Dear Lily June,
A Matroyoshka doll, also known as a Russian nesting doll, is actually a series of wooden figures, each of decreasing size, set one within another. A family sometimes works in the same way, with one heart holding another inside of it which holds yet another, except that size has nothing to do with it, so it would be impossible to tell which of us exists on the outside and how the other family members might be stacked within us. By love’s standards, I am no smaller than your father, nor am I larger than you. Our hearts make each of us beautifully equal, and if you look at humanity in this way, we are all a part of the same nested family.
These letters, for instance, in some ways are nested. In making my letters public, Lily, I write to the outer world while I’m writing to you, addressing everyone equally but holding you in the centermost part of my heart. And I am grateful to everyone who reads about our lives, just as I am so unimaginably grateful to be able to live with you.
This time around, for our Family Bucket List project, the task was one I’d written (what with my obsession with letters and all) and it was essentially, “Write a letter of gratitude to someone you don’t even know but who has somehow helped you.” Your dad and I both wrote the letters I’m including below. They hopefully fit within your larger letters, Lily, like a set of Matroyoshka dolls.
Your dad’s letter is short, but so very important. It was written to the third-shift janitor who cleans the building of the university we both work at. To protect your dad’s identity, I’ve changed the janitor’s name to Don and renamed the building where we work to Rupert Hall.
My (surprise, surprise) much more verbose letter is mostly a repetition of a lot of things I’ve already written on this blog, but it’s one I’ve wanted to send for a long time. It’s directed to the woman who was the at-the-time first-year resident who helped to deliver you. I think most people are likely to thank the attending doctor, but they overlook the hard hours and long labors of the residents who, though they’ve passed med school, are still treated like second-class doctors until they’re through with their required apprentice-style work and observations. I’ve changed her name, for her own protection, to Lara Laurel and her hospital to Bell Memorial. We intend to deliver our letters tomorrow, Lily, taping your dad’s to Don’s closet on campus and putting mine in the post to be delivered to the Family Medicine’s Residency Program office.
I can only hope each of our respective letters reach their recipients, but at least we’ll know, my darling dear, that as you read them, they’re reaching you.
Your Father’s Letter
Though I am at Rupert Hall most every day, I do not believe I have ever seen you. I only know that after I leave work and return the following day, my once-filled trash can is empty. Thank you.
I’m writing to thank you also for removing the spoiled food from my office, which I left over a weekend several years ago. I should have thanked you much sooner. You were kind and wrote me a note, which I remember fondly. It struck me as particularly thoughtful, and though I was embarrassed to have caused you trouble, I couldn’t help but think about how rarely in this world someone takes the time to pen a personal message.
My students spend a great deal of time on their phones doing what it is students do on phones, and I often consider whether this accepted habit doesn’t contribute to the stunned looks some of them give me when I ask them how they’re doing. It’s almost as if they have stared so long at digital screens that they’ve forgotten there are other human beings and benefits to interaction.
So I’m writing a return response, Don, and you’ll note that I have not put a name on this letter. I truly respect your kindness and expect no reply. I only hope that one day we will meet, and I can shake your hand, and I can thank you in person, for both the note and the thoughtfulness you’ve shown me, though you have no idea who I am.
Someone you have helped
Your Mother’s Letter
Dear Dr. Lara Laurel,
I can’t imagine you will remember me, and that is okay. As a first-year resident at the time, you must have cared for and treated more patients that I can possibly know, and if our faces now blur together in your memory, that is okay, too. It is for that reason, though, that I’ve chosen to keep this letter anonymous. I don’t even know if it’s a violation of some kind of unspoken protocol between our respective roles for me to even write this letter, but I have to, almost a year later, express the gratitude that I’ve carried with me every day since my stay in Bell Memorial Hospital.
Though I’ve never been in the medical field, it seems common knowledge that for residents, the hours are long and the labor often thankless. But you, along with the attending who had been awake for over twenty-four hours doing more C-sections in one night than our town usually sees in weeks, delivered my daughter, the precious joy of my life, and you need to know that though I may be faceless in your memory, you’ve become a part of my life’s trajectory and quite literally my daughter’s life story.
Almost a year ago, I came in with a case of preeclampsia and was quickly labeled a “failure to deliver” when several attempts at induction with both the Cytotec and the Cervidil didn’t take. And oh, how that terminology “failure” hit me! I was body and soul-weary from the courses of magnesium sulfate I’d been given through IV, and I had been near completely sleepless for two straight days between hoping the slight contractions I was having would be enough to begin labor and despairing that they wouldn’t.
