The Little Swimmer

Author: Angela Wheelock

My son was born under the sign of the fish, and, from the first, he showed an affinity for water. As an infant, Brendan loved baths — the longer, the better. Once he learned to swim, he moved fearlessly and gracefully through the water as though it were his true home. Now that he is 8, he spends long hours fishing and beachcombing. His latest haul includes the barnacle-encrusted carapace of a Dungeness crab, two large strands of kelp and half a dozen oyster shells, stored in an empty shoebox, smelling of salt and the memory of water.

Brendan’s body — like that box filled with shells and wrack — also recalled a watery existence. He was born with a congenital condition that had its roots in the closest things humans have to gills. Branchia — Greek for gills — are embryonic structures that resemble the gills found in fish and amphibians. They first appear in the fourth week. As the embryo grows, the branchial clefts become the building blocks for parts of the head and neck, curling inward and essentially disappearing by the embryo’s sixth week of development. In Brendan’s case, this process was only partially completed. At birth, he had an inconspicuous opening on his neck that was connected to an underlying branchial cleft cyst. Once I learned what this opening was, I liked to think of it as a remnant gill.

During the first years of our son’s life this cyst was unobtrusive. Days, weeks and even months went by without either my husband or myself giving it much thought. Our family doctor caused a momentary panic at Brendan’s first-year checkup when she mentioned — in passing — that occasionally such cysts are associated with deafness. But the panic passed. Brendan was perfectly aware of all the sounds of his life.

By the time he was 5, however, the opening of the cyst had become the source of a pale green mucus-like discharge that, although rarely occurring in large amounts, was noticeable. We were concerned enough to consult a pediatrician and then an ear-nose-and-throat specialist. Brendan also seemed anxious to find a solution for what had become an embarrassment. The specialist recommended surgery.

My husband and I didn’t make a decision right away. First we talked. We discussed the continuing health risks of leaving the cyst untreated. It certainly wasn’t a life-threatening condition, but the possibility of it becoming infected concerned us. Then there were the social considerations. Children can be notoriously intolerant of difference. I never wanted a perfect child, but I disliked the thought of Brendan being ridiculed — or even noticed — for a physical peculiarity he couldn’t disguise. These were the sorts of things we discussed between appointments with the specialist.

The risks associated with surgery caused us to hesitate the most. We were reassured when the specialist explained that the procedure was normally minor enough for the patient to be released on the same day. We knew, however, that all surgery is risky, even “minor” surgery. The possibility that Brendan might die was very small indeed, but it wasn’t zero. In the end, we decided — with some continuing reservations — that the risks were acceptable enough to proceed.

We arrived at the hospital on a clear autumn morning. Brendan was apprehensive but alert. He held onto our hands and also grasped a soft brown-and-white stuffed cat named Buddy.

“See,” I told Brendan, as we strolled down the hospital halls, “this is where you were born.” Trying to convince myself as much as him, I added, “Everything will be fine.”

In the surgical ward a nurse helped him change into a pair of blue pajamas that sported friendly hound dogs. Then both he and Buddy were given identification bracelets. Brendan’s was yellow with his full name printed on the narrow plastic-coated band; Buddy’s read, “I’m Buddy the cat.”

As we go about our day-to-day lives, we are able to maintain the fiction that we have the power to keep our children safe from all harm, to control all outcomes. But it is fiction, a story we tell ourselves to carry on with the many responsibilities of parenthood. Events can suddenly jolt us into an awareness of our children’s vulnerability. There are times — perhaps more times than we care to admit — when what happens depends not upon a parent’s love but on luck and the competence and kindness of strangers. Brendan’s surgery was such an occasion. We had to trust to the abilities of a man we had met only twice. Trust doesn’t come easily to me when it concerns my only child. As Brendan was wheeled off to the operating room, clutching Buddy, I wanted to run after the gurney yelling, “Stop! I’ve changed my mind,” but I didn’t. Instead, I took my husband’s hand and walked — with pounding heart — to the waiting room.

Other separations lurch at us unexpectedly out of otherwise uneventful days. Earlier this year, Brendan and I traveled by bus and Skytrain, Vancouver’s elevated rapid transit line, to the dentist. Afterward, we went to a toy store where he bought a new action figure. Normally I hold my son’s hand in crowded public places. This evening when it was time to get back on the Skytrain, the hand I usually held contained a toy. I hurried into the car, assuming Brendan was right behind me, only realizing in horror — just as the door slammed shut — that he was on the other side. As the train began to pull away from the station, I could see my son — through the glass of the door — running and crying. Then we were moving and he was gone.

“Help!” I think I called out, or, perhaps, “Stop!” There can be few worse feelings than the visceral fear a mother experiences knowing that her child is alone, among strangers. Whether he was rescued or abducted, whether we would ever see each other again, was out of my hands. I spent the next moments — perhaps all of two or three before the train stopped at the next station — in an agony of anxiety. Parents are not superhuman; they can make mistakes. I understand that in an intellectual way. Yet contemplating how such a small lapse in attention and judgment could have had such serious consequences still, months later, makes me queasy with guilt.

The two hours in that hospital waiting room felt nearly as desperate as those minutes I spent speeding away from my son on the train. Both separations had different causes, but both consigned me to the painful limbo of waiting to see how things would turn out. There was nothing I could do to affect the outcome, nothing to do but wait. Wait and think and pace and pray. At least I think you could call the request that things go well, which I kept repeating in my mind, a prayer. The surgery was expected to take about an hour. It occurred to me, in my anxious state, that it might have been better if I were a smoker. It would give me something to do. I bought a can of pop from a nearby vending machine, even though I don’t like pop, just to have something to do. In between drinking the pop and leafing through magazines that I couldn’t read, I held my husband’s hand and looked at my watch, where time was plodding along hopelessly slowly. Neither of us had much to say. As the hour stretched into an hour and a half, then two, I paced more and talked less.

