Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Noble, Part I

It seems like another time, another life almost, and yet I can see details as clear as though it's the present, now, in this life, this life that, although has changed in a great many ways, remains anchored in a moment that will remain with me forever.

There was another time, another life, other dreams and other perceptions. In that, I figured I would become an academic and spend the rest of my life dealing with lofty theories of Artificial Intelligence. My plans at that time included applying to schools to start my Ph.D. work in Cognitive Science, my degrees in Psychology and Philosophy taken to another level. My intellect was, I reckoned, formidible enough to skirt the unknown and provide me with certainty, a fortress against fear and low self-esteem. My arrogance was not that I would achieve the Ph.D. (I was extremely qualified) but that I could navigate this life without soul or love but only with facts - and declare my victory of reason over emotion.

There was no shortage of arrogance in my life at that time and yet all my dreams meant nothing. And as little regard I had for myself and my plans, I had even less regard for everyone else, the whole of humanity, the human race beneath contempt in my eyes. Although I worked in customer service, tending bar with a smile on my face and pride in my ability to give my customers the finest service available, I looked on them, all of them, with an unequivocal and unqualified hatred. At the end of the night I would crawl to another bar to wash away the filth and hipocracy. And to sustain that cycle, working and drinking all night and then returning to face my hatred with a smile and then drinking to forget it, I propped myself up with crystal meth, loads of it.

Meth had its fingers gripped around my heart; booze, partying, meaningless sex, and utter hedonism had me so wrapped in myself and oblivious to the universe, that I was absolutely lost, adrift, mean and worthless and ugly and there were many times I thought sucking on the barrel of a gun was a perfect existentialist answer to my malais. Meth is insidious in that it plays on the ego, doesn't just give the user a false sense of well-being but omnipotence, that there is nothing in the universe as magnificent or imposing as the greasy zero on tweek. If there were 15 women in my bar (or any bar) while I was geeking, I knew - just KNEW - that all of them would not fail to notice how glib and articulate and sexy and handsome and dangerous and suave and slick and together and intelligent and incredibly irresistible I was and that my only problem was deciding which one of the 15 would be sharing my bed. And once I made my choice, if she was really good at giving me pleasure, she could hang around, keep me entertained, share my insanity, give me one other drug to abuse.

So there was X, my choice and oh, so much fun, smart, sexy, willing to take the wheel when I was crosseyed. A doormat, certainly (they all were doormats) but better than most and worth the hassle of shaking loose, REALLY shaking loose when the inevitable boredom set in and my eyes settled elsewhere. It was just fun, I thought and she seemed fun enough to understand that I could not be taken seriously.

But she did take me seriously and in the midst of this, X and I took each other hostage. We had no idea what our demands would be, what we wanted, or what the result would be, we were just flying without controls. Bad plan but a tweeker has no plans, just desires and needs.

A pregnancy was the last thing I desired or needed (or so I thought); my life obviously had no room for a child, much less a pregnant woman, and my initial reaction to the news was one of nausea and disgust. My dissolute existence was being whacked by forces out of my control, it was not just inconsiderate, it was a violation of my principles as an avowed misanthropist. The image I had created for myself, the edgy intellectual roaring towards certain self-destruction was being given a governor, an extreme make over, a kick towards respectability that I neither desired nor even entertained as an option.

During the following months, my life disintegrated with haste. Lost jobs, jail sentences, evictions, the specter of the impending birth of my son and yet, even as the threads unravelled and the fabric of my illusion of being negligibly human quickly dissipated, I continued on my path, uncaring, unconcerned, spinning out of control and watching the world blur by wondering when it would finally collide and shatter.

And then, suddenly, it stopped. Or rather, I stopped. I remember X miserable on the bed of our junkie-hotel room, miserable from her pregnancy and the shabbiness of our existence, furious at me and my self-centered lifestyle, saying she could not go on with me, as I was. Walking out of the room, I looked into a clear blue sky and it struck me that my life was not what I had thought it would be. At 36 years old, I was a punk, an emotional retard, a loser, incapable of providing for myself much less my unborn son and his mother.

