The One and Only Time I Held My Son

How do you say goodbye to someone you've waited so long to meet? How did I?

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In the middle of a December night, on the ninth floor of a hospital maternity ward, you receive the secret knowledge of the universe. It’s this: Everything dies. And no one, anywhere, knows when or how it’s going to happen. You knew this, of course, but you didn’t know it. Then you understand that this is the one truth upon which all other truths are built and you lose any sense of control.

You tried — you really did. You prayed to a god you didn’t believe in. You pleaded with doctors you’d never met for a miracle that they couldn’t deliver. You promised your life. But no deal was struck, no terms agreed on. So you’re left sitting behind a flimsy blue curtain in the recovery room of a New York City hospital at 3 a.m., cradling your dead son in your arms. It is the one and only time in your life you will hold him.

Just six hours earlier: you are sitting next to your wife, chanting, “push, push, push,” with a room full of laughing nurses and a no-nonsense doctor, who seems to swap out his soaked rubber gloves on the minute. His name is Willie and one of the nurses asks, “What was that movie? Free Willie?” And that becomes your battle cry — Free Willie. Four hours of pushing, groaning, tears, contraction spikes, and finally he comes, slowly, slowly, and then all at once he is a part of the world — a bloody and wiggling one of us. But silent. You cut the cord, and the pediatrician whisks him off to the far corner where she examines him. Come on, give me a cry, come on.

You caress your wife’s head and tell her everything’s fine. He’s beautiful. It’s over. You did it. After a couple of minutes, he appears in front of you, bundled and squirming, on his way to the NICU. Assurances are made. This is not a big deal. Probably a lung infection. Happens all the time. They’re going to take him up and get him stabilized, and you can go and see him in an hour.

newborn holding hand

“Hi, Willie.” You wave even though he’s just inches from you. “Hi, Willie.” That was you, meeting your son. Then he’s gone.

You and your wife split a tuna fish sandwich and hector the nurse: Can we see him? Soon they say.

You call parents, friends. Soon. Two hours later a doctor comes down and tells you that he, Willie, your baby boy, is in dire condition. He can’t breathe. Something needs to get opened up — his vocal chords or his larynx, they’re not sure. There are forms to sign, consent needs to be given. Your wife looks at the doctor and says, before breaking down completely, “Please save my baby.”

Despite the jutting rail of the hospital bed, you lean over and hold your wife, the requisite tubes in her arms. The beep of the heart monitor playing faster and faster. The hollow rattle of the ventilation systems. This sound will stay with you in the weeks and months to come. Everywhere. Miasmatic. It’s the sound of the world collapsing. Three doctors suddenly appear. There will be no heroics. No miracles.

***

You’ve never really held a newborn baby before — not someone close to you, at least — and certainly not your own child, so it’s a shock to discover just how small he is, how light. Six pounds even. Lighter than you could have ever imagined. Light like a loaf of white bread. And so unimaginably soft. Your wife says he is perfect and you look up at her — both of you smiling for a brief moment with the realization that yes, he is just that. Perfect. With a face you knew, you just didn’t know you knew — equal parts of you and her and him that make something completely, unexpectedly surprising. The whole cosmic marvel of time and existence lies limply before you. All that might have been. A perfect thing, magical and dead.

The minutes pass as you rock him gently, taking turns, passing him back and forth between the two of you. It feels like if you squint hard enough, you can almost see the family that you were going to be — exhausted, baffled, terrified; at the very start of your journey, not the end of it. You take a picture, a single picture with the camera you bought expressly for this moment, of your wife holding him. A trickle of blood runs down his nose, and the spell is broken. Your fumble for a Kleenex, and in your only act of paternal care, gently wipe the blood away like it’s a runny nose. “There, there. It’s ok, buddy.” He is silent and still. Can you squint that hard? Not anymore, it seems.

How, then, do you say goodbye to someone just born? How did I?

I held him close and whispered into his ear, “You were everything to us, Willie. Just everything.” And with that, I placed him back into his hospital cart and nodded to the nurses who stood huddled in the hall nearby and watched him wheeled off around a corner and gone.

***

You saw his scanned face so many times. Texted photographs of his little alien face to your parents. Endless, emoji-filled text chains – hearts and smiling cats. Now they keep coming. Your phone buzzing.

Congratulations. So happy for you. Can’t wait to meet him.

You want to write back, “He died.” You want your hurt to be the world’s hurt. It’s so palpable, this pain. A real thing in the world, this is the thing that was born tonight and what we’re left with. It’s an object of infinite dimension. It can be turned and flipped, held closely or looked at from a distance, and always there is some new, as yet undiscovered aspect of the sorrow.

You think about time travel, the many worlds theory, the world as illusion. There is a happy family, the yous in an alternate, parallel universe — one where everything is fine and happy and whole. One where you are the ghosts haunting them.

And you pick up the phone, step into the hallway and begin to call. People answer, tired, confused, but nothing comes – not at first anyway. You choke out, “He didn’t make it.” He didn’t make it. He did not make it into this world. He withdrew. Everything does, eventually. But you’ve now seen it with your own eyes. And felt it in your own heart. Something is there, and then it is gone. The happiest day of your life became the worst.

sad couple in hospital hallway

In the weeks and months to come, you will cry everywhere — on subway cars and in restaurants and office bathrooms. There will be no resisting it. This is what it feels like to be split open and emptied out, once and for all. All defenses disabled. You’ll learn what it feels like to call about an autopsy, arrange for a cremation, pick up a tiny plastic bag of ashes from a funeral home. You’ll tell yourself this is not for nothing.

But for now, there is nothing left for you to do but sign some more forms and shuffle out to a taxi in the frozen dawn, placing the carefully packed bag of baby clothes in the trunk, along with the box of keepsakes (his hand and footprints, a lock of his hair) the nurses were kind enough to put together for you. As the cab works its way down the FDR, you hold your wife’s hand in silence and watch as the light over the East River shifts just so, from night to almost-dawn. The sky purple. One star left. All of it fathomless.

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