Brendan was rescued by a Skytrain security guard who radioed ahead to the next station to tell me to wait there while he brought Brendan up.

“Tell the mother that we have the little man,” he told the woman working at the next station, the woman who met me when I came rushing off the train with tears streaming down my face. I know this because Brendan, who was wedged against me, gripping my hand like a vice, repeated this phrase again and again as we rode the train home. The surge of relief I felt when he came into sight was the same way I felt when a nurse finally walked into the waiting room and called our names. My heart unclenched as we followed the nurse down the hall to where Brendan lay in the recovery room. His face was flushed from the anesthesia and there was a small streak of blood on the collar of his hound dog pajamas. I reached over and gently touched him — my son, still here.

Time passed. Brendan regained consciousness and was checked into a room in the pediatric ward; he wouldn’t be going home that night after all. The surgery had taken longer than expected, and he was in quite a bit of pain. At first, he cried out with discomfort — he didn’t like the IV in his arm, lying in bed or being at the hospital. He wanted to feel better; he wanted to go home. Finally, he fell into a heavy sleep, and I sat beside the bed and watched his chest rise and fall. It was a wonderful sight. I couldn’t help but think about the first days of his life. Then, each breath seemed both extraordinary and tenuous — something I couldn’t completely count on even as it enthralled me. Sitting in that hospital room, the breath that I had come to take for granted had become momentous again.

The week that followed crept by. Back at home Brendan developed a fever and woke crying in the night, hot and in pain. We were on the verge of taking him back to the hospital when the fever abated. Lethargy came next. Brendan lay on the couch, watching cartoons when he was able to muster the energy, sleeping when he couldn’t. Smiling took an effort; play was impossible. Finally, on a rainy afternoon more than a week after his surgery, Brendan seemed ready to return to the world.

“Can we go to the park?” he asked. “Please, Mom, please. We could play soccer.”

Outside, the clouds were lifting, but there was no sun. At the park the trees were shrouded in mist and the grass was studded with puddles. Back and forth we ran, kicking the soccer ball into a makeshift goal. The air was cool and moist, and the park was quiet with only an occasional walker or jogger passing on the nearby path. Before long, Brendan began to tire. Even though he was recovering, soccer took more energy than he had.

“Let’s go over to the playground,” I suggested.

He agreed, and so we walked along the path to a small playground with a slide and some swings, where he went down the slide and then climbed up the slide. Soon the knees of his pants were wet with rainwater, and he stopped sliding to explore the small creek that ran along the boundary of the playground. Naming it creek was a generous interpretation, but its thin flow seemed too lovely for ditch, and if you looked carefully in its shallow waters you could sometimes find a crayfish or water strider.

“Mom, look,” Brendan called as he picked up a slim, black stick about 2 feet long. “It’s a karate stick!”

He held the stick carefully in his hand and suddenly lifted it over his head and spun it around and flung it across the creek.

“Let’s play karate sticks,” he said.

I had no idea what he knew about karate, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for his newly created game. He chose a stick for me from a nearby maple tree and showed me how to spin the stick around before flinging it through the air with a flick of the wrist. Some throws flew through the low-hanging-branches of the maple. Others soared 10, 20, even 30 feet before landing with a soft thump on the grass, much further than I imagined a 5-year-old boy could throw a stick, even a karate stick. A few throws ended in disgrace in the creek, landing with a splash in the shallow water.

As we played karate sticks, the sun came out from behind the clouds just in time to set. Afternoon shifted to evening, and the last glimmer of light shone on the maple leaves floating golden in the creek. Bats twittered in the darkening sky, and once a woman walking a groomed white standard poodle loomed out of the dusk. Mostly, though, it was just Brendan and I throwing sticks, jumping across the creek to retrieve them, and laughing.

My husband and I hadn’t talked much to Brendan about the operation — in truth, we were too exhausted for talk, taken up with the physical aspects of caring for a sick child. That afternoon, however, Brendan and I had a conversation without words, filled with the relief and exuberance of returning health. For the first time since we drove to the hospital, I felt as though I could catch my breath. My son was alive and well, all was right with the world. The euphoria of this knowledge suffused that autumn afternoon.

We played karate sticks until the sun set and the first drops of rain began to fall and we could no longer see where our sticks had landed in the dark, wet grass.

“Let’s go home,” Brendan said.

And we did, carrying our karate sticks with us. We placed them carefully beside the front door of the house, and for a long time afterward I would pause and pick one up and heft it in my hand, inhaling the scent of wood. The karate sticks are gone now to wherever the lost treasures of childhood go, and Brendan’s surgical scar has faded to a thin line of silver engraved on the warm pink skin of his neck, but the happenings of that week are fresh in my mind. Even now, I still think about how much we can learn in the simplest of moments about what it means to be a parent and of the nature of love.

When Brendan and I got off the Skytrain, we discovered that the bus was late. As we stood at the bus stop in a light rain, a chill wind came up and we began shivering. Normally, I might have been irritated about having to wait, about being cold. None of that mattered now. I could have lost my son, but I didn’t. Gratitude for that fact imbued even the cold cheerless bus stop with warmth. It felt like a blessing to stand in the rain, holding Brendan’s hand, while cars — and buses not ours — passed by along the gleaming night streets.

Angela Wheelock lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is working on a novel.

(October 2003)