Most people that have kids will probably tell you that the day their kids were born was the happiest day of their lives. Even before my wife Sarah and I decided to procreate (back when she used to like me), I always assumed that the days our children were born would be our happiest.
The water would break, we would make a frantic trip to the hospital, I would attempt to be helpful which would only piss Sarah off even more, the baby would arrive, I would make hilarious comments feigning surprise at being the biological father, I would hold the baby like a football in the Heisman pose, we would take pictures, and we would blissfully return home to begin the next chapter of our lives as a party of three.
As usual, I was wrong.
My son and first child had anything but a typical entry into this world. Like any other new parent, my life would fundamentally change as a result of having a child. But I never imagined how drastically it would shift as a result.
I remember the pregnancy. It was pretty smooth except for three incidents. One, during the early phases, Sarah would come home from work exhausted and plant herself on the couch. This lasted approximately two weeks during which time I dutifully took over cooking. She seemed satisfied with my cooking, but was constantly craving a “crunchy roll” from a sushi restaurant. When she finally got towards the end of this period of feeling sick, she got her beloved crunchy roll, so I asked her how she liked it.
“Oh my God, it’s like the first real meal I’ve had in weeks,” she said.
Incident number two came on a Saturday morning when I, while nursing a terrible hangover, was forced to attend an informational class about the benefits of cloth diapers. The previous evening featured a heated exchange about my not wanting to go and taking issue with the decidedly hippy approach Sarah seemed to be taking with this whole pregnancy thing. But in the end, I relented and we showed up. I listened to the cloth diaper lecture with an open mind and even asked a few questions. Then, at its conclusion, the presenter conveyed her enthusiasm for cloth products of all kinds and informed us that after realizing the benefits of cloth diapers, she now uses cloth tampons and maxi pads as well. The vomit that subsequently entered my mouth and my facial expression at that unsolicited piece of information must have been enough to convince Sarah on my position in the cloth diaper debate. We would go the traditional route.
The third and final incident came as yet another extension of Sarah’s hippie phase and unrelenting desire to have a natural child birth. Again, I kept an open mind and besides this was completely her decision. I began to read a ridiculous book about natural child birth and decided to stop reading that book when I came across a passage explaining the mind-body connection and the importance of the “birthing partner” (that was going to be me) as a positive influence. The anecdote featured a woman whose cervix was being an ass hole and would not open to let her baby out. But when her birthing partner simply whispered “you’re marvelous” in her ear, the cervix magically opened and the baby emerged like a butterfly from its cocoon.
I then asked Sarah what she would do if I told her she was “marvelous” during the labor and delivery process.
“If you say that to me, I’ll punch you in the fucking throat,” she replied.
I remember having dinner at Dick and Jenny’s restaurant, the night before Sarah was scheduled to be induced. This is the place where we met, where I was immediately intrigued with her ass personality and hanging on every word she had to say, eager to learn more about who she was as a person and shit.
It was the perfect place to enjoy our last night as just husband and wife without the burden of keeping another human alive. We reflected about how the baby boy growing in her belly might not exist but for this place and how our lives might have been different had Sarah decided to go out on that date with another suitor not nearly as good looking or charming as me.
Both of us sensed that our lives were about to change, but we had no idea in what way or on how grand a scale.
We arrived during the early hours of the morning of January 12, 2012. After parking the car, I remember thinking to myself that the next time I go to the car, it will be with my son and with Sarah being wheeled along. That image made me smile. On entering the labor and delivery ward, we immediately got lost, the first of many fuck-ups as parents.
There was casual small talk with the nurses and, for some reason, I remember discussing Halloween costumes and finding it highly amusing that the nurse’s five-year-old son had previously dressed up as a UPS man that Halloween. It was that brand of ridiculousness that made me excited to become a father.
The doctor came in to break the water. Sarah was and still is obsessed with this woman (I think she’s okay too). Apart from being highly proficient at her job, she has a natural, calming influence which, as it turned out, we would come to need. As she broke the water, there was blood in the fluid, so they inserted equipment to monitor his heart beat in the womb.
