On Christmas Day 2008 I screamed at God and wanted to know why He gave me a son I never planned only to take him away. And I was granted an extension.
It had started out as ordinarily as it could have. I was homesick in Korea far from my Pennsylvania home, surrounded by family that I was learning to love and that was learning to love me. I was preparing Christmas lunch--eggplant parmigiana--and my husband had taken the boys to my sister-in-law's where they could play and I could cook in peace.
AJ didn't look sick. But he had cried for more than half an hour without a break, and my husband was more than happy to hand him over to me. We ate lunch, me with AJ in my arms. Even then, he always wanted to be held, never wanted to be set down. So this was normal and not cause for alarm. After lunch, I laid him down to change his diaper. He felt warm, and I asked Ilsuk to get out the Tylenol, intending to dose him once his little bum was nice and clean. Only seconds later he began to shake. Then he was turning blue. Not blue tinge. Indigo. New Levi's jeans. Everywhere. Ears, lips, hands, feet.
Thinking that he was choking, I turned him upside down and started pounding his back. I screamed for Ilsuk to call 119 (Korean 911-can you believe it?). I ran him outside. We were next to a church. A church full of people, in a small village filled with people by American standards. Surely someone was a doctor, surely someone would help us. I was screaming in my bad Korean. "Help me! My baby is dying!" It wasn't my bad Korean that stopped them because my sister-in-law was also yelling in her good Korean, and my husband was pleading on the phone for the ambulance to come faster.
I do not even remember what all I pleaded with God. I was angry, so angry. Why send a child to take him away? Why Christmas Day? Why was no one coming?
I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know how the people of the town felt about me, but I knew they loved my son. Every morning, my mother-in-law took him with her through the community. Everyone loved him. He had his own stray cat that followed him around. He had a special place in the heart of Mung-mungey Halmoni (Woof! Woof! Grandma), who raises dogs and even let us borrow a puppy for a morning so he could keep playing with it. Everywhere I took AJ people came out to see him and talk to him. And even at eighteen months, he spoke back. In fact, the little sucker hardly ever shuts up.
Finally, my then-silent AJ started to cry. My sister-in-law and I were overjoyed. The ambulance pulled in and AJ was still enormously blue (although there was color starting to come back) and very hot to the touch. They immediately gave him oxygen and attached a pulse ox. We lifted his clothes and began bathing him in cool water squirted onto gauze from water bottles. His pulse ox became dislodged, and the EMT began chest compressions before feeling a pulse. It was a false alarm, but it still shook me to the core.
You do not forget seeing chest compressions on your child.
At the hospital, they determined that he had had a fever seizure due to a bacterial infection. They gave him IV antibiotics and fever reducers. They had us strip him to his diaper and instructed us to keep wiping him with a cool wet cloth. My husband took pictures of our poor little baby in just a diaper with an IV.
AJ and I spent the night in the special pediatric ER observation room at the local university hospital—a small L-shaped room with about eight beds. About half of the beds were filled and all of us parents eyed one another anxiously. We were almost afraid to ask what the problem with the other children was for fear of the answer. We all knew it could just as easily be us. I cradled AJ in my arms as he slept hooked up to a pulse monitor. I woke frequently—every time, it turned out, that his pulse changed even ten beats per minute. It was a horribly long, panicky night.
The next morning, the doctor gave us three more days’ worth of antibiotics and sent us home. We parents all said goodbye to the other families in the same way: “Nice to meet you. Don’t come back.”
Climbing into the car carrying AJ, I looked at my husband.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
We both knew that I was holding our present.