For almost forty-eight hours, I waited for nature to do what it simply couldn’t or wouldn’t with my body. I harbor no illusions now about what happened; I needed your and the other doctors’ and anesthesiologists’ and nurses’ medical intervention. I shudder to think what might have happened with my or my daughter’s life in an era or country where such interventions as a sterile, efficient Caesarean weren’t available. I know I might not be lucky enough to be writing this letter.
My body may have failed me, but that doesn’t mean that I was a failure. At the time, I was emotional enough to not know the difference. You see, at the time you were “performing” in the surgical theatre, you may not have known the whole script behind what lead my husband and I, our tiny family, to that scene. We had wanted, desperately, for years to have a baby we weren’t sure we could afford. Then, when surprise circumstances in the family (and an unanticipated gift) made it possible for us to try to conceive, it took almost a year for the pregnancy to take.
And even then, at that first appointment with the OB/GYN, they found my hormone levels, like progesterone, didn’t double as they were supposed to. In fact, in 48 hours, they barely rose. The nurse I spoke to over the phone about my numbers had a voice that was kind but news that was not reassuring. When I begged her to be blunt with me, she told me that only in 5-10% of pregnancies did she see women carrying their children to term, even if they took, as I was prescribed, progesterone supplements. I felt as if I were being doomed to lose my baby, and I spent my first trimester trying not to celebrate, but to grieve.
So when I made it to the second and third trimesters, I could hardly believe my good fortune, even when the little early signs of preeclampsia—trouble with keeping my blood pressure stable, frequent dizzying headaches, and abnormally dense swelling in my feet—started to rear their ugly heads. When protein was found in my urine at almost 36 weeks, I was terrified that I might have come that far only then to lose the baby I’d already fallen in love with, reading to my bump in bed, singing to her unseen body in the shower. I spent those first two nights in the hospital not knowing what to think, practically holding my breath and so, on day three, I was shaking from more than the epidural when it was time to cut into me.
I don’t know, Dr. Laurel, who was holding the scalpel or who wrenched my baby from me or who stitched back up my body. I remember that surgery in bits and pieces—someone joking that my amniotic sac was too tough to penetrate, a sound like an explosion of water when someone, maybe even you, finally broke through. I remember the feeling of intense tugging and pulling happening inside of my body. I remember after my baby was finally out of me, having to practically turn my head all the way upside down to see as they whisked her away from me to weigh and check her. I remember being so desperate for someone, anyone to bring her to me, which no one did (maybe protocol demanded they couldn’t) but knowing she would be okay when she gave a small squawk (how that squeak held all the beauty of an aria for me). She and her dad exited, and you were amongst the ones who stayed behind to stitch me.
I think my scar may be your handiwork, Dr. Laurel, as I remember someone exclaiming when they checked how it was healing in those next couple of days (though I don’t remember who) “what a good job Lara did!” I also remember you, even your face as you came in during the next day or two, seemingly in plain clothes, just to check on me. I wish I’d had the presence of mind then to express my depth of gratitude, but I was a deep well of overwhelming emotions it would take me months to climb back out of.
My postpartum depression set in almost immediately, especially when I believed that being a “failure to progress” had something to do with who I might be as a mother. I have since come to peace what with my body could and couldn’t do to deliver, and part of that, if I can be so familiar, Lara, is to know that I needed to share this story with you. I needed to tell you how much I am thankful that you were there, in that moment, to make my baby the living miracle of my life.
I know this is a strange thing to say, but it is the truth: when I look down at the clean pink line of my bikini scar, I sometimes think of you. I am grateful for every hour you spent in front of books, cramming for exams in medical school. I am thankful for your residency and the long hours of observation and study that taught you how to do what you did when it came to our time together. You have more power than you know, but I believe, from your kind smile that was burned into my memory, that you will wield all that power carefully and responsibly.
It was the novelist Chuck Palahniuk who wrote, Dr. Laurel, that “It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.” The scar I carry on my body is living proof of the opposite of this. It is now my happiness and my peace, as is the laughter of my daughter echoing in my ears as her father holds her and tickles her from across the room as I write this. Thank you, Dr. Laurel, for delivering into my life my daughter, with all of her sweetness. I promise not to forget you.
With all the gratitude I have inside of me,
One of your many patients
Lily, in this larger letter nesting the letters of your mother and father, I hope you learn this lesson: You should thank, early and often, everyone who in any way has helped you. You may find that to accomplish this, you’re forced to live a life of constant gratitude. No matter what else your parents teach you, I hope this is, ultimately, the legacy we leave you.
By János Balázs from Berlin, Deutschland – Matrjoschka, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36251451