We stood and watched our boy lying in nothing but a diaper. An IV plugged into his vein, the tube taped tightly on top of his hand. Another tube ran through his mouth and into his stomach, regulating his food intake. Though he was just a few hours old, a clear plastic box separated him from his mother and me. Except for the first few moments after he was born, it was more than a day before we could touch him. During those early days, we watched his tiny frame rock up and down as his lungs churned the oxygen from the air. The skin below the base of his sternum sagged, concave, a sign of the distress below the surface. Soon he'd sport a crimped clear tube strapped over his nose, constantly blowing air in to keep his lungs inflated.
That was three weeks ago. As I write, I sit in our living room watching him sleep, his belly full from a normal feeding. He's still on oxygen, but the elephant-like breathing apparatus has been replaced by a nasal cannula - two tiny stems inserted into his nose. One nurse told us the amount of oxygen blowing in now is just a wisp - a far cry from just 21 days ago. It's a testament to modern medicine and the triumphs of our health care system (for all its faults) that our second son recovered so quickly from his respiratory distress syndrome, a natural consequence of being born six weeks early.
Nearly 50 years ago in 1963, another son came into the world almost as early as ours. Doctors delivered Patrick, five-and-a-half weeks premature, via emergency C-section. He was diagnosed with what was then called hyaline membrane disease, the same condition we now call respiratory distress syndrome. As our son's would do in 2012, Patrick's lungs struggled to stay inflated and pull the oxygen from the air to inject into his bloodstream. Sadly, two days after he was born, he died. Patrick Bouvier Kennedy's mother would suffer another horrible tragedy just three months later when her husband and Patrick's father, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated a few inches away from her in a motorcade in Dallas.
The fact that the same condition that killed the son of a U.S. President, a child who received the absolute best medical care in the world, is now successfully treated each day is astounding. For the 13 days our son stayed in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), we saw several other babies each day fight the same respiratory problems. The advances made in our country in five short decades - just in the arena of neonatology - evoked in my wife and me a gratefulness that saturated our spirits for two weeks. It still does. We are thankful to live in the country we do, a country where resources and human capital make it possible to save the lives of babies who would have died just a generation or two ago.
While we watched our son endure the breathing masks and IV pricks, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama waged their presidential campaigns. We listened to the last half of their first debate while driving to the hospital to visit our son. This election, like so many others, has gotten ugly. At one point in the second presidential debate, I wondered whether the two would come to blows, as they argued face-to-face about who interrupted whom. But just a few days ago, the two men did something extraordinary. At what has become an election-year tradition, the candidates shared the stage at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, an occasion during which the two major candidates roast one another and themselves. Romney and Obama's spoofs were really hilarious. (I happen to think Romney is funnier, but perhaps that's because I'll be voting for him.)
I don't mean to be the one to pen the obligatory, "We have the greatest political system in the world!" piece at election time, but think about this: The two men vying for a position commonly called the leader of the free world sat within feet of each other, laughing at each other's jokes just days before their contest would be decided. In the breadth of human history, do we realize how rare something like this is? Wars are fought - indeed millions have been killed - over who takes control over a particular country. But in ours, the two candidates partake in playful - although pointed, to be sure - banter.
This is no less astonishing than the medical advances that allow my little boy to be home as I write this, with his mommy, daddy and big brother. We ought to thank God for such a place each day.
My generation has a tendency to curse both the U.S. and our politics. I understand that. Any honest adult must look at our nation's history and admit the wrongs for which we are guilty. We enslaved a whole race. We murdered and displaced native peoples. We are blotting out the lives of millions before they ever have the chance to take a breath outside their mothers' wombs. We are a sinful people, and our country bears the blood of many.
But we also are a people who bear the image of God - his creativity, his innovativeness, and his ability to conquer what seems unconquerable. Yes, these qualities have all been stilted by the fall. But the common grace available to individuals also covers nations. The good our society does is no less real because of our communal frailties. Each breath my son takes reminds me of this, as does each election that passes with a handshake instead of a bomb blast.