Mighty Max and his magnificent masterpiece.
Each year around these dates I feel like an emotional time traveler.
From deep inside, seeping from the viscera of my body, a place and time from nine years ago slowly becomes the now of my existence. Anxiety, guilt, denial, sadness, fear and love experienced those many years ago become as potent and real as they were then. Its not as if in the interim I forget but rather that my body and mind focus elsewhere, living life as I choose to exist day-to-day here on Earth.
Nine years ago this week my son Max was born.
To be exact, January 29th. I think of him most days since his passing on February 3rd, 2007. I feel him constantly, as he sits in the beautiful throne I have carved out for him in my heart.
Max was born prematurely at 23 ½ months, weighing less than an ounce and smaller than the length of my forearm.
Before I met Max, I never truly understood what love meant.
I can’t explain in words what it feels like to love him. Its understanding is found in my glow as I describe him, in the tears that well up instantly when I cradle him in my thoughts and in my struggle to live the loving lessons he brought into my life.
Max was and remains my greatest teacher.
Max’s lesson for me? Love is all around us, in all experience, from the most joyous to the most painful.
Our most elated experiences are the result of love’s presence, pain the result of love’s absence. In either case, love is equally profound and meant to inform us toward opening our hearts.
On the evening of January 29th, 2007 Max was rolled out from the delivery room in an incubator, cut by C-section scalpels on his arm and leg, appearing physically lifeless yet soulfully alive. Inexplicable love filled all my being. He was me, I was him, our love formed together the same way water and earth powerfully shape each other.
A magnificent masterpiece of effortless creation.
For the next five days, Max’s Mother and I put every last bit of our energy into insuring he would be with us for many years to come. We endlessly read him the story Where the Wild Things Are, hoping to embolden him with the heroism of the main character, Max. We touched him through incubator rubber gloves, whispered through glass how proud we were of him for being strong. I slept little during these days, choosing instead to be by his side as much as I was allowed.
Over the next four days hope brewed into what felt like genuine possibility.
The doctors told us there was a 50/50 chance he would make it. That possibility was everything to us. We left the hospital on the fourth day, leaving Max in the NICU, with the hope, expectation even, that we would return daily for many months to nurse him to health and ultimately bring him home. That night we all sat around the dinner table toasting Max’s strength and perseverance, hopeful for his coming life with us.
The following morning we received a call from the hospital that we needed to come right away.
Max suffered an aneurysm and was resuscitated. It would likely happen again and we needed to be there to make the decision of whether or not to resuscitate him again.
We arrived in shocked denial. We had toasted his burgeoning life, only 12 hours earlier. The doctors sat us down to tell us the likelihood of Max’s survival was diminishing by the moment. If he were to survive other aneurysms, his quality of life would certainly be unlivable. They then asked if we would like to hold him for the first time.
We had never touched him outside of his incubator.
We were brought into his small curtained off space in the NICU. The nurses gently placed him in our arms. Despite the stress pulsing through us, the feeling of our son placed upon us, skin to skin, was like nothing I’ve felt before or since. I didn’t think I could experience my love for him more fully than I already had. But with him against my flesh there was now a new dimension to our masterpiece.
We rocked him gently, whispered our loving hearts into his ears and sobbed at the overwhelm of it all. Then suddenly the sound of the grueling world rushed in—a flat-lined heart monitor and clinical voices of doctors asking us to resuscitate or not. We grasped onto Max tightly, sobbed sheets of tears, felt the welling up of parental instinct that demanded we save him. Then among all the chaos I heard a voice I could hardly believe was my own scream, “Do not resuscitate!”
There we were with Max, held in our arms, as he passed into places we will never fully understand.
My experience of this moment, while agonizingly painful, also felt like a most profound experience of love. My heart broke into a million pieces. My soul turned inside out. All of this happened because I love him so much.
Dichotomy in experience: love brilliantly manifesting itself in the flesh and then that love’s manifestation vanishing into the ether.
Polar life experiences, often more similar at their deepest, most profound source than we might realize.
Joy and pain, the same thing, simply love appearing to us in different ways.
Since then I have always kept this lesson at the front of my mind. I’ve often failed. Fear, heartbreak, habitual behavior and the nitty-gritty of life have caused me to lose sight at times. But I am always trying my best.
Lately I’ve realized where I have most missed the mark with Max’s lessons—loving myself.
It’s not to say that I loathe myself. I have a healthy amount of self-love. But despite having self-love, I carry around plenty of guilt and regret. It is like a slow leak that I catch whiffs of. It can be a poisonous stench at times. Much of my guilt post February 2007 revolves around Max, wishing I was the perfect parent who could have saved him.
My logical mind knows the futility of this. It’s not something that is remedied by friends assuring me that it’s not my fault. I know it’s not my fault. I know nothing could be done. It’s a feeling, like a wispy gas passing under my nose begging to be inhaled.
As I dream of Max today, I recognize he is telling me to love myself as much as I love him.
To bring more and more awareness to the loathsome poison that sometimes seeps from deep within. To forgive myself and make room for the love all around me to seep in, taking the place of the pain, guilt, regret and loathing that sometimes wafts from my depths.
Max’s wish for all of us today, and forever, is to find our way to loving ourselves more fully in order to embrace the love all around in every moment—joyful and painful alike.
I’m making this commitment today in honor of my beautiful boy Max Joseph Rhu. I invite you all to do the same.
Author: Robert Rhu
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photos: courtesy of the author, flickr