Lost in space

Dealing with newborn’s possible illness teaches this dad about life


Ben Tanzer

It is a stressful pregnancy. There is a CVS (chorionic villus sampling) and multiple fetal echo exams. And while everything looks fine along the way, Debbie and I can never quite relax. When Noah is born he seems healthy, though, and we are relieved. But then the pediatrician doing rounds spots a small dimple in the cleft of his buttocks and tells us to follow up on it at his one-week checkup.

"You want to be able to see the base of it, which I can," our pediatrician says, "because you don’t want it to be some cavity that goes all the way to the spine."

We like our pediatrician a lot. She has a big smile, she listens and she answers our endless stream of questions. We need her to tell us that Noah is fine. She doesn’t.

"There is some hair in the dimple," she says, "that’s a red flag, you should have this looked at. I’ll order a sonogram for you."

During the sonogram, we ask the technician what she sees. She doesn’t know, she says, that’s not what she’s trained to do. We go to meet with a pediatric neurosurgeon. We had no idea this had anything to do with neurosurgery. Then again, we don’t necessarily know what it is neurosurgeons do.

Meeting the neurosurgeon

The neurosurgeon looks like a prep school teacher, with his brown parted hair, glasses and absentminded gaze.

"He moves his legs, right," he says, "and has normal bowel movements?"

"Yes, why?" we say.

"It looks like he has a cyst on his spine," the doctor says, "it could be liquid and shrink on its own. It could also be a ball of extra skin, we call that a tumor, though it is not cancerous. The fear is that the cyst could tether to the spine and affect its ability to descend into the spinal column."

"So, what do you do?"

"We get an MRI so we can get a better look at it, but we can’t do that until he’s 2 months old."

"And what if it is something?"

"We’ll remove it. He would have to stay in the hospital on his back for five days but he will be fine."

"Are there ever any fatalities during that surgery?" we say.

"No, not in this country, some foreign countries maybe."

Parenting is overwhelming enough when nothing special is going on; it feels near impossible to tackle when mired in anxiety. Given this, Debbie and I agree that we can either obsess over all that might be wrong, or we can act as if we know everything is fine. We choose the latter and decide not to talk about the MRI unless we have to. Cyst or no cyst, we have to focus on taking care of Noah, his older brother Myles and each other.

The night before the MRI, Myles is recovering from a nasty stomach virus and Debbie is battling one. The two of us are up until after midnight. Debbie goes to sleep on the couch and I go in to feed Noah at 3 a.m. because he is not allowed to eat after 4 a.m.

While I’m with Noah, I hear Myles wake up and go into the living room. I assume Myles has had a nightmare, but when I am done with Noah, I learn that Myles has vomited all over his blanket, my blanket and the living room carpet.

I clean the rug. I do the laundry. I pack Noah’s bag. I go to Walgreen’s to get Gatorade and white rice. When I get home, it’s time to go to the hospital. I have had two hours of sleep. Is this a bad dream? No, it’s just parenting I tell myself, nothing more, nothing less.

Noah is a trooper as they prep him for the MRI and before I know it he has been packed into the MRI machine, with its loud whirrs and beeps, rolled out again, and we have been sent off to the neurosurgeon for our follow-up consult.


The neurosurgeon’s resident comes to see us. He is handsome with closely cropped hair. I tell him that Debbie, who stayed home, would like to listen in by speakerphone. He says he would prefer to speak to her separately. He’s calm and polite, but I wonder whether this preference to speak to Debbie separately is because the news is bad.

He begins to tell me about their concerns, and why an MRI was necessary. I tell him that I know these things. What I don’t know are the results of the MRI and what the future holds. He doesn’t respond to this.

He goes on to talk about the medical conditions one might face in a situation like this and I begin to feel ill. After he has gone on for some time I start to wonder how bad the news will be.

"Excuse me," I say, "but if it’s bad news, can we call my wife so we can hear it together?"

"It’s not bad news," he says, "it’s good news. There is nothing there at all. There never was."

"Nothing," I say.

"It’s just a normal space in the spine, but with sonograms you can’t tell whether something is filling the space or not, so we presume there might be."

"So, that’s it?"

"That’s it."

There was an empty space and the doctors had to fill it. It’s what they do.

Parents of course do the same thing. You see that there is an empty space in your life and you want to fill it with something. You have a child and then you see that they also have empty spaces in their lives and you try to fill those. Maybe it’s soccer or art, or maybe it’s another sibling.

You never quite know what you’re looking at though, or what the right decision is, but you keep trying to figure it out, you keep hoping for the best, and much of the time good things come of it.

Ben Tanzer is a writer and social worker living in Chicago with his wife, Debbie, and sons, Myles and Noah.

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