A Great Aunt Indeed

One mid-February evening as I was getting ready for work, my phone rang.  Arthur answered it and I could tell immediately by the tone of his voice that it was not good news.  My mind jumped immediately to my grandfathers, both elderly and not in the best health.  However, my mother told me that the news came from an unexpected place: my great-aunt J had died that afternoon.

While Aunt J had experienced several serious bouts of illness in the past year, she had recovered and was doing reasonably well at that point.  She had even gone out with my aunt for a drive earlier in the week and my cousin had visited with her the day before.  Apparently, Aunt J had been resting in her room, pushed her call light, and by the time the staff responded a minute or two later, she was gone.  It was quick and by all accounts, peaceful.

~*~

Aunt J was my maternal grandfather’s older sister.  I remember very clearly going to Columbus most years for the Fourth of July holiday to see my grandparents and her.  Since Aunt J’s birthday was on July 2, she always hosted a party for the assembled family and friends.  As the oldest cousin, I was the first to get to accompany her on trips to Star Beacon, a treasure trove for a child.  I got to help her select items such as small Styrofoam gliders that looked like airplanes and went much further than homemade paper airplanes, jelly bracelets, poppers (little plastic pieces that could be turned inside out, set down, and then jumped into the air with a “pop”), and other similar bits for the goody bags.  Aunt J always asked me to consider the smaller cousins or items that might amuse the adult guests as well as the children.  It was my first lesson in hospitality and thinking about others.

Aunt J was always ready with fun surprises, including everything from climbing walls to a simple trip to the local park.  She was the first in a long day to suggest a break for rest or food when one of us cousins got cranky, making sure she cared for our physical needs.  We always knew Aunt J took a nap herself in the afternoon, letting us know by example that it was okay to slow down a bit and recover.  She also helped support me during nursing school in many different ways.  It’s thanks to her that I stuck with school on the really awful days, and I am so grateful for that.

In so many ways, more than I can possibly list here, she taught me how to “adult”.

Beyond the ways in which I knew her as an aunt, Aunt J had a very full life.  With a degree in Biological Sciences, she worked in the labs at Ohio State for the College of Medicine, Department of Surgery, and clinical chemistry.   She traveled behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s.  Aunt J also made many, many friends over the years and was active at church, writing down the names of newcomers so she would remember them if and when they returned.  Aunt J also did a great deal of volunteering with the library and other organizations.

In 2007, after having lived in Columbus most of her adult life, Aunt J picked up and moved to Pennsylvania, near one of my mother’s sisters.  When I asked her why she’d move so far away, Aunt J said she was ready for another adventure.  She was always up for a challenge and excited to meet new people.

~*~

It’s also worth noting here that Aunt J never married and did not have children.  This was the other way she taught me by her example: that a life without having children could be immensely well-lived.  As much as the infertility was horrible, I also had a role model for a life outside of the nuclear family structure.

~*~

My mother told me about Aunt J’s memorial service, held in mid-March.  All of her five nieces attended.  Several friends from Columbus made the trip out to Pennsylvania.  I wanted to go very much, but it was simply impossible given the timing.  A friend Aunt J had made after she moved delivered one of the eulogies.  There is no doubt that this extraordinary woman had made an enormous impact and touched many lives.

It was my great privilege to know and love Aunt J.

Everyday Miracles

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Despite the many shortcomings of modern medicine (and there are obviously plenty, alas), I still find myself drawn in by so many things that are routine in many healthcare facilities.  I can’t help but be slightly awed every time I see antibiotics work in clearing up an infection.  I’m struck by the fact that brain surgery and cardiac valve replacements are everyday procedures in plenty of hospitals.  Even something as run-of-the mill as x-rays or ultrasounds where the bones or organs can be visualized to direct treatment is amazing in its own way.

My Facebook feed this weekend was full of nursing memes and videos that ranged from the somber to the humorous.  National Nurses’ Day (in the United States) was on May 6, and as many friends and colleagues celebrated, I thought about an article I had come across last month on NPR.  The article features another sort of everyday miracle: waking up after a general anesthetic.

