The pregnancy was complicated.
Shortly after emerging from the nauseated blur of my first trimester, I got the call. Ventricles in my future daughter’s brain were measuring dangerously above the normal range. Enlarged fluid cavities could mean Cytomegalovirus (CMV) or Toxoplasmosis (conditions my obstetrics practice deemed potentially “incompatible with life”; they told me they would recommend termination in either case) or Ventriculomegaly (consequences range from minor to severe and cannot be assessed in utero). A fourth possibility — measurements that return to the normal range on their own — would be rare in a female fetus.
I was finally feeling physically well, but now I had a specific focus for my general anxiety about becoming a parent.
Four weeks and an amniocentesis later, the doctors ruled out CMV and Toxoplasmosis, but couldn’t give us a conclusive diagnosis. A specialist monitored us for the rest of my pregnancy. At each visit she told us everything seemed okay, but I wasn’t convinced.
The birth was complicated.
My due date came and went. I was physically uncomfortable, but each day I didn’t go into labor felt like a gift. As long as I didn’t have a child, I didn’t have to face a diagnosis I felt certain was coming. When the urge to nest came, I resisted it. My labor lasted nearly 36 hours, including four hours of pushing. When my daughter’s head finally crowned, the doctor was taking a break in the hallway. The uncontrolled birth caused painful tearing that required immediate repair. While the doctor worked on me, several pediatricians assessed my daughter. The doctors pronounced her healthy, but I didn’t believe them.
Our life was complicated.
My daughter spent her first few weeks crying or about to cry. She did not sleep. She did not coo. She nursed, but always seemed hungry.
Had the doctors missed something? Was I supposed to be enjoying this? Would it always be this hard? I could not bond with her. The complications during pregnancy had put me on the defensive. The birth experience and nursing difficulties had eroded my confidence in my body.
Everyone asked, “Don’t you love the smell of her head?” But I didn’t.
When she was a week old, I zoned out as she wailed on the changing table. Through the window I saw an abandoned lot where builders had knocked down a bungalow months before. It was full of litter and overgrown with weeds.
“If I threw her out there, no one would ever find her, and I wouldn’t have to hear her cry anymore,” I thought.
Rattled, I asked my husband to finish the diaper change.
A week later in the waiting room at my daughter’s well-check I saw an alert, calm baby sitting in his stroller. He tracked me with his big black eyes. Was that a smile?
I pointed to the child. “When does that happen?”
“What?” His father looked confused.
“The ‘peaceful alert’ state.”
“It will come,” he said. “It will come.”
And it did.
When my daughter started feeling less like a time bomb, I started feeling more settled. When she was 5 months old, I held her on the guest bed in her makeshift nursery and thought, “This is it. Even if something horrible happens, even if she gets sick, even if she is taken from me, we have had this moment of ‘peaceful alert’ time. If something bad happens, this is the moment I’ll remember.”
Death is complicated.
By the time my daughter was born in 2009, I was a pro at handling death. Between 2001 and 2007 I lost five family members. I was present when my father’s ventilator was turned off. I sat next to him reading our favorite poems aloud. I didn’t shrink away from that experience, or try to prolong his life. I believed death was an integral part of life, not something separate from it. I was good at letting go.
Life had not, however, prepared me to be a parent.
When our daughter was eight months old, my husband and I lost a student. The 17-year-old was mischievous but adored at the small high school where we worked. There was a crash. Another student of ours was driving. It was sudden, and avoidable. This wasn’t the death of someone old or suffering from a prolonged illness. This was a truly vibrant life cut short.
We were still reeling from the loss and trying to support those around us when, four days after the funeral, our daughter spiked a fever of 105.7 degrees. I don’t remember the drive to the emergency room. Doctors gave her fluids and medication, and she responded quickly. She had a cold. But even as I was grateful for my daughter’s health, I was consumed with thoughts about the mother of my dead student. It was her loss that made me realize I had been wrong about the “peaceful alert” moment I shared with my daughter months before.
When someone dies after a long, full life, you can hold on to memories. That’s how I survived the loss of my father. But when a child dies, all you can think about are the moments you won’t have. I would never again see my student’s goofy but sly smile when he asked to bend a rule; the thought of his mother’s stolen moments was far more devastating.
At last, we were bonded.
Sometime between that “peaceful alert” moment in the nursery and holding her in my arms on a hospital bed, I bonded with my daughter. I stopped letting my fear of losing her punish us both. One calm moment with her wasn’t enough. There would never be enough. Every day she is safe, happy and healthy is a gift, but no number of such days could make up for a day without her. My fear had defined our relationship. Her enlarged ventricles turned out to be nothing, except a lesson in uncertainty. Loving someone I’m terrified to lose is a lesson that continues every day.
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