Just Walk Away

I grab my baby and run outside, screaming for help. No one steps outside when they think there’s trouble. It’s hotter than hell on this shit hole street in Tucson. The neighbors are sitting inside drinking beer, cursing the humidity that’s sucking away the coolness from their rusty swamp coolers. I’m standing on the road, carrying my limp baby, who I am certain is dead. A more sensible mom would call 9-1-1, not scream for help from unknown, unseemly neighbors. And then Ania breathes. And I cry. We return inside the house and I pull out my breast, the cure-all for all misery. I look at my baby and wonder what just happened? We had just finished taking our nightly bath, and then, while putting on Ania’s pjs, she started crying. The crying intensified, transforming into a hellish wailing. I picked Ania up, did the calm-down bobbing up and down step routine, while singing our song: “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone ….” And just like that she was quiet. Too quiet. Blue and limp. And I ran outside, not wanting to be alone with my non-breathing baby. But we were alone, standing outside, me screaming, Ania doing whatever she was doing. I watch her nurse. She looks at me with suspicion, as if I am to blame for this non-breathing fiasco. As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt. I automatically assume all blame. In the past, I must have strived for amorality, or so it seems tonight, because I am riddled with complex guilt. In the past I have done shitty things, yet, I remained guilt-free. I don’t even know how I am so personally responsible for my baby’s passing out, but as her mother, I claim all responsibility. I must have missed some crucial detail, forgot to do that one thing that prevents your child from stopping to breathe. I fucked up somewhere down this maternal road.

As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt.

In six months of living, she has never stopped breathing. At least not that I’ve noticed. Maybe I’m not paying enough attention. We’re never apart; surely I’d know if my baby wasn’t breathing. She sleeps with me, no crib, but now I wonder if crib death could mean sleeping next to mother in a real bed also. I rock my baby back to sleep and rock myself into an obsessive worry, wondering what caused this turning blue, this cessation of breathing. We had just moved into this rental house. For months, we drove around Arizona in my truck, carrying all our belongings with us, housesitting for kind friends who were leaving for extended vacations, kind friends who knew my baby, dog, and I had nowhere to live. No need for baby monitor. No need for painting the baby’s room. We carry everything in the back of the truck. Good intentioned parent friends, friends that know how parenting is supposed to be (and friends I am now tossing onto my asshole list, hopefully on a temporary basis, the same way I’m hoping this streak of poverty is temporary), like to point out that I have been ruining my baby, and I am missing out on all the wonders of having a baby by not living in a house. It wasn’t until I became a single mother that I couldn’t find anyone who would rent to me. As an unemployed student, I could easily find a place to rent. As a mother, I endure endless questions about my bleak financial situation, and no one offers me a lease. It didn’t matter that I had the money for the first month’s rent and the security deposit in my hand. No one trusted that I’d have the money for the second month’s rent. I finally returned to the divey rental houses where I had lived as a grad student. I tried moving into a better house, a safer neighborhood, but I was so relieved to get the key to this dump, this shitty house suddenly seemed to have endless potential. It even had two bedrooms, one bedroom more than the unit I rented next door. A fenced in front and backyard for the dog. Life was good again. I was about to understand the joys of being a parent with a house.

 *     *     *

I look at my baby and know that she didn’t mind traversing across the state, sleeping here and there. I minded. I wanted a house, a mailing address, a phone number, but not Ania. We’d find swimming pools, go on bike rides, and long hikes with our dog. I’d hear Ania cooing away behind me, tugging my hair every now and then, and feel her head flop off to the side as she slept soundly. She had no worries about food or bed. I am her food and bed. She never turned blue when we were house sitters, which sounds so much more uplifting than calling us homeless. When friends saw us arrive at their homes, and then not leave, but linger on as they hinted it was time for bed, I must’ve looked a bit distressed, because they always ended up saying, “Why don’t you guys spend the night?” The dinner guests who never leave. But we’d leave. Other vagabond friends would be leaving the country, and off we’d go to occupy their home. Good friends every one of them. Good friends who knew me when I was childless, and I was like them, taking off here and there. Thirty-three years of just being me. And now I never go anywhere without picking up my baby, heading off somewhere together. Now we have a home. An address. We get WIC, which means I give the neighbor gallons of milk. She has five kids. I have one who only nurses. I look at my baby sleeping soundly and want her to always breathe. We have an entire life to live together. She must breathe. It’s as simple as that. Breathe baby, breathe. We live like real families now. We joined a baby and mom swimming class. I drop her into the water and her feet hit the bottom, then she bobs back up. She floats, doesn’t sink. I stand by the wall and she swims to me. We live like normal people. I’m a parent who cheers my daughter onward. The Parks and Rec folks let us take classes for free. They encourage me to take a class just for me, have a little me time, but I sign us up for crawling classes. “Maybe next time I’ll take a class for me,” I say. No one knows that we are the freebies. We fit in with everyone else, except Ania has no interest in crawling. She’s young for this class. She sits on the mats and laughs. “She’ll crawl one day,” all the parents say to me. “She can swim,” I boast.

