As I strained through the phone to hear my husband’s words—shallow, barely audible, delivered in the staccato cadence in which I used to play my concerto pieces as a teen—I was catapulted back in time to five years ago, when our 18-year-old, special needs daughter, Emma, lay in her hospital bed, attached to a ventilator that worked to keep her alive, until it no longer could. Then, pneumonia gave way to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome which overwhelmed her lungs and took her breath away. Then took her.
Now, a new enemy was battering my young and healthy husband’s body. The man who five years ago ran the NYC Marathon alongside me, only slowing down to keep pace with my less trained lungs. The man who picked up fencing as a hobby to encourage our son and daughter to embrace the sport the way he did, and continued long after they retired their foils. The man who spent years on his high school tennis team, then more years on the college swim team. The man who skied then snowboarded every winter season.
This man now lay in a hospital bed—the victim of, like so many others, COVID-19—struggling to breathe.
For the first three years of Emma’s life, we were inextricably linked to the clear plastic nose cannula that we secured to her full porcelain cheeks with medical tape, which extended to a portable oxygen tank that resided in her stroller basket when we went for outings. The smaller tank resembled its larger parent version—the one that flanked the side of Emma’s crib. This sea-green metal cylinder towered ominously, competing in height with me, and could be mistaken for a missile.
Now, my husband is the recipient of supplemental oxygen via the same nasal cannula, barely able to answer my panicked queries about his oxygen saturation.
“Hard . . . to . . . speak . . .,” I manage to make out, his lungs emptying effort at pacifying my worries. “Text.”
So, I do. YOU HAVE TO BEAT THIS! I type, in bold screaming letters so he hears my urgency, my panic. WE CAN’T LOSE YOU, TOO!
Our children had already buried their older sister. Lightning can’t strike twice, I tell myself.
But, in the darkest recesses of my mind, I know it can. Life is fragile and often too short and no one is immune to grief, to loss of one kind or another at one time or another. So, I beseech my staunchly atheist husband to please pray to his daughter, our angel, for help. That’s what I had been doing myself, in a state of desperation and despair. Because there are no atheists in a foxhole, right? Because what have you got to lose?
Only your life.
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One of my earliest memories as a little girl of four or five is of my father lifting me out of a car in which I’d fallen asleep on our drive home. Though fully awake, I continued to feign sleep, forcing my body to go limp as he held me upright, my head on his shoulder. Intent on not being discovered, coupled with the fear of losing my elevated status and worse—suffering the indignity of being made to walk—I decided at that moment that a sleeping person did not breathe. So, I held my breath.
I would learn soon enough that breath meant life.
It would become the stuff of all my nightmares on repeat—overtaken by a wave that would thrust me under, smother me in its unwelcome embrace, and occupy my lungs like some forsaken territory.
Memories of our daughter on the respirator, sedated into sleep, with an offensive plastic tube snaking out from between her crimson lips, IV’s and other lines emanating from her like more vipers attacking her defenseless body, was the cautionary tale I fought, to keep it from overwhelming my sensibilities, dissolving me into a messy puddle, useful to no one.
I knew all too well that the respirator was the worst-case scenario, that you don’t always come back from it.
I knew it from seeing my daughter take her last breath, a sharp, sudden intake of air, mere moments after being extubated. A breath so deep and expansive, that it appeared as if she were intending to inhale all the oxygen in the room. I saw her chest rise and then fall, and I unraveled, convinced she was trying to hold on to life and to breathe on her own. My own breath caught in my throat and I cried out, directing my words through heaving sobs at the pulmonologist in attendance, “I think she’s trying to breathe. I think she’s trying to live.”
My husband made it home. He was one of the lucky ones. Sadly, not everyone will be so fortunate. I was again reminded that breath is life—tenuous and fragile and worth fighting for.