November 16, 2017: H’s Birthday

A picture dwells in my phone’s memory for every November 16th since 2011, the day H was born. I remember walking into the hospital with Matt, checking in with the nurse in the labor and delivery ward, cracking a joke. I remember seeing H for the first time, hearing him cry, and taking a photo—all the things we’d been denied with G’s dramatic birth. I remember the thrill of being a forgettable patient.

Six years later, I suspect we (Matt and I) were not forgettable patients. I also suspect we were among the most annoying patients the Columbia ER doctors faced that night. The long day had bled into a long night. Our quick trip to the local hospital had transformed into an endless night in Washington Heights. Matt and I were exhausted. We wanted to get home. We wanted answers.

Back in April, I wrote about doctors who went above and beyond and doctors who were forced—due to the sheer number of patients in the waiting room—to move on from us immediately after we left their rooms. I wrote about doctors for whom I retained  a reserve of choice words and doctors who likely had a similar reserve of choice words for me–and I singled out a random Columbia ER doctor.

At some point after midnight, Matt and I learned that the preliminary MRI results were available. The random Columbia ER doctor who’d been assigned to Matt told us that the results were complicated; they did see something concerning, possibly a new tumor, possibly another issue completely. The random Columbia ER doctor told us he couldn’t say anymore without the final report. He told us someone from neurology would come down and speak with us. Hours later, no one had come. No one had told us anything.

I stalked and annoyed and badgered the random Columbia ER doctor. I pestered him. I said some things that, in retrospect, are wildly embarrassing. But in the heat of the moment, after 18 hours of hospitals and doctors and non-answers, I had nothing left. No filter. No patience. No soft edges. Words and actions driven by desperation, not kindness. Not an excuse. But an explanation.

Eventually, someone from the neurology department arrived. The resident who’d come to speak with us told us that the radiologist had not yet finalized his report. We (I) understood by the resident’s tone that this was not an efficiency issue, but a complicated result issue. The resident said she’d heard that we had a birthday to get home for, and though they’d like to admit Matt for observation, we could sign ourselves out AMA (against medical advice) if we promised to return after the birthday.

The subtext of her advice was impossibly sad to hear. I remember the way her eyes softened as she looked at Matt and told us that he should be home for H’s birthday. I remember choosing not to delve too far into the “what if” question her soft expression posed, the reality her words edged us toward.

Once we arrived back home, Matt went straight up to bed. I decorated the house for H’s birthday. Ninety minutes later, H was up. I remember the way he clung to me as I walked into his room, the way he marveled at the decorations, and told me he had been afraid that we’d miss his birthday, that I’d forget to decorate. I felt my heart breaking as I swore to him that we couldn’t possibly forget his birthday—it was one of our favorite memories. I didn’t know how to tell him we’d just spent twenty hours fighting to get home to him.

That afternoon, a doctor from Columbia called us. She would not give me the results of the MRI over the phone—she said we would have to come in, but we didn’t need to plan on a hospital admission. In retrospect, that was a clue—a second clue, maybe—that whatever this MRI showed would change everything.

The day wasn’t easy. We’d left Columbia AMA so that Matt could spend time with H on his birthday, but that cruel transition—Matt wasn’t Matt. He napped and sat quietly on the couch and couldn’t engage. H played with his birthday presents and mostly avoided Matt.

When I tried to discuss our night, Matt said he had no memory of being in the emergency room and leaving AMA. More than any other moment, that admission—that he didn’t remember the hours in the waiting room, the final conversation with the doctor—made me realize that Matt and I weren’t equal partners in this fight, anymore. That, at least for now, Matt couldn’t fight the invisible monster that had invaded our lives. That, at least for now, I was fighting that invisible monster for him on my own. And that was terrifying. How was I supposed to do any of it on my own? It’s an echo of a question I find myself asking frequently in Post Hope.

That night, we went out for hibachi—a birthday tradition. I don’t remember this dinner, but I wrote to a friend and told her that after a full day’s rest, plus the Dex Matt had re-started on doctor’s orders, he managed to be more involved in the dinner.

G celebrated her birthday in March, about a month after Post Hope began. Since then, she’s been warning us (H and me) that birthdays without Daddy are terrible. (Yes, she’s inherited a hint of my tendency toward drama.) I don’t know what to expect for H. I don’t know if the day will hurt, if he’ll remember that he didn’t quite have his dad last year at this time, if he’ll hide his feelings behind cake and wrapping paper, or if he’s used to that cloud of grief lining the happy moments.

In Post Hope, I have only this hope for the day: that he remembers, always, that we (Matt and I) did everything—from beginning to end—for him and G, so we could be there for every birthday. It’s all we wanted. It’s all that ever mattered.

6 thoughts on “November 16, 2017: H’s Birthday

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