“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.”
Stephen King, The Stand
I love this Stephen King quote so much I actually kind of want it to be true (and I think, for some people and certainly for some characters in books, it is). But what struck me about Kate Hopper’s memoir Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood is that almost the entire book dwells in that space of change King describes, the blue mapless place.
At 32 weeks pregnant, Hopper developed pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening condition for both mother and baby. The story is gripping, harrowing even, as Kate first realizes something has gone wrong in her pregnancy, then delivers the baby, Stella, who fights for her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. Kate writes her fear very well, and I found myself flying through the pages, desperate to know what would happen next.
What makes a memoir like Hopper’s so successful are the moments of reflection, moments of humanity that pierce the panic. (Hopper was a friend of mine in graduate school, and I remember her writing always had this quality.) She’s a very self-aware writer; she reveals the times at which people around her act with grace and dignity. She also reveals moments when she wasn’t at her best, as when, sick with preeclampsia and not knowing when or how her baby would be delivered, she tells he mother, “Fuck joy, Mom. Fuck joy.” Her mother is taken aback, as is the nurse, who says, “Well, I didn’t expect that from you.”
Hopper recalls with clarity and honesty the moment she first sees her daughter, and the disappointment of not being washed over with instantaneous, blissful motherly love:
When I open my eyes, I am at Stella’s bedside…When I look down at her, my stomach or my chest — something in my center — tightens. A white ventilator is taped over her mouth, her scrawny legs are splayed like a frog’s, goggles cover her eyes, purple veins track across her skull like a spider web.
I take a deep breath. This cannot be my baby. This is not how it’s supposed to happen.
Throughout the book, Kate’s haunted by a constant awareness that anything could go wrong at any second; she sees families around her fall into that well of grief as she struggles to keep her head above water. One moment her daughter Stella has had a fantastic day; she’s nursed for the first time and seemed content. The next day, she comes down with a serious blood infection.You find yourself right in there with her parents: No, no! Things were going so well.
It would be understandable for Hopper to wall off her experience forever, never think about it again (she points out that parents of preemies often show signs of PTSD, or are considered at high-risk). But what good would that do other people, the ones who’ll experience something similar after you? On the day she, her husband, and their tiny baby are finally able to leave the NICU and head home, Hopper thinks,
I can almost feel this time — these first weeks of her life — float up and vanish into the dark sky outside the window. I’m tempted to let them go. This never happened.
But when I look down at Donny, holding our daughter to his chest, I know I can’t do that. These weeks did exist — for her, for us — and I can’t pretend they didn’t.
* * *
It’s wonderful when Kate and her husband finally get to bring their daughter home from the hospital, but they still have challenges ahead. Now they’re on their own with a still-tiny baby; they’re exhaustedly vigilant night and day to the possibility that something might happen to her. Kate’s history of depression (and a college suicide attempt) haunt her as she spends a winter indoors, her daughter quarantined due to health risks. Stella can’t be taken to the grocery store or a friend’s house; Kate can’t make the requisite dull-eyed schlep-in-sweatpants through Target like we’ve all done with our newborns (right? didn’t you do that too? sweating hormonally into your clothes, praying your baby won’t cry, wondering if it’s OK to buy a doubleshot latte from the Starbucks even though you’re nursing, hating the perky teen girls in the giant signs above the clothing racks… But imagine if you couldn’t even have THAT).
Parents reading Ready for Air can relate to the story in many ways — even if they haven’t had a preemie or a baby in the NICU, you can empathize with the terror. And when Kate gets home in the second half of the book, her experience is similar to many new mothers’, just with everything heightened somewhat due to Stella’s risks. But, oh, the pain and frustration of early nursing, the confinement, the awareness that on some level you will never be the person you were before — we all can relate to that in some way, and Hopper writes with gentleness, humor, and insight.
When the book broadens in its final pages, stepping briefly beyond Stella’s first six months, it’s truly moving. Hopper concludes the book brilliantly, with wisdom and heart, as if to soothe you for all you’ve been through alongside her. The rewards of the bumpy ride feel vast — because they are.
Kate Hopper’s blog, Motherhood and Words
Buy Ready for Air