A naked woman with a belly round as the earth swayed and moaned on bare feet in a dark room. Her sweaty hair stuck to her forehead from the work of childbirth. Her flushed skin was pulled taut to accommodate another human body within its walls. She reached her hand out for me as her breathing turned to rapid, short bursts. “Okay,” she said with grit teeth and eyes clenched shut, “here comes another one.” She held her breath. I let her squeeze my hand until all the bones touched, skin bleachy from the pressure.
My job as a doula was to bear witness to the woman’s path through labor until a small gurgling bundle lay naked on her chest, its blinking eyes taking inventory of the world for the very first time. I followed the woman into each new contraction. I swayed when she swayed. I hummed when she hummed. But there was a point where the pain would start to drown her, and in those moments I would take the lead to help her find safe passage through.
I always said some version of the same thing. “I have been here before and I know the way. This pain is an invitation. With each breath you are cooperating with a force greater than yourself. With each breath, you are giving your baby life. Right now that is your only job: to breathe. It’s the most important work you can do.” Every word I said was a reminder that, if she could just keep breathing, something new would be born in the pain. Life was waiting right on the other side of it.
I found every detail of the birthing process exquisite and raw. It was the best kind of art, messy and romantic and ancient and brand new, all wrapped up in a breathtaking crescendo.
Through a laboring woman’s cooperation with the presence of something eternal and unseen, new life was made. Where there were once only two people in the room, there would be three. I started bringing my film camera along to births, clicking the shutter to capture moments of wild contrast. After it was all finished I would go home and type out my notes, translating the medical jargon into a narrative. Then I developed the film, piecemealed the images and words together, and formed a miniature storybook for the just-arrived human. The following year I displayed a handful of those photographs at a health fair and landed my first professional photography job. The words I wrote in those years gave way to my vocation as a storyteller. Through these artforms, I not only started a family business while raising two sons in grade school, but came to adopt our third.
Zion was born three months premature and suffered severe brain damage as a result of the trauma. On my first day as his mother, he had already been living in the Neonatal ICU for a month so I adjusted as much as I could to the only home he knew. To Zion, home looked like the fluorescent lights and crowded beeping machines keeping him alive. Home felt like cold antiseptic air, the gloved hands of nurses, and medical tubes growing like octopus arms from his body.
Zion didn’t know about his real home yet. So I spent the next month telling him stories about the life waiting for him just on the other side of this one, “Just wait until you find out what home really is, my love. Wait until you know about trees and birdsong, the warm sunlight in the afternoons through the old windows of our house, cuddles in mama’s cozy bed, and the smell of dinner cooking in the kitchen while your brothers play make-believe in the backyard.” Jeremy and I stood before a judge that month and swore to love and protect Zion. Our first order of business was to get him safely home.
Which is how I found myself in the summer of 2011 in a windowless room at the children’s hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. With greasy hair and three-day-old makeup, I sat with a group of parents around a conference room table littered with fake infant bodies made of rubber. I avoided small talk and exchanged brief, knowing glances with the war-weary parents. One look and it was obvious that each one of us was familiar with the experience of losing sleep and future plans to the still greater threat of losing a child.
A plump woman in a flowery dress came in, swaying as she walked, and passed out packets of information with “The American Heart Association” printed on the front cover. She was enthusiastic and sing-songy as she recited some memorized script, “Welcome to the place where you will learn the lifesaving art of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Please silence and put away your cell phones. Everyone you want to Facebook will still be there after our class is over.” I resented her chipper demeanor and full nights of sleep. I resented her use of the word “Facebook” as if it were a verb. Mostly, I resented her assertion that performing CPR on my baby’s lifeless body could be called an art form. I wanted to tell her, “Lady, I know art and this ain’t it.” Instead, I put my phone away and did what I could to get the class over with.
After squirming through the over-dramatized instruction videos I practiced CPR on my thick-skinned dummy. I pumped along with my compressions and watched the inanimate belly rise with each breath, knowing each one would get me closer to my goal: a signed certificate of completion. That month in the hospital I had watched Zion go from critical to stable, from a feeding tube to being able to take a bottle, from a breathing machine to breathing on his own. This class was the last flaming hoop that stood between us and the sliding front doors. I finished the class, grabbed the certificate, and called Jeremy, “It’s time. Let’s break the kid outta this joint.”
One month later my whole body shook as I used the skills I had learned in that stuffy windowless room. A family trip to Colorado barely had time to begin before plans turned upside down. An hour after arrival at my in-laws’ house, Zion’s body started to go limp. He slept without waking. He took abnormal pauses between breaths. When the pauses became spaced further out I started to count in my head “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand,” until I counted all the way up to ten, twenty, then thirty. I shouted something into the next room where the rest of the family gathered at the dinner table and in seconds bodies swirled, gasps let out, and I ran out the door with my baby in my arms.
My husband raced our minivan down the highway, flashers on, horn blaring, while I knelt on the back floorboard next to Zion’s lifeless body. I shouted at Jeremy, “How many pushes and how many breaths?” while squinting to see through blurry tears. I had forgotten how many compressions are administered before the breath. I closed my eyes tight, grit my teeth, held my breath. Then something happened. Time slowed, I inhaled deep and wide, and it all came back to me.
The instructor’s words echoed in my ears, “The most important thing is to keep giving compressions so you maintain blood flow to the heart before mouth-to-mouth.” I remembered the awkward laughter when she told us how to keep the right pace and sang, “Just think of the chorus to the Bee Gees song, ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and you’ll have the right beat.” So I placed my hands on my baby’s frame just as she had taught us to do. But this was no test dummy. This was a beloved life that was only just beginning. A life I had sworn to love and protect, to bring safely home. I could feel him beginning to drain out and cool right underneath my fingertips. I blubbered through my off-key song, “ha, ha ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.” Then I put my lips to Zion’s miniature slack mouth and exhaled.
The hours that followed are what writers and theologians call the dark night of the soul. Those hours and the fears hidden inside of them stretched out long and tar-like, sticky, dark, and uncontrollable. The grief came like waves of pain, stripped us down to the bare bones. Jeremy and I wept out loud. We sat in dead silence. We held our breaths. We gasped for air. We pushed away from each other. We held each other close. We doubted and we prayed, often in the same word. We watched through glass as medical professionals poked and prodded, gave spinal taps, intubated, ran tests and took blood from our youngest son’s body. We existed in that liminal space where the air vibrates with possibilities both holy and desolate.
A few days, one brain surgery, and a breathing machine later, Zion was alive. Beyond hope, he had come back to us. We loaded up the family minivan with our beloveds and took the drive in reverse, headed home. I watched Zion sleep as mile markers ticked by. The rise and fall of his chest was a work of art. The small inhales and exhales of his breath were musical, better than Coltrane or Thelonious Monk, Chopin or Haydyn. And I got it. The art of resuscitation. It was there underneath my nose all along. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of my breath in his lungs. I let my ins and outs fall in step with his, my life and the life it had sustained in concert.
I can’t be sure but I think the mark of good art is that it is not selfish. It doesn’t stay with the artist, mummified and left to harden in a dark, solitary cave. The best kind of art evokes life in another. It is embodied. It is given like breath into lungs that have gone flat. I didn’t know this secret until I came face to face with the lifeless body of my youngest son. And then, right when the pain started to drown me, there came an invisible presence to help me find safe passage through. Life was waiting right on the other side of it. My job was to keep breathing.
This is the fifth part in a series from Ash Parsons on Embodiment.
Cover image by Erica Short.
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