By Emily Neuman Bauerle
“Do you remember that moment?” Kalie asked me, “Do you remember what you kept saying?”
As social workers in the emergency department, Kalie and my friendship had been birthed out of a shared experience of “How the fuck do you sleep at night?”
We both knew trauma well, too well. We both knew what shock looked like, how the brain and body respond in moments of catastrophe. We both knew because, for a living, we sat with people in their darkest hours. Every day we went to work, we greeted tragedy, illness and death, like a familiar friend.
“You just kept repeating yourself, over and over. Do you remember?” she asked again.
My mind drifted back to earlier that month when I had held a man who had lost his wife to an unimaginable accident. “You’re telling me my wife is dead?” he said, eyes vacant, voice distant, as he held her limp body. “She’s dead? She’s dead? She’s dead? Just, completely, dead?” Over and over he said the words. As if he was telling himself for the first time, each time
Kalie and I, we knew what the textbooks said. We knew about how the brain gets stuck in a loop and cannot get out. We knew that trauma triggered these responses, that it was the body’s way of dealing with something the brain could not quite process. We knew all about it. And in our own ways, by nature of the work we did, we had both experienced our own vicarious trauma and the subsequent shock that resulted.
“Do you remember?” She asked again, and I realized I didn’t know what she was asking about, my mind had been back in the rooms, with all the families. “Do you remember what you said?”
She was there. She remembered.
“The moment you first touched him. The moment you first held him in your arms. Do you remember?”
She was referring to only a few weeks prior when my son had entered the world. I remembered, but my memories felt jumbled. They felt fuzzy and incoherent. Everything felt jumbled, except the struggle. The struggle for him. There had been so much heartache, so much fear and anxiety and unknown during my pregnancy. I remembered those things. I knew those things, I knew them well. I had lived with them. I had held them, held them tightly around myself. And when she asked if I remembered, it all came flooding back. The doctors visits, the tests. The you-will-probably-nevers. The hurt. The sickness. The miraculous pregnancy. The complications. The fear. All of it.
But I knew those weren’t the moments she was asking about. She was asking if I remembered the moment I caught him, slippery with amniotic fluid. Squishy and wet and warm. The moment I caught him and brought him to my chest.
“You made it,” I had sobbed. “You made it. You’re here, you’re here. You’re finally here.”
Like an old record player. Stuck. Stuck in a loop that I could not get out of. Unable to move beyond that thought. That moment. That wonderful, life-changing moment. The moment I saw and fell in love with my son.
“It was like you were in shock.” She said as she recounted what she remembered of my son’s birth.
I was in shock.
Wonderful, beautiful shock.
Mind altering, shock.
I had repeated the same thing over and over, as I held him to my chest. Over and over, I repeated it, just like all the families I had watched as they repeated their disbelief after the most horrific tragedy had occurred.
My brain could not process how such a wonderful thing had happened. It was stuck in the feedback loop. How could it all be perfect in an instant, how could I fall in love in so readily? As quickly as tragedy could steal away life from the patients I worked with everyday? My mind reeled, how could birth and death elicit such similar responses? It was eerie how similar they were; that the mind and body react to life and death in such a parallel way. Eerie how the shock of life is uncomfortably similar to the shock of death.
But as I remembered that moment, the similarity was suddenly healing. It was healing that the brain getting stuck in the feedback loop of shock, could be a beautiful thing. It was healing to know death and life somehow felt familiar with each other–as if one knew where the other was going, and where it had been. It was healing to know they are so close, and yet when we think about them, they are as far apart as two things can be.
“Do you remember?” she asked.
I remembered, I remembered the beautiful, miraculous moment my son was born and I can only hope I never recover from the shock of it.
Emily Neuman Bauerle is a social worker and mother of two young boys. In her spare time (that she doesn’t actually have) she enjoys exploring mountains, writing essays about life as a social worker and mother, and reading books about happy things.