Valley March… Paisley, Part 5

A Different Cadence

You start already tired, as my wife puts it. You have already lost sleep and struggled with anxiety before ever arriving at the hospital. Exhaustion compounds downward from this depleted outset. Crisis-born adrenaline wires you briefly, while borrowing heavily on energy reserves, for which you must soon pay. The shear pressure of decisions, grappling with consequences, and the demands to stay somehow calm – these accruals run all accounts into the red. Long hours of silence chew down fingernails, but they are ever punctuated by medical interruptions, cheering visits from friends, phone calls from concerned family, and sobering consultations from the doctors. The brain must learn a new language: that of meningitis, of bacterial strains, of antibiotic treatments, of dosing intervals, and of prognoses. Night brings the red eyes of unsleep, equipment alarms, and nursing break-ins. By 36 hours into the ordeal, reserves are fully spent. You realize that you haven’t changed clothes or showered.

But people adapt. As those who have known life at the ICU will attest, we find a way. We find a new cadence when the world changes. We normalize to the absurd.

My wife and I arranged duty time. She stayed nearly round the clock, while my mom kept the house functioning and I rotated between the house, the hospital, and work. However, my wife did get to sleep at home here and there – the only real sleep you will have.

Our older kids made pilgrimages to the hospital to visit their baby sister. The church had a care calendar going that kept us well supplied with meals, and different families took the older kids away from the house for some diversion with friends.

Pasteur Cocktails

After a time, the doctors were finally able to insert a PIC line, an intravenous catheter, which at last brought a terminus to Paisley’s ritual torments. Unflagging, the hours and days of antibiotic secretions marched digitally onward.

Clusters of previously unseen doctors ever came and went. These group processions of white-coated somberness conjured imagery that was both militaristic and priestly. Ever came the officer-like adjustments to tactics and weaponry, while the air murmured with Latin utterances from these robed oracles of the unseen.

After a time, the clusters began to make sense – the groups of doctors included many interns, and they were being brought to see Paisley because she was a rare case. For the training of the new officer corps, the observation was valuable. Paisley’s infectious disease specialist had once been such an intern. By all means, I thought, let them learn what they may.

Yet an odd study in human nature followed. Some of the younger doctors offered consoling and tentative smiles, but the older did not. Confronted by this behavior, I drew an inference: it was too early to say how this would end. Nevertheless, I became conscious of a larger pattern of human behavior as well. Just as with that haunting gaze of the ER doctor, when we cannot read the signs ourselves, we instead read the people who can. No – Paisley was by no means in the clear yet.

Meanwhile, Paisley’s primary specialist engineered the Pasteurian cocktails that were beating back the demon – one that could take a turn and resurge within hours. The precision was extraordinary. This was no guesswork about what might function well – her bacterial strain had been determined with exactness, and a cocktail had been selected to attack the infection and cutoff peripheral avenues of resurgence. It was high-accuracy artillery, and it hammered round the clock.

Creep of Dawn

At some point, you find that you’ve slept. You find that things have, in some measure, normalized. Bit by bit, your wits come back to you. You step outside the moment again and gauge the larger movements from the outside. Her darkness had lasted beyond any clear perception of time. Yet there was a sense of pending dawn – that daylight had been creeping on. While it is impossible to locate a single moment when darkness has faded to grey, the shapes that began emerging from the mist were hopeful.

The first came from our nurse. Though there may have been an unspoken pact among the hospital doctors – to wait upon hard data before offering us hope – she broke ranks with a private encouragement: “I’ve seen a number of these cases,” she said, “I just want you to know that she looks really good.” Un-lying eyes and a kindly smile. That first positive word is a curious thing, because it calls down the tears again.

Nor was she alone in her sense of things. Our pediatrician made several trips to the hospital during our stay. He was an old hand at the medical life, and he also expressed some sober but genuine optimism: Paisley did not look like one of the doomed.

We began to allow ourselves the hope: she would live. Yes… Yes, she could beat this. She had not yet found daybreak, but the sky was lightening.

Holland Haunt

Early on, they had determined that Paisley’s strain was not airborne-communicable. Once the initial inflammation had been stunted, Paisley’s appetite had returned. The staff encouraged my wife to resume nursing, which she had. She held her and fed her and whispered words of comfort. Apart from the tubes and wires, it would have been normal. A strange and fractional normal. However, those mothering whispers hung at intervals, tinged with doubt.

Our eyes returned at intervals to the soft folds of her little ears. It was possible that Paisley’s world had gone silent already. The doctors told us that, if she could beat the infection, then the odds of hearing loss were about one in four. But at only two weeks of age, there was simply no way of knowing. Her infection had been advanced when we first brought her. The auditory nerves are the first to be lost to infections like hers. The shadow of Mr. Holland troubled our thoughts. The sun might rise, but we wondered whether it would be over a cloud-dimmed sky.

It was beyond our control. So we prayed for Paisley. And we kept whispering to her.

