My six-year-old is wheeled back into pre-op wiping fresh tears from his eyes with hands noticeably shaking. I was not expecting to see him nearly so soon. In fact I didn’t expect to see him again for several hours yet. To the best of my knowledge, getting your tonsils out takes substantially longer than three or four minutes. Something has definitely gone wrong.
“We had a melt down,” my wife says with forced calm that tells its own story. “When they tried to put the mask on, he just …” she doesn’t say “lost it” and she doesn’t have to. I know what that panic looks like. I’ve seen it during enough blood draws by now to recognize that it’s an electric thing that takes on a life of its own. The anesthesiologist smiles from behind the elaborate gurney, frustration buried deep behind a practiced expression.
“We’re going to give him a sedative. It might help his nerves. Also, the medicine we’ll use will probably let him forget what goes on once it takes effect.” There’s a hidden message there that every adult in the room understands. If we have to hold him down next time we take him in for surgery, the message says, at least he won’t remember it.
“I just couldn’t do it, Daddy.” Fresh tears threaten to spill onto his cheek. I nod in what I think is a fatherly way, but I don’t understand and I’m terrified that he will see the horrible hint of disappointment that I am working so hard to hide.
I have always been worried about communicating with my sons. I worry because I have seen enough fathers and sons who go through agonizing decades of not understanding one another, both sides carrying shared responsibility for the insurmountable walls that are built across great landscapes of grief and guilt. I worry because of the relationship I had with my own father for so many years.
Though we have overcome most — not all — of those obstacles, the memories are still there. It is not that we are necessarily so dissimilar, in fact that may be the problem. Our mixture is a volatile one, a fiery and rocky thing that buries deep into our Irish heritage, or so we like to tell one another. Never violent, the hurts we have managed to inflict on one another, very often without ever meaning to, ran much deeper.
I do not want my own son and I to go through that long, potholed road to understanding, and yet I feel too often the seeds being sown. He is a challenging boy, just as I am certainly a challenging father, intensely energetic who struggles like no one I’ve ever seen to fight the impulses that seem to drive him, and when those impulses overtake him, he seems abandoned in a drowning sea of his own making. Worse, I am unequipped to deal with it. I too often interpret it as willful stubbornness, even as I can see in his eyes that he is begging for someone to give him the tools to overcome his impulses.
How can I tell him that I don’t have the tools to understand much less help? And so we both become monumentally frustrated for different reasons.
“One to ten, how bad?” I ask my wife.
“Ten.” She says. The fact that she doesn’t even joke with an eleven or a hundred confirms what I suspect. When they had tried to put that mask over his face, he must have become feral. My guess is that they don't wheel a majority of kids back into the pre-op area for a good solid reset.
I am holding in my hand a replica of the anesthesia mask that is the current source of my son’s deep fear. It is a soft and harmless looking thing, but I catch him eyeing it suspiciously.
I should be doing something. If I were the father I wanted to be, what would I do?
My father and I communicated through sports and music. It was not always ideal, but it was the way we could reset, get back to common ground. When the world had been cleaved in two, one half being the way in that I saw it and the other half being the alien, parallel, bizarro world that was his perception, the way to merge the two back into a jury-rigged functional place was through the lens of quarterback stats and southern rock.
For all the things I might be able to say about my father’s relationship with me, the dysfunctional years that seemed like they’d never end, he always tried. He was always willing to come back to the field, put on his helmet and see if we couldn’t bang out some kind of middle ground. As a father myself now, I know that’s just what you do, not because it’s noble and not because you’re trying to win an award but because it’s worth doing.
In front of me is a scared six-year-old who is putting on a brave face because I showed him where to keep the mask, and it’s my job to know how to help him overcome the fear that threatens to pull him under. This time, telling him to just put on the mask and not to worry so much about it won’t just be ineffective. It could be destructive. The fact that I don’t understand that fear in the first place is irrelevant, that I don’t understand why he didn’t just put the mask on like we’d talked about is just not helpful.
And, if my wife and I can’t do it, then they are going to hold him down and force him to breathe deep until chemical sleep overtakes his panicked mind.
“Let’s practice,” I say.
The medium for my son and I to reset is video games. When we reach those impassable waters where you can imagine your relationship being run aground in a tempest of wind and rock, we pull back to the familiar waters of Lego games and Rock Band. Imaginary adventures give us comfort, and when he settles into the crook of my arm as we sit side-by-side on the floor playing games that others might dismiss as meaningless, I realize that gaming has become important in my life like I had never expected.
I suppose often it’s true that you can only understand your own parents once you’ve become one. You can only really see who you were as a child once you have to look through the lens from the other direction. It can’t be a coincidence that my own relationships have been repaired at the same time that I’ve become a father myself.
My boy is wearing his practice mask, with his eyes closed. “Ok,” I say. “You’ve got your scuba gear on and you’re jumping off the boat. How many dolphins do you see? Count them out loud.” He counts out twenty dolphins with enthusiasm, pressing the mask to his face. “Can you keep up with them? Can you swim as fast as them.” He giggles a yes.
The doctors and nurses have gathered to wheel him back to the OR. They smile at one another to see my son wearing the mask and swimming with whales and dolphins. As they begin to roll him out of the room I kiss the top of his head, and remind him that the mask is his scuba gear, and he gives me a thumbs up. “Rock on!” I call out as they wheel him through the double doors, and the last sound I hear before the doors close is his laughter.
I suppose it all can be explained by the sedative, but I hold on to the idea that I was able to connect with my son when no one else could, and that gives me hope.
They tell me that he happily and calmly counted two dolphins before he was under.