I cried, for the first time in countless years. Sobbing uncontrollably, emotion finally shook forth from my cold and hardened heart. Crying not for X and the baby she held in her belly but for me and the realization of the pathetic being I had become. Crying because for once my arrogance could not hide the real and abiding fear that had been hidden for so long. Crying because I was not what I was supposed to be - brilliant, successful, and capable of doing anything I wanted - but unable to do anything, paralyzed and confused. Crying because I was not a man and a boy was on the way.

It would not be the last time I cried. It would be too soon that I would cry again and the next time, the tears would burn like the coals of hell.

Click here to read Noble, Part II

Monday, October 25, 2004

Noble, Part II

There’s a grave off 26th Street, about a mile west of here, a headstone in a place that sits on a hill beneath a bluff and shaded only by a few ancient poplars. There, a piece of ground is slightly depressed where a tiny casket used to lie, a patch of grass no bigger than a baby blanket. The grave sits just off a mourner’s path and overlooks a few family plots and a view of the city to the east.

I saw a map of the cemetery, once, glanced at where the ground was reserved for families, saw where soldiers from three wars were buried, and what ground was still available to demand eternity. There, on worn vellum, two rows devoted to infants were delineated by their diminution, plots not oblong but checkered. Viewing the map in a small stone building while summer lingered into almost October, I was comforted by how cool the room was. Even though it was mid-morning, the heat was already intense and I was almost relieved to be standing there, alone except for the cemetery managers, looking for squares not scratched out by hash marks. I was struck by how the room resembled something out of an Old Masters painting, a cell where some martyred Saint sat awaiting execution, contemplating God’s glory. If the room was musty at all, I could not tell; the scent of fresh cut grass rolled through the door like a rug of sod.

During the previous four months I’d buried many things: the pipe, my past, my independence, my insanity. It had been a somber summer, sober and passionless, a process of sticking my head down and making the most of a situation that was nothing close to the plans I had made, plans that had been side-tracked by my vices. Instead of Graduate student housing, I’d moved out of the Junkie Motel into a homeless shelter. Rather than writing thesis proposals, I was selling long-distance service and pissing people off while they tried to eat dinner.

X was staying with friends while I held a cot at the homeless shelter. Although I had been offered spare rooms and couches, I felt it necessary to dig myself out of the hole I’d dug, that maybe the experience would strengthen my resolve to never return to the lifestyle that had so defeated me. I was up at five every morning and out the door by six, worked as much as I could and then checked in with X, hung out. When I had time, I hit an NA meeting, somewhat for support but mostly to just to keep me out of the shelter. 12-Step attendees did not have to be in by the shelter’s curfew and I wanted to be away from that constant reminder of how bad things can get.

Pain is relative. What we think is unendurable one moment will suddenly become inconsequential in the face of real tragedy. Your famine and mass graves? My broken CD player, my bunk next to a revolving door of crackheads, my world in shambles for what seems timeless and insurmountable and will never again fill my heart of silk with lights. Eternity unfolds with so many more dark crevices to consume me, places where mortality looks into the void and equivocates its timorous handhold.

With no time to indulge regrets or self-pity but only determination to rise from the ashes and resolve the situation I’d created, I pressed forward. Not proud, not humbled, I had lost sense of self in the shadow of still not providing for X and our unborn child. All I sought was the ability to provide shelter for the three of us, a place to hunker down and regroup, somewhere to nurture a new life, succor a shattered one.

By August, we had a place. Not what we wanted but at least what we needed as far as we were again together and could collect baby things that good souls were giving to us. In X’s estimation, things were looking up not just because we were back together but also because I was entirely present; not intoxicated, not gone for days on a binge, not consumed with inner-turmoil and withdrawals. We could go together to ultrasound appointments, Lamaze classes, check-ups and I wouldn’t have booze and speed seeping through my pores, reeking with the stench of old socks and engine solvents.

X was happy but I was not. Neither was I sad - just numb. Although I did not miss the life I’d left behind four months ago, the life I’d made more X and myself did not seem much better. More than that, my life seemed out of balance, the world was not right, somehow, everything felt out of synch.

We went into the hospital almost three weeks late. X had endured ten months of pregnancy, to the day, the worst of it suffered through the hottest summer Colorado had seen in a long time. She was past ready to have our son and an inducement was ordered, scheduled for September 26th.

