You like to do your homework here, and sometimes I come in and sit and pretend to work on something of my own. I don’t have much help to give – pre-algebra and the periodic table are too far gone now – but I like to watch you tap your computer, or plot lines on graph paper, or rub your cheek as you take in the origins of World War I. No need to look up, we don’t need to talk. I’m just here if you need me.
And I try to listen with more than half an ear as we barrel through our busy days. You need me to print out the worksheet for your latest Boy Scout merit badge. You think you might run track this winter to keep up your soccer agility. Then last month I finally made that appointment with the eye doctor. You’d mentioned a while back that your vision was acting funny, something about seeing in black and white when you stood up too quickly. It’s probably nothing. But it stuck in my mind.
It’s amazing what doctors can do today, what modern medicine allows them to see. His vision is fine, they said. Better, in fact, than most kids’. But look here on the screen at the unusual flare behind the left eyeball. The term is papilledema – swelling of the optic nerve. It would be wise to let a specialist take a look. We will make the appointment for you. No, not next week. Now.
The doctors always say never go on the Internet and start reading. But of course every parent does, and must, and it doesn’t take me long to find
the symptoms and complications that belong to this strange medical term. It is rare in children. It often pairs with diabetes. And to add to the alarm, it has less to do with vision than with deeper internal mysteries.
The specialist takes a look. He refers us to another expert. Tests are ordered. Then more tests. Technology now allows us to look deep into the human anatomy through the eye’s open window. My throat tightens as the doctor maps out each scenario. Things that are merely unusual. Conditions that could be more serious. Then it gets worse.
You sit out of earshot in the waiting room as the doctor talks, but that is how your mom and I want it for now. More scans will be needed, we are told, and we will need to wait another week, maybe two, to have them done and get the results. And even as we draw in our breath and the motion of our lives slows to a stop (we will keep you off the soccer field until we know more), I smile and try to keep things light: A few more tests, I say, giving you a smile. Nothing to worry about, it’ll be all right.
But what if not. My fingers dig into the steering wheel as we drive home. What caused this? You had a bad case of swimmer’s ear last summer that required a strong antibiotic to clear up. Then there was that time two years ago when you got your bell rung hard during a flag football game. Was that more serious than we knew? Were there any signs? What did I miss?
Because it is my job every night to close the gate and lock the doors and make sure the light is on outside to keep the world at bay. And every morning, from old habit, I still pour the milk on your cereal as you sit here with your bedhead hair sticking up. And I think about how you talk of starting your own YouTube channel, and how you decided to run in the school fun run, and did, and how much I laughed when you asked me if the big-box hardware store was just Dick’s Sporting Goods for old people. The proofs from your school portrait are back. I smile at your quirky grin. This haircut looks good on you. Your job right now is just to be twelve years old, and I love watching how God is making you.
Here, safe from harm, you still don’t know what lies beyond. We will drive to school, and I will keep the radio off to spare you the disquieting daily news, and we will talk of your science grade and your friend’s new dog and the Nike soccer cleats you want to buy.
But I will not speak of the fates that lurk in the dark. I will not say that it is not nature’s power that brings a chill to your mother and me, but rather nature’s indifference – the rogue fever, the sudden infection, the mild concussion that turns into something more. That something – anything – can happen at any moment, and so often does, and that life is not a forever thing, and that we send you out into the world each day praying only that you will walk between the raindrops and return to us untouched.
We cannot share the coldest truth of all. That a parent can never get over the loss of a child. Never.
What I will tell you when you get home is that the tests would turn up nothing of consequence, just flecks of calcium resting behind your eye that pose no threat, will not affect your sight, and which you will carry with you the rest of your life.
And many years from now, when you are gone from us and living in some far-off place, a keen-eyed doctor may become alarmed at what a routine scan turns up.
You will grin, and likely laugh, but not know to tell him that long before, when the doctor’s phone call came at last, your father laid his head upon this table and wept with gratefulness for all that had been, and all that would be, and for the rains that on that day did not come for us.
Instead, you will simply say that it’s all right. No need to worry. This is just the way God made me.