Remembering to breathe

And then, while I struggled with outside ugliness, my own uneasy comforts and the question of how to help evacuees coming to Reno, I was handed eight pounds of absolute beauty and perfection in my lap, wrapped in a warm blanket.

“Fresh out of the oven,” the nurse at Washoe Medical Center declared.

Thus arrived Lilia Marie, her thick eyelids glued together in slumber, unaware of the state of the planet. Tiny specks of white rode the pores of her nose and, just a dip of skin away, her upper lip, narrow and dark red, formed an upper-case “M.” The letter framed a nickel-sized circle of open mouth.

Was she breathing? I held my forefinger to her mouth and then her nose. She exhaled warm moist air.

What’s it like to learn to breathe? Do you remember?

I wanted to see her eyes.

Lilia was born in Reno on Aug. 30, the day the levees broke in Louisiana, some 2,437 miles away. She didn’t inhale until the doctor scolded her with a “Breathe, damn it!” Then she was whisked away into the clean, dry Reno nursery where she was poked with needles and bathed.

She was fine. Her dark hair dried into a pointy mohawk that her 20-year-old daddy, my son, called “tight.”

“You are a punk rock baby,” he told Lilia. “Just need some hair gel.”

“I can’t believe she’s really here,” Lilia’s mommy, 19, said, waxing philosophic. “It’s so empowering for a woman, having a baby … and making food with your body.”

Nine months ago, the young woman had weighed about 97 pounds. By summer, her body had swelled to what must have felt like the size of the Goodyear dirigible.

We talked to Baby in utero. Hands pressed over the taut skin of mommy’s tummy, we felt submerged calisthenics, elbows and knees akimbo. Then she emerged, eye pinched shut and quiet, a Lilia indeed. We were thoroughly in love.

“She looks like her daddy,” said Mommy.

“She looks like her mommy,” I said.

She looks like a newborn.

Nurse Lori arrived to check the baby’s blood sugar. Lilia was not alert and not exactly ravenous. Her blood sugar was low.

I felt low-grade panic but didn’t let it show.

The nurse fed Lilia with a syringe, jiggling the infant and stroking her face to keep her awake. Lilia sucked up some formula.

“Like a bird, or a baby kitten,” mommy crooned. “Aren’t you, peanut?”

The baby was sleeping again.

Some moments lend themselves to the epiphany that life is fragile. That humans are but frail consumers and excretors, relying on the care and kindness of loved ones and, often enough, strangers.

As emergency workers pulled bodies out of the Louisiana mud last week, our nation worked through anger and questions. I couldn’t stop thinking of the moms I’ve read about: The woman who lost her 18-month-old but refused to cry in front of her surviving children. The woman who waited hours to buy a can of formula for her 6-month-old, who hadn’t eaten in two days. The elderly mom whose son urged her to wait, wait four days for rescuers to get her out of her nursing home. The rescuers didn’t make it in time. She drowned.

The stories were dark for us, for America, land of plenty. The world shifted on its axis.

In a sterile Reno hospital room, the new mommy was instructed to nurse Lilia every two hours.

The nurse swaddled the drowsy baby loosely and placed the tiny girl in my arms.

“Is this your first grandchild?” she asked, and I nodded.

Lilia scrunched her face, wrinkling her brow and tiny nose, pursing her lips. She sneezed, and then, joys of joys, she opened her dark eyes.