Tell It Again

It is 2005, and my newborn daughter’s breathing is wet, gurgling, raspy and fast. It gets worse every time I feed her, and when I consult my dusty copy of Dr. Spock to see what he says on the topic of infant breathing, it tells me that she is taking far too many breaths per minute.

I take her to the doctor, who waves me off. “Rapid breathing of the newborn,” he says. “She’s fine.”

It gets worse and worse and finally, we make an appointment with a specialist. Terrified that the specialist will send me back home, where I have to turn my tv louder to hear it if my six pound month-old baby is breathing in the same room, I wrack my sleep-addled brain for a way to convince any doctor that Something Is Not Right With This Baby.

And then I find USAmma.

On the parenting forums at Mothering.com, USAmma is posting regularly about her baby daughter who suffered from terrible reflux. Though she is active on several forums there, most often I see her answering questions about GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disease). If any parent mentions reflux, inevitably, USAmma responds. At one point, she shares links to a series of videos she and her husband had made of their daughter exhibiting behaviors consistent with severe reflux.

It is my light bulb moment. I take the tape recorder I usually keep in my violin case — to record fiddle tunes from local fiddlers — and set it next to me on the couch. I turn off the TV. I record my baby breathing, then nursing, and then breathing after nursing.

When I play the recording for the specialist, his eyes widen. He rewinds, listens again. Then he gives her a diagnosis. As I leave, he thanks me for making the recording.

“That was very smart,” he tells me. “Great idea.”

I write to USAmma, and thank her.


It is mid-2006, and I am going out of my mind with the tedium of at-home motherhood.

I hear about a new blog network called Zaadz. A friend from my old life, someone who’d championed my work and enjoyed even my boring technical writing, tells me to start a blog about playing the fiddle and writing a book. “Call it ‘Fiddle and Quill,'” she suggests.

I call it “Here we go,” instead, and start writing about what’s happening. I tell the story of my sick little baby’s birth — a series I call “Woah Baby” — and out of no where, a mother from Alaska contacts me to say that her son, born a week after my daughter, has the same diagnosis.

We chat online every day. Her son vomits; my daughter wheezes. She lives in the country; I live on an alley in the city. Alone in my kitchen with a baby constantly attached to me and orders not to take her out among people and germs, I see my friend in Alaska as a lifeline. Without her, I would be heartbreakingly lonely. In the process of comparing medical notes, we become fast friends.

I keep writing our story. She keeps reading.


It is 2014, and my baby is eight years old.

I join a committee at our local synagogue and find myself the youngest person in the room by more than a decade. Everyone else has raised their children. I am intimidated, wondering if I have enough in common with this group to forge relationships. I needn’t have worried; the committee is full of good souls with open minds, and we work together well.

Several months into the work, I learn that my daughter will need cardiac surgery — her second operation, and more complex. Distracted and flustered, I walk into our monthly meeting and share the news. I expect nods, side-hugs, and perhaps offers of ambiguous help. Instead, one committee member looks across the table with faint tears in her eyes and says:

“Did you know my son was in that cardiac ward for over a month a few years ago?”

I hadn’t known. She tells me about the virus that attacked his heart, the weeks she spent in the hospital with him, and the recovery he made thanks to the very same surgeon who would soon be operating on my daughter. She talks about her current volunteer work on that same ward, the wonderful nurses and the dedicated volunteers who will surely make our stay as easy as they can.

As the weeks go on, she checks in with me. Before the surgery, she sends me an email, and after it’s over, when I email the large group of well-wishers with the good news that it was a success, she is one of the first to respond.

“So glad to hear! Obviously, still a ways to go, but sounds overall like good news. Phew!”

Years later, she admits to me that she worries about how much she shares the story of her son’s illness and how it affected her. When she says that, my own heart sinks a little. I, too, worry that I talk and write about my daughter’s illness too often. Then, I think of the stories above — how someone’s willingness to share their experiences had a direct and positive impact on exactly the person who needs that information most.

Where would I be without USAmma?

Where would I be without my friend from Alaska?

Where would I be without my fellow committee member?

Begging for the recognition of a problem. All alone in the world. Terrified without a soul who understood me. 

I’m going to keep talking and writing. I hope others do the same.

 

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Nevertheless, We Persisted

post-surgery-daughterFebruary is American Heart Month. My social media feed is currently split between political postings and photographs of babies and children with scars I recognize all too well — across the shoulder blade in back or right down the middle in front. Parents and grandparents I’ve met online through our shared journey are posting information about their children’s experiences, their families’ grief or triumph, and ways that their communities can contribute toward better outcomes for anyone born with a congenital heart defect, like my vibrant, finally-healthy daughter Sammi.

These images are unrelenting. They drag me back, every time, away from the image of the grinning, singing girl I kissed goodbye this morning and closer to the sick baby covered in wires and tubes. I negotiate the difference in leaps, then think back on what to say to the parents still in the thick of it. How will they make it to my present-day? 

