BREATHE FOR HER
by Gail Baker
I seek Hannahís cry as a reassurance she is alive and still able to vocalize her pain. I ride the waves half asleep until the highest pitched note gratefully startles me awake. My eyes open to find her in the crib, close enough to our bed for me to watch the movement of her chest. Lately, Iíve found myself sleeping in frantic spurts, worse than my most demanding call nights of sleep-deprived surgery, and while my wife Marge sleeps beside me, her foot burrowing into a cozy nook of covers, I envy her, even though I know sheís already been up several times tonight. Before Hannah, she failed to understand how I could live with so little emotional nuance. And Iíd say, "Thereís life. Thereís death. The rest messy details."
But how do you quantify the difficulty of taking air in and letting it go?
I look over at Hannah and I feel her struggling for breath, every one of her agonizing moments my own. Iím so exhausted it feels as if Iím falling into a cushioned cradle. As for the details now, I run through the diagnosis again, as I do every day and night: otherwise healthy full-term baby found intermittently lethargic and breathing in shallow gasps. No asthmatic symptoms. Lungs-clear. Heartbeat-regular. TB-negative.
Otherwise healthy full term baby foundóbreathing is such a simple thing, an automatic response to being alive.
Just as sleep begins to overcome me, Hannah cries out again, only this time the cry is softer, so soft, so sweet I almost wonder if she senses how much I need her to be okay. I picture the apparatus we used in gross anatomy to demonstrate lung capacity. A clear tube attached to the mouth of a plastic dummy. When I breathed into the tube the lungs expanded like the most pliant balloon. And Iím thinking how easy they were to fill. Iím imaging the wondrousness of their expansion when I realize Hannahís cries have slowed and I stiffen and bolt upright.
Marge grabs my wrist then, pulls me back down, takes my head in her hands, tries to find my eyes and says, "You canít breathe for her." But I don't listen. I recall telling the emergency room doctor, "She was listless in my arms," the memory of the words restoring her dead weight, Margeís screams, and then the deafness, all sound muffled by powerlessness and fear.
I turn away and wait to hear Margeís breath deepen. When Iím sure sheís asleep I slide out of bed and walk over to Hannahís crib. When she sees me she begins to whimper, extending her arms toward me. I reach into her crib and lift her up. She wraps herself into me. Her arms clutch my neck, her legs press firmly into my back. She nuzzles her head into my chest, sniffles and heaves and falls into a drunken sleep.
I carry her to the living room and lay down on the sofa and place her on top of me. I stroke her head with my hand and caress her cheek with the side of my index finger, up and down and up again. The warmth that radiates beneath the plump surface of her skin against mine finally lulls me into a heavy sleep, our chests rising and falling in such synchrony itís impossible to tell where my breath ends and hers begins.