Fathers and Sons

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.

Comments

Well, this article has hit me doubly hard.

I'm going to get a bit personal here but since we're all plopping our hearts down...

I'd first like to ask that if anyone has gone through this, please send me a PM or something because I'm scared as hell.

I didn't know this but it seems it's a rather common occurrence for male children to be born with what appears to be one testicle. The other one is hiding up inside the groin region. It's referred to as an undescended testicle. I was super scared that my son was born with one ball and did what any rational person would have done and blamed it on myself. I was soon corrected and told that it was normal and that it would most likely drop by 3 months of age but that didn't dissuade me from offering some words of encouragement to it every time I would change him.

The one caveat was that in the rare case it didn't drop, my son was going to need surgery to coax it along a bit and drop it down. Surgery requires anesthesia. Anesthesia requires a patient to be at least 6 months old. And because the possibility of surgery existed, my son couldn't get circumcised right out the gate. Thankfully, my sons reclusive nut decided to greet the world right around the 3 month mark so all was in order there. However we still had to wait for the 6 month mark for the circumcision which at this point requires anesthesia.

Before he turned 6 months last week we took him to see a top urologist in NJ and the consultation went better than expected - everything was in order. I had the doc double check the royal jewels and he said they were fine. So we scheduled an appointment.

Now I know it's just a short procedure but I can't help but be scared as hell. I have no way of comforting my son. I have no way of consoling him and trying to distract him from the reality of the situation. I hope the anesthesia prevents him from feeling any pain but who can say? I know some basic information about anesthesia - dosage to weight ratio, etc. but for a 6 month old child that barely weighs 20 pounds? There's something very unnerving about taking this little guy who really can't do anything for himself and handing him over to strangers to be medicated and sliced.

I dunno...I'm just really really nervous and your article being related to our hopes, doubts and fears as fathers combined with it all taking place in a hospital for a procedure on your son made it hit home twice as hard.

Baaspei & Chooka - beautiful pictures.

It's a rare thing when an article manages to place a lump in my throat and forces me to blink more often that I should.

Bravo Sean for one of the most moving articles I have ever read, from one father to another.

Sean, man you rocked it. Great piece.

My tonsillectomy at that age left me with scars against the medical profession for many years. Think running crazed in, around and under things at the doctors office for 45 minutes and having 4 nurses and your mother hold you down in the end and you begin to get the idea of the mistrust and fear that can be sown in the mind of a 5-7 year old.

I think you did a great job with your son, getting him to relax, go somewhere else and at a minimum not have a really negative experience.

chooka wrote:

Beautifully written sir,read through tears.
We went through our first Tonsil/Adenoid operation with my eight year old daughter a few months back,my six year old daughter is due for the same operation in a couple of weeks.
Below is a shot of my baby with a swollen face not long after the op,Care Bear did a good job looking after her Bronwyn tells me.

I just noticed the Care Bear with the mask on! Classic. I am sure that Care Bear earned its paycheck that day!

Damn.

I don't cry -- ask my wife (to her never-ending annoyance). Boy, would she be pissed to see me now.

Or, if she read the article, maybe not.

I'm glad I read this today, and not yesterday. My almost-3-year-old had a... something last night. He woke up about 10:30, wailing, and just kept doing it while Mama tried to settle him. It wasn't really crying, more of a formless noise, and he couldn't seem to stop. Or open his eyes, really, or tell us what was wrong. After about 10 minutes, I went in to try to help.

After trying unsuccessfully to soothe him, I asked him, mostly in frustration, what he wanted. "I want to go HOME!" he sobbed. I picked him up, Mama wrapped a blanket around us, and I walked the length of the room with him, telling him we were on our way home now. I laid him down, tucked him in, and he was asleep before I made it to his door.

I'm convinced that all kids are crazy, and you never know what's going to set them off. I'm also convinced that making everything ok is the best thing I'll ever do.

Thanks for posting this! I can totally relate.

Home Run, my man. Well done.

Very touching and nice to read about this

The "I just couldn't do it, Daddy" did it for me. And the way you handled it-- well, I can only hope I'm that good of a parent when our time comes around.

The "I just couldn't do it, Daddy" did it for me.

Thinking back this is always the moment that kills me too. He was just so earnest, it kinda broke my heart.

Man...the office sure is dusty today! Geez.

Incredible article and really hit a lot of points that seem to resonate with such force. Why is it that we, as men and fathers, so broken in this way, in our relationships with OUR fathers. You could've been talking about My dad, except without the rock music bridges. And the point about not understanding how you really were as a child until you watch your own children is spot on as well.

With a new (and completely unexpected: IUD has a 99.6% effectiveness rate and I happen to be in the 0.4% club!) kid on the way this year, I can only hope that I can respond to fears as well and as thoughtfully as you have.

I'm sharing the article with my wife ASAP.

Thanks again.

ColdForged wrote:

I'll personally never forget lowering my daughter into the iron maidenish contraption they use to get infant/toddler chest Xrays several years ago..

I vividly remember the exact same thing with my daughter. She looked so small and helpless in that thing, but the thing that touched me was how brave she was, not a tear, I was probably closer to crying than she was.

Benticore wrote:

I'm sharing the article with my wife ASAP.

Ditto.

After reading the article here's my wife:

Wifey: "Very nice article."

Meh: "Yeah it really hit me."

Approximate 5 minutes of silence...

Wifey: "Are there any female gamers on that site?"

Meh: "Yeah! There's momgamer and RedJen and Katerin who also writes articles and St Hillary and there's guy/gal couples, and married couples, and...