Of course, the other half of my social media feeds are the political posts — assaults on freedom and confusing conflicts everywhere I turn. Truth is under attack there just as it was when I fought for Sammi’s care. Out of the mess tangling over and over itself in the news, however, came a surprise rallying cry intended to shut down a woman’s resolute message. To anyone who has followed US politics, the censure of Senator Elizabeth Warren by Senator Mitch McConnell is likely memorized by now, but for emphasis and clarity, it’s worth repeating:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

It’s easy to turn this into a rallying cry for women, in general. So often, this is our only path to success, whether we’re discussing the fight for suffrage, land ownership, birth control, or just a seat at the board room table. What many women don’t know, however, is that infuriating as those indignities are, when what is at stake is our children’s lives, persisting is not a choice. It is an instinct. Continue Reading…

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Breathing Fine

winterskyYesterday, I drove through salt-bleached, frozen streets on my way to retrieve my daughter and her friends from school. The temperatures here have been dangerously cold; I am regularly rescuing my children from the frigid walk home.

As I drove my empty car past the grey of filthy alley snow under a colorless sky, I half-listened to the music playing through my speakers. I believe in the Oracle of the Random Playlist, my name for the theory that whatever plays when I hit “random” is a coded message from the universe. Several fiddle tunes and a standup comedy bit from Ellen DeGenerous later, I heard the opening piano chords from John Legend’s song “All of Me.”

I’m not much of a pop music fan, as any of my friends can tell you, but parenting brings surprising gifts. Beginning with Owl City when my older daughter was in elementary school, I found myself reluctantly led back to paying attention to the radio when my daughters started singing it at home. In 2014, as my husband and I waited for months to tell our younger daughter Sammi that she would soon be facing a second cardiac surgery, she came home from her school’s chorus practice one day singing “All of Me.” I listened from the front seat as she hummed, then asked her what she was singing. She opened her mouth and sang,

What’s going on in that beautiful mind?
I’m on your magical mystery ride,
and I’m so dizzy,
don’t know what hit me,
but I’ll be all right…

“That’s so pretty, sweetheart!,” I said then. “What’s it called?”

Her big sister told me the name of the song, and I looked it up later. I remember sitting crosslegged on the floor of my kitchen, listening to the song online, and feeling the earth underneath me roll and undulate like waves. It felt personal. It felt cruelly perfect. Continue Reading…

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Three Days of Reckoning

stroller

When my now-eleven-year-old-daughter Sammi was still in my belly, I had a dream: a thin girl with straight, dirty blond hair and glasses, about nine or ten, was pushing a stroller at the zoo. I couldn’t see who was in the stroller, but something told me that pushing this stroller was very important for that young girl. Standing in place, her thin legs visible under short-shorts, she pushed her glasses above her eyes and wiped the bridge of her nose, then leaned forward, pressing her arms out and putting all her weight into the stroller. It rolled forward, and a gaggle of children I couldn’t quite make out ran and pranced around her as they moved toward the nearest animal exhibit.

That’s all the dream was — a girl I’d never seen pushing a stroller — and, at the time, I knew it was important but couldn’t quite figure out how. After all, I didn’t know I was having a second girl, and this baby in my belly had a round, dimpled older sister with a head full of huge dark curls.

But now, this week, I glimpsed a shadow of this image in real life. Sammi stood in a paper gown, waiting for the pediatrician. She had tried sitting on my lap in the chair, but her legs are now finally long and gangly enough that this is uncomfortable for both of us. I offered her the chair, but it was cold against her bare thighs, and she wanted to avoid the examining table until she had no other choice. So, she stood there: petite but solid, the plastic belt of the gown forcing the beginnings of a woman’s figure into my imagination, and I thought to myself: I really never pictured her at this age. Continue Reading…

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Let Me Take You There

doorA hundred lifetimes ago, in undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, I studied the ways that tense and perspective change the tone of a story. When it comes to my emotions and my words, I find that tense and perspective are the best tools I have for bringing readers into the story quickly. For example: What happens when I tell this in the past tense — “My daughter could barely breathe” — versus when I tell it in present tense: “My daughter can barely breathe”? What happens when I tell a story in first person (“I was frightened“) versus when I tell them the story in second person (“You will be far colder than one would expect“)?

For me, past tense offers distance. As I write in past tense, I feel separated from the events. I can write without getting too caught up in the moment as I experienced it in real time. I am calm, almost clinical in my descriptions. It reminds me of the unwavering steadiness I’ve been able to construct in moments of real trauma by simply breathing deeply, disassociating from my emotions, and behaving like a soldier on a mission. In past tense, I am a reporter, and even when I report on the raw and furious emotions in our family’s history, it is with a detached, analytical eye.

Present tense is where I get you invested. I am here, in the sun-filled living room, with the baby in my lap who is struggling to breathe. Or, I am lying on the floor of my basement in the cold dark, and I think, for a moment, that I can hear my screaming daughter two floors above me as I sink into the drugged sleep of a woman past the edge of exhaustion. You are watching me in real time. Neither of us knows what comes next. We are both — writer and reader — in my mystery. Continue Reading…

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