Meeting Emma

This post was the popular vote winner at Yeah Write #51.  Thank you all so much – you make me a better writer!

Every hospital has its own secret set of corridors and elevators – a lymphatic system which allows medical staff and the sickest of patients pass unseen through the building.  It hides the presence of Death from those who are there to avoid the scythe.

It was in one of these corridors that I first met my daughter.

After leaving my family several floors and many miles below, I returned to the room which had been my home for the past several weeks. There is no less comfortable place to be than a hospital room without a bed.   The remaining furniture was never truly meant to be occupied by humans, the awkwardly placed hinges and impossible to conform to curvatures are proof enough of this.  However, the very absence of the bed itself was an uncomfortable question left unanswered – is my daughter still alive?

I had spent uncounted minutes sitting on the uncomfortable chair, with the unanswered question demanding response, when a nurse arrived.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“Is my daughter alive?”

“She is right now.  If you want to see her, we have to move,” she replied and hustled out of the room.

If humanity were to exist for a billion billion years, there would not be a word invented to describe the multitude of emotions I experienced in that one moment.  It was the big bang, wrought small.  Universes expanded and collapsed, whole civilizations played out into the ether.  My daughter lived and died.

I hustled after her, into the hospital’s lymphatic system. In these corridors, the fluorescent lights were a brighter white, reflecting off of gleaming tiles and walls devoid of the human comforts found in the main corridors.   Here was utility.  Here was where battles were fought, and people lived or died.  Here was real.

We came to an elevator, near a set of double doors.

“They are going to come through those doors,” the nurse said, “and you will have about a minute with her as they call the elevator. There will be a lot of people, and they were be doing lots of things.  Ignore them.  Focus on her.”

“Ok.” I replied.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

My look either reassured her or scared her off, because I was alone in the hall.

For a moment, there was absolute silence.  Each breath echoed around the shining hall like a prayer. My heart added an undertone of frenzy, but outwardly, things appeared calm.

Then the double doors burst open, and a flash of bright yellow gowns surrounded a metal crib.  The sides were down, to allow this small army of healers attend to my daughter.  Her surgeon led the way, a gleaming key in hand.

“Meet Emma,” he said, inserting the key in the lock outside the elevator, and summoning her chariot to another operating room in another hospital.

The yellow sea parted, and I looked down on my daughter.

Her feet and legs were perfect.  They were everything any parent ever hoped for their child.  So were her tiny hands.

And then there was her neck.

Underneath her skin, on the right side of her neck, sat death.  It was ugly.  It was huge.  It was incomprehensible.  A grapefruit-sized lump dwarfed the head perched above it.  There was a strange obelisk-shape, dark purple, mounted atop the tumor, but still underneath her skin.  To me, it was a tombstone.

From her mouth, three fingers of a fatty material protruded, and stretched her chin downward to her chest.  It was the lower-half of a “Scream” mask, made of true terror – not the Halloween novelty.  Her tongue was compressed under the protruding mask, black as sin.

She didn’t move.

“Can I touch her?”

“Quickly,” somebody said.  Activity was starting to perk up around us, chimes insistent, refusing to be ignored.

I stuck my hand out and held her tiny fingers.

“Sats to 80,” I heard behind me.

“We’ve gotta move,” said her surgeon.  ”Where’s the elevator?”

I leaned over my daughter.  She smelled like a new baby.  I kissed her on her head.

“Your father loves you,” I told her.  ”I will always love you.”

The elevator doors opened, and the yellow sea whisked her inside.

I stood alone on the landing, bereft.  The doors to the elevator started to close.

“We’re going to save Emma,” said her surgeon.

She was “the fetus” no more.

101 comments

  1. My heart goes out to you. Beautiful and heartbreaking post.

  2. Robbie says:

    what a heartbreaking scene when you met your daughter. So glad the surgeon’s words were true…we’re going to save Emma.

  3. Aubrey Anne says:

    My God this is powerful. What a terrible and beautiful moment.

  4. Delilah says:

    Chills. I get chills every time I read more of your story. You leave me speechless…and that doesn’t happen often. Just ask my husband. Thank you for sharing your daughter with us. Your posts have been inspirational and beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time.

