The Distance Between Fear and Hope
My hands grip the wheel tight as we drive on Herndon Ave. “Come on, come on, come on,” I say to the red stoplight, my chest tightening. I open my window, but it feels like I can’t quite fill my lungs. Almost there. I pinch my thigh so I can feel something, anything other than the panic. I picture the little café we went to in Rome, like my therapist has taught me to do. I see the yellow Italian presses stacked neatly against the wall and the locals rushing in and out, drinking shots of espresso at the bar. I remember how my eyes burned from the jet lag and how my husband wiped milk foam from my lips as we stepped out into the rain.
“Mama, guess what?” my girl asks from the backseat.
“What?” My breath is still shallow.
“Today at school I get to play at the big kids’ playground. Because I’m a big girl now!”
The baby throws his toy onto the seat and giggles, and so does my girl.
“Baby girl, please, can you stop growing up so fast?”
The question lingers in the air above her who, just a minute ago, was a pink, squirming bundle with an astonishing amount of straight, black hair.
She adjusts her new purple glasses and thinks for a minute. “But my body is telling me to keep growing.”
I realize I need to be careful when we talk about our bodies, because I don’t want her to resent hers like I did mine. I say a quick prayer that her body will always do what it is supposed to do. Unlike mine, which often misbehaves – especially when it carried her.
I pause. “You’re right. Your body is doing exactly what it should be doing.”
When my husband and I first got married, I started experiencing widespread pain. After months of testing, the doctors told me it was an autoimmune disorder and there was no cure. I was mad at my body, and every day was a battle. The dust was thick on our furniture and our trash bin overflowed with take-out containers. No one could see the pain from the outside, so I learned how to pretend I was like everyone else – healthy, able, and even happy. I twisted my winces into smiles and my limping into a pep in my step.
I should not have been surprised when my uterus began to whine, as my OB put it, halfway through my pregnancy, and put me in early labor at twenty-seven weeks. From then on, whenever my contractions got too close together, we would get in the car and drive down the road I knew so well. I knew when to hold my belly, rock hard, against the bumps. I knew when I could relax against the headrest at the longer stoplights. I would press my sweaty palm against my husband’s and smile, trying to soften his worry. I scolded my body again and again for trying to reject the life that grew inside of me. As she grew, so did my fear that my body was too weak, too headstrong to sustain her. This road became a playground for my body’s constant commotion.
Each ride was laced with fear and hope. I learned that there is only a sliver between them, a small moment that made me lean into one or fall into the other. Was today the day the nurses always warned me about? Would she be born and then die today? Or would my body somehow pause from its unruly behavior and let our hearts beat together just a little longer? My belly would push up against my diaphragm, and with each labored breath I would beg my body to please stop. To just do what it was supposed to do. Please.
Some mornings, the contractions would wake me and we would drive under a sleepy sky – first lit blue, then pink, and finally gold. Just before the street lights shut off, it was like we were the only ones on the road. Then slowly other cars would join us. For them, this road led to work or their kid’s school or a coffee date with a friend. For me, it led to long hours of testing and meds. To listening to the beeping of other babies’ hearts and the whispers of other scared mothers who sat behind the harsh beige floral curtains. The nurses knew me by name and told us to prepare ourselves. But I wasn’t ready for any of this. How would I care for such a fragile little body when mine failed over and over again?
On the day she was born, I woke up feeling calm. I had made it to thirty-seven weeks and, by then, I had begun to thank my body. I talked sweetly to it as we rode down Herndon Avenue. I didn’t know that this time I would experience the peak of its frailty. That this time, the road would lead so close to death that I would see and feel the darkness of it.
