Mary Katherine stopped breathing the night she was born. Elizabeth had delivered her, and we were in our hospital room; Mary Katherine was still in her first 24 hours of life. Her vital signs had been perfect at birth, and remained fine. But only a few hours after we moved to our room, she just stopped breathing. Her face scrunched up and turned red as she gasped and sucked and waved her fists, and then she wasn't getting any air at all.
I grabbed her and went running down the hall. It felt like football days, the narrow unoccupied hallway a path to travel as quickly as possible with a dire force in close pursuit, and time the most vanishing, valuable thing.
In the meantime, Elizabeth had called down to the front desk, and an elderly nurse, a tiny old woman, came hurrying around the corner.
Before I had time to explain, the nurse flipped Mary Katherine over so that she was holding her facedown, cradling her belly in the palm of one hand, and tapped her on the back, then lifted her upright. And just like that, she was breathing the clean, sweet air of life again.
Back in our room, Elizabeth had gotten disentangled from her bedsheets and was running down the hall in her robe, barefooted, trailing tubes and towels and blood, and by the time she reached us, she was faint, terrified, and it was hard to believe that, this quickly, everything was all right again.
I was already amazed at the astonishing miracle of life, and to receive now, scant hours later, a second miracle—salvation—was indescribable. I remember feeling joyous and terrified both, and wondering how other parents did it, if every hour was to be filled with this intensity of emotion.
They put Mary Katherine in an incubator for the rest of the night, with some kind of sensor taped to her, so that if she stopped breathing again—for longer than 10 seconds, I think—a buzzer would go off. The nurse said it wasn't uncommon for newborns to stop breathing, but that usually they started right back up again. She said Mary Katherine must have gotten some kind of obstruction, milk or phlegm, and briefly choked.
I hated that she couldn't be with us, her first night in the world, but the nurse assured us she'd be asleep anyway, and would never know we weren't there.
Still, I stood on the other side of the glass and watched her for most of the night. If she opened her eyes, I wanted her to see that someone was there; if the monitor failed, I wanted to be there to back it up.
I watched her sleep, and breathe; I counted the seconds between inhalations and exhalations. Once, later in the night, she stopped a second time—I was counting, with increasing concern, eight, nine, 10, as Mary Katherine stirred, increasingly uncomfortable—and by 11 I was rushing back to the nurses, though by the time we returned, she was breathing easily again.
The nurse unstrapped the monitor, examined it, recalibrated it, and tested it against the side of the bed; when it had been motionless for 10 seconds, it began to beep.
I can't remember what the nurse said, or how she explained it, though she did allow that sometimes the monitors weren't always perfect.
Bleary-eyed, I watched for the rest of the night. Mary Katherine kept breathing, and the monitor never beeped. The nurses were just across the hallway, but what was one night of lost sleep to me, in the grand scheme of things, and her very first night, at that?
What I think I felt, that next day, was a newness of responsibility: an utter and concrete reminder that I was no longer the most important person in the world—that, in fact, I was nothing, and she was everything.
How such knowledge saves a person, I can't quite be sure, but I felt rescued, felt as if I had passed completely through that thin curtain and into some finer land where the self dissolved, and another was born. I still feel that way, anytime I look at either of my daughters, Mary Katherine or her younger sister, Lowry, and I know that other parents feel that same way—I have heard them speak of it, had in fact heard such things even before I became a parent myself, though in those earlier days, such discussions had held no meaning for me, possessing the quality of sound of a radio playing faintly in another room, with the language of the radio's music identifiable, but with the individual words, and their message, indistinguishable.