When I was watching my son die I did not behave in the way I had imagined in those grim games your mind sometimes forces you to play. ‘What would it be like if I was widowed?’ ‘What would it be like for my family if that bus hit me?’ ‘What would it be like if something terrible happened to my child?’
I actually only thought I was watching my son die, which is a big difference. My son is alive. But for that moment in time there is no difference.
The other night, about half an hour after I got home, he had a seizure. He is 16 months old and from the day he was born (the day after his due date) he has been a robust little boy. He has rarely caused me worry, aside from the usual constant low thrum of anxiety about SIDs/falling out of windows/anything at all happening to your beautiful little human.
My husband Matt and my brother Seamus were both home with me at the time, which was a stroke of fortune in the whole sorry saga. I am usually still at work on a Tuesday afternoon. My brother lives 25 minutes away but had stayed the day at our apartment in between night shifts at the local hospital. My brother is a nurse, more good fortune.
Hamish was sitting in his high chair and the boys were in the kitchen, I was half-chatting to Hamish while walking around and then suddenly I saw his shoulder and head moving and knew something was so very wrong. I started screaming for my brother who rushed out of the kitchen with Matt and looking at Hamish yelled “call an ambulance CALL AN AMBULANCE”.
It had not occurred to me to call an ambulance. Previously I had thought I was the type to think to call an ambulance. It took all of my strength, effort and focus to dial 000 with my shaking hands and, as I stood crying on the balcony trying to say my address, I could see Hamish draped forward over Matt and Seamus’ arms so his airways were clear. They were both screaming his name while his eyes rolled back in his head as he continued jerking around.
I saw him turning blue.
“Ham! Ham! Stay with us! Ham!”
There was something about how desperate my brother sounded as he yelled my son’s name while he turned blue that made me think we were losing him.
As the 000 lady tried to give me instructions I bent over, winded.
I thought we were watching him die.
I did not think much when I thought these were his last few moments with us. I probably just thought “this can’t be real”.
In a way, it wasn’t real.
The woman on the phone snapped me out of it
“You need to lie him down, are you listening to me? Can you hear me? You need to lie him down.”
I rushed over to the boys, all of my boys.
“Lie him down,” I managed to choke.
“I can feel his heart, I can feel his heart,” Matt was yelling.
Once we lay him down the seizure had started to abate.
“Is he breathing? Ma’am is he breathing? I need you tell me if he is breathing”
Again, it took everything in me to answer a question, to make an observation of something I took for granted every day. My kid breathing.
I could see his chest rising.
“Yes,” I retched. “He’s breathing.”
I had Hamish five months before I turned 30. It was a time in my life where everything was awesome. I’m not just saying how I felt about the time, my life was objectively awesome. I had a book deal, I had my baby, I was in love, I worked at the Guardian which was beyond my wildest 16-year old fancies.
But over the next year I found myself in and out of an ennui so cliched it was embarrassing. I was looking around thinking “so this is the shape of my life? I’m 30, this is a pretty good indicator of how my life is going to look.”
Is this it?
It wasn’t that having a child made my life more mundane. It was more that he came around the age I was realising that reality as we live it is basically boring.
It may seem kind of stupid but I had not considered that having a baby would close down some other options to me. That turning 30 would mean there were some things I was probably never going to do with my life. There were things I never wanted to do with my life that I didn’t think about until I began to realise the doors were being closed, the windows hard to reach.
I think every billionaire is a policy failure, but I’m probably never going to be mega-rich. Billionaires live on a different planet to me. They don’t go to the office every day. Weekends mean nothing to them. They don’t have to save. They don’t delay the grocery shop 48 hours for pay day. They don’t have to do something as mundane as grocery shopping.
It took having a baby and turning 30 for me to properly realise it is unlikely I will ever be disgustingly rich. I’d never aspired to it, but there the fact is anyway, whether I had wanted it or not, I wasn’t getting it.
I am from the “Fuck the Queen and let the free birds fly” school but probably nothing as exciting as what happened to Meghan Markle at age 35 is going to happen to me. Even if I do think Prince Harry is too stupid to marry, I have a kid now. It’s not going to happen. I can’t move to England with a kid.
I almost could not bear to read the news about the Sri Lanka bombings. All those parents not with their children as they died.
