It was a normal Sunday night, which I was spending staving off the reality of Monday morning by immersing myself in as much mindless entertainment as possible. As my partner and little boy slept in the room next door, I was busy jacking cars and killing cops (it would’ve been a different Sunday night entirely had those two verb-noun combos swapped partners) through the hyper-violent medium of Grand Theft Auto.
I heard a woman-shaped holler from the bedroom, and tutted. No doubt I’d forgotten to do something, or was being commanded to undertake some meaningless, non-urgent task just as my ever-precious man-hours were dwindling down to zero. I chose not to react straight-away. Sometimes being half-deaf has its advantages. A second passed, maybe two, and the holler came again, more insistent this time. This was a bad sign, like when you see the lightning flash at the same time as you hear the thunder. But I didn’t think the situation was serious serious; just serious in a ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ kind of way. I bounced the Xbox remote across the table and bounded up from my seat like an ape, growling out a surly and exasperated ‘WHAT!?’
The hollers kept coming. I loped across the room, grabbed for living-room door handle and yanked it open; in the hallway outside, a pack of words like sharp-toothed dogs were lying in wait. “SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE BABY! JAMIE, WHAT IF HE DIES?!” At that precise moment, my world collapsed. A hurricane of adrenalin ripped through my body. Thoughts sloshed in my head like oil; the world spun simultaneously into fast-forward and rewind. I had no language, no reason – there were no decipherable sentences imprinting themselves across my subconscious like lines of ticker-tape – but even without the power of coherence my brain knew that this moment could be an ending; and one in which I could be trapped, ever-looping, for the rest of my natural life.
I burst into the bedroom to see my little boy’s eyes rolled back and lifeless, a deathly pallor painted across his skin, his lips turning a bruised blue. “HE’S NOT BREATHING! HE’S NOT BREATHING!” Panic propelled me through the house as I thumped and flailed for the phone, my brain buzzing with blood and static. Seconds stretched like hours. I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t think. “Darling, come on, darling, mummy’s here, you’re okay, darling, open your eyes.” My partner’s pleas haunted every room of the house.
It’s too late, I thought… It’s too late.
I stood in the close outside my front door hollering ‘HELP!’, and hammering on my neighbour’s door. Milliseconds later I was dialling numbers into my phone, not even aware of when it had made its way into my hand, or how. A voice – a dying echo of my own – pleaded with the emergency services: “Please help me, I think my son is going to die.” My neighbour and her friends opened their door on a wild-eyed, spluttering apparition. Wordlessly, they followed me into my house, rushing, running, racing to the bedroom, where they stood prostrate and helpless, not knowing what to do, or what was expected of them. I didn’t know either. I’d summoned their help in a blind panic, a mad-eyed monster of instinct and fear. I didn’t know what to do. My little boy was dying, and I didn’t know what to do.
The ambulance seemed to take both seconds and hours to arrive. Paramedics checked my son over; by then he’d snapped out of his fugue and was breathing close-to-normally again. He vomited, and cried. As we wiped his face and set about changing his vest, he started calling for the cat. We laughed, amused that amid all the chaos and panic his sudden illness had caused, and all the unusualness that now surrounded him, all he cared about was the company of his four-legged friend, a friend who was unable to reciprocate his love on account of being quite, quite terrified of him. Mostly, though, it was a laugh borne of the relief that he was able to ask for anything at all. Five minutes ago, to our absolute certainty, we had lost him, and had resigned ourselves to enduring the rest of our short, miserable lives as ghosts in search of a death.
