The Long Awakening

Fourteen years ago, when I was pregnant with my second child, I lapsed into a coma and nearly died. As things took a turn for the worse, my daughter was born after twenty-four weeks’ gestation. Her chances were very small, and mine weren’t too good, either.

As a Renaissance scholar, I know the harsh statistics that women in the 1600s faced with regard to childbirth. One of the earliest memoirists, Elizabeth Joscelin, wrote The Mother’s Legacy to her Vnborn Child — specifically, she was afraid of delivery. The book was published posthumously in 1624; Joscelin died a few days after giving birth to her daughter Theodora. Even so, I never considered that death was a possibility for me.

But pregnancy can be deadly to this day, for both mother and child. Even though maternal death rates remain at historic lows, childbirth still kills hundreds of mothers every year in the U.S. alone.

Lindsey O’Connor’s memoir, The Long Awakening, revolves around the same condition I developed: ARDS, or adult respiratory distress syndrome.

I woke up in a few days, but Lindsey didn’t wake up from her coma for two months.  

When she finally opens her eyes, her husband has a simple question: “Lin, do you remember that you had a baby?” She doesn’t. When she holds her daughter, she wonders when the baby’s mother will come to fetch her. She can’t walk, feed herself, or get out of bed. She can’t read. She was a journalist, but she no longer remembers how to type.

On one side, O’Connor recounts a story we’ve read before: a traumatic, harrowing journey back to health, whether the memoirist is recovering from a coma, a stroke, or cancer. The story, of course, is particular to each person, and yet it’s general in the fear it brings the reader. We remake the memoirist’s personal suffering in our own image.

But the tale in The Long Awakening is not just of O’Connor’s own recovery: it is enmeshed with the story of her daughter, Caroline. When O’Connor wakes without a bond to her daughter, her first response is guilt. Her grief on being discharged from the hospital is not merely that she comes home “old,” as she calls it: shuffling behind a walker, tied to her portage oxygen, nauseated and exhausted. It’s that she cannot take care of her baby, and even more, that she’s not in love with that baby. She hasn’t just lost time and memory: she’s lost her love for her child.

The best memoirs are unflinching in their respect for truth, and O’Connor does not indulge in either an elegiac tone or spiritual blandishments. She does not feel like a “miracle,” as many address her. She didn’t see any angels while in the coma, and she feels peevish when another “miracle” regales audiences of hundreds with stories of seeing heaven. She is irritable, if not outraged, when her skills don’t immediately return — until she finally reads the report that says in black-and-white that she has suffered permanent brain damage.

Nostalgia pervades The Long Awakening, a longing for the time when skills and emotion came easily. The journalist in O’Connor has accurately recorded the ways in which the brain mends and where it doesn’t. The text itself reflects her loss of focus and even vocabulary. To be glad to survive does not mean that one doesn’t mourn what was lost.

This is a memoir with a happy ending, in that O’Connor is a journalist once again, traveling to Thailand, taking care of her daughter, dancing with a new son-in-law. But its darkness also stays with the reader, the sign of an honest– as opposed to a heart-lifting — account. Learning how to handle a fork again is one thing: learning how to fall in love with a child is entirely different.

My daughter Anna is now fourteen: hormonal, irascible, intelligent. She drives me crazy on a regular basis. The Long Awakening reminded me of what I was fortunate enough not to lose: time, love, my child…my life.