01/20/91 – #3

My water broke about 1:00 in the morning, running wet and warm down my legs and pooling on the wooden floor in my bedroom. I’d gotten up because I thought I had to pee – maybe I did pee, maybe that was part of what was gushing out of me because what I didn’t know then, but is so clear now, is that this thing that was about to happen was not in my control. All I could do was go along for the shockingly painful ride. Shocking because I thought my good attitude meant it wouldn’t hurt so much.

My children were born at home which seemed to me the most reasonable way to go about it. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, fetal monitors worrying my baby’s every heartbeat – to have anyone try to manage my labor was intrusive. I was having a baby, not an operation. So when my water broke it was my midwife, Barbara, that I didn’t call. Didn’t call because I wasn’t yet in labor and saw no reason to wake her. What she said when I called her at 8 in the morning was, “I told you that if your water broke, you should call me right away. You have to come see me now.” I could go into labor any moment. She was an hour’s ride away – that meant an hour there and an hour back plus whatever time I spent with her and while I wasn’t worried that I’d be giving birth in the car, I did think my husband and I should get on the road so I could get back and make myself comfortable. “It’s time to go,” I told Phil, who was sitting at the table reading his New York Times. “When I finish my tea,” he answered, with a shake of the paper.

Being pregnant and giving birth didn’t make me nervous. It was Phil who worried that if something went wrong during birth we’d be blamed because we were having our baby at home. “When time comes, I’ll be at the hospital, pacing,” he used to joke. But it was time to go and I knew he was anxious. His way of tamping down anxiety was to try to slow down the situation. But no matter how much tea he thought he was going to drink, this baby was going to get born.

I’d had a few mild contractions during the morning, but it was on the way home from Barbara that they really started. What I thought they were going to feel like was some gentle vibration from the top of my belly to the bottom, like waves that would carry Philip down and out. Instead they were like a steel band squeezing under my belly and around my back while a mac truck was trying to ram me open. I’d fooled myself into thinking I had this together. I didn’t know that once I was in labor, my body wasn’t my own. She was doing the only job she had to: getting my baby born.

Pregnant bodies have their own intelligence. Birthing starts with hours and hours of contractions to force an opening wide enough for a baby-body to pass through, then hours of pushing to actually get it out. After the baby’s born, the placenta follows. Meanwhile, the mother’s breasts will have filled will colostrum, which the baby will eat for the first few days. It helps their immune system. Milk follows after, and will keep filling the mother’s breasts for as long as baby keeps emptying them. If I think about that, if I think about the intricacies of my pregnancy, intricacies caused by the merging of two microscopic cells, I know I was part of a miracle.

Labor was intense and painful. And the more it hurt the more scared I got until I didn’t have the pain but I was the pain and I couldn’t yell myself out of it. Even when I bit Barbara’s shoulder it didn’t help. Yet there were times I felt I was in some parallel universe, some place where I was watching what was happening to myself, checking in to remind me I was okay, to ask if I really had to yell so much. And during one particular moment of hot pain I heard the words, “There is no way out but through,”  which I wrote a bit about here.

Then it was time to push. It was not a choice. Pushing was an urge, a physical sensation impossible to ignore, an insistence I bear down with everything I’ve got. Which, at that point, wasn’t much. After some hours I thought myself physically unable to do it any more. My body said otherwise. I am not going to make it, I thought. I cannot do this. And when Philip’s head finally popped out, I gave up, too exhausted to care any more. “Push,” Barbara ordered. “I can’t,” I answered. I’d had enough. Let her pull him out. “Push,” she commanded. “Can’t,” I answered, eyes closed and resting. Truth was I wasn’t having contractions and I hadn’t any strength to push without them. Until Barbara stuck her finger up the only other available hole down there, and with one indignant push, out slid my son, a bit blue in the face, but strong and healthy and ready to nurse. He was born around 1:00 on Sunday morning, January 20th, 1991.  I do not remember the exact time. He was a true Sunday’s child, fair and wise and good and gay.

