When my daughter was born, I almost died. That may not be true, but it felt that way. It felt that way more than once, in gradations of immediacy, throughout the first year of her life outside of my body. Entering the second year, it still sometimes feels that way. It may also be technically true.
I ate a children’s sundae and drank an Arnold Palmer at Beer Baron. I was nearing my due date, which was August 16, and the day before had made an acupuncture appointment for the 16th to try to get labor started if it hadn’t already begun organically, because I was terrified my baby would be born 10 days late and I’d be stuck with a goddamn virgo daughter to go along with my goddamn virgo mother and they’d take turns nitpicking and anxiety-soaking me until I killed myself. I went to the bathroom and folded some toilet paper and put it in my panties to soak up a substance that was leaking from my vagina, which turned out to be amniotic fluid. When I got back to my husband’s apartment I called the advice nurse who told me we should come into the hospital for induction because it sounded like my membranes had ruptured.
Things I did not understand at that time:
Leaking amniotic fluid because your membranes rupture is not the same thing as your “water breaking”, though technically, they both involve amniotic fluid coming out of your vagina.
ruptured membranes leave the amniotic sac wide fucking open to bacteria and can lead to serious infections, complications in labor, fetal and/or maternal death.
There are far worse things than having a virgo child. Or a virgo mother, or even both a virgo child and a virgo mother.
I was induced. I labored for several hours unmedicated, using breathing and nodes that delivered electric currents to my lower back. what my body was doing of it’s own volition was awfully, unimaginably, shockingly painful. I did this up to almost 7 centimeters. At around the time I began shaking and spiked a fever, I requested an epidural. The painkillers began to flow into my lower back and pelvis just as the Chorio- the infection I didn’t know enough to have been afraid of- set in. At one point, while my body was laboring on it’s own and I was blissfully numb from the ribcage down- I spiked a fever of 103. I had an oxygen mask on my face and I was shaking uncontrollably. My husband was in the room with me, and he was crying because the way I looked, shaking violently with the mask on, was so terrifying. Also, the baby’s heart rate was up and down. I had no idea he was crying. I had no idea I was in a very serious and precarious state, medically speaking. I was just extremely irritated that I couldn’t will the shaking to stop. I had a vague notion in my very foggy head that I should drink water- lots of water- and I kept asking my husband to bring me big cups of ice water, which he did, and I drank them all, not greedily or thirstily, but with an iron will bent on making the shaking stop, and a certainty that if I drank enough ice water, it would. I drank a lot of ice water, and had a lot of antibiotics and tylenol and fluids run into my veins through an I.V, and the shaking did stop. Suddenly, the nurse was telling my husband to hold up my leg. Suddenly, my doctor, and all the nurses and the midwives were there, and some very bright lights were on overhead, and they were telling me to push, and I was pushing again and again, as hard as I could, and I couldn’t feel pain because of the epidural, but I could feel pressure, the pressure of her head descending through my separating pelvic bones, and they said she was sunny side up, and they said she was stuck, and they applied a vacuum suction to her head (it took a couple tries), and they snipped me and they sucked her out, and they sewed me up.
I could make this about my daughter, but everything since has been about her, so I’m going to make this about me.
Things I didn’t know before giving birth:
Giving birth, whether vaginal or surgical, is like being hit by a bus, but unlike when you are hit by an actual bus, you’re not allowed to sleep, rest, recuperate, eat, bathe, care for yourself, etcetera, because the bus that hit you is an extremely helpless and precious and scared and overwhelmed and hungry and tired and very hungry and very overwhelmed and vulnerable small creature who immediately after running over you needs you- ALL OF YOU non-stop, for several months. There is no recuperating. Or maybe there is, but not until a very long time after the moment of collision, by which point, let’s be honest, you’re probably permanently damaged in some way or other. I did not get more than 2 hours of sleep together in the 72 hours after my daughter was born because she was cluster feeding. Which means nursing all the time and screaming and crying in a blood-curdling horrible way when not breast-fed every 20 minutes or so, around the clock. When your brain is flooded with post-partum hormone slushie, it is impossible to not respond immediately to these noises. I was taking tons of maximum strength ibuprofen for the pain in my vagina, pelvis, and specifically the stitches from the episiotomy which were new, raw, and very painful, especially when I peed. If I missed a pill, I spiked a fever. I was too sleep deprived and hormone-addled to realize this was a warning sign and quickly popped some pills to make the fever go away so I could get back to quieting the howling clusterfeeder. A few days later I realized something was very wrong and called the advice nurse who told me I had been masking a fever and most likely had a post-partum infection that had picked up where the Chorio in labor had left off. I went to the E.R. I did have a serious infection. By this time I couldn’t eat without projectile vomiting. Food was disgusting to me. I couldn’t even look at it, and I was producing tons of breast milk which I was pumping into bottles like a one-woman dairy farm because I was beginning to suspect I may have to check myself into the hospital, where I would possibly die, and I wanted my husband to be able to bottle-feed our daughter this milk I was still able to produce because I was still alive. The combination of not eating and making tons of breastmilk caused me to lose close to 40 pounds in a week and a half. I was flagged for sepsis, which turned out to be a collection or lab error, but for a couple hours had me thinking I was going to die of multiple organ failure in a hospital in Oakland, leaving a 2 week old daughter who wouldn’t even remember me.
