Past the Break
Christmas Day, 2014
Morning sunlight slanted over the rolling green hills above Kona, Hawaii, as I walked across a rocky beach and donned my mask. I waded into a small lagoon where the pulse of the tide pushed me back against an old and fractured concrete boat ramp, and pulled me away again. My eighteen-year-old daughter, Mira, waded in behind me and we swam together. Sunlight shattered in prisms along the seabed; yellow fish flashed, colorful clouds in the surf. Then from behind a capstone of lava, a sea turtle materialized. He was old. The patterns of his years laced across his shell. He glanced over and swam toward me, passing below with centimeters to spare. I sucked in my stomach as the water rushed up from the sweep of his flippers, and resisted the urge to run my fingers along his back. He lilted away into the gloom of deep water.
It was this numinous moment that urged me onward, this moment that inspired me to swim into deep water, past the break.
My husband, Chris, went ahead of us—climbing up and over the peninsular lava rock where the waves broke, he dived into the ocean. I went next with our ten-year-old son, Graysen. He held my hand as seawater foamed up our legs. One week earlier, he’d run fully clothed into the warm waters off Coconut Island in Hilo, his first time in any ocean. As we climbed over the lava rock together that Christmas morning, he squeezed my hand. He had his fins on, his new pink mask with the corrective lenses that cost $150, and his snorkel. Holding tight to me and stepping carefully so he didn’t trip on his fins or step on a sea urchin—they terrified him—he leaned into a swell and pushed off, swam out toward his father. I kept an eye on him as Mira climbed up on the rock behind me.
“Ready?” I asked.
We pulled our masks down and crept into a swell. We shared Graysen’s concerns about sea urchins—they looked menacing—plus the lava rock was treacherous. Earlier my fourteen-year-old daughter, Chiara, cut her knee. She didn’t feel it happen, didn’t even realize she’d cut herself until she climbed out of the water and I pointed to the blood running down her leg. She seemed quietly offended by the fuss my mother and I made over her then, but was content to wrap up in a towel with a big wad of toilet paper blotting her wound, and stared off into the blue horizon while the rest of us went back into the water. Long ago, Chiara earned the nickname “The Nerveless Wonder” for her propensity to shrug off pain. As a toddler, she’d fall, whacking her face on the floor, and get up smiling, rub her cheek once, and toddle away. Nothing seemed to faze her, and so after double-checking that her wound didn’t need a stitch (“It’s fine mom,” she told me more than once) I left her alone.
Mira is the sensitive one. She seems to have all the nerve-endings her sister lacks, and then some. As we pushed off into the ocean she held tight to my arm as though I could keep her safe from sea urchins and lava rock. She didn’t let go after we were in the water and I wanted to pull away. I could feel the mystery of the reef below me; I was ready to explore, and block out the world above the waves for a bit while she swam near me, close but not clinging. My husband and son were nearby.
“Ready?” I asked again, and gently pulled my arm away. She nodded and stuck her snorkel in her mouth.
Kicking rapidly, I adjusted my mask so that it wouldn’t pull my hair. I wore water shoes instead of fins because on my honeymoon with Mira’s father, my first husband Malcolm, I was gliding through a sun-struck Tahitian lagoon when my feet seized with cramps. They radiated out through my toes, and Malcolm had to carry me to shore and pry the fins off my feet. There was something about the way my feet were positioned in fins that provoked the crippling cramps. So though I wore a mask and snorkel in the Pacific on Christmas morning, everyone else was a little faster than I was through the water. I didn’t mind—I would be happy just floating, marveling at darting fish and the curve of coral below.
Moments after I put my face underwater and the burst of bubbles streamed past my ears, Mira grabbed for my arm again. Her fingertips grazed my skin as a growing wave rolled beneath us, pushing us farther apart. I lifted my head and looked over. She was out of reach.
I shouted. “What? What is it?” But she slipped beneath the surface, her eyes unfocused.
