The Gift of Empathy

I remember the first time my son said, “Daddy” instead of “Da” or “Da da.” It was October 12, 2012, exactly two years ago, and I remember it so clearly because it was pegged to a specific moment in time.

Julian was in his crib in our bedroom, recovering from surgery. His pain meds and anesthesia were wearing off at the same moment, as his recovery nurse had warned might happen. Jen and I were in the living room, sitting quietly and waiting for signs of distress from his direction.

We heard him start to fuss and crank, the way he normally did when waking up, but this time it carried more urgency, since he was in discomfort. I walked quickly into the kitchen to get his pain med and headed to the bedroom. The very second I entered the room, he cried out, “Daaaaaaadeeeee!” I gave him the medication and held him and he gradually quieted down.

My wife and I don’t discuss the specifics of his surgeries (he had two), to protect his privacy. We do talk about the fact of his surgeries, though. We discussed them at the time because we needed the moral support from friends, and we talk about them now for another reason.

While we were in the waiting room, hanging from a thin cord, desperate to hear anything, we watched the other families. We saw tiny infants awaiting the knife, small children with complex leg braces, kids who seemed sickly thin, and kids who seemed “normal,” but who clearly had a serious reason to be in a surgery.

Julian is now healthy and the problem he faced is one that’s thankfully resolved, but when we round the corner on each anniversary of his operations, I can’t help reflecting on the kids we saw, and their parents.

I feel grateful for organizations like Chicago’s Open Heart Magic, where a friend works, and my heart sinks whenever I read about a child who is seriously ill. I feel thankful that Julian’s surgeries succeeded so well, and I’m enormously grateful to his surgeons and their teams of support people.

My wife follows the Facebook page of a sweet little girl with leukemia, and we ache that we can’t do much that feels like anything for these kids and their families. But there is one thing I can do, one thing that matters a lot — maybe not always for kids, but maybe so.

I donate blood. I get an email notification when it’s my time to roll up my sleeve again, and I book the first possible time I can to get in there and bleed. I maximize the giving by donating double red cells each time.

I’m sitting here as I write this with a bandage on my left arm and the pervasive feeling of low-level lethargy that usually follows a donation. But I’m also sitting here, wondering about the families my blood will help, and that feels pretty damn good.

Y’know, for Julian, and the kids in those waiting rooms, and that sweet little girl, and all the kids we don’t know anything about.

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