We knew our baby was sick, hit extra hard by the cold running through our family. Then late Sunday morning, things got scary. She went from lethargic to collapsed. She lost some color. I had bought a pulse oximeter to read the oxygen concentration in her blood, and that fell below 90 percent.
Since that moment, my sense of terror has subsided. The sadness, frustration, and pity have persisted. But a wave of even greater magnitude has washed over me and my wife since Sunday night: a flood of prayers, well-wishes, and offers of help. It’s an embarrassment of riches in the most important way: close-knit friends, family, and community that make tough moments not only bearable, but even uplifting.
The widest circle was social media. I asked on Twitter for prayers Sunday night, and hundreds of perfect strangers, many who didn’t even follow me, offered their prayers. People I didn’t know emailed to tell me they had said a rosary for my daughter.
When the hosts of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC broadcast my tweet and their prayers, it invited another torrent of well-wishes and prayers. These all lift Katie’s and my spirits. We believe prayer has effects beyond the emotional uplift, and so we are sincerely grateful.
Also cheering have been the well-wishes from people I rarely agree with: regular debate opponents and even people I have blasted in columns and criticized in tweets. I hope to long hold close to my heart this reminder (which I shouldn’t need, but often do) that even “the other side” is populated by real, caring human beings.
These are the joys that come with being a public commentator. But more broadly applicable has been our experience in our smaller circles: our parish, my work, our kids’ schools, and our families have provided help of immeasurable value.
One old friend, godfather of one of our daughters, came over Sunday evening so I could drive down to Children’s Hospital, visit the baby, see my wife, and deliver her some overnight stuff. When I returned, he had cleaned up the mess my 10-year-old had made while baking a “God Bless Eve” cake.
My mother-in-law came over in the morning to watch our toddler, so that I could trade off with my wife at the intensive care unit and she could nap. One friend in our parish picked up my oldest son for school (deviating from the norms of the car pool). As I dropped three kids off at our parish, one mom ran up to me and asked how she could help. Two different moms brought our kids home from school.
My mother-in-law brought over a chicken potpie, plus two desserts to supplement the cake.
Colleagues sent me barbeque for lunch plus another care package. Someone else sent dinner on Tuesday. We received more offers to help than we could possibly field. But maybe my favorite moment wasn’t, precisely speaking, an “offer of help.”
When my wife noticed my texts and calls during Mass and realized she had to leave, she gave simple instructions to our oldest daughter: Go to Dorrie (a grandmother in the parish), and sit with her for the rest of Mass. She’ll give you a ride home afterwards.
My wife simply knew what this old friend and neighbor would do.
That part is key. This dense network of a parish, a school, a workplace, extended family, neighbors, and friends doesn’t merely provide us help and stuff we need — it provides us the assurance that we’ll have the help and stuff we need when we need it. In that way, it’s like our health insurance. Insurance will, after the fact, make these visits to an urgent care, an emergency room, and a pediatric intensive care unit affordable. Before the fact and during this ordeal, insurance has provided a peace of mind and freed us up to make better decisions.
Much of America lacks good health insurance, and that’s a matter of heated and near constant political debate. But just as crucially, much of America lacks the other sort of "insurance" I have called on this week: dense networks of friends and neighbors.
The working class has increasingly turned away from religion, particularly attending church and belonging to a congregation. This deprives much of America of the most affordable, most caring social networks anyone can find.
Marriage is also on the retreat, not primarily among Wesleyan and Oberlin alumni, but among Americans who never finished college. Sociologist Brad Wilcox described all these working-class phenomena in a paper titled "No Money, No Honey, No Church."
Marriage has proven the single indispensable institution in our plight with our baby this week — taking turns holding her in the PICU, making joint decisions, one of us caring for the older kids while the other attends to the baby.
And taking in the scene at Children’s Hospital over the past couple of days—and where we will be until Thursday at least--I get a hint of the struggles of single parenthood. Some babies don’t have a parent to hold or play with them as they try to recover.
That’s only one way this episode has put things in perspective. The moms who have helped us this week include one woman with Lyme Disease and another who lost a son. Children’s Hospital is filled with kids suffering far worse than our baby, with far scarier prognoses.
But the main lesson of the past week has been our reminder of our community and family support, which are immensely valuable — and sadly rare.