An old fear surged through me—something I hadn’t felt in years. My adrenaline spiked, and I dove across the distance between us. I lifted her back into the light.
Later it would hit me, how much the moment when I rushed to Mira in the ocean felt like a moment years earlier, when she was only two days old.
Mira was born just before dawn in the home where I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As I held her for the first time, and traced the design of her face with my fingertips, the morning opened up and birds in the apple tree outside burst into song.
Mira’s birth was rapid and without incident, and the midwife deemed her perfectly healthy. I was enthralled with her, my first daughter. When my firstborn, two-year-old Soren, met her an hour later, his eyes lit up; he couldn’t stop kissing her.
On the second morning, when we were back in our two-bedroom apartment across town, I awoke to hot sunlight falling through the blinds in stripes across the bedroom floor. I was curled up in bed with Mira next to me. The tide of breath in the room, Malcolm, Mira, and Soren, in his toddler bed nearby, set the tempo of the morning. Mira woke to nurse, and I helped her latch on before drifting off again. Moments later, as dreams rushed through me in waves, something changed. I couldn’t identify it right away—as if there had been music playing in the room and somebody shut it off in the middle of a song. I opened my eyes and looked down at my baby. She’d stopped nursing and was still. Too still, even for sleep. I pushed myself up on one elbow. Were her lips turning blue?
I analyzed my first impression, the voice in my head shrugging it off. Of course she isn’t turning blue. Babies don’t just turn blue. I could barely open my eyes, fatigue from her birth dulling my mind. I thought I was just imagining things, seeing blue where there must be pink.
But even in my doubt, it occurred to me that I could be wrong. And because this was possible I lifted her up and jostled her. On instinct, I blew in her face. She startled, took a deep breath, and screamed into the morning.
“What’s wrong?” he mumbled.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I tucked Mira in to my body to nurse her back to sleep. Sitting on the edge of the bed, my hair tangled across my face, I questioned myself. What had I seen? I doubted my impression, was sure I’d overreacted.
That night, however, she did it again. I was sitting on the couch next to my mother, and in the middle of nursing, Mira unlatched and her head lolled against my arm. Her lips swiftly turned a dusky and unmistakable blue.
“Sweeties, something’s wrong,” my mom said, confirming what I didn’t want to believe. I jostled Mira and blew in her face just as I’d done that morning. Then fighting tears of my own—because it hit me hard that maybe babies sometimes do turn blue—I lifted the phone and called our pediatrician. She met us at the hospital an hour later.
In the emergency room that night, then later in the neonatal intensive care unit, Mira was, by all accounts, a completely normal infant. The only explanation that our pediatrician could offer for the problem was that Mira was physiologically immature, and thus was having trouble coordinating nursing and breathing. In essence, she’d struggle to do both at once and then all systems would fail.
“Just keep an eye on her,” our doctor said. “She ought to grow out of this.”
We went home the following afternoon exhausted but relieved. Then three weeks later, she turned blue again.
The second diagnosis, offered up by a pediatric gastroenterologist at the University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital sixty miles from home, was silent reflux. All babies have reflux to some extent—that’s what spitting up is. But babies with silent reflux rarely spit up. Instead, they linger in the painful purgatory of heartburn when their stomach contents go no further than their esophagus. Lying down exacerbates the condition, which, we quickly learned, makes silent reflux anything but silent. Especially at night.
At around two each morning Mira would start fidgeting and fussing. She’d try to nurse, then pull off gasping and cry. I’d lift her from our bed to walk her into the tiny dining room lit by a row of streetlights beyond our even smaller yard. We lived in a ground-floor apartment. In addition to the streetlights, our view from the dining room window was of our neighbor’s air conditioner. There in the half-light I’d hold her while she cried. When she caught her breath I’d try to nurse her, but that would often enrage her more. Her screams could be heard by every neighbor.
