Timing is everything.
The irony of course being that it’s only after you realize you’ve done nothing to manage life’s significant events that they tend to yield the most serendipitous harmonies. That’s about how you could describe the events of January 19th, 2015. When the day started, Liz had begun experiencing some mild contractions. At least she thought that’s what they were, not having experienced the real deal yet. Our official due date was still 4 days out, although the baby could have come at any time. But with the plumbing and drywall repair scheduled for the morning, and the dentist appointment set for the afternoon, these uteral quirks would have to be chalked up to what they were: distractions.
The plumbing repair did go surprisingly well, given that it had all the makings of something far more serious. A long-ago rodent (or squirrel) had decided to make a nest for itself around an attic drainage pipe. While occasionally bored or hungry, it also decided to nosh on the pipe, creating cracks for condensation to collect and drip down onto the downstairs ceiling in the convening years. At least the varmint was festive about it, having packed his nest with wrapping paper and Christmas tree garland (feet and feet of it), pinched from the holiday decor stash of some previous home dweller. But with the pipe fixed and the drywall sealed and mudded up, the contractions had by now intensified and the dentist appointment had been called off. As the last bit of drywall crumb was being swept up, Liz turned to me and said, “we should probably go to the hospital.”
We scrambled about the house for an hour or two, making sure we had everything we needed, should this turn out to be the actual arrival. Sort of like going on vacation, with the added realization that the new souvenir you’d be bringing home would need constant care and feeding.
We reached the hospital by 6:30pm, the contractions now worthy of timing, and hand squeezing. But it was a popular night to have a baby, as there was no room for us in triage. So they sent us down the hall to the family waiting room. There, beneath the drone of nightly news from a nearby TV, Liz hunched over a chair, anticipating each painful wave as cow-eyed hospital visitors looked on with concern. After an hour our patience had worn thin. We marched back to inquire, but before we could protest, we were promptly ushered to a free room.
As Liz prepped, I started working through the catalog of things I was going to need to say and do over the next several hours, realizing I’ve always been pretty lousy as a coach. I only hoped the circumstances would inspire me beyond hand-patting with an occasional “there, there.” When the nurse finally came in to check conditions, she informed us, that despite the pain, Liz wasn’t dilated enough to be in “active labor.” There was no way we were going back home, so it appeared a long night was ahead. This was further confirmed when it took two nurses about 30 minutes just to get an IV drip in (her veins apparently like to roll away). As I watched the vitals on the baby monitor with a cautious optimism, I knew one way or another, those heartbeats would soon be on the other side. And yet, something about the flux of the beats (from the 160s down into the 140s) began tickling my calm.
I asked one of the nurses if I was correctly reading the monitor and she confirmed everything looked good. We were in the normal range. And yet, despite the affirmation, the numbers looked… off. Almost, as if by watching, I was willing the heartbeat downward. I tried to ignore the unease. This wasn’t the time to second-guess the process. There was far more labor and delivery left to go. But about ten minutes later, the head nurse nurse came back, herself unimpressed by the EKG readings. The baby needed to make more overtures that he was indeed planning to show up. So she had Liz move to her side. And within 30 seconds the baby’s vitals crashed. In a flash the world seemed to end.
True terror is not merely the arrival of an unfortunate circumstance. It’s when that circumstance drops onto what would have otherwise been a moment of joy. It is the unsuspecting theft of happiness, when darkness willfully and irrevocably obliterates the light for no other reason than to destroy what is good and right when it’s most fragile, and when you are the most unsuspecting. It is chaos set loose.
The nurse had Liz quickly try more positions to no avail. The heart rate continued to drop, falling under 100 beats per minute. Darkness pressed further onto our little room. There was no pivoting back to the calm of the previous moment. The nurse looked at me directly and with barely a change in her voice said “a lot of people are going to be coming in here very quickly.” I was grateful she was not panicking, but her chill, emotionless tone set my teeth on edge. This was for real. And within seconds the room flooded with other nurses and techs. My chest tightened as I retreated to a back corner of the room, pacing, praying with desperation as the monitor gasped for life. 60 beats and falling. The space between each beat like a long, cold agony. He was giving up.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Save him please. Save my baby” was about all I could choke out, as my own lungs felt like they were collapsing, every limb turning to rubber. It flashed in my brain the irony that moments earlier I had shuffled away the thought of asking the nurse if I could pray for her this evening, and here I was praying aloud for this team of strangers scrambling to save my child’s life.