I was totally fascinated by Dr. Shafer’s perspective on the profound moment as a person wakes up after a procedure and her awareness of the awe-inspiring trust the patients place in her and other health care professionals to help them get safely through surgery – or, by extension, any health care experience.  Having worked as a nurse in both recovery (post anesthesia care) and neuro/trauma ICU over the last several years, I couldn’t help but think that Dr. Shafer has captured the essence of the humanity and beauty of the “ordinary” events in modern nursing and medicine.

Want to read more Microblog Monday posts?  Please check out Stirrup Queens’ blog.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

Bittersweet

When E was about six months old, I organized and decorated her room.  It was, literally, the only room in the house at that time I’d managed to do anything in remotely resembling organization.  The whole project had gotten kicked off with me wailing at Arthur one day about how I “hadn’t even gotten to put together the nursery” before I’d gone into the hospital and then had been too busy in NICU to even try to deal with it.  From there, we’d had oxygen equipment for months (even after E had stopped needing oxygen, our doctors had us keep the equipment a bit longer just in case) and needed a place to put the apnea monitor.  All this meant that the room was beautifully arranged to fit the monitor and oxygen equipment, but not really optimally for living without them.  We’d recently gotten rid of both the oxygen compressor and the apnea monitor, but the room was, like the rest of the house, a mess.

To placate me, Arthur told me that I should let the rest of the house go for the time being and see if I could work up a way to make E’s room nice.  He’d help with as much as he could and also with the lifting/arranging of furniture.  We decided to make a little bit of room in our budget to get a few things to decorate the room as well.

One day, I found a neat collage frame at a store.  It held six photos, organized around a central photo.  It was a little more expensive than we wanted, but I couldn’t resist.  I bought it and eventually put a photo of E in the center with a picture of us, one of my parents, one of Arthur’s family, one of the twin cousins once they were born, and one of my brother and his girlfriend in the outside frames.  It’s one of my favorite parts of E’s room.

As E has learned to talk and recognize people, Arthur started explaining who the people were in the frames when he was getting E dressed in the mornings.  Or so I found out when E startled me one morning by pointing up at the picture of my brother and announcing, “Unca E-!”

It wasn’t that I minded at all, in fact, it was lovely and I am really glad that Arthur is teaching E who the people in the frames are to her.  It was more that I wasn’t expecting it and it took me off guard for a moment.  I treasured the moment and didn’t think about it again for awhile.

A few weeks ago, I got some photos from my mother that I asked her for and downloaded from her phone, a whole mishmash starting at the beginning of E’s life.  As I was going through them, I found one that made me stop and stare, one I hadn’t been entirely certain existed.  E was born about seven months before my brother died.  He saw her once in NICU and then once in September of 2015.  Only during that September visit did he get to hold her.  At the time, it didn’t seem extremely noteworthy.  I didn’t know if anyone had snapped a photo.

There it was, though.  E hurried over, took one look at the photo and went “Unca E-“.  She made me go back to the photo several times as I scrolled through the folder, even trying to use the touchscreen on my laptop to go back to look at it anytime I’d try to move forward.

It was beautiful and so, so d*mn sad at the same time.

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Arrival

Content note: birth, pregnancy.  If you’re not in the place, take care of yourself and skip this one.

In the end, the birth was noteworthy simply for its ordinariness.  I attended my last uneventful prenatal appointments, packed my bag, and rode the elevator to the third floor of the hospital on the morning of my scheduled c-section.  Even getting my IV in was drama-free, as despite my twisty, valve-covered, rolling veins, the nurse got it in on the first try.

