that he would be ok. I was still hanging onto the hope that I could get my normal back by the time we left the hospital.
"Yes," David Matthews said. "Like the band."
And then he sat down and said the words I'd been waiting all day to hear: "I think I can fix your son."
He went on to tell us about rare surgeries and success rates and rare syndromes and prognoses and genetic testing and I struggled to understand. When he left I latched onto the hope he had given us. Held onto it like a child with a balloon, aware that it was fragile and apt to be blown away. Our son would be moved to another hospital. At five days old he would have the first of many surgeries. We didn't know that then. We were just ignorant enough to think that that one surgery would be enough. If I had known that night all that awaited us, I couldn't have withstood it though. Lesson 1 of many: We think we want to know what the future holds but we really aren't prepared to handle it. Better to just focus on the day at hand.
That was July 29th. Our son wouldn't come home from the hospital until November. In the months between his birth and his discharge from the hospital I would get a crash course in pediatric nursing. I would become familiar with not just David Matthews but a host of other doctors as well. That big city hospital they sent us to? The one that scared me? I would become intimately familiar with it, cruising its hallways and learning shortcuts like I lived there. Because I did. Even now the smell of antibacterial soap and astringent and sickness can bring it all back-- those months I would wake up from yet another sleepless night filled with alarms and vitals checks and stagger to the door, grab the first nurse who walked by and whisper hoarsely, "Coffee." And those dear sweet nurses would bring it to me out of their lounge, busy themselves with my son while I gulped it down in hopes of being alert enough to talk to the barrage of doctors coming through on rounds.
If you've met me since all of that happened you might not understand where my faith comes from. It's not from my family of origin. It's not from years in church. It's not from friends who influenced me. While all those things played a part I can't say that the kind of faith I have came from that. Instead I trace it back to those days after his birth, when I would sit in that hospital and beg God to heal him. Beg God to give me strength. Tell God that I couldn't take not one more piece of bad news. Search the Bible for verses that would help me understand, accept, find peace in the midst of this storm. And here's the absolute truth: I found Him faithful. Every. Time.
I get that some of you aren't there. Some of you think this is crazy talk. Some of you shrug off my religious-ness chalking it up to my southern upbringing, my years I wrote for an organization that offered devotions, some sort of weird personality thing. But the truth is, it's none of those things. Because none of those things hold up under extreme stress and uncertainty. None of those things were there for me when my world fell apart.
When I sat in that lonely hospital room with my baby gurgling and gasping to breathe for weeks on end, I found the frayed ending of this long rope called "myself" I'd been following for 26 years. And then I handed that frayed ending to God and said, "Please do something with this, because I can't." And what came after? Well, I had very little to do with that. That was Him, fixing the fray. Stepping into it.
And so this is the anniversary. This day. I see that 6' tall boyman standing in my doorway, filling it up, and I see his trach scar and that chin I thought would never grow. I tell him to go eat donuts when eating was impossible for him back then, when he was fed by a tube in his stomach. When I couldn't see this day coming because I was so afraid it never would. Today I celebrate not just his survival, but also mine. Not just his growth and progress, but also mine.
Today I say happy birthday, but what I really mean is so much more.