As I write this, it’s been nearly a year and a half since our son, Jackson, was born. He came almost a month early, but the delivery was smooth and we thought everything was fine. We thought. I was so excited to see my son that I didn’t notice the look of concern on the nurse’s face, or how quickly she hurried with him from the room. He spent most of his first week of life kept safe in a plastic box with an unnatural number of wires and tubes connected to him. Bad news seemed to come with each moment and each new day, but the one thing that wouldn’t come (for me at least) was tears.
It didn’t take long for us to wonder why they still hadn’t brought him back to us. We soon stopped asking because the ceaseless waves of answers and updates began crashing against us, though there was no low tide to offer even a moment’s respite. They told us he had trouble breathing, then that he was in the Neonatal ICU, and then that he was on oxygen under pressure. By the next morning he was on a ventilator and they told us he needed to be transferred to Vanderbilt. They next few days brought news of Hyaline Membrane Disease, Pulmonary Hypertension, Pneumonia, Jaundice, and Meningitis. Every time we thought we’d caught our breath, the next word came and knocked it back out. He was so frail looking that we had no way to imagine in just two weeks we would [SPOILER ALERT!] bring him home normal and healthy.
Pretty much everyone in our families cried at one point during the ordeal. Everyone but me. I’m still not sure what kept me from it. Perhaps it was a sense of needing to be strong (though I don’t know whether that was for Chrisie or myself) or an attempt to be a steadfast anchor to hold my wife. It may be because I didn’t lose hope and somehow knew it would all work out. Most likely, it’s that I was afraid if I started crying, I would never stop, that the tumult of emotion would overpower me and I would drown within its depths. Whatever the reason, I did not cry even once the entire time Jackson was in the hospital.
There were moments I came close, of course. The day after Jackson was born, the day a special ambulance moved him to the Vandy NICU, Chrisie and I came back to Clarksville to watch Autumn graduate preschool (I have no idea why such things exist). We knew it was important for her to be there and for us to be there as well, but the surreal quality of it misted my eyes. We also attended her other preschool graduation on Saturday. At this one they had a slide show featuring pictures of all the children graduating. One of Autumn was one I took earlier of Autumn and Chrisie looking into Jackson’s isolation box. It’s of Chrisie and Autumn looking into Jackson’s transport. I had to look away from the screen for a long time, but a tear never fell (at least not from me).
The next Tuesday, a week after we first went to the hospital, I felt sure I would cry. The toll of running back and forth between Clarksville and Nashville and forgetting which city we were in the few moments we fell asleep had finally caught up to us, especially Chrisie. She hadn’t stopped running since giving birth and needed to stay home to rest. I asked my dear friend Jim to drive me to Nashville for the day and he graciously agreed. Exhausted and without Chrisie around, I just knew the tears would come. They didn’t.
It was partially because Jackson was doing better, but also because Jim and I kept talking about Autumn as well. I told him about watching her the day before on one of the playgrounds at the Vandy Childrens’ Hospital and how her eyes lit up (even through sadness) at all the wonderful trains and activities they have. Then he recounted a time our families were together at my house and Autumn asked Jim to “play Batman” with her. I laughed along, loving the story even though I witnessed it first hand.
“How do we play?” he asked her.
“First, we fight. Then I fall down. You pick me up and put me on the couch. Then you cry because you think I’m dead, but then I come back to life and you hug me.”
“I think I’ve got it.”
“Right, I cry after we fight.”
“No. Cry now.” Jim loves explaining how he realized she wanted to make sure he cried convincingly. He dutifully did. It must have been enough, because they played the game repeatedly until supper.
It was amazing to find myself laughing even as my son lay with a machine breathing for him. I’m glad Jim was there. He helped provide a perspective outside my family. Also, that was the day Jackson came off the ventilator so, thanks to Jim, I have pictures of me finally getting to hold Jackson (which drove all thoughts of tears completely away).
It was still more than a week before we were able to bring him home. Each day I had plenty of opportunity for tears, but still they eluded me. I began to worry that something was wrong with me because I wasn’t crying. I’m definitely not the strong and silent type and it bothered me that my eyes remained dry.
The days passed and the beautiful, amazing day we brought Jackson home arrived. We felt excited the during the trip back (though we found the lack of beeps and a monitor to read vaguely unnerving). As we pulled in our driveway we saw a banner our friends Tulisha and Brian hung on our porch that exclaimed “WELCOME HOME JACKSON BROWN!” I felt my eyes well up, but still the tears refused to fall.
Chrisie settled in our bed with Jackson asleep in a bassinet beside her. We had promised not to keep him in our room in the beginning, but there was zero chance of that happening now. Autumn was with friends so I had a quiet moment to watch my wife and son sleep. The journey to that point was excruciating, but that tender moment eased it greatly.
I was bone weary, but couldn’t sleep so I made my way across the house and sat down on the couch in our family room. I thought of the past weeks and all the moments building to that point. I thought of Autumn getting back and my family finally being where we belonged, not in hospitals or friends’ houses, but home. I thought of all the amazing people who helped us through the most trying time in our lives. I sat in the silence and stillness.
Then, it was if a tender voice gently whispered, “Okay, cry.” And I did. I placed my face in my hands and wept. The tears finally flowed freely and emotion poured from me. The power of it was as overwhelming as I imagined, but instead of drowning me, it surrounded me and lifted me up on the crest of a building wave. It was not a wave briny with sadness, but fresh with joy and when it broke, it left me whole.