Triumph Over Tragedy: A Tale of Three Fathers
As I walked toward the entrance of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, cajoling my feet to move steadily despite trembling knees and an odd sensation that all that held me on this earth at that moment was the heaviness of my feet, a famous heart surgeon at Babies Hospital at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City put his hand gently on my shoulder in a gesture of comfort.
He had done this once before when we first met in the elevator. I had introduced myself and asked, “How is she doing today?” “She” was my two-month-old granddaughter who was born with a constellation of heart ailments. Each one required surgical treatment. They were all individually treatable, but as a universe of twisted vessels and wrong way turns for sending blood to the right places we had a dangerous space mission on our hands.
“You are the grandmother?” he questioned. I was 43 years old, and my daughter, the mother of our fractured family’s precarious little angel, was 24. I had had all of my children by the time I was 20. By 23 I was divorced. There were many rocky and venal times with the father of these wonderful three children, all girls, and at this tumbling abyss of helplessness I wondered how we would all fare under the stress of being locked in the immediate family waiting room — with others in our lives and also the other in-laws. How would we keep our focus for staying strong for the baby’s sake and especially for her young parents? In the elevator the doctor had answered, “There are only two things that will matter. This is a prison sentence. Your release will come with ‘Either she is well, or dead.’” He explained that the nature of a newborn who is growing daily causes health crisis after crisis with a compromised heart. “We just want to get her through the minor crises until she is strong enough to endure the the longest surgery.”
On the day that my feet were all I could feel lugging me along, I had come off the special NICU 12th-floor elevator which opened opposite the large glass enclosed unit where a scant row of isolettes were easily visible. Those were the not-in-crisis-at-the-moment-infants. Peaceful, even as their beautiful little chests heaved and the machinery around them gurgled.
In the front window one could see the one or two islolettes that had been wheeled to the the most accessible place for a team to rapidly gather and “work” on the baby in trouble. Breathing stoppage. Heart arrhythmias. Blood pressure dropping. Enough monitors to look like Cape Kennedy during a launch.
I glimpsed a circle of doctors and nurses huddled around our baby’s isolette. They were moving around as if in a Tai Chi class. The intensity on their faces caused me to step backwards.
“She’s had a cardiac arrest,” the doctor said as he removed his hand from my shoulder. “You can’t go in there now. She’ll probably be fine, but they’re stabilizing her.” He held my hands and my gaze for a minute longer than the usual doctor/patient empathy training requires.
“May I ask who are the three men wearing hospital grandfather passes who come here daily? It’s rather rare to see three men who were somehow involved with you or your daughter sacrifice so much time and proudly call themselves ‘grandfather.’”
It had been reported to me that my ex-husband drove nearly 50 miles from home every morning at dawn and stood beside her isolette, gently stroking her head, and that every day when he left to drive back to start work more than 50 miles back, he left a note that he’d been there, and sometimes he left a plush huggy toy.
It had also been reported to me, though I knew because we conversed, that a man I had spent seven years with and who had gracefully acquired the role of a devoted father when he was under twenty came from his job in Brooklyn at lunch nearly everyday. He hummed very low, the nurses told me, and held her hand for a few minutes before leaving. He too left a note.
My second husband, the third father (grandfather now) and only in his late thirties, was my shield. I had been terrified of getting out of the elevator and seeing what I was witnessing the one day he wasn’t with me, and he always stood in front of me and turned me the other way if there was anything grim or out-of-the-ordinary. I would wait in the waiting room until he came to give me a “coast clear.”
On the day of our minuscule heroine’s most important and longest surgery, we all managed to pace the halls together, not really talking to each other but there for the sole purpose of what we could do for our daughter, our family, our baby girl whether by blood or by accidental yet miraculous bonding.
When the Code Blue rang through the hallways too many hours into the surgery and the doctors ran past us without making eye-contact, the disparate “other side of the family,” and our assemblage of husbands and lovers all began to cry into one another’s arms. We knew.
On this Father’s Day 25 years later, I will think back to how lucky my daughter was to have had three totally dedicated father figures at her side during a crisis one should never have to experience, ever. Two of those fathers are now deceased, too young, I think. And while I rarely spoke privately to Father Two, our connection grew deeper from that experience, and when all of us went to celebrate the ritual Jewish party for the first grandson born a little more than a year after his sister left the legacy of kindness, I did step back and remember the last thing the doctor said as he consoled me in the hallway. As we were leaving he whispered and he winked with caring, “Someday I’d like to know this whole story from you.”
Ina Chadwick is a poet turned novelist turned journalist and turning again into the next phase of story. Producer, writer, creative director in print and other media. “All of our stories matter. Keep yours alive.” Visit her website at MouseMuse.com.