29 November, 2010
23 November, 2010
The other day I received a massage from a lovely and irreverent masseuse and physical therapist with by the fabulously apropos name of Sue Knotts. Sue, as another friend writes, has “huge unfettered tits,” a British accent and conducts her work way up a river valley in the middle of nowhere in a yurt. The yurt is always warm, the chickadees and juncos and nuthatches twitter outside the plastic, crisscrossed windows, and the river runs below with gusto and song. I love the drive out there this time of year, in autumn, watching the river rage and roil below, the fall leaves wet and sticky while they blow across road and windshield. There is dampness in the air and on my skin as I walk up the small ramp to the yurt. I carry a cooler of fish – my husband’s catch the past few days of three Dungeness crab, two little fresh trout, and, also, a block of frozen sturgeon. All this seafood goes in trade for Sue’s work on my body. I feel excited for the massage, and grateful to both Sue and my husband for providing such an easy deal for me.
Sue invites me in, has me sit in the big chair by the fire, asks me about my health and what’s up these days. I don’t see her nearly as often as I should, as my body needs, certainly as my spirit desires. I tell her the usual, my back, my shoulders, all tense even though I’m not even working right now, though I have no papers to grade. And then, of course, there’s my abdomen. Sue is one of the few therapists I know who’s willing work on my middle, the torn, sore muscles, the fascia she is fond of discussing. She even breaks out a Gray’s Anatomy to show me that line down the center of my abdomen, mine probably a wreck of torn tissue and scars.
So, she gets to work, we talk a little. She laughs with a little low-moaned giggle at how lopsided I am; my right shoulder, a bundle of toughness. Then, she turns me over, and I am looking at leaves and perhaps a dead beetle stuck on the skylight screen overhead, which shows only a white page of sky. She rubs my abdomen, feeling for separated muscles, and rubs the place down low where my scar is, where they pulled my daughter from my body. And suddenly, the water wells in my throat and I’m making sucking and sniffing noises. Tears roll from the corners of my eyes, finding grooves in my neck and dropping onto the table. Suddenly, I am transported to the moment when they took my child out of me, but on Sue’s table I feel more whole and smaller that I imagine how I felt in that operating room, where the blue cloth separated me from my body and my sense of myself is gigantic, like the place from where they took my daughter was actually a mile way.
But on Sue’s table I can feel how small I really am, how close my daughter must have been when they took her and how back then, my arms were fettered so I couldn’t have reached out to grab her even if I had had the energy or wherewithal to do so. I am still so sad that I was so removed from birthing her, even though of course I was there and she was coming from my body and she was quite stuck and there really might have been no other choice. But, all these months later, lo two years, I am crying again, even as I write this.
Sue offered me a tissue box without saying a word since she of course noticed I was crying, but the truth is, I held back on her table because I was embarrassed that I still haven’t stopped crying about how I didn’t birth my own child through my body, that I had to have a cut in my belly to get her out, that my own cervix or pelvis or whatever it was would not open up enough to let her come through into this world without such violence and tugging and yanking and invasion. So, yes, I still cry about it all, even as I think about all those folks, including me, who say and think I should “be over it” already, I “should be grateful,” which I am, for her, but not for the birth, that I “could have died if I stayed at my midwives birth center” if I had indeed still hemorrhaged with the same amount of blood, which is true, of course, though we’ll never know if I would have lost as much blood without the c-section. Anyhow, myself and others can say what they want, the reality is, I still have to cry. So what, so I’m still sad and, short of crying and then going on to function pretty darn well the rest of the day, I don’t really know what else there is to do. Does a person ever need to stop mourning? Is there an ending point to such a momentously difficult event in one’s life? A while ago, over a year at least, I did a little ritual with a group of friends where I let go of saying that the birth wasn’t what I wanted, and said instead that the birth was the perfect one for us, but that affirmation, while I believe it and it helped, doesn’t make all the pain and grief disappear.