Reader, I did not die. I am here today, a year and two weeks later. I forced myself to eat 5 ritz crackers and an oral antibiotic twice a day for ten days and after about 4 days I was able to drink some bone broth and by the tenth day I had a bowl of chicken noodle soup, and I did not die. But I came so close to death that it breathed on me, and that breath was cold and quiet- so very quiet- and I don’t think I can ever fully forget it, though I may be able to put it mostly out of mind until the day- the inevitable day- when I feel it again.
To die is to disappear, and dying is the experience of being completely, utterly alone with the quandary of your own existence: your appearance, from nothing, your being, your disappearance, back to nothing. A three act play. being and nothingness and nausea. The whole shebang. I now understand why some philosopher whose name I can’t at the moment recall said that the practice of philosophy is the practice of learning how to die. I think perhaps he meant it is good to think about things, and to consider them well and at your leisure, before you’re on the slab staring at a ticking clock saying “oh shit oh shit oh shit” and suffering physically in a way that is not conducive to arriving at good and helpful, possibly insightful or even brilliant ideas. Yeats said something about man in old age being like a dog dragging the body around like a bunch of tin cans tied to its tail. meaning physical ailment and deterioration sure is a distraction, isn’t it. So practice philosophy. Try to figure something out before you have a pressing reason to. You’ll think better when you’re not crushed by pain, fatigue and fear.
I felt for several months that I had disappeared. I kept saying I am a ghost, I am a shadow, I only exist in the sense that I am keeping this infant alive, she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know I’m dead. Only after the winter (really, after we started sleep training her, and I started getting some sleep for the first time in 5 months, and began doing some reading again), did I begin, like Persephone, to emerge from the underworld, to look around and raise my head a bit like a sun-struck prairie dog when the frost is finally off the grasses. Maybe, I thought, maybe I’m still alive.
Things I think about since I looked Death in the face that I didn’t really think about before, except through the lens of literature (Proust and Flaubert specifically):
Aging, friends, memory, the narrative arc of a life, the signifigance or insignifigance of character, what people remember about other people, what they forget. Maya Angelou famously said “people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel”. Is that true though? Lately I have been reconnecting with lost friends, old acquaintances who I knew and spent time with as a child, as a teenager, back in Boston. I live in California now. I haven’t lived in Boston for 14 years. Yes, this is related to the fact that I almost died when my daughter was born. I think on some level having gazed into the abyss made me feel a deep need to have my existence verified, to feel around me and find some people who know my name, who remember that I was a 14 year old roaming brick sidewalks and capsizing a mercury in the Charles river deliberately in order to swim in it and shoplifting hello kitty stuff from FAO Schwartz and shooting pool in the bowling hall under Fenway Park, banging on a typewriter in piss-stained doorways and walking through Southie projects at 1 am because I’d missed the last Ashmont train back to Dot. If I was, then maybe I still am. How do I know for sure that I was? Witnesses. I suddenly (and strangely, having been drifting and solitary for years, if not forever, having left my hometown behind in a manner both deliberate and torn) felt a need to call witnesses who could tell me not how I made them feel, but rather what I said, what I did, or at the very least that I was, that I was with them, in Boston, many years ago, and I was as real in my young body and my same name as the bricks beneath our feet had been, as the muggy summer air we breathed. I need now more than ever for somebody to say “I remember that face. It’s so good to see your face again.”