Death-Defying 

Taking stock of life's terrors

Taking stock of life's terrors

My baby had his first birthday a couple of weeks ago, the day before my father went into the hospital for emergency open-heart surgery. I’ve always believed a child’s first birthday is a milestone like no other—better than finally reaching double-digits, more noteworthy than becoming a teenager or a licensed driver, of even greater significance than allegedly arriving at adulthood at 21. I believe that first birthdays should be celebrated with more passion than all others because I know that a 12-month-old baby is a baby who is too old to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; to me, any child with a single candle on her birthday cake is a child who has been delivered, safe to her mother’s arms, straight out of the shadow of death.

I remember our first son’s first birthday. There were balloons and pointed hats and foil-fringed noisemakers. Bright, twisted streamers criss-crossed the ceiling of our dining room, and a tableful of gaily wrapped gifts rattled and jingled when anyone jostled them. At the end of the table, in front of the high chair, sat a lovely, white, homemade cake decorated with a kindly pastel clown—not one of those garish, primary-colored clowns that so often terrify babies. Friends and family laughed appreciatively when our mystified son stuck his fingers in the clown’s nose and immediately brought his tiny fist to his mouth for his very first taste of processed sugar. We all cheered when he leaned down, face first, into the cake for a second bite.

No one was around last week to applaud our second son’s first birthday; we were waiting for my parents to arrive from Alabama before we held the real, cake-bedecked, ribbon-festooned observance. In our family, birthday festivities require a certain density of relatives if there is to be genuine jubilation, and it was impossible to imagine celebrating our baby’s safe passage out of the reach of SIDS until there was at least an aunt or two in town. His birthday fell on Thursday, but we figured there was no harm in waiting for the weekend, when his grandparents would be visiting, to stage a real party.

Nevertheless, I marked the occasion in my own way that night, quietly, long after everyone else in the family had fallen asleep. Tiptoeing into their room, I stood in the dark and looked for a long time at each of my sleeping children. Our little boy lay on his side, curled like a comma against a whole clause of beanie-babies spread out across the bed. His hair, curling a little at his neck, was damp with the exertion of dreaming. Covers were pouring over one side of his bed and pooling on the floor. In the crib on the other wall, our baby lay on his back, one knee propped in the air and the other flopped over in pure, open vulnerability. His arms, too, were sprawled open, his fingers curling just a little toward his palms. Each child was breathing.

I thought of the unspoken terror I had taken to bed each night for the previous year. I’ll never have to tiptoe in here again while he sleeps, I thought to myself. I’ll never have to lean in, my hair falling across his whole head, to feel the minute puffs of breath on my face. I’ll never have to lay my hand on his back, desperate to feel its infinitesimal rise and fall beneath my fingers. Later on there’ll be nights when he’s sick or teething, nights when a frightening dream wakes him, nights when he falls out of bed—and I’ll be there every one of those nights, but I’ll never again have to be afraid, just because he’s sound asleep, just because he’s not crying.

I just stood in their room and looked at my children. Then I went back to my own room, climbed into bed, and fell asleep. It was the first peaceful sleep I’d had in over a year, but I knew better than to expect the peace to last. I’m accustomed to almost instant transformations from celebration to panic. Before my last pregnancy, I had had two miscarriages, each during the first trimester. When this pregnancy survived past the first three months, however, I celebrated it by beginning to worry about fetal malformations. At five months I celebrated a perfectly normal ultrasound, only to dread the chromosome abnormalities a sonogram couldn’t detect. After four months of preterm labor—during which I feared the imminent birth of a drastically premature baby—I finally celebrated the birth of a full-term, healthy infant, only to fixate on the looming shadow of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. For me, life as a mother is full of fears. I knew it would be only a matter of days before that shadow lengthened into some new nightmare I would hope to avert somehow—through vigilance, stupid superstition, or prayer.

I didn’t imagine, as I fell asleep the night of my baby’s first birthday, that I would spend the next night sitting in a hospital waiting room in Alabama, fearing this time for my father, who has all my life been the person most able to calm my irrational fears. “Imagine the worst-case scenario,” he would advise when I was in a panic. “If you can live with that, you’ll be fine.”

After the surgery, I stood for my allotted 10 minutes beside his bed in the special room reserved for someone whose ribcage has been broken open and whose beating heart has been touched by the fingers of a human being. I didn’t need to lay my hand on his chest to be sure he breathed; the plastic tube in his mouth forced air into his lungs, and his chest rose to and fell from exaggerated heights. At that moment, standing in that sterile room, forbidden to touch my own, hurting father, the worst-case scenario was so close I hardly needed to imagine it.

Last year my baby didn’t die, and last week my father didn’t either. He woke up, and they pulled the tube out of his throat. They let us hold his hand. He drank Coke through a straw and joked with the nurses, who told him he’d be better than normal in no time at all. A few days later they sent him home.

I suppose I could start worrying about whether my father will stick to his new diet and his exercise regime. I could resume my dread of childhood leukemia and spinal meningitis. But it’s beginning to hit me that anxiety doesn’t accomplish very much. It’s beginning to seem like, in looking at death, I’ve been keeping too close to its shadow. Maybe in all this foreboding, in all this fear of the dark, I’ve done nothing but keep myself on the edge of the light, on the shadow side of dazzling, heart-thumping, confetti-strewn joy.

Happy birthday, honey. Welcome back, Dad. Let’s throw ourselves a party.

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