Story cries out in her sleep. This is not uncommon. The cry is usually singular, urgent, distressed. Her face contorts, then settles back into sereneness. I rub her back and wait for the eventual ebb, the customary return to cherubic tranquility. Instead, her wail persists. I scoop her up, still expecting the calm that had marked her sleep, just moments before, to return.
This is one of the acts at which I am beginning to feel efficient: scooping my daughter up before she’s fully awake and rocking or bouncing her back into slumber. My success ratio is one to three; I’m proud of it. She still isn’t as comfortable in my arms as she is in my mother’s. She’s with her for twice as many hours a day as she is with me and has been since she was four weeks old.
But at nearly four months, we’re working ourselves toward a rhythm. I hold her securely now; she no longer squirms and flails until I hand her to her Ganny. Now, as a gesture of burgeoning trust, she wraps her tiny arms around my neck and rears back to take in our surroundings, like my shoulders are the railing on an open-top tour bus.
This is different. Walking makes things worse; she is beside herself, her lungs pushing gusts up through her throat, out of her quavering mouth. Her arms are striking out at air; her body racks with sobs. As is usually the case when she becomes this inconsolable, I sit with her and look at her face for something readable.
This, too, yields me moderate success. A certain sigh or shriek or grimace can be quickly diagnosed: Milk. Comfort. Restlessness. She never cries because of soiled diapers.
I’m still learning her. Tonight, there’s little to discern. She’s reached the point where she doesn’t bother to look at me; she knows I don’t know what to do. This is a moment that immediately follows the stage of the plaintive stare: as I’m trying to read her, she’s trying to convey her level of distress to me. This is a fleeting opportunity, already lost to us tonight. She takes the bottle I offer, but only for three sips. The milk on her tongue lends a gurgling effect to her protests.
I look to my mother with questioning eyes. She tells me that Story is sleepy. She’s frustrated that she’s woken herself up and, by sitting her upright on my knee, she thinks I have no intention of helping her back to sleep. The idea infuriates her. As I watch my mother analyze intensity of the cry, it stops short. My head swivels back to the girl in my arms, and her face is frozen, her mouth agape, her eyes wide and brimming with terror. I turn back to my mom, my own eyes alight in terror.
She closes the space between us in a flash and claps her hand on the baby’s back until she begins to cry again. I’m shaken.
“She’s done that with me before,” Mom says, reassuringly.
I remember her telling me about it. It was weeks ago. I hadn’t thought much of it; by the time I was home from work, any evidence of a breath-halting episode has erased itself from my cooing daughter’s face.
Now, I’m acutely aware of how critical a two-second cessation of shrieking can be.
In my relief at the sound of her hollers, a nervous chuckle slips from my throat. “I don’t like that,” I whispered.
Mom begins to walk her. My panic abates. My chest loosens. As usual, my mother has everything under control. With newly empty arms, I sit in a living room chair, pondering (as I often do) this curious conflation of roles: in many ways, my mother seems mother to us both. In many ways, Story seems more her second-generation daughter than her granddaughter. Mom would disagree with this—and has, whenever I’ve brought it up. Of course Story has an inimitable relationship with me; we’ve been together nine months longer than she’s been with anyone else. But, occasionally, it’s difficult for me to believe this.
Our relationships to one another continually defy my expectations. I knew I’d be inexperienced. I figured she’d be able to sense my situational uncertainty. But I thought we’d be bonded by biological imperative. I thought the nine months might count for more, that my touch and my scent and my voice would compel her to prefer me over anyone, always. Instead, she honors time and presence more than biology. While I’ve been pacing back and forth in college classrooms, pining for her, she’s been nestling and cooing and smiling and sleeping in the soft and warm blanket of my mother’s body.
Of course, I’m grateful for this. Without Mom, Story would spend much of her day with strangers, in a room that smells of disinfectant and damp diapers, listening to the plaintive wails of other infants, bonding to someone I barely knew. But part of me longs for preference, that parlor trick most new mothers have mastered by the fourth month: an immediate, contented silence when she’s passed into my arms.
Story’s still screaming, but this is normal for 7 pm. Her witching hours begin at 5 pm and last until whenever she drifts off for the night, typically between 9 and 10:30 pm. Mom has taken her into the kitchen. She is bouncing her, and I’m waiting. When she’s soothed, we’ll begin the slow work of putting her back to sleep. Dim lighting, a muted and flickering television, perhaps soft hums and whispers, swaying while walking from room to room.