  5. Julie says:

    Chills, over and over again. This is exceptionally written. I am thrilled beyond measure that they were able to save Emma.

    On another note, I’ve read through some of your posts and I’m notifying my husband that yes, there are some real men left on this planet and he is not the only one who gets frustrated with commercials that try to make him seem like a bumbling idiot.

  6. Kerstin says:

    I can only read this because I know that Emma is with you still, doing her awesome karate moves (probably kicking our a**).
    So powerful, raw and captivating, I can barely stand it. Thank god they saved her.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks, Kerstin. It’s so liberating to go back and release some of this stuff – especially with the benefit of hindsight.

  7. christina says:

    cripes, i’m crying again. you’ve got a really great voice.

  8. The metaphor is amazing. Really. I once spent time as a patient in the hospital’s lymphatic system. I wasn’t conscious. I have no memory of it, but often feel for my loved ones who do. I can’t imagine being in your place during these moments. So grateful for you sharing your story.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much. I’ve always thought of those hallways like that, they are so hidden and vital. I really appreciate your feedback.

      • I actually read this to one of my loved ones that I spoke of. He said that you described that moment of not knowing whether one is alive or dead, going to live or die, with such perfection it was eerie. Especially this: “Universes expanded and collapsed, whole civilizations played out into the ether.” Thank you for such a beautiful piece.

        • Casey says:

          Ditto what she said; I wish I didn’t know about those hallways and feelings, but I do, and you captured it perfectly. Beautifully written.

        • Beej says:

          Sperk*, I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated your amazing feedback over these past few weeks – I’m so grateful that you’re reading and enjoying my story. Thank you.

  9. stephanie says:

    This one got me. They all do, but this one brought tears. What that must have been like to see her, and the tumor. What a story. As Sperk mentioned, I love the lymphatic metaphor, as well.

    • Beej says:

      Thank you so much, Stephanie. I’ll never do justice to what it was like to see her that first time, but I so appreciate you reading along with my fumblings at trying

  10. Ado says:

    It was the big bang, wrought small.
    Wow.
    Wow.
    Wow.
    Wow.
    What a writer you are. What a story you have to tell and how well you write it. I want this all in a book please.
    PS: Two small typos – change an “as” to “was” and a “sats” to “stats” – sorry, it’s the editor in me. (-: This piece is so good it’s perfect. And your description of the hospital system – all the emotions. Wow. Tears.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much, Ado. And you’re spot on, there are a bunch of typos I need to fix. Ugh.

      On this one, though, “sats” is right – it’s for oxygen saturation. However, lots and lots of other typos. I am the world’s worst copyeditor!

  11. Wowed by this whole passage: “If humanity were to exist for a billion billion years, there would not be a word invented to describe the multitude of emotions I experienced in that one moment. It was the big bang, wrought small. Universes expanded and collapsed, whole civilizations played out into the ether.” Love the story-telling here and the story—I am on the edge of my seat. It has every element of great drama. Now I can’t wait to meet the girl who is obviously going to be our star. Just wonderful, Erin

  12. Beej says:

    Thanks, Erin. That kiddo is a pretty great girl. I’m really lucky to have her.

  13. Mayor Gia says:

    Again, how scary! Oof.

  14. heidi says:

    Oh my God. I don’t have words. This “It was the big bang, wrought small. Universes expanded and collapsed, whole civilizations played out into the ether. My daughter lived and died.” is achingly beautiful and powerful.
    As horrible as it was I’m glad you had that moment with her, that moment to say I love you and I’m here.
    Thank you for telling you story. We need your story.

  15. Sheesh. I braced myself before I read this because I’m starting to learn your story, but tears formed nonetheless. As everyone here agrees, you’re a beautiful writer, but most importantly, it’s obvious what a loving and courageous father you are. Your daughter is a lucky girl. On many counts.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks, Kim. I really appreciate it. If the only thing I get to be in this life is a great dad, that’s more than enough.

  16. Miranda says:

    You create such beautiful and haunting imagery with each post about the story of your daughter’s birth. Thanks for sharing the story with us and doing it so well.

  17. laurel says:

    Beautiful story, thank you for sharing. Brought me to tears.

  18. It’s like I was standing right there with you. How very scary…I can NOT even imagine. As one of the others said, I can only read this because your daughter is alive. This truly is a miracle.

