Hard to Kill
Every morning, I look in the mirror and tell myself the same thing: “No matter what happens today, remember: you are fucking hard to kill.”
Eighteen months ago, I almost died while giving birth to my daughter, Sarai. I’ve counted each of those days and contemplated so much in that time, hoping that some day I would be brave enough to tell the story. A scary story is scarier in the dark; its monsters grow more monstrous in the absence of light. Writing this is light.
I had a “precipitous labor”: basically, a normal vaginal delivery, but it all happened super-fast, within three hours of first contractions. My water broke at 1:30 pm, contractions began around 3:30, Sarai was born at 6:01. The doctor had intended, because of my skyrocketing blood pressure, to perform the delivery under epidural. In the end, there was no time. Sarai rushed through me as if she was as eager to meet me as I was to meet her. Nobody was going to slow her roll: not the anesthetist, not the doula, not the doctor.
I remember the orderlies swinging me onto a gurney and racing down the corridor to the delivery room. The doula, who had only just arrived, ran alongside trying every breathing technique she knew to slow Sarai’s pace. It bought us some extra minutes but, when they put me on the delivery table, I couldn’t help but cry out the words nobody wanted to hear: “I can’t hold her any longer!” Then, in a scene straight out of a cartoon, the doctor (I swear I saw his legs make several Scooby-Doo rotations) ran into the room and planted himself between my legs. He said, “Take a deep breath and give me three big pushes.” At the first push, my va-jay-jay felt like the neckline of size XS T-shirt being broached by a size XL person. The Lycra/Spandex had reached its capacity. I was sure I would never pee normally again. But then, the doctor plopped something on my stomach and announced, “There’s your daughter.”
I cradled a tiny wriggling person who already looked exactly like my husband. I counted fingers and toes—all there. Looked for a penis—none there. Then she and her daddy left to do whatever is done to babies at birth. I felt no residual pain, not even when the doctor began sewing, only a two-tone feeling of being both high and calm at the same time. I lay back and remembered how I had prayed for a safe, quick, and relatively pain-free delivery. I had gotten everything I had asked for, it seemed. I told myself, “If this is labor, what’s the big deal? I could do this again.”
At the time, I thought that I had suffered a torn perineum—they had warned us about that in birthing class (along with some other things, e.g. “Don’t let them separate you from your baby; immediate skin-to-skin contact is crucial for bonding; make sure they let you breastfeed right away”). What other reason could there be for the doctor’s determined sewing? But I didn’t really care. My child was alive and I was numb “down there” and couldn’t feel a stitch, so let him sew forever. The torn perineum assumption continued even after my body started trembling, even after the trembling became uncontrollable. When I asked why I was shaking, no one answered. The doctor just continued sewing and calling out orders. He was getting frustrated, calling for different sizes of instruments, different gauges of thread etc. Finally, I heard him say, “I am not making much progress. Let’s get her to the OR.”
My next memory is opening my eyes and realizing the orderlies were running with me again. Only this time, I was covered in something like foil. In the OR, I awoke again and looked around. Nobody was smiling. And the world was indigo. Like a million ink-blue butterflies hovering over me. I didn’t hear him at the time, but the doctor says that as I faded to black the last words he said to me were, “You will wake up. I will make sure you wake up.”
Sarai spent her first skin-to-skin hours on my husband’s chest, not mine. And when the pediatrician realized I was not coming out of surgery anytime soon, she authorized the nurses to feed my baby formula, from a small cup, since no breastfeeding was possible, obviously. All the birthing class do’s and don’ts had been offended, all rules broken. But I didn’t know this yet.
Six hours later I did wake up. To strange voices. And beeping noises. And lots of orange digital lights that illuminated the face of a man who was not my doctor. I asked him where I was. He replied that I was in the Intensive Care Unit of St. Clair Hospital.
I remember thinking, “ICU? For a torn perineum? These private hospitals sure know how to make money.”
