“Precautions had been taken, but had failed. I wasn’t sure how John, perfectly content with his baby girl, would handle the news, but he was accepting. I asked if I should terminate the pregnancy, and he looked me dead in the eye, and said it was my call. Which was awkward. I was terrified. I had made it through Claire’s gestation by staying very busy, and practicing denial like a religion, refusing to even allow the nameless fears in my mind to coalesce, and take on names, words, that would give them power. And I had a feeling about this pregnancy. We had been arguing when I conceived, (a break in the fight, obviously), and that hit a superstitious chord in the Irish DNA that infuses me, one that not even the offsettingly practical French DNA could overcome.”— Jean Carroll Nolan
By Jean Carroll Nolan
Note: This essay follows on from Nolan’s essay of last week, Light & Death.
SEASIDE California—(Weekly Hubris)—10/5/2015—Last week was a week for discussing the cruelty of autumn, autumn as the precursor of darkness, autumn as the season of death. Last week was the story of the twins, my own little gemini, lost forever, eternally tiny and unscathed, even though they would turn 40 next year. A love letter never to be read by the objects of adoration, but still true, still vital, still pumping through my heart, every moment of every day.
A story of sorrow, and withdrawal, and recovery, and new beginnings.
And there were new beginnings. We had decided to move to California, after the twins. We needed, we felt, a new venue. Oddly, after making the decision, we settled into a comfortable routine in Chicago, making peace with the city that had witnessed our own Waterloo, enjoying the multiplicity of entertainments it offered, even, in 1977, normalizing relations with fall itself through the means of an epic Halloween costume party, and enjoying the holiday season. It took us two years to mobilize, to put ourselves and four cats into a van, with half a hundred boxes of books, a few clothes, and no furniture, and hie ourselves to the shores of the Pacific. In December of 1978, we arrived in Seaside, California, where my mother and her brother, she widowed, he divorced, had set up housekeeping.
Within a month, we were both working and, by the summer, I was pregnant again. In March of 1980, our full-term, beautiful daughter, Claire Elizabeth, was born, which is another story, one for spring, one which I’ll tell when it’s her birth month, next March. For the moment, suffice it to say she was pink and gold and beautiful, with eyes like a kitten, large and curious and wide open, and she was sturdy and healthy and beloved beyond belief. Finally, we had a baby to cherish, a focal point for all our thwarted love.
And, we kept working, my mother and uncle watching Claire a few hours a day, and I slipping back into a normal routine, running home to nurse my baby, full of adoration and gratitude.
In the spring of 1981, between Claire’s birthday and mine, I learned I was again expecting. Most unexpectedly.
Precautions had been taken, but had failed. I wasn’t sure how John, perfectly content with his baby girl, would handle the news, but he was accepting. I asked if I should terminate the pregnancy, and he looked me dead in the eye, and said it was my call. Which was awkward. I was terrified. I had made it through Claire’s gestation by staying very busy, and practicing denial like a religion, refusing to even allow the nameless fears in my mind to coalesce, and take on names, words, that would give them power. And I had a feeling about this pregnancy. We had been arguing when I conceived, (a break in the fight, obviously), and that hit a superstitious chord in the Irish DNA that infuses me, one that not even the offsettingly practical French DNA could overcome.
So, part of me wanted the new, unanticipated pregnancy, to go away, to be not. I didn’t want any more fear. I didn’t want to endure anything. I had what I wanted, and I craved a safe window in which to relish my girl, and be happy.
But. You don’t end a life because of your own fear. That cannot be right. You don’t terminate a pregnancy because of personal convenience. You don’t play games with fate, because fate always wins anyway. Even at 30, I knew that much. I knew I would bear another child, and that we would deal, my warrior-poet-lunatic and I, with whatever hand we were dealt.
I settled into pregnancy, gradually accepting that the baby would be born in mid-November, just in time to join us in the holidays.
The old saw is that you feel the baby move at four months, or thereabouts. Not this baby. This little entity was bouncing around at three months plus, making its presence known, causing all sorts of disturbances. We went back to examine dates, to be certain I had not miscalculated. There was no mistake. Conception occurred mid-February. The small, totally inhuman appearing creature within me was just unnaturally active. (Did I have Rosemary’s Baby moments? Yes, I did and, again, denial was my friend.)
In June, I started spotting. Lightly, at first; then heavily. Nothing untoward, nothing really scary, but it frightened me to death. Since I had the history of twins, the docs decided to do an ultrasound, to take a look at my too-active tenant, and at the state of the pregnancy. The good news was, one baby, and a big one. The bad news was, placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta attaches low in the womb, partially or wholly covering the mouth of the uterus. It was, my beloved and tremendously reassuring obstetrician assured me, unusual, but not a cause for panic. It meant I would have to deliver by caesarean section, and that I would need to be observant, a good reporter of events, but it did not spell disaster, by any means.
I nodded, and made the right noises, the ones expected of a bright, competent woman of the 80s, and then I went home to shake and tremble and think it through before I had to say anything to anyone. I was back in the familiar state of dread, checking for blood every time I went to the bathroom, carrying myself like an old woman, rather than bouncing in glee, as I had with Claire.
