At 4:30 a.m., the respiratory therapist wheeled his apparatus through the open door. The order called for medicated oxygen to be forced into our five-year-old daughter’s lungs. For the treatment to work, the seal of the mask over her mouth and nose would have to be airtight.
“No, thank you,” Maddie murmured as he tried to fix the strap behind her head. She pulled away, and broke the seal again and again. By then, she’d been awake for eighteen hours. A failing lung had made her breathing shallow and rapid. Sleep was all she'd wanted, but strangers kept breaking in, jolting her awake: red strobed light, motion, punctured skin.
The technician grew impatient. Again he held the mask against her skin; again she wriggled free. He straightened his back and let out a breath, which was when my wife snatched the mask from his hand, clambered through the tangle of tubes and wires, and huddled close to her daughter’s body. She drew the mask toward her own face and held it there. She breathed. She smiled. She placed it back upon the air between them. “Please,” she said. "We need to do this.”
My daughter’s eyes were wide with recognition. She nodded. The seal held.
She was not cured overnight. We remained in intensive care for two more weeks, including the ten days and nights she lay intubated beside us, forced asleep as the ventilator breathed. There were, to use the word that doctors do, many interventions to come. But the one my wife performed that morning — the one compelled by love so selfless and savage it cannot help but interpose between life and death — is the one that taught our daughter not to fear.
Earlier that year, my senior class and I had read a Raymond Carver story, about a couple who lose their child in an accident, and, disoriented by distress and misplaced anger, find themselves in a bakery, where the owner, a relative stranger, absorbs their anger and takes them in. He offers them a place to sit, a shared space in which to be still, and a warm loaf of bread. “You have to eat and keep going,” he tells them. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”
And then those same seven seniors from our small school appeared at our door at St. Francis, with a bag of pears, and coffee, and handmade cards.
And all of this comes to me now, intervenes, when something in me wants to wallow only in the wounded part of time, wants to feel that life is made of loss and the fear of losing. It wakes me from my torpor and turns me toward my daughter, reading here on the patio with me, seven years nearly to the day when her lungs were proven clear.
(Painting by Edward Knippers)