My daughter was born blue. No oxygen. Her cord was pinched in the squeeze before birth just long enough to change her color. She came out and the nurse whisked her away from her mother’s womb, and all I could do was stand there. Only after I heard my daughter scream did I realize I was holding my breath, waiting to hear hers first.
The nurse put her on a table under a heat lamp. She shivered and wailed the way I did more than once by myself in a jail cell. I told her that daddy is here, and she’ll never know what it means to have to go through this alone, this birthing into a place she never asked to be. The nurse took to washing my daughter mechanically, the way one scrubs an object, though I know she was not being unkind. Without thought, my hand would reach out when my daughter writhed, an instinctive desire to remove her from discomfort, to be tender in a way the nurse could not.
I have woken up more than once in a park sticky with sweat only to realize it wasn’t sweat but piss, with nowhere to wash because I had nowhere to live. I know how to take a bath in a drinking fountain, how to cold-cook heroin in the back-cap of a syringe when I don’t have a spoon. I know you can still get high by shooting dope straight into the meat of your calf after your veins have long since collapsed. I know the radiating throb of an abscess buried deep in muscle tissue.
My mother told me I’d see the baby and a mechanism in my brain would fall into place like a needle in its groove on a record. But when I saw her emerge blue from my wife, I didn’t picture her first steps, the color of her hair, cartoon band-aids, dadas and mamas.
My first thoughts were of a sooty spoon and heroin dissolved in water. I thought of fire and genuflection, of kneeling, head bowed, in servitude to something powerful and malicious. Those images came on suddenly, without warning, and part of me never wanted to hold the blue little baby.
At seventeen, I was up all night in a stranger’s apartment snorting coke off the surface of a filthy hand mirror. The sun had just begun to peek ugly and blinding over the top of the buildings across the parking lot. There was no more beer. No weed. No coke, no matter how hard I scraped the glass with the edge of my ID. I asked the guy who lived there if he had any booze tucked away. Anything he’d be willing to share.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a baggy with thirty or so pills like blue Tic-Tacs. He told me if I wanted to come down, just take two—chew one and swallow the other.
I didn’t ask what they were, but I learned later it was Percocet.
If you take Percocet for a few days in a row, then stop, you get sick like having the flu. You feel better if you swallow more but not too much, only if you hold and throttle a delicate balance between too much and not enough.
The nurse held my little pink daughter before me, swaddled in an elephant blanket, and I stared at her as if through water. Wavy and refracting bright bits of something effusive, she was at once bigger and smaller than I had imagined. I expected the nurse to fall to a knee like she was bestowing upon me a reverent item. And didn’t she see the old, white lines over my veins? Didn’t she know that people like me could never deserve something so delicate?
A shot of heroin hits instantly, like standing on a highway and leaning into the front end of an oncoming truck. Only after the vehicle is long gone do you realize your insides have liquefied, that when you stick yourself with a barbed syringe, sludge will seep through the tiny holes in globs, leaving you in a fetid puddle of a person you were once.
The people who get run over seldom want it to happen. They don’t see the truck until after they’ve swallowed shattered teeth, their bodies barely more than sacks of bone fragments.
I saw that truck the moment it crested a hill in the distance, the top of its roof glinting in the sunlight. I could have crawled out of the way, but I acquiesced without reservation to something dangerous and delicate and holy.
My daughter is two and a half now, and I am teaching her to swim. She’s afraid of the water even though she can see straight through to the bottom. She insists there’s something down there, pointing excitedly like whatever she sees is obvious and I am oblivious. I sometimes pull the goggles down over my eyes and let myself sink below the surface; I watch her wiggle back and forth through the rippling water, worrying her little hands, soundlessly mouthing words in broken toddler English. I wait down there because she will see that I am okay. There is no reason to be so afraid. And when I come back up, she releases this gusty, hyperventilated laugh like she was waiting to breathe. I put my arms out and say, “Jump, sweetie. I’ve got you,” even though I still wonder if that’s entirely true.
Because I still know that when you slam too much heroin, your body shuts down. No breath. You turn blue.
Someday, when she’s old enough to understand, I’ll run my fingers through hair as red as her mother’s. I’ll teach her the definition of acquiesce is to accept something without protest. Even if you think you don’t deserve it. Even if it will kill you. Especially if it’s the only good thing you’ve ever done.
It’s like falling asleep.
© Spencer Litman
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Spencer’s interview]