I have spent much of my spare time this week following the news of the passing of a talented actress and a loving wife and mother, Natasha Richardson. Like so many around the world who enjoyed Ms. Richardson on the screen, I am saddened that her life was cut so cruelly short, and that her devastated husband and two young sons now only have their memories of her love for solace.
Celebrities, even those like Ms. Richardson, who earn their fame through hard work and dedication to their craft, are not supposed to suffer the same fate as us mortals. They are, in our minds, on the pedestal of the stage, demi-gods. We look up to these aristocrats of our modern world, hoping for a sprinkling of fairy dust from the glitterati to fall onto our shoulders. Even in today’s Twittering culture, which bares minute-to-minute minutia from many of our shining stars, we see their tweets as gifts just as our courtesan or villager ancestors once perceived and sought the gaze of the feudal lords or the royal family. The illusion that celebrities—or kings—have been bestowed with a blessed destiny confirms our perception of a merit-based life. Be exceptionally beautiful, talented, bright, etc,… and you will be granted happiness, wealth, and success; or, with enough ambition and sweat, you will grab these rewards by the horns and, like the quintessential American cowboy, corral them on your own.
But life is not a stage, and none of us are players ‘n it. Beckett and Pinter notwithstanding, theatrical productions have underlying themes. Whether comedy or tragedy, plays are built with a structure and a plan—a purpose that enlightens, enraptures, or instructs the viewers. Despite millennia of attempts to overlay a similar purpose to “real life” by means of a breadth of religious constructions, when faced with the randomness of fate, we can still only retreat in the end to the disappointing aphorism, “It was God’s will.”
My heart breaks to think of Ms. Richardson’s boys. I have two sons very close in age to hers. Of course, I do not wish to see my children complete their childhood (or the majority of their adulthood) without their mother. Did the worry that my boys too could experience such tragic losses keep me dwelling on the sadness of Ms. Richardson’s death? I have to admit that I don’t entirely think so.
Seventeen years ago, I was pregnant with my first child—a little girl who I eagerly awaited with a heart full of plans for our life together. Books, dance classes, Girl Scouts, and chemistry sets—a few of my favorite things that I would share with my daughter and enjoy by her side. My obstetrician, a clinical faculty member of a renowned medical center with an upscale practice, reassured me that, during my pregnancy, I was not to act as a doctor, but to hang up my stethoscope, let him steer my medical course, and enjoy the ride. I listened to him, to my everlasting regret.
A few weeks before my due date, he did an ultrasound and, when I asked, told me she was six pounds. The next day, my daughter was born, weighing only 3 pounds 13 ounces. My placenta, the provider of oxygen and nutrition to the baby in utero, had clotted, apparently weeks before, and was only functioning at 50% of normal capacity. My little girl, literally, had seen her brain cells starve for oxygen inside me, even as I took every step as a mother-to-be to make her passage into this world as safe and healthy as possible. The result, my daughter, now age 17, has profound developmental delays and relates happily to her environment as a 9 month old. The placental clot that stole her mind, some would say to me in those early months, was an “act of God”. One well-meaning friend favored me with a parable that “God carries a basket of confetti”, and scatters the confetti from the heavens down to Earth where it randomly lands on “good people” like me and my husband. I frankly preferred a more cynical colleague’s remark: Stuff happens.
Not wishing to consider a God who traipsed through the skies raining misery down on his subjects, I soon found myself engaged in the pseudo-scientific exercise of “What if?” or “If only.”. No longer disposed to listening to my OB, I became a doctor again and began to study and analyze my pregnancy, and what went wrong. What should have been done differently? How was he so off on the sonogram measurements? Why wasn’t I referred to a high-risk OB? Why wasn’t I put on bed rest? Why wasn’t my daughter delivered early? Why did this very rare situation happen to me? The questions were endless, but even identifying my OB’s unwise decisions and probable errors through my “retrospectoscope” gave me and my family no sense of resolution or closure.
More disturbing were the questions I continued to ask myself about my own contribution to my daughter’s brain damage. Had I waited too long at 36 to have a child? What if I hadn’t had that drink before I knew I was pregnant? Should I not have flown, despite my OB’s permission, in the middle of my pregnancy? If only I had quit working sooner. If only I hadn't stopped being my own doctor, and had co-monitored my care. There were hundreds of my actions that I could run through my mind and second-guess; my mind was a desperate time machine, fantasizing a million scenarios that might have changed an unchangeable outcome. But, in the end, my daughter still cried for me to feed her, still unable to hold the spoon herself, and I was forced to mourn the death of “what if”, and accept “what is.”
Stuff happens. If you live long enough, it’ll happen to you. If you don’t, it’s still “stuff”, only you just don’t care any more. “If only I had”s are their own cruel joke, giving the mourner the illusion that his or her actions could have made a difference, the illusion that life’s “stuff” is under our control. No, I don’t visualize a sadistic God tossing confetti as he skips among the stars. That, too, is a fantasy that there is purpose and control in life. The only good an “if only” or “what if” can offer is a chance for us, as collective humanity, to take a stab at “next time”.
We give my daughter a loving home and the best care and education possible, and have focused on the “next”. With a different obstetrician, I had two healthy sons at age 38 and 40. And, a couple of years ago, I helped a colleague pregnant with twins avoid the tragedy of oxygen and nutritional deprivation in her babies by advising her to seek early high-risk care for her slow-growing fetuses. Ms. Richardson’s rare heartbreaking case may help another skier in the future avoid head injury by wearing a helmet, or prevent a morbid outcome by encouraging head trauma victims to be alert for warning signs of trouble and to seek early care.
But, despite my best intentions to avoid “what if”s, I couldn’t help but to also play out a scenario in my mind this past week after hearing the details of Ms. Richardson’s tragedy. A scenario of “If only the paramedics had insisted on transporting her immediately; if only the local hospital had traumatic brain injury services; if only helicopter transport had been available to Montreal.” Somewhere in the bottom of my heart, I so wished and wish that all life’s tragedies could be reversed by the power of an “if only”. That my friend’s God would put down His basket of confetti and hear our pleas.
Alas, I fear that only our imagination fills the sounds of silence from above.