Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Eight: "Matters Of Life and Death" (Pt.1)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 4th Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

In today's gripping installment our first son, Micah, is born extremely ill and is whisked off to the neonatal unit at the University of Michigan. Find out what happens to him!

Ripped From Our Arms

When I got to the hospital minutes later after setting land speed records down Cooper Street from the prison, Nancy told me that sometime during the night Micah had lost his ability to suckle and had developed a fever that appeared to be growing higher. Though the doctors had been trying to bring it down, their current efforts had proved unsuccessful, and they were seeking permission to send him to the neonatal unit over in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, because they were suspecting something infinitely worse. The dreaded words spinal meningitis had been whispered to us, but no one had explained how that was possible, however, we were in favor of anything that would save Micah, and so papers were signed, and he was whisked away, but not before one prescient nurse took his baby picture in the nursery even though he was not yet a full day old.

Nancy and I sat there in her room in stunned silence. We could not fathom any of this. She was not healthy enough yet to leave the hospital, and yet her infant son had just been ripped from her arms and been sent to another hospital 35 miles to the east. Her heart went along with him as did part of mine though I was torn completely in two. I was needed most right there.

By this time, Nancy had placed a phone call to her mom and dad who had recently relocated to South Carolina, and her dad in his usual bravado had responded that they would be leaving within the hour, and knowing him they probably did. It wasn’t a short drive. But they arrived early the next morning, Tuesday, sometime before I was allowed to check Nancy out from the hospital and take her home.

Due to the episiotomy and the complications from the dry birth and forceps delivery she had undergone a more difficult delivery than one might have expected and one that required a lot of internal stitching afterwards, and for that reason she was kept an extra day in the hospital to recuperate and under doctor’s order to not travel to Ann Arbor to see Micah before Wednesday at the earliest. We’d been in constant contact with the neonatal unit there, however, and so far the news hadn’t been good.

A spinal tap had been positive for spinal meningitis, and it had been explained to us before we checked Nancy out of the hospital in Jackson that what likely happened is that since there had been a dry birth, no doubt the amniotic sac surrounding the baby had developed a pinhole leak rather than the gusher which normally occurs. This leak probably only leaked a tiny bit of fluid at a time during normal urination and she never even knew it, and it could have occurred as early as two or three days before she went into full labor. Since the birth canal carries bacteria in it naturally, once the sac was completely void of fluid some of this bacteria must have infected the child. Odds of that were placed at 1 in 3 million, a long shot, but it happens we were told, and it had happened to us, because Micah’s variety was bacterial in nature.

He was resting comfortably on a ventilator in the unit in Ann Arbor at the U of M where the staff was working to bring down his fever and wipe the bacteria from his body. They would explain further options to us when we could get there.

Options. Somehow I didn’t like the sound of that word.

We visited on Wednesday. We walked into the neonatal unit full of infants in various levels of distress all in incubators to visit our son. The scene was absolutely surreal if for no other reason than this: of the dozens of incubators in this unit, infant after infant so absolutely tiny, palm-sized, premature, I couldn’t begin to imagine how any of these babies could make it and yet many of them would, and then we arrived at Micah’s incubator, and here he was our 8 ½ pound, 22 inch perfectly pink whale crammed into this device, barely fitting into it, fully formed and serenely beautiful, I almost laughed through my tears. It just wasn’t fair. Life is not fucking FAIR! I wanted to scream!

Nancy and I stood holding hands for a few minutes, and I quietly said a prayer, but I didn’t want to keep her standing too long, so we went back to the waiting room with Nancy‘s parents, and we were soon joined by one of the physicians. It was explained they had taken a brain scan yesterday, and they would be taking one at some point that day to show brain activity. So far there was still brain activity, so that was a good sign. They would like us to stay until after they took that day’s scan. No problem.

A couple hours later after they took that scan we were informed that there was still brain activity though less so than the previous day, and they had not been able to reduce Micah’s fever. Their fear was that the meningitis was having its way with him. We were given the straight talk of possible options . . . gentle, but straight. If they could reduce the fever, and that was a big if, there existed the possibility his life could be preserved, but no doubt there would be some brain damage. How much? Only time would tell that. Otherwise, they would continue taking brain scans every 24 hours. If it got to the point that they should get two flat line brain scans in a row thus indicating to them no brain activity whatsoever, they would be allowed to declare Micah legally dead and would be seeking our permission to remove him from the ventilator. They asked us if we understood all of this. We nodded and mumbled.