I often say I don’t know the world, but it’s not the world, it’s me that’s different. Am I anything but what I see myself to be? I had a flashback recently of November, 1990, the month I stopped working because of my pregnancy. I wanted to spend the last couple months alone with my baby. I see me in my forest green jacket and black stretch pants, walking in the chill and with a peace like I’d never known. Who was that woman? She was married and about to have her first baby, still living in Brooklyn, so damn innocent of what was to come. Not having any plans other than to be with this baby. Knowing, all the time knowing, that childhood is a small part of life and much as there were times when it was so difficult to be alone with Philip I knew it wouldn’t last. Patience, was all. I saw myself as earth mother, with my nursing, the cloth diapers I washed myself, the beans I soaked, the bread I baked. The baby food I cooked. I was going to do it right and because I was working so hard at right, things would turn out okay.

I didn’t see life for what it was. I saw it the way I wanted it to be. I was no earth mother, beans and bread or not. I was not someone who could stay in my marriage til death did we part. I was not someone who could live in the shadow I thought I was in. I was not someone who could stay as disconnected as I felt I was.

And I was not someone whose son would live longer than she did.

If there is anything that will get me to make peace with Philip’s death, it’s if I’m afraid of mine. Every change I go through is a little death, and gives me a chance to practice for my own. I do not want to wail and mourn for myself, to be this wracked and grieved when death reaches out for me. Philip has said I might think I’m not afraid to die but what is true for me in life will be true in death. And that whatever keeps me from loving life fully keeps me from loving him fully. These are hard truths and no twisting of my mind can help me escape them.

Philip, honey – Happy Birthday. It will always be Happy-Birthday, this day. And even though it’s your day, you are the one who gives the gifts. I love you, sweetie, I miss you being here, I miss the sound of your voice, your laugh, your midnight phone calls to tell me you love me. But I’m grateful for your constant presence, for the life you’ve given me to live. You know I’m still on the fence – patience, please, until I get off it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

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What I Carry

I’m in a river that’s broken through a dam, a river full of furious energy, mindless and untamed. Moving in one direction, but going too fast. I’m not fighting, I’m not even trying to get a grip. I wouldn’t know what to grab on to. I can’t think about it. At this speed, I don’t think, I just navigate past the danger. But I don’t breathe, either.

I smashed my car (no one got hurt and it didn’t get totaled). I spilled water on my computer, dropped my cellphone in the toilet. On a whim I looked online for an apartment and found one. But there’s the matter of the lease I signed for the place where I’m living, which means (so I’m told) I’m responsible for the remaining 8 months’ rent (read: $12,000). But there’s also the horrid brown water coming out my faucets and the refusal of the people responsible to respond to it. To me. That, along with several other issues, might help to break my lease, especially since my friend Cindy put her formidable lawyer shoes on and contacted the Property Manager.

And for whatever reason, I am beginning to understand what it means to “carry Philip’s spirit” into the world. I hate the phrase – it reeks of desperation and I’ve never understood what it meant. How could I? I am grieved and mourning and when I’m alone I can’t help but to just be. Whatever that is. I’ve not hidden how I felt since Philip died. Early on, I’d tell anyone and everyone. Salespeople, cashiers, the gas attendant; someone help me, please help me. I needed kindness. I needed to feel contact, which was impossible. I couldn’t make some effort to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. What I was carrying was crushing me as it was.

Two years and nine months later there’s been a shift. What I carry now, along with my sorrow, is Philip. Like when I was pregnant. For the first three months the only people that knew I was pregnant were my brother-and-sister-in-law and my parents. I said, as many do, that there was most chance of miscarriage during the first three months. I didn’t want to share the joy of pregnancy with anyone who I wouldn’t also want to share the anguish of a miscarriage with. But that wasn’t the all of it. It wasn’t even most of it. What I wanted was quiet time with my son. It would be a rare and short time that I didn’t have to share him with the world. He would always be part of me psychically, mentally, emotionally – but this was the only time he’d be part of me physically. He was my secret joy, he was love in a way I hadn’t known it. Once everyone knew it would be both a celebration and an intrusion.

And so it is now, in reverse. When Philip first died, I couldn’t stop telling people. Now I’m mostly quiet. It hurts. Not always, but often. It was after Philip came into the world that I wanted to share him. This is my son, I would say. Now I can’t, not in the same way. The other night someone asked how many children I had. I have two, I said; but my son died. “I shouldn’t have asked,” the woman said. “Of course you should have,” I answered. “It’s just that death is hard to talk about.” An invitation, for sure – but not one that was answered.

