Outer space

As my son turns 16, I thank the universe his fraught birth is only a memory | Ranjana Srivastava

“Every night, I prayed that your baby would stay put.”

“Was it so close?”

“Oh yes, I could feel his head.”

The midwife has found me a decade later at a public talk I am giving. It is impossible to forget her strong presence during a precarious pregnancy when I was confined to a hospital bed. This, the year after the numbing loss of a twin pregnancy.

Her concern is a poignant reminder of how providers carry the memory of their patients long after they part.

That night when I could not hold him in any longer, he was whisked to neonatal intensive care while I fought the fog of labor. The pediatrician consoled me that he just needed “fattening up” in the special care nursery, but as a physician I recognized that the road out of hospitalization was lined with obstacles – from catastrophic infection to developmental delay and diagnostic mistakes to plain human error. My husband and I kept watch daily for as long as we were permitted.

As I watched the feeding tube and oxygen catheter snake through his tiny body, I would make a mental note that his crib was closest to the nursery exit. This was my sign that the tubes would come out and he would go home.

The baby next to us had a congenital heart defect that led to her even tinier frame being engulfed by wires and monitors. Expecting a prolonged stay, her mother had adorned her “home” with bright butterflies and tiny toys. I admired her equanimity until the day it cracked.

The pediatrician has just proclaimed that we can both go home. I shed tears of joy, she trembles with fear: “How will I know if she stops breathing?”

“The oximeter will beep,” I say and instantly regret.

Switching from doctor to parent, I gently validate her fear and urge her to demand training and practical support before discharge. She hugs me, slipping a paper butterfly into my bag. I tuck it into a drawer with all the other paperwork I never look at. It isn’t until we are moving years later that I discover the butterfly with a faded phone number which I dial before my courage fails.

She exclaims delightedly and I am relieved to hear that her daughter survived her operations albeit with some persisting health concerns. “How is your baby?”

“He is fine.”

“But it was hard for you too,” she insists with the same thoughtfulness from years ago.

This month, the baby turns 16 and apart from wondering where the years have fled, I feel grateful imagining what could have been. He is taller than his parents and more reasoned and articulate than we were at his age. He combines a fondness for learning with a part-time job. Self-sufficient with homework, he regularly helps his siblings with theirs. They adore him, making him a handy intermediary during times of friction.

He also gives as good as he gets. One day, I burst into his room complaining about the dank smell and messy floor, while he lounged unperturbed. Eventually he registered my presence, although I suspect he was just testing me.

“Why do you always have the noise-canceling headphones on?” I whined. “So I can not hear you,” he deadpanned.

Touché.

At age 16, I was begging my mum to get my legs waxed; my son and I argue over the fairness of screen limits. I had to cajole my parents to purchase the driver’s handbook; my son recently announced that having cleared the online test that I did not know he was taking, he feels ready for driving lessons. Cue the noise-canceling headphones!

By the time I was 16, all four of my grandparents were dead. I lost the chance to see the world through their eyes and they through me. Today, my son is surrounded by all four of his, their boundless love cushioning some of the indignities of life. Where his parents expect him to empty the dishwasher and walk the dog (on the same day), his grandparents coo that he is wonderful just the way he is.

There are things in his life that I do not understand, among them the attraction of video games over people and the propensity for text over talk. And when it comes to recalling his cricket scores, I feel like a serial offender. I try to make it up by attending his debates, hoping he will reserve the sparring for outside of the house.

My favorite pastime is to read in companionable silence when I sometimes glance at him and thank the universe that his fraught birth is only a memory without a trail of consequences.

Despite the admirable work of health professionals, that nursery where he was a temporary guest is the place of immense heartache and heartbreak. In a world filled with talk of what we deserve and who owes us, I want my son to know that we have no right to certain bounties.

Therefore, nothing makes my heart swell more than when his teachers report that my son reaches out to students in difficulty, helping them structure their essays and solve knotty algebra problems by being kind, patient and inclusive. As it turns out, all that texting is not just silly memes! Maybe this is his way of being grateful for what he has.

He tells me more often than I care to know that he will not be a doctor. But in all honesty, if I am permitted one expectation, it is that in a world of hyper-competitive performance and sharp elbows, he will always combine personal ambition with communal concern. The older I grow the more I realize how much this matters.

After the punishments of the pandemic, we will mark this family milestone with happiness and gratitude. A part of me will also be thinking of a baby girl turned young lady convincing her mother of the merits of a second piercing or an Instagram account and wishing her all the joys of turning sweet 16.

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