Friday, July 3, 2009
July 4, 1985
We secured our vantage points early. There were a lot of parents with little children, all wanting to see. It was just after 9 p.m. Normally, these kids would have all been asleep by then. We had a spectacular view of the fireworks, reflected in the windows of the tall buildings surrounding the Empire State Plaza in Albany. We could feel the rumbling power, though it was conspicuously quiet despite the explosions happening just a few blocks away from the parents’ room in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Albany Medical Center. By day, and on other nights, this room was refuge for parents staying with critically ill children. That’s why we were there. On this night, it was a place to forget, for a few moments, how fragile life had become for all of us.
Gene and I stood with Meghan, then five years old, tethered to her I.V. pole. Her head had been shaved for surgery and later wrapped in bandages, with the exception of a little ponytail up on top (think Pebbles Flintstone). The nurses wanted to save some of her pretty dark brown hair. She was awed by the fireworks, just as she had been for the few Independence Day displays she’d witnessed in her young life. As we sat in the darkened room, the children’s faces literally lit up with each burst of light. There were the typical “ooohs” and “ahhhs” you’d expect on any other 4th of July, though this was a unique holiday, one I wished had turned out very differently, and one that would undoubtedly stay with all of us forever.
We’d arrived at Albany Medical Center just after midnight three days earlier. I accompanied Meghan in the ambulance (the longest ride of my life). Gene drove with friends to meet us there. Meghan was stable and awake, immobile, her head and body strapped to a flat board. She was still wearing her polka-dotted bathing suit from earlier the day before, when we’d taken the kids to the Spa pool and planned a backyard barbeque afterwards. There was a compress on her head where the golf club had made impact. It was a terrible accident. A neighbor friend had been playing with his dad’s golf club and she walked right into the swing. The staff at Saratoga Hospital’s emergency room arranged for her transfer to Albany, but we had to wait four hours for the ambulance to be available. She required brain surgery. I was holding her hand and talking to her. She was hungry and wanted pizza. I was grateful she was irritable, assuring me that, for now, her vitality was intact.
The doctors would perform surgery to remove skull fragments from the frontal lobe of her brain. We waited and prayed in the hospital’s chapel. The sun came up in that way that stings your eyes after crying, and one of the surgeons came to find us. Meghan had done well through the operation and would be asleep for a number of hours. She woke up around 10 a.m., in her own nook in the larger sphere of nooks in the PICU. She was alert and talking, asking for pizza. We’d been told that her injury might cause memory loss. I found her to be the same child she’d always been – curious, feisty, demanding – and I was relieved.
Gathered around us that 4th of July night were many children: a baby with Downs Syndrome and leukemia whose grandparents had assumed legal custody; a little boy recovering from a coma after a near-drowning incident in his grandparents’ pool; a lovely eight year old girl who survived, with a broken back, the car accident that claimed her mother’s life; a young girl with severe, uncontrollable seizures; a nurse holding a young toddler, abandoned by her parents after a long and expensive illness, and who called every nurse “mama.”
I sat with Meghan and watched her, despite all she’d been through, filled with joy at the spectacle before her. I remember being acutely aware, just then, that while something terrible had indeed happened, how truly fortunate we were.
Photo credit: http://www.albany.com/images/fireworks-albany.jpg