I often think of Kanye rapping about the Paris terrorist attacks “pray for Paris / Pray for the parents”. I think he is talking about the parent of every victim, not just the little children. The parents of the teenagers, and the people in their 20s, and the people in their 50s. Pray for the parents getting those phone calls, those police visits to their doors. Just before Hamish had his seizure I read about Anders Holch Povlsen, a man who lost three of his four children in the bombings.
A billionaire who lost three of his four children in the bombings.
I read the accounts in a state of terror. What I thought at the time was terror.
How could he go on in the world? How little did it matter he was a billionaire? A lot of what is most valuable did not exist in the world for him any more.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to lose three of your children, to have one child left.
As a parent you think maybe you can fathom what it is like to lose a child, but you cannot. If you try to imagine losing what you value most in the world, your imagination does not communicate to you what it’s really like.
I do not subscribe to the parental philosophy that you don’t know love until you have a child. There is a lot of bone-deep love in the world - for your mother, for your brother, for your girlfriend, for your best friend of decades. There are other relationships, I’m sure, that are much more complex and devoted than the standard parent-child one.
But the love for your child is difficult to replicate. It is a love so big it can be suffocating. You witness someone tiny and completely vulnerable come in to the world and grow to become someone who can brush their teeth by their self. That happens because you protected them and fed them and stayed up all night with them and watched them; and on top of all that, they have your eyes.
It is a consuming, joyful, annoying type of love. It’s a hard work love and if something were to happen to them it is not only a inconceivable hole in your life, but a lot of hard work gone. I didn’t think “that’s a lot of hard work gone” when I thought my son was dying. I thought “this isn’t real” but I also thought something very cliched: “take me, take me, take me, take me instead, please take me”.
I’m sure the hard work would’ve crossed my mind later though.
The seizure was a few days ago now. Hamish has been giggling and exhausted since. His normal self, but not. He will not have remembered the seizure but it will take more than a few days before he recovers properly.
It will take more than a few days before Matt, Seamus and I recover. It was the most terrifying thing that has happened to any of us. I don’t feel like I can leave my baby (he’s not a baby anymore, natch) at the moment. I sleep in the same room as him. I start crying when I am reading to him. I have lost something in myself that I once thought was fundamental but did not know was there. I used to be a cool and relaxed mum.
I realise I had a secret but solid belief that my child could not die and now that is gone.
What happened to Hamish was a febrile convulsion. He had an ear infection that gave him a fever. His temperature shot up too quickly for his little body to handle, so he had a seizure. It is apparently common in children under the age of five. The paramedic with whom I rode in the ambulance told me they have arrived at febrile convulsions and had to treat the parents before the child, because of the state they are in. The pediatrician told me she hates watching children having seizures in a hospital setting, so she cannot think what it is like for parents at home with no knowledge of what it is.
The moral of this story, if it needs one, is that if you are pregnant or a parent of a child under-five ask your doctor what to do if they have a febrile convulsion. The instructions are easy to remember and carry out. I doubt they will save you a freak out, but at least you can have some control in the situation. Even the illusion of control would have been nice for me.
What happened was not unique and it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to someone - I think that much is obvious.
People could read it as common, to only appreciate my child when I think I might lose him. But the terror does not feel common. Like grief it may be universal but the pain and shock is not lessened by thinking “oh well, people have felt the same before”.
I don’t just appreciate my son when I might lose him. I don’t think you ever stop marvelling at your child. Of course I knew I loved him. Of course I knew it would be scary to lose him.
The point is it can’t be explained, can’t be envisioned how scary it actually is. The point is dramatic and indulgent – I am traumatised. I feel compelled to tell you that I am not the same as I was before and maybe never will be.
Why does a parent who loves their child with all their heart still somehow find that they have more love to give when the child suffers? It’s an eternal question and I have to tell you straight away I don’t know the answer.
I don’t see it as a character deficit to sometimes daydream of a different life and then realise how magnificent this one is. It’s normal. Banal even. Of course I take things for granted. You do too.
I have spent the time since the seizure smelling Hamish’s hair, appreciating his warm body, kissing him on the nose, lying in the bath with him, rejoicing in the way he pats his belly when I take his shirt off, doing the aforementioned random crying while reading him his boring books.
Is this it? I cannot believe I have a life so exquisite.
Seamus has since told me he didn’t yell, “Ham stay with us” he yelled “Ham I’m here, I’m here”.
Or at least he thinks he did.
We cannot remember.