The Wolf at the Door

John W. Hesley
Magazine Issue
January/February 1994
The Wolf at the Door

A therapist’s tidy world is thrown into chaos.

MY WIFE, JAN, AND I WERE AT WORK in our psychotherapy practice, when I heard her pager go off in the office next door. Since that happens many times each day, I hardly noticed. I was surprised to hear her knocking at my door shortly afterward to interrupt the couples session I was conducting.

“Kip’s in trouble,” said Jan, struggling to hide her alarm. I went out to speak with her. Our 6-year-old son, Kip, was home with his sitter. “Beth called to say that she told him to clean up his toys, but he couldn’t grasp them with his right hand. Now he can’t talk.”

“He’s overdosed,” I said, thinking about the asthma medicine he takes. Jan nodded. “I think so, too,” she said. “I’m going home right now; go ahead and finish your session, but stay close to the phone.”

Within 20 minutes, my own pager was going off. I have worn that pager for years, but its shrill tone had never before filled me with dread. Excusing myself from my patients, 1 called home.

Beth answered immediately: “Jan says go straight to Children’s Hospital. She has already left in an ambulance with Kip.”

The hospital is only about 15 minutes from our office, but it was rush hour and I was snarled in one traffic jam after another.

By the time I got there, Kip was having a CAT scan. Jan was standing in the hall, crying. She fell into my arms, as if I had saved her from drowning.

We held each other for a while without speaking, then she turned to me and said, “He’s had a stroke; nobody knows what’s happening. He’s in bad shape.” I broke down and sobbed, and we were both still holding each other when the big double doors swung open. Kip was wheeled out, looking too small for the gurney on which he lay. I managed a smile as I touched his face and leaned down to kiss him. He lay still, but in his eyes was the fear of a small animal and the desperate relief at being rescued by Mommy and Daddy.

In the ER, they left the three of us alone. Kip was trying to talk, and Jan said over and over how much better he seemed, now that he was speaking. He showed me how he could move his fingers in his right hand, just a bit. I choked back the tears.

Then the doctor came in. “Kip’s had a bleed in his frontal lobe,” he said. “It appears to have stopped, but we don’t know the damage, or what caused it. I want to start tests in the morning to find out.”

He smiled at Kip and stepped over to him. “For a 6-year-old kid, you did a great job in that CAT scan. You’re a brave boy and you came through it like a champ.” Kip looked at me with no change in expression.

That night, Kip kept saying, “I don’t want to sleep; I’ll die if I go to sleep.” We assured him he would not, but he was nearly right. At 2:30 a.m., he had a long seizure, which apparently caused more bleeding in his brain, and he went into a semi-coma. Shortly before dawn, we were told that we might lose our child at any time. The neurologist held Jan’s hand firmly, “Stay nearby so you can help make any decisions that may need to be made.”

That night, watching our son breathe through tubes, I learned about the helplessness of being a parent: I couldn’t live my child’s life for him, nor could I die his death for him, even though I wanted with all my heart to take his place in that bed.

Although every pore of my body was pleading for Kip, when the chaplain came to the ICU and asked me if I would like to pray, I said no. I kept thinking of all the children lying in hospitals or in streets or in gutters around the world, no doubt with parents like myself who wanted them saved as desperately as I. Why would God allow our child to live and not theirs?

More than that, there was something grotesque about having to pray for him. The God in whom I believed would have been well aware of what was happening with Kip, with all of us. It seemed obscene to me to think that God was just waiting for the proper words from me to rouse Kip from his slumber.

SUDDENLY AND MYSTERIOUSLY AS IT HAD ALL BEGUN, it was over. Six hours later, Kip woke up. He cried and moved his fingers and his toes. He fought like a tiger when he realized he was wearing a diaper, and demanded that we get him out of bed and onto a portable toilet. He knew who we were, he called out to us, and we let ourselves believe he was going to make it. When the doctors tried to caution us not to be too optimistic, we ignored them. For us, Kip was back. And, in spite of several tense moments, he did come out of it, more rapidly than anybody believed possible. They called him the “miracle kid”; he had no permanent damage, and all functions returned to 100 percent. It was what you call “a scare” when you are talking to someone you don’t know very well, whom you would rather not have see the depths of your fear. A terrible event inexplicably comes out alright in the end; the small child inside laughs and says, “I never was really all that afraid anyway.”

But I was that afraid. And although I would like to imagine differently, I know I never will relax fully again. Now I know that the bogeyman can reach in and get me just as he can get any of us. In spite of all my clinical training, I know of no technique to escape this black hole of despair. I have seen just how insignificant my skills are compared to the ominous forces that really make a difference in life.

The next two months after Kip came home from the hospital were terrible. I should have been ecstatic, but I just didn’t care about anything.

The doctors said Kip probably had contracted viral encephalitis. They had done what they thought might help, but none claimed that it was the treatment that had cured him. Somehow, depending on your belief, Kip decided not to die, or God decided not to let him, or his brain just quieted down and stopped bleeding. Whatever happened, he was back to himself within three weeks. But Jan and I were basket cases.

One outcome of the crisis was that doing therapy became more difficult for me. I realized that there are wounds that cannot be healed, wounds that destroy our bodies, or our hopes, or both. More than that, I realized I am not wise enough to know how to patch these gaping holes, and for the first time in my life, I recognized that there was no authority who could tell me how to go about it.

To some extent, we all want to believe that life is predictable. But if there is such a thing as predictability, it is only that sadness and pain will, at some point, touch every one of us, and there is not one thing we can do to prevent it. We try our best to deny this hard fact: We set career goals, get one academic degree after another, hole up in safe houses, and try to stack tons of money between us and the bad guys. Still, in spite of it all, tragedy burrows into the deepest parts of our souls.

How do we face life in an uncertain world in which what we do and what happens to us are sometimes not even remotely related? How do we explain the unjustified violence, the threats from dangers we can’t even name, the unfairness of daily existence? How do we remain brave, as we tell our small children to be, when the wolf is baying at the door?

As adults, now it is our turn to play the role of the self-assured, fearless parent, like the ones who always protected us before. We want to believe the old answers to the old questions that faith is a certain bulwark against despair, that love is an unfailing antidote to loss but somehow the homilies just do not carry as much power as they used to.

NOW IT IS A YEAR LATER, AND WE PRETEND LIFE is back to normal. We go about things the same way as we always did. Sometimes, the kids drive us crazy with their nagging and their demands, just like before, and Jan and I periodically threaten to run away from home. But there are quiet moments, late at night, when we suddenly return to those dreadful hours in the hospital.

I can never quite forget how quickly it could all be wrenched away.

Kip’s illness has thrown my tidy world into chaos, and I do not know how it will all turn out. I once dared to feel confident guiding my clients through the shadowy mazes of life. No longer. Now I have seen the wolf.

John Hesley, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Arlington, Texas, where he and his wife, Jan, a marriage and family therapist, have a private practice. Address: 3939 Green Oaks Blvd. West, Suite 214, Arlington, TX 76016.