That night after we returned home to our apartment, after the sun had gone down, Nancy and I were nestled on the couch in the front room trying to console one another, and I just lost it. Up until that point in time, I’d been reasonably stoic about everything with just the occasional misty eye here and there, or a sniffle now and then, but this time I really, really lost it, and when I starting sobbing I couldn’t stop. My body became so racked with tears like it hadn’t been since the mother-of-all-beatings, and it was so bad that Nancy stopped weeping and grabbed onto me for dear life, because I think she thought for a moment I might stop breathing or something. I was crying almost to the point of convulsing. I was sobbing for Micah. I was weeping for my grandma Bess, because I missed her. I was bawling because my parents weren’t there for me when I needed to feel their love the most even though they lived only a few miles away. And I was probably wailing for a lot of other reasons unknown to me at that moment, but it all poured out of me for the next horrible half hour finally subsiding in a crumpled mess on the floor next to the couch.

Thursday we returned to the unit, and when they took Micah’s brain scan we received the news of the flat line with as much courage as we could muster. Our prayers at that point had been that God’s will be done whatever that should be, and please just keep us strong throughout whatever we should face. I couldn’t ask for more, and I knew Micah wasn’t in any pain; we’d already been assured of that. So when told of the flat line, the fork in the road had been chosen for us. It was then just a matter of how Friday’s page of the story would be written.

All our tears had been shed prior to Friday’s flat line. Nancy and I were almost zombie-like by our return that afternoon when informed of the final outcome. The staff in Ann Arbor were so kind to us in preparing to give us some space for the final good-bye. We were told that after removing Micah from the ventilator his heart would not stop immediately that it could be a matter of minutes or even hours before it finally faded. Were we prepared for that? We were prepared for anything. We were already in shock. Impervious.

We were led to a private sitting room, and after Micah was removed from the ventilator a nurse brought him into us in a little white swaddling blanket, and she placed him into Nancy's hungry arms. Mine were hungry too, but they would remain so. I rubbed his head and his arms, felt his heart which was still beating but getting a bit slower all the time. We just kept looking at each other and back at our peaceful child slowly slipping away from us in Nancy’s arms. Eventually Micah started turning a pale blue, ever so slowly at first then more noticeably so. It didn’t take long. About twenty minutes or so, and then I thought his heartbeat had ceased, and I looked at Nancy and she nodded slightly. Neither of us cried.

I stepped out of the room momentarily to fetch a nurse who confirmed our diagnosis that Micah had passed. He’d been with us on Earth for five whole days.

Grand Tutorial

If we thought that the situation would now soon ease up for us with Micah’s passing, Nancy and I were in for a grand tutorial in Life. At the tender age of 25, I and my 20 year old bride now had to begin preparing for something no parent should ever have to prepare for in their own lifetime let alone prepare for at such a young and inexperienced age and that was the visitation and funeral of their child. How does one do that? Thankfully Nancy’s mom and dad were there with us to at least steer us in the direction of a funeral home to assist us with the arrangements. Her family had always dealt with Burden’s in Jackson, and I knew they had a good, solid reputation so it was fine by me, and that’s where we went. I felt extremely thankful that I’d been paying close attention to details when I assisted in a minor way during the passing of my grandma Bess eight years earlier, because that education at least gave me some minor foundation from which to draw upon now. My wobbly legs and knees though they kept feeling like they would buckle at any time mercifully did not.

We found that there were specially made containers for infants of some kind of high-grade sealable plastic material that looked just beautiful, and with the embalming and one night’s visitation use of a room plus cost of a notice in the newspaper would run us about $600. That would wipe out our savings, but we could swing it. They would help us arrange for the burial plot at Roseland Cemetery in the Babyland section which cost us a few hundred more, and I can’t recall how we paid for that, but I know that we couldn’t afford a marker, and Micah’s plot lies unmarked to this day. We did make arrangements to use the pavilion there at Roseland for the funeral though preferring to have a brief service there near the gravesite rather than a long drawn out affair elsewhere.

Our tears had all been spent. And so throughout the visitation at Burden’s on Sunday afternoon, and at the funeral on Monday Nancy and I found ourselves comforting everyone else. All of our closest friends were our age, many of them young couples themselves in their 20’s with young children, and so it wasn’t a stretch for them to empathize with us. They were shocked. All. Many had difficulty putting into words to try and comfort us, and so we found ourselves comforting them. Many had tears upon seeing Micah in his tiny white satin-draped container, in fact, one of them, our close friend Margi, a young mother herself and just six months younger than me cried almost as much as we had. The Leslie Congregation saw itself in unfathomable grief over this.

And so on Monday, July 26, 1976 while our nation continued it’s summer-long bicentennial celebration my wife and I buried our firstborn son. And we buried him exactly one week before our first wedding anniversary.

And then the ritual was all over. And the reality of the situation really set in.

(In the next installment which concludes this chapter, find out how Nancy and I have difficulty in dealing with our grief.)

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Childbirth, Memoir, Memoirs, Meningitis, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Serial, Series, True Experience, True Stories, True Story

Meet the author

author avatar Ken Painter
Retired Chicago public school teacher. Singer, songwriter, musician, author, & opinionated old curmudgeon. Married to my husband & living in Colorado, USA. Also a father & grandfather.

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