Sue said my abdomen definitely felt “boggy.” I thought that word seemed apropos as well. She has good words. My stomach is a big pouch – people talk about the c-section apron, I talk about the fully loaded fanny pack I wear on my stomach. Lately, the fanny pack has gotten fuller, and partly that’s due to the holiday time of overeating, especially with my daughter’s birthday being on Halloween, but I know, too, the bogginess is a lot of pent up energy, still more mourning that needs to happen. However, as I get further away from the birth, the thoughts of “I really should be over it,” happen more often. Plus I keep also thinking, “I’ve already cried about this, haven’t I?”
On an anatomical level, Sue mentioned the possibility that the lymph system housed in the groin may be quite disconnected from the abdomen it’s supposed to be flushing out since the nerves from the surgery are shot. I thought this theory made a lot of sense and haven’t really seen anything about this post-partum complication from the surgery anywhere in books or on the Internet. She likened my situation to women who’ve had breast surgery or mastectomies and have had to have some of their lymph system taken out, and I thought of my sister and that fear she had of lymphedema and thought the same thing about my body.
So, why am I putting all of this emotion and blubbering out there? A long time ago I read an article in a book and I’m sorry I can’t remember nor find the reference to this quote, or possibly this paraphrase since I can’t find the actual reference but here’s the idea I loved: “He had nothing better to do than heal.” I’ve always loved this passage and since I’m not working now – other than, of course, the full time work of rearing my daughter – my other job is to heal. I have to heal from this birth and since I originally started going back to work nine weeks after my daughter was born, I didn’t do enough healing at the time. I got sidetracked with other people’s papers and stories and books to read, and I’m sure at the time, that work was the perfect thing to keep me functioning, but now my job is to just sit here at my desk when I need to and cry, or allow myself to cry on far-away, massage table deep in the woods.
22 November, 2010
Scylla and Charybdis
Nine months you floated infinite seas,
Small mariner, navigating heartbeats.
Then, All Soul’s Day, the labor harrowed
And you set sail through treacherous narrows.
My body, once a nymph, a lovely daughter,
Born of god and mortal, turned monster.
The suction sucked you to the slight of my hips
While many heads howled outside the cliffs.
The prow of your ship skirted the dark strait
Between that rock of bone and that hard place,
Yet for two whole nights the mean, bitter myths
Would not let you pass through their cruel midst.
Like Ulysses’ men, plucked from the bow,
They cut you out of me. And now
Each midnight, passage to your sweetest dream
Is interrupted by terror. You scream.
Rocking you at my breast to soothe your wails,
I sing a lullaby: sail, baby, sail.
© Nancy Slavin 2009
The following is the piece I originally wrote in a folder entitled 54 Hours Blog.
Created: Tuesday May 5, 2009, 10:34 a.m.
Of course all that matters is we have a healthy baby girl. This pat phrase is what many well-meaning individuals said to me for weeks after our birth experience, an epic fifty-four hour travail that included over ten hours of pushing, a botched attempt at a vacuum extractor, and then, the inevitable and very unwanted cesarean section where a nurse had to manually shove my daughter’s bruised and battered head back through my pelvic bone just so the doctor could pull her out of me at all. Then, only a few hours after her birth, I hemorrhaged: a nearly-fatal four thousand cc’s of blood gushed out of me like surges in a flooded river canyon, my blood pressure dropped to thirty over forty and nurses and doctors shouted at me to stay with them, stay with them as they pounded on my uterus and stomach while trying to save my life. I remember the baby being snatched from near my breast where she was nursing, then wailing in the corner where her father, my tired, stunned husband who was also crying, held her until a young nurse led them both out of the room. But I lived and our daughter is healthy. And of course that’s all that matters.
A little over six months later, I’m walking around and functioning like any new parent, learning each new day, enjoying my daughter’s sweet laugh, funny faces, and new discoveries, and managing to live on very little sleep. Friends and family members don’t really ask anymore about my health, physical or otherwise. But in my quiet moments, like before I fall asleep at night or when I have some private time alone with my journal, or during one very intimate moment with my husband when we made love for the first time without it hurting me inside, I cry, or, truth be told, I sob, because, despite my very best attempt at surrender, and despite my own will and abundance of physical strength, I didn’t push my baby out through my pelvis. I don’t know how other mothers who’ve given birth by cesarean section feel, but for me, having my child cut out of my abdomen has left me bereft. In the space where she should have traveled through, I feel a constant blankness, a sad unfinished length, a dark place abruptly interrupted, like a life cut short by an early death and the unanswerable question of what would have been echoes loudly as though in a large empty room.
