good man

in the

A

making.
By LAURA NOVAK

I SHOULD START at what will always be, for me at least, the beginning.

Nearly 15 years ago, I gave birth to my only child, Max. In some ways, his early life was a litany rather than a tale. If I don’t cheat by scanning the voluminous essays I wrote about Max’s start, this is what I can recall: The first four months of pregnancy were blissful until a scary ultrasound dampened my husband’s and my spirits. A second scan shattered us with the devastating diagnosis of multiple congenital anomalies that were going to require radical surgery in Max’s first year. Next came four months of bed rest, endless trips to Labor and Delivery to stop labor and delivery, drugs, more drugs, home nurses and fetal tests. Once we limped past the 29-week mark, I received betamethazone shots in my butt for the next five weeks, to boost Max’s lungs. We met with the pediatric surgeon, perinatologists, neonatologists and a cardiologist, who delivered the doubly devastating diagnosis of a potentially fatal heart condition. When two additional ultrasounds finally confirmed that our baby’s lungs were ready, four people broke my water in the operating room and Max was delivered by cesarean section—while a catheter in my shoulder delivered the Keith Richards cocktail blended to blur my mind. He had finally arrived, our magnificent baby, lifted out of me by a determined obstetrician and photographed by the anesthesiologist with only the operating room light for glorious effect. Max was alive and well and righteously pissed off. It was all good where he had been, he argued. And he had heard rumors about where he was going. However, I insisted I couldn’t hear my baby crying. The entire surgical team kept telling me to listen, that Max was just over there in the corner with his own team. Just listen, they repeated, while pushing my organs back into place. One kiss was all I got before they whisked him down the hall. In the recovery room, I squeezed Max’s foot once through a hole in the incubator before another team of five transported him to Children’s Hospital.

So there you have it, I might say, brushing my hands against one another in a cleansing effect. Only the journey had just begun. Max lived for three long months in intensive care at Children’s, where he underwent several surgeries, the longest of which lasted seven hours. When that surgery was over, one of Max’s nurses wrapped her arm around me and walked me to the warming table in intensive care, where two nurses and two doctors were working. I felt so bad for them, awful really, because I was certain they had messed up and put the wrong baby on the table. In front of me was something horribly swollen and ventilated, three times the size of the baby I handed them that morning. I might have laughed and told them they had it all wrong, except our exhausted pediatric surgeon was directing traffic. And hovering nearby was our favorite neonatologist—the same doctor who used to put caffeine into the deep line in Max’s scalp just to perk up his brains and remind him to breath. Throughout Max’s babyhood, especially during hospitalizations, I counted numbers. I monitored my son’s Ins and Outs, documented every cubic centimeter spent and the volume of emesis emitted. It was an obsession really, all those facts and figures: By the time he turned 2, Max had spent a total of 24 hours under general anesthesia. He recently had his 15th surgical procedure and is soon to turn 15. All those numbers throughout the years, they kept me thinking, which prevented me from feeling, because there was that fear, that awful nagging fear. It was never back in the corner where another team was taking care of it. The fear hovered over and haunted me, even when my funny and frighteningly smart baby began to hit his milestones and move above that 10th percentile. So there you have it, I might say again, except for the myriad emergencies that pummeled us for four more years. On the darkest days, it seemed like we might never wipe our hands with insouciance and move on. And then one day, from the chaos and pain, there emerged an amazing child, then a brilliant boy, and now a good young man. I look at Max and marvel at his accepting nature. If anyone has a reason to raise his fists to the world, it is my son. Yet he painted and played and studied dinosaurs and when he got old enough, he pushed his own IV pole into the operating room while I followed behind, joking about the pizza I was having delivered. “You would never know to look at him,” people now say, not noticing that I clutch my hands at the mention of those early years. Most of the scars are hidden under Max’s clothes. He can’t close one of his hands completely from the cerebral palsy, yet that position is perfect for playing the tenor sax, which Max does, in a mean way—only he scoffs when I say that. He thinks Parker plays too fast to accompany on CD, but Miles is manageable. I squint and nod and think I understand. Just last fall, Max played at Yoshi’s, the venerable Oakland nightclub. During his first big solo my friend squeezed my hand the entire time, probably to remind me to breathe. I am better able to exhale now and appreciate that Max’s life has turned out so beautiful. I am in awe of how much he knows and the fact that he loves third-year Latin, 3-D art and Dickens; the fact that Max finds trig intriguing and physics a hoot and his history teacher says he could be taking college-level courses. How do I explain his brilliance? Was it the caffeine in his scalp or the betamethazone in my butt? Or maybe it was the time we spent cultivating relationships with all of his doctors and nurses. We told Max they were good men and women who helped us. So he was never afraid. Of anyone. Kids flocked around him. His play dates were endless. His dance card is now often full, even though I don’t get to hear the girls’ names. I just hope that whomever he chooses to dance with into his adulthood loves him enough to allow me to stop worrying.

Max is a good and gentle young man. I am reminded of this once a month when we help cook for and serve dinner to 50 men at the Berkeley Men’s Shelter. They are strangely peaceful, the evenings we spend with these men, who are alternately ailing, defiant, demanding, and manipulative and often without hope. Max’s early trepidation has given way to certitude and eagerness. I’ve watched Max stand before these destitute men and with a strong, clear voice invite them to seconds or make an announcement about gift bags. It is so simple, really, but when I see Max begin to clear the tables and then stop to find a spoon for the man who wants dessert but threw his away by mistake, I want to cry.

I have only three more years left with Max to cover all the basics before he leaves for college. Let’s see, has he fixed his Facebook privacy settings? Taken his medicine? Have I waxed often enough on the importance of dental floss, condoms and Spell Check? Does he know to never walk through a door before a woman or get into the car without first helping her get in? Because my devil is in the details, I will hover a little longer to make sure we order the right reeds for his sax and arrange for the laptop for exams because Max can’t hold a pencil long enough to say everything he wants to. I know he can recite the Lord’s Prayer and sing the Doxology if he desires. Or pin on a yarmulke should the occasion arise. I know that Max is loving, delightful and charming. And he is gentle and good. Sometimes my son asks how we survived it all. Well, we did, until we didn’t—so there you have it. But instead of saying that, I read to him from the Tao Te Ching: “We work with being, but non-being is what we use.” This just makes him laugh. “How can you do and not do at the same time?” Max rants. I laugh too, but from love and gratitude, not fear, because now I can look at this good boy on the verge of becoming such a good young man and know that the worst things that happen to us are also the best. *****

Laura Novak is a former television news journalist who has written extensively for the New York Times on health, business, and the arts. She hopes to publish her first novel, Finding Clarity, which is set in Berkeley, Calif.,and she is at work on a mystery series. This article first appeared on The Good Men Project blog.

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