I Used To Hate My Son's Scars

by Abby Conway
Originally Published: 
congenital heart disease
Perboge / iStock

It’s been one year. As I sit comfortably holding my bouncy, drooling 1-year-old in my arms, I smile down upon him in a state of admiration. My eyes bounce from his wide brown eyes, over to his chunky and discolored cheeks, then finally to the pink scar that peeks through the collar of his Paw Patrol shirt.

As my eyes make their way over his zipper-like scar, my stomach twists and the sounds of hospital life crash into me like waves to a shore. The elevator dings, the code blues sounding over the intercom, the redundant beeping that comes from lifesaving machines, each having their own place ingrained in my memory, like the smell of hand sanitizer and the image my dried-out cuticles. After these memories recede, they sink to the bottom of my stomach with a faulty anchor.

Most of this year has been spent within the sanitized walls of hospital rooms, bogged down with the sense of uncertainty of a future that may, or may not, contain my son. When he was in that hospital bed, it was difficult to see past the layer of wires and tubing. Beneath them was my child, my swollen, yellow-smeared, post-open-heart-surgery infant. He was sedated, yet fighting to hold on to this world, with one foot lingering too long into the next. In the midst of those months, nobody could have persuaded me to see the greater good that would come out of what the cuts, chest tubes, and central lines left behind—his scars.

In preparation for my baby’s arrival, I had carefully selected a few tiny outfits and crammed them into a black and blue chevron diaper bag. I was prepared to deliver my healthy baby boy. Painful hours of slow progress, that are now my last written pages of life before him, before all this, led up to my failure to progress with labor. The C-section is nothing more than a blur in my memory. I know he came out seemingly healthy. But several hours after surgery, the sedation began to wear off and reality came into focus. A strange wave of angst came over me, and I began questioning my nurse about my then-nameless son. Something in the way my questions were dodged told me something was indeed very wrong.

My suspicions were unfortunately confirmed when a soft-spoken woman came shuffling into my room with misty eyes and a stack of papers. We were informed that my son had only half of a heart, and that his only chance of survival was minimal and also two hours away at a hospital prepared to take his case. I seemed to be floating into an uncharted territory where new moms drop off their dreams and are left with only pamphlets filled with statistics and medical terms. The helicopter came, we cried, and I waited.

I began receiving many phone calls from doctors, who tossed around survival rates, drug names, procedures and the anatomy of the heart, all with little retention on my part. The reality that I would not be bringing home a healthy baby was consuming me. Accepting that my child with a congenital heart disease was dancing closer to death than life was not what I had in mind. I was horrified, heartbroken and angry. My baby didn’t deserve this, and I didn’t deserve a sick baby. This was the start of months filled with resentment.

I was made to walk the cold and desolate hospital halls where I had unavoidable encounters with the sounds of mothers and their new, healthy babies. And while pain from the surgery could be eased with medication, the aching of my empty arms would not go away. Just a short while ago, I had been like those mothers. I was going to bring a new child into the world, and in just a matter of a day, we found ourselves in completely different circumstances. Two tiny outfits stayed neatly folded inside my hospital bag.

When my son finally received his first of many lifesaving surgeries, his chest cavity was cracked and cut through in order for the surgeon to reach his smaller-than-a-walnut heart. Once this was done, the physical reminder was permanent. The symbol of his differences, the things we’d never do, and the challenges we would surely face was there in a jagged line running down his concave chest, plain as day. I didn’t mind the look of it, but it triggered within me something so uncomfortable. The resentment crept up on me slowly, and then all at once. I couldn’t bear to be on social media reading about “normal parents” and their complaints. Don’t they know how good they have it? I thought. One by one, I shut everyone off, because I believed they could just not understand real struggle.

While a healthy baby was learning to sit up, my son was weaning off of a ventilator. Then focus steered away from what we couldn’t do to what we were overcoming. Consequently, my outlook began to change. Watching your child fight for life chips away at the hardness of your soul. Time had allowed me to fall comfortably into this new reality, and true beauty rose from watching him fight.

As I stood helplessly by his bedside, the truth fell into my lap: These were not my scars to be upset about. I am only here to love him, all of him. I could no longer be upset about not having the child I anticipated as I watched him beat the odds and fight to stay alive. I could no longer feel ungrateful. These scars do not mean that I have not gotten a healthy child; they mean that I’ve gotten to keep my child. I have been shown grace and given the opportunity to love the most innocent of life, as he experienced more than any child should. Although he had these trials, the task to show him love without condition is mine. Who was I to use any of my time being hateful when I had such an important job to do?

Learning to see my son’s scars as beautiful took watching him fight for his life. Charlie would just not be Charlie without that scar running down the middle of his chest, much like he would not be him if his eyebrows weren’t so thick and if his dimples failed to make a complete half circle. I wipe the tears from my cheek and run my fingers through the small tuft of hair on his head. My son stirs out of his sleep and flashes me a big, toothy grin. Feeling especially thankful, I place my hand atop his scar and feel the beating of his tiny, stitched-up heart.

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