Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tales from the Vault - The Shadow it Casts

Tales from the Vault is a feature where I bring back some of my favourite posts from the archived blog. All text from the original posts has been left completely unedited; however, where I think context is required it's been added.

I haven't done a Tales from the Vault for a while, and figured now's the perfect time. I have zero energy for anything BUT this reno at the moment, so good chance to recycle a blog post.

This was first published on the blog December 2010. I've cut out all the original preamble explaining the essay, but left the essay untouched. This was the first long essay I wrote for the Momoir Project. It's interesting for me to re-read this now...there are definitely still times of resentment in my life, but not nearly to the extent there were 3.5 years ago. Growth people, growth. And I have the essays to prove it.

Without further ado, I give you "The Shadow it Casts":

Our seats have been painstakingly chosen on the arena seating chart, only to be second guessed a hundred times since the arrival of the tickets. My outfit has been carefully picked out for days, changed, then changed again, trying to avoid looking either too young or like some sort of aging predatory cat. My girlfriend hosted a night recounting trivia and watching old videos on YouTube so we could reacquaint ourselves with lyrics and dance moves. Weeks of obsessing over details have led to our ultimate teen dream come true: New Kids on the Block - now older, slower and even less talented, compromising their dignity for a reunion tour. But who are we to judge their self respect? We're four thirty-something friends reduced to bubbleheaded thirteen year olds. To us, this is all very serious business, business that my husband neither understands nor has any appreciation for. Relieved to be excluded from the madness, he's happily staying home with our daughter so I can have a much needed night out. The last few months since we lost our second daughter have been stressful and wearisome for all three of us, especially me. 

We arrive at the concert and clearly aren't the only ones who have been feeling the anticipation. The crowd is electric and the energy is palpable. We take our seats at a perfect side angle view of the stage. We anxiously await our first glimpse of the group as we shriek at each other, barely able to hear over the buzz of the crowd. Just as the show is about to start, another group of giddy women sit down in front of us. As the usher shows them to their seats, one of them points to her friend, softly puts her hand on her, and says with excitement "She has a baby in her belly!" My heart sinks. "Of course you're sitting right in front of us and of course you're pregnant, why wouldn't you be?" Despite her fitted t-shirt I wouldn't have noticed she was showing, but I can't erase what I've just heard. I try to shrug it off, hoping I can stop myself from angrily fixating on this woman I don't know. I look at my friend, knowing she has also overheard, and bravely roll my eyes at her. I try to convince myself not to ruin this night I have been looking so forward to, but I can't hide from it - my resentment casts a shadow on not only this night, but my entire life. 

I wasn't always like this. With my first uncomplicated pregnancy we had a beautiful, healthy daughter. I was full of optimism and thought that I had been put on this earth to be a mother. A second seemingly normal pregnancy abruptly ended at twenty weeks upon learning the devastating news that our baby girl would not survive past birth. My third pregnancy then surprised us with twins and I once again became hopeful. But tragedy struck when my boys arrived fourteen weeks early and were fighting for their lives. Apparently we couldn't catch a break. 

Although I have been blessed with my daughter and my infant twin boys, they did not come without an emotional price. The obstacles we have overcome have left me unable to let go of my pain and the envy I feel towards other families and their healthy children. I am burdened with grief, cynicism, and bitterness towards those who have what I've been denied - a simple path to motherhood. I know that everyone has a story, and few have the perfect road to a happy ending. Despite this, I still can't help but resent others and assume they've traveled an easier road than I have.

The loss of our second daughter was like nothing I could have imagined. I had experienced profound loss before - my mom, from cancer, when I was nineteen; a grandma, an uncle, close family friends. But this was something different. I had lost a part of me; someone I had created.

I heard countless stories from friends and family about someone they knew that had a pregnancy loss. They were meant to inspire me and let me know I wasn't alone. But none of it helped. It wasn't a spontaneous miscarriage, or a still birth, or the loss of a living child. It was undefinable. I felt trapped in a strange purgatory for which there were no appropriate words of comfort. 

