On Balance

Published on March 23rd, 2021 | by Danielle LaSusa


Second Breath

I grasp for my daughter’s newborn body as her small weight, dense as a dying star, slides out of reach. Maybe I can still undo it, just go back one tenth of a second to before now. We are suspended in the breathless pause before impact, gray wind pulling my hair and heart wild. The jumper plane that ejected us rises overhead like a lost balloon. The blank vacuum below rushes up.

There is no sound when I scream and startle awake, propped on my elbow, leaning over the bedside cradle before I even open my eyes. I cannot see her body. I will my pupils to find her in the dark. I am a brick dropping into the floor. My lips buzz.

It is our first night home from the hospital. Or maybe it’s the second, or the fourth, or the fourteenth. A frenetic blur of nursing, pumping, shushing to sleep, dreaming while awake. There, she comes into focus, swaddled in fleece, the blue and pink hospital beanie on her soft head.

It is impossible to know how to dress her for the November chill. Blankets may smother her. A public safety announcement in the train car of the New York City subway innocuously informed me of this, back before I had to worry about whether or not I might accidentally kill someone. But it’s cold, and we’ve not figured out the right balance of fabric and space heater to keep her asleep and not slowly suffocating.

She is lying in a FisherPrice Rock N’ Play, a small rocking cradle that my new friend, a nurse and mother of a six-month-old, recommended. Three years from now, the Rock N’ Play will be recalled because its design will be blamed for thirty-two infant deaths, but I don’t know this yet.

I thrust my hand under her nose, which is so small I don’t know if I will be able to feel breath leave it. My fingers are searching antennae, seeking small fluctuations in air flow and temperature. I cannot read the air. I touch her cheek, gently. It is chilled, but still buoyant, still elastic. I do not know what a dead person’s cheek feels like.

She is still. Still as a stopped heart.

A year before, I sat in an ink black meditation pagoda cell on a ten-day silent retreat, sealed in shadowless darkness. The pressure of panic built in my body, filled the cell, clamped onto my skull, and bore down. I fought to breathe, to stay with the crushing strain. An alarm blared through my head, screaming “You’re going to die!” I shook myself free and fled. The dread almost had a face.

And then, mercifully, she snarfles a loud inhale. Breath and tears fill my eyes. I tell myself to exhale, to feel my heart thump, to let the fear blow through me. I don’t yet know that it will remain always, wedged under my lung, in the open cavity left vacant by this small, soft being.

As my breath returns, I roll onto my back, my husband’s heat beside me. He sighs the slow, familiar rhythm of sleep. On the other side is a new sound, familiar and foreign. A second breath. A second body, now making a second set of uneven sleep sounds, not there before.

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About the Author

Danielle LaSusa, Ph.D. is a Philosophical Coach who helps new and expectant moms grapple with the existential crisis of motherhood. She is the creator of The Meaning of Motherhood course, which explores the philosophical depth and complexity of motherhood. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Literary Mama, and on the TEDx stage. Lately, she finds that hikes in the forest with her husband and daughter help bring her home. Find her at www.daniellelasusa.com.

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