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.


Damnit, read it for the second time now and I'm crying again! Very touching, thank you.

I wanted to wait a few days before relaying this story, but my son (7) had his tonsils out a few years ago. The operation went fine, we prepared him for the operation, recovery, etc. Well, apparently his throat never scabbed properly, and four nights later he comes into our room and starts throwing up blood. We drove him (flew is more like it) to the ER and it turns out they needed to re-cauterize right away, so suddenly they're prepping him for sugery, this time without the kid-friendly environment, and he wasn't prepared. He gives me this heartbreaking look and says "I have to have surgery again?" and I could tell he was freaking out, so I just put aside my own (not inconsiderable) panic and explained it to him in terms he could understand - which according to my wife involved Lego Star Wars, my memory is a little hazy there

So yeah, that was my crisis moment as a parent too.

Once again, I need to say that this is an amazing article. No matter how many times I read it, the impact isn't lost on me.

I have noticed some comments by soon-to-be (or just became) fathers saying that they feel totally unprepared. Accept this feeling and be comfortable with it. With two daughters (2 years old and 5 years old), I find that whenever I start feeling completely prepared for things, that is when bad things happen.

You can never be prepared for what life with kids is going to throw at you. There is just no way that you can possibly think like a 2 or 3 year old. All you can do is be ready for the unexpected.

Good grief, Norman. I'm so glad you didn't tell me that story a few days ago. It is far too easy to picture that scenario and the trauma that would go with it in my mind. I hope your son is doing much better now.

I am happy to report that 6 days in the recovery is going well.

Thanks again to everyone who has gotten in touch with me the past few days. I don't think I've ever gotten such a bundle or warm fuzzies from something I wrote.

I don't think I've ever gotten such a bundle or warm fuzzies from something I wrote.

You know you could just keep doing stuff like this. Just multiply the usual articles by -1

Oh yeah - full recovery, he's actually lorded it over his sister that he had surgery *twice*.

I figured I should sit on that story for a few days for your peace-of-mind

Aries wrote:

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.

Pro-tip: they do forget. At least at that age. I won't be she did.

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...

Don't forget about kuddles!

Elysium wrote:

Thanks again to everyone who has gotten in touch with me the past few days. I don't think I've ever gotten such a bundle or warm fuzzies from something I wrote.

Elysium, you are normally the anti-rabbit when it comes to family stories. He makes me broody, you make me want to get the snip. Yet, although I'm sure this experience was terrifying in a way I can't understand, it was a beautiful snapshot of fatherhood.

ColdForged wrote:
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...

Don't forget about kuddles!

*Muttley snicker*

Beautiful story Elysium, just beautiful.

I had my tonsils removed when I was around nine and was one of those they had to hold down. Everything was fine, I was given the sedative one hour earlier and actually ran to the operating room. The panic set in the moment I was lying on that table with some sort of rubbery hoop under my head and for the first time saw a big IV bottle with a needle hanging from it. Yeah, they were not going to stick that in me. So I freaked out and several nurses had to hold me down until the doctor connected me to the IV.

You know, when I think back on it, the entire experience was quite horrible. I had to have the operation in a different city, so my parents weren't there for it (my aunt was a nurse in that hospital so I wasn't completely unsupervised); they locked me and several other pre-op kids in some small room with glass walls so we wouldn't be able to eat or drink anything 3 hours before surgery and I had to stay over night.

After the surgery, I woke up with the feeling like someone poured molten glass down my throat. There was a metal spitoon by my head filled with gauze and I had to spit blood into it periodically. It took a while for the anesthetic to wear off so the next couple of hours were a muddled mess where I drifted in and out of consciousness, never actually knowing what was real (the pain) and what was delirium (no pain). There was one hyperactive kid who constantly banged and shook my bedpost until I managed to loudly moan at him. When the night came I couldn't sleep because I had already slept through half of the day, so I mostly just lay there looking around the room.

For several weeks following the surgery I had to eat ice cream. I ate so much of it that the very thought of vanilla flavour made me nauseous several years well after the ordeal.

Oh, and another thing.
Ground nuts of any kind are absolutely the worst stuff to give to someone who recently had their tonsils removed. I made the mistake of eating some of my grandmother's cake which contained ground walnuts when I thought I had already fully healed. For the rest of the day it hurt even when I had to drink water.

A fantastic article! And a situation well-played. Rock on indeed.

Wow you are much more compassionate than my father was. If I had made a fuss like that as a child I would have gotten a belting on my behind.

Simply amazing.....I am glad to be a father. I am away from my family for a couple of days and now all I want to do is get back and see my 5 year old son.


I just had my own tonsils removed yesterday at the ripe old age of thirty-something*mumble*something. The trade off for being an adult is you know what you are walking into, while recovery is supposed to be 3x as long as a kid and quite painful throughout. While she didn't entirely know what was about to happen, my 2.3 year old daughter was very adamant that she needed to kiss my neck to make the booboo better, and she insists on walking around to everyone at daycare saying her daddy's throat hurt but that we was going to be okay!

When she came home from daycare yesterday, she made sure to kiss my throat, pat it with her little hand while saying "All better now daddy!"

They don't want to take people's tonsils out anymore. My sister had to wait until they practically infected her to death before they took hers out.

That said, you forgot to mention just how much magic healing your daughter has actually created by doing that. It's inferred, but I was expecting something like "+1 healing" every time she did it.

Anyway, I hope you heal up well and that your daughter makes you smile and giggle a whole heck of a lot. It will help you heal sooner.

I'm glad this one made it to the front page again.

Being new to the site, I've missed out on these gems. I too had a tear in my eye, as every parent who's been to an emergency room knows. Our 2yo took a backwards dive off a park bench, hit her head badly, then promptly threw up and wanted "Daddy cuddles" to make the "dizzy" go away.

You are instantly overcome with a complete feeling of helplessness and fear like you've never experienced before. Then you have to push that aside, and be there for them, even though you haven't a clue what to do. I had a similar "Rock on" moment later on at the emergency room triage...

Captured it beautifully, well written.

I'm fairly new too. Glad this one bubbled up to the top. I wouldn't have looked for it, I don't think.

It certainly pushes the DAD button.

I wish I had that same relationship with my Dad. Your Son is incredibly lucky to have a father quite like you.