All tangled up

Along with diapers, wipes, and toys that squeak, rattle and sing lullabyes, I pack a tank of portable oxygen in my diaper bag. Attached to the tank is a 7-foot cord. If you follow the plastic cord you will find my 10-month-old son, or rather his nose, stuffed with small, round prongs delivering oxygen to his imperfect lungs.

My son was born at 25 weeks gestation, 3½ months premature. When most pregnant women are starting to blossom, their bellies pushing out on elastic waistbands in a form that proclaims “baby,” my water broke. One week later, I went into labor and delivered.

Now I have a son. Small, athletic, determined and sporting damaged but eager lungs. At 8 months he discovered crawling: threading his oxygen cord under chairs, around table legs and over the rocky boulders of scattered toys, leaving a visible trail of where he’s traveled. This 2-foot-tall mountain climber pulls up to standing on the steep cliff face of the windowsill and gazes out on the dry Rocky Mountains, his oxygen cord trailing behind him like a trusty climbing rope.

One mother-eye relaxes with newspaper and the other is hyper-vigilant and ready to step in at a nanosecond’s notice, extracting him from his heavy, home tank-on-wheels when he’s decided to climb it. When I hear that unmistakable grunt and find him straining to move, his plastic leash taut and unyielding, I pull his cord from the pinching grasp of the rocking chair, pick off the large set of plastic keys it gathers as it sweeps the floor and give him more rope to go his next 7 feet.

This oxygen business is simply a detail of motherhood like “what’s in the diaper?” praying for naps and not being able to remember what uninterrupted sleep actually feels like.

On the day he was discharged from the hospital (his very due date), 101 days after his birth, his primary nurse loaded us up with extra nasal aspirators, syringes for medicine, and sticky tabs to hold the oxygen tubing on his tiny face, while educating us on home oxygen. We learned that if the tank were to fall over or be dropped, the impact could cause the heavy metal gauge to shoot across the room, fast. We would need to listen for leaks, keep flames away and prevent the tanks from heating up, in which case they could explode. The pulse-oximeter (machine to measure his oxygen levels) we hook him up to at night will beep loudly – waking everyone up – if his blood-oxygen saturations drop, but more often just because he’s wiggling. When going to higher altitudes, we will need to turn his oxygen up and at all times watch for signs of him becoming lethargic or turning blue.

It wasn’t long before the oxygen tank and its accessories became a slightly pesky but familiar tag-a-long. It has been with us as he hit all his baby milestones, hissing out its ever-present transparent gas in celebration of each triumph. When he began rolling over, his little body got quickly wrapped in oxygen cord: a double roll around the belly, one around the left leg and a diagonal sash across the whole mess. His dad would come home from work and declare, “You’re !” I’d periodically unroll him free, opening my little gift bound in ribbon. Next was sitting, boring and useless in his opinion, much better to propel oneself —
inchworm style — across the tile floor, lunging for the cat and maxing out the 7-foot cord in an instant. Once officially crawling, we exchanged his original 7-foot cord for our present 25-foot cord. The day the oxygen man brought the 25-foot cord was a grand event in our household; while other moms were delighted with the progress their babies were making with sign language, this was something I could get really excited about.

The pulse-oximeter, as promised, beeps indiscriminately. The unmistakable horn toots haunt us at night and even during the day. Sometimes when awake and nowhere near the machine, we’ll hear the phantom beeps and rush — hearts racing — to check on the baby who is playing contentedly, the machine shut down since he woke up that morning.

At Thursday morning playgroup, populated by full-term babies with magnificent lungs, we show up with our extra diapers, catchall washcloths and the portable tank of oxygen stuffed in diaper bag. The other babies are fascinated with the clear tubing that is attached to my son. How lucky he is to come with a built in toy! They caress the cool, smooth plastic, they chew on it and try to pull it from his face. My son is not bothered by all this fanfare, letting the babies grope as he climbs straight over a fat baby en route to the blocks. There are frequent oxygen cord collisions: my son is heading to the train set and another child is crossing his path to get back to Mom. My boy doubles back and lassos the other kid. Someone cries. The new walkers are a liability: tripping over the cord with cute waddling steps unless a parent — any parent — acts quickly enough to smooth down the tubing or raise it overhead making an oxygen bridge to walk under. Eventually someone is.

Everywhere we go people ask, “When do they say he can get off the oxygen?” The truth is they don’t know anymore than they know why he came so early. And so we are learning to live with “not knowing,” which is not a bad way to live. In the meantime, we hook him up to his backfiring beeping machine at night, try to keep his oxygen cord away from rocking chairs and open flames, and give thanks daily for the two-toothed smile he presents from atop his latest mountain. •

– Rachel Turiel