On Being Human

Humans were made to help others and when we do help others or help them to do something—we are doing what we were designed for. We perform our function.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

At one point, the nurse in our room joked that my wife should clock in. She had gotten out of bed to help reset a respiratory monitor that was attached to our newborn son. Ashley and the other nurse began talking shop, rattling off words that were too difficult for me to pronounce—much less spell in my notes.

By now, the entire staff at the birthing center knew Ashley was a NICU nurse—meaning she takes care of very sick babies. I hear stories about her job in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, one of 3 in our area, but it’s difficult as an outsider to contextualize. I’ve seen examples online of the futuristic issolettes and the tiny helpless babies—tangled in a life preserving net of sensors & cords—breathing and feeding tubes.

But that all seems so far away and foreign to me.

The closest I ever came to truly understanding what she does, was when we visited a former patient who had recently been discharged. Ashley provided care for this little boy over several months, forming a unique bond with the infant & his family. Watching her hold him and interact with his parents made me see her in a completely different way. It’s the same way I looked at her as she adjusted the respiratory machine, and began asking the labor nurse questions.

“Are the results back from the blood work?” she asked. The nurse pulled up the report on the computer, and I thought back to when Miles was born. Just after giving birth, the Dr. informed Ashley that she had teared. “What level is it?” she asked, holding a flush wet baby. “It’s a level two.” the Dr. replied and began making stitches. Ashley winced and said, “Oh, so it’s not that bad”.

The beeping of the monitor filled our room with a sort of Resident Evil endgame urgency that pulsated along with my headache. The lack of sleep & caffeine were starting to poke their scary heads out from under the park bench dad bed. I searched my bag for a travel sized pack of ibuprofen, realizing Ashley hadn’t taken so much as a single pill our entire stay.

Just two days earlier—I watched her body contort like the exorcist—her face wrenched in an animalistic way I had never seen before. This unimaginable pain that molded itself onto her face, suddenly fell to the floor like a death mask. In its place was the complete and total opposite of suffering & pain—pure gladness & joy. Evidently, seeing our son’s face for the first time was all the pain relief she needed.

“To love is to suffer, there can be no love otherwise.”

Dostoevsky

We took a risk by having Miles at a smaller community hospital. Had something gone wrong, Miles would have been transported to the NICU—the same one where Ashley works. Ironically, she would have had to stay behind as a patient. This was one of our fears. But we traded easy access to the NICU for the more natural birthing experience & personalized care of a smaller hospital. That first night, we were the only patients on the 5 bed unit. After what seemed like days of sleeplessness, a nurse gently knocked on our door and offered to watch Miles while we slept.

He was having breathing issues and had been placed on a monitor to track his oxygen and heart rate. We sat there with eyelids as heavy as cinder blocks, watching the handheld screen and his silent breaths. The nurse attempted to console us by telling her birthing story. In fact, as the days went on—every single nurse and tech would at some point, share their pain & their joy. Before taking Miles out of the room, she even went so far as to offer us scoops of mint chocolate chip from her own personal stash.

“Characteristics of the rational soul: Affection for its neighbors. Truthfulness. Humility.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Several days after leaving the hospital, we took Miles in for his first checkup. At the end of the visit, the Dr. said something that stuck with me. He said very earnestly, “I wish I could tell you that nothing bad will happen to your son—but I can’t. All you can do as parents, is love him.”

I thought about how profound that statement was—and how it not only applies to Miles—but to us all. Having a child reminds us of how vulnerable we are. I think as adults, we learn to forget that, in fact, we too can fall down, or poke an eye out, or get into a car wreck. We too, like newborns, are incredibly frail. I think this is a sadness that we carry with us.

It’s what it means to be human—to know that we are vulnerable, and all we can do, is love each other.

“It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being—and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not angry whiners.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

What kind of world would it be like if we held each other like newborns? What if instead of acknowledging our differences—we acknowledged our unique consciousness, our unique loneliness? What if we recognized the profound sadness that underlies our experience as humans—floating on a mustard seed through oblivion? What would happen if we said, “I recognize your sadness, and your pain, and your suffering, and your confusion; because it is the same as mine, here—have some of my mint & chocolate chip ice cream“.

It’s not just the pain & sadness that we share—but there is also an incredible joy. A joy that wrestles through the pain of childbirth—the overwhelming gladness of a fresh new face.

Am I a slave to this tiny creature? Or is this an opportunity to grow along with him? To learn more about myself—my strengths and my flaws. To further explore what it means to be a human on this tiny wet rock. To practice empathy, compassion, trust, and humility. To experience profound sadness and life altering joy.

This, I think, is also what it means to be human.

After several tests & assessments, Miles & Ashley were both discharged from the hospital—3 days after giving birth. Despite several scares, we avoided the NICU and were thankfully able to go home as a family.

And as I write this, Ashley feeds Miles, holds him close to her chest, and puts him to bed.

Now hold me“, she says.

“I know of only one duty, and that is to love.”

Albert Camus

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