I will admit, I have done a lot of crazy things in my life. It's pretty amazing that I haven't earned a Darwin Award by now. I drove cars way too fast when I was young; and I lost control on more than one occasion. (Once I spun the car so many times that gravel had managed to embed itself through the bead on the tires; when the tire was flat the next day, we found a bunch pebbles inside the tires.) During my tenure in the Army, I did some pretty foolish things, too. Before the end of the Cold War, I snuck across the border into East Germany - and I did so on more than one occasion. Oh sure, everybody in my unit had done that at one time or other... but still, sneaking undetected into Communist territory just for the rush of trying not to get caught is kind of... stupid. All told, I've avoided more vehicular catastrophes than I can remember: I've gone free climbing at night, I've rappelled from helicopters, I've been scuba diving with sharks, I've jumped over rattlesnakes in the desert, and I've survived a host of other reckless, ill-advised, and/or dim-witted decisions with regard to my personal safety.
But what has scared me the most in my life is when my first daughter was born. I know a lot of people make jokes about how becoming a parent is terrifying, but that's not what I mean.
My wife and I married very young - just out of high school to be exact - and we became parents when we were still quite young. In fact, I was a few months short of my 20th birthday when our daughter was born. I only mention my age because it made everything harder; I had no real life experience to judge the seriousness of any situation. So when we arrived at the hospital prior to the birth of our daughter, everything was new to us.
Thankfully my wife's good friend was there; she was a pediatric ICU nurse, and she helped keep things running smoothly for us. (And of course, by "us" I mean "me.") After my wife had been in labor for several hours, she apparently still had several hours ahead of her. With that in mind, my wife's friend told me that she and I were pretty worthless hanging around the delivery room, so she said that she and I should head to dinner.
However, when we got back from dinner, complete chaos had erupted in my wife's hospital room. Medical personnel were running all over the place, my wife was wired up to all sorts of equipment, and everyone's face had an expression of dire seriousness. When a nearby nurse finally had a moment to describe what was going on, she explained that our daughter's heart rate had dropped in half - from 140bpm to 70bpm. If the doctors didn't operate immediately, our daughter would die. So before I really knew what was happening, I found myself decked out in surgical scrubs and being quickly escorted down the hall and into a densely-packed operating room.
Watching a cesarean section was... well... it's hard to explain; I experienced a range of emotions. Under other circumstances watching surgery would be fascinating, but there was something that was really unnerving about watching someone cut open my wife with a scalpel. Added to that was the knowledge that both my wife's and my daughter's lives were at stake. And that part was especially terrifying.
There's a scene in the movie She's Having A Baby where Elizabeth McGovern's character is having a cesarean section while Kevin Bacon's character is nervously waiting outside the operating room with both sets of their parents. It's a heart-wrenching moment in the movie, but even more so for me because I more or less lived through that same experience.
The end of my story is that the surgery was a success; both mother and daughter recovered from their ordeals. Thirty years have come and gone since that fateful day, but I have never forgotten what if felt like to realize that I might lose everything that was important to me. I have never felt more helpless. Or more petrified.