Saying Grace

Damon and I are chatting and catching up in the kitchen as Damon puts the final touches on dinner—he’s been awesome about picking up more of the cooking duties since my “morning” sickness and fatigue kicked in. Oscar is literally dangling from the hem of my skirt, laughing as he swings and twirls from side to side, hanging on to the fabric. I’m wrinkling my nose up at the eggplant Damon just brought in from the grill—I normally love it, but my pregnant belly isn’t so keen. I’ll try some anyway because it was made with love. I sit on the floor to tickle Oscar before dinner hits the table, and he shines. He just shines.

We have so much for which to be grateful. Of that, there is no doubt.

The fall before my husband and I met, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Shortly thereafter, I had what’s called a cold knife conization to remove the cancerous tissue.

As I woke up in recovery (thankfully lucid enough to push away the proffered saltines, pointing to my allergy bracelet), my fabulous doctor came in to see me. With characteristic frankness, she told me that the lab tests on the excised tissue would give us confirmation in another week or so, but that the surgery itself went great and I would be able to have children in the future, no problem.

I burst into tears of relief.

Which is weird because I didn’t want children. Or I thought I didn’t. Or I had accepted the fact that I never would.

But my body’s reaction, those tears, told a different story. They changed my life. The weeks that followed brought tumultuous change—some good, some less-than-pleasant, all necessary. I knew my life needed to change. I didn’t know if I would ever have children, but I knew that I didn’t want to be living a life in which I knew having a family would not be an option.

Subsequent lab results and follow-up tests showed that I continued to be cancer free, and I found that I didn’t want to “date” anymore or try to shoe-horn myself into someone else’s life. Antoine de St. Exupery once said, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction.” That’s what I wanted. I signed up for an online dating service on a whim, and I met Damon. Less than a year later, we were engaged.

That next winter, a follow-up test showed positive for cervical cancer again. I’m so glad Damon was there with me. We once again did the biopsy and confirmed the diagnosis. And once again, I had surgery to remove the affected tissue.

And once again, it was successful. I’ve been cancer-free ever since, about two years now. Our oncologist told us when the second diagnosis came that if we wanted to have children, we might want to “prioritize it,” not put it off. There’s a chance the cancer could return, and a third bout might require different handling, to put it gently.

Damon and I agreed on two things. First, we both very much wanted a family. Second, we did not want to have fear rule our decisions, and neither did we want to postpone something we both wanted so much. We talked, a lot. We planned for our wedding. We celebrated our good fortune and good health with breathless gratitude.

eating ice cream

Damon and Oscar, sharing some ice cream.

Within a month of returning from our honeymoon, we discovered we were pregnant with Oscar. I often marvel that if I had never been diagnosed with cervical cancer, I might never have met Damon, for whom there are not enough superlatives in the world (superlatives, Damon, not expletives 🙂 ). If I hadn’t been diagnosed a second time, Oscar might not be here today. And suffice to say, we would probably not be expecting baby number two.

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I am so glad that I had cancer. I’m not ever one to dally with regret, but to think of so much goodness coming from something so frightening, my head just reels.

Now dinner is ready. Oscar wears his enthusiasm for food all over his face (literally). I try the eggplant, compliment the flavor, then predictably focus on the salad instead (sorry, Damon!). Damon laughs, his face split into a huge shining grin, and tells me about the beer he’s drinking. I realize he shines just like Oscar, and vice versa. All that glow, illuminating our meal.


Asked & Answered: You Get What You Need

Admittedly hotheaded and keenly emotional, there are two foolproof ways to upset my proverbial apple cart. First, in the event that I’m excited about something—good or bad—tell me to “calm down” or “chill out.” Yeah, that doesn’t go over very well, pretty straightforward. The second way is a bit more tangled: when I share a personal sentiment or struggle, respond by telling me how I should fix it, what you would do differently, that I should cheer up – anything in that vein.

Why does that sort of response rile me so much? It’s a little harder to explain; and for years, I didn’t know, so I would just get more and more unhappy with the other person, often talking in circles. I’d repeat and rehash my story from every angle, and they would repeat themselves, and we would both get frustrated because no one was getting what they needed. The real kicker is that it was my own damn fault; the biggest impediment to getting what I needed was my not taking the time to figure out what I needed in the first place. I was too busy feeling things to think! Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

Damon helped me sort this out, on both sides of the above scenario. Nine times out of ten (at least for me), when I share with someone, I simply want to be heard and acknowledged and… that’s it. All the suggestions and circular discussions were so frustrating because that’s not what I needed! And the solution is so deliciously succinct. Share, and acknowledge. Done. If I catch myself getting bent while trying to share something or just vent, that’s my reminder to ask for what I need. Asked and answered.

