Saving Face

By Gregory Keer

On a break from jury duty, I pay for a tuna wrap that I’m beginning to regret when I get a text message from my wife. It reads: “In ER. J OK but needs stitches on face. Have an appt with plastic surgeon at 1:00.”

The stomach that sandwich was intended for drops to the floor. I speed-dial Wendy.

“Jacob got attacked by a dog at the animal shelter,” Wendy says, trying to keep her voice steady.

“The dog bit through his cheek and slashed his arm.”

“Oh, God,””I mumble as horrific images twist madly through my mind.

“We’ve been trying to reach you for two hours,” Wendy says wearily.

My head rings as guilt hastens my exit from the café.

“The jury room is in a basement and there’s no cell reception,” I stammer as I head toward the parking lot.

“I’m fine,” Wendy assures me. “Take care of your jury duty. Your dad is with us.”

“No, I’m coming,” I say, shoving aside anxiousness about the legal ramifications of shirking civic responsibility. I don’t care. I have to see my boy.

“I’ll put Jacob on the phone,” she says.

I try to breathe, bracing myself.

“Hi, Daddy,” my 6-year-old speaks into the cell. “I’m OK. Don’t worry.”

I squeeze my watering eyes tight, relieved to hear strength in his voice.

“I wanted to pet the dog and he jumped at me,” he explains.

I draw back, as if the animal had leaped at me.

“Who helped you get the dog away?” I ask.

“Benjamin yelled for Angie,” Jacob responds proudly about his older brother. “If it wasn’t for him, I would be more hurt.”

“Were you scared?” I say, poorly focused on driving out of the parking lot.

“Yeah,” Jacob says, “but I think the dog was more scared. That’s probably why he attacked me.”

In the midst of his own crisis, my son has greater concern for the canine than himself. This is why he had gone with Angie, our babysitter who works with dogs, to the shelter so he could pet and feed the lonely creatures.

As I race to meet my family, I am torn up by jagged thoughts. Why did I let him be in harm’s way, even though I want him to care for other beings, even though I do not want him to live in fear? Why didn’t I go with him? Could I have been the hero and prevented the attack?

In the plastic surgeon’s waiting room, I gather Jacob into my arms. His left cheek is heavily bandaged, blood smeared beneath the gauze. His left arm is similarly wrapped around the forearm.

In the exam room, the surgeon gingerly undoes the bandaging. On Jacob’s cheek are puncture wounds from the canine teeth that clamped down on his face. One gash reveals muscle tearing. I wince, but Jacob needs me to look fearless.

After an initial anesthetic shot proves too painful for him to bear, it’s determined that Jacob will be operated on in the hospital later that evening.

A few hours later, we take Jacob in for his surgery. He worries it will hurt. I tell him the Bill Cosby story of “Tonsils,” in which young Bill gets the gas to make him sleep, then awakens to buckets of ice cream. Jacob likes that prospect.

Wendy and I send our little guy into the capable hands of the surgeon. We wait with Benjamin, who has insisted on joining us for every step of Jacob’s ordeal. Our youngest is with my mom, being kept happy on an impromptu sleepover. My dad and step-mom sit with us, providing comfort and food.

More than an hour passes before the surgeon emerges to announce that Jacob did well. He explains that we were lucky the dog opened its mouth before releasing from our son’s face or else the cheek might have come off. I can’t get this fact out of my mind, despite the doctor’s prediction that, as long as infection is prevented, Jacob will heal without complications.

More than a week passes. Jacob has had to take it easy, avoiding his usual running and jumping. His recovery has been enhanced by an endless outpouring of calls, visits and gifts from our family, friends, pediatrician and people we know only a little.

Generally, Jacob is in great spirits, unconcerned about the marks that will require he wear a bandage on them for another eight months then take years and further surgeries to fade. He loves his dog and remains unafraid of other animals, though he won’t volunteer in a shelter anytime soon.