During my stress test, the beeping of her heartbeat slowed to an almost stop. I thought she had just moved away from the monitor as usual, but I can still see the panic on the nurse’s face. I remember how she slammed the big red button on the wall. The way she ordered me to remove my pants immediately, and how I fumbled with all the extra fabric of my maternity jeans. How she checked my cervix without warning, my scream echoing in that windowless room. I can hear the door slamming against the wall and see the flock of blue scrubs who swooped in and ran me to the other side of the hospital, pecking at me with questions about who they could call for me.
She just could not tolerate the contractions anymore. Her heart rate slowed and mine raced, and we were no longer in sync. She had to come out. In the operating room, there were people all around me, but no one really looked at me. I begged the anesthesiologist not to put me to sleep. I should have known not to trust my body.
The spinal numbed my legs but also climbed up to my head. As soon as I told the nurse I felt funny, I became completely paralyzed. Even my lungs fell asleep. I could hear them calling for help, alarms going off all around me, while I felt like I was sinking into the deepest darkest part of the ocean, my heartbeat slowing, my lungs screaming for air. I prayed for God to give me just one more moment of life so I could meet the baby I had wondered about for so long. I begged for just one moment of motherhood. I felt them stick something down my throat, and it began to push air into my lungs. The darkness softened as I heard her fierce little cry.
She was alive.
I was alive.
When I woke up in the recovery room, my hands searched my belly, now empty. “Where is she?” I asked my sister. She told me the baby was okay repeatedly, but I felt robbed. My baby had been taken from me, ripped from my body in a hurry. And I had missed it. The whole thing. There were no pictures. There was no skin to skin. There were no happy tears. There was no love at first sight. I had swirled and crashed through a tidal wave birth and somehow washed up on the shore of motherhood. It seemed to be a desolate place, where no one acknowledges the hard part: that I was suddenly responsible for another life when my own body and soul had just been turned inside out and trampled upon. Where pain and love are the same, and where loneliness resides.
“Congratulations, mama,” a nurse said as she adjusted the bag of fluids that hung on a metal pole beside my cot.
Congratulations for waking up when I thought I would never wake up again? Congratulations on having to be resuscitated while my child was being born?
I met my daughter in a hallway. It was a pit stop on our way to my recovery room. A door suddenly open, a flash of bright fluorescent lights, and then a smiling nurse holding up a baby, her face cracked and dry, and her eyes closed. I am glad she didn’t see me like that, broken and refusing to touch her, the meds making me dizzy, the paralysis lingering in my soul. They put her on my legs and I focused on the weight of her, trying to love her.
I did not feel any connection with her. She was just a bundle of blankets that my husband and sister occasionally oohed and awed at. I ignored their concerned whispers. Soon a nurse announced that the baby was hungry. She undressed her and placed her on me I felt the softness of her, and how her warmth was the same as mine. I watched her explore my body and find what she needed. I was all she needed. She was what I needed. My body was still her home.
With the birth of my daughter, a peculiar strength came alive in me that I never knew existed. When I had already been up all night and was sure I couldn’t possibly stay awake another minute, I did. When my daughter, now five, asks me question after question, I continue to engage her eager mind, even if all I want is a quiet moment to myself. Every day, I go inside myself and face the music, my symphony of fear and hope and survival, of countless what ifs and almosts. I hold onto the strength even when I am thrown back into that memory. I remember and then continue, because motherhood ravishes me. It inspires me to heal.
“Mommy, are we there yet? This is a long road,” my girl says from the backseat.
The light turns red, and we stop. Their voices rise and fall with each swerve and bump, a harmony that starts bringing me back inside the lines. I look up and see the Sierras ahead, their peaks elegant curves against the ever-changing sky. This road is an avenue to life and death and everything in between. Beauty was always here.
“Yes, it is,” I say. “But look how far we have already come.”
Tamar Mekredijian is a writer who lives in Fresno, CA with her husband, daughter, and son. She teaches writing at her local community college and thrives to instill a love for stories in her students. She writes to understand herself and the world she lives in. She is the Content Editor for Still Standing Magazine. Find her on Instagram @tamarrachelwrites.