It all came out too fast for her to handle and she recoiled but the seed has been planted!

Writing like this is why I visit the site.

AcidCat wrote:
ColdForged wrote:

I'll personally never forget lowering my daughter into the iron maidenish contraption they use to get infant/toddler chest Xrays several years ago..

I vividly remember the exact same thing with my daughter. She looked so small and helpless in that thing, but the thing that touched me was how brave she was, not a tear, I was probably closer to crying than she was.

I can't even take my kids to get shots which is kind of strange because I'm the EMT in the house when anyone gets hurt. I can't stand watching a needle get poked into them and I get all stressed out. How much of a pussy am I?

Great Article. I cried and now embarassed. Trying to explain myself at work. So I made them read it and cry. I hope everything goes/went well with the recovery process.

Thanks for that man. 3rd generation Irish/Italian, with probably an additional 2 or 3 worth of angst, here - so I understand the family vibe. I just became a Dad 3 weeks ago, a little girl named Gemma, and the thing that keeps me up at night is how to break the cycle of father/child misunderstanding. My Dad, like yours it sounds, always tried to relate to me, but wasn't really ever able (at least until I was old enough to drink:)). The thing that keeps me up at night is how to find a way to relate to my daughter, how to find something that we can share. I am glad that it sounds like you can share video games with your son. I hope that my little girl will be a gamer too:)

You amaze me and humble me at the same time. Fatherhood is looking more and more daunting, but I guess we all hit that point in our lives at some point, prepared or not optional.

Blotto The Clown wrote:

You amaze me and humble me at the same time. Fatherhood is looking more and more daunting, but I guess we all hit that point in our lives at some point, prepared or not optional.

I think most if not all of the parents here will agree with me; you are NEVER prepared. Oh you can make preparations and you can be ready but you are never prepared.

Also, my cousin taught me one of the coolest things you can do as a parent. Every year he recorded a 3-4 minute video on his kids 1st day of school. Just them saying a few words, how old they are etc.

We watched it at his daughters high school graduation party and it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Some years the change was minimal, others it was unbelievable.

I tried reading this piece but these new glasses are making me tear up.

I was a bit stunned to see the photo and the initial topic for this post.

Just a week ago, I took my two-year-old son into the hospital for spinal surgery to correct a tethered chord. Needless to say, it was a terrifying thing to put my only child through, one who is only just starting to make the connections, one who is just starting to use full (shockingly elaborate!) sentences. Recovery meant four nights at the hospital. Meanwhile, my wife got ill the same weekend, and my inlaws who traveled to help were also incapacitated by stomach flu. I spent about 20 hours a day (including the nights) at the hospital at my son's bedside. It was physically and emotionally taxing.

I only discovered this site & podcast a few months ago. Preparing to go into the hospital, I loaded up on old GWJ podcasts to have something pleasant and distracting to listen to at night. A part of me felt silly about it: I was going to shut out the hourly nurse checkins, the crying of all the children on my floor, and try to get to sleep by listening to Certis talk about getting his Wii three years ago. Yes, I was and did.

Thanks Elysium and Co. for giving us a place to talk about these kinds of things (and video games too). It's fun listening to you guys, and it did me a lot of good.

My son's sitting next to me now. Still getting his energy back but doing well. As terrified as we are for them, they are such amazingly strong and resilient creatures. Can't wait to play some Mario with him one of these days.

so glad I found this article - so glad to join and become a member!

What a tear jerker, man. This article touched places I generally don't like to go. My heart goes out to you and yours, Elysium.

Thanks Elysium and Co. for giving us a place to talk about these kinds of things (and video games too). It's fun listening to you guys, and it did me a lot of good.

My son's sitting next to me now. Still getting his energy back but doing well. As terrified as we are for them, they are such amazingly strong and resilient creatures. Can't wait to play some Mario with him one of these days.

That's enough to keep us going another three years. Really glad your son is getting better!

I'm not crying.. It's just these darn allergies..
Thank you for this, Elysium. I hope he's doing well.

FSeven wrote:

Wifey: "Are there any female gamers on that site?"

Meh: "Yeah! There's momgamer and RedJen and Katerin who also writes articles and St Hillary and there's guy/gal couples, and married couples, and...

It all came out too fast for her to handle and she recoiled but the seed has been planted!

Indeed! Would love to add to the female population here at GWJ.

Very endearing and touching. I think this hits parents and non-parents alike. Excellent piece.
Thank you for sharing.

Thumbs up - thanks for reminding us how important dads are

Elysium wrote:

Is there anything better in the world than having your baby sleep on your chest.

Answer: no there is not.

I beg to differ. Having a baby asleep on your chest WHILE YOU GET SOME SLEEP is in fact better. The betterness goes quadratically with how much the two of you have been not-sleeping recently.

What a superb article, Ely.

I had to put my son into a hard plastic "sleeve" to get an x-ray when he was just a toddler. I had no way to calm him, and he couldn't really communicate with me except that he was frightened and in pain. Being forced to put him in that thing and leave the room unable to comfort him while he was crying so fearfully was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Fortunately he'll (hopefully) never remember it, but I will, always.

Thank you so much for sharing this, and I hope he's recovering well.

(Sorry if I've missed a pertinent comment, but I didn't read the last three pages before typing this)

Edit: I've read all the comments now, and shed a few more tears.

ColdForged wrote:

I'll personally never forget lowering my daughter into the iron maidenish contraption they use to get infant/toddler chest Xrays several years ago.

ColdForged, I understand completely.

Powerful stuff. I don't have much to offer from my own experiences, but I felt compelled to post my appreciation. Thank you for sharing.