Fatigue was carving holes in my brain, and after several nights of this my thinking shifted from reason to run-on sentences and a staccato repetition of words in my head: Why do you kick me awake and fuss and refuse to nurse so I have to lift you up from the curve of our bed that we’ve defined with our lives and walk into the dining room where the cockatiel lifts her head from her wing to glare at me and moonlight marks time on the linoleum, or maybe that’s just a streetlight, and then you won’t nurse and I hold you up… And your face tangles in a scream… And I know the neighbors can hear you. And I can’t breathe. And I wonder when your father will come in so I can hand you up and into his arms and walk back through the shadowed spaces to sleep and cry and sleep…
Sometimes I’d think in Sesame Street voices, my mind tuned by the daily videos Soren danced to while I melted into the couch. Sometimes I didn’t think at all.
Mira was two months old when she turned blue a third time. I called the gastroenterologist, and used the clinical terminology.
“She had another apneic spell,” I told him.
“I’d like to rule out a malformation,” he replied, then told me he wanted to schedule a fully anesthetized laparoscopic exploration of Mira’s throat, to see if anything was wrong.
“Do you suspect a birth defect?” I asked, my body going cold.
Mira was sleeping next to me, propped up on her Boppy pillow in the middle of the bed. With the phone pressed against my ear I curled up beside her. Tried to calm myself as I watched the tremble of her baby heart beneath her onesie, and the rise and fall of her chest.
On the morning of the procedure bright sunlight angled over the Sandia Mountains behind us as we drove in to Albuquerque from the east. I hadn’t slept much the night before; worry cast my dreams in bright colors and I awoke again and again to peer at the clock, worried we’d oversleep.
We made it in plenty of time. As we waited in the reception area an old woman with a silver crucifix around her neck clucked over Mira who was asleep in her car seat, and drew a cross on her forehead with a bent finger before shuffling away. By the time I handed my tiny daughter off to a surgical nurse, two other women would draw two more invisible crosses on her forehead, just beneath the arch of her black hair that would, in three years, turn blonde. I’d never seen this cross-drawing phenomenon before, but it didn’t surprise me given the deep Catholic roots of our home state. I smiled, and thanked each of the women, hoped without saying so that these small gestures by strangers would keep my baby safe.
Every second that passed with Mira in the operating room felt like a decade. By the time I was led into recovery and had her back in my arms, I felt far older than my twenty-four years. I pulled her close to nurse her, an oxygen line draped over my shoulder and blowing in her face. A short while later, the doctor came in with a photograph.
“Here’s an image of her trachea,” he explained, pointing to one of four round pictures recorded by the laparoscope. “As you can see,” he said, moving his finger from one image to the next, “the tissues here are red and inflamed—obviously painful—but they aren’t malformed.”
“So… not a birth defect?” I asked, my words and thoughts coalescing slowly, filtered through my stress.
The doctor nodded. “Correct,” he said. “That’s the good news. The bad news, however, is that we still don’t know what’s causing this.”
He told me he’d prescribe medication to make Mira’s stomach empty more rapidly and alleviate her heartburn.
“Medicine and time,” he told me. “I think that’s what we’re looking at here.”
We were taken to a private room in pediatrics with a metal crib, a gliding rocker, and a cube of a TV, where she and I would spend the night. A nurse hooked up Mira’s monitors and jotted down her vitals. Nobody was particularly worried—remaining for the night following full anesthesia is just the way you do things, and so I figured out how to recline the chair, because there was no bed for me, and pressed the power button on the TV remote. The afternoon passed with Mira in my arms. I flipped through the channels, landing nowhere. Malcolm had gone home to take care of Soren; I’d see them in the morning, when Mira was discharged. In the meantime, I tried to blot out all thoughts about the world, choosing to feel nothing because numbness seemed preferable to feeling everything.
