Book of Lasts
In my girls’ baby books, I dutifully filled in all of the exact dates I could remember for their “firsts”— first time rolling over, first step, first word, first time using full sentences. Over the years, in my head, I fill out a corresponding book of “lasts.” Last diaper changed. Last pacifier used. Last tooth lost.
I can remember, for instance, the last time I picked up my oldest daughter. She was 8, dressed head to toe in pink for her class Valentine’s Day party. She’d had a constant cough for weeks, but hadn’t run a temperature and had never asked to stay home from school.
After school that day, though, she was reading in her bed when she suddenly started sobbing. Her cries pierced through the silence like a siren, warning of a thunderstorm that materialized out of nowhere.
“I can’t breathe!” she cried, clutching her chest.
She couldn’t breathe? My own chest tightened. Eight years earlier on a frigid winter evening just like this one, her father and I had rushed our inconsolable infant, her face splotched dusty rose and cream like a patchwork quilt, to the emergency room. She couldn’t breathe then either because her airway had never fully developed. Three months later we would leave the hospital, after ventilator stints and every test available, with a diagnosis of tracheomalacia, a floppy airway. Much later we would receive a new diagnosis for a rare genetic disorder. The torrent of doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions headed our way were a tsunami far offshore, still well out of sight.
Eventually, though, her airway grew stronger, and she hadn’t struggled to breathe in years. As I took her temperature (102), I ran through potential options in my head. Give her Tylenol? Call the pediatrician? Dig her old nebulizer out of the basement and hope the years-old Albuterol breathing treatments still worked? Google “what can cause coughing for three weeks straight”? She pleaded for me to take her to the doctor. Deep inside, barely audible from under my pounding heart, I could hear a tiny voice screaming you know what to do. Leave. Now.
I pulled on our coats, grabbing our hats and gloves, and called my husband. “Meet us at the Children’s ER,” I said. “Stella says she can’t breathe.”
We raced across town through rush-hour traffic. I kept one eye on my daughter, slumped and breathing raggedly, in the rearview mirror. She struggled to keep her eyes open, and I cursed myself silently. I should’ve called the pediatrician last week.
The first time I turned her car seat around from rear-facing to forward, I remember feeling such relief in sneaking quick rearview mirror glances back at her rosy cheeks and lips. Once during our hospital stay, standing around her crib-on-wheels with a group of nursing students, a doctor had told them, “you can tell when a child is getting enough oxygen because the lips will be pink.” Tonight, her skin was pale and ashy but her lips were still pink, so we kept driving.
Walking in from the ER parking lot, she begged me to carry her. I explained why I couldn’t. The baby growing inside me, approximately the size of a lemon, was considered high flight risk and my doctor had strictly forbidden lifting anything heavy. My heart ached at not being able to pick up my frightened, feverish little girl. This new pregnancy felt fragile, though, (it had taken us quite a long time to conceive, and we’d already had multiple scares, bright red against white) so I had committed to following doctor’s rules to the letter. We trudged in, my arm threaded under her shoulder, walking at a glacier’s pace through the stabbing February wind.
Inside the doors at the emergency room, the line to check in at triage stretched as long as during a peak-time DMV visit. Just ahead of us, a young mom rocked a croupy baby in a carrier. Behind stood a dad with a mournful tween in an arm sling.
Stella was too young, and too sick, to plop into a seat in the main waiting room by herself. We had walked in. We were going to have to wait in this line. And we were both going to have to stand on our own two feet.
The line snaked along a wall of windows, but heat blasted out of exchanges along the floor and my arms were soon piled with coats, scarfs and hats. Stella tried standing in front of me, leaning back into my chest. She tried tucking her body underneath my arm, her head wedged into my armpit. All the while, tears streamed silently down her cheeks.
When she was in the hospital as an infant, there were often times I couldn’t pick her up. Even if she was hurting or scared, there were just too many monitors and IVs and tubes. Now here I was, years later, reliving the same nightmare. Right back in that same hospital, right back in that same agony of not being able to pick up my baby girl.
There was one bench in the triage lane, situated closer to the check-in counter than the door. In this particular line, no matter the severity of the ailment, everyone waited until they reached the bench to sit on it.
At some point during our wait (was it 20 minutes? Or was it just five? Time had crawled to a standstill), Stella let out a howl, crumpling to her knees. My heart shattered. Desperate, I did the only thing I could think to do. The one thing I’d said I couldn’t do. I picked her up.
Her long legs dangled just inches off the ground, and she struggled to find the best way to wrap her arms around my waist. But her head found the spot on my shoulder it had long ago carved out, and she nuzzled her nose into my neck. Her racing heart found mine and slowed to match my steady drumbeat. I carried her until we reached the bench, even though my arms began to ache and I worried I might faint from the heat. We sat for a few minutes. And then the line sputtered forward and I picked her up again.
Of course I’ll always remember the first time I picked her up and held her, her peach fuzz chest so warm pressed against my own. Her tiny muscles finally unclenched and relaxed after the ordeal of being born. Against hers, my own heart turned molten. From the start, I calmed her and she calmed me. And now in the ER, just like that first time, she calmed almost immediately against my chest.
Three days later we would leave the hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia and plenty of antibiotics and fluids. We would ask the attending physician, what are the warning signs for pneumonia in children? How should we have known? Often, there are none, he’d say. Children are so naturally resilient they can often just power through these things without giving any indication something’s wrong.
Our kids are stronger than we know.
I didn’t pick up Stella again through the rest of my pregnancy, or for those first few months after her sister was born. I can’t remember the exact date, or the occasion, when I tried to pick her up next. But that time, I couldn’t. She was too heavy to move more than an inch off the floor.
Picking her up had been my fail-safe soothing tactic for her whole childhood. Nightmares, skinned knees, spilled juice—there was no situation that couldn’t be remedied by a pick-me-up from mom. Back when Stella was a toddler, she would run down the hall, arms flung into the air, demanding I pick her up. I’d hold her little chest to mine, our hearts beating in a duet.
When our babies grow so big that we can no longer pick them up, it usually corresponds to a time in their lives when they start dealing with problems too heavy for us to pick up and whisk away. Baby’s first bully. Baby’s first broken heart.
In the hospital when I couldn’t pick her up, a few things that calmed Stella were patting her back, running my finger down the length of her nose, stroking her hair, wiping away her tears. They’re the same things that calm her now. As parents, all we can do is lighten the load and help our kids learn to do the heavy lifting on their own. Because there will come a time, soon, when she’s going to choose to curl up in her own sadness rather than run to me, arms raised in surrender.
Shelley Mann Hite lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two daughters. Her work has been published in the Huffington Post, Eater, and Columbus Monthly, and is forthcoming in Belt Publishing’s “The Columbus Anthology.” You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @shelleymann.