  19. Cindy kahler says:

    Wow Ben. Amazing journey you have been on. Tough to read this through tears. Love to you and Emma.

    • Beej says:

      Holy moly. Friends – meet Cindy Kahler. Cindy and her husband Dan have an amazing son and a story at least as tough as mine. They’re the reason I survived that first year at all!

  20. My babies were perfectly healthy and I felt like “the Big Bang wrought small” was exploding my life when I first looked into their eyes; add a problem and I can’t even imagine. But you don’t have to imagine because you know, and you’re telling it beautifully.

    • Beej says:

      Thank you so much for reading, Louise. I suspect it’s like that for most every parent, seeing your kids for the first time – sick or not!

  21. Christie says:

    What a poignant post. I love how you describe the hospital as a lymphatic system and the way you describe your emotions as “the big bang, wrought small.”

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much, Christie – as an aside, I saw a bunch of “liberal religion” stuff on your blog? Are you UU perchance? I work for the UUA, which is why I ask.

  22. kgwaite says:

    First of all, the words, “she is right now…” are so incredibly powerful and truly tell all. Second, I love that nurse. A true and loving caregiver. Beautiful job.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much! That “right now” will always ring ominously and ecstatically in the bells of my memory!

  23. Susan says:

    incredible. what a strong father and daughter you two are. seriously, incredible.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much Susan. I still don’t know if it’s strength or just surrender to circumstances – there is some degree of liberation when so much is out of one’s control, but I do know she’s a damn strong kiddo! Your blog this week was amazing!

  24. I am speechless. Um – tears in my eyes here. I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like for you but your wrote this and, well, it’s an incredible story.

    Still mostly speechless.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much, Tracy. I’m finding that as a writer, and a decade later, I was pretty lucky to have this story land in my life. It is a fertile garden, all I need to do is tend it a bit!
      Hope no chicken heads landed in your yard!

  25. Good Lord you get me every week. Your writing is amazing. Your story… I have no words for your story.

  26. This is an amazing post. I think I stopped breathing while I was reading it. I don’t know how you made it through that moment and I’m so glad the surgeon saved Emma. I loved that you kissed her and told her you loved her and that you had the presence of mind to do that in that moment.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much for reading and your kind words, Jennifer. I’m not sure I breathed for nearly a year, honestly – but in that moment, I think I was like any other parent when first encountering their kid – flooded with love and possibility and a little bit of fear.

  27. Office Crush says:

    This is wonderful and terrible all at the same time. I can’t even imagine.

  28. I work in a hospital and your description of the “lymphatic system” is perfect.

    Very well written and heartbreaking. I may have to take a break from reading after this. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Beej says:

      Thank you so much for reading, and for your very kind words. I hope I didn’t keep you from reading for too long – there were lots of other really, really great stories out there this week!

  29. Leigh Ann says:

    Oh geez I am crying! This is such a powerful, heart wrenching, edge of your seat piece. I can’t imagine your fear and your heartache at having to say your first hello to her in such circumstances.

  30. This is an incredible post. And I have just spent a long time getting to know you and your story through your blog. Amazing talent, right here. I am so grateful that I linked up with Yeah Write this week and was able to discover you. Thank you to all the blog forces that create these meetings.

    • Beej says:

      I’m really glad you linked up too, Tania. I really appreciate your taking the time to read, and I am also grateful for your very kind words!

  31. If writing and story telling can be described as perfect, then yours is perfect. Just right.

  32. Jackie says:

    Again, like some of the others have said, if I didn’t know your Emma was healthy and all grown up, I don’t know if I could go on. Her story, your story is just wow!

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much, Jackie. If Emma didn’t wind up ok, I probably never would have been able to write this. She’s been such a gift to me in so many ways – this story is probably the smallest, but it really transformed everything about my life!

