Her legs dangle over the edge of the table, her back curled into a C. The anesthesiologist plunges the catheter into her spine, numbing her lower extremities and silencing contractions turbulent as white caps in a storm.
Pinned to the operating table, she can’t see past the blue sterile shield but hears medical chatter whispered below her waist. The anesthesiologist sits behind her right shoulder, tufts of dark hair struggling to escape his surgical cap. His breath rumbles in her ear. Diagnostic equipment beeps. Overhead lights scorch her face. Her mother, dwarfed in a one-size-fits-all surgical gown and cap, sits by her right cheek, holding her hand.
The medication takes a wrong turn, snakes up to her neckline. Her lungs draw air, but her chest cavity mutes the reciprocal hum of oxygen and CO2 in her blood. She inhales again. No sensation. Waves of panic envelop her into inky darkness. Was her purpose in life like that of a mother octopus, sacrificing herself for the next generation?
The anesthesiologist focuses on vital signs, flow meters, and drip rates—everything but her.
“I can’t feel myself breathing.” But she does feel her voice tremble. Drowning. She focuses on the baby.
“Honey, if you couldn’t breathe you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.” His response like a hand holding her head under water. Forget the Hippocratic oath; what about comfort?
Her mother’s hand surfaces from the depths and she clutches it. As oxygen flows through her numb chest, in her mind she repeats, I’m alive. I’m alive.
Yet the terror of slipping beneath the surface, of dying in childbirth has already lodged itself in a remote corner. Her mind gasps with what ifs.
Until now, a textbook labor. Water broke at home. Contractions started within an hour. Left for the hospital with her mother and sister at three to five minutes apart. Admitted to an alternative birth center—a mock hotel room with double bed and rocking chair—the closest thing to giving birth at home, which she had considered. Dilated to 10 cm in 15 hours, her sister cresting every wave with her. Then she began pushing. For two hours she mobilized muscles she never knew she had, until a lip formed on her cervix. With every push the swelling increased. The baby was stubbornly wedged in place.
The swelling, the baby’s position, and her small pelvis prompted the consulting OB to order a cesarean. Her body shuddered from the cacophony of contractions as nameless faces wheeled her into a cold, vacuous operating room.
Snuggled in her womb, the baby’s lungs are filled with fluid. At birth, a physiologic miracle occurs. Oxygen enters the body for the first time and her daughter’s lungs expand like a lotus flower in a pond. The doctor lifts all 7 lbs. 2 oz of the squawking girl above the sterile screen. Pink and perfect except for a slightly misshapen head from relentless pressing against the cervix. The nurse swaddles her tight, presents her, and then whisks her off to the incubator.
At home in the house by the beach, her daughter stirs every two hours to nurse. Moon beams polish her baby’s skin, ocean waves whisper her name. Between feedings they sleep side by side. The mother sleeps heavy as stone. Her daughter twitches and sighs—oscillating between purring like a kitten and not seeming to breathe at all.
On her side on her brown corduroy couch, bubbles of anxious heat rise in her chest. Electrifying eels charge through her veins. Breath lodges in the back of her throat. She feels smothered, trapped in dread. Panic rises, with the force of a breath, a contraction, a wave. The fear of dying in the middle of the night—leaving her newborn alone, crying for food—consumes her. She confides in a therapist, other mothers, but the episodes continue to wash ashore, swallowing her up. She can’t contain the flood. Years later, she learns that birth trauma can trigger postpartum panic disorder.
In one of her books, she discovers the term “free floating anxiety.” Day after day, she returns to the page, runs her finger along the three words, repeating them to herself, a tranquilizing mantra.
In search of her lost breath she repeats, “I’m alive I’m alive.”