There is no villain
July 28, 1977 was hot and humid in Quincy, IL. The stench of the Mississippi River was thick in the air. The town was quiet, deadened by the oppressive heat. And two teenagers, in their ramshackle mobile home sitting atop cinder blocks on a dirt lane in a trailer park on the edge of town, were ready to bring me into the world.
And your boy, AE, was ready to arrive.
Though Mom and Dad were happy to add me to their little social experiment, they were also nervous. How could they not be? They were teenagers after all, one girl with no diploma and a belly about to burst and one boy with no prospects and a “dead end job” at a tire shop. Society looked at them through eyes filled with suspicion, pity, and concern. They both knew what the math said about their “likelihood for success” as parents, as a family. They both knew raising a child was no easy task. More importantly, they both knew my mom’s obstetrician didn’t think they were up to it.
The way my mom tells it, her obstetrician was a small, angry man with beady black eyes that looked down upon her as nothing more than a teen statistic. In fact, if legend can be believed, on the aforementioned day of my birth, he went so far as to suggest my parents put me up for adoption with a, “Family that could take care of all of my needs.” There is an even more heinous tale that while my mom was recovering from the delivery, the doctor brought her some legal adoption documentation that she quickly and definitively destroyed. In my imagination, she pulled a sparkling metallic Zippo from her hospital gown and burned it right there in front of him.
Whether these incidents are literal or figurative, I’ll leave for you to decide because no matter where the juries fall on their truthfulness, I believe the sentiment. Before they had a chance to prove it one way or the other, this obstetrician — this villain — did not think my parents were fit.
But I was their son, their first born. It didn’t matter that they were still children themselves. It didn’t matter that they were destitute and didn’t know what they were doing. They were going to raise me.
And raise me they did.
Forty-three years later and the results are still pending.
For the months since my diagnosis I thought about the day I was born quite a bit and strangely I didn’t think about my parents or their struggle, the labor my my mom went through, the work both my parents had to put in to support and raise me. I didn’t think about how my birth changed their lives. I didn’t think about their sacrifices that are all a direct result of what happened to them on July 28, 1977.
Instead, I thought about the man who delivered me, the man who, according to my mom, was horrible, was a villain. I thought about how incompetent he must have believed my parents to be. I thought about how terrible he must have thought my life would have been with them. I thought about how he felt he knew better than the woman who gave birth to me… and in the darkest corners of my mind, in the places where all evil things lie in wait, I wondered…
…did he know about my condition?
That day, did he suspect there was something wrong with my heart? After all, the surgery I had a few weeks ago was for bicuspid aortic valve. And that condition, folks, is a congenital one.
I was born with it.
So on July 28, 1977, did this doctor see something in my skin’s hue, some slight discoloration that could have been the result of a blood flow problem? Did he hear a small static in my heartbeat that should have been investigated? Did he notice some weakness in the sound of my cries that would have indicated a need for some tests? I asked myself all of these questions and I pictured the doctor shrugging and saying under his breath, “Well, it might be something, but maybe he’ll die young and won’t have to be raised by trailer park trash. In death, he’ll be saved. I’m his hero.”
The best villains, as we all know, consider themselves heroes.
But I didn’t only dwell on this possible villain. I also stomped through memories of every pediatrician that ever saw me, every radiologist, every school nurse, and I searched for their secret villainy as well. The whole time there was a voice, whispering like a demon in my ear, “They knew.”
But I’ve come to realize that these thoughts and these questions are built on the back of bias and fear. Of course I don’t actually think a doctor, no matter how condescending, would willfully ignore a baby’s possible heart condition because he disapproved of the parents. Of course I don’t think a pediatrician would let something like this go because of insurance issues. Of course I don’t think a school nurse would ignore a massive heart murmur if she heard it.
I don’t think… still… in the wee hours of the night when I’m unable to sleep, when I’m alone with my thoughts, when I’m running my fingers over the fresh vertical scar cut down the middle of my chest, I look for a villain in this story.
But… *drum roll please* …there is no villain.
There is only a pendulum swinging. Genetics on one side, God on the other, and everyone else I could possibly blame in the middle. For months, I was tied down below this dangling nightmare like Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous unnamed narrator, waiting for that first awful slice. I looked from that initial doctor in Quincy, IL to various other medical professionals, and anyone who my logic dictated could have discovered my condition earlier. I looked and I looked and I looked for the villain to take the brunt of my anger. And it was driving me crazy.
Like Poe’s famous narrator though, I escaped my fate. I realized that searching for a villain was an exercise in futility. Try as I might, I didn’t find one at the beginning of my story.
If he isn’t there, he isn’t anywhere.
And anyway, my concentration is best suited in other endeavors… like recovery.