And it works both ways. When Damon starts winding up with an epic story of something that’s bothering him at work, my immediate impulse as someone who loves him is to want to help him, make suggestions, spitball ideas for solving the issue, or cheer him up—anything to help him feel better! But when I sense that frustration level rising, I stop and ask him whether he wants me to make suggestions or if he just wants me to listen. Asked and answered.

We don’t always get it right, but it really helps that we want to help each other get it right and that we’re willing to laugh at ourselves when we slip up.

I spent the lion’s share of my life at the mercy of my emotions, always reactionary, careening about, pushing and pulling until ideally something would magically someday maybe fall into place and fit and everything would suddenly be puppies and kittens forever amen. What a gift it is to learn that exhausting dance is completely unnecessary. What a gift it is to be able to take a breath—fifteen seconds!—to reflect and communicate inwardly. Then communicate outward—ask for advice, ask for empathy, ask for cheerful distraction, commiseration, a stiff drink, whatever! Or simply ask to be heard.

How about you? Any communication breakthroughs? Face-palm moments?

Reinhabiting Life

The first week following Oscar’s birth, I moved through a hormone- and love-induced haze during which I slept little, sometimes only one or two hours a day.  I didn’t need sleep: I was in love.

Week two, the tables turned. The sleeplessness caught up with a vengeance, prompting sweeping emotional swings – crying one moment, laughing the next, and repeat—and even frightening hallucinations. This was where Damon, good man, drew the line; he enforced naps between feedings, and though I protested that Oscar needed me, that I wanted to visit with him and our parents, as soon as one feeding was over, Oscar was whisked away to cuddle or nap elsewhere, and I was forced to rest. One more thing for which I am eternally grateful to my husband.

A few days later, I started acting like a [somewhat] sane person again. A couple weeks after that, as our family adapted to its new rhythm, we were amazed at how well we functioned with oft-interrupted and scant sleep. Five or six hours of sleep a night seemed extravagant after the deprivation of the first couple weeks but was still much less than we had been accustomed to getting before Oscar was born. We were so impressed with ourselves; we had all these crazy new complications, and we still functioned!

Within a couple months, Oscar was going six to eight hours at a stretch at night, which allowed me at least four hours of sleep before I had to get up to feed him. Then he’d go back to sleep—and I’d go back to sleep—for another four hours or so. Suddenly, I was sleeping eight hours a night total, and my body was pretty well healed, as well.

Around five months I started to get the itch. I was healed, but I wanted to get back in shape. Every spare moment was crammed full with running errands, doing laundry, folding laundry, nursing Oscar—the list goes on. On the rare occasion that I had a half hour or so, I was either so exhausted that all I could do was watch part of a movie (never a whole film) or I would feel guilty about the epic to-do list and try to shoe-horn in one more thing. In my mind, I didn’t have time to exercise, and I certainly didn’t have time for myself. Other stuff and other people had to come first. Just like sleep in that first week or so, it always got backburnered.

As happy as I was as a mother, I started to feel pretty down on myself as a wife and as an individual. Although toting Oscar around had given me arms of steel, i otherwise felt frumpy. My clothes didn’t fit. Heck, even my skin didn’t seem to fit. It was hard to find time to do simple things that I normally took for granted, like washing my hair or dressing well. I felt ugly. I suspected that Damon only continued to profess his love for me out of kindness, obligation, and possibly pity.

Moreover, I felt intensely lonely. Oscar is fabulous company, and I was so happy with him, but I had all of these thoughts and feelings and revelations that I didn’t really have an outlet for sharing. I talked to my mom a lot, but I also got kind of self-conscious about talking about all this stuff lest anyone think I was either unbalanced or fixated (or both). I didn’t want anyone to think I was struggling or weak, nor did I want to disappoint anyone when they asked how things were going by saying anything other than a bright smile and a brave declaration: “Great!”

