My Bruised Birthday Heart

My daughter Sammi turns eleven tomorrow, and when I wake up, I will immediately start down the same well-trod path of many mothers: I will relive the day of her birth.

debibirthMy realization of this tradition began with my own mother retelling the story of my entry into the world, something she did with diminishing success over the years. As a child, I remember her tale of the planned induction beginning with the Chinese meal she ate the night before. She always smiled and rolled her eyes in mock-overwhelm as she described the obstetrician who lived across the street from the hospital and who padded back and forth all night to check on her as she labored, wearing his bathrobe. She always laughed when she remembered the paperboy poking his head in the door to sell her a paper a few hours after I was born, only to do a double-take at her feet still up in stirrups as the nurse tended to her underside. As the years have gone on, my mother muses over all these details less and less. After more than forty years of remembering, there are now some pieces of the story that I remember better than she does, just from the repetition.

My oldest child — my daughter Ronni — came into the world memorably, and I begin the memories of her birth more than a day before her birthday. I can recount it by the hours, still, fourteen years later. Although much was painful, and much was frightening, I recall the event with joy and celebration. I labored, I pushed, I struggled, and eventually I felt the indescribable sensation of my child passing through the space between my hip bones, my pelvis, and into the world. The beauty of it brings tears to my eyes, still. I can access those emotions easily, quickly, and feel washed in love and wholeness, knowing as I do now that it was the beginning of a relationship marked by tenderness and discovery.

Sammi’s birth is so much harder to retell.

Sammi 2 days

She was born a week late by emergency c-section, inexplicably tiny and riddled with health issues. For years after that day, there was seldom a break from worrying about her, seldom a moment when my body wasn’t called on to continue carrying her somehow — to nurse her, hold her, rock her, drive her to the hospital, drive her to doctors’ offices, administer medicine, hold a breathing mask over her face in the middle of the night, pull underwear up her legs under a hospital gown. I was constantly peering at her ears, her mouth, her nose, checking to see if her ribs were protruding more than last week, literally and figuratively weighing her. I fed her with the intensity of a brand new mother, always.

In many ways, Sammi’s birth — and my labor — went on for nine years. It started on the day of her birth and stopped one beautiful day in October of 2014 when her good health shone clearly and she was, for me, finally born. Just like other labors, in those nine years were moments of pain I didn’t think I was really able to bear and moments of rest when I gathered strength for the surges that were coming. Just like other labors, sometimes I begged anyone nearby for help and sometimes I silently clenched my jaw and squeezed the hand of my husband alone. Just like other labors, I was often selfish and believed the struggle was mine alone, and there were other times when I remembered that Sammi was trying just as hard as she could and that my husband was watching both of us, helpless to do more than offer comfort.

And just like other labors, it finally ended.

Remembering the day she was born is hard. It was the beginning of an uphill climb, and when you climb a mountain, you celebrate the summit with far more joy than you recall the moment you took the first step. There is too much journey in the middle. Still, I know that the day Sammi came into this world is important. It did not have the funny cast of characters my mother remembers from my birth, and it did not include the stirring, empowering moment of my older daughter’s birth, but it was the first hard leg of a journey that we both weathered in the end. What it lacks in positive imagery, I suppose it makes up for in the stuff of character-building.

I love Sammi with a fierceness I cannot describe, with a quality different — though not more or less — than what accompanies my love for Ronni. Sammi and I were in labor together for years. She may grow to forget as much of it as my mother now forgets about my birth, but I will never forget how our bodies were linked, how we strained, and how when it was done, there we were: born.

born

Happy birthday, Sammi. I’m achingly grateful that you are here.

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Let Me Take You There

doorA hundred lifetimes ago, in undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, I studied the ways that tense and perspective change the tone of a story. When it comes to my emotions and my words, I find that tense and perspective are the best tools I have for bringing readers into the story quickly. For example: What happens when I tell this in the past tense — “My daughter could barely breathe” — versus when I tell it in present tense: “My daughter can barely breathe”? What happens when I tell a story in first person (“I was frightened“) versus when I tell them the story in second person (“You will be far colder than one would expect“)?