Almost as soon as the crowd had rushed in, they had rushed my wife out. I trailed behind, still in prayer, feet clomping the floor in weightless futility, all but everything in front of me a blur, surreal, not even there. How could we have traveled such a hard road to get here, pushed aside all of the fear and doubt, all to lose everything within a matter of minutes? Would he survive if he was falling away so quickly? Suffer brain damage if he did?
I was given some booties for my shoes, but before I had even secured the second one, I was told I couldn’t be in the OR. Not in this case. Liz was being put under general anesthetic and there was no time for me. I would have to wait. Out here. In the sterile and quiet hallway. I was quickly abandoned at a small computer station. I collapsed onto the chair and looked down at my trembling hands. In each, a cell phone – Liz’s and mine. I had sent a happy text to a group of family and friends earlier in the evening to let them know we were here and in process. Now I needed their prayers. I opened the text app on Liz’s phone and desperately tried to type out a message. Most of it was legible, but I discovered it is nearly impossible to text a clean message when you’re in meltdown. Thankfully it was understood and replies came in that people were praying. “Without ceasing” one friend texted back.
I had time to call one person – for whatever reason, the one man who popped into my head was my boss, Adam She. Something within told me “Adam first”. He answered and I had barely enough time to tell him what was happening. He would pray. I had to go. It was 9:33pm.
I was taken by another nurse to a recovery room, presently being vacated by a happy mother and father with their newborn. I slumped into another chair, tears streaming down my cheeks. I wonder what they must have thought, if they thought of me at all. They were brimming with quiet joy, mother with baby in her arms being wheeled out by a nurse, the proud father alongside. The reality of a thousand and one parents this very moment across the state. Not me.
I looked down at the cell phones again, the stupid booties on my shoes. As I thought through the worst of it, I realized the next nurse to come through those doors was going to have one of two expressions, that in an instant I would know from her body language what the truth was. In silence I spoke to God and I simply let it go. A pastor’s story from 20 years back dotted my memory. He had experienced a similar birth-related complication for his daughter and in his most desperate moment had felt the overwhelming peace of God that “surpasses all comprehension.” Rarely experienced, and yet, here it was. It didn’t blot out the pain. It wouldn’t preclude any tears to come, but it flowed over me. He was still worthy of all praise, no matter what came of this. I would live my life in thanksgiving regardless. If I had to lose my only child, my firstborn son, then God’s grace and holiness were more than enough to fill the void. It is the peculiarity of faith—that in the face of true terror, light will still flicker in the darkness for those with eyes willing to see. Even if it’s a light we had not expected. Even if the hope of it is dim.
Within moments the doors flung open and the nurse who had admitted us rushed in, tears in her eyes… a weary smile on her face. He was here, and crying. Liz was fine. We were finally a family. Ten minutes after that they handed my son to me—a rare occurrence that the father would be the first to hold the newborn, as Liz wouldn’t come out of the anesthetic for another 30 minutes. He was a tiny red faced burrito, still a little frustrated looking for having his evening so rudely interrupted with being born. I took this photo in that moment.
Timing is everything. Looking back on that day, it’s amazing to think that so many pieces of it happened in just the right way, at just the right moment. As I survey the past year, all of the previous moments that led to this one also had their own purpose. Maybe not as perfectly timed as a movie, but story-worthy nonetheless. Even the terror of this evening had been given its place – allowed to happen so that God might vanquish it when I was powerless enough to let Him. He rescued our son through the hands of a team of doctors and nurses who didn’t hesitate to act for a second. And more importantly, God had shown us that indeed, the darkness would not prevail.
It seems a universal that our prayers in the moment of rescue are never quite as fervent as the ones we pray to be saved. I was no exception in that moment. But the waves of thankfulness broke over me again and again over the next several days, especially as I recounted the events of that night.
Gabriel James Hansen arrived with much fanfare on January 19th, 2015 at 9:40pm. 7lbs, 6oz. of miracle. He was given back to us after I had given him up to God. I only pray we can remember to hold him with the same fluid grasp for the rest of our lives.