I remember little of the summer. We took Claire to the beach, and to Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, and we had breakfasts at Casanova’s, in Carmel. We set up the second bedroom as a nursery. It was not yet fashionable to pin down the sex of the child prior to birth, so, as we had with Claire, we bought clothes in yellow and green and white, and found books for the new library that had to be stocked for the new arrival. Stuffed animals stalked our halls. I still worked, but with a four-hours-a-day restriction, and orders to lie down for some portion of each afternoon. Spotting continued, causing a panic blip every single time, but I learned to work through that.
And then, on the 6th of September, I awakened to find a pool of blood beneath me. No pain, just blood. It was a Sunday, and it was Labor Day weekend. I called the doctor, who responded almost immediately, telling me to check myself into the hospital. A precaution, he emphasized, upon hearing that I was feeling no pain. But, he also emphasized, do it now.
I washed my hair, put on make-up, dressed, kissed my baby girl and my husband (who of course, had to stay with her), and drove myself over to Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, to await whatever would come. I know it sounds peculiar that I took myself, but I am, in this sort of circumstance, governed by the dictates of my pioneer forebears, self-reliance and stoicism. It is easier, always, for me to deal with difficulty alone. Doctors and nurses, strangers, for all practical purposes, could be dealt with easily, but my mother’s or husband’s loving concern would have tipped me into hysteria, or so I felt.
I hate hospitals. Detest them with a passion that is utterly senseless. I lay in my room, wishing I could smoke (a vice I had given up during the pregnancy with Claire, and not yet welcomed back), and reading a Spenser novel, my entire being focused on messages from my womb, tiny, almost imperceptible twinges that spoke to me of another early birth, another grief too large to bear. The staff kept telling me, with great kindness, that I was fine, that there were no signs of labor, that all was well.
I knew they were wrong.
Origin stories are important. Societies and individuals need them, or they do in my strange worldview. On the 6th of September, 2003, I wrote the following (lightly edited) letter to my son, which tells the rest of the story as I experienced it.
Twenty two years ago, at just about this hour, you and I were beginning to get busy. I was lying in the hospital, having admitted myself at noon as a result of fairly heavy bleeding, but had shown no signs of being in labor. It was unusually warm weather, and we were all sort of assuming that the heat had induced a bit of high blood pressure, and the unusual placenta previa placement had resulted in a little spotting.
In those days, there were only about ten television channels, one of them a soundless screen with a banner crawl that repeated the temperatures of cities, nationwide and local, endlessly, along with sports scores, and a digital clock display. I was talking with Dad on the phone when I began to experience twinges. I told Dad I’d call him back, but that I wanted to check with the nurse. I also told him to get some sleep, as there was a possibility that things were about to get exciting.
Watching the clock for about half an hour, I thought I perceived a rhythmic quality to the mild spasms, but could not be sure. I pushed the call button and, eventually, the nurse and two technicians brought in a fetal monitor and hooked it up. By that time, almost two hours had passed since my first awareness of the change, and the pains, no longer qualifying for the gentle euphemism ‘twinges,’ were clearly following a precise course, and gaining strength. I knew I was in labor, and I was scared to death.
The nurse, whose name was Caroline, was a delightful woman, very pleasant and competent, and I owe her a great debt. I was, I confess, terrified in a sort of resigned way, hopeful, but so aware of how frail the tiny mechanism of a premature infant can be. I confided some of this to her, and she sat down on the edge of my bed, taking my left hand in both of hers, telling me, very clearly and firmly, that one premature baby was not the same as twins. She was not at all gloomy about your early arrival. I had to recognize, she insisted, that you were an incredibly active baby, one who moved early, whose vital signs on the monitor were powerful and regular.
Her confidence was contagious.
We began to speak of you as a person, not a fetus. She stayed with us, from 11:30 until we went into surgery, reappearing outside the labor and delivery doors to grin at me, and say, ‘I told you so!’ She was smart. We decided, she and I, that it was best for Dad to get as much sleep as he could, and she understood, God bless her, that you were my fourth child, and third delivery, and that when I said we had time, I knew whereof I spoke. So, we didn’t call your father until they had to get me ready for surgery, which was at around 3:30.
Dad called Grandma and Great-Uncle John to come up and babysit. But neither JR, who at that time slept in what became the TV room, nor Grandma, deaf then as she is now, heard the phone. So, Dad had to jump in the van, leaving Claire asleep in the house, and drive down the four blocks to arouse the house of elders and tell JR to take the house key, and go stay with Claire.
Had it not been for that detour, Dad would have had plenty of time to get over to our party in Labor and Delivery. Instead, he had one of those drives you see in the movies, speeding like a lunatic south on Highway 1, to screech into the hospital parking lot (much smaller then, thank goodness!), and race into Maternity with barely time to wish us luck and get himself scrubbed up.
And then, My Love, from about 4:15 on, everything is a blur. I was conscious, and aware, but it is as if it all happened to someone else. They had to give me a spinal injection of anesthesia, which meant you and I had to hold perfectly still, something of a feat when you are in labor. But, we managed, and, as we waited for the drug to take hold, Caroline and I talked about names. She asked if we had chosen any, and I said we had settled on a girl’s name, but not a boy’s. I said I was leaning toward Daniel, as you were beginning life in a bit of a battlefield scenario, and that the second name should be Grant, for the dead-in-childhood uncle I’d never met, and because you were a gift, the granting of a wish.
