Have you ever noticed how often we use words associated with death and dying when we describe how babies sleep? Dead asleep, dead to the world, sleeping like an angel, out like a light, in another place, dead weight, gone, out to it, passed out. People sometimes say these things when describing Elijah sleeping. Then they realise and look at me with momentary horror as they register the meaning of their words. It’s okay. It doesn’t worry me too much. But there is a reason we use those descriptors. The space between a baby sleeping and a baby never waking is narrow. Narrow in a way that terrifies me.
When Elijah is deeply asleep, his body still and his breathing almost undectably shallow, I panic. I place my hand against his stomach until I feel sure that he is okay. Even though I know what a baby without breath looks like, I am still terrified. That moment that severs them from life is instant in most SIDS cases. One moment of this earth and the next beyond it. I imagine two lines branching out from single one. Two lines travelling in very different directions, but at their origin, separated by only the slightest of degrees. When Elijah is deeply asleep, it’s not a stretch to imagine him taking the darker of those two paths.
I used to say “babies bounce” and be part of the confident parenting brigade that espoused the deceptive toughness of newborns. It’s conventional parental wisdom – you are afraid of breaking your firstborn and treat them like china. You realise that they are tougher than they seem and relax on your second. And it’s true – babies survive so much. It’s hard to hear tales of babies surviving starvation, abuse, tragic accidents and medical difficulties when your own baby couldn’t even survive a nap. I love a miracle story as much as the next person, but there will always be that lingering thought “where was my miracle?” Why was Xavier the antithesis of a miracle? He had a 999 in 1000 chance of living and he did not.
When my first son, Isaac, was born I expected to feel an immense love. I had read enough to know that would happen. I was surprised by the ferocity of that love. That feeling that I would not only take a bullet for my son, but that I would have no problem pulling the trigger if I needed to, to protect him. That there was absolutely nothing I would not do for him. A lioness with her cub. When Xavier was stolen by SIDS, I had no chance to fight for Xavier. We were given a day in hospital, which is so much more than so many SIDS families, but it was immediately clear that this was a chance to say goodbye. There was to be no fight. There was no rollercoaster of “will he make it or not”. There was just a little life snuffed out. He had no chance to change his world whilst he was a part of it. He was here and then no longer here. The space between those realities too narrow. No space for me to squeeze between and save my son. Two weeks. A sliver of time, too short to seem of consequence. And yet his impact is indelible. He changed lives. Mostly for the better, but now fear is written on my heart.
The chances of Elijah dying are narrow. So close to zero that it would seem impossible. But Xavier fell into that narrow crack, beyond all reason and sense.
As Elijah gets older, the smiles and gurgles more frequent, he feels more of this earth. It feels as though his place is permanent. And every time he wakes again in the morning, the gap between him and the unthinkable narrows.