For me, past tense offers distance. As I write in past tense, I feel separated from the events. I can write without getting too caught up in the moment as I experienced it in real time. I am calm, almost clinical in my descriptions. It reminds me of the unwavering steadiness I’ve been able to construct in moments of real trauma by simply breathing deeply, disassociating from my emotions, and behaving like a soldier on a mission. In past tense, I am a reporter, and even when I report on the raw and furious emotions in our family’s history, it is with a detached, analytical eye.

Present tense is where I get you invested. I am here, in the sun-filled living room, with the baby in my lap who is struggling to breathe. Or, I am lying on the floor of my basement in the cold dark, and I think, for a moment, that I can hear my screaming daughter two floors above me as I sink into the drugged sleep of a woman past the edge of exhaustion. You are watching me in real time. Neither of us knows what comes next. We are both — writer and reader — in my mystery. Continue Reading…

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Somehow They Grow

grownI took my younger daughter, Sammi, to the pediatrician’s office today for some routine vaccines. While we waited for her turn, I noticed a woman across from me with a preschool aged daughter, sitting in front of an infant carseat. The baby in the carseat began fussing, and the woman said — tenderly — “Oh sweetie, you’re fussing already? You haven’t even had your shots yet.” Then she reached down and lifted a bundle of pink into her lap.

Remembering those early days, I smiled at her and said, “If you need a hand, I’m happy to hold her for you. It’s been a long time since I had to bounce a fussing baby. I’m not tired of it anymore.”

She smiled back and said, “Really? If you don’t mind…”

“Not at all!,” I interrupted, making my way across the room to her.

She continued, “…you could take him. He’s starting to squeak too.”

That was the first I had noticed the second infant car seat. A delicious baby boy smiled at me from within it. I unfastened the distantly-familiar shoulder straps, pressed the button to release the buckle, and slid one hand each under his round head and his diapered bottom. He gurgled at me, and I sat him in my lap facing his mother, my arm across his bared stomach.

When the mother was called by the nurse, I carried my new little baby-friend back to the exam room, nestling him in his car seat and waving goodbye. Then I returned to my nearly-eleven-year old, who just this morning had looked like a little girl next to her teenaged sister, and now suddenly looked like what she was: a preteen, just a hint of changing skin and growing limbs and, indeed, puberty easing its way across her path.

“Mommy?” she said, watching me watch her, “What?”

Continue Reading…

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Oversharing, Awareness, and the Muddled Middle

http://mamalode.com/story/detail/how-blood-dancesWhen my medically complicated daughter was only a few years old, a close family member said something that I’ve never been able to forget. I’ve thought about it often, especially as I’ve been writing about my daughter so publicly.

This family member was a new parent with a fussy, unhappy baby. He was complaining that nothing he and his wife were doing to soothe their baby was helping, and I asked if they’d asked any of the parents in their new baby group for ideas.

“No,” he said, “we’re just more private.”

“But maybe someone knows of something — a product or a position or something — that might help,” I countered.

“Look, that’s not how we are,” he answered. “That’s more you. You’d tell any random stranger in your kid’s kindermusic class all about her medical problems no matter what they’d think about you.”

At the time, I felt slapped. I felt hurt, and I felt judged. The tone with which this was delivered was so derisive, as though I was indiscriminately blurting out the story of Sammi’s first cardiac surgery to anyone who didn’t run away when I opened my mouth. It made me feel like an embarrassment.  Continue Reading…

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Feeding Therapy in a Vacuum

cerealHere’s the crazy thing about taking my 8 year old daughter to feeding therapy: no one important really knew we were there.

There was a complex set of circumstances that brought Sammi to the cheerful basement office suite forty minutes from our house. Unaware of this were a host pediatric medical specialists: an office of gastroenterologists, a cardiothoracic surgeon, an otolaryngologist, an endocrinologist, and her general pediatrician. Though all of them examined her, declared her capable of eating, and recognized that she did not, in fact, eat well, not one of them had recommended feeding therapy.

They didn’t recommend it when, despite the compression on her esophagus having been surgically relieved possibly for the first time in her life, she failed to eat any meal in under an hour — including a simple bowl of cereal at breakfast. Continue Reading…

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