Twenty-four years ago my oldest daughter was born. At 12:29 pm she will have made twenty four trips around the sun, lived through six leap years (not counting the year she was born in), and seen countless moons (roughly 8, 743, if you don't account for the adjustments that have been made to account for the slight wobble of the earth).
Twenty-four years ago she and I almost died. It had been a difficult pregnancy, fraught with both physical and emotional pitfalls. I was young, and in the best shape I will have ever been; every organ worked, every muscle was fine tuned, every bone unbroken, and yet my body refused to carry such a tiny thing. It kept trying to reject her, and the doctors and I did everything we could to prevent it.
I was working the day the pain started, it began as mild cramps that got progressively worse. Unable to remain standing, unable to take in a deep breath, I was taken to the emergency room. There I was told that I was not only pregnant, but about to miscarry. One a sleepless night of wait and see at the hospital and I was sent home.
After a few days it became evident that the miscarriage was not going to happen. My doctor cleared me for work, but three months later I was back in the hospital, rubbing my belly and praying for the best. She was so small, not even the size of my hand, and already my body was evicting her. A week full of hurried little heartbeats and dire predictions, of doctors holding conferences over me like I didn't exist, and of not having the freedom to chart my near future exhausted me. When I was let go I was too tired to fight, too tired to argue, but that is exactly what I ended up doing.
I had to go back home, to my mother and father, to my sisters and brothers, because I could not live on my own. I wasn't allowed to work, I wasn't allowed to walk, I wasn't allowed out of bed, so I needed someone to care for me, and they were all that I had. It wasn't ideal, but it was enough for a while.
I wasn't in the best of moods, in fact you could have described me as being in a near demonic state (hormones?). I didn't listen to anyone except my doctors and my self, and to hell with everyone else. I was trying to keep my baby alive, and everyone that wasn't helping was going to feel my wrath, or something very close to it.
It was during one of my emotionally charged days that I had sat down with my siblings to watch TV. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but I got into an argument with my sister, and I shoved her or she shoved me, I snapped at her and she reached across and hit my big toe with a fly swatter. I turned to say something to her ( maybe that she wasn't allowed to hit me) and that would have been the end of it, except that my mother was watching us. She moved quickly towards me, striking out with a closed fist. I jerked my face up and the blow landed squarely on my throat.
I fell back and crawled over my siblings, trying to get away. I made my way back to my room, but my mother followed me, screaming at me. I ignored her rants while I unplugged my monitors and packed them into a bag with my wallet and left the house. I walked a couple of blocks before the contractions began.
By the time I had made my way to the nearest pay phone we were in serious trouble.
Once I was back in the hospital, filled with morphine that made my veins jump and my skin itch, when my heart rate has stabilized and the contractions started to ease up, once the baby was well take care of, once I was able to speak clearly, the questions began. "Why were you out of the house?" I wanted to go for a walk, "Why were you out walking?" I wanted to get some fresh air, "Where did you get those bruises? Why is your voice so messed up? Who did this to you?" I don't know what you are talking about.
How could I tell the police officer that questioned me the truth of it all, if the only place I could go to after this was back to her house? I told my doctor what had happened, but he was bound by duty not to tell anyone. It was he who called my mother and took it upon himself to lecture her.
Eight days of drug therapy, inverted sleeping positions and countless exams passed before things quieted down, and once again I was sent home to wait things out. This time, I didn't leave my room for anything except to use the bathroom. Meanwhile my mother did some major image control. She began telling her friends and family that I had eloped, but that I was now divorced because the man I had married could not deal with my unstable character. She actually told everyone that I was damaged goods, and that I was hiding out in her house because I was ashamed.
Her story was so elaborate that one of her friends made a special trip, from one country to another, to talk me out of my self imposed exile. Boy was she shocked when I told her why I was bed ridden. The poor woman confided in me things she had never told anyone about her own unplanned pregnancy, and all I could say was "Thanks for the story, but I just cannot relate because that is not what is going on with me".
