Eighteen years ago tonight, my husband, my sister and I got in the car and left our little one bedroom apartment and headed to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in LA so that I could be induced to give birth. We were excited, nervous, and even though I thought I was ready, there was no way to be ready for a moment that would completely change my life, would change and deepen my relationship with my husband, and would change me fundamentally, at a cellular level.
I was an older first time mom (39), so we had all the requisite tests to make sure that our baby would be healthy. The amnio was perfect, even though I remember how uncomfortable I was, having to wait an extra hour because there was a celebrity emergency (Los Angeles is full of them). The imaging showed a baby with gigantic eyes, and I remember thinking “an impertinent chin”. I had to be put on bed rest the last ten days due to high blood pressure. Other than that, I loved being pregnant, and was so excited to be a mom. I had a fantastic Ob-Gyn, Dr. Hoffstadter, a laid-back, whipsmart and hysterical, fearsome warrior for her patients; and although I had only met her once, a terrific pediatrician as well. Lovely Dr. Biederman was the steady, gentle perfect pediatrician first time parents dream about. When I think about the amount of chance that went into selecting these two remarkable women, I feel certain that I do indeed have lucky stars, because I have thanked them so much over the years for that auspicious start to our life as a family. That particular Tuesday night, I took a shower and got ready. It would be the last time I would be able to dry my hair for about a year. We drove down palm tree lined boulevards in the LA night, I got checked in, hooked up, dialed in, and as the oxytocin started to drip, I began to feel mild contractions. Charley came in to our room and I told him to get some sleep, and thought I’d get some myself. This was uncomfortable, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
Then my water broke.
Then I started to moo like a cow.
I knew that I wasn’t going to do this without an epidural, and I had never even pretended that it would be a possibility, so I begged, and a sweet young resident did his best. I thought that I just had a really low threshold for pain, but it turns out the epidural didn’t hit the right spot, so after another couple hours, the head of anesthesiology came in and did it correctly.
Then I asked him to marry me.
He had no sense of humor, so he didn’t bother giving me an answer.
I labored several more hours, when I began to run a fever. My darling, big headed baby had gotten stuck and wasn’t going anywhere. Dr. Hoffstadter sat at the edge of my bed and said very simply to my husband and I, “One hundred years ago, this might have killed mom and baby, but now it doesn’t. We’re gonna have to do a c-section”. I was wheeled into the operating room, and Charley got to put on some fetching scrubs. I was alone in the room with the anesthesiologist, then another doctor came in and I was convinced he was just giving me a massage, but he had begun the incision. Pretty soon the party was in full swing - this part is all kind of blurry, but I was awake to meet my gorgeous boy, and Charley carried him over to me so I could see him. There was quite a rush immediately after, and as I was sewn back up, the doctors and nurses had all gone into high gear, because when they pulled my sweet boy out, there was something different about him. He had two big fingers on his right hand, and his left leg was bigger than the right. It would become clear as his body adjusted to living outside my body, that he also had a red birthmark that ran from his left hip to his toes. His feet were also quite a bit bigger. But Charley and I didn’t know any of that. We just knew that he was here, and he was beautiful, and he was ours. There is a picture of my husband holding him up to the window outside the delivery room to show him to the family. The look on my husband’s face shows a man forever changed. He was a father now, and so in love.
The next several hours, I was in recovery on my own, shivering in a way I never had in my life. I was covered in a million hot blankets, and the doctor who had done my incision came and talked to me. His name was Dr. Bossy, and he was anything but. He was so kind and asked me all kinds of questions and tried to keep my mind off the fact that it had been hours and no one was coming to see me in recovery. What I couldn’t know, was that they were all trying to figure out what was “wrong” with our baby. I put that in quotation marks, because I have never, not for one moment, thought there was anything wrong with my son. He was born different, but not wrong. Still, no one wanted to tell me, because they didn’t want my already elevated blood pressure to get out of control. I don’t remember who eventually came to see me, but thinking back now, even all these years later, my heart breaks that my husband and our family had to take this news that our son had medical challenges without me. That evening, I got to hold my sweet baby and cuddle him a bit before he was taken to the NICU. The incredible Dr. Hoffstadter, again sat at the edge of my bed, and explained that they needed to do some imaging of our tiny love to make sure that he could handle food. They wanted to make sure that the vascular birthmark that he had on his leg was not something more complex involving his organs. This was not going the way I thought it was going to go, to say the least, but it was the first moment that I experienced true motherhood. For the first time in my life, I worried. More than worried. I began to panic. This wasn’t good for me, due to my high blood pressure, so I was given high doses of magnesium and put in a cold room. My darling, caring, incredible husband spent the night with me in that room, and it must have been cold because my guy was shivering. He LOVES the cold, but this was like being in the arctic without a sleeping bag, yet he never left my side.
