jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

The Choking Silence (Just Breathe)

There’s something about our days now that is familiar. It is heavy in a way and light, too. I know where all the things are but I’m tired of putting them there. And there’s a quiet to our lives even amidst the inescapable loudness of the household filled with too many people saying my name. 

It reminds me a little bit of choking. It is like if you are a slow choker, someone whose food eases into a too tight esophagus, squeezing the mound of food tighter and tighter against your windpipe and something expands and something contracts but not in the right proportions. There is a gurgling sound you can hear very clearly and an almost gasping even though it’s not coming from your mouth but like a gas leaking inside of you. 

And your brain is racing, telling you to stay calm and relax, that the muscles can allow the food down. And you start to scroll through who might be able to help, is my husband in the house to perform the Heimlich, a babysitter? Is there a neighbor? Is the garbage man driving by right now? 

And then, still a surprise even with all the apparent warning signs, the food lodges like a cork in a bottle and nothing can come out and nothing can go in and it’s a silence that even as it’s not fully silent around you, inside it is a vacuum of nothing. Your heart keeps beating, thankfully.  But there is an awareness that that won’t last. 

That is what it felt like right after our twins were born. There was noise and chaos, a household with a toddler, me working three-quarter time at a fulfilling and challenging job. And then I went to the doctor’s office carrying my 17-month-old firstborn on one hip, me 7 months pregnant. And the doctor said, “This is happening right now.” Which was unexpected, even though my belly was larger than it had ever been. Still, two months early? 

They put me in a room alone and gave me medicine that made me hallucinate. And then a few days later the real labor pains began and the babies came rolling out of me, silent and wide-eyed. And, inexplicably, breathing. How is it possible? Eventually they sent them home tethered to heart monitors so that I would know when their hearts stopped. And in the deep silent darkness of night shattered by the alarms blaring, I would run into their room yelling, “Breathe!”

That winter they couldn’t get the vaccines  babies need although they did get a monthly shot to prevent RSV, so we would go each month to the pediatrician’s office. I would cover them to shield them from the coughing children and sneezing adults, avert my face to stay healthy. Otherwise we hid away.

You see, one day I’m invincible, surrounded by colleagues and people who respect me and valuable things I do and then a few days later I’m in a not silent house with not silent babies. But still, so silent. I’m done working, never to return to that job of eight years again. No more work, no going out with friends. It was the cork in the bottle, nothing goes out, nothing goes in.

Only months after they came off those heart monitors we moved to a new state, to a neighborless house. My husband had a job, the kind that meant that everyone knew his name and asked his opinion. And I was at home with my three babies, then a fourth. And it was so quiet. It was so very silent except for the voices of the children, their crying, eventually their questions. Therapists for the kids would come in and out and I would pretend those therapists were my friends, and thankfully they would let me. It was a strange time, never ever alone, but also, lonely.

And all throughout it I knew I should be grateful. I was grateful. I was so lucky. I was so much more lucky than so many other people. And yet. 

You see this time now is totally different but the same. We all have times like these in our respective histories, I suspect. Lonely times, sad times, unsure times, or maybe just times when for no apparent reason, the crowd stopped and left us mostly alone, maybe lost, maybe just perfectly still or silently frenetic, a little bit afraid, or a lot.

A childhood neighbor friend called last week, to check on me, on us. 

We talk mostly only when big things happen, marriages, babies, deaths, 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, things that happen to many people even while the personal emotions behind it are singular.

We are both okay, we said. Our childhoods and parallel adolescence prepared us for this, for loss of things and grief, uncertainty. But then again, you can never be prepared. Not for this. Not for anything really.

We all choke on the thing that is too big to swallow. We sit alone in the silence, but this time there is an infinite neighborhood, a world even, of people struggling alone together, too. And so we all calmly move toward the finish line, whatever that looks like, find the friend, therapist or family member. We call our parents or our neighbors. We gesture to one another from a distance with hands that say “I’m choking,” or “Are you choking?” And one of us reaches out, although virtually now, and puts virtual arms around the other. 

I’ve got you.

You’ve got this.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

Take care of yourself. 

You have permission to be where you need to be.

Just breathe damnit, just breathe.

This will pass.

We’ve seen worse, or similar, or maybe not but why should this be the thing that breaks us?

Or just, I love you. 

“I love you more,” my mother always replies each night on the phone.

“I hate when you say that, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you more,” she says again.

“Okay, I’ve got to go do the kids but I’m going to talk to you tomorrow. Stay inside, Mom. I know it’s lonely. Be good. Wear the mask I sewed you or the one Sandie got you but don’t forget to breathe. I love you.”

“I love you more,” she says, hanging up quickly.

And I sigh deeply into the space between us.

8 comments on “The Choking Silence (Just Breathe)

  1. lafriday
    May 1, 2020

    Jen, as always, you are able to define the heartache and the humanity so tenderly. I also HATE the phrase, “I love you more” — as if love is a quantifiable thing to be measured and compared. As a person who lives alone in the deafening silence, I have replayed plenty of similar, yet different, recordings of my own life’s challenges to this shared surreal moment of the collective. I am glad you are all safe. ❤

    • jgroeber
      May 4, 2020

      The I love you more is too much! Can’t stand it.
      And I’m sorry that you’re all alone in the deafening silence right now. Hoping you can write and post and feel the love flow back on you from the islands of support in the world. I always so love your writing.

  2. Kristin
    May 1, 2020

    Beautiful, as always. Spot on, as always. So sad we weren’t at the same place longer…

    • jgroeber
      May 4, 2020

      Right? These spring days seem to especially recall PAS and our beautiful ocean view. (Sigh. What I wouldn’t give to be able to access that ocean view!) Stay well, and hugs for you and yours.

  3. Jul Schofield
    May 3, 2020

    Thanks Jen! Thinking of you and so missing our lax time which should be NOW! Take good care my friend. I always appreciate reading your words… so true and raw!

    • jgroeber
      May 4, 2020

      Missing you and your scrappy girl these days. Stranger still as we head into the best days of the season. Give your brood a hug from me. xo

  4. Emily Groeber
    May 4, 2020

    Beautiful, Jen. Thank you for sharing and reminding us that it helps when we put our joys and struggles in words and share them. We are not alone. Hugs!

    • jgroeber
      May 4, 2020

      Hugs to you! Never alone. (And hopefully Groeber remote reunioning soon? Fingers crossed!)

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