The only slight hiccup was that after weeks of perfectly fine weather, the region had gotten blanketed in a coating of snowy, icy last-bit-of winter precipitation the day before I was scheduled to be at the hospital at 5:30 in the morning.  After a little bit of debate, Arthur and I opted to check into a hotel across the street from the hospital, even though we only live about twenty minutes away from where I was set to deliver.  There’s one stretch of road that tends to get really ugly, and neither of us wanted to be rushing or worried that morning.  It turned out to be a good thought, as the roads were slippery and my mother-in-law told us later that E had woken up three times in the night.  As it was, we got a good night’s sleep and an easy start to the day.

I walked into the OR on the early side to get my spinal started.  The scrub tech had the Beatles playing on the sound system, so I sat on the table hunched over listening to “Yellow Submarine” as I felt the sting of the local, then some pressure.  It took two tries to get the spinal in, but before I knew it, I felt the familiar tingling as my legs started to go numb.  Quickly, the staff had me on the table, the drape in place, and were bringing Arthur into the OR to start.

Despite knowing the anesthesiologist and knowing that spinals are typically pretty effective, I’m terrifically paranoid that the block won’t work and I’ll feel everything.  This was no exception.  “Don’t do anything until I’m numb,” I said.

“Can you feel this?” asked the scrub tech.

“I felt some pressure.”

“Trust me, if you’d felt anything real, you’d be swearing at me by now.  I just pinched you with an instrument very hard.”

“Oh,” I said.  I was having a weird feeling, an almost overpowering thirst combined with nausea.  I almost asked someone to get me something to drink, even though I knew I couldn’t have anything.  All of a sudden, the anesthesiologist told me to take a deep breath, there was going to be a lot of pressure.  I felt the hard push, heard my OB call “wait, wait!”  Then my OB instructed the staff to drop the drape a bit.

And there she was.

Tinier than I’d expected, with a cap of downy, dark hair, taking her first halting breath.

They took her over to the warmer, and then I heard her first outraged wails at being born into this cold, bright world.  Arthur went over to see her, and within moments, the staff brought her to me.  Arthur held her as I stared at her beautiful, tiny face.  “It’s a good thing you didn’t try to labor,” my OB remarked.  “The cord was wrapped around her neck three times.  I think you would probably have ended up in a c-section no matter what.”  That was what the “wait, wait” had been about: getting the cord unwrapped safely.  My OB finished closing me up, the anesthesiologist put in a TAP block (to block the nerves in my abdomen to prevent incisional pain), and before I knew it, I was in recovery.

Arthur placed the baby on my chest.  So very, very normal and every day for a birth, but so new to me.  I couldn’t hold E until five days after she was born.  This felt like the most extraordinary of miracles as I stared down at the sleepy baby.

We named her M (like this actress, though we picked out the name long before the actress was in the news) and gave her middle name after my late brother (the female version of this first name).  E came that afternoon with my mother-in-law and stared down at her new sister.  “Keep, keep,” she told us as she patted the baby, staring into the bassinette.

There was no NICU stay.  No incubator.  No restrictions on when we could hold her or touch her or kiss her.  No daily wondering if this would be “the day” we got the call that something had happened.  M came home with me and we placed her in the cradle that Arthur’s great-grandfather made for Arthur’s birth.  M latched on immediately and I’ve been able to nurse her.

We are all doing well.  The block after this c-section made a great deal of difference, and I didn’t need much help with pain.  Not being on various forms of bed rest for 18.5 weeks prior to delivery has helped me get moving faster and heal better.

It was, truly, everything I hoped for when we saw the second line in July.  I don’t know how it happened, but I am grateful.  Beyond grateful.

Born March 14, 2017 at 8:10 am.  7lbs, 9oz and 20.5 inches long.  

Clothing-Specific Memories

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Sorting through clothing is a funny thing.  I know people who do not become sentimentally attached to their sweaters or jeans, who cull their collections regularly and who don’t overstuff their drawers, but I am not one of them.  There’s some clothing I can get rid of pretty easily: things that are stained, that obviously don’t fit, basic tees or undershirts that have reached the end of their usefulness, but there’s a whole separate class of clothing that lives in my closet that presents a bigger challenge.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has this issue, something I was reminded of when I ran across this article, poignantly titled “What Do We Do With the Clothing of Grief?”  As the author recounts the sweater she bought so hopefully during a lost pregnancy, I couldn’t help but think of my own “clothing of grief”.

