My Son's Medical Emergency Showed Me The Strength I Didn't Know I Had

by Jackie Goldschneider
kdshutterman / iStock

Sometimes I feel like a sucky parent, particularly after I scream hysterically over something small or on the third day in a row I serve mac and cheese with nuggets for dinner. And sometimes I feel like I got this parenting thing, like my kids lucked out to be mine.

But I spend most of my time drifting in the middle, thinking I could be doing it all so much better even while knowing there are people doing it worse. Googling tips for being a more patient, effective parent while reminding myself that my children are happy and go to sleep every night fed and clean.

But sometimes life sends me little reminders that jolt me out of the middle. They’re rare, but they happen to all of us. They’re moments that stay in your head and replay themselves when you close your eyes. Moments that make you want to wrap your children in cotton, tuck them into bed beside you, and never let them go. Like the time your daughter almost stepped into traffic or the time your son almost choked. These are moments when everything you are as a mother, as a parent, all that love, all the protective instincts and everything you feel for that child come rushing to the surface, tears pour from your eyes as you fill with endless gratitude for the little person you couldn’t bear to live without.

After these moments, you put your hand over your pounding chest, steady your spinning head, take a deep breath, and thank the god you may not even believe in for sparing you the worst. You realize that you live to love and protect that little person, and that’s why you’re an amazing parent. Despite all the nonsensical reasons you may think you suck, you’re actually pretty fantastic.

This was my fiercest reminder…

My 2-year-old twins, Hudson and Alexis, sat in their high chairs at the kitchen table as I settled in for a round of “Who’s spitting out their lunch today?” A mother’s helper was making beds upstairs while my older kids were at school. I looked like a slob with messy hair, messy clothes, and my head was filled with the million things I had to get done after lunch. I absolutely had to go through bills, return six emails, and hit the supermarket so I could make dinner. I put bowls of something in front of Hudson and Alexis and encouraged them to pick up their toddler forks and eat. I think they started to nibble at the food as I grabbed a stack of bills from the counter. Then I turned to see Alexis, babbling, playing, not eating. Then I looked at Hudson.

Hudson…he wasn’t moving. “Hudson buddy, you okay?”

Nothing. His little face was still, his head heavy, tilting slightly as though he was falling asleep. He looked at me and then his eyes rolled to the back of his head.

“Holy shit!” I screamed as loud as I could. My sitter came running. “Stay with her,” I cried as I grabbed my son, checked the back of his throat for food, and frantically unstrapped him from his high chair.

The phone. Dial 9-1-1. “I need help my son’s not breathing. Oh my god, please help me. Help me.” I grabbed my keys, still on my phone.

“Ma’am, is he conscious?” I looked at Hudson. “He’s blue. Please help me!”

Holding my baby limp in my arms, I was helpless. I can’t do anything to save him. Except I could. I could stay focused. I could keep myself from passing out or having an anxiety attack or breaking down. I need to get him in the car in case the ambulance doesn’t come.

I raced to the garage where my car was. I heard sirens getting closer, and I looked again at Hudson as white foam dripped from the edges of his blue lips. My son is dying. This is happening. I opened the car door holding his little body to mine and rubbing his face. Is this happening? Oh my god, is this happening?

And then his eyes opened, and he started to breathe. It was just like that. His color returned. Suddenly a sense of the world came rushing back to me. I ran out to my driveway and felt a chill and realized I had no shoes on, and it did not matter.

The EMTs scooped him from my arms as I broke down on the gravel in a haze of terror and a flood of gratitude for not having to face the life that almost became mine. “Hey buddy, you okay?” they asked him. “You gave Mommy a scare,” they joked. “Let’s get you checked out.”

I stared in awe at these wonderful people holding my Hudson. And as they carried him to the ambulance, I took a moment to break down. He was safe, and I could cry. I bent over at the waist and wept, kneeling down and sobbing as I tried to process what just happened, just for a minute before pulling it together and being the parent again.

Hudson had a seizure. Apparently it is a pretty common thing, one of those things you have no fucking idea about before you become a parent, but which actually affects a chunk of children under age 6. It’s called a febrile seizure. I learned about it in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital, as my smiling, confused 2-year-old lay on a stretcher. He had no idea what had happened.

The EMTs assured me Hudson’s vitals were fine, so I called my house and checked on Alexis. Then I called my husband, grateful I could utter these first few words: “Everything is OK now,” I said, as I started to realize the unimaginable scenario I’d made it through while he was in a meeting, blissfully unaware through no fault of his own.

“I’m in an ambulance with Hudson. He’s okay. But something happened.” But I handled it. Don’t worry. I’m on it. I always called for my husband when one of our kids had a cut or gash, the thought of their pain and a fear of blood making me weak. I used to wonder if I’d pass out if something big ever happened to one of our kids. I no longer wonder.

My husband raced to the hospital from the city, but I didn’t need him to rush. I just needed to hold my baby, to look at him and know he was alive and okay, to smell his warm skin and feel his soft hair and realize how lucky I am for the life I have. I wanted to let myself think about what I could have lost but didn’t, and to be proud of the way I handled it: I made sure Alexis was being watched. I called the police. I was ready to drive him anywhere. I ran for help. I didn’t melt down. I know in hindsight that Hudson wasn’t in terrible danger, but I’ll never be able to erase that day from my memory. I still cry, for so many reasons — gratitude, fear, love — when I think about it. I’m crying now as I write about it.

Later that day, I went on Facebook to post what happened. I don’t usually share personal stories on my page, but I needed to be comforted. For all the doctors and nurses and family around me, I needed something else. I needed other mothers.

Although my post was brief, the response was astounding. Women from high school, from other cities, people I’ve never met in person, all telling me about similar things that happened to them. Describing the same terror I felt when their own child stopped breathing, recalling the same helplessness, and expressing the same relief. The worst day of all of our lives. That connection was what we needed, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. It didn’t just happen to me. It happens. None of us had any idea what to do, and yet we all did what we needed to. We all learned about a strength we didn’t know we had.

I knew there was a 40% chance of a recurrence before the age of 6. Would it be as scary the second time if I knew what was happening? I didn’t know, but if there was anything I could do to keep from reliving that day I would do it. I spent the next four years hyper-vigilant every time Hudson said he didn’t feel well. I felt his head constantly and watched his eyes, nervous anytime they seemed heavy during the day. “Mommy, why are you staring at me?” he’d ask. Because I love you baby. I love you so much.

Fortunately, there aren’t too many instances like this when the unimaginable becomes imaginable. Where you’re shocked into realizing how much you love your children. Nor do you need such stark reminders to know that you’d do anything to protect them. But for all the times you feel bad about your daily screw-ups — your meltdowns, your cursing, letting your kids hand in sloppy homework or go to school in stained shirts — these times are reminders that those little things can’t even touch the monumental reasons you’re such an amazing parent.

Now excuse me while I heat up some mac and cheese and nuggets. It’s almost dinnertime.