January 03, 2011

Men are from Mars, or something

Keeping vigil over a premature baby's ongoing fight for the right to stake a claim to life in our world is a curious exercise, and it's one that's completely different for men and women, or at least that's been my observation in these few days of waiting, hoping and praying.

My wife is glued to the incubator from the minute we arrive in the neonatal infant care unit (NICU) to the absolute second we have to leave. Her motherhood instinct is so strong it's almost as if she's shielded by her own protective incubator that somehow fuses to the baby's and can only be uncoupled by debilitating exhaustion or incessant doctor prodding.

I'm more of a fluttering moth, to use a terribly flawed analogy. I'll come into the NICU, greet my daughter, let her grasp my finger for a few minutes, absorb the appropriate information about her current condition, but then I just can't keep staying there. It's like watching the most compelling dramatic television show you'll ever see in your life--like Twin Peaks--but because you feel you can't do anything to affect the outcome, you feel compelled to walk away and do something else, coming back later to get caught up, touch the story, and then wander off again.

I like exploring the hospital, particularly at night. There's a certain nocturnal rhythm I find deeply relaxing. There's the cleaning crews vacuuming, and the occasional late night pow-wow at a table nearby, from which I can overhear snippets of office politics or mind-numbing presentation analysis.

I also enjoy hunting for banks of soda and snack vending machines, trying to find those particular machines that offer somewhat unique confections, like ice cream bars or garlic and sea salt potato chips. I don't necessarily buy these items, but discovering them gives me an odd feeling of acccomplishment, like I've found a recently-deceased mammoth the tribe could potentially bring back to the camp for a great feast.

Obviously, I also try to hunt down unoccupied public computer stations, where I can sit down and write Facebook missives, or log on to my blog to put down some thoughts that strike me as interesting somehow. For every post I publish here, there are probably eight that remain in non-public "draft" mode, existing only for me and possible further exploration later.

Always foremost in my mind, however, is my daughter and what's transpired so recently to bring me here. She was born so much smaller than her brother, and I'm slightly ashamed to admit, when I first saw them, I thought my boy looked more likely to soldier through the months long ordeal set ahead of them. As it's been, however, my daughter has patiently endured the storm so far while my son yielded the stage to her silent and steady resolve. I don't begrudge this fate, though I certainly don't have to like it; they both deserved to share the stage and shine as bright as they dared dream.

But, that's the "should have" in my mind. Reality has dealt me something far more complex to unravel, something I never thought I'd ever have to confront, and it's something that has me wandering hospital halls while my wife sings songs to and worries over our daughter's every fidget, every machine beep and nurse action.

I'm comfortable getting the positive update, holding my daughter's little hand, calling her "sweetheart," and encouraging her progress, before leaving the room to hunt down a vending machine with bacon and sour cream Tater-Skins.

I don't think this makes me a bad father; just a father who has recently undergone something he doesn't want to experience again unless he absolutely has to.

Posted by Ryan at January 3, 2011 11:53 PM | TrackBack

I've always liked hospitals. I know most people don't feel that way, but I find the orderliness of them reassuring when I'm confronted by the chaotic awfulness of human medical problems. When my dad was sick I never wanted to be in the room with him -- I always wanted to be out in the halls, watching people do their jobs, watching them be bored by it. Watching orderlies and nurses roll carts up and down the halls, listening to the air conditioning. It's not that I thought the efficient machine of the building would save anyone. It just reminded me that this was all happening on a larger scale. Cafeteria food is the same the day after a tragedy as it was the day before. Vending machines will still be there. Potato spinach tomato chips will still be there. Life and death are moment to moment.

That said, I sympathize with your wife's approach too. Sometimes, when something is up in the air, I watch it and focus my entire will on it, because some part of me believes I can influence its course with my mind powers. When things go the way they go, I hover. Because nobody will watch as carefully as I will. Nobody else will memorize every pulse beat like I will. If I can't do anything else, I can do that -- I can see the tiny flush, the change in posture, the minute movement of facial muscles that the doctors will need to know about if they come running, so they know what has to happen next.

I've done both. It depends on whether I perceive the situation as emergent or progressing.

And then, at some point in the future, this won't be the thing you're thinking about every second of every day. And at some point after that, it won't be the thing you remember every time you close your eyes. And at some point after that, you won't hurt. Et hoc transibit. Which I believe is Latin for, "Ass chips will still be there."

Posted by: Joshua at January 4, 2011 08:25 PM
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