The Alchemist and the Pessimist: A Story of My Daughter’s Skull Surgery

Image for post
Image for post
This is my daughter’s skull. The soft spot babies have when they’re born isn’t supposed to be that big.

“Do you want a boy or girl this time?” It didn’t matter who asked. I’d always answer the same. “Healthy.”

I met the daughter I prayed for on April 20, 2020. Mara got her father’s looks and more. Notably, a gene mutation that led to Saethre-Chotzen Syndrome and craniosynostosis.

Here’s what that means: The bones in her skull fused before birth, and her brain needs more room to grow. Now, surgeons need to cut open the front of her head, remove a piece of her skull, reshape it, and put it back together.

On Nov. 3, my wife and I won’t be paying attention to what the rest of the world is following. Rather, we’ll be at the hospital as our 6-month-old girl undergoes a 6-hour skull surgery.

Image for post
Image for post

The Alchemist…

I tend to read a few dozen books a year. A majority of my Kindle’s history includes nonfiction titles. Naturally, what’s taught me the most this year was a work of fiction: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

My favorite part of reading on the Kindle is the highlighting feature. You can see other popular passages and highlight and export your own.

Here are some of my favorite “Alchemist” quotes:

(A good thing to keep in mind during a time of toxic polarity.)


(A good thing to keep in mind during a time of COVID and quarantine.)


(A good thing to keep in mind anytime.)

… and the Pessimist

“It’s probably tougher for you than for her.”

I’ve been hearing that a lot lately from people who already know of Mara’s condition.

Maybe it’s because people know I’m an eternal pessimist. And they’re right: I thrive on being a worse-case-scenario kind of thinker. I only see the glass as half empty.

But Paulo Coelho’s book did its own sort of alchemy on me. This passage really stuck:

Why keep suffering what-ifs, especially with a thing like my daughter’s skull surgery?

Rewinding a bit

What-ifs rocked us well before Mara came into our lives. After trying for a second baby for longer than we thought it’d take, we suffered a miscarriage January 2019. The negative thoughts flowed.

What if we only have one child? What if we need help from a fertility clinic? What if we can’t afford a fertility clinic?

Pessimist-me went a bit deeper.

What if we just give up?

Fortunately, I married a woman whose determination can be contagious.

So we kept trying, and later that year, Mara taught us her first lesson: Never give up.

Image for post
Image for post


Like me, my sister also carries that special gene mutation. Unlike me, she needed skull surgery as an infant.

Thirty-some years later, she turned out all right.

So when something wasn’t right the day of Mara’s birth, we didn’t care.

I held her that day and didn’t think of what-ifs. Rather, I fell in love with a girl for the first time since I met her mother.

‘The fear of suffering’

For a few days in early November, we’ll be up at the Hershey Campus of Penn State Children’s Hospital.

COVID, of course, makes things a little trickier.

We’ve spent most of the year by ourselves. If Mara contracts the virus — asymptomatic or not — recovery would be more challenging. That’s why you haven’t seen me lately and won’t see me anytime soon.

When Mara wakes up from surgery, she’ll be allowed a visit from both of her parents. After that, though, only one of us can be in the room with her. The other will be staying in the nearby Ronald McDonald House.

Image for post
Image for post

Alchemy at work

We’re not pretending this won’t be hard. It will be. It already is.

But we’re confident in Hershey’s medical team. We’re grateful for the support we’ve already received and will receive in the future.

So why am I writing this? It’s not to seek pity, I promise.

It’s because I’ve been given a gift — a blessing — and I want to share it.

Each time Mara smiles at me now, I cherish it. I think of “The Alchemist.” I ignore the pessimist in me.

Written by

Husband. Dad. Fan of writing, baseball, cigars, and beer. University of Dayton grad from Youngstown, Ohio, living in York, Pa.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store