My relationship with Philip is constant and private. He’s too much a part of me to ever be gone. I know this – at least when grief doesn’t overwhelm. And as far as his spirit – I am kinder, more friendly. I am curious about people. I’m not so afraid of them any more. That is Philip, with his grace and ease. “Mom, I like my life” he once said, with a sincerity that stung because I could not say the same. To live with him guiding me is to live gently, is to let life be. And then things happen, then I meet the right people, without even trying.

Like this.

When I’d decided to look online for apartments, I sent emails to different realtors, who emailed back wanting to make appointments. I chose M. M. showed me two apartments that I really liked, one of which I wanted to live in. When I realized I couldn’t just break my lease, I started to flip. Not as bad as last year, which I wrote about here. And M. is one of the reasons for that. Besides her calm and her humor, she’s smart. When I realized I was most likely going to lose the apartment, I started babbling to her about last year and how hard it was and everything was too expensive and no one would take my dogs and she interrupted with, “Okay. But it’s not last year. It’s now.” When I cried because I had to turn that apartment down, she sent me a link to the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When I called her up to tell her the various scenarios that could take place if I could break my lease in two months or four months or not at all, she said, “But we can only deal with reality. Reality is now. And now you have a lease and you’re starting the process to see if you can get out of it early. That’s what we have to work with.”

And really, it’s no surprise. It’s no surprise I chose the Realtor who’d say the things to me that I should be saying to myself. It’s no surprise that as I was driving and thinking Philip is the face of love is the face of love I passed police van #201, then got cut off by a car whose license plate had Philip’s initials. Yet much as I can rattle off the hundreds of times he’s let me know he’s around, I still spend so much of my down-time under the covers, waiting. Just waiting. Philip is asking me to live differently. He is offering me things to think about. He is suggesting that maybe I can try – just a little – to walk in the world the way it is, instead of being seduced by the misery of the underworld. He is asking me to have some faith.

I am grateful for what I have with Philip. That the bond we had in life is even clearer in his death. That he’s teaching me life isn’t what I thought it was, and neither is death. But my God –  I miss him, I miss him, I miss him and there is something too terrible about his death to bear.

But let me share some joy. Here is Nikki, five months old:

Nikki, five months old

© 2014 Denise Smyth

An Ordinary Miracle (Part One)

A month or two ago, Kirsten and I went to see a one-night showing of a movie about addiction. Part of it involved a mom talking about losing her son to heroin, at which point Kirsten leant over and whispered, “Are you okay?”

I was. I felt nothing, at least nothing discernible.

Yesterday, she and I went to see “Gravity,” whose title had more weight in it than any of the particularly-long 91 minutes that followed. Yet in the few moments of the gorgeously-lipped, enviously rip-thighed Sandra Bullock telling the oh-so-manly-and-charming George Clooney how her kid died, I cried right along with her. Maybe it was because the first and last time I sat in an IMAX theater wearing those goofy glasses was when Philip was seven and Natalie five and we’d first moved to Montclair and I raced into the city with them one evening after school to meet Phil to see whatever IMAX sensation was playing on the Upper East Side. Or maybe it was because yesterday I was weary of this, all of it, of every day dealing with Philip dead and not coming home and the ambivalence of wanting to be wherever the hell he is coupled with not wanting to leave Natalie and not being entirely sure that I won’t wonder how fast it was Death came when I’m actually staring into its dark and infinitely deadly eyes.

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I’ve had a secret habit of wanting approval in ways that ran my life. Secret, that is, to me. I never looked at the way I felt around anyone who had authority, how hard I tried to be the good girl while my guts seethed with resentment and rebellion because it wasn’t me giving the orders. For Chrissake, I’m not a child, but I spent a good portion of my adult life feeling like one; feeling odd and left out, lost in confusion and wondering where my life was, could somebody out there please help me find it?

But when I got pregnant, I knew exactly what to do, which included having my baby at home. Approval? Ha. None available, from the doctors I called for help, down to my mom, who cried, “I didn’t raise you this way!” Even Phil wasn’t entirely on board, and took to telling people he’d be at the hospital, pacing, if anyone needed him.

To give birth at home, I needed a back-up doctor who’d agree to meet me at the hospital if something went wrong . Barbara, my midwife, wouldn’t see me until I found one. And I had to find one since I’d already disowned my Colorless, Cheerless, Clueless no-matter-that-he’s-really-Handsome OBGYN, Dr. Fuster, for being the pompous jerk that he was.