My last trip to the hospital was on a Wednesday, at exactly 30 weeks of gestation. They injected me with morphine again, but it did very little. The contractions ebbed and flowed, sometimes so painful they made me want to crawl out of my skin, but mostly they were just ominously bothersome. They made my body feel energized, antsy for it all to be over. If you sat with me with your hand on my belly you could watch it rise up a few inches each time my uterus contracted. You could feel the muscle underneath go from being firm and smooth to a hard, unyielding lump beneath your hand. This motion made me short of breath, sending my heart into a frenzy. My skin growing clammy and cold.
Three days of monitor alarms going off, of countless needle pokes, endless rounds of doctors and nurses, and still nothing but contractions. By Friday morning everything that could be done had been done. Being in constant labor was my new normal and I was finally allowed to eat, a cup of chocolate pudding, apple sauce and lime jello. I ate the applesauce only because I was starving, and the chocolate pudding because I was still hungry, but I left the jello for later, in case I wasn't fed again.
At twelve o'clock my doctor came in, reviewed my chart, examined me and then went off to talk to the doctor in charge of the ward. He came back and sat on the edge of my bed, running his hands across the width of my belly, then measuring it from top to bottom. He looked up at the monitors, watching them chart a new contraction and then he looked at me. "Well, it looks like we are going to have ourselves a baby today. Is that okay with you?"
At 12:24 he tore open a paper sleeve and pulled out a long , creamy yellow instrument that resembled a crochet hook, which he used to break the amniotic sac. I was surprised at how cool the fluid was as it whooshed out. The sensation afterwards was surreal. It felt as if I had suddenly been shrink wrapped from the waist down. He checked the monitors again. "Everything looks fine. I have a one o'clock meeting across town, but I will be back before you have your baby. It should be a few hours before you are ready to deliver, so don't worry, I will be here." He walked to the door and flicked the lights off "Try to get some sleep, okay?"
I could have counted the seconds that it took for me to go from feeling well to being in a deep, hot pain. I reached for the alarm button and squeezed it as I felt myself being engulfed in darkness. I could hear alarms going off, and then the tunnel widened. A nurse walked in and reset everything before she looked at me.
"Yes Miss Miller?"
"I think there's something wrong."
"Your monitors are just acting up."
"No, there's something wrong."
She smiled sweetly at me and reassured me that what I was feeling was just part of the whole process. She walked out as another nurse reached my room.
"Yeah, she's fine. Estas muchachitas, ya sabes como pueden ser" (You know how these young girls can be.)
I heard her words at the same time that I felt a new contraction pull my body off the bed. It was so strong I had to sit up, and I could feel the darkness swallowing me up again. I could hear all the monitors ringing now, and feet, I could hear feet running somewhere. The darkness eased up and I could see the walls moving past me, there were masked faces running alongside my bed. I could hear my doctor's angry voice yelling at someone, and then it was dark again.
"Okay Yoly, push....Come on Yoly, you gotta push for me..."
I tried to to lift my head up. I could see a clock hanging on the wall, and there was a woman sitting behind me, holding me up and pushing on my belly. I could feel the darkness creeping back in and I closed my eyes.
"Come one Yoly, this baby isn't going to make it if you don't wake up and push...."
I tried to say something, but it came out all muddled. I reached up and tried to pull off the oxygen mask.
"I need you to focus. Focus Yoly. On the count of ten I need you to push okay?. One, two, three..."
I tried to hang on, but the darkness was still tugging at me.
I didn't wait. I couldn't wait. I pushed as hard as I could, but everything just blinked out.
"...Wake up Yoly. Your baby is here, wake up..."
I opened my eyes in time to see a streak of black ink being smeared across her forehead as the nurse moved my hand across my baby's face and then nothing.
For a long time there was just nothing. No pain, no words, not even the sensation of breathing. There was just nothing. For the first time I had nothing to think about, because there was just nothing.
Then silence reached out to me. When there is nothing there is no silence. Silence is something, and I heard the silence, so I blink away the nothingness. The room was awash in sunlight. There were some flowers on the table next to me and the covers were neat and smooth across my chest. I hear something rustle and I turned my face to it. I saw my mother first, she was sitting on a chair near the door. My father stood next to her. Then my brother moved closer, bending over to kiss my cheek.
