Twice Upon A Time: A Story About My Son
My son was born on October 1st, 2012. Forty-eight hours later, he almost died. Two years later, I’m finally ready to talk about those events in detail. Here’s the story of a boy who continues to inspire me every day.
By David Dennis, Jr.
Twice upon a time there was a boy who died
Who lived happily ever after
But that’s another chapter
My son was born four weeks early. A fantastic bowl of gumbo sent my wife into contractions and we packed our things and headed to the hospital. At first I didn’t think it was really it until the next morning when the doctor informed us that he’d have to induce labor because my son’s heart rate would drop with each contraction. Twenty-eight hours later, my wife — the superwoman that she is — pushed out a barely five-pound boy who shrieked his way into our lives.
My son didn’t change my life the moment he was born. He changed my life a minute after the moment he was born. My wife held my son in her arms and welcomed him to the world. He was, of course, crying hysterically as brand-new babies tend to do. I enjoyed the view of my wife holding him for a while, her looking exhausted and as beautiful as ever and him covered in whatever goop newborns are covered in. Then I decided to speak to him.
At that instant, he stopped. He stopped crying. He stopped panicking and he looked for me. It’s like he recognized my voice and wanted to see the face of the guy who sang to him at night to calm him down. That was it. That was the moment I became his dad.
Two days later my son came home, tiny, cold, and disinterested in eating. He slept for most of the night at one point, his body laying on my bare chest. I fell into a deep sleep and it was the last true good night of sleep I’ve had in the two years since he was born.
Because here’s what I remember about the next morning.
I woke up and got my step-daughter ready for school. I went downstairs to sanitize bottles for my wife and distinctly remember sticking a fork in the bottle and turning it upside down to get the boiling water out. In my moment of genius, the water came pouring out onto my hand and wrist. I grabbed some frozen vegetables to ease the pain and went back upstairs to tell my wife how much of an idiot dad I was, injuring myself literally an hour into the job. Not to get all Upworthy here, but nothing in my life could have prepared me for what I saw when I opened the bedroom door.
My wife was holding my son and saying “something’s wrong, something’s wrong.” My son was blue. He wasn’t breathing and I could see all of his veins, even from where I was standing ten feet away. I thought he was dead. I was frozen. I wish I could say that I sprung into action immediately, but I didn’t. That’s what my wife was for.
She started patting his back, giving him CPR and pumping his chest. My mother-in-law ran into the room and threw him on her shoulder, which prompted a few faint breaths. Meanwhile, I was on the phone with 9–1–1, while the operator talked me through CPR instructions I then relayed to my wife. Per the instructions, she put him on the bed to press his chest some more. That made him turn blue again. She performed CPR once more. And there she was, for the second time in 48 hours, literally giving my son life. I felt like I was standing still in a room where everyone was moving but me, like one of those music videos where the guy is in slow motion and the people around him are sped up. It’s funny because every time I have to tell that story to doctors who are evaluating my son, they ask “approximately how long was he not breathing?” My answer is always the same: it seemed like forever. I felt like I spent days in that doorway waiting for my son to breathe again.
By the time the paramedics got to the house, he was breathing again and regained his color. They still transported him to a hospital to figure out what caused all of this. In order to find out, the doctors would have to give my son a spinal tap. For that, we had to leave the room more for our good than his, I think. And I’ll never forget coming back and seeing a blood stain on his hospital bed. It was a nightmare. We tried to hold him, console him, and keep ourselves together. But we didn’t know if our son would see the end of the day.
Eventually, they had to transport him to a different hospital. My wife went home because she was still a couple of days removed from a 28-hour labor and had to eat, pump, and not overexert herself.
When we got to the hospital and I saw my son in the NICU, the nurse told me he had stopped breathing twice in the 15-minute drive between hospitals and had to be revived. I lost it. That was three times my son would have died if nobody had been with him. If my wife had gone to the restroom or taken a nap, my son would have died in our home and never made it to the hospital in the first place. That’s how close it all was.
My plan for fatherhood was simple before my son was born: have my wife teach me how to be a parent and do whatever she tells me to do at all times. It seemed like a perfect plan. She’d already been a parent for seven years, raising a beautiful, brilliant little girl. All I had to do was let her show me the basics and coast.
Still, I read all the dad books but I knew I had the best teacher in the world. However, just two days into being a dad, I would have to spend the night in the NICU with my son without any help or understanding of how to take care of him. It was the scariest night of my life. I’d just changed my first ever diaper a day before and now I was alone with his periodic crying and the medical equipment’s unending beeps and buzzes.
In the middle of the night, every few minutes, nurses would come in and draw blood, but he was so dehydrated and low on fluids that the blood wouldn’t flow. So they’d stick and stick and prod and poke his arms, legs, toes, and any part of his body with a vein. My son would scream and I’d just have to hold his hand and tell him it was okay, helpless and wanting to make it all better. Then he’d fall back asleep, only to go through it all again in two hours.
But here’s how great my son is. He would reach out for my hand and squeeze my finger as if to say, “dad, stop worrying.” His personality still shone. He was laughing, reaching out for affection, being the tremendous gift I’d always imagined he’d be. It was then that I learned that no matter what, he was still my son. He’d always be my son. He’d always be a blessing no matter what tubes or gadgets were attached to him.