The medical world told me my daughter’s head was asynclitic, a word I’d never heard before and one, as my mother said, “was a word you wish you never had to learn.” They explained to me my baby’s head had been askew inside me, like she was pressing her ear against my cervix to listen for wolves outside the door rather than heading out soft-spot first. The sharp bump on the forward right part of her head and the red, raised, jelly-like caput from the vacuum extractor on the back left part of her head showed me exactly the angle at which her head had been tilted.
In the first raw weeks of being a mother, one afternoon while my sweet swaddled daughter napped in her crib, I looked up asynclitic, but couldn’t find the word in my dictionary. I flipped through the thin crinkly pages of my giant book and tried all kinds of different spellings, but no version of the word existed that I could find. The dreary November sun faded in the sky from my window. I cried and felt again my failure. I couldn’t even find meaning in a word.
In those early months of my daughter’s being, no matter what anyone told me, I believed the challenges of our days had a lot to do with the asynclitic nature of our birth. I worried that, out of pure self-will, I had pushed too soon and forced her head askew and now I suffered the consequences. In the middle of the night, almost every night, my daughter woke from a deep sleep with a piercing, devastating cry and I thought for sure she dreamed nightmares of being stuck inside my pelvic bone. I’d go to comfort her but because of my hemorrhage, my anemic body felt more frail than I ever imagined it could. As I plodded to her crib, my arms felt too weak to lift her over the railing and I fretted I would drop her on the floor. My exhaustion, on top of the reality of only a few hours sleep here and there, caused me to break down into tears in random moments. In reality, my baby probably fussed and cried like any newborn, but in my mind, I couldn’t help but attribute our difficulties to our difficult birth experience.
One morning, in a state of sadness at the reality of my daughter’s birth, I wrote a poem, one of those poems that appears like a blessing out of nowhere. The poem was about the myth of Scylla and Charybdis, those Roman nymphs turned monsters that give us our proverbial “rock and hard place” analogy. In the poem, the mother/speaker acknowledges the difficulty of the infant stuck between these terrible monster-rocks, and she wants only to soothe her child. Writing the poem helped begin my healing and I was grateful to the gods and muses that allowed me the gift of creativity. Afterwards, I felt more relaxed and more connected to my daughter. But I still wasn’t fully the mother I hoped I would be.
Since that poem, I have been trying, rather desperately, to write another one because I feel an urgency to heal more quickly in order to be more present for my daughter. But between diaper changes, laundry loads, and tummy time, I have not yet found another metaphor that works. Finally, it dawned on me that perhaps the gods and muses don’t have another metaphor for me. Perhaps what’s needed is to examine the words themselves. Sometimes, for me, the origins, the very roots, of words can help make sense of my experiences by literally grounding me in the language.
For starters, I go back to asynclitic. Surely by now my mind has defogged and the rawness of motherhood has eased into enough of a lifestyle to help me re-see more clearly. I look up the word again in my dictionary but, alas, it is still not there. So, I think back to my days of Latin classes, break the word into pieces, drop the “a” prefix,” change the suffix and find its origins in the word synclinal. Syn, from the Latin sun, from the root ksun, is a preposition meaning “with or together,” as in “in synch.” Clinal is a suffix meaning sloping at the same angle, the root of which is keil, to lean, with derivatives including incline, decline, recline. Synclinal as a full word means sloping downward from opposite directions to meet in a common point or line. In geology syncline means a fork in rocks in which the rock layers dip inward from both sides toward the axis. According to Dictionary.com, synclitism is the condition of parallelism between the plane of the pelvis and that of the fetal head. If I add the “a” to make asynclitic, I see now more clearly: my baby and I were not parallel, not together, and not dipping inward toward the same axis.
When I wrote the Scylla and Charybdis poem, I hadn’t known the roots of the word asynclitic had to do exactly with geology and slopes and layers of rocks. To find that out now lightens my heart, again being validated, that words have meaning deep within our experiences before we even articulate them.