*     *     *

I look at my baby and wonder if she has a fatal illness. I want to start researching all the reasons a baby stops breathing, but I don’t want to put her down, and I doubt I have any books with such answers in our house with no belongings. I don’t want to find out bad news. I imagine all the reasons a baby may stop breathing and start crying. For once it’s me crying, not Ania.

 *     *     *

The next morning I call a doctor. I’m so damn relieved we have this address because this address has given us health insurance for Ania. We get right in to see a specialist at the university hospital. They must think this non-breathing is very serious. The first doctor asks me questions, his intern stands beside him, and I wonder when I’ll answer the question that finally reveals how I fucked up. “Home birth? Why?” he grunts. I’m not sure if this is a rhetorical question or the question that determines just how badly I’ve fucked things up. “I liked the midwives.” I sound lame. “Hospitals are safer.” “I had a back-up plan with the local hospital.” “Back-up plan.” He rolls his eyes. The intern looks uncomfortable. I feel like a pathetic mother. “She’s a big baby, incredibly healthy, all things considered,” he mutters. I wait for the bad news. She’s big and healthy, but may be dying. There is no bad news. He tells his intern to take over, pats Ania on the tummy, shakes my hand, and leaves the room. The intern seems embarrassed for me and tries to be uplifting. He takes out his pen, Ania grabs for it. He laughs. She laughs. He continues with his playful doctor activities, then looks at me. “You have a really bright baby.” He’s trying to break the bad news gently. He then hauls out a huge medical book, the book I want to bring home with me, and he flips through pages, while asking me more questions. I start reading over his shoulder. “I’ve got it.” He’s so damn excited to have figured out the root of my daughter’s illness, I’m frightened. “She’s manipulating you.” “What? She’s only six months.” “She’s smart. She’s a breath-holder.” “What? Why?” “She’s manipulating you. I’d bet money on it. She is perfectly fine. We could run CAT scans, do tests, but I’m positive she’s a breath-holder.” “I have insurance. You can run tests.” “There is no test for breath-holders.” “Why would she decide to be a breath-holder?” “Because she can.” “What am I supposed to do?” “Ignore her.” “What if she dies?” “She won’t. Look, “ he says, shoving the book at me. “She’ll start breathing automatically.” I start scanning through the material. “She’ll do this until she’s four?” “Maybe. If you let her.” Let her? “There’s nothing I can do to make her breathe?” “Next time she does this, because trust me there will be another time, I’d bet money on it, just walk away. Make sure she’s in a safe place and walk away. She’ll be fine.” “What am I doing wrong?” “Nothing. Your daughter is a manipulator.” “Don’t say that. She’s just a baby.” I feel betrayed. My daughter deliberately wants to cause me extreme anguish. She wants to manipulate me. I should’ve read those parenting books more closely. Surely there are plenty of chapters on how not to raise your child to be a manipulator. “Lots of babies do this. I bet you she’ll stop doing this before she’s four. Be firm.” “That’s it? She’s fine? Not dying?” “She’s so smart, she’s a master of manipulating you. Be careful. This precious baby knows you more than you know yourself. She knows how to get a reaction out of you.” He starts laughing remembering my story about running out in the street. “I can’t believe you ran outside with her.” “I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” “Nothing else?” He laughs again. I am asshole homebirth mother. “But why would she hold her breath until she passes out?” “Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.” As we ride the bike home, I wonder about all the babies I’ve known, and there have been many, and I can’t think of one baby who was a breath-holder. Not one.

“Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.”

I call the American Red Cross and ask when they’re having their next Infant CPR class. I am having a hard time believing my baby holds her breath until she passes out to manipulate me. I’m relieved she isn’t dying of cancer, or suffering from seizures, or any of the other possible medical disasters that could have been the cause of her passing out, yet, I’m not convinced she will always simply start breathing. I need to prepare for the inevitable. I look at my baby as I nurse her to sleep and wonder what I’m missing that she wants me to know, when she’ll next hold her breath, and why does my daughter want to manipulate me. I’m already a pushover. Manipulation sounds so evil, so cruel. I will teach her words. Millions of words. She will tell me what she wants. I’m so damn idealistic. I think about the doctor’s final words: Just walk away. Before becoming a mother, I was a public school teacher. Parents would say to me, “You don’t understand because you’re not a parent.” At least I didn’t ask the doctor if he was a parent, a parent who could simply walk away. It will happen again. Just walk away. I rehearse my new maternal mantra. It will happen again. Just walk away. Just walk away. Just breathe, baby, breathe.

Payne candidDiane Payne is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas-Monticello. She is the author of Burning Tulips, Freedom’s Just Another Word, and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary journals.