In my case, it’s the brightly colored peplum boiled wool jacket I wore to the doctor’s office the day there was no more heartbeat.  The black fleece pants that I wore throughout my pregnancy with E and wore to the hospital the day my water broke at 21 weeks.  The olive-green dress with embroidered cranes I wore the day after my brother died.  I don’t know why it’s that dress, the day after, that I associate so strongly with that tragedy, but for some reason, the two are inextricably woven together in my memory.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to make a decision about those clothes.  I did sell one piece, the sweater I was wearing the day I was diagnosed with PCOS that lay crumpled in a drawer for years, never worn again.  The others, however, seem either too practical (the fleece pants) or too much difficult to reacquire pieces that I really like (the jacket and the dress).  What’s really strange is that I had memories in the jacket in particular that are fairly happy memories before that day.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask that the clothing of grief be repurposed into something truly neutral, but I do sometimes pull out the pieces and wonder if I can find the courage to start wearing them again, make enough memories in them to imbue them with both joy and sorrow.  Instead of the clothing of grief, make them something more akin to the clothing of memory.

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The jacket, on a much happier day (visiting the Hoover Dam in Nevada)

Thanks to Mel for hosting and originating Microblog Mondays!  If you want more posts, head over to Stirrup Queens to read.

 

In Which A Break Turned Out To Be Longer Than I Anticipated

Content note: Pregnancy mentioned

I didn’t set out to take a writing hiatus, but thanks to, well, life, that’s exactly what happened.  Of course, once the hiatus starts, it becomes harder and harder to go back. Where do I even start?

It has, indeed, been a full couple of months.  School has been busy, so perhaps it’s not so much a true writing hiatus as a blogging hiatus as I’ve written a fair amount towards that overarching project of BSN work.  My daughter had a couple of minor surgeries that thankfully went well, but one of which required several all-day trips in a relatively short time period to see a specialist out of town.  Arthur and I both blanched at the horrible election results.  We’ve lived under Pence for the last four years and to say that we’re worried and chagrined would be a gross understatement.  My husband’s work got busy and I changed my job position as well.  As of December 31, I crossed 28 weeks and 5 days pregnant, making me – out of four pregnancies – the furthest along I’ve ever been.  An anatomy scan at 18 weeks showed no abnormalities and that the baby is a little girl.

In many ways, we’re transitioning into a relatively good place family-wise.  Out of the normal has been our default setting for so long – starting with infertility and progressing to miscarriage, job losses, a high-risk pregnancy, PPROM, preterm birth and my brother’s death – that it’s almost a novelty to sit back and just breathe for the first time in about four years.

Sometimes I almost forget that a lot of people in real life we come in contact with these days don’t know the story since we moved in the midst of it and then spent a year in quarantine to let E’s premature immune system develop.  By the time we came out of hibernation, E looked a lot less premature (small, but not abnormally so), didn’t have her wires from the monitor any more, we weren’t in the midst of infertility treatment and then had a welcome, spontaneous pregnancy.  Recently, we were at church, going over future plans for the congregation and I objected to one point that talked a lot about “families with children”.  Which of course, seemed odd given that we are “family with children”.

“What you don’t see,” I explained, “is that we almost didn’t have children.  We did several rounds of fertility treatments and then IVF and had miscarriages.  My water broke at 21 weeks and by almost any calculation of odds, E wasn’t going to survive.  By that time, we were financially tapped out, emotionally exhausted, and if E hadn’t lived, we wouldn’t have had the ability to keep trying or pursue adoption.  We would have been a family of two.”  It heartens me that in that group of people I was talking to, everyone was kind, respectful and interested in being inclusive of family structures outside of the nuclear.