The next days were a blur of doctors, for both Joe-Henry and I, meetings, doctors in meetings, meetings with doctors, meetings with doctors about more meetings with doctors, and after several days of not being able to feed my baby, I finally came unglued. Joe-Henry, born on a Wednesday, still hadn’t been allowed to be breastfed by Saturday. He had been on I.V. while his test kept being pushed back by one emergency after another, and while it was finally done on late afternoon Friday, there was no one to read the results over the weekend. Dr. Hoffstadter (who at this point in the story should really be wearing a superhero cape), doing rounds on her day off on the weekend, came to visit and called in a radiologist from the phone in my room to come read my baby’s test results, saying “look, this mom is my patient, and she is going to have a stroke, and it’s gonna be on your head.” Someone was there within the hour. I spent that afternoon, holding and feeding my sweet boy, looking into those trusting eyes, finally getting to bond with this sweet soul. It took a few more days, but the day before Thanksgiving we were told we could take him home, I ran down the hallway, holding my c-section together, to tell Charley who had gone to get us one more fantastic hospital meal. I will never forget the ride home and how utterly terrified I was to step outside those hospital walls and be completely responsible for keeping this little bundle alive. I sat on the edge of the couch, with Joe-Henry in his car seat at the other end of the couch and looked at him. Wordlessly, Charley brought me a small glass of Guinness. “I hear it’s good for helping your milk to come in.” Whether that’s true or not, it helped me relax for a moment, and know that my husband was taking care of me. I took a few sips, pulled that sweet bundle out of the car seat, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and began to trust myself as a mother. Granted, that first month my brand new copy of “What To Expect The First Year” became dog-eared and would automatically fall open to chapters I remember being titled “WHY WON’T MY BABY SLEEP?!” and “WHY YOU ARE TOO INEPT TO SOOTHE YOUR OWN BABY”, but we got into a rhythm. And when at two months, Joe-Henry rewarded me with his first laugh? I put the book in the closet.
The intervening eighteen years have been a variation on that first week, spread out like an intricate quilt, with each square being it’s own memory, but instead of being filled with downy feathers, it’s filled with worry defying hope - heavy, but with a warmth of its own. We have had our share of scares, but we have also had the good fortune to have some truly amazing doctors on our side. In addition to Dr. Hoffstadter and Dr. Biederman, we’ve had doctors who are like family, wanting to know where he is applying to school, who he is dating, where they might catch his next gig with his band. We’ve had family and friends who have loved and supported us through every joy and every illness, who have let me cry, vent and talk through the worries until I am all talked out, who have heard all the ways around a diagnosis and treatment, and have let me worry it from every angle. We’ve had the connection of the K-T community, a place we can go to ask others with the same syndrome about their experiences, a place to be real about our fears and share hope about our triumphs. I can never get over my luck in terms of all that.
Through all of this, though, is our wonder, and our great good fortune: our boy. In addition to loving this son of ours, his dad and I have had the pleasure of watching his evolution from babyhood to toddlerhood to child to teen to young man. I can say without bias that he is one of the coolest guys I have ever met, or even imagined. He has had to deal with an awful lot in his life, but he handles it all with absolute grace, and a double scoop of wicked humor. He has set big dreams for himself and has pushed himself to achieve and try things that we weren’t sure would be possible. He has had to work harder than most his age to stay healthy, and I am so proud of the way he takes care of himself. He never takes anything for granted. He has surpassed every wish, every hope, I could have dreamed of. There have been COUNTLESS laughs, the kind that make it hard to breathe or see because of the tears. The best kinds of laughter. There have been far more joys than worries, but even so, there were so many times that my worry overtook me, however, it all went away when the fever passed, or the pain went away, or the cough subsided. We would read Shel Silverstein poetry and talk about anything and everything….All that was left was reveling in his smile, his eyes, his soft cheeks and the smell of his hair. Just the two of us, curled up on his bed, late in the quiet of the night. Those nights might be my reason for being.
I am preparing myself for this new phase of motherhood - the great letting go. I see my friends do it, I know it’s inevitable. It’s like that point in a pregnancy when it dawns on you that the baby has to come out. I know it will be filled with it’s own joys and worries. That saying that parenthood is like having your heart walking around outside your body… that. Only hundreds of miles away. Will he call? Will he be safe? Will he be happy? Will he change his mind about aviation and go into music instead? Will he remember to, will he ever, will he learn, will he…
Will I ever unlearn how to worry? Nope. I’ve been a mom for eighteen years. I’ve perfected it. I know myself enough to know that it’s never going away. But I look forward to adding more squares to the quilt, and wrapping it all around us whenever the worry gets to be too much.