After several hours of rocking and nursing and holding, Mira was sleeping and I was craving potato chips. I maneuvered her into the crib, my movements slowed to the cellular level so she wouldn’t startle, wouldn’t wake. When my arms came away her eyes were still closed. Her vitals were all strong on the monitor. Her tiny hands like birds rested against her tummy, fingers lifted delicately even in slumber.
I dug some coins from my purse and stole out of the room.
Stopping first by the nurse’s station I said I’d only be gone a few moments, then I rushed down the hall turning corners that looked like every other until I found the vending machines. I fed two coins in and punched the buttons. A bag of chips fell from a hook. Counting out my money I realized I had enough to get a soda too. As I slipped quarters into the soda machine I felt light, like I was indulging some stolen moment. I didn’t have a baby in my arms and there was no toddler pulling on my pants leg and whining. I hadn’t had many moments to myself in recent memory. My time as a caretaker could be counted in years—especially considering the fact that I’d worked as a nanny for two years before Soren was born. I’d been a nanny by choice, not happenstance. I’d completed a professional certification course, then went to work as a full-time, live-out nanny for a little boy and his baby sister.
I’d also become a mother by choice, opting to have my children when I was still young and hadn’t quite decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. I figured there was plenty of time to sort things out for myself, once the business of raising my own children was established and secure, plus I could always care for other people’s children with mine in tow if I had to.
In short, I’d organized my life so that I wouldn’t have to choose between my babies and my job because I wanted to stay home with my kids when they were little, ensure that they developed strong attachments to me during their vulnerable first years.
But caring for small people is exhausting, especially when one of them has such a tenuous hold on life. To be able to walk away from my daughter and reconnect with my autonomy again, if only for a few moments, was exhilarating. I could do this because I knew Mira was safe—the nurses were right there, next to her room.
With chips and Coke in hand I walked back. I was hoping Mira would sleep for a while, content in the crib, so I could use the bathroom and eat my snack with both hands. But when I turned the final corner, things stopped making sense. Mira’s room was full of people.
I don’t know what they said to me when I walked in, but that’s probably because they didn’t have to say anything. I figured out quickly what had happened. In the few moments I was gone, Mira stopped breathing again. Her monitors sounded the alarm.
“We had to revive her,” the nurse told me, as she pressed buttons on the monitor and studied the numbers.
The rest of that hospital visit falls away into unremembered moments now because nothing else was important. The only thing that mattered was this: I walked away from my daughter and she stopped breathing.
Had we been at home, she could have died.
The apneic spell Mira had in the hospital after her laparoscopy is the last one I remember. I gave Mira her medicine every morning and evening, until she was four months old and didn’t need it anymore.
Wary of what happened in the hospital, I also kept her close to me at all times.
She matured, as our pediatrician said she would, and was soon able to handle nursing and breathing without system failure. The early morning crying slowed then stopped; the Sesame Street voices in my head hushed. Reason returned.
Flash forward eighteen years and I came up against that old wordlessness once again, my thoughts shifting from reason to run-on sentences as I floated in the Pacific and lifted my daughter up, up, into the light and air.
“What’s the matter?” I cried, fear lifting the edges of my voice. I was at a disadvantage with no fins, so I let go—hoping she could hold her own. She spluttered and went under again. I kicked harder to keep myself afloat as I reached over and for a second time lifted her up. This time I pulled her in close to me.
“My snorkel!” she yelled, and coughed. “It’s broken!”
“Broken?” I tried to grasp what the problem was. As I did when she was a baby, I tried for a moment to puzzle over the whys and the hows. The snorkel was brand new, and I’d used it the day before. It had worked fine for me, and before we swam past the break it had worked fine for Mira too. Why was it suddenly broken, and how did that happen?
