The Dizzying Joy, The Abject Terror

[Full disclosure: The first portion of this post was written back in mid-August.]

I have never scaled the heights of dizzying joy like I have since I became a father 13 months ago.

I have also never descended into the murky depths of abject, bone-rattling, gut-clenching, heart-quickening, mind-smothering, dark-night-of-the-soul terror.

To be fair, the terror part is decidedly less frequent. In 13 months of being a father, I can think of only 2 experiences I would describe as terror-inducing. But both instances were unsettling enough — to very different degrees — to put the fear of God (and death) in my newly paternal heart.

The first of those 2 instances was exponentially more intense, and is too complex to lay out here. I fully intend to write about that experience one day, but today is not that day.

The second instance happened recently and is markedly less dramatic, especially in hindsight. But in the moment, both Danielle and I experienced something akin to genuine terror. And in a way, the hyperbole of our emotional response makes it even more illustrative of the panic-inducing power of parenting.

We were in LAX with my parents, waiting for our flight back to the East coast. After a week in California celebrating my brother’s wedding, we were 5 hours deep in an extended travel day that would include 3+ hours in airports, 5+ hours in an airplane, and 7+ hours in assorted shuttles and minivans.

There is a specific kind of anxiety inherent in boarding an airplane with a small child in the company of 150 people. You might as well be holding a…

[Fast-forward 10 weeks from the day in August when I wrote the preceding paragraphs and then stopped dead in my tracks, ever-consumed with life and ever-distracted by social media as I always seem to be. Now it’s early November, and I will proceed with my thoughts in earnest. But I must say, I have no idea what metaphor I was about to employ in the previous sentence. A jack-in-the-box? A ticking bomb? Let your imagination run wild on that one!]

So as I was saying, there is a specific kind of anxiety inherent in boarding an airplane with a small child in the company of 150 complete strangers. All the careful planning, snack-packing, and nap-delaying techniques you employ in the lead-up to your flight guarantees you precisely nothing by way of your tiny child’s peace of mind. After all, a steel cylinder is about to mysteriously lift him into stratospheric oblivion while air pressure instantaneously shifts around him and — even more unsettling — he gradually learns that he will not be allowed to move independently or even stand on his own two feet for the next 5 hours.

Air travel is not for the faint of heart, but it’s also not for the fidgety of body. And our son can wriggle with the best of ’em.

So it was with some trepidation that we entered the LAX terminal during the 5th hour of our travel day and steeled ourselves for the long flight home. Greyson had not slept well all week and we had kept him on a wall-to-wall schedule of family gatherings and wedding revelry, so we didn’t know what to expect from him on this long, final day of our trek.

As we settled in for a few hours at the gate, we followed our little guy around as he scoped out the lay of the land. He had been cooped up in a car seat for the bulk of the morning, so he needed to stretch his tiny muscles. He played with his toy trucks. He did some people-watching and some airplane-gawking. He ate some Cheerios.

Then, as our tiny boy ambled along near the huge glass windows, he took a tiny tumble — perhaps due to sheer awe at the enormous flying beasts outside — and somehow his tiny teeth collided with a metal ledge. Wailing and tears ensued, and Danielle did her best to soothe her spooked cub the way only a mama bear can. The three of us removed ourselves to a family bathroom and used toilet paper to soak up the blood from his gums. We sang him songs. We wiped away his hot tears. We cupped his head in our hands and told him in hushed tones that everything would be okay.

Once the blood stopped flowing and Greyson returned to a state of relative equilibrium, we assessed the damage. His top front two teeth were both chipped. The chips were moderate, not significant, but we also didn’t wiggle the teeth around to see if they were loose because, with boarding time approaching soon, we wanted to keep our little passenger as calm as possible.

A little while later, exhausted from his minor emergency, Greyson zonked out in his mama’s arms. We breathed a momentary sign of relief and shifted our concern to whether his sleep would be interrupted by the act of boarding the plane, thus throwing him for another loop. But we were grateful for a quiet moment to think.

