22 November, 2010

All that Matters

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.


joan said...

I believe that metaphor is the highest form of insight, even transcending the All as One. But what I learned through the death of each of my parents is that the metaphor, like the life itself, is not complete until the the last breath has been drawn. I therefore wonder if metaphor like science can be appear to be true but is based on incomplete information and therefore merely a shadow of the truth. I wonder if in being too precise and artful in our metaphors or too focused on them, our worlds can become flat without our even knowing it. In creating the perfect metaphor with incomplete information, do we risk sailing off the edge? Do we poets spend our lives creating these metaphors because we live outside the mystery instead of in it and with it?

Nancy Slavin said...

Well, I hear you Joan. And with a toddler, my life is much, much less artful and poetic. Indeed daily life is much more real, in the moment, non-metaphoric....That said, I posted more today (12/15) about death and I know there's no metaphor for that. We're just gone.....Glad to see you here....

JenFW said...

Where you see failure, I see a mother sacrificing her own wishes to honor those of her daughter. Where you wonder if you pushed too soon, I wonder if your daughter wasn't dancing her way into the world, and though it nearly cost you your life, you let her.

Yeah, I know. What do I know from childbirth?