“We’ve looked at the ultrasound images of your baby’s brain and we’re not sure what’s going on. There’s a lot of black where there should be gray matter.”
Is it a tumor?
“We’re calling it a cyst.”
So it’s something that can be removed?
“Well, we don’t know if it’s a solid mass.”
“And removing it might not be life-compatible.”
That’s the phrase I remember most clearly. Not life-compatible.
Slouching down the hallway like Groucho Marx’s Dr. Hugo Hackenbush with his compatriots, Tony and Stuffy, in tow to the bedside of Mrs. Emily Upjohn,[i] a gaggle of young doctors paced the hallways to and fro in front of our bench, carrying their medical tomes flat-open whilst scratching their heads.
So what is it?
“It might be fluid filling in open cavities where brain matter should be.”
Fluid. It can be drained, then?
“Well, yes. But trying to do it before she’s born is probably not … life-compatible.”
Then can she come out early so you can take care of it?
“Well, bringing her out this early might not be … life-compatible.”
There it was again. Not life-compatible. That was becoming more and more their answer. The longer she stays inside, the safer she is, protected by the womb and the life it provided yet invading the womb to try any corrective procedure was probably not … life-compatible. The longer she stays inside, the larger her head size grows and the more dangerous it is for her, so getting her out early gives a chance to try fixing the problem but having her out this early might not be … life-compatible.
The proverbial rock-and-a-hard-place. Except when it comes to the birth of your daughter who is neither rock nor hard place.
It felt like we were in a Three Stooges’ hospital fiasco and I imagined that at any moment “… Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard …” would skitter by clambering for an anacanafranistan[ii] to begin their surgery. These young docs were searching their dense books that day for an answer to give the uncertain soon-to-be-parents perched on the bench outside the consultation room.
White lab coattails floated behind the doctors like security blankets, stethoscopes draped around necks like blue ribbons with gold medals of accomplishment, medical texts open in their hands as they scuttled past us toward the safety of the consultation room. And I swear I heard faintly, in my head at least, the hospital public address system droning their names “…Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard…”
This was two months before Lindsay, our second child, was to be born. The obstetrician knew her head felt big for her developmental age and the ultrasound images confirmed it. Something was not as it should be.
We prayed. For those anxious two months we prayed. My seminary colleagues prayed. Our families prayed. Our church connections prayed. Prayer chains from faraway places heard from our friends, and they prayed. “But what should we be praying for?” We wanted only that she could suck and breathe when she was born. That would at least give her a chance.
On April 19 we turned the page into a new chapter of “Life with Lindsay.” She took a breath; she showed signs of the sucking reflex; an evaluation score of 9 at one minute and 9 at five minutes—a 9/9 on the Apgar scale—a near-perfect score for this uncertain newborn. Lindsay was alive and she was ready.
She was, in fact, life-compatible.
I met her face-to-face a few minutes later in the nursery where she soaked up the warmth of a heated bed. My new daughter had a 13-inch head, the size of a one-year-old and though her eyes were sun-setting they were filled with possibility.
“I love you Lindsay. I’m here for you no matter what. We’re in this together.” For more than 30 years that bonding moment has stayed firmly bound between us.
“I love you.” She’s never said it back to me but if you need to hear it in return, then what love is that?
I often think back about those young docs pacing the hallway trying to make sense of the ultrasound, trying to figure how to mask their own anxiety, deciding what to tell these anxious young parents, searching for facts in a place where faith—“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” [Hebrews 11:1]—was more the needed balm.
I’m guessing most went on to be fully functioning docs, many nearing retirement now like this weary old dad after all these years. I often wonder whether they remember that day as their career days moved ahead, whether they have used the knowledge from that encounter—the medical and practical and compassionate knowledge—in later years. Did they practice what they learned? I know I have. And I wonder how many times that phrase surfaced again in their medical careers. Life-compatible.
It resurfaces for me often even now. Life-compatibility is something I wrestle with, wondering if what I have done with my life, am doing with my life, is life-compatible. Wondering if what we are together creating is a world which is life-compatible. Asking of myself and, I suppose of each of us, whether we are sustaining and nurturing what God has given us in such a way that all around us is life-compatible.
Society equates the value of life with what one can produce. Being successful is measured by what you can accumulate, being valuable to society depends on what you can offer, being fully included means you have something to contribute, definitions which come mostly without considering what they mean. Alas, even the questions asked in that last paragraph include action words—doing, creating, nurturing.
Lindsay does not produce. Lindsay does not create. Lindsay does not do. Lindsay simply is. Lindsay just be’s, if you will, and there is true value in any of us be-ing in this world as well.
Lindsay’s presence has caused me to reject those artificial rules of the world which demand that we all must produce. There are many who will not, who cannot, who need not do something in this world. In fact, no one need do anything to be valuable, to be life-compatible because doing, creating, producing have nothing to do with the inherent value that God has given each of us. Life compatibility for my daughter—or any one of us, for that matter—is not an actionable action but rather an existential reality.
Lindsay wakes most mornings with a smile on her face and a newness in her eyes. She has never said a word yet she speaks to me each morning as we take a moment and a breath together.
“I am life-compatible, dad. This is who I am,” her presence whispers to mine.
“I am here for you, Lindsay, no matter what,” I attempt to share back with her.
We are life-compatible, my daughter and I. No matter who or what might Groucho through our days, we go on in faith and hope.
We are life-compatible for as long as life endures.
[i] A Day at the Races. Directed by Sam Wood, written by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, and George Oppenheimer, performances by Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx (as The Marx Brothers) and Margaret Dumont. MGM Studios, 1937.
[ii] Men in Black. Directed by Raymond McCarey, written by Felix Adler, performances by Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard (as The Three Stooges). Columbia Pictures, 1934.
(c) Copyright James F. McIntire, 2020