When I was 36 weeks pregnant, I almost died.
Okay I'm being super dramatic – I didn't almost die. But for a second one afternoon on my way home from work, I thought I was dying.
My office was on the 15th floor and empty by the time I left, everyone else long gone. I was thankful for this when the elevator came, because there was only so many more times I could play along with “whoa, you're still pregnant?” before I stabbed someone with a homemade shiv I carved out of my ID badge during yet another endless meeting. The elevator doors closed and I pressed the button for the ground floor, but we only dropped a foot or two before the machinery made an awful metal-on-metal crunching noise and stopped.
Important note: this is not when I thought I was dying. In fact I was still only half paying attention to what was going on, biting my fingernail with one hand – a habit my mother passionately hated – as I nonchalantly pressed the 'Open Door' button on the control pad with the other. This wasn't my first rodeo, you see. I had been stuck in the elevator before, even had to use the intercom call button to ask for help, which looked like this:
Intercom guy: “Yello?”
Me: “I'm stuck in the elevator.”
Intercom guy: **silence. Possible chewing noises.**
Me: “Hello? Stuck in elevator here?”
Intercom guy: “Yeah, um, have you tried pressing the button labeled 'Open Door'?
Me: **Presses 'Open Door' button. Doors slide open embarrassingly. Sneaks out of elevator.**
Intercom guy, quiet in the distance now: “Yello?”
Except this time pressing the 'Open Door' button had no effect at all, and just for good measure I tried reverse psychology and pressed the 'Close Door' button, which surprisingly also failed to open the door.
This was when I started to pay a little bit of attention.
When the elevator car dropped out from under me suddenly, the force of the fall throwing me off balance and into the back wall, I really started to pay attention. My finger was still in my mouth and I bit down on it accidentally, hard, and the pain made me gasp and then mew this weird guttural non-word that if it was a word would have sounded a lot like the word “Mom,” because no matter how screwed up your situation with your mother is THAT IS WHAT YOU SAY WHEN YOU THINK YOU ARE DYING.
And then I laughed, out loud and a little bit maniacally, because all I could picture was her saying “I told you to stop biting your fucking fingernails, Elizabeth.”
I pressed my forehead against the cold metal of the elevator wall, shook my hand until my finger stopped throbbing so much, and then made my way back to front of the elevator car where the emergency intercom button was glowing bright like a beacon. I pressed that thing like it was my epidural pump in labor, and thought quickly: Shit. I hope yello-guy doesn't remember me.
But it wasn't yello-guy. It was a soft, gentle voice, and it piped in from the speaker and filled the elevator car. “Are you okay?” it asked me.
“I think I might be stuck,” I said. “I even pressed the Open Door button. I swear.”
And then he said the best thing. He said, “I'm going to take care of everything. Just trust me.”
I loved him instantly.
And for a second, in the dimly lit elevator car that I swear was rocking gently side to side, with this kind, paternal voice booming in overhead, I wondered if I had actually died.
“Are you okay?” he asked again.
Was I? I was 33 years old and a mother of three and I *might* have just wet myself a little and my belly was so full with yet another baby that I was constantly surprised by the fact that I could still move around at will. My fingers had been swollen like sausages for months and now one of them was bleeding, slow, dripping a little on the elevator floor. My mother and I were so screwed up and I was so mad at her that I couldn't think straight except apparently I still mew her name when I get scared.
But I had thought for a second I was plummeting to my death and then I didn’t.
So I told him I was okay.
And the baby kicked and my belly shook and I wondered what the odds were that I would have him right there on the elevator floor. I'd been having contractions on and off for weeks, which they told me was normal when it's your hundredth baby, but I was never sure if I believed them all of the way. Something in me was completely convinced this one would come in a special way, and with the dim light of the elevator, the quiet space, and God-voice on the overhead mic: there were worse places to give birth.
But my baby didn't come then. The firemen did, breaking my revery with their loud boot steps, knocking on the elevator doors and shouting down to me. My legs had fallen asleep underneath my heavy belly and I struggled to stand up again.
“Miss,” they called to me through the door, and I loved them then too for calling me Miss and not Ma'am. It's easy to love people when you almost die and then don't. “The elevator door is jammed shut, so we are going to force it open using a crowbar. Please back away from the door.”
And slowly, the doors started to open.
The car was stuck in between floors, and one of the firemen jumped down into the car and dropped to his knee. “Miss,” he started, and it was even better this time that he chose Miss because he could actually see me now, eight months huge and ruddy-faced. “I would like you step up onto my knee. My partner up there will reach down and grab you and pull you up into the lobby.”
I looked at him, and at his partner. Then I looked down at my belly, and finally at my shoes, heavy wooden clogs.
I had never felt larger.
“Miss, I need you to step on me in order for me to rescue you.”
“Um, I am wearing very heavy shoes,” I said, pointing to my feet.
“And I am a firefighter,” he countered, pointing to his uniform.
And so I stepped, and he held me, lifted me up even, and his partner pulled me. And while it wasn't exactly a graceful rising and somehow my skirt twisted so bad around me that the maternity panel ended up supporting my butt for a while instead of my belly, I still ended up standing on solid ground.
“Miss, are you okay?”
I'm not sure who even asked this the last time, either a firefighter or God again or all of them together in three part harmony, but when I said, “I'm okay,” I meant it, even twirled a little in my backwards skirt as I walked away, at least until the subtle scent of urine started to waft up.
A couple of days later my mom called me. We hadn't been okay for a long time and I usually wouldn't even have answered the phone but I think what happened in the elevator made me pick up. “Yello?' I said, tentative.
“Honey! I heard you got stuck in an elevator,” she said, and instead of an argument she was just my mom again for this moment. “Are you okay?”
“I am, Mom,” I answered. “I'm okay.”
And I was.
I didn't know it then, of course, but it was the last conversation we’d ever have. She died a few days later, and in the first chaotic weeks of grief I thought often of that elevator. Grief is so like that, even now: you can be just standing still minding your own business when the floor drops out from under you and you're thrown right off your feet.
But there's the other side too. There is faith and God on the mic overhead telling you to trust, that it will be okay. There are people who will jump in the car and kneel and literally lift you up who don't even care that you are wearing questionable footwear and you smell faintly like pee.
There are others who will grab your hand and pull.
And there is the comfort in the dark that only a soft, keening mom-mew can bring.
That, and biting your fingernails, which I am never gonna stop doing. Sorry Mom.