It was a perfect Colorado September afternoon the day we entered the hospital and I was sticking a video camera skywards, recording the day for my son. This is your day, I said, as I recorded the moment, we’ll look back on this day and smile.

We settled into the birthing room, filling the drawers and shelves with necessities, a brief nesting to await our arrival. As the delivery nurses prepared X, broke her water, administered pectosin, I set up the CD player and our Lamaze selections, arranged the balloons and flowers sent to wish us well, fluffed X’s pillow and brought her ice chips.

We waited. Hours passed and still, no dilation. After almost 12 hours, we gave up on the notion of natural childbirth and an epidural was given. Nurses rolled X back and forth on the bed, every 15 minutes, hoping that the motion would get X dilated. Between the rolling sessions, while X slept, I pointed the video camera around the room.

The video still exists. X softly snoring with a yellow hospital sheet resting over her pregnant frame like a statuary drape, Debussy ethereal and blissful in the background. I was narrating the scene for my son, there’s your mom sleeping, that’s the music we brought; look out this window, past the parking lot and to the hills, black against the night sky, almost eternal in their reach across the horizon, almost timeless in their silent vigil.

And yet, nothing is timeless, I said. Those hills, the mountains, they weren’t always there and one day, they will be gone.

Click here to read Noble, Part III

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Noble, Part III

The curse of having such clarity with these memories is that I get to revisit them every day. Each visit involves second-guessing myself, thinking about what could have been done for a different outcome. If it seemed like a different time, a different life, my wish is that the story would end differently as well.

Nothing was working, it seemed. At 12 hours our OB/GYN went off shift and another doctor took his place. When she came on shift (herself 5-months pregnant), she said no to the possibility of a caesarian. The waiting and anxiety would have to continue.

After about 17 hours, X finally dilated to 10cm and it was decided she should start pushing. As the nurses turned of the epidural, we put our Lamaze to bear, hoping that we’d finally started the final lap.

Unfortunately, despite her efforts, X could not get the baby to move. Eventually, she had to be put on oxygen to assist with her breathing and give her enough of a boost to get through the delivery. It was then that the fetal monitor lost its signal.

The baby was, the delivery nurses thought, into the birth canal and it was not unusual for the fetal monitor to lose its signal at that point. That’s OK the nurses said, no it’s not, said I, get it back fucking working -- now. I was furious, frightened, and pretty belligerent. The nurses called the doctor.

The doctor came in and assessed the situation, saw how freaked out I was and how exhausted X had become. She asked if X could continue trying to push but X was defeated, no, she said, I can’t do this anymore. The doctor suggested a forceps delivery to which X was adamantly opposed. It was then that the doctor ordered the C-section.

Bringing my video camera into the operating room, I stood off to the side, next to the incubator, watching while X’s stomach was rubbed with betadine and a drape was placed like a wall over her chest to block her view of the operation.

Noble was lifted from the womb, purple, lifeless, his little eyes black, his mouth agape but silent. The delivery nurses hurried him to the warmer table and immediately began a respirator bag. I overheard a nurse saying that his heart rate was 5 beats per minute. If I’d thought that things could not get worse, I had sadly miscalculated.

Lowering the video camera, stunned, I asked what was happening, if he was alright. A voice said, “Get him out of here,” and I was quickly escorted from the room.

While I changed back into my street clothes, Noble was rushed past me, the incubator hidden by a contingent of nurses and doctors, none of them acknowledging me. When I tried to ask questions about where Noble was, how he was doing, I was directed to wait, news would be given to me when the doctors knew something. Eventually, I learned the X had been taken into the recovery room and I decided the best thing to do would be to wait with her, there. At least, in our fear, we would have each other to hold onto and combine our hopes.

In the recovery room, X had been given morphine and Ativan. She was barely coherent and completely unaware of what was going on. Just as well, I thought, my sense of doom overwhelming, a suffocating sense of the world, out of balance, caving in on us with all its weight. I held her hand and stroked her hair, cautious caresses that avoided the numerous tubes and wires attached to her. Fighting her nod, she asked how Noble was. I had to tell her I didn’t have a clue. It was scant comfort for her as she drifted into slumber.

