Dear Lily June,
It’s hard to believe that two months ago to the very day, you emerged into the world a beautiful blessing. In some ways, I feel like you were born yesterday. In others, I feel like I have known you all of my life. Though you weren’t to enter my arms easily, the memories I describe below I hope will convey to you how precious you are to me: Each fear and pain endured was for the promise of your eventual happily-ever-after. To this day, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, know this: I would give anything–my money, my time, my life–for your happiness. You are and have always been worth it.
But am I worthy of you?, I’ll always wonder.
One of the most disheartening things that occurred to strip your birth of its fairy-tale dream was being referred to by the doctors continually as a “failure.” I was a common failure–a failure to progress–and I took that term to heart for many days afterwards. (Okay, so I may still be taking it to heart now.)
For days afterwards, doctors and nurses skimmed my charts and referred to me by my failure almost as often as they used my actual name, so that I began to feel that way about what happened. Now, when I feel more optimistic, I try to remind myself that you felt so comfortable and safe in my womb, you just didn’t want to leave it, and that’s why labor didn’t progress naturally. When I feel more antagonistic, I try to remind myself that it was my job to grow you; it was the doctors’ job to deliver you. If anyone was a failure, it should be the doctors, not me. Not my body. Right? Right?! (I guess I’m not convinced, either.)
If there’s one thing you’ll learn about people with OCPD (your mother included), it’s that we earnestly, though not consciously, believe we are at the helm of the universe, and it’s our actions that will steer our stars from disaster. (No one person has this much power; it’s just a recipe by which perfectionists sets themselves up to feel like a failure.) Birth and delivery is no exception, and that’s why the term “failure” still hits me.
I know it’s not possible that I had any control over this, but at one point during the whole ordeal, hours before I was wheeled into surgery, your heart rate had stopped alternating between highs and lows and instead became steadily low and almost still. It was a time of sheer terror. I could not lose you, Lily.
I began to frantically rub my belly around the fetal heart monitors and in spite of the ever-present bruise-inducing blood pressure cuff, and I talked to you about how desperately I needed you to stay with me. (It was up to me, you see, and my love for you to save you. If something happened on my watch, it was my fault, my failure, and not the doctors’.)
Luckily (or lovingly?) your heart rate, within a few minutes, returned to normal, and all were again pleased (and I could again, almost, breathe.) The doctor even joked–before I was labeled a failure–that if I could talk my cervix into reacting as I talked you into changing your heart rate–we would be fine. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I did. I tried it.
Of course it didn’t work, and time moved forward from this point by what felt simultaneously like a tortoise’s crawl and a hare’s sprint. A slew of characters came past my bedside. Family arrived in droves to show support and love; med students trickled in to steal a glance of the “failure to progress,” the “preeclamptic mag-patient,” the freak. Hospital administration came in with queries on how their actors were performing; volunteers came in with entreaties that I donate your cord blood (which I more than willingly did). So many forms were thrust in front of me with legal disclaimers and medical warnings and requests for consent that I lost track of what I signed off on. I still had double-vision and a migraine when I may have offered up my soul on a silver platter for your health. It would still to this day–no matter the costs–be worth it.
Then nurses came in to undress me (embarrassing) and shave me (horrifying) and tuck my hair into a shower cap (confusing). Your dad was thrust into a pair of blue scrubs that were so attractive on him, I half considered lobbying the man to go to med school (if, you know, that didn’t mean exchanging hundreds of thousands of dollars to see your dad in a paper-thin set of blue pajamas that couldn’t retail for more than a couple of twenties at best). Then I was wheeled off to “the surgical theater,” where the cast would shrink considerably. Even your dad wasn’t allowed with me until the last few moments of the procedure, and it was horrible to be so afraid alone excepting that I had you with me and thus had to reach some Herculean place in my heart to keep going for us both.
An O.R. is sometimes still called an “operating theater,” referring back to a point in history when students and spectators could sit up in bleachers and watch bodies get hacked into and hopefully (eventually) sealed & healed. It’s a misnomer now as it ought to have been called the Operating Meat Locker to stay in keeping with how cold the room seemed (for the purposes of staying sterile).
I shivered–half panicked, half frozen–as the anesthesiologist went over what would happen with my epidural with me. I practically flop-quaked in the moments before the shot went somewhere into or near my spinal cord. Luckily, I was still as ice when actually penetrated by the long thin needle, and the medication administered eventually took its effect until I no longer had, below my ribs, any remaining proof, by sensation alone, that my body was still there with me. Everything below the sternum had seemingly floated away from me.
In this state, I wasn’t exactly gone, but I wasn’t fully there there. If the details below start to sound foggier from here on out, forgive me.
