February 16, 2018

the price

My first son died in October of 2001.  He had an extremely rare birth defect that required open-heart surgery within a narrow window of time, if we were to preserve his brief, ill-fated life.  He was two months old.  That window of hope opened and closed immediately following the 9/11 attacks.  He was diagnosed early on the morning of September 11, 2001.  The hospital had kept him overnight in an oxygen tent for observation due to wheezing.  When I arrived that morning, the news was heart-stopping:  The doctors said it wasn't croup.  It was something in his pulmonary-arterial structure.  And he needed surgical intervention.  Now.

They began to ready a specialized incubator for the ambulance transport to the larger children's hospital, for admission to the pediatric ICU.  All of the TV sets in the hospital suddenly turned on at that moment.  The TV in his room showed planes flying into buildings.  Buildings crumbling.  Screams and smoke and the inconceivable.  I looked back and forth between the incubator and the TV.  They merged.  They were the same thing.  It was crumbling.

The surgical team required the participation of a doctor who was stuck in Denver; like everyone else, he couldn't get a flight or a rental car.  They say he bought a car and drove it across the country, took a nap, performed the surgery, and then sold the car.

But the window had already closed, and even with successful surgery, my son was never able to wean off of his life support systems and breathe and pump blood on his own.  When everything tried had failed, I cradled him in my arms and sang to him, and then told the technician to turn off the ECMO machine.  My son opened his eyes and looked at me, and died within seconds.

They've never added him to the body count of the 9/11 casualties.

The parallel events.  We were in the hospital, by his bedside, for three weeks, and during those three weeks, all of the intensive media coverage, the shock and grief that unified the American people, the immersion in details, happened to everyone else, but not to us.  I was inside truly concrete walls and was not exposed to media coverage.  I missed it all.  I was attending to my own corner.  Yet the two tragedies were woven together for me, macro and micro, one a symbol of the other.

We went to Ground Zero that Christmas, two blocks away, as close as the orange barriers and yellow tape would allow us, and we stared, on purpose.  I tried to feel something, anything, but couldn't.  Numbness.  I felt like a heartless monster.  But you can't see things that are the fabric of your universe.  You can't see air.

That trip to New York City is proof that at the time, I wanted to participate.  I wanted to be part of the whole, to feel what others felt, willing to let the force hit me full-on.

A few months later, several sequelae were uncovered.  I couldn't watch movies with violence or horror in them.  I couldn't read some books.  I would weep, and retch, and vivid and intact scenes would haunt me, one of the perks of having a partially photographic memory.  I couldn't read the news any more because it seemed that whenever I did, some mentally ill mother in Texas had sawed her baby's arms off and been taken into custody, or drowned four of her kids in a bathtub full of water and corpses.  I stopped watching.  I stopped reading.  I stuck with safe things.  Harry Potter.  C.S. Lewis.  Cartoons.

I was at work when the Sandy Hook shooting took place.  A co-worker called me and told me.  I dropped to my knees and was violently ill, throwing up into my trash can long after there was nothing left.

And so those who love me began to shelter me.  Since that time, they've withheld news from me.  I don't read and they don't talk.  They turn off the radio.  They refrain from discussing things that happen when I'm within earshot.  I'm handed the rudiments and the rest is left out.  I'm told when to stay off Facebook for a couple of weeks.

I've been grateful for this.  So grateful.  The bubble they keep me in saves me pain, intense pain.  There's nothing I could do as an individual about these things anyway, I have reasonably concluded.  I'm allowed a bubble.  I've paid the price.  And yet ....

So far this week, I've learned there was a school shooting.  Then that it was at a high school.  Then that there were multiple casualties.  Then the town the school is in.  News leaks in through the permeable membrane of the bubble, in spite of everyone's best efforts - even my son's - to protect me.

The price.  The politicians who say this is the price of liberty and freedom.  The grinding machine that turns a deaf ear to our cries for change and help and mercy.  Cries for a few rational minds to pair with the balls or ovaries to act, no matter their lobbyists' protests.  "If I find ten righteous people in the city, I will spare it."  Find me ten Republicans who will act.  Just ten.  You can't.  The god I don't believe in would smite them all and bury their feculent rhetoric under the sea.

The price.  I have come home every day this week to find P.J.'s eyes red and puffy.  She stops crying when she hears my car pull into the garage.  She needs to vent and rail and all of those things that help grief move forward, but she chooses not to, negates her own needs, to protect me.  She is a stoppered vessel of pain, to protect me.  She pays a price to protect me.

Beneath the gratitude, I've long had deeply buried doubts about whether I should be afforded such delicate-velvet-cotton-cloud treatment.  Is it wrong to ask for it?  Is it unethical?  And the real questions, these:  Does the pervasive availability of information about everything happening across the globe, here and now in this Internet age, constitute a person's responsibility to keep herself apprised?  Is it part of the social contract?  Is opting out somehow not just selfish but harmful?  Do I deserve to be spared pain and anger, when pain and anger are appropriate and, perhaps, productive?

They're not idle questions.  Whenever our revolting refusal to come together like we did after 9/11 and take up the guns, melt them en masse, is thrown into relief, the questions don't just drift by; they plague me.  And I never see them debated.  (No surprise there.  I stay away from sources where they might, indeed, be bandied about and developed.)

I made a decision this morning.

I decided the price is too high for me to continue in my blissful near-unawareness.

Not because I feel I can make a significant difference.

Not because I want to fulfill my part of the social contract and be relieved from my nagging doubts.  

Not because I no longer throw up when the trauma is triggered, because mass-tragedies and my son's I.V. lines will always be tangled together.

I read the news today.  I know what happened now.  I got through it.  I have my answers to the questions.

The price is too high because I have come home every day this week to find P.J.'s eyes red and puffy.  She needs to vent and rail and all of those things that help grief move forward.  And I am her wife.  To have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.  To grieve.  Together.

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