With X out of it, I went to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to see my son, to try and find out what I could about the situation. The NICU opened into a broad hallway and looked like a dark cave lit with blinking indicator lights and the glow of incubators. Everything inside was hushed, solemn, funereal, the maternity ward’s macabre version of Purgatory.

At the door, I overheard the NICU doctor telling a nurse clinical assessments and in the midst of it I heard, “Anoxic for over 30 minutes.” It was if someone had punched me in the stomach.

As he walked towards the hallway, I pulled him aside, introduced myself, told him about my education and credentials. “Look,” I said, “I know what ‘Anoxic for over 30 minutes’ means. I know this isn’t just ‘not good’, it’s tragic. I need you to be candid with me, you can’t sugar-coat this. I need to know right now.”

He apologized that the staff had not been able to prepare me for this but admitted that it was best that he just went ahead and gave it to me straight. The best prognosis, he said, if Noble survived, would be severe Cerebral Palsy and profound mental retardation – he’d never develop mentally beyond an infant. Right now, without life-support, his chances of survival were only about 5 – 20 percent but those chances increased with each passing hour. We would need to decide, soon, if this was the quality of life we wanted for our son and if this was the quality of life we wanted for ourselves.

I asked him what kind of window of opportunity we had to decide, would he suffer if we did decide to take him off of life support, was there any chance at all that he could be rehabilitated in the future if we decided to keep him on life support, and what kind of care we’d be looking at if we held out for that hope.

His demeanor was grim. Constant care, he said, 24/7, millions of dollars over the course of his lifetime, a lifetime, he added, that would never be assured certain survival and no rehabilitation would ever improve his condition. If we decided to pull life support, he would not suffer, he said: Noble’s brain was far too damaged for that. Basically, he said, his brain was too damaged to support his heart and breathing and was incapable of registering pain.

There was some small comfort in those words. Noble would not feel any pain. All the pain in the situation would be carried by X and myself.

Click here to read Noble, Part IV

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Noble, Part IV

Life had not prepared me for the kind of decision I was being asked to make and that is why it felt like a different time, a different life. It was as if I had stepped outside of myself and watched someone else playing the part of me in some made-for-TV movie. The daily thoughts I have about my son and this situation, what happened then and how I feel now, all of it seems disconnected to this self that I define as me, today.

Yet, I know that who I am today is irrevocably tied to who I was then, what happened then, and what has happened since. Who I am tomorrow may be a divergence from who I am today or yesterday, but the scar left but what happened then cannot be erased. Whatever or whomever I will be when it’s my time to die will still carry the mark of that moment.

When X finally awoke, it was up to me to tell her the situation. My words were measured, choked, and no matter how calm and reasoned I tried to be, there was little I could do to mask my rage and grief and sorrow. It was, after all, more her decision than mine since she had carried him 10 months. My futile attempt to present the dilemma to her with objectivity was to give her the facts without coloring those facts with my own emotional brush.

For hours, nothing was said as we held each other and sobbed, trembling in each other’s arms as the gravity of the situation pulled us into a deep, dark pit of depression. When we finally spoke, we considered every possibility of what we could do to keep our son alive and close to us. Unable to let him go, we tried over and over to make some plan that would allow us to love and nurture our son. No path led there, no plan could satisfy our dream and the circle of cold logic brought us back again and again to the conclusion that letting him go would be the best thing for him.

When she was able, X walked with me to the NICU to see her son. The neonatalogist I had talked to greeted us near Noble’s incubator, again apologized for the prognosis, then asked the nurses to move aside to allow X to see her son.

Noble’s chest heaved as a billow pushed air into his lungs but otherwise, he was absolutely still. He was naked, his skin brown with betadine, colostomy tubes attached to him as well as IVs and monitors. X was silent as she gently stroked Noble’s cheek, forehead, shoulders, she was remarkably calm, almost happy. It was as if, her moment with him was blissfully happy. We sat there for almost an hour until it was time for the nurses to attend to him again and X had to get back to rest some more.

We both needed rest and time to consider what would be best for Noble. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for either, as the staff reminded us. Still, we managed to catch a few hours of sleep and that, along with time for the reality of the situation to settle onto us, allowed us enough clarity to make the decision, to do what would be best for our son and for us.