Before what wound up being my last appointment with Dr. Fuster, I’d shaved my legs. It was pap-smear time, and any woman who’s ever had a pap smear knows what it’s like to spread your legs unwillingly and not look while someone you see once a year fiddles around down there, poking and probing until s/he climaxes by shoving that cold, hard speculum up your bajingo to crank it open and stick a friggin’ foot-long Q-tip into the holiest of holies.

I shaved my legs as defense. Then did some serious moisturizing. If Fuster expected me to drop my drawers and hoist my feet into his stirrups, at least he’d have a creamy set of legs to part. Except I outed myself by nicking my leg and so had to band-aid it because as anyone who’s ever shaved anything anywhere knows, even the tiniest of razor-cuts especially like to bleed.

“What’s that?” asked said CCCH OBGYN as he prepared to examine me. “I cut myself shaving,” I answered, surprised that he noticed. “I mean, can’t get a pap smear without shavin’ my legs.”

Since that’s what’s known as self-deprecating humor and since I was already gowned, stirrupped and vulnerable, a chuckle would’ve been, well, nice. But CCCH OBGYN looked down at me over his glasses and said, “We are not in the habit of counting the hairs on our patient’s legs.”

Afterward, fully clothed in his office and with a desk between us, I asked Dr. Fuster what he thought about home birth with a midwife, to which he replied, “Midwives are stupid. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t let them in my hospital.”

Well. I didn’t know Maimonides Medical Center decided to rename itself “The Fuster Center of Hubris and Stupid-Midwife-Control.” I was never again going to take the risk of shaving even one more hair for Dr. Fuster, never mind thinking of him as my back-up doctor.

So I called around to various obstetricians. As soon as I told the receptionist what the appointment was for, I got an incredulous, you’re-not-seriously-asking-me-this, “Um, uh, No.” The one doctor whose receptionist said, “Sure, no problem” was confused and unprepared when I told him what I wanted. “I don’t believe in home birth,” he said. “I’ve seen too many dead and mangled babies.”

I didn’t ask him how his rate of dead and mangled babies compared to that of Barbara’s 20-years-without-a-single-fatality one. How is it that a midwife can go 20 years with that kind of record? Maybe it was her standard of care and attention vs. his? I didn’t ask because I was too embarrassed by his lack of approval to spit out another word. So embarrassed, in fact, that I paid the $50 co-pay even though he could’ve said that to me over the phone and let me be humiliated in the comfort of my home.

So I left his office and called Stephanie from the nearest pay-phone and cried. But by the time I got home, I was over it. I was more than two months pregnant at that point and hadn’t yet been examined. My options were to give it up and go to the birthing center in NYC where I’d have a comfy room, music, tea, candles and a midwife who I could pretend was in charge even though every hour she had to walk out of that room and report to the doctors at the hospital who were monitoring her, one of them (I kid you not) being He of the dead-and-mangled-babies. Or I could figure something else out.

Which I did, by calling  the midwives at DWS Medical Center who said of course they’d be my backup – I had to see them twice during my pregnancy and if something went wrong when I was laboring at home, I’d be admitted to the hospital under their care.

Being pregnant was the most normal thing I’d done in my life. I didn’t have to ask what to do. I wasn’t worried because I didn’t get examined until my third month. I wasn’t worried that my baby wasn’t “developing properly,” that because I was thirty-something I supposedly had a higher risk of having a child with Down’s Syndrome and was told that I just might want to have an amniocentesis. Because then what – I could abort mission? Like my “imperfect” baby wouldn’t deserve to live because I didn’t want to deal? I wanted to have a kid. Was I in, or was I out?

And I’m not talking the politics of abortion. I’m talking my Very Own Personal Experience. I’m talking the moment I heard, “You’re pregnant” I was in a relationship I chose to be in, one I was responsible for in an extraordinarily unique way. And non-religious as I was, that moment put me in the presence of an ordinary miracle. And I finally felt the gratitude I’d heard so much about.

See, being one with life growing within changes you as impossibly as living on in the presence of its death.

To reiterate. The first time in my life I chose with surety and clarity and said fuck it, I’m doing this thing the way I want to – no confusion here – involved Philip.

Stories don’t unfold in a linear way any more than writing does. This story was necessary background for the next, which is a continuation of what I’d written about signs, and how I said I wanted to talk about the other ways I know Philip is around. And that’s what I’ll talk about next.

© 2013 Denise Smyth