THE DYING CHILD
The man sat across the sterile room and watched his child dying.
He had stood calmly under the hostile machine guns of the Soviets within the charred and shattered rubble of Berlin in service to his Crown and country. He had then crossed the world to America where he built and lived, loved and raised his family.
Now this former reporter could do nothing but watch, and wait, and take notes in a sad and tired hand on a yellow legal pad, recording details with the practiced habit of a journalist as fever migraines prodded his youngest son into crying, wakeful pain. The boy would writhe, then subside into exhausted silence on the bed once more.
Bruises covered him where intravenous lines had been run for weeks into his hands and arms, his feet and ankles. With each passing day there were fewer places to insert fresh ones, fewer issuances of hope from doctors and nurses who were reduced to mere attendants of pain and no longer able to act as healers.
Days and nights were a blur, for sleep and waking were run not by play and rest, by meals and repose, but by the fits and starts of fever and the incomprehension of the innocent who woke in the dark hours before dawn and cried and cried with pain at the soft light that glowed from the nurse’s station.
As the weeks went by the man documented the progression of meningitis that writhed in the skull of his child, burning the boy’s mind away and murdering his senses.
“His hearing is going,” the man wrote.
“Even in the pain, he can tell something is happening to him, and complains that he cannot hear.”
The love and helplessness inscribed into those pages shone from the written words.
The documentation stopped near the end, when against all odds the fevers broke and the doctor took the man aside and said to him, “It’s happened. We saved him.”
The grave illness had lost. The pain was gone, and the gift of calm and sleep had replaced the tossing and turning of agony and pressure within the golden head of the young child.
Soon enough the boy went home to his family, and entered into a world where nothing made sense any longer. The world had been turned upside down, and everything had been severed.
He was deaf. Birds, laughter, music, human connection through voices had all been stolen by the disease and the fevers and the drugs pumped into him with desperate hope and quantity.
The boy could no longer walk, for the nerves that connected his inner ears to his brain had been burned away. There was no longer an up or down to perceive, and even a simple attempt to stand on his own made the world tumble and turn and the floor would leap up and slam into him without sympathy.
The voice of his mother, which used to sing to him and lull him to sleep as one of the sweetest sounds of the universe, was now silent. There was only the great effort of slowly mouthing words, beginning the long and exhausting process of teaching the boy to lip read as if his life depended on it… and it did.
The living feeling of connection with friends and family was severed forever. No longer could the boy simply listen and be an integral and accepted partner of humor and discussion, of sharing and whispers. He was now a permanent outsider, cut off and reduced to an observer rather than an equal participant.
Gone were the dreams of a little boy to be an astronaut, a firefighter, a policeman, a soldier. Never again would a future be possible that relied upon the ability to hear, to listen, and act.
And so the boy was dependent, and hurting, and terrified, and did not understand. And finally the day came when the family sat down to dinner, and he laid on the floor and cried for help, because he could not walk. And not one person came, and he laid there alone in miserable despondency.
Until he started to scream in rage.
Then his older sister came down, and stood over him. And when she spoke, she made certain he could read her lips and understand.
“Get up and walk,” she said. “Quit wailing.” Her face was harsh and neutral. “The world isn’t going to help you.”
And she turned away, and went back up the short flight of stairs to the kitchen and the family.
The boy laid there for a moment, stunned, and rebelliously enraged at reality.
Then something contracted inside him, and he sat up. He looked at the stairs, then silently wiped his face.
He crawled to those stairs and dragged himself upwards, furious, finally reaching the chair next to his father. Then he gasped and clambered until he had pulled himself onto it. Not one person at the table glanced at him or offered assistance. When he was seated, his father looked over and calmly offered him a serving of dinner. But in that Englishman’s eyes was the glint of the most powerful approbation that an officer of the Royal Horse Guards can give another man.
It was respect, and the boy never forgot that look.
I was four years old.