Wendy and I are the ones floating in a strange, achy place, wishing we could have controlled fate. Wendy has cried a lot, unable to sleep for the first days following the incident. I feel a bit dazed at times and hug Jacob so often it annoys the heck out of him.

And yet, we are so thankful. Deeply grateful that our son’s face still reflects the energetic, creative and compassionate person that he’s always been.

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Breathing Lessons

By Gregory Keer

Early one week in January, I commented to my wife that little Ari — then only eight weeks old — was faring well during the cold and flu season. On the very next Saturday, he got a stuffed-up nose. The next day, he slept a lot and his breathing seemed slightly ragged. Still, being experienced parents, we thought he’d be fine with basic care.

On Monday, Ari became increasingly upset, so Wendy took him to our pediatrician. Dr. Esmond said Ari might have RSV and that hospitalization was an option. RSV is respiratory syncytial virus, which usually causes cold-like symptoms. Most children get it by age two, but it can affect a baby’s lungs more seriously.

With the first two boys, Benjamin (6) and Jacob (3), we had avoided hospital visits entirely. Although Benjamin contracted RSV when he was one-year-old, he was cured by a few home treatments.  We knew we were lucky but we were also deluded to believe we’d done everything well enough to keep our sons from grave illness.

So we took the option to treat Ari at home. We had to administer albuterol to clear his airways, but he stayed calm and it went well. He slept peacefully that night.

The next morning, Ari was worse. He labored to breath and his wails were muffled. I was at work when Wendy called to tell me that his temperature had risen too high. I felt guilty for not having taken him to the medical center more readily.

When I met Wendy at the hospital, she looked ashen and Ari appeared exhausted. A nurse, who seemed a bit nervous (she’d only been on the job a few months), had me hold Ari down as she ran a tube into his nostrils to deep-suction out the phlegm. Wendy could barely watch from a few feet away as Ari screamed.

More poking and prodding ensued as nurses attempted to draw blood for testing. Ari howled as I helped comfort him, but my stomach sank while witnessing the nurses dig needles in his veins before concluding that he was too dehydrated to give blood. They managed to insert an IV port into his hand, though he fought mightily before they got it in.

I finally went home to grab clothes for my boys who were to sleep over at Nana and Papa’s house. I ate dinner with them, trying to soothe their concerns but swallowed hard when Benjamin asked, “Is Ari going to die?”

“No,” I said. “But he’s going to need time to get better.”

“I miss Mommy,” Jacob moaned.

I kissed them goodnight and went back to see Wendy and Ari at the new hospital room, which we shared with a frazzled single mom whose baby also had RSV. Wendy cried, worn down by concerns for an infant she could no longer protect in her womb. I’d never seen her so worked over and I hope I never see it again. I, on the other hand, felt numb and tried  to figure out how to help her, our big boys, my students who were to have a final exam the next day, and little Ari.

I left late and slept for two hours alone in my house. It was eerie with my wife and three children away. I felt like a shell without them.

The next day, I gave my final exam and went to relieve Wendy, who had had a night of worry and beeping medical monitors. For the hours I then spent holding and feeding Ari, I felt strangely at peace. I was so connected to my son as I gave him the only things he needed from me – time and love.

Wendy returned to take the night watch. My mom brought the boys home and I went through the bedtime rituals as normally as possible, then let the kids sleep in the big bed with me.

In the morning, I took the boys to school and went home to tie up loose ends. Then, Wendy called to say Ari’s lungs had cleared enough for him to leave the hospital.

Wendy and Ari got back late that morning, but it wasn’t until the afternoon, when I brought home the older kids, that I felt I could really breathe again. Ari did need medicine at home for several days, though his smiles returned, bigger than ever.

Looking back, I realize that what we went through cannot compare to what other parents endure with children who have more serious illnesses. Those parents have courage I can hardly fathom.

