In Sickness and in Health: A Story for Second Tuesdays St. Louis

This story was originally told for Second Tuesdays STL on November 10, 2015.

We drove back to Illinois feeling a bit like fugitives. Technically my bed rest had been lifted. The second bleeding episode had stopped and the baby looked okay. I had endured the steroid injections like a champ, even though it felt like the nurse was squeezing liquified iron right into my ass. Two shots, one in each cheek, 24 hours apart. The left side didn’t hurt as much because, we figured, I’d deadened a bunch of nerves there from years of sliding into stolen bases.

“Well, you’re still rounding” my dad said. “Just in a different way.”

After the second shot and the lifted restrictions, I just never thought to ask about their previous admonition AGAINST driving home for Thanksgiving.

And I don’t like hearing “No.” Especially when there’s pie on the line. Especially when you’re PREGNANT and there’s PIE on the line.

So we drove home, feeling a bit like outlaws. Like maybe we were going out-of-bounds.

Thanksgiving morning dawned and the family scripts started rolling. The Macy’s parade blinked onto the big screen and dad made his first of a half-dozen remarks about how bad the parade celebrities are at lip-synching. Then grandma came in with the main spread, shaking her head.

“I don’t think I got the crusts right. And the stuffing…”

“Has too much sage in it,” we all recited, in unison. She sighed in frustration, with a little “tut” at the end. Her recitations of the meal’s flaws are a long-standing tradition, but our reciting them with her is still a little too recent for her to remember. She’s 93. She gets a break.

We took just a moment of reflection before the meal. Back in March, it had looked as though my Dad was going to die. 57 years old, had already beaten 3 rounds of cancer, and it was recovery from the 3rd round that nearly did him in. Six weeks after having his prostate removed, he was readmitted right quick and in a hurry. An infection had baked in his body for six. weeks. He was septic.

While I sprinted from St. Louis to Springfield, I sobbed and begged. And I was surprised to hear what came out of my mouth: “You can’t have him. Not yet. He gets to see MY kids too. My kids get to have a granddad just like theirs do.”

Before that I didn’t really know I wanted kids. I had been told we’d struggle to have them, and I knew we’d have some someday, probably.

But even after the raw emotions died down and Dad left the ICU weeks later, the desire stuck.

And now my “rounding” self was at Thanksgiving, giving thanks for Dad conquering three rounds with two different cancers and defying the odds of sepsis, which I had looked up while watching over his gray sleeping face. 70%, odds against.

I went through Thanksgiving dinner rounds one and two. On the off chance there are any pregnant women here tonight or any relatives of pregnant women, here’s a little unsolicited advice: If you’re more baby than belly, the key is many rounds at the table instead of one or two big trips.

I stood up for round 3 – grandma’s apple pie. And really, no but really, my grandma’s pie is better than your grandma’s apple pie. But, as any moderately pregnant woman will tell you, if you’ve made the effort to get off the couch for something, you might as well go pee while you’re up. Saves time.

This is where it all goes wrong, because I never got pie.

Again, all you pregnant people, hear me: always get the pie first. It’s important.

The law caught up to us. And by law, I mean Murphy’s, as in everything that can go wrong, will. There was red, and too much, and it was coming faster than the first time it happened three weeks ago, or the second time it happened last week.

There was too much, and too fast, and we were two hours too far from the hospital and two months too early.

We flew back, stopping only so I could get out briefly to pee and change pads to keep from staining the upholstery in the car. When my mom had me, she had the forethought to line the seats with trash bags while she drove to the hospital. Her wisdom didn’t carry down to me.

7 different radio stations and we heard the song “Pompeii” by Bastille at least 4 times. The bridge rang in my ears every time.

“How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”

(I still cry when the song catches me off guard. I’m still bleeding in the car with a too-small baby every time I hear it.)

We were admitted on Thursday for observation. And they kept observing until Sunday, when they diagnosed us with preeclampsia. The game plan was to watch and wait until one of us got too sick to go on – then the baby would be delivered, because that’s the only cure we know of. Don’t even ask them about the causes, because we don’t know anything about that yet. It’s 2015 and women’s bodies having babies are still just magical and mysterious.

