As cold winter darkness gave way to warmth and light, Rick Bass welcomed his first child. Years later, he's still marveling at the depth of his love, the weight of his responsibility, and the way life renews itself just when you need it most.
Here in Northwest Montana, up near the Canadian border, spring comes in the form of rain, rain on top of snow, weakening the snow, so that as you walk across it, the snow opens up to bare ground with each step. Day and night you can hear the water running just beneath, warmed by the awakening earth. The rain falling through the trees makes a hissing sound as it lands on the slushy ice.
Through it all, the deer are trudging down the trails they've been making all winter long, their hooves compressing the snow into dense hard-packed ice that will remain long after the looser snow has melted away, the latticework of their passage as white as bones cast across the dark floor of the forest. The rain drenches the hanging black moss that they feed upon whenever they can reach it. The moss absorbs the rain until it looks like a woman's long black hair when she has just gotten out of the shower; until it pulls free of the branches and lands on top of the fading-away snow, where the deer hurry over and eat it.
The deer are waiting patiently for something—have been waiting all winter—and so, one winter 17 years ago, were my wife, Elizabeth, and I: for the birth of our daughter Mary Katherine. When she was born (I can barely remember the days and years before, as if they were a form of sleep), she emerged stone-faced, as we all seem to—stone-faced, or snarling—and though we had been up all night, and morning light was coming in through the hospital windows, it appeared to me that she was bathed in a strange sheen, an other-light, not so much reflective as luminous from within. And immediately upon her arrival, her face relaxed, and she smiled a wide, beautiful smile, and slowly brought her hands together—it seemed to be occurring in slow motion—and clasped her fingers, interlocking-style, without a hitch. I knew nothing about babies, but knew enough to be astounded.
Spring was early that year, and when Elizabeth and I brought Mary Katherine home, the ice in the pond beside the cabin we were renting had already opened up, and though the mornings were still below freezing, the Canada geese had already returned. There was a big, wide plate-glass window looking out onto the pond, and when we walked in that morning, bright early morning, the new gold sun was coming right through the window, and a flock of geese came flying up the narrow river valley, honking loudly. We stood there with Mary Katherine in our arms watching and listening as the geese kept coming closer, descending, their braying honks growing ridiculously loud, until it seemed they were in the room with us, or we with them.
It looked as though they were going to keep on coming, right on through the window, but they set their wings into a glide and landed on the pond's surface and coasted up to the window's edge, clucking and grunting and braying, and the ripples from their splashing cast shimmering disks of bronze and yellow across the cabin walls and ceiling, bathing the three of us in rippling pond light, and Mary Katherine just watched and listened, as if it were all the most normal and regular thing in the world....
I think that when you save someone, you become saved. I think something passes between you and the rescued person, something almost entirely unnoticed, as if some thin and perhaps artificial barrier—a gauzy curtain that gives each of us a bit of necessary distance from all others—has been pulled away: as if such distance, believed to exist at the heart of all things, might really exist only in our imaginations.
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.
When we finally got her home and walked into our cabin and saw the sun-gold light shimmering across the ceiling, and when the geese came gliding in, gliding almost into our laps, Mary Katherine tensed with excitement, and then laughed. She had smiled the moment she was born, and now, listening to the goose music, she tensed and laughed. For some reason, some doctors will tell you newborn babies can't laugh; but if a flock of wild geese comes sailing into their life the first moment they enter their new home, they can. Maybe it was a nervous response, a kind of imitative, excited sound—but in my heart I heard it for what I believe it was, laughter.
Last year, spring was a little later in coming. In March, the marsh was still a mottled slab of snow, with just a few standing puddles of water, and the silver-green translucent hues of patches of thinning ice. The sturdier birds returned first—the incredibly powerful ducks and geese, flying across the top of the forest each night, hurrying to fill the spaces created by the snow's departure.
By mid-March, they were pouring in like bats, their unseen wing-whistling heard always at dusk. It was still cold and snowy, but somewhere there was yet another slot of open water, just ahead, just opened, and they were anxious, it seemed, to be the first to reach it. It was easy to imagine that with their fast, strong flights they were pulling back the covers of winter, revealing the black bare earth of spring, and the meadows and marshes that would one day be as brilliantly green as the jeweled feathers on the heads of the mallard drakes.
You can't see any of this, at night, nor into the future. But it's up there, and out there—close enough to hear.
With the life comes the sound. The marsh is cracking, groaning, speaking to the sun, on days when the sun returns.
I've got a tiny old-fashioned wooden sled, really a doll's sled, with little steel runners. Mary Katherine's too large for it, but not yet 13-year-old Lowry. Pulling Lowry on the sled across the crust of vanishing marsh ice, skirting the shallow puddles—each day seems to be the last day, then the last hour, I can do this. How fast it is all beginning to move now. Is this what the more experienced parents meant when they talked about how quickly childhood goes by?
Still, we are always eager for the next day, particularly after the big winter. The trail, the wake, of our fractured ice glints and glitters in the new sun like a path of diamonds, and it seems to me that it is the rasping noise of the steel runners themselves, the tympanic rumbling, that will urge the spring along, as much as the whistle of duck wings at night. So much noise: as if these rasps and rumblings, and even a daughter's delighted laugh, are what will awaken the sleeping season.
Adapted from The Wild Marsh by Rick Bass, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July. Copyright © July 2009. Reprinted by permission.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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