Her head was above water—immediate emergency dealt with. The rush of fear subsided. But seawater kept washing up her face, and after trying again to take a breath through the snorkel she spit it out and was inundated by yet another swell. She choked and floundered. I held her tight, kicking, kicking…
It was, of course, ridiculous to spend any time trying to sort out what was wrong as we struggled in the ocean. Reason finally seized me; I yanked off my own snorkel and handed it to her. She jammed it in her mouth, passing her broken snorkel to me as she did so. Certain that it would start working again I tried it, but nothing happened. The stopper at the top was stuck shut—the snorkel, useless.
It’s difficult to swim in the surge of the ocean without fins, and even more difficult with no snorkel. You have to be able to put your face in and float, let the sea rock you rather than fight to keep your head above water. Graysen had gotten the hang of this quickly—he has a kinesthetic intelligence, and excels at anything that requires physical coordination. Mira was a strong swimmer too, but the broken snorkel threw her off. Between breaths she was swallowing seawater as it rushed over her face. She was quickly exhausted.
My mom had been sitting with Chiara in the sun, but suddenly appeared at a nearby edge and looked out at us. Like before, when Mira stopped breathing and turned blue, Mom knew instantly that something wasn’t right.
“What’s wrong?” she called to me.
“I need to get her out!” I yelled back. “Her snorkel broke!”
We weren’t far away—maybe ten feet from where my mom stood—but the lava rock that rose up from the water looked, from my vantage point, like a cliff studded with sea urchins. I didn’t know how to get Mira out that way, and swimming her back to where we came in, even with a working snorkel, seemed risky considering both how exhausted she was and that I didn’t have the right equipment. Not having a snorkel or fins would make it even more difficult for me to help her. They tell you on the plane to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others; I had just handed my oxygen mask to my daughter.
Chris swam over. Mom alerted a man who was sitting nearby—help us please, she must have said, and he stood.
“Swim with me,” I told Mira, and holding on to her arm we swam to where Chris was treading water. He and I helped Mira find handholds in the sharp rock, as my mom and the man she’d asked for help reached down to lift her up. With help from above and below she climbed up the veritable cliff. I pointed out handholds without sea urchins, helped guide her flippered feet up the rock. When she was out, Chris, a licensed EMT, climbed out behind her to make sure she was okay.
I watched as best I could from the ocean as my mother threw a towel over Mira’s shoulders. A swell lifted me up as though to show me one last time that she was fine, that she was alive and breathing and out of danger.
I could have asked my mom to toss my snorkel back to me, could have floated with Graysen while my mom tended to Mira. But the thought didn’t even occur to me. All I could think to do was get out of the ocean. Graysen and I swam back to the break, scrambled together over the lava rock. I scraped my shin, put my hand in a sea urchin. I didn’t care. I climbed dripping from the sea, found my daughter, and wrapped her in my arms.
“Are you okay?” I asked, my voice tainted with worry. Mira pulled away and looked at me.
“Yeah,” she said, hugging me again. “I’m fine.”
Author Elizabeth Stone once said: “Making the decision to have a child—it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
On the day I became a mother, I looked into Soren’s face and saw beyond the world I knew. His mortality frightened me to my core. In the space of a heartbeat nothing was more important or precious in my life than him. When Mira came into the world two years later, I met the second person whose life eclipsed mine. This happened to me two more times in the years that followed, when Chiara and Graysen were born. It was for moments like those that I had children in the first place, moments like those that I liken now to swimming past the break of the waves, where the land falls away and some ethereal beauty glimmers—past the break, where sea turtles drift and coral blooms, where beams of sunlight fracture and yellow fish scatter and cohere again like clouds against a restless sky.
Past the break lies motherhood as I understand it: the rawest life that lifts and falls and crashes against beauty, and the eternal potential for heartbreak. The fear I felt when Mira was a baby and stopped breathing was no different than the fear that surged through me in the ocean when she slipped beneath the wave. It’s a fear that’s primal and wordless because it slams you with the understanding that even the smallest, most forgettable moment—a quiet sleepy morning, a Christmas swim in the ocean—could become, in the space of a breath, the one that eclipses them all.
Images provided courtesy of author.