The Right Place at the Wrong Time


James Sclater


© Copyright 2016 by  James Sclater


Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash
Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash

The day began as any normal workday except that my regular teaching chores at the college had been supplanted by the opportunity to do something a bit different. That day I had to travel to Greenwood for a concert in which some of my music was to be played by a fine college band. I had looked forward to this outing for quite some time because a performance of ones music by such a group was something that didn’t happen very often. As I prepared to leave that morning, I spoke again to my wife about how sorry I was that she couldn’t go with me. She had chosen to remain close to home after having suffered two miscarriages in the past two years. She was then not quite six months pregnant and was trying to be very careful; travel for her was not on the table at that point. A colleague who worked at the college where I taught had offered to accompany me on the trip so I wouldn’t be driving alone. As I drove away she was feeling well and doing some light chores around the house.

The trip was as exciting as I had hoped it would be. The band played well, we had some good food, saw some old friends and enjoyed the festive air of the music conference. About three o’clock in the afternoon my colleague and I started the two-hour trip back home. The trip was tiring but well worth the trouble.

Arriving home about five o’clock in the afternoon, I noticed my wife’s friend’s car in our driveway. I assumed that they were having a late afternoon tea break, something they did relatively often. Her friend was also pregnant with her first child and they loved getting together and discussing all the experiences they were both soon to have. When I entered the house I found them both in the back bedroom and my wife was in bed. They explained to me that she had become ill during the late afternoon and was experiencing some telltale signs that the pregnancy might be in trouble. The doctor had been called and they were soon to leave for the hospital. I had arrived just in time to take her in.

The drive to the hospital was a mixture of small talk and intense silence; we were both worried that the pregnancy would end again before she was able to bring it to term. The prospect of a third miscarriage in a row was weighing very heavily on my wife and me. We were, of course, hoping that the “third time was the charm.” I tried to be assuring and positive but am fairly sure she could see through that posture.

Arriving at the hospital, things moved relatively quickly. They put my wife in a room and they ascertained what was needed and got her settled and quiet. One of the nurses told me that things were under control, there was a doctor on call, and that the best thing I could do was to go home and rest. Before I left I spent some time with my wife and tried to comfort her. I knew she was in good hands and realized there wasn’t much I could do at this point other than to take the nurse’s advice.

Arriving back at home I tried to remain calm by thinking about the day and the positive aspects of the trip. At this point it was a day of highs and lows – elation at hearing the music and seeing the friends and sorrow at what was transpiring now. About ten o’clock that night I crawled into bed and began the process of trying to get some sleep for what I knew would be a tough day tomorrow.

Around midnight the phone rang; it was the nurse at the hospital telling me that my wife had delivered our baby, a little girl, and that I needed to come to the hospital as soon as possible. Amidst a jumble of thoughts and fears, I dressed and drove back downtown to confront what had happened and what it all meant. At this point I had no details about the health of my wife or baby girl, just a long list of questions and fears.

When I arrived back at the hospital, I found my wife sedated and asleep and was able to speak at length to the pediatrician on duty. He told me that the baby was about 14 weeks early and weighed a pound and a half. He said my wife was doing well and would rest comfortably for the night. He took me to see our daughter in the NICU where the sick babies were kept. He was very clear about the issues that might affect the child’s health at this point; there were many, one of the main ones being underdeveloped lungs. The doctor was very good about giving the pluses and minuses of the child’s situation. There was nothing to do but to let them do their work to help her grow and get better.

It was at this point that I noticed the specific type of open-air incubator where our daughter was being treated. At some point I questioned one of the nurses about it and was told that it had just arrived that day. The rest of her explanation just tore my heart open. She said that, yes, the staff had been working on assembling the incubator for many hours, the first of its kind for the hospital. She said that another mother had given birth to a premature baby boy about four or five hours before our daughter was born and this baby boy was in line to use the incubator when it was assembled. One incubator; two preemies in need of it. Tragically, the little boy died before its assembly could be completed and he could be helped by it. Our daughter was now being cared for in this machine. I learned then that what some would call a miracle for my family was hardly a miracle for the parents of the child who died that night. That little boy was perhaps at the right place but at the wrong time. To me it seemed that no miracle occurred that night; more probably it was just the luck of the draw. Perhaps the real miracle would have been both of them surviving. I know that my feelings were a terrible mixture of elation and sadness, one child lived and one child died. Often I think about the parents of the little boy and wonder how they coped with their loss. The question of who lived and who died in this situation might have had more to do with timing than any other factor, but it would be a lie to say that I don’t feel some sense of guilt about it. That guilt, of course, is not rational, but it is present nonetheless. Maybe it’s something like “survivor guilt” once removed. Well-meaning platitudes like “God must have wanted that little boy in heaven” serve little purpose and surely would be of little comfort to anyone, especially the parents. It is inconceivable to me that God played favorites in this situation. As the man said, “Bad things happen to good people.” The reverse is surely just as true. The real test for all of us is, I suppose, how we respond to the good and the bad that we must deal with every day.

Our daughter spent nearly eleven weeks in the NICU before we could bring her home. Initially she was so small that the sweet nurses bought her some doll dresses as a Christmas present, dresses which seemed at least three or four sizes too large for her tiny body. We went to the hospital every day to spend time with her, trying as best we could to be strong during her bouts with pneumonia, hydrocephalus, and other lung problems. When she tipped the scales at four pounds we were allowed to bring her home. Some of the nurses, seeing our fear, came to our home to check her progress, but mostly, I think, to play with her and keep in touch with our family.

I think often about the baby boy who didn’t survive, what he would have been like, how he would have lived his life, what happened to his parents. Had he lived, he would be forty-seven years old now and would probably have children of his own. Sometimes I see him in my mind’s eye but cannot understand what he is trying to say to me. The feeling that somehow he lost his life so that my child could live is, again, probably an irrational one, but nevertheless one that exists on the fringes of my consciousness.

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