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Parents understand England’s Baby Alfie and the politics of life

In this April 23, 2018 handout photo, brain-damaged toddler Alfie Evans cuddles his mother Kate James at Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool, England.
In this April 23, 2018 handout photo, brain-damaged toddler Alfie Evans cuddles his mother Kate James at Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool, England. AP

When we’re having dinner as a family, we’ll talk about almost everything, from serious things to news of the weird.

Since our twin sons are grown college men now, almost any topic is allowed at dinner. So we might talk instead about creepy Bill Cosby, the former Jell-O pitchman and cultural icon finally convicted on sexual assault charges. We might talk of those odd pigs in Japan with human organs growing inside of them for later harvest.

But the other evening at home, one of our sons mentioned the baby in Liverpool, England.

“What baby?” my wife Betty asked sharply.

Baby Alfie.

As she was filled in on the details, she looked across the table at me, into my eyes, then through them to some other place. We’d known that place years ago. It is a room with beeping monitors, tubes and a rocking chair. Nurses would walk through in their soft quiet shoes.

I knew she was there in that room, on the edge of what could have been the beginning of a vastly different life for us.

Perhaps you’ve tried avoiding the Baby Alfie story as we did. The 23-month-old boy was diagnosed with a rare brain disorder. Doctors of England’s National Health Service said they could do nothing and recommended removing life support.

Italy had offered to take Alfie into one of its hospitals and try to keep him alive. English judges ruled they knew best, and so they decided, in the best interest of the child, that justice would have the child die.

The parents, who wanted to take the boy to Italy, had no rights in the matter. So Alfie’s parents had their rights removed in a nation that once gave the world the Magna Carta, and the miracle of English common law. But it is a different England now, just as America is a different country, becoming more unrecognizable by the day.

After Alfie was taken off life support, the parents put their mouths to their son’s lips and took turns hoping to breathe life into him.

Think of it.

With people of faith squaring off against those who believe in scientific rationalism, just put the politics aside. Instead, think of the parents with the baby in the room.

And though our family was at dinner at our kitchen table in a Chicago suburb, talking about national health care and what it may mean for us when judges decide to euthanize the sick and infirm for the greater good, Betty wasn’t there with us. Not really.

She was in a different place. And I knew exactly where. It was a very difficult birth and we almost lost both the boys and Betty. But with God’s help, her great obstetrician, Dr. Ron Lorenzini, with the big hands of a bricklayer, saved them all.

One twin was breech. Betty began hemorrhaging. But the doctor had saved the babies and he saved her.

More trouble came later. One wouldn’t eat. He couldn’t keep anything down and the weight just fell off him. The doctors in the NICU said we were losing the boy.

They came up with a Hail Mary play called “kangaroo care”: Mom sits in a rocking chair, holding the baby to her breast, skin on skin, in the hopes of stimulating his organs so he’d eat.

But Betty was receiving more emergency blood transfusions. She couldn’t rock him. So they put me in that rocking chair. I held my son against my skin. They covered us with blankets. I rocked us. The nurses whisked in and out. The sky grew dark, then pink at the edges, then gray, and dark again. I rocked him for more than 24 hours straight, with my brother Peter coming in to give me a break every 12 hours.

The next day the boy sipped a thimbleful and kept it down. They told Betty he’d live. She opened her arms for him. She looked into my eyes, then through them, smiling.

I don’t know what some judges think when using abstractions of the law to reject another nation’s offer of life while sentencing a child to death. But I do know what some parents think, in those rooms with monitors and tubes, and nurses walking in soft shoes.

Parents don’t deal in the abstract. They hold their children. They wonder at the miracle of life in their arms.

And they pray.