When you’re a parent, a Christmas miracle isn’t something you pray for—it’s something you pray you never need.
In early November 2005, our son James received his first formal invitation, to Sunday afternoon tea at our friend Richard’s house.
As he’d only been alive for five weeks, this presented our boy with unique social challenges. He didn’t know how to wear shoes, for instance. Was restricted to a diet of baby formula. And lacked the fine motor skills to RSVP with anything more legible than a brusque footprint.
Still, he was five weeks old, not stupid. While pretending to nap, James had in fact overheard us discussing in hushed tones how to handle this social conundrum. Normally, we’d have declined, at least until James had grown into a larger diaper. But Richard is British. Knowing this, and putting two and two together, James no doubt feared that refusing an Englishman’s invitation to tea had the potential to escalate into a serious international incident. Rather than risk his country being forcibly restored to British rule, James, an American patriot, overcame his misgivings and indicated to us via spit bubble that we should accept on his behalf.
Though we arrived two minutes early, I waited until precisely 3 p.m. to ring the doorbell. Because I know they value that sort of thing across the pond. Richard welcomed us with a broad, warm smile and posh public school tones: “Well, look who’s arrived at my front door. Good aaaaafternoo–”
His mellifluous greeting was cut off by a low moan. A keening almost. Looking down I realized it was coming not from James but our four-year-old daughter Elizabeth, her dainty mouth contorted into the sort of grotesque, frozen rictus you only see on Italian widows just before they howl and throw themselves into their husband’s freshly dug graves.
I knelt down. “Honey, what’s the matter?”
She now had one hand clapped to her ear and was hopping up and down on Richard’s brick walkway in what I can only describe as a dance of the damned. I shouldn’t have been surprised that our daughter had chosen this worst of all possible moments to experience the first and last ear infection of her life. This sort of impeccable timing had announced itself in Elizabeth’s infancy when, as she was placed in her beaming grandfather’s arms for the first time, she instinctively realized this was the perfect moment to empty the contents of her stomach.
As I dug around in James’ diaper bag for some liquid Tylenol, Richard bent down and asked Elizabeth if she might be more comfortable lying down in a back bedroom. “Is there a TV?” she whimpered. As I watched him whisper to our daughter as he tenderly led her down the hall, I was struck by his special brand of kindness, something I find unique to the childless. Those patient smiles and encouraging words I always imagine mask a silent, internal mantra: “Thank Christ I never reproduced.”
In the living room, Kelly balanced James with one hand while Googling earache remedies with the other. My girl did in fact calm a bit as we lay her down on the guest bed, but all it took was Richard switching on the TV for the crying to ratchet up. Richard thought it was the volume, until I assured him it was PBS. The Antiques Roadshow always has that effect on children.
In just under four seconds, 27,682 Internet sources had informed Kelly that a warm, damp washcloth on our kid’s ear might ease her pain. Remembering the advice of a homeless man I’d once passed while pushing Elizabeth in a stroller, I piggybacked on this idea, suggesting to Richard that he might soak the washcloth in bourbon in case she got thirsty. But Kelly nixed this idea, loudly, from the next room.
In lieu of alcohol, I had no choice but to suggest a more insidious narcotic — The Disney Channel. As it always did, my finger began to twitch uncontrollably as I reached for the remote, but somehow I managed to switch on The Suite Life of Zach & Cody. I felt terrible for Richard. This very nice friend had invited my family into his lovely home and how had we repaid him? By infecting it with the death of culture.
I’m pretty sure no sane adult has ever voluntarily subjected himself to children’s programming. Except of course those rare cases when emergency contraception is called for. I was reminded of this as Richard, unaware of what we were watching, walked in on a Disney moment so cloying it seemed to knocked him backward as if he’d been the victim of a blunt force trauma. Tossing the washcloth over his shoulder, he kept walking, announcing that tea would be served in five minutes.