At some point, Greyson’s sleepy head rolled back and his mouth gaped open, giving Danielle a view of his gums. What she saw furrowed her brow, and the dark clouds that formed in her eyes as she abruptly glanced over at me made me wince. “His gums are still bleeding, babe,” she probably said. “Oh no oh no oh no oh no,” I probably thought. I peered in and saw ominous red lines streaking down the roof of his mouth. I’m not sure we even knew if it was dried or fresh blood, but our minds both instantly assumed the worst.

Now, at this point in the story it’s important to point something out: With the benefit of hindsight, I totally understand that this does not sound like a grave emergency. The blood was likely dry, right? And even if it wasn’t, people don’t bleed to death through their gums, right? And it’s crazy not to access calm, rational, factual statements like this in a moment of anxiety, right?

Well, call me crazy. Both of us, in fact. Me and the calmest, coolest, most rational person I’ve ever known and loved — Danielle Wingert, who has talked me down off more ledges than a hostage negotiator with tenure.

We both panicked. We both thought it might be a bad idea to board that plane. We both (scratch that: I alone) envisioned a worst-case scenario in which we got on the plane, lifted into the sky, and subsequently realized that Greyson was bleeding out his mouth and the flow couldn’t be stanched.

Let me be perfectly clear: Within minutes of Danielle showing me the blood in Greyson’s mouth, I vividly and agonizingly pictured our sweet little boy dying from blood loss on that God-forsaken plane.

told you to call me crazy.

Fortunately, I happen to know an orthodontist and his family quite well. So I called his wife, who was something of a secondary mom to me growing up. I breathlessly conveyed our story, and she immediately said the thing that everyone in the world who is panicking needs to hear before anything else: “First of all, breathe. Everything will be okay.” Then she calmly explained why that was indeed true.

At this point I’ll cut to the chase, because in the end this story isn’t a harrowing dodging-a-bullet tale or a heroic saving-the-day saga. It’s just an anecdote about a relatively minor shock that translated in our still-fairly-new parental minds into a hallucinatory vision of mortal fear.

So here’s the (anti)climax of the story. From the terminal, I called and lined up an appointment with a pediatric dentist back in Pennsylvania for the next day. A little later, we boarded the plane. Greyson woke up at some point and proceeded to be his sweet, silly self for virtually the entire flight. He played with trucks, he chewed on plastic animals, and he listened quietly as we read him a dozen books (several times each). The day, which turned into a late night, went off without a hitch. Everyone lived happily ever after.

But that’s the thing about parenting — or at least first-time parenting. You don’t have to experience an actual near-death event to experience an event that gives you the actual fear of your child being near death. You just have to wait around a few months for your child to choke on a piece of food, or fall down some stairs, or contract his first flu, or, I don’t know, maybe chip his teeth and get his mouth filled with blood.

Then, for the first time, you’ll get that bitter taste of death — hypothetical but no less chilling — in your mouth. And you will know in that moment that your life will never be the same.

You now carry on your shoulders in a new and deeper way the heavy, sacred burden of existence. And not your own existence, except to the extent that you need to remain alive for the sake of your child.

The burden you now carry with you until the end of your days is the heavy, exquisite weight of your child’s existence. This mostly-helpless child you willingly and joyously brought into the world. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (which you already have and couldn’t do otherwise even if you tried), is to keep your child alive at all costs.

Such is the burden that — beyond logic, beyond rational diagnosis — weighed down our furrowed brows in the LAX terminal where Greyson chipped his teeth and punctured his gums for the very first time.

Such is the burden that now inextricably unites me with my son. Greyson’s peril is my peril. Greyson’s bloody gums are my bloody gums. Greyson’s life is my life. I could no sooner step out of my own skin than I could remove myself from the bones of this truth.

Such is the burden — the joyous and occasionally terrifying burden — that I will bear on my shoulders as long as my lungs carry breath, and as long as my veins carry blood.

6 thoughts on “The Dizzying Joy, The Abject Terror

    • Thanks so much, Bridget. I haven’t heard from you in many moons, so this comment is quite unexpected! I saw pictures of your incredibly adorable daughter for the first time the other day, and they made me smile. I’m grateful that my experiences create some connective tissue linking me with fellow parents everywhere. Hope you and yours are well.


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