Indeed, parenthood has plenty of twists and turns to make us all feel out of control. It’s enough to force us to hold our breath for fear of what might happen next. Yet, we manage to settle down, however cautiously, breathing in the fullness our children bring to our lives.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Health, Parenting Stress | Leave a comment

Fear and Parenting

By Gregory Keer

In my pre-fatherhood days, Saturday night meant excitement. There were the pre-marriage nights of cluelessly searching for women, followed by the post-wedding evenings of double features and an apartment all to ourselves.

But now, Saturday thrills have a new description: rushed family meals, bone-rattling screams, and calls to the paramedics.

Let’s rewind that last part and explain. It’s a recent Saturday night at the house of our friends Julie and David. Everyone gets along famously. The moms complain about the dads. The dads watch football. The kids tear the house apart, pitting the girls against the boys with the littlest ones on the sidelines, crying to be included. The parents try to pretend that this is fun, smiling through clenched teeth and yearning to go to bed by 8:30—three hours before the once requisite Saturday Night Live.

Around 8:30, we attempt to wind down. I get Benjamin through a “flash” bath, then work on my overtired toddler. At 14 months, Jacob likes to stand in a slippery tub and fling toys with reckless abandon. He wriggles from my reach five times, laughing mockingly like a swashbuckler in an Erroll Flynn film. But I finally grapple-hook him, braving waves of bawling, and wash his pudgy physique in the available watermelon-scented body wash.

His crying escalates as I lay him in a bedroom to dress him. With the instincts of a mother pterodactyl sensing her fledgling’s imminent demise at the claws of a velociraptor, my wife rushes into the room to ask, “What are you doing to him?”

“He’s tired!” I retort, my voice rising above the now powerful wailing. In Alias fashion, she bends down to help me defuse the timebomb by taking one side of the diaper while I tape the other. Jacob kicks and flails his arms, shrieking in what sounds like pain mixed with too much snot.

Our host, David, comes over to ask Jacob, “What’s the matter, little man?” My son changes octaves and shades of purple. I try to distract Jacob by kissing his chubby legs to make him laugh. The screaming gets hoarse. His complexion goes vermilion—Jacob passes out.

Surreality sets in. I stare dumbly at my small child, not fathoming what just happened. My wife shouts, “Is he breathing?” In a daze, I pull Jacob’s limp body to me. He slumps unconscious in my arms. I am numb.

But Wendy springs to action, running from the room, shouting, “I’m calling 911.” I stand up with Jacob, gently shaking and patting him. I want him awake. My heart thumps and my head feels like it will pop from the strain of not freaking out. “Jacob. Jacob. Jacob-Jacob-Jacob,” I sternly say as if scolding him for the lapse in his “good behavior.” His eyes flutter and roll back in his head. This is some kind of fit, right? What do people do in these situations?

I bounce him in my arms and…he…awakens. Jacob cries, a little more softly now, as I walk jelly-legged from the room, relieved, saved.

In our friends’ living room, Wendy is finishing the report to 911. Her reddened eyes brighten at the sight of her groggy but alert child. “Oh, my baby,” she says as she kisses him. I won’t let him go, fearing something else might happen if I do. Benjamin comes over and rubs his little brother’s back saying, “You’re OK, now, Jacob.” And we all hug each other.

Jacob thinks this group embrace is funny and starts giggling. Actually, he laughs through most of the next hour, during which two sets of paramedics and phone calls to two different pediatricians (including my calming father). The final diagnosis is that Jacob passed out as the result of a massive tantrum. Given his temperament, we’re told it may even happen again! 

Our son finally drifts off into a peaceful slumber (still in my arms) and we thank our amazingly supportive friends for hosting this “very special episode” of ER.

At home, we decide to let our boys bunk with us. We want to watch over them, feel them breathing. We’d been rattled, unprepared for the fright we had. Though this was only a blip on the parenting nightmare scale, we’ve come away with a respect for what Saturday night excitement now means. It means that the mysteries of childcare never cease. It symbolizes that parenthood is full of surprises, both joyous and terrifying. It signifies that we no longer can take a weekend break from responsibility. And, as we lie there with our two kids, we are quietly excited to have them here with us, safe and sound.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Parenting Stress | Leave a comment