Soon after, my husband appeared at the bedside holding Sarai. “You gave us quite a scare,” he said.
Still uncomprehending, I asked, “Is everything okay with the baby?”
“Yes, she’s fine.”
“Okay,” I said, “stay with her.” Then I turned away and slipped back into a drug-induced sleep.
The next day, I noticed that the hospital staff kept talking to me and smiling like normal, but there was some incongruous expression in their eyes. When the doctor saw me that morning, he grabbed and kissed me like I was his best friend. But he had the same mysterious eyes. My husband had them as well. Was it pity? Was it wonder? It was only later I realized that it was both these things, plus some deceit. They knew something I didn’t. And no one wanted to direct my attention away from my newborn daughter. No one wanted to make me wise to what I didn’t know. No one wanted to say, “We can’t believe you’re actually alive!”
“When can I breastfeed Sarai?” I asked the nurses.
“We have to check with the doctor,” they said.
So I asked the doctor myself. “It’s not yet safe,” he said, “because of the medications.”
I could not walk, move my lower body, or do anything for myself. I wore Pampers and a catheter and had six IV drips attached to me: antibiotics, blood, morphine, and other things I don’t even remember now. I kept asking questions but no one would give me a straight answer.
Then, during the second night in the hospital, it was a loud-mouthed, overly familiar, gossipy nurse who told me the truth. She told me that I did not have a torn perineum as I had been assuming all along. She explained that, due to the speed of my labor, I sustained several severe internal lacerations, some so high inside me that the doctors were unable to reach them. After delivery, I was losing blood from these tears and everything was made worse when my body went into something called Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC), a clotting disorder that leads to excessive bleeding. Basically, all the doctor’s sewing was in vain: I was bleeding out on the table and he could not stop it. At least three times during the night of Sarai’s birth, the doctor went to my husband for consent to try different things to save my life. Eventually, the only thing he could do was to pack me full with gauze and hope to keep the blood in.
Now everything finally made sense. I had practically died and woken up, resurrected. That’s why everyone was looking at me funny. Like its cousin Death, Near-Death leaves a stench that makes people uncomfortable.
I told the nurse I was tired, so she would leave me. Before that, I had her adjust the bed—flat—and hand me a pillow. When the door swung shut, I pressed that pillow over my face and I screamed. Then I bit into the foam as if I wanted to tear it out. Then I screamed some more. Then I just cried, the kind of crying that wracks your body but makes no sound. I was crying for my poor husband, a man of so few words and so unaccustomed to emotional excess that I knew he would have spent the night of the delivery sitting in the hospital nursery, paralyzed by fear. “We went to take the baby from him a few times,” the nurse had said, “but he kept saying ‘no, my wife is fighting for her life in there, I will fight out here.’” He would not have known what else to do. He has no family in this country. He has few close friends. He does not know how to show weakness. He would’ve been extremely alone.
And I was crying for him and me, because there was no way that we, with our personalities and relationship, would ever be able to find the words and the abandon to comfort each other through this nightmare. I was crying because we would each have to self-soothe, each remain alone and scared.
But most of all, I was crying for Sarai and me. Because we’d lost our chance at that early bonding they had raved about in birthing class. Because she was spending her first days in a plastic tub instead of the crib my husband had built for her. Because I was incapacitated and couldn’t care for her like a normal mother. Because the doctors said I was not yet out-of-the-woods medically, so I didn’t know when I would be able to be a normal mother. Because this thing that had happened was my worst fear coming true: it was a repeat of my own birth story, my mother’s resurrection story.
That story begins on Mucurapo Street, the busy market street in the town of San Fernando. Eight months pregnant, Mummy was jostling through the crowd, buying fruits and vegetables to nourish me, the baby in her belly. It was the Christmas season and the street was clogged with vendors, purchasers, pedestrians headed to and from shops adjacent to the market. Vehicles had no choice but to inch along, rolling forward only as far as the crowd would permit them.