And then the doctors arrived, poor things. Dr. A, our doctor, and his partner, Dr. P, had delivered a C-section placenta previa baby the night before, and had no reason, statistically, to assume that that precise feat would be required again in fewer than 24 hours. So, they had been at a Labor Day party, had stayed until about 1:00 a.m., and had each had only two hours of sleep.
I was loopy on newfound hope and, with my personal nurse beside me, found that hilariously funny. We made jokes about Labor Day. We giggled, Caroline and I, as I pointed out that I had had no sleep, and had been working for several hours already. The docs looked awful, like Trapper and Hawkeye on ‘M.A.S.H.,’ after a bender, but they were, bleary or not, competent and cool, and very nice about being teased.
And then, suddenly, I was numb, and everyone was talking over me, not to me, and the next thing I really heard was Dr. A saying, ‘You have a son, Jean,’ and Dr. P adding, in a surprised tone, ‘He’s pretty good-sized for a little guy.’ And then, there was more activity, and your father coming to kiss me, and the little bundle of you was in front of me, all shiny with the various fluids of birth, and trying, as small as you were, (3 pounds, 9 ounces), to open your eyes.
You had a very silly little bleat of a cry, which worried me for about ten seconds, until you got a good breath, and began to complain in earnest, at which point I think everyone in the room laughed. I leaned up, and kissed your cheek and your shoulder and, for the first time, smelled the wonderful scent that is you.
Then it became a blur again, and Dr. B, our pediatric group’s on-call partner, looking tidy with his little beard hidden behind a ludicrously bright yellow mask, appeared like a benevolent gnome in a fairy tale, and whisked you away, to examine, intubate, and, with your father’s able assistance, and that of a wonderful nurse named Kathy, an Irish girl from Indiana, do all that was necessary to get you through a critical twelve hours in such hearty fashion that you didn’t have to ‘go to Stanford’—the potential, dread journey that would have indicated you were in serious distress.
After you left, Drs. A and P got busy with me, and then, blessedly, handed me back over to nurses, who, moms themselves, knew that all I wanted was to brush my teeth, wash my face, and try to feel clean in preparation for seeing you again. People were so kind, from Caroline’s ‘neener-neener’ grin and high five outside the delivery room to a beautiful, light-black nurse named Fawn, who gave me green tea and crackers to avert gas. Someone put yellow balloons in my room, and yellow carnations on my tea tray. The world was suffused with joy.
You could not come to see me that first day, so I got up and went to see you. I was so happy to be able to hold you. I was afraid, you see, that it would be like the twins, whom I was never able to cradle, to cuddle in my arms. But you, you were so strong, so very determined. Your mental strength, of which we have spoken often, was apparent even that early. You came equipped with a particular brand of courage, of autonomy, and it stood you in good stead. You always responded to things in the most amazing way. You really did react to Little Lion (a musical toy we found in Carmel, and left with you, for the hours we could not be there, as you grew), when we put him in your isolette. You turned to our voices much earlier than an average baby does. It was left to us to discover who you were, as you grew.”
This, then, was autumn, golden and warm, full of harvest and celebration. This was huge moons, and rejoicing, and a smell of wood smoke in the air, and a little boy, small, but not impossibly so, frail, but durable, held to my breast, disappearing in his father’s hands, like the prop in a magic trick, sleeping and eating and growing, concealing only the enormous heart that lay within.
What we learned, as that small human grew to be the man he is today, is that he has both courage and compassion, righteousness and understanding, a core of tenderness that melts the heart, and a capacity for commitment that is frightening.
This is the man who, as a boy of eight, helped move supplies for victims of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. This is the man who, in his mid-teens, was a Spanish-English translator at the local Rotary Medical clinic. This is the man who has coached Special Olympics baseball for ten years, through university, the births of his own children, work and the overall demands of life. This is the man who tutored at a Hunter’s Point learning center, and at various institutions serving what are now known as “underserved” communities.
This is a man who allows his mother—his mother, for heaven’s sake!—to be part of his exclusive and esoteric book club, who stops for strangers in distress, who will not leave a frightened creature to its fate, who, despite a considerable temper—(where could he have come by that? Ha!)—tries to comprehend the peculiarities of his stuck-in-the-60s parents, and of the world in which he lives.
He is fortunate in his wife, who has the depth and capacity to recognize that, while he is human, and a pain in the neck, as are we all, he is a good person and, together, they have given us the most delightful grandchildren one could imagine, and are teaching those two small adventurers to look at the world through the lens of tolerance. What more could one ask?
Some years ago, I wrote this poem for him, because of all he is. It is dedicated, with wonder and gratitude, to my tiny, tough survivor.
Note: The Black & White photograph which illustrates this essay was taken by Darxen, and derives from http://darxen.deviantart.com/art/Mother-And-Son-149012995; the second photo is from Jean Carroll Nolan’s family collection.