When Tom, our son, was only a few hours old, his pediatrician, Dr. Pavy, broke some terribly frightening news to my husband and me. Tom had a deformed intestine and needed a serious operation called a duodenojejunostomy in order to survive. Since the malformed part of his intestine was at the critical juncture where the gall bladder and the pancreas intersected with the duodenum, the procedure to rectify the condition was a complicated one requiring long-term healing. Dr. Pavy opted to send Tom to New Orleans where a pediatric surgeon who specialized in this type of operation could care for him. Since I had just given birth, I was not allowed to travel with our tiny son for this grave operation. I was to go home to recuperate, while my husband Tommy drove to New Orleans to await Tom’s arrival at Children’s Hospital where the surgery would take place.
When the ambulance attendants came to take my frail six-pound son from me, I felt like my heart was being torn from my body. I wondered if I would ever see him alive again. About an hour before their arrival, the doctor had suggested that we baptize him before he left for New Orleans. I was gratified that Dr. Pavy was thinking of the whole child, body and soul, but I was more frightened than ever. Clearly, the pediatrician was getting Tom ready for eternity, just in case his condition deteriorated, and the surgery did not go as planned. It was a very unorthodox baptism with only three people present—Tom, full of tubes and needles, and Dr. Pavy and I in sterile surgical scrubs so we wouldn’t contaminate the vulnerable little patient. Instead of feeling joyous at hearing the words welcoming a new member of the family into the body of Christ, I was heartbroken and desolate, crying as Dr. Pavy completed the impromptu baptism and then handed the precious cargo over to the emergency medical technicians who would transport him to the next critical phase of his life three hours away. It was without a doubt the loneliest day of my life.
When I returned home, I clung to Catherine, our two-year-old daughter, and to the hope that her little brother would soon join us. I kept in touch several times a day with my husband who reassured me that Tom was doing as well as could be expected. I tried to keep my fears in check, but sometimes they stampeded out of control like a pack of runaway steeds. I desperately wanted to hold little Tom and see for myself that he was making progress. Finally, after what seemed like an interminable waiting period, I was given medical permission to make the trip to New Orleans. When I stepped into Tom’s hospital room, Tommy’s telephone bravado slipped away, and he began to sob quietly.
“Bonnie, it is tearing me to pieces to see Tom struggling day and night in that isolette. I can’t take him out and hold him. I can’t console him. I feel totally helpless. I’m sorry I’m falling apart like this, but I guess I’ve been trying to be strong for everyone ever since we got the news of his condition.”
My husband had kept his fears and frustrations bottled up for nearly a week, and now there was no holding back the flood of anxiety that erupted from him. We held each other tightly looking at our fragile son flailing in agony in his antiseptic little bubble. Eventually, a nurse walked in and told me, “Why don’t you open up the porthole and talk to him. You can’t take him out, but you can let him know you’re here.”
I did as she suggested, opening the round glass window and leaning as close as I could to him. Amazingly, after I spoke only a few words, he stopped crying altogether. He turned his small, shaven head in my direction and seemed to be straining to hear.
“I’ve seen this happen over and over again,” the nurse commented, “but it never ceases to amaze me. Your son just recognized you. He knows his mama is with him now.”
“How does he know that?” I asked.
“He smells you,” she said. “He remembers your scent. You have been his world for nine months, and he is drawn to that bond of connection.”
Naturally, my tears started to flow all over again, but this time they were healing tears. The nurse’s words had helped to loosen the paralyzing grip of fear and had helped me to switch my focus from Tom’s weakness to his strength, from what he couldn’t do to what he could do. Unlike healthy newborns, he was unable to digest his food without great discomfort, but in a primordial sort of way, he knew who he was and where he belonged. And in that moment that was all that mattered. It was deeply comforting to realize that at the core of this weak little human was one of the most powerful forces in the universe—the power of family ties. Love had given Tom to us, and love would hold us together, no matter what.
Thirty years have passed since that momentous day, and the bond is still intact. Tom, the engineer, has come a long way since that time in New Orleans when he was confined to an infant isolette, but he has never lost the strong pull in his heart for the unique scent that is home.