Tenderly placing the warm, damp cloth on my daughter’s ear, I had to admit she seemed better. Sometimes soulless dialogue, bad acting and apocalyptic role models really are the best medicine.
I joined Kelly in Richard’s cozy, immaculate, antique-filled living room. As my husband sat on what I felt sure was called a divan and fed our son his afternoon bottle, I bit into a tiny cucumber sandwich and relaxed into the sort of adult surroundings I rarely got to enjoy anymore. Admiring the carefully placed bric-a-brac and Richard’s impeccable collection of early twentieth-century photography, I allowed myself to be carried away by the first thought that crossed my mind — that a truly motivated toddler could destroy this place in about three minutes.
“There we are,” Richard said, entering with a tea set I felt certain had been in his family for generations. He gingerly set the tray on the tea table in front of us next to an assortment of sandwiches, scones and jellies he’d no doubt assembled from scratch. Soon fragrant steam filled the room as Richard expertly filled each of our cups and proceeded to make the appropriate fuss over James, asking how Elizabeth was adjusting to her new brother and if Kelly and I were getting enough sleep. We showed him the Halloween photo we’d taken the week before of James looking adorably heroic in his tiny Superman onesie. We thanked our friend for this rare afternoon out and told him how much it meant to us that he’d found such a unique and personal way to celebrate the arrival of our son.
A moment James seemed instinctively to understand called for a personal response. And that’s when he obliged our host by adorably cocking his head, widening his eyes, and spewing what I swear had to be a good quart of white upchuck all the way across the room. I recall watching in sheer, open-mouthed amazement at the sheer physical power of it. As a perfect arc of Carnation Good Start began to make its way across Richard’s immaculately laid tea table, time seemed to stand still. Picture that hail of bullets in the The Matrix — only vomit — seeming to freeze in midair before resuming warp speed and landing with a loud splat next to a very large, sleeping dog. Then picture said dog bolting from the room, galloping into the back bedroom and landing on your daughter’s bad ear.
Her bloodcurdling scream is the last thing I recall of that afternoon.
Miraculously, by suppertime Elizabeth’s ear seemed all better, leading us to believe our daughter was either the next Meryl Streep or a witch.
James wasn’t so lucky. That night he was unable to hold down any food. The next morning an x-ray revealed something called incipient bronchitis. It wasn’t uncommon at that time of year in a child so young, our pediatrician told us. A nurse brought in a machine called a nebulizer and taught me how to give James breathing treatments at home. I was instructed to administer one every four hours and return each morning for a followup so the doctor could monitor our son’s progress. I did as I was told.
No one lets you know how quickly things can go south. In our case it was overnight.
Three days after the Great Tea Debacle, I found myself in the back of a speeding ambulance, watching a man I’d never met using every trick he knew to keep my eight-pound son’s drowning lungs going long enough to make it to the hospital.
We spent the next eleven days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit of Tarzana Regional Medical Center. I try not to revisit those days, but moments flash unbidden from from time to time. Here’s what I recall:
Placing my son in his car seat for his followup x-ray and noticing how gray he was. I told my daughter we were skipping the preschool drop-off and taking James straight to the doctor. “That’s just stupid,” she said.
Not being able to see James because of the rear-facing car seat, and the shuddering chill when she said, “Daddy, James looks like he’s running out of batteries.”
Our pediatrician’s face going white as he moved a stethoscope across James’ back, and muttered to a nurse, “Call an ambulance. He’s got crackles. Crackles everywhere.” And me asking what that meant.
Calling Kelly at work and telling him to leave work immediately. I gave him the address of the hospital and told him what I knew. That “crackles everywhere” meant our son had something called RSV, a temperature of 92 degrees and life-threatening pneumonia in both lungs.
Trying to read my daughter a Care Bears book as a nurse administered an emergency breathing treatment to James, then calling out the door, “He’s turning blue! Get the doctor back!”