It had been a painless, yet invasive procedure, and my body was confused. Milk came in for a baby that no longer needed nourishment, and hormones made my arms ache for a baby that could only be held in my heart. I alternated between hiding in bed and moving through the house on auto-pilot, trying to maintain some small shred of normalcy for our daughter. 

In the days following the surgery it had been snowing heavily. I should have been excited by this irregular occurrence but I was too absorbed in my own grief to care. My sadness did not however dampen the enthusiasm of our daughter who desperately wanted to make a snow man. So I put on my bravest face, dressed us all in snow gear, and we went out to the yard. 

It was late afternoon, so the setting sun and the snow clouds made the sky eerily grey. The snow was falling in large crystals, melting as soon as they hit your face. My husband and daughter were rolling an enormous snowball for the snowman's base and apparently it was my job to make the middle of the body. I ignored the aching I felt and focussed on the task at hand, listening to orders from a bossy toddler.

We worked to finish the snowman, complete with a cedar branch moustache. My daughter was thrilled, and so proud of our accomplishment. I then taught her to make snow angels, and as she made them over and over she gleefully exclaimed "Look mama, I do it again?". I gave her a distant smile and nod, focussed more on how cold and miserable I was than on her delight.

This moment was beautiful, I had to admit in spite of myself. But hard as I tried, I was only partially present. I got up and dusted the snow off myself, wondering when I would return to myself again; when I would stop hating the world and be the mother my daughter deserved. Would we ever return to that smiling Christmas card photo we were at this time last year? I was painfully unsure.

A year later I'm at the bedside in the neonatal intensive care unit and my twins are over two months old. They have recently been moved from the acute care unit to the intermediate care unit because they no longer need a ventilator to mechanically breathe for them. Their condition is still critical, so despite their relocation the road to their homecoming is still a long, treacherous one. 

A baby is wheeled in near to them, full term and otherwise healthy but requiring observation after a difficult delivery. As soon as I see her I look away as I always do when babies more robust than mine are admitted. I don't want to see an eight pound, crying, writhing baby, when mine do not yet have the strength nor lung capacity to make a peep. Only when another preemie or otherwise seriously compromised baby comes in can I look and give the parents a sympathetic nod. 

Almost immediately, the father begins to argue with the nurses about his daughter's treatment. This is not the first time I've witnessed a scene like this, so I can imagine how it's going to unfold. The nurses respond calmly, but his belligerence escalates and necessitates the involvement of a pediatrician. In the close quarters I'm overhearing too much. I start to feel my face flush and my eyes sting with tears so I get up to leave. I am not trying to afford him more privacy, just the opposite in fact. I wish it were acceptable to scream out loud the words that are in my head. "How dare you argue with the nurses, these same nurses I have entrusted my babies' lives to for all these weeks? Don't you think they know best?". 

I can't excuse this father's lack of respect, but I can't even empathize with the emotions that are causing him to behave this way. While his baby may not yet be stable, her life is not in imminent danger and he knows this. I, unfortunately, do not share this luxury. I quietly and bitterly take my leave, remarkably devoid of any compassion towards them. 

When I return later in the evening, his baby has been discharged to the care of its mother as I have come to expect in situations like theirs. While that family will soon be able to look past these few worrisome hours in the NICU, I still have months of this excruciating journey to live through. I say hello to the nurses and hear about what the boys have been up to in my absence. I unpack some freshly washed linens from home. I shuffle over to the fridge to put away my recently pumped breast milk, carefully labeled with my babies' names, identification numbers and the time of day it was expressed. I search for my favourite chair, then sit next to my boys, singing the same songs over and over, and telling them about the day's events. And then finally, after kissing them, telling them I love them, and begging them to have an uneventful night, I go home, like every other night, without my babies.

The boys have been home with us now for several months. The memories of their five long months in the hospital have faded more quickly than we could have imagined, and we have settled into life at home. On most days, we are more challenged by raising twins and a preschooler than we are by the boys' health issues.