I think I was lain on some table that I know shaped me like a lower-case “t,” my arms sprawled out to either side and a cheap blue cotton curtain hung in front of me so that I couldn’t see what was about to happen to my body. I know I kept asking again and again when your dad would be allowed into the room, and it felt like days in the hour it probably took before he was actually granted admittance to the performance.
I know they gave him a flimsy dentist-style stool to sit on, and I think it started to wheel out from under him so that he almost fell down. (If this was theater, Lily June, your parents had a touch of the slapstick to them.) I don’t know what he could or couldn’t see around the curtain, but I hope his near-tumble wasn’t in reaction to the horror show happening out of my eye-line.
I am certain I didn’t feel the incision, just as I’m certain I did feel them trying to wrench you from me. I cannot describe the feeling of hands inside of me, jostling organs around and trying to slit open my uterine wall–a wall that had never softened for you to leave, a wall so tough I’m almost positive I remember them commenting on it with a kind of awe. Three things I will never forget occurred next: I first heard a loud splash, like the splattering of a water balloon on hard concrete, as they must have made their way in. I then felt an extraordinarily rough, though not painful, tugging at my insides as they tried to jolt you out of me.
Finally, the sound of your bird-like squawk came piercing the air and entered into the musical tapestry of your birth. Later, air would be a-flit with the tiny delicate click of needles sewing through organs and skin. Later, I’d note the swish of blue cotton booties and blood stained scrubs as they worked furiously fast to undo what they’d done to me–in me. But before these noises so sterile and clean was your first primal note, high-pitched but not glass-shattering–a little cry with its wings clipped that played over my heart like a painstakingly crafted aria. Your life song, Lily. So lovely the rest of the theater melted around it.
And then the pace of the performance was turned up, and it was as if all the volume in the world that had been at a whisper suddenly became shouts. They swept you from my side, the left arm of my “t” shape still reaching, futilely. Your dad turned his back to my body and his front to yours, and I craned my neck like a slit-into swan to try and see you. I watched upside-down as they weighed you, cursorily cleaned you. And then they unceremoniously plopped you in your father’s rubber-gloved arms, arcing their own arms around his shoulders and shooing him from the room so they could do whatever they do with their sutures and their surgical glue. What was otherworldly in its beauty–your birth!–became crushingly clinical and so much colder than I ever thought it could be. So cruelly, they took you, Lily. They took you from me.
I closed my eyes to the harsh lighting and the actors still working away on my body. I replayed the lovely lilt of your vocal vibrato in my mind. Over and over again, it hit me that you were no longer with me. And the soul-sickness ran so deep the epidural couldn’t touch it. I did not just love you, Lily June. Like a drowned man gasps for oxygen, I needed you to sustain me.
All the fear, all the panic, all the pain from two straight days of not eating and not sleeping and never-ending worrying couldn’t touch this agony. I wouldn’t learn until later that though you passed your Apgar assessments with flying colors, you were still swept with your daddy into the NICU because the hospital was so full that night they had no other place to put you two. I wouldn’t learn until later that a baby had just passed there, and the parents of all the babies still remaining on support were openly weeping. I wouldn’t learn how scared and alone and small your father felt, rocking you alone without me to make my characteristic (so often off-colored and ill-timed) jokes.
I don’t remember how I got back to the room I’d come from, though I’m sure there was a gurney and a hallway and some nurse pushed me. I don’t remember if there was a period of sleep or how long it took–a moment? a lifetime?–for them to return to you to me. All I know is that eventually, eventually you were there again, with me, and you were mine, and I was not a preeclamptic patient to anyone but those still stuck in the last scene. We had moved on through the climax and were able to enter our denouement. I was now supposed to do the long hard work of recovering physically, emotionally, spiritually. You have, and always will be, worth this.
I was supposed to heal quickly. As I needed you back, you, too, needed me. I was now your mommy.
The trouble is, there are wounds that are still raw in me. Part of why I’ve told you all this is to explain what happens next, what is still happening. The way I can’t stop remembering the shock and pain of the way you were born, memories as jagged as the flashes of the tornado I lived through–my PTSD. The blows to the part of my brain that thinks I can and should have been able control these things–my OCPD. The lie whispered daily into my heart that no matter how worth it you are to me, I am not worthy of you–my PPD. The pangs of the autoimmune condition I have that are exacerbated by the stress of dealing with the first two of these–my IC. My darling dear, my little Lily, none of these are your fault. For the ways I’ve thought and acted after your birth that are anything but joyful and grateful and full of grace, I beg you, Please. Forgive me.