My daughter saying, “Daddy, what’s happening? What are they doing to James?” As a doctor and three nurses struggle to revive him. Trying to keep him from dying, I think but don’t say.
James coughs. “That’s good,” says the doctor. He’s breathing. I’m not.
And suddenly he’s not either. The tiny room fills. Three doctors now and four nurses. I can’t even see my son. It takes over a minute before he starts breathing again.
A neighbor arrives to get my daughter out of there and take her to preschool.
Nurses pushing furniture and families against the walls of the waiting room so my son’s gurney can make it out the door and into an ambulance.
The weird lighting inside an ambulance, the flop sweat beading on the EMT worker’s face.
The random thought that if we’d taken my daughter to preshcool first, as planned, James would have stopped breathing in my car.
Kelly arriving at the hospital, unaware of all that had happened since I’d called him; collapsing in his arms, sobbing.
Being told James’ lungs were no longer able to breathe on their own. My husband and I giving the doctor permission to put him in a virtual coma so a breathing tube could do the work for him, and to keep him from tearing out all the wires and monitors off his body.
Five days of watching my son lie unconscious, not being able to look into his eyes.
Offering the only comfort I knew. Stroking him and singing “Sweet Baby James,” the one thing that always calmed him, and willing myself to believe he can hear me.
Being told, after James’ third day of round-the-clock intensive care, that somehow his right lung has collapsed.
Swapping shifts with Kelly so our son would see one of our faces when he woke up.
Trying to make things feel normal at home for Elizabeth when nothing was normal.
My only moment of pleasure each day — eating a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich in the cafeteria.
Priests from the church where Kelly and I had met arriving to offer us communion in the hospital.
Running into a TV star I’d once written for on a popular sitcom at the hospital elevator. The incongruity of it, and realizing that no amount of clever plotting or snappy dialogue could fix his mom. Or my son.
The numbing phone call from my doctor father, gently trying to tell me that Kelly and I needed to prepare ourselves that “this might not end well.”
Being there to see my son open his eyes for the first time after five days. Very weak, but looking me straight in the eye and reaching for my finger.
Five days later, moving out of pediatric intensive care into a room with windows. Singing to my son as he lay on my chest. And the physical sensation that despite our lack of a biological tie, we shared the same heart.
Thanking our team of nurses and a doctor named Carmen Botero, who made herself available 24 hours a day, and restored our son to us.
Watching James’ eyes dance again, in a face so bloated from steroids we couldn’t decide if he looked more like Mao Tse-tung or Roseanne Barr.
On Sunday, November 20, James came home again and, with flawless timing all his own, smiled for the very first time. In the weeks that followed, he thrived, confirming what he’d known from the moment he picked his first Halloween costume. He was Superbaby.
The same neighbors who’d helped look after Elizabeth while we were at the hospital now brought home-cooked dinners to our door every day. As we shared a meal with one of them, the phone rang. It was Wendy Barrie, one of the priests who’d served communion over the rail of James’ hospital bed as he lay unconscious.
“How’s our boy?” she said. Doing pretty great, we assured her.
“The reason I’m calling is that the entire vestry has taken a vote and it’s unanimous. We want James to play Baby Jesus in the Nativity pageant next month. If he’s up to it.”
“Wow, really? Baby Jesus?” Even I was starstruck. It’s kind of the ultimate brass ring for Christian-leaning infants.
“Actually, we’d love for the whole family to be involved. We thought Elizabeth could play an angel, and you guys could handle Joseph.”
“Which one of us?”
“Both of you.”
“Wait a minute. What? You want us both to be Joseph?”
“Why not? We’re a radically inclusive church.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “What are you planning on calling this thing? Brokeback Bethlehem?”
And that’s how at the 2005 Christmas pageant of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, for what I’m guessing was the first time in recorded history, Jesus had two daddies.
Which, come to think of it, as even the Holy Virgin might tell you, is kind of historically accurate.