Lockdown, Love, and Life-Saving CPR: A Mother’s Day to Remember

Two hands held together to make a heart

I will never forget May 11, 2020; my husband will never remember. 

It was an out-of-body experience. Part of my brain was solely focused on what I needed to do. The other part was watching us from a third-person perspective while our life together flashed before my eyes. 

Stunned, I laced my fingers together, one hand beneath the other, and pushed hard and fast into the center of his chest.

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10

Over and over and over again.

May in Portland, Oregon, is spring’s answer to October in Vermont. After a long winter smothered under the sky’s thick, gray blanket, flowers drip color everywhere. Mother’s Day weekend was gorgeous, 70 degrees with pockets of sun-sprinkled blue sky. 

The mood was only dampened by the fear and uncertainty surrounding the newly declared COVID-19 pandemic and the restlessness brought on by worldwide lockdowns. Still, sunshine in Portland, especially on holidays, is a cause for celebration. 

We are not religious, but Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are high holy days in our house. The tradition began while my husband, Will, was in medical school. We were first-time parents living far from family on student loans with an infant who wouldn’t sleep. And so we wrote into our marriage bylaws: On Mother’s and Father’s Days, the parent of honor is officially absolved of all housekeeping and childcare duties and does anything they choose (within reason). 

With lockdown in full swing, my choices were limited, but we spent a lovely weekend together as a family, reading books and playing outside. Eventually, our two kids, ages 8 and 5, declared a water balloon fight. Will took one for the team by acting as their target. I took pictures which almost turned out to be the last he would ever be in.

waterballoon fight

Later that night, I awoke to the urgent sounds of Will’s agonal breathing. 

I couldn’t wake him up. I put my ear to his chest and didn’t hear a heartbeat. I called 911, and the dispatcher instructed me to begin hands-only CPR immediately.

Stunned, I did as I was told.

I felt the tension of his young, healthy chest cavity as I compressed his ribs, and they sprang back. He turned blue. Then purple.

It began to sink in that I was fighting for his life. 

He made primal, guttural sounds as the compressions pushed air through his vocal cords. I finally realized that he was dying beneath my hands. Our children slept in the next room. 

My mind split in two. 

One part stayed calm and laser-focused on the task at hand. 

That part gave the dispatcher the code to our garage. It told her the cardinal directions to the corner of the house we were in! Finally, it asked her to tell the paramedics to shut the children’s door to spare them the sight of a nightmare they could never unsee. 

The other part of my mind floated above me and watched us in a surreal, out-of-body experience. 

I couldn’t make sense of it. The whole thing seemed so . . . wrong. Even though I wasn’t the one dying, our life flashed before my eyes.

I thought about our college years when we met and how wrong it seemed that the future we had dreamed of would be cut so short. 

I pictured our 20-something selves, full of optimism and big plans for our future together. That image caught in my throat as I imagined what those younger versions of us would think if we had known that it all ended this way, far too soon, too tragic. We had been so happy, so full of hope. 

I wanted to cry for us. 

After college, there was graduate school, medical school, and residency. We worked so hard, delaying gratification for the promise of security later. We spent the prime years of our youth working grueling hours, postponing the enjoyment of life. I wouldn’t have done it that way if I had known the life we had worked for would never come. Why on earth had we not enjoyed our time more?   

We missed weddings, funerals, and babies being born, sacrificing all of it at the altar of medical training. Instead of spending time with family and friends, seeing the world, or enjoying our hobbies, we spent it working toward a future life. 

We were 34 years old, only three years out of training, and paying back student loans. 

We had just closed on our very first house the month before. We had good jobs, side hustles, and a beautiful young family. We were (FINALLY) getting started.

And now this.

Any promise of the life we worked so hard to build was being ripped away under my hands. It felt so unfair, so wrong. If this was how it would end, I wanted a second chance to go back and do it all differently.

I wanted to punch something.

I thought about our children in the room next door. I knew they were about to wake up to a life without a father. Suddenly, jarringly, no chance to say goodbye. 

Tragedy was about to rob them of their childhood innocence and change their lives forever. 

Would our 5-year-old even remember him when she grew up? Would our 8-year-old have to grow up too fast? Would they know how tenderly he had held them as babies? Would they remember the loving way he looked at them or the enthusiastic greetings he gave them when he came home from work? Would they still feel how much he had loved them as they grew up? 

Were those few short years they had with their dad enough to carry him with them for the rest of their lives?  

I would never be able to fill his shoes for them – to play with them the way he did, to wrap them up and carry them safely to bed when they fell asleep somewhere else. 

He made them feel safe and made sure they ate their vegetables and moved their bodies. He took them camping and made them laugh with silly games, faces, and voices, and they were so, so proud of each other. I thought of all the things they wouldn’t get to do together, all the moments he wouldn’t be there for. 

I wondered how I would tell them that their daddy was dead. 

I pictured their sobbing. I felt their hearts break. I witnessed their childhood shatter. 

I wanted to scream, “NOT ON MY WATCH!”

A rage ignited deep in my body and burned into my muscles. At that moment, I was on my own. I became a warrior protecting my husband and children and preserving our family. 

I went feral. 

I put every ounce of strength I had – and some I didn’t – into pumping his heart for him. I pushed so hard with each compression that my feet came off the floor. I gave the dispatcher any information I could think of to make it faster for paramedics to reach him and help him when they did. 

Every compression, every second, counted. 

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10

It was ten minutes and a lifetime all at once. 

Today marks three years since my husband died, then survived and ultimately thrived. Today and every day, I remember. How could I ever forget?

A man stretches out his arms to welcome his children.
This moment is brought to you by hands-only CPR.