One driver rolled a little too far. His bumper rubbed against the thigh of the woman standing behind Mummy. When the lady saw that what had nudged her was a vehicle, she panicked and ran. Mummy was trampled to the ground, and the same car drove over her. She heard someone yell, “A pregnant lady get bounced-down!” Then an off-duty policeman rushed her to the hospital. Her aunt, who worked in a nearby poultry shop, had heard the commotion on the street and come out to see. She headed to my grandmother’s house with the orphaned bag of fruit and the terrible news: “It look like Linda dead.”
Actually, Mummy clung to life, and went into labor on Christmas Day. In the travails of a complicated delivery, she fell unconscious. She didn’t know when I was born. I was discharged from the hospital after a few days but my mother remained there for another month since she was unable to walk or do anything for herself. A family friend, an old lady who lived across the street from the hospital, took care of me for that first month of my life.
Mummy did leave the hospital eventually; she did retrieve me from that old lady. But our thorny mother-daughter relationship sent me into therapy as an adult. And, when I became pregnant, ringing in my head for the entire nine months were the conclusions of my therapist: the separation at birth had caused a failure of secure attachment between my mother and me. I had wanted better for my daughter and me: no delivery drama, no separation. I had prayed for it.
Two days after surgery, when the doctors tried to unpack me I began to bleed all over again. They re-packed me and left it a few more days. “It’s a wait-and-see situation,” the doctor said, “there’s nothing more we can do.” Then, I developed liver disease. “It happens with the excessive bleeding,” the doctors said. I learned to love morphine; morphine was my friend, until they stopped giving it to me. Then I begged for sleeping pills, all the time, not just at night. I couldn’t stand being awake and flat on my back and helpless and worried and useless to my baby. Yet, when the doctor offered to discharge Sarai so she could be cared for by family at home, I snapped at him, “She’s not going anywhere without me!” He must have seen the set of my jaw, the flare of my nostrils. He never asked again.
At the doctor’s request, my family sent out an urgent call for blood donors. More people responded than we could ever imagine, and we ended up with more blood than we could use. Friends and co-workers of my family and friends, people I had not seen or talked to in ages, security guards, janitors, students, office workers—they all took time off from work to save my life. I wondered, why would anyone bother except my family? It boggled my mind that there were people who would be so selfless. I realized that it didn’t matter what you do for a living, what you look like, where you’re from, what your ethnicity is—at the end of the day, we all bleed red and all blood is welcome to a dying woman.
Around the fourth day, I could get out of bed. I could not walk unassisted or sit for very long, though. Then, on the fifth day, the doctor unpacked me and I bled, but not uncontrollably. The doctor said I was doing well but he couldn’t discharge me until my blood count, blood pressure, and liver readings stabilized. On the sixth day, he added new conditions: I had to be able to walk, urinate, and have bowel movements on my own. I couldn’t believe my own ears when, that night, I heard myself asking God to grant me the ability to pee and poo.
On the seventh day, Sarai and I were discharged.
As my husband approached our house and the gate began to roll away, I remembered the last time I had seen my kitchen window. My mother-in-law had been standing there, behind the curly black wrought iron, waving as I left for the hospital, her palm the same color as the peachy exterior walls of the house. The memory of that moment made me weaker than I was already, because I realized it is very possible to quietly and unsuspectingly leave your house and never make it back.
I remained fragile for a long time after coming home with Sarai. But, after three months, the post-transfusion fogginess and general anxiety in my mind cleared enough that I began to more fully engage with her. The physical complications also receded to the point that, one day, I was able to carry her in my arms and get down on the floor and play with her, without pain. My mother sat nearby. As Sarai giggled and cooed in response to my tickles and baby talk, I felt Mummy’s eyes trained on my back. Without a word passing, I knew what she was thinking.
One day, my daughter will face something formidable and frightening, and all my love won’t be able to save her. But I know she will survive, because that’s what we do. The women in my family, we are fucking hard to kill.
Rumpus original art by Mobius Design Studio.