Someone spoke, "We thought you were dying." and then everyone was talking at once. Someone in a white robe came in, looked me over and pulled everyone out of the room with them. I was left alone with the silence. There were countless hospital bands on my wrists, but no monitors.
After three days of silence I was allowed to see her. They walked me into the pediatric intensive care unit, past babies so incredibly small you couldn't imagine they were still alive. There were four tiny little creatures laying in clear boxes, babies wired and tubed, blinded by the bright lights of the room. Each one etching in my mind what my own child might look like. Each one making me cringe inside as I both ached for her and dreaded seeing her.
I was led past these babes into a tiny room at the end of the PICU, and the nurse stopped.
"We keep her in here so we don't upset the other parents."
My heart dropped, and the floor starts to move underneath me.
"She was too big for the regular units, we had to borrow one from down stairs. You can open the top if you like, just don't move her out of the tent, okay?" The nurse then turns and leaves the room. I walk over to my baby and try to take it all in. She looks fine, and she is indeed almost twice the size of the other babies here. Her body is dark against the white sheets, but I cannot yet see her face. She is under an oxygen tent that forces air into her, her lungs still not developed enough, not strong enough to be trusted.
A day later she is strong enough for me to finally see her face, but I am no longer staying at the hospital. I have to take the bus there. It amazes me how much my world has changed within me, and how little it has changed without. People stare at me as I ride the half empty bus standing up, but I don't care, the stitches are still healing. Everyone goes on with their life as I try to put mine back together.
I ride the elevator up, greeting the nurses and doctors I got to know so well during all my previous visits. The really nice nurse, the one that chatted with me during her breaks, comes over and hugs me. We cry in celebration and she confides in me that the doctors didn't expect me to deliver a live baby, but that the nurses in the ward has sat together in prayer while I was in the delivery room. I thank her and make my way back to the PICU. No one speaks in this sanctuary. Only the machines are allowed the luxury of sound. I walk to the back, but my baby isn't there. I walk back out, but there are no free nurses around.
There is a small, thin woman with dark curls hunched over one of the babies. She must have sensed my eyes on her because she looked up at me.
"They took your baby to the nursery to get her weighed. They said she was too heavy for the scale in here."
Feeling a wave of relief I calm down, and the two of us fall into the uneasy conversation strangers tend to have when the only thing they have in common is life and death. Her son was scheduled to go home that day, but has taken a turn for the worse. He is the smallest one in the room, and has been there the longest. I don't want to feel bad for her, she seems like a really nice person, but there is a sadness behind her optimism, and I am glad when the door opens and my baby is wheeled in.
I excuse myself and walk over to help the nurse push the bassinet. I ask about breast feeding, on the ride to the hospital I tried to think of ways I could get around the 'no holding' rule of the PICU, and this is the best I could come up with, but I am shot down.
That night my milk comes in, but I don't know what is happening. No one explained any of this to me, and it is up to my mother to help me suffer through the engorgement that ensues. To her credit, she takes such good care of me that I am able to get past the pain and sleep a few hours before I head back to the hospital.
When I get there I am greeted by a smiling nurse who tells me the doctors have agreed to let me try to breast feed my daughter that day. I have never done this, but when she tries to help me, I shoo her off, greedy for some one on one time with my little one. I put my newborn to my breast and she latches on quickly. Instant calm fills me. I hug her tight to my chest and burrow my body into the sofa as she nurses, quietly chirping. I fall asleep to her rhythmic pulling without even realizing it.
The nurse comes in to check on us and she scolds me. I don't care, I turn my baby around to face my other breast and we begin anew. This time the nurse stays with us until my baby has had her fill and then she takes her away. I follow her, pulling down my blouse and shoving my bra into my pocket.
My sweet child is asleep now, and she looks so peaceful, it makes me feel such joy. I can do this. We can do this. Life is going to be so good.