My Dream House and My Boy

My Dream House and My Boy

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

My Dream House and My Boy

There must be more to life than having everything.

Maurice Sendak

It seemed the perfect place to raise a family: a beautiful lot in Spokane, Washington, surrounded by ponderosa pines, near forests and streams. When my wife, Joy, and I found it, we knew it was the ideal site for our dream house.

The lot was expensive, far beyond what I could afford on my modest salary as a philosophy professor at Whitworth College. But I started teaching extra classes and moonlighting in real estate.

We finally bought the lot. Sometimes I’d put my infant son, Soren, in a backpack and take him for walks in our future neighborhood. “You’ll love roaming these fields and streams,” I’d tell him.

Then came the wonderful summer when I helped the contractor build our home. My brother-in-law, a California architect, had designed elaborate plans as a gift. I’d work sunup to sundown, rush home for dinner and often go teach a night class. Confronted with choices for materials, I’d always answer, “Give us the best. We’re going to be here for a lifetime.”

I’d take one of our girls, Sydney, five, or Whitney, seven, with me whenever I had errands to run. But at the dinner table, I’d just nod as the girls tried to tell me about their day. Rarely was my mind fully with our family. Instead, I’d be worrying about the escalating costs of the house.

But we made it—a four-year goal fulfilled! I felt pride and satisfaction the day we moved in. I loved helping my children explore the neighborhood to meet new friends.

Only a week later, we had to move out.

Unable to sell our other home, we’d arranged to rent it to meet the house payments. At the last minute, the renters backed out. “We can make it somehow,” I assured Joy. But she faced the truth of our overextended finances, “Forrest, we wouldn’t own the house; it would own us.”

Deep down, I knew she was right. The exquisite setting and distinctive architecture meant our new home would sell faster than the old. I reluctantly agreed, but disappointment led to lingering depression.

One afternoon, I drove to the new house just to think. To my surprise, I was engulfed with a sense of failure and started to cry.

That fall and winter, I kept wondering why this loss bothered me so much. My studies in religion and philosophy should have taught me what really matters—it’s what I try to help my students understand. Still, my mood remained bleak.

In April, we all went on vacation to California with Joy’s parents. One day we took a bus trip to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano, where swallows return each March from Argentina.

“Can I feed the pigeons?” begged Whitney, heading toward the low, stone fountain inside a flower-filled courtyard. The four adults took turns taking kids to feed the birds, visit the souvenir shop and enjoy the manicured grounds. When it was time to get back to the bus, I looked for Joy and found her with the girls and their grandparents.

“Where’s Soren?” I asked.

“I thought he was with you.”

A horrible fear hit as we realized it had been nearly twenty minutes since anyone had seen him. Soren was a very active twenty-two-month-old who loved to explore. Fearless and friendly, he could be anywhere by now.

We all started running through the five acres of the mission grounds. “Have you seen a little red-haired boy this high?” I asked everyone I saw. I ran into back gardens, behind buildings, into shops. No Soren. I started to panic.

Suddenly I heard Joy scream “No!” Then I saw Soren, lying on the edge of the fountain, arms outstretched. He was blue, bloated and looked lifeless. The sight burned like a branding iron in my mind. It was one of those moments when you know deep inside that life will never be the same.

A woman cradled Soren’s head as she gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and a man pressed on his chest. “Is he going to be all right?” I yelled, fearing the truth.

“We’re doing the right things,” the woman said. Joy collapsed on the ground, saying over and over, “This can’t be happening.”

Lord, don’t let him die, I prayed. But I knew he couldn’t be alive, not after nearly twenty minutes underwater.

In less than a minute, paramedics arrived, connected Soren to life-support systems and rushed him to the hospital. A trauma team pounced on him, led by a specialist in “near drownings.”

“How’s he doing?” I kept asking.

“He’s alive,” said one of the nurses, “but barely. The next twenty-four hours are critical. We want to helicopter him to the Western Medical Center in Santa Ana.” She looked at me with kindness and added, “Even if he lives, you must realize there’s a strong chance of significant brain damage.”

Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my young son in the intensive care unit at Western. His limp, naked body was dwarfed by the machines connected to him by countless wires. A neurosurgeon had bolted an intracranial pressure probe into his head between the skull and the brain. The bolt, screwed into the top of his head, had a wing nut on top. A glowing red light was attached to his finger. He looked like E. T.

Soren made it through the first twenty-four hours. For the next forty-eight hours, we stayed by his side while his fever skyrocketed past 105 degrees. We sang his favorite bedtime songs, hoping we could soothe his hurt even in his comatose state.

“You both need to take a break,” insisted our doctor. So Joy and I went for a drive and started to talk.

“There’s something besides Soren that’s really bothering me,” I told her. “I’ve heard that when couples go through a tragedy like this, it may separate them. I couldn’t bear to lose you, too.”

“No matter what happens,” she said, “this isn’t going to break us up. Our love for Soren grew out of our love for each other.”

I needed to hear that, and then we started to cry, laugh and reminisce, telling each other what we loved about our mischievous son. He delighted in balls, and before he was even a year old I’d hung a miniature basketball hoop in his bedroom. “Remember how he scooted in his walker and tried to land one, squealing ‘yeaaa’ if he came near?” I asked.

We also discussed our fears about brain damage. “The doctor seems more hopeful now,” I reminded Joy. He had told us Soren was alive only because all the right things were done immediately after he was found. Thinking earlier that we’d lost him, we felt grateful he even had a fighting chance. We’d take him any way we could get him. But we wondered what the impact would be on the family if brain damage was extensive.

“Can you believe that, for these past months, what mattered to me was losing that house?” I asked. “What good would a new house be if we came home to an empty bedroom?”

Even though Soren was still unconscious, that conversation gave us some peace. We’d also been receiving wonderful support from friends, family and strangers and felt the power of their prayers.

In the following days, four visitors dropped by to see Soren. First came Dave Cameron, who had discovered Soren underwater. A Vietnam veteran, he led tours at the mission. “I arrived early that morning. Standing near the fountain, I suddenly had this strong sense of foreboding,” he said. “That’s when I saw the backs of his tiny tennis shoes. Instinct and training took over from there.”

Soon after came Mikiel Hertzler, the woman who applied mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the ambulance arrived. “I’ve been trained in CPR,” she told us. “When I first saw him, I couldn’t find a pulse. But faint bubbles in the back of his throat made me think he was trying to breathe.”

I shuddered. What if someone with less medical knowledge had discovered him and given up sooner?

Then two strapping paramedics, Brian Stephens and Thor Swanson, told us that they were usually stationed ten minutes away, but that day they were on an errand a block from the mission when they got the call.

As we remembered the doctor’s words about Soren’s being alive only because all the right things happened immediately, their stories touched us deeply.

On the third night, the phone woke me in the hospital room my wife and I were using. “Come quick,” shouted Joy. “Soren’s waking up!” When I got there, he was slowly stirring, rubbing his eyes. In a few hours, he regained consciousness. But would he ever be the same boy who had brought such exuberance to our home?

A couple of days later, Joy was holding Soren in her lap. I had a ball in my hand. He tried to get it—and he said, “Ball.” I couldn’t believe it! Then he pointed to a soda. I brought it to him with a straw, and he started to blow bubbles. He laughed—a weak, feeble laugh, but it was our Soren! We laughed and cried; the doctors and nurses did, too.

Just a few weeks later, Soren was racing around our home, bouncing balls and chattering as usual. Full of rambunctious energy, he gave us all a sense of wonder at the gift of life.

Almost losing Soren helped me look closely at my role as a father. What really matters is not that I provide my children the ideal house, the perfect playroom, even woods and rivers. They need me.

Recently, I drove back to my dream home. Prisms of sunlight shone through its fifty-two windows and, yes, it has a beautiful site. But I wasn’t troubled anymore, and I know why. As I returned home to take the kids on a promised picnic, all three ran out. Soren squealed, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” And I had time to play.

Forrest Baird As told to Linda Lawrence

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