By Amy MacKinnon
Nine days after giving birth to my first child, I died.
That morning my husband woke to the sound of my teeth chattering and whole shuddering. Don’t worry, I said, it’s just my body finding its way back. Moments later, while I lay in bed nursing our daughter, a rag between my teeth to ease those first excruciating moments as she latched on, my husband called the Boston hospital we’d left only a week before. Never mind the ER, a nurse said, bring her back to the maternity ward.
But we were deep in a February frost with layers of snow and ice covering everything. There was the wind chill factor to consider and our baby’s tender skin. I refused to take her out into New England’s unforgiving winter. My husband wouldn’t listen. He dressed her while I protested, buckled her into the infant seat while I cursed him, he took her to the car, knowing I’d follow. I’d follow her anywhere.
At the hospital, a nurse banded my wrist and my baby’s; brought in a bassinet for her and settled me in a bed; she took my temperature and blood pressure, and averted her gaze when I complained about my husband’s ridiculous anxiety. Everything appears fine, she said, heading for the door, a doctor will be in soon to examine you. I glared at him to emphasize her point.
We waited mostly in silence as the hours passed one into the next, until my daughter needed to be fed again and my husband welcomed the chance to escape for lunch. He kissed us both goodbye. I don’t recall returning the kiss; I’d like to say I did. Once he was gone, I slipped my nipple into my baby’s mouth, overcome by the flush that ran along her plump cheek, the smell of her neck, the potency of my milk flowing from me into her. I loved her.
She fell asleep in my arms. Though I rarely used the cradle at home, this time, this one time, I placed her in the bassinet the nurse brought earlier. Moments after I settled myself back in the hospital bed, a terrific heat overcame me. It started at my core and rushed to my head. A doctor, a woman, walked in reading my chart. She was all business standing beside me like that. What brings you here today?
I became aware of the river then, inky blackness that swelled from beneath and rushed to swallow me. It roared in my ears and blocked my peripheral vision. I arched my neck to keep my face above the surface, reaching my hand out of the murk to grab hold of the doctor’s wrist. Save me.
For I moment, I floated underwater, lingering there. In the distance, above the surface, came the sound of muffled voices, the doctor’s among them: I need help in here! The last I felt of my body, it was convulsing wildly, a fever raging within it, rolling one seizure into the next. And then I was whisked downstream and away.
While doctors told my husband that it didn’t look good, that if I survived, I may be left brain damaged, I floated in the river, bathed in luxurious waters. Nothing had ever felt so good.
As my husband phoned my parents, choking when he told them I lay in a drug induced coma, that a machine now breathed for me, I tried to make sense of the familiar voices that swirled about– was that my Nana? I was perfectly content.
Everything was calm, everything was right. Almost. I thought of my daughter, a person I’d met just days before. How had this little person, someone I barely knew, but knew better than any other, how had she become everything? I couldn’t leave her. I wouldn’t. She needed me, but I needed her more.
I raised my arms and pushed back against the current. The woman who’d been with me, the one I’ve come to think was my grandmother, became euphoric. I felt her cup my head and then take it away again. She left me as I struggled to swim back. Alone, I kicked my legs and swept my arms in ever widening arcs. The effort was enormous.
Nearing the surface, I became aware of pain again and the need to breathe. I gulped and gulped for air, but none came. Finally, I opened my eyes and a nurse was instantly by my side. Eleven days after my daughter’s birth, I was reborn. My arms and legs were tethered to the bed and a tube snaked down my throat. Soon all were removed and my family was called.
When my husband came, carrying our daughter, I kissed him this time. Passionately, gratefully. He then placed my baby in my arms and I pressed her to me. There are no words.
I knew then and forevermore I would follow her to the ends of the earth and back again. I also knew that even in death, love prevails.