Today is a good day. Our son is in a good mood and has greeted his physiotherapist with an instant smile, instead of looking at her with uncertainty like he does on some days. She's been coming every couple of weeks but we still can't predict what his mood will be when she arrives. Sometimes he is tense and unwilling to cooperate. He may be tired, or for once doesn't feel like trying so hard. Today I am thankful that he seems to be showing what he's capable of.

He is working so hard at his exercises; exhausted, but still happy. He blows raspberries to say he's done so she turns him over on our living room floor, giving him a rest. She walks us through what they're doing, ensuring that we'll be able to reproduce this sequence of movements when she's not here to help. 

He catches a glimpse of me and flashes a giant smile so I clap and cheer and tell him what a great job he's doing. He babbles away, so proud of himself. His brother crawls over to steal some toys, oblivious to any therapy going on next to him. Their sister decides that this pause in action is a good time to step all over both of them to get a piece of the attention. She too does not understand that this visitor that comes to play with her brother is here because he needs help. To them, their brother is the way he is, no questions asked.

I wish I could follow my their example and accept things without question. Our baby needs physiotherapy because the bi-lateral brain hemorrhages he suffered soon after his premature birth have caused motor deficiencies. Yes, he has defied many odds. He could have required brain surgery. He could have developed seizures. He could have had endless unrelated issues with his heart, lungs, digestive system, eyes or ears. He could have died. None of those things happened, but sometimes I need to be reminded of this.

Like when he is yelling at his favourite toy in his outstretched arm, frustrated because his brain won't tell his arm to bend. Or watching him stuck face down on his tummy because his leg is at a strange angle, preventing him from rolling over. Or seeing him in the tub, trying to flail his arms and legs, yet one of them is oddly stiff. At times like that, it's hard to remember how "lucky" he is. 

I can't accept why this happened. Other families have healthy babies that grow to be healthy children - no complications, no questions asked. Other preemies even get through their ordeals mostly unscathed, his twin brother included. So why did this happen to us, but most importantly to him? My prince, my miracle, my hero. The happiest baby anyone has ever met, whose smile lights up a room and whose spirit is so fierce and strong, never seeming to feel burdened by how hard he has to work. If the delays he is suffering now should result in lifelong impairments, I can't handle the thought of him struggling through life; being teased or stared at for being different; suffering in any way. And sometimes imagining the worst consumes me, feeling like a full time job.

I look over and they're back at their exercises. He's not only making great progress, but he's being his charming, flirty self. I realize that today's session is going even better than I'd hoped. I put on my brightest smile, knowing that he feeds off my positive energy. But as genuinely happy as I am to see the progress he is making, the worry and anger are in the gritted teeth behind that smile. 

I'm now lying on the bed with the boys beside me. One is asleep, thumb in mouth, with his leg flopped over mine. His brother is lying beside him crying out every few moments, desperate to stay awake. Fingers twitch next to their faces and their long, thick eyelashes flutter. Laundry is piled at the foot of the bed, with the sound of the dryer whirring in the background. The house is otherwise silent - our daughter is asleep in her room and my husband is working in the yard. The light of a sunny autumn afternoon is peeking through my window, casting shadows from the Japanese Maple tree beside. I can’t pull myself out from under my baby’s leg. It's not that I'm afraid of waking him, it's that I don’t want this perfect moment to end because I don't seem to have enough of them. 

In this moment, none of our previous setbacks matter, nor does the bitterness. My children are so peaceful, and for once, so am I. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, realizing that without all of our obstacles, I would not have this - a beautiful, loving family, and an intense appreciation for the little things that others may take for granted. 

There are no pregnant women here to resent. There are no healthy babies to be jealous of. There's no one else's less complicated life to envy. There's just us.

1 comment:

  1. You never cease to amaze me with your eye for detail, your ability to bring the reader into your world, and your endless talent.