We spent the next several hours just waiting. I had the vaguest sense that something might not be right, but I nevertheless remained calm. At some point, the doctor sat me down in the hallway and tried to explain what was going on. I don’t think I understood everything she told me, but what I did catch was that if this baby did not come out soon, we would have to do a C-section.
“You’re such a calm man,” I remember her telling me. Calm no. Confused and probably in the beginning stages of shock, yes.
The C-section didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. Then again, I am a dip shit and wasn’t the one that would have a doctor cut through seven layers of my flesh and pull a human out from inside my body. I don’t remember the word “emergency” ever being used. That was probably intentional. They wheeled Sarah to the operating room and left me behind with a pair of scrubs. I put them on, noted how ridiculous I looked in those scrubs and waited. I tried to watch a basketball game on TV to distract me from the mind-numbing anxiety I was experiencing in that moment.
The nurse came to retrieve me and took me to the operating room.
“Alright everyone, I’m here now. The surgery may proceed,” I said in an attempt to inject some humor in the room. It failed miserably.
I remember how terrified Sarah looked and just wanted to comfort her in that moment.
Then he showed up.
He had a great head of hair, and I remember, in the back of my mind, finding it odd that he was not crying. I followed the nurses over to him as the doctors started sewing Sarah up. It was then I understood something was not right at all. I could feel the tension in the room as the nurses actively tried to remain calm in the face of what apparently was an emergency. He was breathing, but his APGAR scores were low. He would need to be taken to the NICU for monitoring. Oddly, I felt no immediate bond with this creature in that moment like I expected to. I was focused more on keeping myself calm and taking charge of the situation, the gravity of which I still did not fully comprehend. That actually helped keep me calm and prevented me from freaking out our parents and siblings that were eagerly waiting down the hall.
I remember the tension escalating and then a nurse coming into the room to tell me they popped an air bubble in my son’s stomach that caused him to start wailing like a newborn is supposed to. I immediately went back to the NICU to see him and was overjoyed. Here was my boy. Everything would be okay after all. I captured some of his wailing on video and showed it to everyone since they were not yet allowed back into the NICU to meet him. The doctor in charge of the NICU eventually came in to explain that he had lost a little blood, was slightly anemic and would need a minor blood transfusion. It was a simple procedure and they would need to monitor him overnight in the NICU as a precaution. He explained all of this very calmly and did an excellent job of putting us at ease. I went to bed that night in the hospital room breathing an enormous sigh of relief. Our son was going to be okay.
A few hours later, the resident on duty came into our room. Sarah was already awake, and I was still half asleep as she was telling us that our son started having seizures. He would need to be transported to another hospital a couple of miles away the next morning to have an EEG and an MRI according to protocol. As she walked towards the door, I noticed that the resident – a pretty, young blonde with a child of her own – had tears in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” she said as she exited the room.
The next morning, my son was packed up into what looked like a small space ship that was necessary to transport him and his bevy of medical equipment to the other hospital. We signed consent form after consent form and as we took a picture to memorialize his space shuttle, he looked right at us almost as if to say that everything was going to be alright.
Worst day of my life
I remember the experience at the other hospital as a blur that would prove to be the worst day of my 36 years of life. They took my son back for his EEG to monitor brain activity. We waited and waited. The neurology resident then called us back to give us the results of his EEG which were not good. Her attempt to explain the results to me was pitiful, her bedside manner even worse. There was virtually no activity in the EEG. My dad, who is a radiologist by trade, was standing by my side. In an effort to keep me calm, he said that we just needed to wait for the MRI, but he seemed spooked after looking at that EEG.
So we waited and waited again. Finally, they called my dad back to look at the images. When he returned, it was the first time I had ever seen him cry.
“It is one of the worst MRIs on a neonate I have ever seen,” he explained trying to mask the fact that he was devastated with medical jargon and referring to his grandson as a “neonate.”
I remember sitting in the waiting room numb. Sarah had, understandably, been calling and texting me frantically for any news. But this was certainly not news I could deliver via text message or even with a phone call. I would have to wait until we got back to tell her in person. In the meantime, my tears finally came. My dad sat next to me and put his arm around me. I remember saying over and over again “we just need a miracle,” while re-assuming, for a moment, the comforting role of a son rather than my newly-acquired role of a traumatized new father. This was a horrible day and although never said outright, it was implied that our son might not make it.