I lacked the courage and the ability to say instead, “I love being a mother; it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and this shit is hard. I’m unhappy with myself, I’m constantly questioning myself, and where I used to think I was a superhero for even functioning on a human level while taking care of a baby, now I feel insecure and self-conscious about my inability to even take care of myself. I feel ugly and selfish, and I feel guilty about feeling anything other than bliss when I have this amazing boy in my life.” Truth.

And once again, as in those first weeks, my husband came to the rescue. He continued to be supportive, to listen, and to empathize as much as he could. He encouraged me to spend an afternoon with a friend. He cheered me on when I started using my lunch breaks to exercise at work. I was so proud of myself, texting him that I’d run x-number of miles or done however many pushups or whatever, and he would always respond effusively—such a simple thing, but on some level I guess he knew how important it was to me, how much it helped me stay motivated.

Our family, August 2012

Damon, Anna, and Oscar – August 2012

As my energy-level and body image improved, I continued to wish for “me time,” and I continued to sabotage my own attempts at getting it: chores had to be done, errands had to be run, Oscar needed me to nurse him, insert pity party here. Damon heard the need and ignored the noise. One Saturday, he told me that he would watch Oscar for a few hours so I could go to a café and write. I had to run a couple errands, so off I went. I ran my errands, got stuck in traffic, and finally gave up, returning home without having written a damn thing.

The next day—Sunday—he once more packed me out the door again. He told me to stay out as long as I needed, to not make excuses and not feel guilty about taking time for myself. This time, I made it to the café. I bought a cup of chai and a banana. I sat down and stared at the computer for a minute or two.

And I started to write. That afternoon, I wrote a birthday letter to Oscar. I cried as I wrote it, trying (probably unsuccessfully) to hide it from the other people in the café. It was such a huge release and relief to be able to tell someone about my feelings and thoughts and memories, even if Oscar couldn’t read it yet, even if the only person listening was me. I felt like I could breathe a little better.

The following week, I wrote every single day. I couldn’t shut up. I felt like I was meeting myself again, rekindling an old flame. That enthusiasm spread and spread—I was more excited about Oscar, about work, about cooking, and it probably goes without saying that I was pretty durn happy with Damon, too! My hero. I was so worried that taking time for myself would mean neglecting or denying our family, but another week passed and I wrote every day, I cooked great meals, and I exercised regularly. And I somehow had even more energy and time for Oscar and much more joy to share with Damon.

Oscar is now one year old. Damon and I have been married for two years. And I feel like I’m better at living than I’ve ever been. I’m energized, I’m vulnerable in the best possible way, and I’m backing slowly away from those dirty words: “should be,” “ought to,” “supposed to.” Instead, I’m trying to give myself the freedom to celebrate all of it—the ups and the downs—and the space to be honest. I’m trying to remove my filter and get my priorities in order, and that means bumping myself up to the top of the list. I’m doing twice as much as I ever did, and I have energy left over because I’ve invested in myself. Because Damon patiently held up the mirror so I could see what he saw: powerful and beautiful. I am grateful.

Baby Turning / Parent Turning

At the time, I was a wreck.

In our third trimester, we discovered that Oscar, the lanky giraffe that he is, had decided to wedge himself in the frank breech position, with his butt down at the bottom of my belly, his head and feet rattling against my ribcage. Little man did not want to move.

We tried everything. Already late in the game, we scheduled an appointment to have the doctor attempt to turn Oscar manually—called an external version—but in the meantime, it was a veritable three-ring circus of baby-turning stunts. I went thrice weekly to the chiropractor for magical baby-turning chiropractic adjustments. I did inversions at least three times a day (a feat unto itself with a belly as big as mine, though I did break the coffee table—not my proudest moment.) I did forward bends several times a day, of course, and I also paid the daily fee to visit the local gym several days a week to do handstands and flips and other nautical gyrations in their salt-water pool. No potatoes.

My [least] favorite? My beloved, patient, cheerleading husband and I did moxabustion. A form of acupuncture wherein moxa (an incense containing mugwort) is burned over a specific acupuncture point on the outside of each baby toe, the practice is reputed to have extremely high rates of success in baby-turning. An acupuncturist friend of ours was kind enough to give us a moxa stick and show us how to do it ourselves. Every night for twenty minutes, I would lie on the bed contemplating my navel, sometimes playing music to my belly, while Damon burned the moxa down by my pinky toes.

