The Never-Ending Nightmare of Watching My Son Stop Breathing

The world acted like everything was fine. I knew it wouldn’t be.

Photo: Antonio Iacobelli/Getty Images

Here’s what happened: Almost eight years ago you brought your newborn son home. A day later, he stopped breathing for 30 seconds that felt like 10 years. He turned blue. You repeated the CPR directions from the 911 operator to your wife while she breathed life into his lungs. The color came back. Briefly.

He turned blue three more times that day in the ICU. You spent the night with him by yourself while your wife recovered from labor and the nurse came in and drew blood from his foot every 45 minutes. He cried and held your finger like he wanted you to save him from the agony. You couldn’t. Ten days later, he was released from the hospital. He’s been healthy ever since. To this day, no doctor has really been able to explain exactly what happened.

Here’s what happened next: You never got over it. You played it over and over in your head like a song you hate that pops up in every commercial. You rehashed every moment of your wife’s pregnancy, her 28 hours in labor, every conversation with the prenatal doctor, every question you should have asked the nurses. You retraced every step of taking him home, wondering if you fed him enough or if he was sleepy or sick that first night or if there were any signs. You blamed yourself and only yourself. You realized that your only experience bringing a baby home ends in that child almost dying. You knew no version of being a birth parent other than the one in which your child is blue in the face and everything else is red. You never got over it.

You still cut the grapes for his lunch every day. One time he had a piece of carrot go down the wrong pipe and he coughed and his eyes watered and you think about that and the time he turned blue and the night in the ICU every time you slice grapes the long way.

Here’s what happens after that: You parent like you want to make it up to your child for almost letting him die. You hold your breath every time he runs. When your son gets into bed, you wake up every night and put your hand on his back to make sure he’s breathing. You do this every night for four years. Sometimes your brain tells you that you didn’t check and you wake up in a panic and look for him and check for breathing.

You don’t tell anyone these things. You don’t let them know the trauma you still feel. You don’t tell them how scared you are all the time. They’d make fun of you for babying your child, because that’s not how men are supposed to raise men or whatever. One night when you’re at someone’s house you put your son to bed upstairs and you call yourself from your wife’s phone and put her phone next to him and your phone next to you on speaker so you can hear him breathing while you’re playing spades downstairs.

And you still cut grapes. The experts say that you don’t have to cut grapes for your child after the age of five. You don’t care. You still cut the grapes for his lunch every day. One time he had a piece of carrot go down the wrong pipe and he coughed and his eyes watered and you think about that and the time he turned blue and the night in the ICU every time you slice grapes the long way.

“You’re still cutting grapes?” someone asks, and you want to say “fuck you,” just like you do every time someone tells you that you worry too much or that you should take that trip out of the country without your kids and live a little when you know they haven’t been through what you went through. Instead you laugh and pretend you’re just some dumb dad who doesn’t know what he’s doing: “You’re not supposed to keep cutting them? Word?”

You don’t know when it starts, but one day you wake up and you get rid of your baby monitors. You stop checking his breathing. You sleep through the night. You allow yourself to bring a book to the playground and sit on the bench while he runs and hangs from monkey bars and slides down winding slides. You find some semblance of normalcy. You start sitting in another room while he’s in the bathtub. You feel… normal.

Then, a pandemic.

Now death and emergency room visits and reports of people not being able to breathe and their lungs failing and families having to give them CPR and all you see and you think about is your wife and kids turning blue and you see it all again. You’re a journalist so you see it all coming before the rest of your family does. You keep your kids out of school a week before they close. You cancel summer plans while NBA games are still happening in arenas. You keep your family at home while people treat you like a Y2K conspirator. Everyone wonders why you’re overreacting. They wonder why you won’t let your family visit. Your family wonders why they can’t go places they used to go.

You’re too embarrassed to tell them that you’re still not over something that happened almost a decade ago. Instead, when they question you, you just get frustrated. You can’t let them know that you’re scared. You have to be strong during the end of the world. Like a man. Your wife knows, though, because she’s woken you up out of your nightmares. You need to say something to the kids so they’ll understand, she says.

So you tell them everything. You tell them that you almost lost one of them and you can’t come close to that again and you know it hurts them that they can’t see their family and friends but you just can’t lose them or come close again and people aren’t wearing fucking masks and the president won’t do anything and people will die and those people can’t be the people you care about the most.

After you’re done talking your son is in the corner of his room hovering over his toy box and he starts crying and you wonder if you should have just kept your mouth shut. You don’t even realize that he was paying attention. You were hoping he wasn’t. You try to make him feel better so you say that you know he misses his family and his cousins and wants to play and you’re sorry. He wipes his tears and jumps on you, his arms squeezing your neck for dear life, and he says, “it’s not that… it’s just that… that was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard you say.” You wonder if you deserve a family like this.

You and your son share a desk now. He sits in his class on Zoom while you write and teach and you fantasize about strangling Pharrell for every time his teacher plays “Happy” for the kids to dance to so they can wake up and get their wiggles out or whatever it’s called. You’ve all stayed home and watched friends at parties and people close to you tell you to live a little and that this is just the flu. You drive around and see the crab shack by your house filled to capacity and cars in the bowling alley parking lot and Brian Kemp refuse to require masks in a state that was shut down for four weeks in the spring before restaurants and bars and goddamn gyms reopened and you feel like you’re being forced into a simulation watching everyone around you and on Instagram believing that things don’t happen that turn babies blue and that you’re crazy for keeping your family safe.

You’re trapped. A prisoner of a memory you can’t shake. A warden in your own home. A family that wants freedom but can’t release itself from the chain gang of incompetence and cruelty of a morally crippled nation. You take walks and play tennis and go to the dog park and sit outside and have those awkward conversations with people about wearing masks around you and being diligent and you try. You really do. And no matter how safe you feel, the nightmares return. The blue baby. The breathing. Breathe.

This is what it feels like when the world is ending after your world almost ended.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

Sign up for Minority Report

By LEVEL

A weekly newsletter that dives into cultural news in need of a strong opinion. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store