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A son’s seizure, and a mother changed forever

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Imagine it’s 4 a.m. and you hear something ramming down your front door.

No, that’s not it — it’s not the door. Your mind spins quick stories to explain the noise that has broken into your sleep. Has your dog somehow gotten into the bathroom and jumped into the shower, knocking over shampoo bottles and causing an unholy ruckus? You sit up, blinking in the dark, and say, “The door … ? The dog … ?” You can’t make sense of the loud banging. The washing machine thumping off-balance with too many wet towels? No, it’s not a machine sound, you start to realize as the rest of your senses catch up. It’s a live sound. A personal sound.

Your spouse, also newly awake and confused, gets up and stumbles slowly, curiously, from the bedroom to the hall. Then his step abruptly changes.

He runs down the hall. You hear him yell a name, like a breath knocked out of his body by a punch. And then you jerk your legs from the blankets, and you run, too.

It is not a battering ram. It’s not the dog. It’s not a shampoo avalanche or a laundry overload. It is your son.

I should say: It is my son. I’m sorry. I’ll take over the memory now. Just witness it with me, please.

It is my son. My first baby. He is not really a baby. He is about four-fifths of the way toward full-grown. He still goes to school and packs a snack, but he is also learning to drive. He’s into environmental science. Point to any cloud and he can tell you what sort of weather it harbingers. He loves water — rivers, lakes, oceans — and has recently learned how to take apart the outboard motor of a boat and put it back together. If you saw his shape from afar, you would say, “There is a man.” He has reached the age where he outgrows pants and shirts every three months or so. He is a teenager, which is half child and half brand-new adult and 100 percent fool who forgets to close the refrigerator after taking out the apple juice and drinking most of it. It is my boy on the bathroom floor.

I see his feet first.

“I feel a foot,” my OB/GYN had said at my checkup when I was 38 weeks pregnant. It’s called footling breech when a baby is standing upright instead of curled up, head down, the way babies are supposed to be positioned before delivery. She tried, briefly, to turn him, pushing on my stomach with her hands, but he stood firm, resolute in his intention to kick his way out, which would have been fine if it didn’t mean he would risk either breaking a limb or being strangled by the umbilical cord on his way. So my doctor scheduled a C-section, cutting him out of my body 10 days before he was due. Better to break me than him.

Now he kicks his feet as if he’s paddling, swimming desperately against some dreamworld riptide. The rest of his body is obscured by John, who kneels over him. I understand that our son’s whole body is lifting off the floor with each kick. That’s the sound I heard, his body slamming against the floor again and again and again.

It’s amazing how much the human mind can do in a second or two, how fast the brain tries to impose order on something that doesn’t make sense. It’s as if there’s someone in my head holding up flash cards, going, Is this it? Is that it? A floor, I know what that is. Feet, I know those. Bath mat, I see. But what is happening?

Then my brain flashes a card from 20 years ago — from my first job as a copywriter, when I wrote informational materials for a children’s hospital. It’s a pamphlet about seizures. What does it say?

Place something soft beneath the childs head.

Do not put any objects in the childs mouth.

Clear the area of anything sharp or hard that could harm the child.

“Put the bath mat under his head,” I say, calmly, quickly, as if I am in charge. John has already slid his hand under our son’s head to absorb the impact. The noise has softened. Now it’s the muffled crack, crack, crack of John’s hand bones between skull and tile.

“Don’t hold him down, but try to keep his arms and legs from hitting the tub so hard,” I say. Who is speaking these words? Who am I? I am not myself. I am a hologram of a nurse, arrived on the scene to dole out instructions.

My son lies where he fell when he began to seize, just two steps into the bathroom when he dropped cold, his head now ricocheting against bathtub, toilet, and floor. His lips are purple, almost blue. He arches his feet involuntarily. Such big feet. He needs new shoes. I need to take him to the shoe store. No. I need to call for help.

I run back to the bedroom to pick up the phone. I see my fingers push the numbers.

The operator is composed, unflappable, just like me, the nurse hologram. She does not rush her words or strike a tone of alarm. We are two calm ladies having a tranquil chat, but while her voice stays even and smooth, mine just barely gives me away, shaking like I’m speaking into the whirring blades of a fan. She wants to know our address. She wants to know cross streets, so she can give the ambulance driver directions. Isn’t there some kind of software that shows her this when the call comes in? This is why I ran back to our bedroom and called from the landline that we never use, that we had installed purely for emergency purposes — because I thought if you called 911 from a landline the operator would know where you were calling from, even if you couldn’t talk. In my imagination, an emergency would leave me unable to speak. In this actual emergency, I am speaking. But the phone’s stupid old-timey spiral cord has me tethered me to a wall down the hall from my son, who cannot speak, who is not conscious at all as his body slams, slams, slams into the floor.

She wants to know how long he has been seizing. A minute, I think? Two? Maybe three. She wants to know about his breathing.

