How to…

Alysa Salzberg
Mar 28, 2015 · 4 min read

My labor was easy, and not as long as I’d thought it would be, from the horror stories other people had told me. But after nine hours, my head was a little light; as we got to the end, I couldn’t understand the two midwives who were telling me how to push and breathe in order to let my son into the world. I tried my hardest, but it didn’t help. His heart slowed and they cut me open to save him.

Last night, a little more than two months later. He cries and cries. A crying baby can be a guessing game. Is he hungry? Does he need to be changed? Is it colic again?

This time, he’s over-tired. As his cries evolve into screams, I feel myself slide into a new role, the calm mother. Two things I never expected I’d be when I dreamed about my life years ago. I hold him against my chest, his little head rising angrily on his still-weak neck, roaring at the world over my shoulder. I breathe in deeply, slowly, and exhale. Breathe in deeply, slowly, and exhale. A friend’s* advice that sounded so impossible at the time — just breathe with your child held against you, breathe, and it will soothe him — and yet, it works, as it has a few times before. His head stops wobbling and comes to rest on my shoulder. His angry eyes soften and are covered by lids like thick petals. It took two months, but I’ve finally learned how to breathe.

~

It’s the three-month anniversary of A.’s death. My friend. I’m still realizing how much she meant to me, how much she was a part of my life. She was like a thread in a complex pattern, singled out and unwound away. The pattern is the same, but there are gaps you find in certain moments, and you realize something the rest of the motif depended on isn’t there anymore.

Tonight, her widower has invited us, along with other mutual friends, to a dinner in A.’s honor. It’s strange to go back to her apartment, a place I’d visited for years, and then stopped seeing when her life changed and we started meeting in restaurants instead. Photos of her are everywhere, like traces of that thread, fragments that stayed behind when the rest was pulled out.

I don’t know her widower well. They’d only been married a few months before she died. He’s soft-spoken and shy, things she loved about him. Such a contrast to her brashness. They were a warm and a cool color. At her memorial service, he told me he was still in shock. Tonight that’s apparent: There is laughter — how could there not be, with such nice people present? There are burnt aperitifs that he’s proud of — or maybe oblivious to. It makes me sad; A. was a good cook, and I think she was the one who took care of their meals. Her photos look down from all walls, her yet not her, and I wonder how she would have felt about all this.

Amidst the laughter, A.’s husband decides to put on a video that was shot a few nights before her death. We watch her with him and her family in a faraway country, laughing, happy, a flower in her hair. How could she have died a few nights after? How could she be dead? Her widower makes sweet compliments about her, tosses out recollections with a slight laugh as though this is merely a vacation video and A. is in the kitchen, preparing the main course while he entertains us.

My husband says something about her softly, heard only by the two of us, and tears spring to our eyes — but I don’t let them fall. I don’t know if that’s what’s wanted. All of us watch, some in sidelong glances, others full-on. I wonder what we’re supposed to make of all this. I think that A. herself might see this situation in one of the movies she liked, and she’d laugh, even while appreciating its difficulty. It’s as if her widower— and all of us — need someone to show us how to grieve.

A few weeks later, my husband says something that cuts me. In the dark hallway after he’s gone to bed, I think of what would have happened in my old life. A. and I would meet up at one of our usual restaurants, and I’d tell her what he said, and we’d laugh about it. Now, in the darkness, I start to sob. That thread torn away is like something ripped from my body.

_____________________________________________

I wrote this in early June. So much of it still applies today. A. is very much in my thoughts, especially these past few days, for some reason.

* Anna Herrington (Just Thinking…) made a comment on one of my blog posts on Open Salon about this breathing technique, and it stuck with me. JT, I can’t thank you enough.

Alysa Salzberg

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is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.