I am standing in the hospital watching babies emerge from my wife like a circus act. First one out is a boy, dark-haired and calm, the size of an owl. He is immediately commandeered by a nurse who whisks him off for a bath and a stint in what appears to be tiny tanning bed.
Now, says the doctor, reaching inside my wife while he talks, here’s the other one, and he hauls out another boy. This one is light-haired and not calm; he grabs for a nurse’s scissors and won’t let go and they have to pry his fingers off and the nurse looks accusingly at me for some reason.
This boy, the second one, the burglar, turns out to have a major heart problem. He’s missing a chamber in his heart. You need four chambers, and most people get four, but he gets only three, and there’s no one to whom I can complain, so they have to fix him, otherwise he dies.
Fixing him entails cutting open his chest with a saw and prying the chestbone open with a tool that looks like the Jaws of Life and chilling his heart with a bucket of ice and hooking him up to a machine that continues to pump his blood (and some of mine which I’ve loaned him) through his brain and body while the surgeon reroutes his veins.
I ask if I can hold him in my lap during the operation, just to have my skin on his skin while he goes off to another planet while they fix him, but they say no.
Outside the hospital window I see three crows dogging a hawk. The hawk flinches when they flick by his head; he ducks and rolls and hunches his shoulders, but he doesn’t leave the tree. His troubles are inches from his face but he glares and waits, stolid, angry, churning, his thoughts sharp as razors, his brain filled with blood and meat.
The operation is really two operations, it turns out, and the doctors do the first one pretty soon after he’s born, and that operation goes by in a blur, and then there’s a second operation, when he’s almost 3 years old, and that goes by in a blur too, although I remember finding a nurse praying by his crib at 4 in the morning when I go to pray by his crib.
A day after the second operation the doctors tell me I can try to feed him real food, the food he likes, which is peas.
So here I am feeding him in his hospital bed. The bed is cantilevered up at the north end so that he can eat. He is eating pea by pea. He is awake but groggy and each time a pea hovers into his viewfinder he regards it with sluggish surprise. He likes peas. I put the peas in his mouth one by one. His lips reach out a little for each pea and then maul it gently for a while before the pea disappears. Each time his lips accept the pea they also accept the ends of my thumb and forefinger for an instant. After 13 peas he falls asleep and I crank the bed back flat and kneel down and pray like hell.
Next day the doctors say I can heft him gently out of his bed and hold him, just be careful with all the wires and tubes. There are a lot of wires and tubes.
There is a heart monitor with wires running from his chest to a machine the size of a dryer. There is a breathing tube planted in his nose. There is a blood pressure monitor attached to his big toe. There is a drainage tube running from his chest to a clear plastic box on the end of his bed. The box fills twice a day with blood and water. There is a tube in his neck, in his carotid artery. This tube runs nowhere. It’s for emergencies. It’s the tube through which the doctor would cram major drugs in case the surgical repair of his heart fails, blows a tire, pops a gasket, gives up the ghost, kicks the bucket, hits the wall, buys the farm.
I lift him out of the bed. He whimpers and moans. I feel like my fingers are knives on him, but I fold him into my lap and we settle back into the recliner and arrange the wires and tubes so that no machines are beeping. I grab the clicker and flip on the television, which hangs from the ceiling like a goiter. Click bass fishing click talk show click infomercial click news click nature show click basketball game click sit-com click commercial, at which point the boy who has been slumped in my lap like a dozing seal suddenly reaches for the clicker, startling me; I thought he was asleep. But no — he punches away at the clicker with his thumb and back down the channels we go, click sit-com click basketball game click nature show, which is about tigers, and having arrived at the tigers he wanted to see, he stops clicking, leans back into my lap again and laughs a guttural chortle, a deep-in-the-throat guffaw, a basso huh huh huh, and a great sob rises in me suddenly, and for the next few minutes, as we watch the massive grace and power and patience of tigers, I cry like the baby he used to be before all these tubes and wires, because this is the first time he’s laughed in weeks, and he is going to be fine, and everything is suddenly over.
A few minutes later when he grows tired of tigers and the excitement of being out of bed he moans again and I put him back in the bed and arrange his nest of wires and tubes, and he is already asleep by the time I flip out the light and stand by the window and lean forward and touch the window with my face and think about tigers and pray like hell again and look for the hawk but he’s gone.
Brian Doyle ’78 is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He is the author of two collections of essays, Credo and (with his father, Jim Doyle) Two Voices.
University of Portland