Another moment occurred when we went down to witness my niece and nephew’s dedication ceremony.  As all the parents and adorably dressed babies walked out onto the stage, the pastor briefly talked about the ceremony and then gestured to a white rose placed in the front.  He explained that this was in honor of those who had lost children, struggled with infertility, and for whom this was not a joyous or easy occasion.  While communities – religious or otherwise – still have a long way to go towards true, full inclusion and integration of those who struggle with infertility, do not have children, or do not have the families they longed for, such a gesture was a welcome sign that perhaps someday those changes may come with work and determination.

At these moments, I found myself almost in tears both times.  Certain aspects of infertility are slipping into the past for me and yet, others are still so much present in my life.  It informs so much of how I view family, parenting, and life in general.

Julia Leigh’s Avalanche

Reading Julia Leigh’s new book Avalanche: A Love Story stirred up many emotions and memories.  Leigh, a successful screenwriter and author embarked on a long, difficult quest to bear a child, first with her husband, then with a known donor.  Moving from her husband’s vasectomy reversal to the first flush of hope to disappointment and divorce along the road to eventually multiple cycles of IVF, Leigh chronicles her journey to letting go of her dream.

One of the parts I loved about Avalanche was Leigh’s beautiful writing as she unsparingly documents the reactions of her friends and family, procedures, clinics, and interactions.  The prose comes across as almost ethereal initially, but there’s some sharpness in the mix.  Leigh has a knack for dropping the most devastating lines almost casually.  Leigh notes a Bentley in the MD parking of a clinic in a single sentence without further comment, but the juxtaposition with her own significant financial outlays is jarring.

Avalanche captures well the quixotic mixture of hope and fear that often accompanies infertility treatment and IVF.  There’s no doubt that entering a fertility clinic involves a certain amount of hope upfront, a certain fundamental belief that this will work, somehow.  Otherwise, who would go through the physical, emotional, and financial difficulties of IVF?  I nodded in total recognition as Leigh goes over the few statistics she could find, considers her chances based on those, and then talks about how she was convinced that she would be the exception.  It’s at once familiar and heartbreaking.

As Leigh gets further into treatments, she talks about the ‘extras’ she could – for a price, of course – add on to her IVF cycles to attempt to increase her chances of success.  None of them fully proven, but showing the possibility of helping.  I remember clearly feel the difficulty of making some of these choices (about ICSI in my case), wondering if this might be just enough to tip the cycle over the edge into a baby.

The moment in Avalanche, however, where I literally gasped out loud comes near the end.  Leigh’s doctor has told her over and over that if they can get a blastocyst embryo to transfer, her chances are 40% that she will get pregnant.  Leigh asks if this is among all age groups at one point, and her doctor truthfully tells her yes, but neglects to mention the clinic’s actual statistics for women Leigh’s age using their own eggs.  Finally, she is given the grim numbers: 2.8% for 44 year old women, 6.6% for 43 year old women.  After reading that section, I sat for a long time, almost unable to think.  While I suppose Leigh’s doctor was technically correct in her numbers regarding blastocysts, it seems unconscionable to withhold the actual numbers, so pertinent to Leigh’s situation.  It is a stunning betrayal, an abdication of the physician’s responsibility to carefully explain all potential risks and benefits of a procedure.

However, Avalanche is, at its core, a love story and in the end, it remains such.  The love of Leigh for the child she wanted so much is evident as she slowly lays down and buries this almost palpable being in the end.  Leigh’s great love for her family also shines throughout the novel, especially that for her nieces and nephews.  There’s a stunning generosity of spirit – from the moment when her own mother initially refuses to support her attempts to have a child to stories about the children in her life – that runs throughout the book.

That Avalanche is a love story, despite these numerous betrayals, is very much a triumph.  It turns the logic of “never give up” on its head.  Certainly, none of this is without enormous loss and pain, something I don’t want to minimize.  Instead, in drawing a boundary, accepting, and moving forward, Leigh preserves herself and her spirit in spite of everything she has faced.