Moans swell between Mike’s erratic snores and the flash of the red digital bars reconfiguring time . . .
How many times had I already been up? At her bassinet two steps from our bed? Pressing my head beside hers, counting breaths . . .
“She’s okay,” Mike said reaching over to calm me. “That’s a normal cry. Probably gas…” I wanted to believe that was true, that everything was normal, but nothing was normal back then.
Not after the night Maddy, six months, cherubic and curly-haired and ruby-cheeked, cooing and giggling (while I filled the tub and Anna danced naked up and down the hallway to James Brown: “Give It Up or Turn It Loose”) interrupted our bedtime ritual with the first moan, followed by the cry and when I turned to see . . . found her slumped in her baby seat. Eyes closed, head bobbed sideways.
“What happened?” I yelled to Anna, near the window, strumming air guitar.
I kneeled down and lifted Maddy in my arms, a deflated heft of tissue with no essence. Where did she go? How had she slipped away without me knowing? How could I have let that happen? Was she dead? I screamed and Anna screamed and we ran up and down the halls. . . . What do to? Find the phone . . . the phone cradle was bare. Where was the goddamned phone? Who left me in charge? Somehow we found the stairs and raced down and I called the ambulance . . . and the moment the paramedic arrived, Maddy filled my arms with her willful self, crying, crying and Anna and I were both still crying and the guy said, “Who has the problem?”
“Probably the flu,” he said after examining her, taking her vitals, eliciting a smile.
“No,” I said. “She was listless in my arms. I know flu. This was not the flu.”
“If you want to go in, that’s fine with us,” he said, reluctantly leading us to the ambulance.
At the hospital, in the ER, the pediatrician on call said the same thing. “Flu,” and shook his head, looking annoyed.
“She stopped breathing!” I said, shaking, the words restoring her dead weight.
I glanced at Mike, hoping he would support me, but he’d been up for 32 hours straight and had to leave a ruptured aortic aneurysm — for this. Serving humanity was sucking the humanity out of him. He stood.
“Could it be the food I gave her? She had her first food tonight, the pediatrician said I should start her on solids and I made her a little rice cereal, mixed with soy milk . . .”
“Rice? Babies are never allergic to rice,” he said and glanced at his watch and scribbled something in the chart and walked out the door.
“Grab that chart,” I said to Mike as we left the examining room. Hysterical mother it said.
How do you measure days punctuated by moans and cries and limp resignation, me waking Mike night after night to say, “What’s wrong? What should we do?” And when he couldn’t answer, realizing, in the back of my mind, that I’d believed being married to a doctor would keep all of us safe. Believed it until I couldn’t. Her symptoms baffled everyone, in the emergency room and overnight in the hospital, where Maddy was tested for every kind of disorder imaginable. Obscure enzymatic and endocrine disorders that affect only 1% of the population and would shorten her lifespan. Not to mention she wasn’t “thriving,” my plump baby growing frail. I kept asking, what about food? Could she be allergic? And all the doctors, including my pediatrician (who said he didn’t really believe much in food allergies), shook their heads. “We’re not sure. We have to wait to and see,” they said. Wait? Are you kidding? The world made no sense without her in it. The little pink high tops I’d bought her hadn’t even been on her feet. She hadn’t taken her first step. Wait? I could not breathe without her breathing, too.
After that frustrating night in the hospital, released with no answers, I stormed the medical library and checked out every book on food allergies I could find. I discovered that food allergies are very difficult to diagnose, that the only way to diagnose food allergies is to keep a detailed food log and there was a two percent chance she was allergic to rice, the food my pediatrician said she couldn’t be allergic to, the food I’d been feeding her, thinking it couldn’t possibly be making her sick. In a footnote I learned that her lifelessness had likely been caused by an anaphylactic reaction in her bowel. That explained everything. I was ecstatic. Overjoyed. Now that I knew what the problem was, I could protect her . . .
Over the next several months I stripped both of our diets (because I was still nursing her) down to oats, potatoes, carrots and apple juice. Her symptoms gradually disappeared.
Then one evening when she was gnawing on an oat teething bar that I’d bought at the health food store, I heard the moan, the cry and watched her go limp. I felt crazy. I was sure oats were okay. I’d tested them and she’d had these biscuits before. I picked her up and raced through the house wondering, wondering, maybe the doctors were right. Maybe this was some other strange condition for which there was no cure. Maybe I was the hysterical mother. Maybe I had Munchausen by Proxy and should be committed. I clutched the phone between my shoulder and my ear as Maddy started to cry and called information for the biscuit company in California.
“Are there any ingredients you haven’t listed on your package?”
“You need to tell me,” I said. “I have to know if there’s a chance you missed something.”
Throat clearing and some crackly noises on the phone line.
“I have a sick baby here . . . I won’t sue . . . I promise . . . please help me . . .”
“Well, um . . . we did just change packaging and there is a slight chance you ended up with the rice-based biscuit.”
“Really? Really? Oh my God, thank you thank you thank you,” I said and started crying, crying because now I was certain, I had figured it out, proved the doctors wrong, could keep her alive, go on living . . .
I bolt upright. “Is she okay?”
Mike grabs my arm. “You’re dreaming . . . about Maddy.”
I open my eyes, the red bars flashing 2:38 and am so relieved to remember: Maddy’s 15, she never had another episode after the teething biscuit, she outgrew the worst of her allergies years ago, she’s healthy and I’m just having a bad dream. I tuck back into myself, the comfort of shaking off an unfounded fear snuffed when my hand brushes my right breast, bound and puffy and sore and reminding me, I’ve just had surgery and will receive my results today. I run through the research I’ve done on my own behalf in my head. Worst case scenario: the cancer has metastasized and late-stage breast cancer in a woman my age is vicious. Best: I have an early stage non-invasive cancer that may or may not recur. The catch is, once a cell has mutated, the damage has been done long ago, the body’s built-in self-protective system has failed. I have failed myself. No textbook, no research, no footnote can alter the fact that my body let cancer sneak its devious cruel-ass self in. Eventually, I drift back to sleep, dream that someone is at the medical library, that the doctors are wrong, that I have an allergy, too, an allergy to my diagnosis and all I have to do is eliminate it from my diet . . . and I’m tumbling, tumbling back to that night, filling the tub, listening to Maddy coo, telling Anna to turn up the music, to dance, to dance, to laugh, drown out all the irrevocable things that are going to happen, that we have no way of predicting or preventing . . . the moan, that dreaded mournful moan. I shoot up with a start. “Is she okay? Is she okay?” Mike grabs my hand and says, “You’re dreaming again.”
Yes, I’m dreaming. But the moan is mine.