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

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.

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:

“Even if my neighbor doesn’t understand my religion or understand my politics, he can understand my story. If he can understand my story, then he’s never too far from me.”

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

and

“When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.”

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

and

“When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”

(A good thing to keep in mind anytime.)

“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:

“If good things are coming, they will be a pleasant surprise…If bad things are, and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur.”

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

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.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

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 simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.”

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.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.”

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.

“I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man.”

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