when they stop breathing


I am about to share the worst moment of my life with you.

Three years ago my Youngest stopped breathing.

My two girls had fevers that day. It was a Sunday. We had covered the lounge floor with pillows, the girls atop them were watching movies with the Wife on the couch and I was nearby, just outside the patio door. It had been raining off and on that day.

My Wife screamed my name. Twice. Her voice was panicked, a tremor rapidly escalating to a crescendo. I can’t remember my steps into the house, but the scene I came upon was that of my one-year old’s tiny body strung taught among the pillows. I had approached her directly from behind, and her back was arched off the floor, her chin pointed towards the ceiling, and her eyes were white and rolled back. Her face was squared in my direction, as if regarding me but upside down. The image seared itself forever into my consciousness. A moment later her mother scooped her up, and the world lurched. She shouted that Youngest wasn’t breathing. Somehow my phone was in my hand and I was on the line with emergency services, an ambulance was on its way. There was a loud noise coming from somewhere and it took my full concentration to realise that it was Eldest sobbing and screaming simultaneously. Youngest was in her mother’s arms, eyes still white, head lolling from side to side as her mother rocked her. She was calling her name, over and over again. There is nothing that has ever scared me more than the sound of my Wife’s voice, then and there. The sound echoed a soul cracking then breaking, as though she already believed our youngest may be gone. She was desperately trying to call her back from somewhere that we might not be able to reach.

Youngest appeared to be turning blue. Over and over again her mother called her name, as if from the other side of a crowded room. I called the ambulance again in frustration, only to be told they were on their way. Wife told me to go next door. I didn’t even ask why but I ran out the front door. Her cries were easily heard from the street and getting louder. I was on the phone again though I didn’t know how, while at the same time deciphering why I had to get to the neighbours. The realisation hit me that one of them was a nurse and I ran to her door at full tilt. Again there was a voice on the phone and I’d resorted to saying, over and over again, “please just get here, please. Please. Please. Just get here please.” Yes, I’d resorted to begging a phone operator as my last resort. There was no answer at the nurse’s door, but another neighbour stepped out to find out what the ruckus was all about. Ignoring him, I ran back into the house. Surely too much time had passed. It must’ve been at least eight minutes since she’d first called my name. All that was going through my head was that it’d been too long. She’s dead. What next? CPR?

As I stepped back inside my wife said that she thought Youngest was breathing, but barely. She couldn’t get her to stir. Eldest was still crying in a panic and I made for her. I realised that she may be watching her sister die. I picked her up and gave her what comforting words I could. I placed Kiki in her care, and told her that she was to look after the cat and re-positioned her on the couch, facing away from her mother and sister. I’d dialled the emergency number again and the news from the other side was that the paramedic was at our complex gate. I left the house to flag him down. He informed me that the ambulance would be there shortly and he was there to provide what support he could until it arrived.

I will leave the exact narrative here. Youngest had in fact been sucking tiny gasps of air by that time, and while the paramedic took to his equipment and the task at hand, I was looking after Eldest. Initial suspicions had been that she’d had a fever seizure, and after she’d been stabilised we left for the hospital. Later it came to light that our little one had asthma, and at that moment only had access to ten percent of what would be deemed a normal breathing capacity for a child, we were told.

If you’ve read my other blog posts you’ll be aware that she is now a healthy and mischievous little gremlin. Nonetheless the sound of Wife’s voice calling her name still comes to me some nights; the raw despair, tenderness and emotion it contained. I haven’t heard that timbre in her voice before or since, but once is enough.

When you have a family, remember that anything could happen at any time. I’m not advocating neurotic behaviour, but rather preparedness. We thought we were prepared for such eventualities but our shortcomings only came to light with experience.

Over four minutes I had called the Paramedics six times.

It changes you, deep down inside.