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April 28, 2010
His skin seemed like a delicate sheath of spider webs. Like a veneer that just barely canopied the angry bulge of purple veins. His curls were matted like earthen red wool just a few tones shy of the crimson leaking back into his IV line. His lips met like rose petals paled in the frost of early morn. And his face. His face was ever the same. He always smiled a little when he slept. Almost as if he wanted to leave me with something in case he slipped away without knowing.

I was sitting on one of those urine-stained hospital chairs, thinking that medical offices should never consider light fabric for cushions. And I was writing haphazardly in purple ink on a few Christmas cards, holding a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm Maxwell House in my free hand. And then I just stopped. I stopped.

God, Caleb, I can’t do this. Mommy can’t do this anymore.

Everything around me was just too much. The permanent marker on my arms from one of his better days, the white Keds sneakers still tinted brown from a day at the park, the lingering scent of Johnson & Johnson shampoo, and the Christmas cards. Orange and green. Yuck. But after an hour and a half in the Kodak shop, I hadn’t been ready to argue with Caleb on that one. Now I held a card to my lips, knowing it was the one from the top of the stack. Knowing that when he had taken it off the shelf, Caleb had touched this very card. He had touched this card with strong, pink fingers. Before his third open-heart surgery, before the pleural effusion, before the cerebral hypoxia, the recurring cyanosis.

And I realized that it’s when you come so close…so close to losing someone, that’s when you realize just how much of yourself will go with them.

Caleb was in everything. He was in my every smile, the way I crossed my legs just so that he could still balance on both knees without having to grab at my shirt. He was in the hum of the ventilators, a muted version of our Dirt Devil’s roar when I used to push Caleb around the house on the red hood “just like a fireman”. In human voices, which I mentally raised or lowered decibels until I heard the words just as if they came from Caleb’s lips. I couldn’t even look at my fingers without recalling the way they looked when they got water-logged after bathing Caleb’s tiny body in the bathtub.

I looked at his face again, at his tiny mouth, and all the tubes and wires that constrained him. It had been four weeks. Four weeks since I had held my son in my arms. Four weeks since I had heard his voice telling me how much he loved mommy. Four weeks since he had squeezed my cheeks in his hands and kissed me like a fishy. And that was just too much.

All of a sudden I became all too aware of the buzzing machines, the squeak of my sneakers on the floor every time I shifted, the drip-drip from the chest tube, which I only imagined I could hear. And I couldn’t breathe. The cards fell from my lap to the floor, and I followed their flight downward. I was overwhelmed with the urgent need to escape, and I crawled to the bathroom, slammed the door shut with my foot. Gasping for air, I wrenched at my button-down blouse until it eased forth and gaped open. I scratched at the grout separating tile and wall, flattening myself on the cold floor, the pinpoint stab of my necklace into my chest causing me to take a sharp, full breath inward. I rolled onto my side, and for the first time in four weeks, I cried. Sobbed and gagged until I lay, a trembling heap in fetal position on the floor.

“We have to wait and see what happens”, they say, smiles plastered to their faces like paper-mache masks. Waiting, not one of my strong suits. I never thought I would struggle through each day against the rising sense of helplessness, the sense that there was nothing I could do but watch it all get worse and wait until time ran out. Watch my little boy being wheeled off to surgery, knowing I couldn’t be there to hold his hand. Wait and let a hospital bed take the place of Diego pajamas and Finding Nemo bedtime stories and child-like selectivity for pickles one day and cheetos the next. Caleb could never get those moments back.
Sometimes doctors see a heart, a brain, a bowel to fix, yet not a child. I have watched my little boy face battle each day, trying his very best to eat his calories by mouth and walk with his IV pole and sleep through the pain-filled nights. It’s not supposed to go like this. Last I looked three year-olds hugged teddy bears, not toilet bowls. They ate birthday cake, not formula through a button in their tummy.

It’s hard sometimes to be so afraid. It’s hard to feel like you’re doing all the carrying and not being carried yourself, no matter how many times you read the “Footprints in the Sand” poem. Life just doesn’t always make sense. In fact, it never does. I don’t want to watch my baby leave me.

But today I get up. I get up for Caleb. Because when I hold his face I feel his tears. And I’ll be there to see him laugh again.

Mommy’s here.

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