Just thinking of the smell makes me cringe. At first it wasn’t so bad, sort of earthy, but the longer it burned the more rank it got, and after days of doing the moxa every evening, the house smelled like old moldy gym socks and cheap cigars. Couple that with the fact that mugwort has a well-earned reputation for bringing very vivid, intense (and bizarre) dreams, after about a week of poor sleep and smelling like a swamp fire, I had to veto further attempts. We were (and are still) trying to sell the house—I could just picture a prospective buyer dropping in and wondering what the heck we’d been smoking. For that matter, although Oscar did wiggle around some while we were doing the moxa, I’m fairly certain at this point that he was trying to get away from the noxious vapors by pushing his head even further up into my womb.

The day came for the external version, and despite the best efforts of our doctors (I’m surprised my eyeballs didn’t pop out at the amount of pressure they used), Oscar remained adamantly ensconced in his chosen posture. Lying in the hospital bed after the doctors had given up, I tried to make light of it, but any attempt at smiling just ended in a grimace, tears leaking steadily down my cheeks into my ears. I had no brave face. I had no words. We had done everything we could. Each technique was supposed to work. Oscar was supposed to have turned. Our story was supposed to be different, I told myself. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

None of our doctors or local midwives would perform a frank breech vaginal birth at this stage in the game. We had wanted to have a natural birth, no medication, and we had signed up to use a local birthing center. We had learned about pain management techniques, positions, breathing, etc., and we had dreamed together of what it would be like, what Damon would do to support me through labor, how magical it would be. We had made a freaking playlist!

It sounds so silly to me now, but it’s true. I had to grieve the birth we had so carefully planned. Our son had other plans. Despite thinking that Damon and I knew what was best, what needed to happen, how it ought to be, we ultimately had to let it all go and trust Oscar’s wisdom that this was how he needed to come into the world. I was so sad and scared. Our focus on natural childbirth had made me pretty fearful of having a hospital and/or cesarean birth, and it took some struggle to move past the feelings of guilt that I somehow hadn’t done enough to try to get him to turn, that something in me had failed, had prevented his turning, or had even manifested the situation.

The morning Oscar was born, I was terrified—cold sweat, shaking, deathly pale, on the edge of panic—terrified. When he was born, all of that fear, uncertainty, and yes, even guilt, was washed completely away in the magic of that moment. His strong body and adamant spirit were birthed from my body and into the world. I was finally able to hold him in my arms and look into his clear, blue, unblinking eyes.

If I could go back and do things differently, I know I would still jump through all those hoops (just because the baby-turning regiment didn’t work with Oscar doesn’t mean it isn’t highly effective in other instances). I would still want a natural birth. But I would not hold myself hostage over it. All that stuff you read when you’re pregnant about your emotional state affecting your pregnancy and every superlative known to man regarding birth options and dangers and everything else—yes, it can be good, empowering, transformational; but when it doesn’t go that way, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It just means it didn’t go that way. And maybe, in the natural intelligence of the process, this is how it needs to be.

Even while I was pregnant, in the moment of his birth, Oscar was teaching us. He had a voice even then and he demanded to be heard. We as parents needed to learn to let go of our best-laid plans and listen to him. In that short-lived but profound disappointment, we were humbled, and that humility was a great gift to us in the months that followed, and I’m sure it will continue to benefit us in the years to come. That much-dreaded circumstance became the best day of our lives, filled with joy, hope, and clarity, surrounded by loving family and warm caregivers.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be right.

Birth Moments

As we rapidly approach Oscar’s first birthday, I find myself thinking often about his birth. We had planned a natural birth at a local birthing center, but then, well, life happened. More on that later. Over the next few weeks, you’ll probably be hearing a lot about that time. Bear with me (har har har). Rather than stitching together a birth story narrative for this post, I opted instead to write about the most vivid moments I recall from Oscar’s birth.

The morning of our scheduled cesarean birth, I was so scared—my hands and feet were freezing as I waited in my flimsy cotton gown and went through all the awkward preparations. I kept trying to compensate by making bad jokes with the nursing staff, but each smile seemed serrated, each laugh a little too loud in my ears. My gentle, irreplaceable doula Sara rubbed my swollen feet and ankles with oil and lavender essence. Damon’s big, warm hands were wrapped around my pale, cold ones. He kept telling me to look at him, telling me everything would be okay. He knew—he was—exactly what I needed.