The Army Outside

Meanwhile, I continued to update everyone by posting periodically on Paisley’s situation and progress. The support we received was tremendous. Cards and flowers and messages arrived day after day. So much ran on autopilot, and the hospital had become our whole existence. As it did, the army outside continued to pray, to provide food, and to help in whatever way they could. Perhaps best, they brought the outside world to us and the chance to talk about something else – anything else – and in plain English. The old coinage of company, diversion, and humor became imbued with new worth.

Hope: Official

Bit by bit, Paisley’s infectious disease specialist updated us on her situation. Paisley was winning. She had responded well to treatment, and she was continuing to climb out. The likelihood of an ill turn continued to diminish, and the specialist began to encourage us herself.

She also said that we had caught it fairly early, and that there was a good chance that there had been no sensory or brain damage. This came with an asterisk, however, since we would not know until they could do a hearing test, fairly late in her stay. The antibiotic treatment had to be completed no matter what, and that meant that we could not leave until it was over. She would also require another lumbar puncture before being cleared. Moreover, we would have to monitor her mental development. Yet we could expect to go home, after everything had run its course.

Paisley would go home. I could almost have said that nothing else mattered.

Saddened by the News

Even as we were encouraged regarding Paisley, we received news that someone else, not far away, had just lost their struggle against bacterial meningitis. Nicolis T. Williams, a student at A&M University, had succumbed to his infection. I sent out an email to friends, asking them to pray for Nicolis’ family. We were thankful – so very thankful – for the grace shown to Paisley. It can all end so quickly with meningitis. I wished there had been a similar grace in College Station that night. But grace seems to fall in scattered showers.


The dreaded turn for the worse never came. Paisley was indeed destined to survive her illness.

Another cloud of doubt was finally dispelled by the hearing test they administered shortly before we left. Using electrodes affixed to Paisley’s head, they confirmed brain activity in response to sound stimulation – her little ears had survived the illness. She could see, and she could hear. Although we would have to await further observations in the months and years to come, we were eventually to find that her mental development was on the mark, and that she had sustained no brain damage.

Her tempest had overtaken us without warning. The gale had clutched at her candle, and the ground had heaved us from our feet. But they shielded her from storm. Though her candle had flickered, it didn’t die. The creeping dawn had given way to a clear sunrise.

Paisley’s sky would be blue.

Going Home

The medical staff beamed as we made our pilgrimage to the exit. Not enough thanks. It was a day, once again, that fell quite beyond the province of words.

In truth, I cannot actually recall what the weather was like on the day we left. The brightness within sometimes overtakes, just as the darkness can. Yet I seem to remember (and perhaps was always bound to) that we walked out the doors of that hospital into brisk winter air, offset by warming sunshine. With Paisley.

My wife fell to tears in the parking lot. After a few moments, we finished loading. Then we drove our pink bundle home, for the second time, utterly and completely thankful.

[to be continued…]

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  1. archaeopteryx1 says:

    when we cannot read the signs ourselves, we instead read the people who can” – how often I’ve done that.

    Your reference to “Mr. Holland’s Opus” may have been lost on some, but I got it, and those who didn’t, should find and watch the film.

    I don’t have to tell you she’s beautiful —

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My wife fell to tears in the parking lot.

    Strong in the face of danger, falling apart after the torrent has passed. Hugs to both of you. She sounds like a strong-willed, feisty little thing. Heaven help you! (pun intended)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for opening your heart and family through your poignant recollection, Matt.
    So glad for you all. A powerful reminder of the privilege of being alive and the chance to share it with loved ones.
    I haven’t made it through a single one of your posts on Paisley with a dry eye – but they were happy tears today!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been waiting to read this post.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I keep wanting to write something about this series but I…can’t…even.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have cried with each installment starting this past Thursday as I read your first post in this series. That night I was up, sleepless with worry when our own battle with meningitis with an adult family member began. Today she went home from the hospital. She has recovered. Viral in her case. A very scary time. We are exhausted. I don’t have a parking lot to fall too but today I am unravelling as I can now breathe and literally feel like I’m going to fall to pieces.

    I’ve wanted to say something, anything, but I felt so strongly that this story you are telling, it is in itself a sacred telling. I think even we non-theists have our holy moments (and I mean that in the most secular way.)

    Your telling of the story made me feel less alone, like I had someone to talk with though you could not know what I was going through and it allowed the tears to flow.

    Speaking of tears, I need to stop typing, blurry-eyed. Thank you for sharing this most precious story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Zoe! My goodness! I am so sorry you’ve just been through that, it’s just terrible. I had to read your response a couple of times to make sure I was understanding correctly – this just happened, right? Falling to pieces, this I can well imagine. Yes, holy moments: I still call them sacred, and indeed they are. As are the people we love.

      Is she college aged, by chance?


  7. Fantastic!

    Such a relief. Glad to know all is well with your little one. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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