The Sixth Sense of Responsibility

While I’m at the Writers Institute for the next two weeks, I have handed the reigns of motherhood over to mothers in Iowa – a friend, my sister, and my mom.  They, in turn, will allocate my sons’ time with their families.  Never have I been without the direct responsibility of mothering for so long.  With 14-year-old Will and 12-year-old Liam, I no longer feel the need to write long notes of how to take care of these two young men.  

A few times when the boys were toddlers, Bill and I would go away overnight, perhaps two nights.  I would write a long, detailed caregiver’s list.   I must admit that I failed miserably on one such getaway.  We left Will with a friend who was also a mom, and I forgot to mention that my son had a Mongolian spot.  When I returned on Sunday afternoon to pick him up, my friend was ashen.  She had no idea what she had done, where she had left Will unattended that he had gotten such an enormous bruise.  I had failed to responsibly care for my friend who was caring for my child.

When Will was only a few months old, I put him down for a nap one Saturday afternoon and told Bill I was going to lie down as well.  Bill decided, since Will and I were both napping, to go golfing for a bit.  My relaxed state escalated.  I still rested, but not fully.  When I became a mother, the sense of infinite responsibility kicked in.  When Bill came home a couple hours later, I tried to put into words that prickly elevated sense that I had hoped to shift down a notch or two while Will took a nap – that it could only have happened if Bill had stayed in the house as I slept.  He asked why I hadn’t said that earlier, but I didn’t know how to put into words that feeling – how to ask for some relief from responsibility.

Around twelve months old, Will had not felt well, and I took him to the doctor.  She had prescribed an antibiotic, so we stopped at the drug store to pick it up on the way home.  He was lethargic in my arms.  I wanted to get that medication into his little body as soon as possible.  

We arrived home at lunchtime.  I put Will in his highchair and gave him the medicine and then some grapes to nibble on while I made lunch.  I turned back to the counter and chatted away to him, but he didn’t make a sound.  I glanced over my shoulder to see him slumped over in his chair, his lips turning blue.  I took him out of the chair, but I lifted a limp ragdoll not my little boy.  “I’ve lost him.  I’ve lost him?” I rolled the words around as a statement, as a question.  “NO!  I will not lose him!” formed as an assertion, an exclamation.  

An EMT could feel no breath coming from Will’s nose or mouth.  Thinking perhaps he’d choked on a grape, he was given mouth to mouth.  His heart was still beating.  His lips remained blue.

A Nurse took him and held him tenderly; she kneeled at our back door, waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  She was gently rocking Will, looking down at his unresponsive face, when a policeman arrived.  Immediately, the Nurse tried to hand Will to him but then realized he wasn’t there to take care of my son.  He seemed to be there only to monitor the situation.  My neighbor saw the police car and walked over to my house.  The cop tried to keep her at bay; yes, with a babe in her arms, my neighbor surely looked like she could pose a threat to us!  Laughable – the only part of the scene that makes me laugh out loud today.  

A Program Manager type of person started talking to my neighbor and asked her to get my husband to the hospital.  My neighbor took guidance from the Program Manager and went home to make arrangements for Bill to meet us there.  We had only lived in this town for a few months; I nor Bill even knew where the nearest hospital was.

Finally, the ambulance arrived just as a Crisis Clinician came onto the scene.  The Nurse immediately thrust Will upward toward a paramedic’s open arms, almost like an offering to a god. The Crisis Clinician explained to the ambulance crew the sequence of events as best as she could.  The paramedic was calm and talking to Will, “Hey, Buddy…”  Did they mention seizure then? That he would be OK?  

The Crisis Clinician got me into the front seat of the ambulance while the paramedic sat in back attending to Will.  I remember hearing the driver on the radio saying, “She’s pretty calm.”  He couldn’t hear the stream of prayers I repetitively screamed upward.  

Within a fifteen minute period, I had been EMT, Nurse, Program Manager, and Crisis Clinician – all fields for which I was not certified.  All positions that fell under the umbrella of "mother."  In the front seat, I became a Pray-er, and honest to Pete, God probably said, “Hello, do I know you?”  

Here, thirteen years later and with a few powerful, prayerful moments under my belt, I sometimes think that He throws these curveballs to remind me to cast words upward.  And, I have learned He will take just about anything I can dish out.  No longer am I meek in the quiet young Methodist way of my youth when I pray.  He gave me freedom of choice, and I take full advantage of that when I get to slinging demands upward.  

I prayed; the driver drove; Will and the paramedic were quiet.  I remember praying on the drive that seemed to take hours, but I remember nothing else until Will had been in the hospital for an hour – perhaps two or three.  He had an oxygen monitor connected to his toe and when he came too after being given children’s ibuprofen, he looked at me, crying, and pleaded, “Get the fuzzy out of my toes!”  That’s when the day’s first tear rolled.

As it turns out, Will had had a febrile seizure caused by a very quick change in body temperature.  When a fever jumps quickly from low to high-grade, it’s a shock to a baby’s body, resulting in the scene that will live permanently in my memory.  One of the darkest of days ever registered.  

I looked up the phenomenon in the tell-me-everything-about-the-first-two-years-of-life book, and sure enough something like “it may look like your child is dead” was the description.  Should something like this not be marked and perhaps placed in a “MUST READ” chapter at the beginning of the book?  Not buried on page 230-something?

This was the only such incidence that ever occurred, but it left an ominous cloud of responsibility hovering over my being that’s accompanied by panic attacks whenever my sons are ill.  My rash movements to seek the shelter of my home and the bottle of ibuprofen whenever fever strikes make no sense to others; mostly because, similarly to the napping instance with Bill, I can’t communicate to others what it feels like to have simultaneous fear and responsibility rushing through my core.  This sixth sense.  Years later, I’ve gone back to friends and explained my actions of quickly evacuating my sons from situations, actions that were, at the time, bizarre and inexplicable. 

A couple of weeks ago, Will and I were chatting in the van on the way home from his gymnastics practice, and he asked me how I would feel when he left for college.  A genuine smile spread over my face, and I told him I would be so excited for that phase of his life to unfold.  I’m sure I would be sad when I dropped him off at school, but by that time, he would have gradually become pretty independent.  I told him that I remembered Michelle Obama saying that it is a parent’s job to raise a child so that he doesn’t need us.  I felt queasy after throwing that quote into the compressed atmosphere within the van.  As if I had released a traitorous gas.

Two days later, in another twenty-minute commute, I told Will I had thought a lot about what I had said and that I was really bothered by it.  I retracted the statement and explained that the quote was a valiant attempt on a parent’s part to give their kids independence.  To make the letting go easier.  I told him I would miss him like heck, particularly our rides and conversations in the van, and that always I would be here for him whenever he needed me.  He could call any time for any reason – if he had a major problem or just needed to know how to make a cup of tea.  He smiled and said he might need advice on the second.

That sixth sense is beautifully permanent and absolutely unrelenting.  To lose it would be to tear a piece of being from my soul.