On the day before Easter, 10 years ago, I took my round blonde baby to the walk-in clinic at the hospital near our house. I didn’t like the way she was breathing. I thought maybe she had an ear infection, because she had the same sort of look to her that Oldest did when he had an ear infection, and because he always breathed differently when he hurt.
I had been holding her all morning, trying to comfort her and get her to sleep, so I had not noticed the slightly blue cast to her skin. I felt a little foolish walking into the ER, because I couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. I kept telling myself everything was fine. But something in me needed to get her checked out.
Next thing I knew there were chest x-rays, and Middle was being admitted to the hospital. The doctor suspected pneumonia.
I’d like to tell you that I learned to never again argue-away my instincts, but that is a story for another time.
It’s the two moments among the many burned into my memory from that weekend—the two that especially stand out—that I want to tell you about today.
The first was when the nurses were trying to get an I.V. into her. I don’t know, actually, how many people were involved in the process, because it was my job to keep her still. Middle, just like her brother and sister, had wonderfully-fat baby arms and baby legs, and nobody could find a vein in any of them. So I laid my chest over hers as gently as I could, and held her arms still while the hospital staff poked around for a vein, and wrapped all four of Middle’s limbs in warm towels, and poked around some more. I whispered every comforting thing I could think of in her ear while she screamed and cried into mine. And I knew she was too little to understand why I was letting her hurt. And there was nothing I could do besides what I was doing.
The second moment was in a hospital room, some 45 minutes later, looking at Middle inside an oxygen tent.
She could die.
It is some sort of great blank space that you enter, when you realize you are powerless and that One of Those Things You’re Most Afraid Of might happen. Beyond thought. You accept it mainly because you know you are there. Because it’s pointless not to.
Okay, God. I see where I am.
One of the descriptions of my Myers-Briggs personality type is “The Protector.” I think it’s safe to say that I feel the desire to protect the people I love pretty fiercly. That it is as hard-wired into me as my bones and muscles and tendons. It might explain why I do not flinch at the sight of my own blood but the sight of my child’s skinned knee or paper cut makes my stomach flip. Those two moments, Easter weekend ten years ago, were all about how I could not protect my child. I could offer every bit of love and comfort I had, but I could not protect her.
I don’t know how to explain it, exactly, the grace in those moments. But I can tell you I felt it. In real time—not later, after I knew Middle would be okay. I felt it right there in the center of that great blank space.
You have to hope that moments like that change you. It turned out that Middle had RSV, not pneumonia. And she recovered, and I took her home, and I was shaken but life pretty much went back to normal. I think something shifted in me, though, having been in that place. For one thing, there is no hiding from the fact that you don’t always get the ending you want. You know there will be more of those moments as you go through life—the ones you know you cannot handle. And you know that again you will have to say Okay. But now you know, too, about the grace that is there in that moment—in that great blank space—that is too big, too much, for words.
And you have to trust that that will be there again, too.
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