Ten days. My son spent ten days in the hospital getting tested, medicated, and analyzed, while we continued to freak out, still not knowing how long we’d have our son. People have asked me how we had the “courage” or “strength” to endure during that time. I can’t speak for my wife, but I can say that I didn’t have any courage or strength. I was a mess. All I wanted to do was spend time with my son, bring him home, show him his room and have my whole family at home.
For the most part I made it through by burying myself into an album called Heaven’s Computer.
Rapper 7evenThirty’s album Heaven’s Computer was supposed to be the soundtrack to my son’s life. The project, a concept album about an alien named “Max” (my son’s middle-slash-nickname) who comes to Earth to terrorize everything he encounters, released about a week before my son was born. The album opened with Max flying his spaceship to the planet, and I’d imagine it was my son — like he was coming to terrorize all of us. I couldn’t wait.
I’d met 7evenThirty — Marques Phillips — and his wife, Tori, a few years before. They’d just had their daughter, Jada, and she was incredible. She’d sit in Marques’ home studio, soak in the music, and inspire everyone who walked in. Her spirit permeated throughout the house and was felt through every cord of music made there. I’d only met Jada a few times in the short time she was alive, but she changed my life. I’d always felt like I owed it to Marques and Tori to be the best parent I could be. They taught me just how much it’s possible for parents to love a child and how much we should cherish these blessings for as long as we have them.
Heaven’s Computer was Marques’ first project since Jada passed and he integrated her death into the album’s story, most vividly in a song called “God.” And I just couldn’t deal with hearing about her passing so close to my son’s being born. I could never bring myself to listen to the song.
But sitting there in the hospital with my son, I chose to listen to “God,” an incredibly moving, vivid song about Jada, loss, and being a parent. I could feel her presence in the room with us, and more importantly, I felt like my son was reacting to the music. He’d move more than he had since he was born — squeezing my finger, looking around and moving his arms. The music created a spiritual experience where I honestly felt like my son knew Jada, as if they’d crossed paths before he got here and she was still watching over him. From then on, my son and I bonded over Heaven’s Computer and I played it for him as often as I could while he was in the hospital.
To this day, I thank Marques and Tori for their inspiration. For Jada. For helping my wife and I get through the hardest time of our lives. Jada passed four years before my son was born, which means that the album could have been completed and released at any point during that time. But it was released right before my son’s birth. It basically narrated the first month of his life.
I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.
I have some great memories of my family during the ten days my son was in the hospital, like my wife finding the strength to get out of bed and spending time with him — watching the two of them together turned the hospital room into home; my step-daughter going to school every day without missing a beat; the nights we’d pile into the room with Piccadilly plates and watch TV, laughing like everything was okay — like we weren’t scared of what the next test would reveal.
Here’s how each day’s schedule would go: doctors would meet with us in the morning, tell us what they’d found from the previous day’s tests, the medicine he’d get for today, and the tests they’d be running. It was always frightening because we’d wake up not knowing what illness or bad news they’d bring. Also, we’d never know how many times they’d be drawing blood — they were constantly drawing damn blood. But every day they’d come with different findings, none really explaining what happened the day he stopped breathing.
It wasn’t until a few days later that his doctor called with the results of his sleep test. Apparently, he would stop breathing for periods of time in his sleep, which means that he was highly likely to experience SIDS or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He believed that my son experienced what is called an interrupted SIDS episode; meaning, he was experiencing SIDS at the moment my wife caught him and resuscitated him. For five months he was hooked to an apnea monitor that would track if he stopped breathing or had an episode again. For five months the device would go off for absolutely no reason. If the wires got crossed or he moved a certain way, the device would beep loud enough to wake the neighbors and freak us the hell out. He’d never actually have another apnea episode again.
That hasn’t stopped me from panicking. I haven’t slept soundly in two years. If my son happens to sleep through the night, I’m still freaking out and wondering if he’s breathing. If he wakes up and gets in our bed, I jump to put my hand on his back to ensure he’s breathing. We’re always scared of the long-term effects of those moments when my son wasn’t getting oxygen to his brain
Leaving him with a sitter freaks me out. I know a good part of that is normal first-time parent hysteria, but I can’t help to think there’s some post-traumatic stress or something going on.
Still, throughout my worries, I know we’re blessed. Two years ago, my son was seconds away from death. Really, he shouldn’t even be here. But he is. And every second since that moment has been a blessing beyond my wildest dreams. He’s perfect because he’s my son. Watching him fight to survive and grow into the best little boy in the world inspires me every day.
I don’t know what the future holds. I just know that nothing will take away the fact I’m extremely lucky to be that miraculous boy’s dad, and he will live happily ever after.
But that’s another chapter.
10/2014 — Between the time I wrote this story and started editing a couple of days ago, my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. We’re still dealing with the…weight…of all of it. But after coming so close to losing him before, I know that his life is a blessing and I don’t feel any less fortunate and lucky to be his dad. He’s still my boy. And he’s no less perfect than he was a week ago.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and editor based out of Atlanta (but it’s still WHO DAT all day). He’s currently an editor at Moguldom Media whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, CNN Money, The Source, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the Internet. He’s a New Orleans Press Club award recipient and has been cited in Best Music Writing. He’s also a proud alum of Davidson College.