I was taken into the OR. The anesthesiologist seemed very stern until we found out that his name was Oscar and his son’s name as well. Then suddenly he was all smiles. I found that change so reassuring and distracting that I was surprised as a wash of cold filled my legs like ice water into a balloon, and then everything below my chest just seemed to disappear.

I could see nothing of the surgery, and all I could feel from the other side of the curtain was a lot of tugging—my body was actually rocked to and fro with it. I remember commenting that someone was tugging pretty hard on me, imagining they were just testing whether I could feel anything. The doctor and staff laughed, and she said, “Anna, we’re doing a lot more than tugging.” My mouth made an “oh,” and I giggled nervously. Breath.

Damon and Sara came in, apparently with the surgery already in progress, and Damon cupped his hands around my hands and shoulders, big and warm and reassuring. Dressed in snowy white sterile gown and mask, he watched over the curtain, and I watched him, trying to somehow see what he was seeing.

At some point during the procedure, the doctor actually complimented me on my abs. It was so weirdly unexpected that I laughed out loud.

More pulls and tugs, and my body rocked back and forth. Damon was telling me that they were pulling Oscar out, and then that he was free—I wish I could remember the exact words he said…

I heard Oscar’s foghorn squall, busting its way out of his lungs and declaring his place in the world, and everything else vanished. All the fear melted in the blink of an eye, in our baby’s cry. I told Damon (ordered him, really) to go be with Oscar while they cleaned him and checked him over. I wanted Oscar to have one of us with him as fast as possible. In the midst of such huge change, I wanted him to hear a voice he would recognize.

Within a minute or three, Damon brought our baby boy to me. He tried to give him to me, but my arms were so cold and weak that I was scared I would drop him, so instead Damon just held him as close to me as possible, against my chest and neck, against my face, so I could touch his hair, smell him, feel him, hear the breath come in and out, see how his tiny hands stretched and closed, seeking, his long limbs jerky and unaccustomed to their new freedom. His eyes were wide open from the start, an undeniable blue. He was (and still is) the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

I don’t know how much time passed. The rest of the hospital stay was a blur, minutes seeming hours, days seeming minutes. I moved into recovery and Oscar was put in my arms. Our parents were with us (I don’t remember them coming in, just that they were suddenly there), and Oscar nuzzled and bobbed, lifting and rolling his head, kneading my skin with his hands—already so strong!—until he found my breast. That was the first time that I felt the unparalleled relief, the rightness, of feeding him. (Thereafter, every time I breastfed him, I would just exhale, feel like everything in the world was suddenly right as rain. After an extended time away from him – first running errands, then after I returned to work—that first moment of reunion with him and sitting down to feed him actually brought a choking sob of relief up from my chest where it had lay tangled, unknown, around my heart during the day.)

My little oneWe moved to our own room for the rest of our stay. Damon slept on a couch by the window. I dozed occasionally, but I was so mesmerized by this incredible little being that sleep seemed out of the question. When I was able to get my legs under me again, I would push Oscar in his little hospital cart along the corridors while everyone else slept. Two in the morning, four, we would wander the halls together.

I sang him a patchwork of songs: “Mori Sej”, “Hush Little Baby”, the lullaby from Cotton Patch Gospel, not to mention any other song that popped into my head. A verse of this, the refrain from that, filling in with hums the words I couldn’t remember. Oscar would watch my face or sleep against my chest, his little bow-shaped mouth hanging open, so trusting and achingly vulnerable.

Damon was our guardian, our papa bear. He did whatever was needed, was constantly reassuring to me, checking my incision, helping me to and from the bathroom, in and out of bed, patiently explaining to the nursing staff for the umpteenth time that I could not eat food containing gluten, that medications had to be gluten free as well, that yes, we do want this, no, we don’t want that, yes we understand that a lot of babies go to the nursery at night, but we’re happy keeping Oscar in the room with us. He took care of all of that; he took care of us. He was so beautiful.

Hardly any sleep, difficulty moving, blood and stiffness and gas pain you wouldn’t believe, and when I looked at our baby boy, my only thoughts were, “I wish this would never end. I wish every day could be like this. I am so blessed.”

Damon holds Oscar