The paramedics, those Vulcan-like stoics, were satisfied that he was stable, and not in any imminent danger, although he still seemed weak, hot and feverish. Mother and son rode to the hospital in the back of the ambulance, and I took the car, a decision for which I berated myself mercilessly as I sped out of the street. How could I be thinking pragmatically about our return journey from the hospital? What if he dies in the ambulance? Aren’t his last moments worth the cost of a taxi ride? He’s okay, I kept telling myself, he’s sick but he’s okay, he’s with his mum, he’s surrounded by life-saving medical equipment and he’s in a vehicle that’s speeding him to a building that’s filled with highly-trained medical professionals. Try as I might I couldn’t stem the flow of panic. Each time my brain almost managed to quell my heart with reassuring thoughts, a feedback loop sent fresh waves of adrenalin bouncing back between them both. I’m not a superstitious man, but I couldn’t extinguish the irrational notion that my very complacency could be the thing to sign my son’s death warrant; that keeping calm was an act of hubris for which I would be punished by the universe through my son. Adrenalin jolted through my body, forcing my foot down upon the accelerator. I thought about my son being in the ambulance. I thought he was okay. I was almost certain he was okay. But I didn’t know. Maybe he wasn’t.
I got to the hospital before the ambulance did, a fact that should’ve been reassuring. If it was serious, I tried to tell myself, they’d have overtaken me on the motorway. My brain, however, reliably pessimistic, managed to conjure a thousand harrowing counterpoints to this theory, from a spent battery to a six-car pile-up. Over the next five minutes or so, a clutch of ambulances arrived in the A&E bay, and I rushed to meet each one. My partner and little boy weren’t on board: only a cavalcade of beleaguered old ladies and grim-faced men. I knew that I should’ve felt some measure of sympathy towards them, cast them as principal characters in their own stories instead of resenting them for being unwelcome extras in mine, but their pain and autonomy meant nothing to me. I only cared about one ambulance.
Eventually, it trundled into the bay. Slowly, silently. Both good signs. But still…
The ambulance rolled to a stop, one of the paramedics opened his door and slipped out of his seat on to the tarmac. As he opened the rear doors, a soft and plaintive ‘Daddy’ sailed out of the gap. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relief.
We spent the next few hours cradling our swaddled son in our arms in a succession of waiting rooms and consultation rooms, watching him doze, relieved but never quite relaxed. By the early hours of the morning, he’d regained something of his old Jack-ness. He wanted to explore the corridors, and we let him waddle penguin-like past gurneys and trolleys, palm-slapping walls and pushing wheel-mounted stools around like they were comfortable leather Daleks. The nurses we saw were pleased with how he was behaving and responding, but said they’d feel happier keeping him in overnight. We were happy too, on both counts. I couldn’t stay, so drove home to sleep for a couple of hours – not an easy proposition – and bring back fresh clothes, toys and food.
He had another seizure first thing in the morning, which was almost as terrifying as the first one for his mum, who had sat next to him all night in a hospital chair, worried, watching, and unable to sleep. I arrived a short while later expecting to find my son shrivelled and withered like a turtle with its shell ripped off. On the contrary. He was watching Peppa Pig and eating Quavers. He was hot, tired and clammy, but otherwise fighting fit. Thankfully, all of the tests they ran on him came back negative. No sepsis, no heart murmurs, no epilepsy. He’d simply had a fever, probably brought on by nothing more sinister than the common cold or a tummy bug, and the only remedies we were advised to dispense were TLC and Calpol.
We now know that it’s reasonably common for babies and infants to experience a seizure as a result of a high fever. It’s not the high temperature itself that causes the seizure, but rather the speed with which the temperature spikes. Any sudden and severe upsurge in temperature can send their little bodies into overload, and into a seizure that can last for six minutes or more. I don’t think forewarned is necessarily forearmed, though. One of the doctors told us that when it happened to her kid, despite having a vast encyclopaedic knowledge of infant medicine at her disposal, her heart leapt against her rib-cage like a zoo tiger rebelling against its bars. I’m paraphrasing her ever so slightly. If it ever happens to our child again – and it goes without saying that I hope it never, ever, ever does – I doubt I’ll be able to whip out the stopwatch and look calmly into his little blue face, wondering when it’ll be finished so I can get back to Grand Theft Auto. ‘One minute twenty nine, one minute thirt… come on, son, hurry up, I’ve got prostitutes to murder!’