Grieving over a Loss
Shortly after breaking the news to Sarah, I went back to our house to gather a few things. I was by myself and decided to walk up to my son’s room.
Being in that room now was eerie for me. There was a dresser and changing table that Sarah’s dad painted to match our carefully-selected color scheme. Folded inside the dresser and hanging in the adjacent closet were more clothes and outfits than he would probably ever have time to wear. They were bought largely by our moms in their grandmotherly zeal. I looked forward to seeing his chubby little arms fill out the plethora of LSU and Saints gear.
Next to the dresser was the matching-green rocking chair in the corner where we envisioned ourselves rocking him back to sleep in the middle of the night. In front of the window that faces the park was the yellow table and chair where he would do his coloring or play with his imaginary friends. Finding a cousin for that little yellow chair, preferably in turquoise, green or blue, was often a concern of the day. We also hoped that he wouldn’t be that weird kid and that those imaginary friends would eventually give way to real ones.
I had assembled the oak shelves against the wall a few weeks prior while sipping some Abita Ambers and hoping I would not cause irreparable damage to myself or to the shelves. They were full of all of the classic children’s books and nursery rhymes. I wanted to pass along a love of books to him at a much earlier age than when I discovered my own love for them. I would use him to rediscover and gain a newfound appreciation for the works of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and Hans Christian Andersen. I also yearned to read him the local classics and instill a love for the City of New Orleans from day one. I could not wait to be a dad. The experience was rich with opportunities to relive my own childhood and try to pass along to him all of the things I hold dear, while trying not to pressure him to love those same things.
Now, the room was not bright. I spent several minutes just standing there.
I began planning in earnest for the very real possibility that we were about to lose our first and only child. The clothes that hung in his closet and sat folded neatly in his dresser would never be worn. The green rocking chair would not be used to rock him back to sleep. Instead, it would be occupied by two broken parents who would soon rock there in tragic silence. The stuffed animals would have no one to entertain. The picture frames remained empty. The crib, along with all of the other things, would either have to be donated or reserved for the possibility of future children.
What were we supposed to do with all this stuff, I wondered.
What would we use this room for now?
Would we keep them in reserve in case we one day decided to have kids again?
What about his name? Kohler Henson Chrestman.
It was perfect: one of the only names everyone in the family seemed to agree on. Kohler was Sarah’s maiden name. Henson is my middle name, and he would be a member of the Chrestman team. We would call him “Kohl.”
Now what? Would it be a better way to honor Kohl by giving a future little brother his name or would that be in extremely bad taste?
Then, I felt intense guilt.
My newborn son was sitting in the hospital, with various tubes down his throat and in his nose, hooked up to what seemed like a thousand monitors. He was breathing only with the assistance of a ventilator. He was tiny, he was helpless, and he was beautiful. And there I was making arrangements for his inevitable departure from this Earth. I felt sick to my stomach. Standing there in Kohl’s room was when the gut wrenching grief of losing a child first hit me.
But Kohl came through. He defied expectations and, after a month-long stay in the NICU, he finally came home. In January, he will turn five. He also has a baby sister, Amelia, who is healthy and obsessed with him.
To be sure, Kohl has many challenges, and he has been dealt a really shitty hand. He still does not walk, he still does not talk, he still does not sit up without assistance. When I see kids his age walking, talking and playing, I still feel immense pains of jealousy. It is truly heart-breaking.
But I also take nothing for granted. Every little bit of eye contact, every smile, every tiny bit of progress Kohl makes is a miracle. It is a little slice of heaven. And I now have the pleasure of watching his baby sister grow. Even though she is currently in a phase where she acts like a dick, she has me wrapped around her tiny little finger which is often covered with boogers. Her development, as a healthy child, is truly fascinating for me. Raising her has been so easy.
I may have lost a child that day standing in Kohl’s room. I may have lost the child I thought I was supposed to have, and my life’s path is on a trajectory now that I never imagined it would ever be on before. But I’m one of the fortunate ones. After being dealt some darkness, the light really does shine brighter.
It is probably a cliché, but it is true. I am a lucky man.