When we went back to the NICU to share our decision with the doctors, Noble had moved into the nursery section. About a half dozen incubators held preemies or distressed births as parents like us stood sad, silent vigils over their children. I watched the faces of the other parents and although I could tell they were going through something like what we were going through, there was no comfort from being in that club. Besides – no one was going through what we were going through.

Staff surrounded us as we were asked what our decision would be. We gave them our answer and then asked that, since he was going to be off life support any, if we could hold him, let him pass in our arms. The doctors said that yes, we could do that, we just needed to sign some papers stating it was our decision to remove life support for our son.

The staff led us to a small room where we were met by a grief counselor. The woman might as well have been speaking German; there was nothing she said that registered with me. All I wanted to do was hold my son, tell him how much I loved him, tell how much this time – brief and yet, eternal – meant to me, tell him farewell. Somehow, I knew it would not be goodbye.

A nurse entered with Noble and handed him over to us. The counselor asked if we wanted to be alone and we said, yes, please, let it be just the three of us.

We held each other as we held him close. My little man, my little man, I thought, wept, stroking his little tuft of hair, caressed his back, you know we love you, you know we did what was right for you, you know you will always be with us.

We rocked him, loved him, shared everything we could with him in those too brief moments, and then -- felt him gently slip away and grow cold in our arms.

A nurse entered the room, touched him, knew it was over, told us it was time, time to let him go for good. She took him from us and left us to hold each other, grieve, weep, begin the process of understanding our loss.

As I write this, I still don’t understand my loss.

In that time that seems so different, as if another life was being lived, I wondered what God would do that to my son. In an attempt to console us, people would say, “You may not realize it now but everything is for a reason; God has a plan.”

There was no consolation in those words, then or now. If a God took Noble in order to make me who I am today, this different person in a different time, it seems like a mean and small-minded way to accomplish that. Perhaps I am too arrogant, trying to see into the mind of God but I still don’t understand.

Noble is with me now. He would be almost 8-years old, had he survived. Sometimes, in my more spiritually-driven moments, I wonder if his soul survives inside my children, if they’ve been blessed with his presence. That would make more sense to me. Another time and another life, carried on in the lives of those so precious to me.

If that is the case, if my children have also been touched by him, then although I do not understand, I am content.

Click here to read Noble, Part V

Friday, October 22, 2004

Noble Part V - Eulogy

On October 4, 1997, friends and family gathered into a church for the funeral. The tiny white casket, hardly bigger than a breadbox, sat on a small silver stand in front of the altar.

I stood at the lecturn and delivered a eulogy for my son, something I'd composed the night before. I'm reprinting it here, in its entirety, with editing.

I want to thank you all today for coming here to be with us on this occasion, for your love and support, for your comfort and aid in our time of need. Both X and I are truly blessed to have all of you in our lives.

As I look out among you all, I see good people of diverse backgrounds and faith. In a world wounded with racial and religious hatred, it gladdens my heart to know that we can all gather together to share our love freely, unconditionally, without thought about our differences. I ask that we take a moment now and turn to those around you, introduce yourself if you don’t know the person next you, behind you, or in front of you.


Thank you. I hope that you have not only met someone new but that your life is richer for the new acquaintance. Because I have recently learned just how precious we all are to each other, how really connected we are, no matter how far apart we seem, no matter how different we appear to each other, no matter how we feel about one another. This knowledge was given to me by Noble, my beloved son.

Just about a week ago, I stood in the delivery room, elated with anticipation of Noble’s birth, just another proud father-to-be with a video camera and box of cigars. Poor X was laid out on the operating table, anxious and fearful, apprehensive at the caesarian-section being performed on her, unable to move or make sense of the activity surrounding her. Yet we were both certain that we would soon be holding a howling and healthy infant. We believed that all was well with the world.

As they took Noble from X’s open belly, my spirits soared at the miracle I beheld; I felt like the most important man in the world and at the same time, the most insignificant speck before the awesome process of the universe.

Then, suddenly my world collapsed around me. Noble was silent, no wailing at his first breath. His body was purple and lifeless. As the nurses feverishly worked to get his lungs to work, I was overwhelmed with dread, devastated by my absolute powerlessness. My elation immediately turned into anger.

