The way your face could light/ the bitter dark

I listened to Joyce Carol Oates on the radio recently, discussing her widowhood. I can’t remember her exact words, but she said ‘I never knew how weak I was’. Those words really struck a chord with me. On its own parenthood, motherhood, can be hard and exhausting. Combined with my mother’s death, and an extremely traumatic birth. It’s fair to say it has been too much.

I’m not entirely comfortable with using the phrase ‘triggering’. It sounds a bit zeitgeisty, a bit pretentious, a bit precious. Yet, it is a good word for what it can feel like sometimes. Facebook is determined to advertise for blood donations to me. When I see that ad, I see the mess of bruises on my hands and arms from four IV lines, numerous other injections and blood tests. The hospital undershot on my transfusions, and I received more two days after my daughter was born. I feel the chill of the stored blood hitting my veins. When I hear a siren I cringe, thinking no paramedic could have saved me that day; the 200m sprint to OR was far enough.

My son can be anxious sometimes. I’m not sure how it started but sometimes he finds it reassuring to spend time listing our worries; it’s a way for him to get things off his chest. The other day he told me he’s worried he’ll be left at børnehaven. It broke my heart to hear it. That he has been so worried about something that has never, and may never happen. That he is old enough both to imagine it, and articulate it.

And it troubled me because it is so close to my own fear. The fear of leaving my children motherless. I’ve spent the last year reassuring him that although we all die, we expect to live a long time. In the months since his sister’s birth those words have felt like ash and lies in my mouth.

I don’t want to pass on my fears and anxiety to my children. I know I will never forget those moments of my life, but I have to let go of the fear, the guilt.

Because I am here.

I did live.

Sometimes the fear can be crushing. Some days I am so drained I’m not as patient with my children as I would like to be. Some days I’m overwhelmed by the washing, the cleaning, the cooking, the sheer amount of needing.

Some days are glorious.

Some days we read, and bake. We go to the market and count the apples as we put them in a bag. We wrap ourselves in coats and mittens, and throw snowballs, or go for frosty walks, M zooming ahead on his bike. He runs, and bounces, and laughs.

And my daughter?

She watches. She watches the world from the safety of her parents. She watches and smiles. When she turns her bright eyes to mine I feel the aptness of her middle name; the name we chose because it belonged to my mother, and grandmother before her. Joy.

And those restless thoughts that/ cling to yesterday

*warning* this post contains medical information & imagery related to childbirth

Maybe I’m falling. I’m no longer sure which way is up.

I’ve never liked glass lifts. As the lift moves, and my floor and the floor outside separate my brain lurches. If I’m not holding on to a wall I’ve been known to stagger. Unsure which way I’m moving. Unsure which way is up.

There is a moment in the story of my daughter’s birth that dissects it into two stories. The first story in which she is born, and it was a bit complicated, and everything you expect birth to be, or maybe not, but ultimately I was fine. She was fine. And the second story, after her birth. The afterbirth. In which I was found, in the Darwinian sense, to be ‘unfit’. The story in which my uterus fell out of my vagina.

Reach your hand into your pocket, and pinch the bottom of your pocket with your fingers. Now without letting go pull your hand out. There, like that.

It’s called a uterine inversion. Don’t be surprised if you’ve not heard of it. They are extremely rare. They are also, as you might gather, extremely serious.

I remember realising that I was bleeding. I’d haemorrhaged when I had my son as well, but not nearly as much, only 900mL; although I lost that fast, in just a few minutes or so. It is hard to describe that feeling. It’s like a head rush when you stand too fast, but it doesn’t stop. It keeps rushing, and rushing. And as the blood rushes my mind is falling. I no longer know which way is up.

I remember my husband backing away from the bed, as a nurse places on oxygen mask over my face.

I remember being jerked awake as I am lifted onto the table in OR. My head flops to the side, I see the blood on the bed.

I remember being told it would feel like I was being kicked in the stomach.

I remember the bright lights. I remember seeing IV lines in both my hands and arms, while the anaesthetist buzzes around me, more injections into my thighs, my shoulders.

I remember being told I was stable, and once they had finished stitches I would be moved. It is only when she tells me this that I notice someone is stitching my perineum.

I have since been told that inversions present somewhat ‘uniquely’ in that they have an immediate effect on the central nervous system. This happened in my case. I had a massive drop in my blood pressure and was no longer stable before blood loss was heavy enough to cause this. Blood loss in inversions is very rapid; they liken it to turning on a tap. I lost 3.7L of blood, but was put back together and in the recovery ward within an hour.

It all sounds terrifying. In a way it was. What I find the hardest part though is the lack of fear. The knowledge of how quickly my mind was gone. I didn’t think of my newborn, my husband, my son. I had no fear that I was going to die. Other than a flicker of recognition as my husband steps away from the bed there is no ‘me’ in these memories. Only the pain. The need to breath. The falling.

We met with the obstetricians recently, in an attempt to fill in the gaps. I now believe I was unconscious for most of the time in OR. That nearly everything I remember is after they had pushed my uterus back, and the ‘kicking’ was the attempts to contract it once it was in place. On a purely factual level it should not be surprising that my brain struggles to place these memories in context. Deprived of blood and oxygen, my body pumped full of a variety of drugs, my mental processes were impaired to say the least.

My husband was allowed in to see me straight away, carrying our daughter. They lie her on my chest and she even attempts to feed. I don’t remember them arriving. Instead I have vivid memories of the shaking from shock, how cold I was, and being unbelievably thirsty, while attempts to sip water resulted in vomiting on my shoulder. But I also remember lying there, her tiny body on my chest, skin to skin. And despite it all, a feeling of peace. A feeling of completeness. I was back to where I needed to be.

We went forward from there. At first I couldn’t sit on my own, couldn’t support her weight, too headachy to think, too nauseous to eat. But slowly I recover. We name her. I make it out of bed. I make it home. I’m strong enough to walk holding my daughter. It is about a month before I have the strength to lift my 2 year old. I laugh. I cry. I get better.

Most of the time, I’m fine. For months I really just felt glad to be here. Grateful for the doctors and nurses and blood donors who saved my life. But then I would go to bed at night, and in the dark all the fear I didn’t feel at the time comes creeping in. I can’t shake the knowledge that for all the complexities of our lives, all the amazing and wondrous things we do, we are dependent on our heart, our lungs, our brain. I can’t shake the memory of what it felt like for them to be slowing, dragging me down into the undertow.

I wake in the night. I feel like I’m trapped in a glass box. I feel like I’m falling.

Read my follow up to this piece here