Three Parts Oxygen

Photo by João Barbosa on Unsplash

Part 1:

The clanging of the landline jolted us awake. Him from another deep, effortless sleep. Me from my nightly languishing, in and out of lucidity, in and out of endless to-do lists, in and out of the discomfort of two short-term squatters rollicking inside me.

Wake up! My mother-in-law screamed into the receiver, her normally timid voice unrecognizable in its declarative certainty. Police were banging on her door 1500 miles away in New Mexico. A brush fire had exploded into a behemoth, an invisible bellows breathing unrelenting life into it. A once-in-a-generation event, they would later claim.

Initially indecisive in its direction, the wildfire barreled through the canyon, devouring a maze of juniper and ponderosa, where my husband, as a kid, wandered with his dog, slept under the stars with his best friend, embraced bravery on his mountain bike. Betraying its innocence, the canyon now doubled as a wind tunnel, threatening to swallow his childhood home with his elderly, widowed mother inside.

I heard the slap of frantic footfalls through her breathy gasps, as she grabbed photos, documents, any tangible proof of a life lived there. Confused, unaccustomed to action without hours of pre-pondering, she had to go. Now.

Moments after I hung up, tucked into my own bed five states away in Seattle, a burning ache gnawed at my swollen midsection. Twin babies, wedged in the well of me, agitated as if gasping for air themselves. I’d read about sympathetic pregnancy; was sympathetic fleeing a thing?

The fire, the phone call, served as precursor: All was not right in my body.

Wake up, I told my husband. We have to go, too.

Part 2:

Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome, the on-call specialist grimaced, foregoing even the illusion of masking pity. Shallow, jagged gulps of air piled up in the back of my throat, unable to keep pace with my intensifying contractions and confusion. My birth plan hadn’t included carrying a syndrome, bearing three lifetimes of complication, risk, heartbreak.

Wake up! A spontaneous malfunction, a code-blue kink in my body, was squeezing the life from this pregnancy. Fourteen weeks before my due date. The specialist presented me with this maddening enigma: Two babies, developing normally. Until one day, the shared placenta diverts all its life force to Baby B, suffocating Baby A.

A will die without oxygen.

B will die without A.

If we deliver A and B too early, their tiny lungs alone cannot carry them.

Was I C? Unable to solve this equation, my breath took over.

Maybe it was the magnesium sulfate drip-drip-dripping into my veins, scrambling my brain as it shocked my uterus into stillness. Maybe it was the haunting loneliness between the beep-beep-beeping of so many machines. Maybe it was the raft of needles jam-jam-jammed into my belly, piercing the delicate membrane holding us all together. But for every moment of the next 49 days, I crowned myself sole producer, controlling the outcome from the console of my breath.

Inhale the good, exhale the bad. Cocooned in scratchy hospital blankets, under the glow of antiseptic fluorescence, I repeated this mantra, whispering it into the swirl of breath. In and out, touch and go, I laid, for seven weeks, visualizing two precarious little forms coming into alignment. Time passed, like the time-lapse opening of a flower in a nature documentary. Two tiny brains expanding to normal size. Wisps of arms, lengthening into delicate fingers, pop, pop, pop, powerful and perfect enough to wrap around mine one day, soon. But not too soon.

Part 3:

My two towering sons are leaving today. Lungs once the size of my fingernail strengthened over time—denying, defying the platter of preemie worst-case scenarios served to us in the brittle beginning. A beginning encased in clear plastic bassinets with a messy trail of tubes and wires and pumps taking over, powering their breath.

Wake up! Today, my grown boys are heading far-away east, off to college, away from me. Across a world on fire. Turns out, not so once-in-a-generation.

Rather, the unwieldy path of wildfire had exploded into an annual season in the Pacific Northwest, singeing, scarring the landscape of their childhoods. Summer trips to the lake cut short as flames crept closer. Thick stubborn smoke strangling out soccer games and track meets. A harrowing evacuation from a backpacking trip, first by boat, then rickety school bus, over logging roads, across the Canadian border.

In the driveway this morning, the sky hangs heavy all around us, flecked with tiny particles of ash. Ash from as far away as Canada and California. Ash that coats our tongues as we whisper goodbyes, dusts our bare arms as we embrace in the August heat, stows away in our hair and lungs for days. We gag on the smell of campfire—an aroma that once invoked amber-lit smiles, gooey with s’mores.

Loaded up, ready to go. My boys pull away in the energy-efficient car we bought twenty years ago in the quaint hope that a hybrid could plug the hole in our planet and our politics. Rounding the corner at the end of our block, the brake lights disappear into a murky orange-brown soup. All the coming-of-age metaphors about paths and possibilities and potential, choked off. I strain to hold back tears; the requisite gulps of air that accompany a big cry, too great a risk. My body seals the sadness inside.

Wake up! A couple hundred miles from now, my sons will cross the mighty Columbia River, but thick smoke will shroud the awe of its expanse. They won’t roll down the car windows to gasp at the majesty, taste the transcendence of the Tetons, now cloaked in a hazy sludge. The horizon obscured, poisoned by the smoldering embers of a lost imagination. What does the road ahead look like for a generation unable to breathe the delicious rapture of trees and rivers and sky, unable to see all we have erased?

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