As I watched my beautiful son in the ICU, his unmoving body wired with tubes and probes, my anger became rage. I could not understand what God meant by doing this. What was the purpose? Why had he done this? I hated God, I hated the doctors, I hated, I hated.

I looked for reason and only found confusion. I looked for comfort and only found blame. I looked for hope and only found despair. I looked for life and only found death. I looked for love and only found hate.

My search to know God’s purpose seemed futile. Mine was a soul without faith or direction. I thought there was nothing in the world to keep me alive. In the selfishness of my pain and grief, I had forgotten about my baby son. It was the last time I will ever forget him.

For though he made no sound, Noble began to teach me. His voice, so quiet and sweet, opened my eyes to the beauty and wonder that, in my anger, I had shut out from my view. At first I did not hear him, his voice lost in the resentment that consumed me. But little by little his words became clear, his message more urgent. Let me share what he has taught me so far.

Noble taught me that I am arrogant to think that I should know God’s will. The beauty and wonder that had so exhilarated me during the birth continues to unfold. It is a process that I can no longer afford to ignore. Noble teaches me that I need to put aside my petty concerns and cherish the splendor revealed to us every day.

Noble taught me that time is nothing but a measure. In his brief lifetime, less than a day, Noble gave to me what had taken more than thirty-six years for me to acquire. This was proven to me because the love and support that was given to X and I was timeless. Noble taught me that time is irrelevant in the context of eternity.

Noble taught me that prejudice is stupidity. When the doctors gave me a certain appraisal, based on the activity of brain waves, Noble was given no hope for ever living life as we know it. Yet, as I have explained here today, his wisdom humbles me.

Noble gives me the light.

Finally, as I stated at the beginning we are all connected. We are threads creating an intricate and complex weave that makes up the fabric of the universe. If we look close enough or far enough, we will find that there is no person or no thing that does not touch us. Noble teaches me that when I blame or hate, it must come back to me, for we are all but parts of the same patchwork.

Therefore, Noble teaches me that there is nothing in our life that is more important than love. Ultimately, it is all we have. And the gift of love that Noble has given me is eternal.

So today we say goodbye to this dear and special angel. And we share this deep and terrible grief because, as Noble has shown and, in essence, he is our son, a child to each and every one of us. And if we are silent, we will hear Noble, speaking to us, from eternity and for eternity, that’s God’s plan, the fabric of the universe, continues to unfold, a thing of immense and immeasurable beauty. And for that we should not grieve, but only love, appreciate each other and each moment on this awesome and endless journey.

Goodbye my precious son, my inspiration, my teacher. There is no way I can repay you for these gifts, this wisdom, this knowledge, this love. But when we meet again, I hope that you will be proud of me, as a father is proud of a son, at what I have done with what you have given me.

Goodbye beloved Noble, goodbye and thank you.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Scourge of Dino-bytes and a Supine Cabbage-Patch Kid

It's late Friday and my kitchen floor is a psychedelic pastiche of multi-colored cereal, some adhered tenaciously to the kitchen floor. Toys, crayons, clothes spread willy-nilly thoughout my house - my Saturday is clearly defined as to what must be done. Scrape up the bits of cereal, put crayons back in the box, do the pile of laundry in the hamper, call X and see how the kids are doing... until then, I write, I miss my kids.

A little Cabbage Patch doll lays on the counter where I write, Lilly's "baby", I wonder how she sleeps without it. Lilly is so - oh, I hate to say this but it's true - ANAL; she won't settle down until she has all her dolls and animals all together and I know that X had to mollify her to go to sleep, assure her that daddy was taking care of the doll and that she'd have the doll soon enough. Mollify daddy, all I can think of is my baby, now 6-years old, hardly a baby but I can't think of her as anything else. Will I ever be able to think of her as anything else?

She hopes, she's so offended when I refer to her as "my baby". When I pick her up from her kindergarden class, she's so proud, so smart, so good, so full of her entrance into the world of adults, education, OUR WORLD and all I can do is walk her through the woods and point out the wonders of our world, our world right her at the foot of Pikes peak. The rest of our world is hers to discover and me to explain, honestly, with tears in my eyes. Our harsh world.