Later that next day, my sister told me that as a child I used to suffer from high temperature spikes rather frequently, which tended to inspire hallucinations rather than full-on seizures. I once hallucinated that a swarm of bees was crawling out of my mouth. Wailing and terrified, my mum sought to assuage my panic by lifting me up to a mirror to show me that it was all in my head: a move that only served to highlight just how much she still had to learn about the nature of hallucinations. Having been brought face to face with incontrovertible proof of my own terrifying bee-ness, I proceeded to scream the house down. I don’t remember any of that. I do remember being a little older and running through to my sister’s room, and barricading myself beneath her covers, because all of the toys in my room had come to life and were trying to get me. Was that seizure-related? I always assumed I was a mental-case, or else possessed an over-active imagination.
Case in point. I used to have a recurring nightmare about a jester who lived in a palace that was tiled top-to-bottom in squares of black and white marble. The jester’s hat and shoes and tunic all carried the same black and white pattern. His wide, mad eyes were black-and-white swirls that pulsed and morphed and spun in his head, round and round like some hideous kaleidoscope. He’d laugh maniacally, a horrid, high-pitched laugh that was almost a shriek. Anyone unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of those terrible eyes would fall under their hypnotic spell, and find themselves frozen to the spot, laughing and laughing and laughing without end, doomed to become living statues standing in tribute to their own eternal insanity. My family would be his usual victims – my mum, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins. They’d all be standing in the Jester’s palace laughing that same crazy laugh, their eyes swirling, and I’d be rooted to the spot along with them, free from the jester’s spell, but crying, frightened, unable to escape. I remember standing fully awake in the hallway of my childhood home around the time of the nightmare’s reign, thinking that the jester was in the living room waiting for me, and I fell to the floor and froze, unable to move for a very long time, despite my terror.
Was that a seizure, too? Did I pass on this tendency to short-circuit to my son? Or was it just a coincidence? Whatever the truth, after an event like this the over-riding instinct is to blame, if only to give a face to the culprit, a face you can plainly see and identify, and recognise for the next time. As we sat in the waiting room, I blamed the Chinese we’d had the night before, my mother-in-law’s new cat, the damp in one of the rooms in our house, assorted sneezers we’d come into contact with, myself for not realising how ill he’d been.
How the jester made me feel on that long-ago afternoon is exactly how I felt during those frantic five minutes on that terrible Sunday night. Helpless, powerless, afraid. As a Dad, I know I can protect my son from choking on a grape, I can push him out of the way of a car, I can even leap in front of a bullet for him, but there’s very little I can do to save him from the random and unseeable dangers that lurk around every corner: microscopic assailants, planes falling from the sky, bin lorries hurtling over pavements, asteroid strikes. I guess the unquenchable fear of the unknown comes with the stewardship. It’s something all of us face, whether we’re parents or not, this fear of life, and fear of death, but somehow it’s worse to bear by proxy, when that fear is distilled into the shape of your child.
There are parents out there who have to cope on a daily basis with children suffering from lingering, even life-long, illnesses; there are parents out there living through the unimaginable grief of having lost a child. I’m more grateful than I could ever express that we don’t count among their number, and I have boundless admiration and sympathy for those parents who must endure such enormous burdens. Our boy was fine. We were scared shitless, but no great or lasting harm was done. We were lucky. I know this.
However, what-ifs of relief can be almost as unpleasant as what-ifs of regret. I still get random flashes of my little boy’s face as he was seizing that send shivers down my spine. Last week I took him to the park, and as we were driving home he became drowsy and started to nod off in his car seat, fighting it all the way so his head kept dipping and lurching. I knew it was normal, cute even, but still a little voice in the back of my head was screaming: ‘STAY AWAY FROM THE LIGHT!’
When the little guy is older, he’ll never remember that this happened to him. Hell, he’d forgotten it while he was still in the hospital – coincidentally around about the same time as we discovered the play-room and its explosion of toys. When he was discharged in the late afternoon, as we were readying ourselves to leave the hospital, we asked him, ‘Do you want to go home and see the cat?’
‘No,’ he said, shaking his head, before bounding off in search of a toy train.
‘Fuck the cat,’ his demeanour seemed to say. ‘This place is awesome.’
I envy him.
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