“Is he breathing?” I call out to John. He responds, yes, our son is breathing.

The operator says, “I need to know how fast. Say now every time he takes a breath.”

“Say now when he breathes,” I yell.

Now,” John yells back.

“Now,” I repeat into the phone.

Now.”

“Now.”

“Now.”

“Now.”

I don’t want to interrupt, but I need to know if the ambulance has left yet. Is it coming? Hurry, hurry. Please hurry.

She asks me to go unlock the front door. I need to put down the phone. “Will you stay on the line?” I ask. She says, “Yes, ma’am.” I say, “Yes, ma’am.”

I run downstairs to unlock the door; then John and I switch places. He goes to pick up the phone. I take his place at our son’s side.

The slamming has stopped.

My son stares at the bathtub a few inches from his face. For several seconds he is still, just breathing.

He reaches slowly with one arm for the side of the tub, tries to pull himself from the floor. When he was a toddler, he’d try to pull up to standing during his bath, to splash and dance on his little soft potato feet, and I would say, “No sirree, we sit down in the tub. It’s slippery. You don’t want to fall.”

He pulls on the tub until he is sitting, half-upright on the floor. He tries to get his feet under him, to stand, but I put my arm around his shoulders to hold him there. I know he’s in no shape to get up, and I also know I’m not strong enough to keep him down if he really wants to stand. His legs are longer than mine, more powerful, dark haired. Man legs. I say his name.

He looks from the tub to me and around the room with wild eyes. He is lost. His mouth opens, and he wails.

“Hey, it’s okay, you’re okay,” I say. “Do you know who I am?” This is the question that comes out first. Not What happened? Or Are you okay? Or What hurts? But Do you know who I am?

Tears spill over his eyelids and roll down his cheeks. His mouth is still stretched into wail shape, but now he makes no sound at all. He shakes his head. No.

“I’m Mama. Mama’s here. I’m right here. Do you know who Mama is?”

He shakes his head again, eyes wide, mouth stretched open.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Do you know who you are? Who are you?”

He stares at me, pulling at the tub with one arm and reaching over my shoulder with the other, as if to escape. He winces, and all the muscles in his face tense, as if he has heard a deafeningly loud noise. I repeat the question: “Do you know who you are?”

He shakes his head and the wailing begins again.

“It’s okay. You’re all right. I’ve got you.”

When he was small, he used to do a spot-on impression of a siren. Sometimes I’d hear it in the kitchen or my bedroom and look out the front windows, certain I’d see blue lights flickering past. Wha-ooo, wha-ooo, wha-ooo. He loved to let loose with it in crowded parking lots, watching shoppers with their carts freeze and look around. It sounded so real, he was occasionally called in to do sound effects for school plays. The only person who consistently knew it was him was his little sister. She could tell the difference even from a block away. After he grew and his voice changed, he couldn’t do it anymore.

“How about a hug. Do you want a hug?”

His wail has tapered off. Now it’s just a whimper. He nods.

I wrap my arms around my son’s muscular back. My son, who does not know who I am. Who does not know who he is. Who knows nothing right this second but that his whole battered body hurts and that nothing makes sense and that, yes, he wants a hug. As we wait for help to come, he bows his head to my shoulder and cries, deep hacking sobs.

The emergency medical technician who arrives at my side on the bathroom floor confirms that it appears to have been a seizure. After a brief evaluation, the enormous, bald, kind-eyed man carries my boy down our stairs with the gentleness of a father. He nods toward the side door of the ambulance waiting in our driveway and says, “Ma’am, you can enter that way.” I climb, instead, straight up into the back from the loading door along with the stretcher, and he says, “That works, too.”

When the EMT speaks to my son, he says “we,” as in: “Hey buddy, we’re gonna have some questions now, see how we’re feeling. Can you tell me your name?” My son says something that is not his name but has the right vowel sound— “aahhhhh” — and the man says, “There we go. Now we know who we are, don’t we?”

I understand that my son is coming back, but I still do not fully understand from where.

“All of this is normal,” the man says, meeting my eyes over my son’s stretcher. “In the postictal state, there’s a lot of confusion.”

And there’s the understatement that sums up everything about the days and weeks and months that will follow that morning and — in a backward looping, time-traveling way — the years that preceded it, too.

This is how it feels to constantly try to discern which way I’m leaning as I tiptoe the lines between life and death, hope and despair, laughter and tears. This is the truth of every move I will make and have made as a mother, as a daughter, and as a human soul wearing a human body. It was strangely comforting to hear in that moment, and I find it strangely comforting to repeat even now, when the chaos of that day has settled into my mind alongside other memories:

A lot of confusion — it’s normal.

Mary Laura Philpott is the author of I Miss You When I Blink (2019). This essay is adapted from her new memoir Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives, which will be published on April 12, 2022, by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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