The shrieks intensify. They are shrill and nearing a fever pitch. Then: silence.
“In the name of Jesus!” my mother screams, piercingly.
I rush to the kitchen. Story’s body, rigid and eerily quiet, is tilted toward the floor. Mom is clapping her hand against Story’s back; hollowness echoes.
Two interminable seconds pass before Story’s cries consume the stillness of the apartment. Her face is flushed and terrified. So are ours.
I’m groping for a useful response to this scene.
“Call the pediatrician,” Mom says.
I do, knowing that I’ll have to go through a maddening process of reporting details to an operator, who’ll then hang up and relay them to an on-call nurse. The nurse will call back, repeating the details I’ve already explained, then waiting for me to confirm their accuracy. I worry over the length of this process.
In the darkness of our bedroom, I pace at the foot of the bed and, with sweaty palms, pounding heart, and halting speech, I explain to the woman on the other end of the line that my three-and-a-half-month-old daughter has been crying so hysterically, she’s repeatedly lost her breath.
Tears slide down my cheeks. I’m alarmed at their paucity.
“A nurse should be reporting in nineteen minutes,” she says. “Would you like to speak to someone earlier?”
I stammer. “I’d… like to. Yes.”
“Okay,” she says and I can practically hear the shrug in her voice. “We’ll have someone call you soon.”
Story has stopped breathing twice in less than ten minutes; nineteen seem impossible.
I begin to contemplate 911. If it happens again, I think, even if invoking the name of Jesus and a vigorous slap tot he back still revives her, this is a legitimate emergency. We have no way of knowing if the next time will be the last. We have no idea what’s happening or what’s causing it.
“In the name of Jesus!” Mom cries from the kitchen.
I dart out. The sight’s still the same: Story’s stiffened body tilted downward. Vigorous slaps to the back, her face a frightened mask.
My daughter could be dying. Right now. Right now, as I stare at my mother, who’s managing to keep clutching a thread of composure as she waits for Story’s cry to return.
I don’t believe she’s dying. It is not a belief I can process. I’ve had practice. Long before she was born, there were discussions about whether or not she would live. I decided then that, inasmuch as I had any control over it, she would. I decided that, inasmuch as I didn’t, she would. And she did. And she is. And she will.
“Should I call 911?!” I yell stupidly, over the sound of Story’s freshly restored hollers. Why can’t I just follow instinct? Why do I need a second opinion?
“Yes,” my mother confirms.
I dial. This is the first time in life that I’ve had to.
Dispatch answers; I repeat details: hysteria; silence; no breath. She initiates a three-way call with an emergency responder. He can hear my daughter in the background.
“If she’s crying that loud, it’s a good sign,” he says. “She’s getting enough oxygen. But we’ll send someone out to check her.”
Things settle significantly in the ten or so minutes between the call and the arrival of the EMTs. I talk to the on-call nurse, who tells me that, sometimes babies get hysterical and they can’t catch their breath, but it isn’t serious. “Is there something that you want me to do…?” she asks. I answer no, because I can’t think of a caustic retort.
While I’ve been making calls, Mom has calmed my daughter. Suddenly, I no longer care who she prefers; I’m just glad to have emerged from the depths of dark possibilities.
I think of the future. I think of her as old enough to tell knock-knock jokes and climb into my lap on her own. I think of tea parties featuring confections she’s prepared in her EasyBake oven and whispering secrets by flashlight.
* * *
In subsequent days, we’ll know more. We will know that this may’ve been a breath-holding spell: an involuntary cessation of breath, triggered by anger, frustration, or unpleasant surprise, occurring in less than five percent on all children, possibly recurrent, through age 2, when over 80% of those affected age out of it. We know that, whatever the trigger, the multiple events mostly likely had something to do with her fear at losing her breath and her alarm at being so vigorously revived.
We know now that Story can read our worry. We must mold ourselves masks of tranquility.
Story will be reticent and worried, particularly in the evenings. She will look around, wide-eyed and uncertain; she will calm herself when she feels an escalation in her cry. She’s intuitive; she knows that something critical happened to her and senses it had something to do with her frustration.
But she’s returning to herself. And so are we.