I sat in the wheelchair waiting for transport to the antepartum unit. I had asked the team of doctors for a good deadline to aim for – a day, a week? Two weeks? I’d heard 34 weeks was an important date for fetal development. Each one I asked shrugged. “34 weeks would be a good place to get” they said. “But let’s take it a day at a time.”
Their eyes and their stances told me that none of them, not a one, thought we would make it two whole weeks.

The team left. I turned to my husband in tears – not from fear, not from pain, but guilt…even though I knew I had nothing to be guilty about.

Through a watery, trembling voice, I told him that if I was in a position where I wasn’t able to make decisions about my care…If there was a difficult choice that had to be made and I couldn’t help him make it…I wanted him to know that I still picked me.

“I love him, I love this baby, but I still pick me.”

These aren’t the stories they tell you when they write legislation regarding what options families can and can’t have while carrying a baby, but I digress.

We were moved to a tiny room with a tiny window and given a tiny Christmas tree to decorate all on our own. Our friends came to visit us. We’re church nerds, so our clergy friends brought us the gifts of the Magi for our advent baby. Literally. A little vial of gold flakes in water. A ziplock sandwich baggie with bits of frankincense, since Mike just had that hanging around his office. And Kim brought and left me a small vial of anointing oil, since myrrh is a little morbid.

We’re also viking reenactment nerds in the SCA, so we were also gifted a tiny, dinner-plate sized shield. For baby.

We prayed, we swore, we cried. Baby kept failing his tests, and my blood pressure kept climbing. But we hung on. My mom and dad came to visit. I told mom, “I’m really sorry you’ve had to spend so many weeks in a chair in the corner of a hospital room this year.” My dad said, “Yeah, it feels different from the chair than the bed. I’m sorry, kid.”

And then we’d done it. 34 weeks. December 9th. I woke up feeling better than I had in weeks, convinced we’d make it all the way to 36 weeks. I felt like this baby and I? We’d gotten away with something. We’d made it longer than any of them thought we could.

Then the law found us.

Kiddo didn’t look so hot on the monitor, so they bounced us up to labor and delivery for monitoring. I took a long hard look at the doors to the OR as they wheeled me two doors past it, to my room. I couldn’t help but think they were expecting something.

And then it was baby time. He was still too small and it was still too early, but he was too sick to go any longer. I steeled myself – trying to get ready to hear silence instead of a cry, to have a bony Voldemort-looking baby in the bassinet instead of a chubby little cherub.

A cold, steel cable of fear pulled taught through me. I shook uncontrollably on the operating table, a side effect of the epidural.

And then we weren’t running anymore.
He was out.

He cried.
We cried.

“What does he look like, honey?”
“A purple potato!”

And then quickly he was cleaned up, brought to me for an awkward kiss, and he was gone. My husband went with him, as we’d agreed previously.

We spent two weeks in the NICU. The second day we visited as a family and I was handed a nametag that said “Mom.” My dad wriggled his shoulders and shook his head. “Wow, still not used to that word being used for *you.*”

We sat by my son’s isolette as he slept. Lots of monitors, lots of IV’s hooked up to the line running into his arm. His feet covered in stick marks from blood tests.

I looked at my dad. “You said earlier it was harder from chair than it was in the bed. I thought I already knew you were right, since it had been harder in March.
But I get it now, and you’re right. It’s a lot harder from this side of the room.”

It was complicated and it took too long, but we all made it.

My dad is ok.
I’m okay, and have no lingering effects from our sickness.
Baby’s okay, too, and doesn’t seem to have any serious conditions that can’t be fixed with a little support and a little time.

This Thanksgiving, I’m cooking the feast. At 94 years old, it’s finally become a bit too much for grandma – but only because she broke her ankle.

This Thanksgiving, I’m getting the pie first, and I’ll eat it without guilt because I’m the one who made it. This time it may not be quite as good as your grandmother’s, but I know I’ll get the hang of it eventually.

This Thanksgiving we’ll recite our scripts, except I’ll be the one fretting over the sage in the stuffing.

And when we take a moment to reflect, I’m going to give thanks for all these stolen moments. We spent a year planning what to do if my father died, what to do if I died, what to do if the baby died.

But we made it.

And this Thanksgiving, there will be no one in the bed – we’ll all be in chairs together.

So Murphy can suck it and pass the cranberry sauce.

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