Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Breathing Underwater

I found this piece I wrote about a year and a half ago. It was written for the back page of one of those parenting magazines -- that little essay that makes you laugh or cry. It was rejected by the editor who solicited it, and I never bothered to sub it elsewhere, because I’m lazy like that. So here, for your reading pleasure, is Breathing Underwater.

Like most 18-month-olds, my son loves to play peek-a-boo. He covers his eyes with his fingers and peeks out, then pulls his hands away and collapses in giggles. He also covers his eyes when I catch him in the pantry, surrounded by mountains of Cocoa Puffs. And although I know I'm supposed to be at least a little bit irritated, I find myself profoundly grateful for these signs of normalcy.

An hour after this child was born, we gaped, horrified, at the neonatologist who had just intubated him. We listened, appalled, to the language of the NICU, designed to defeat even the most ardent optimists. No one speculates on when you might leave. No one allows you to plan ahead. "Expect a lot of backward steps." "You really shouldn't hold him, because you could pull out his umbilical lines." An astounding carelessness with words abounds. That first hour, one of the nurses came over, a big smile on her face, and proudly told us, "Your baby is getting all the attention." We looked at each other, and between the two of us, could find no appropriate way to respond.

For the eleven days my son was in intensive care, I was underwater. Deafening waves crashed above me. My lungs screamed for air every time the respiratory therapist hovered near my son's oxygen tank. I could feel my heart constrict inside my body even as it continued to beat, steady, strong. The rest of me crumpled at every opportunity.

On day seven, a new nurse asked if I wanted to hold my baby. I stared at her. "You haven't held him yet?" She looked alarmed.

"They told me -- his lines.…" It sounded ridiculous, even to me.

"They're just wires," she said. "Just wires. This is his IV. Just watch his oxygen. There."

His weight was comforting. I could appreciate his solidity and breathe in his scent. We sat there for three or four hours, until my arm was so numb I was afraid I might drop him.

On day nine, I was allowed to nurse my son. To my astonishment, he ate heartily, although the physical therapist clucked her tongue disapprovingly at the weakness of his suck.

At home with our son, we have had to learn to move more slowly, to look for accomplishments more carefully. Crawling, walking, and talking have all taken time. My son's smile could end war. His love is boundless. His cleverness is undeniable. But we are changed.

Thoreau wrote, in Civil Disobedience, that when a debtor returned from jail, friends would greet him "looking through their fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating of a jail window." When my son peeks at me through his fingers, I'm the one peering through the grating, squinting at the brightness, even as I expect the world to be dulled. I inhale sweet air into my lungs and marvel at how I have learned not to breathe underwater, but to fight my way back to the surface.


Influx said...

That is a beautiful essay. Though I don't have any experience with the NICU, my money's on you having captured the emotions of that time in these words.