The Pregnancy–In Which First Your Life is Threatened and Then Mine Is

Dear Lily June,

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, it’s that we’re both hardier and more fragile than we imagine ourselves. You may find yourself amazed, one day, at what you’ve survived. But you may also be stunned to experience how living through something isn’t the same as moving past it.

To “live through” an event is to come to some understanding of your identity by it, and that can be powerful and moving and horrifying and stunting all at once. To “move past” is to be able to forget a situation, to leave it in its place and time so that its memories aren’t always superimposed into the pastiche of the present. We both lived through your birth, though I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say I’ve moved past it. And, my Dear Lily June, I don’t know, despite all the pain and shock and trauma of how everything happened, that I’ll ever want to.

***

Early on in the pregnancy, despite all of my tendencies to worry my soul to the nicked-up nub like a dog worrying a bone, I didn’t contemplate any potential disasters. I was ecstatic and electric with the miracle of you, sharing the news with family the second the strip read “Pregnant” instead of waiting for weeks with a secret, knowing smile–like you’re supposed to do when you remember how fragile life can be.

Because I loved you instantly and wanted you to be healthier than I ever have been, I immediately began prenatal care–taking vitamins, quitting smoking, eating greens, calling doctors–going through all of the healthful motions I could never apply to my own body before you for you. In no uncertain terms, you should know this: you began to save my life the second I knew you had life. I was overjoyed, overcome, overwhelmed with a sensation I hadn’t felt in so long: hope.

And then the first doctor’s appointment came, when they took blood and urine and measured the contents of hormones and chemicals to confirm positive progress. Only progress wasn’t so positive: My progesterone levels were dangerously low, and while certain hormones in the body early on should double (or more) in a given amount of time, mine didn’t. They, in fact, barely rose.

The nurse who delivered this news to me over the phone had a voice soft as cotton. It was like being enveloped in a blanket of horror when she told me that the doctor would prescribe progesterone supplements, but that this wouldn’t “stop what’s going to happen if it’s what’s supposed to happen.” She knew that I knew what she meant. I asked about the likelihood of carrying to term. She said, “You know, in five to ten percent of cases, the pregnancy progresses completely normally from here.” Five percent? Five percent?! Five. Percent.

That night, your dad and I just held each other and openly wept. We wept like the ancient Jews who would rend their garments because the fabric of their existence had been torn. We wailed like Irish women keen, let out strange and funereal howls fit to pierce the ears of God. Lily June, your parents–two poets whose painful pasts had pitched them to the highest key of sensitivity–have never wanted anything more in this life than to make you. We fell into the hole of ourselves, and the darkness there lasted as long as the darkest night of your life can last: only hours that feel like eternities.

***

When the morning came, what came with it was a sunrise unbelievable in its beauty. If beams of light had arms to reach, this sky caressed my face with a thousand hands. I just knew, in whatever patchwork quilt was left of my sanity and my soul, that this sky was you. Saying goodbye. To me. For good. I accepted your gift, took a deep breath, and somehow stayed alive. It was the hardest day after the hardest night of my life.

And then? Nothing happened. Literally nothing. Every time I went to the bathroom, I expected blood that never flowed. Every time I woke from a restless short sleep, I was shocked to find my body still below my neck, and that body still growing wide around the mid-section, and that nothingness meaning something was still happening inside. I looked up foods to eat for progesterone supplementation, and I chewed bitter walnuts and dried cherries and spinach salads and kept breathing and working and waiting.

And I started writing. I made a promise in my mind that I would keep you alive–no matter what happened to your body–by writing to you. A letter a night. The progesterone drugged me like a pig whose trough was slopped in Ambiens, and sometimes the weight of my own eyelids felt akin to Atlas’ haul. And still, I reached deep into my “have-to” to write to you, without fail, for the next seven months or so. And each day, the same blissful nothing continued to happen. And eventually, slowly but surely, I allowed myself to stop feeling so scared. And I began to believe you would be. And we made it to the second trimester.

***

And then the headaches started. And the double-vision. And the dizziness. And the heart palpitations. And my feet ballooning, morphing from body parts into flesh bricks. And then I was sure there was something wrong with me. I would drag my husband to the hospital month after month presuming an amniotic fluid leak. Or thinking my blood pressure was too high, and I was going to pass out. And every time I was granted a clean bill of physical health, I would question my mental health. I’ve always suffered from anxiety. Surely that was this, manifesting now as hypochondria. Surely everything was psychosomatic.  I was still scared from how things started, I reasoned, still reeling from the shock that you’d made it to the second trimester, then the third.

And everything was fine. And everything was fine. And everything was fine. Until it wasn’t.

***

Lily June, I often credit the crumbling of my mental health to the tornado I lived through. (I will never move past it.) The whirling wind that brought buildings to their knees tore the structure off my brain, leaving nothing but its concrete emotional basement. Until I began your epistolary project, I had given up writing almost entirely (despite the fact that it’s what my degree was for) after that storm. For someone with anxiety–and a dire need to control their environment to feel safe–that tornado dealt a crushing blow to my sanity. I had to learn that there are circumstances in this life beyond my control. I am still, years later, reeling from the lesson.

I also had to learn how quickly and thoroughly life can unravel before you. That’s what happened with my health at the end of the pregnancy. I told the doctors about the symptoms, and they did what doctors do: They practiced medicine. They diagnosed the headaches and vision problems as normal pregnancy fare. They guessed the dizziness to be hypoglycemia. They said the jolting feeling in my heart could be paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, rapid heart beats that can be brought on by the stress put on your body by pregnancy. One doctor said all of my problems, including my edema, were caused by sodium intake and my (quickly-advancing) weight. And I believed them. And I felt bad. And I tried to alter my diet. And I blamed myself. And I Googled “preeclampsia” because my sister had just had it. And I brought this up to the doctors as a possible explanation for everything. And they said, No. Each week, No. Couldn’t be, No.

Then, when I was 36 weeks along, they added a new, female, doctor to the “practice.” And she’d had preeclampsia, and she knew it when she saw it. And I did, indeed, have it. Suddenly, there were proteins in my urine. Suddenly, my blood pressure was dangerously high. Suddenly, I was scheduled for a whole panel of tests and weird medical experiences, like collecting my urine in a plastic bucket for 24 hours and shame-walking this urinary Trojan horse into a hospital lab from home so they could confirm not if, but when, I needed to be induced.

And then I was told it would be the very next day. And then I was granted the most dangerous gift you can grant someone with severe (usually unfounded) anxiety: validation for her worry. And it was in this state that I headed toward the hospital for your delivery.

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13 thoughts on “The Pregnancy–In Which First Your Life is Threatened and Then Mine Is

  1. originaltitle says:

    I always thought that doctors knew everything and were always right. The experience of pregnancy, birthing and motherhood has taught me that personal intuition, that “feeling,” you have just can’t be replicated in every medical professional. There are times when you really do know better than they do. Your case certainly sounds like this. I wish they had taken more care in the beginning with the preeclampsia so that you had had more time to prepare for all that diagnosis entails during the birthing process.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      I lost a lot of faith in doctors after this whole experience, but probably unfairly so, as doctors are just people, too. When I was a teacher, I had pre-med students who could barely write their own names; I was terrified about when the decisions would be up to them to write their own prescriptions.

      This blogger–https://doctorly.wordpress.com/–restored my faith in doctors a bit because her posts continually remind me that doctors do their best and struggle with all the rest.

      Liked by 1 person

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