When I had my son, one of the things I did not foresee in my future was staring at a photograph of his esophagus a week before his twelfth birthday – or seeing, on paper, an image of his peach-colored, striated small intestine.
But there are a lot of things I didn’t expect twelve years ago.
As pediatric medical procedures go, at least those requiring general anesthetic, endoscopies seem like a pretty tame deal. My son’s gastroenterologist – a kind, diligent and skilled man we like very much – reminded Sean that the tube he was going to feed down his esophagus and into his stomach was much smaller in diameter than an ordinary bite of food. Even smaller, Sean’s dad observed aloud, than a piece of macaroni.
Sean shot him a narrow-eyed look of skepticism. My son is built of macaroni and cheese; it’s been his primary food source since he was four. The message was clear: this is not a huge deal.
And it wasn’t – at first. He was delivered back into our care with astonishing speed, woozy and drugged and asking if this was real life, calling his dad a crazy piece of crap and demanding to know the location of his guinea pig – all in the overconfident, slurred tones of someone in the advanced stages of intimacy with an illicit substance. But while he was under, they implanted a small capsule in his esophagus designed to measure pH and transmit it back to a portable receiver. For the first two days, swallowing was excruciating for him, and I watched, helpless, as he reached the point where he had to choose between gnawing hunger or splitting chest pain. He chose the chest pain. He looked like he was taking a punch after every swallow.
As harrowing as this experience was for both of us, I’m mindful that it was among the least serious of the problems addressed at the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children that day. But even though relatively tame, my son’s endoscopy was symbolic of the many things I didn’t expect to happen in the last decade, the many things I would have been certain, back then, that I couldn’t handle. As a new parent I was climbing dumbly into the roller coaster car, oblivious to the thundering G-forces to come. I had no idea this thing sometimes turns upside down and then stops and lets you dangle, screaming, several stories above the ground.
I don’t know where parenting got its gauzy, sentimental reputation. It’s that way sometimes, to be sure, but not always, or even often. Parenting brought me into immediate touch with the import of my own mortality, and then, like the slow erosion of rock by dripping water, educated me as to my lack of control over almost everything. It’s one thing to understand the limits of your control when your own mortality is the matter of a shrug – before Sean, I would think, before doing something dangerous, “Oh well, if I die I won’t be around to care.” But it’s another thing entirely to know both your own powerlessness and the gravity of it. That approach ended as soon as another human being depended on me for almost everything. I spent several years after Sean’s birth mourning the loss of the freedom that comes with indifference to vulnerability.
Parenting will expose you. You have even less choice in what you are required to face, to surmount, to handle. And at the same time, the stakes have become so high as to be emotionally incomprehensible. There is a deep discipline in that, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. Some of us don’t require that discipline, but I did. Parenting was a revolution I badly needed.
I tried for some time to maintain control over his life, his safety, and his environment, and the harder I tried, the more dramatically things fell apart. My son’s gastrointestinal issues are a legacy of his genetics, but also of the messiness of his childhood and a complicated relationship with his fragmented family – things I tried and mostly failed to alleviate or avoid. So instead I’ve tried to acquaint him with concepts like resilience, the transitory nature of pain, deep breathing, and the unshakable love and support of his mother. These things help, sometimes, but not always. Sometimes we still end up tangling with an endoscope.
I looked again at the photos last night, and I was struck by how strangely primitive human tissues look, this peach-pink wad of glistening muscle called an esophagus. We are accustomed to thinking of complex mechanical systems as sleek and gracefully designed, with the aesthetics conveying an assurance of smooth reliability – like a car engine, perhaps. But the esophagus looks so simple as to be almost funny, like something a third-grader slapped together for a science fair out of greased silly putty; its complexity, elegance and capacities obscured by appearances.
Appearances, as they say, are often deceptive. I look at my son and I still see vulnerability in need of maternal protection, even though he no longer looks anything like the infant whose photo sits on my office shelf. My brain was so thoroughly occupied by maternal urges that a new and startling realization took two days to sink in, like a whisper from some other part of my mind: this kid is tough.
And so, sitting here with a little distance, I can see it was good that I had been unable to prevent the pain, and was confined to helping him navigate it. We both learned what he’s capable of, and it’s a great deal. There was relief for me, even joy, in that realization; the roller coaster car had righted itself again, if only briefly. But there was also an awakening to the repeated lesson that life is smarter than I am. Had I been in charge, had I possessed the control I always wanted, I wouldn’t have exposed him to what seemed like unnecessary pain. Life knew better.
Still, I’m glad it’s over. For now.