  33. Beautiful, just beautiful.

  34. Your story is extraordinary, no doubt, but what I’m most struck by is the way you tell it. The way I feel like I know you and experience every moment with you through your words. Your blog title is true, my friend. In every possible way.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much, Katie. I really feel like this story gave me whatever writerly tools I have – it forced such detail and emotion to be embedded in my psyche, that the story kind of tells itself. Also, you reminded me that I should probably blog about why the blog is called “Dad of the Decade!” there’s a small story there, and I don’t want anyone to think it’s self-proclaimed or seriously believed! :)

  35. Jenny says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, beautifully told even though the subject is so difficult. I wasn’t in touch with you when all this happened, so, strange as it may sound, it’s good to read and catch up on what you’ve been through.

    • Beej says:

      Hi Jenny –

      I’m so glad to be back in touch! It’s funny how people are frozen in time from when they last encountered each other, and in between we all have these stories unfolding unknown to those missing people! Thanks so much for reading!

  36. This was absolutely riveting. And you told your story so well – I felt like I was standing right there with you in that hallway and, later, beside you looking down at your daughter. I’d say I would not have been nearly as calm and serene as you – that I would’ve been in a million pieces on the floor – but I don’t know if that’s true. Being placed in the middle of such surreal circumstances, I know, can have an unfamiliar effect on people.

    As it is, the only thing that kept me from being in a million pieces on the floor while reading this post is the knowledge the the surgeon was right. God bless you and your Emma.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much, Kristin. I’m not sure I was calm and serene – I think there was probably a lot of hysteria behind my eyes, but when you have an only chance – and this may have been my only chance to see my kiddo – I am pretty sure you would have taken it too. I really, really appreciate your reading and kind words.

  37. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for you. I am so so glad the surgeon was right.

  38. Sara says:

    A gorgeous, tearful, soul-blasting and courageous read. Thank you.

  39. It amazes me how you remember this with such clarity; every work, moment. You have me hook, line and sinker. See you next week.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much, Kim. I kind of think of many of these memories as scars – they are there, emotionally and mentally, for me to go back and read. They’re permanent, part of me, and unavoidable. It was so hard, early on, but now I am proud of those scars.

  40. This was the best thing I have read in a while, but heartbreaking at the same time.

    I wanted to give that nurse a high-five for bringing you through the lymphatic system and preparing you to focus on your daughter in what must have been the craziest few seconds of your life.

    Just an awesome piece, dude.

    • Beej says:

      Hey Youngman – thanks so much for reading, and for your very kind words. I didn’t know it at the time, but that nurse was awesome. She gave me the emotional kick in the backside I needed to cope with that intense moment, and then the advice and space I needed to do it in my own way.

      Also, welcome to Yeah Write – I really enjoyed reading your blog, too!

  41. Pish Posh says:

    WOW. I truly have goosebumps over. I’m not sure I have the words right now. Just wow, and my heart goes out to you.

  42. Kristin says:

    To have such a private moment made so public must have been difficult. But I’m sure it gave those helping Emma even more resolve to succeed.

    • Beej says:

      Thanks so much, Kristin. It’s funny – private moments are one of the first things you have to let go of when there is a long-term illness. I still haev nurses in my house every day, and so much of my daughter’s private life is very institutionally public. It’s weird how easily that slips away.

  43. Susie Newday says:

    Wow. Is. All. I. Can. Say.

  44. Ado says:

    Congrats. This was my favorite post of the week. So glad you won! Well done! (-:

    • Beej says:

      Ado, you are amazing. You have been so welcoming, and encouraging, and flat out good to me since the very day I started this blog. Thank you.

  45. kim says:

    Another awesome post about a horrific situation. I feel the emotion drip off of every word in a truly beautiful way.

  46. Jennifer says:

    Your writing slays me. It is incredible.

  47. Stacey says:

    I’m late to the party this week, but Wow. Totally bown away by both your writing and all you’ve been through. If I didn’t know Emma was okay, I’d be a blubbering mess right now.

  48. This simply moved me. You are a talented writer. You told this story beautifully.

  49. I loved this when I read it on YeahWrite and I love it even more now. Such an epic tale of love…moving and memorable!

  50. [...] at Dad of the Decade, easily brought me into the scene and moved me with his piece entitled “Meeting Emma.” Raw, honest, well-described, and heart-felt is how I would explain this beautifully-written [...]

  51. [...] at Dad of the Decade wins his second popular vote by sharing the first time he saw his daughter Emma after she was born with numerous medical issues and right before the first of her many life-saving surgeries. Of the [...]

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