A new perspective on gratitude

Every November I reflect a bit more than usual on what I’m thankful for. Maybe we all do. Social media has created a strange collective form of peer pressure where we do things like express (daily?) what we like about our lives during November (unless we’re busy talking about not shaving), just like we post quotes about the arc of justice on MLK day and weigh in on national or international events as if our individual opinions on them were somehow profound and meaningful. Hey, no judgment. I do it, too.

I think it’s important to express gratitude. Family. Friends. Health. Jobs. My list is usually similar every year. Just because the things for which I feel grateful are common, maybe even trite, does not mean this is a perfunctory exercise, at least not for me. My family usually goes around the dinner table before the big meal and says what we’re thankful for. (Honestly, the answers I look forward to the most are the kids’.) Last year I insisted on going last. Then said that I was thankful that we were expecting a baby the following July, before bursting out crying. These things make me cry. (And I was really hungry.)

This year I feel quite different about the gratitude exercise. It’s been one of those years that has forever changed me, and I don’t mean because I had a baby come out of my body and now have an amazing little person who looks half like me (although that’s true, too).

Last month, on our ride home from the hospital after Fiona’s MRI as she slept soundly in the car seat beside me, after we’d made our celebratory phone calls to our parents to say that everything was fine, more fine than you could even know – I had a very raw and difficult moment where I knew I faced a clear choice. I could choose anger. Could say yes to the simmering fury just beneath the surface that unleashed itself after the doctor finally said something to the effect of: “well wouldn’t you know, it’s not what we thought after all….” A culmination of misinterpretations, false alarms, even negligence in one instance, and then in a moment it was over. Basically, a giant ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME.

Or I could choose gratitude, and I don’t mean because the news was good and she is healthy after all. Of course I was happy for that. Elated. Deliriously so. I mean gratitude for the incredible mistakes made, sleepless nights worrying, and cluster-fuck that was my birth experience, which I still haven’t wrapped my brain around. We’d been through a lot since February. All three of us. Relief was my first emotion. I floated on that for days, weeks. But I knew that quickly around the corner I’d have to confront and ultimately embrace one of two things – resentment (at the medical community whom I’d mistrusted all along) or acceptance – maybe even thankfulness – that the time had come where I was deemed ready to let go of the fear and mistrust I’d carried around for three decades by going through a unique combination of trials, that, while not breaking me completely, would come damn near close.

The details are unimportant. It was a unforgettable and wonderful year, and it was a terrible one. Exploding heart happiness in one moment. Crushing, stabbing sorrow the next. We learned the baby was a girl and I soared and soared. Then three days later our doctor made The Mistake, fucked up, freaked us out, used terminology that I punched into my iPhone so quick and furiously I’m surprised it didn’t shatter. The biggest, fattest false alarm I’ve ever heard of among shared pregnancy and birth stories. And, being superstitious or just not wanting to create bad karma, I wrote the doctor a thank you note before high-tailing it out of there and switching practitioners even though what I wanted to do would have put me in prison.

The worst 24 hours of my life. Could I look back and feel thankful for that? Could you? It blew a hole through me. I’m not sure I’ve recovered. Those hours are indelible in my mind. How my body froze. How I heard myself sob as if it were someone else, some small child somewhere lost. How my dear husband, the smart-ass he can be, wept quietly at the end of a yoga class I was teaching.

We learned of the misdiagnosis rather quickly and we were relieved, but the real news wasn’t a picnic either. No 10% chance of dying after birth – sure, I’ll take whatever you have instead of that. But it was stressful. So fucking stressful. I did my best to take care of myself and return to my previous zen-state of pregnant bliss, writing and rewriting birth plans and picking out cute cloth diapers. But most of that didn’t matter any more to me. It’s not that the joy was stolen completely. It’s that when everything’s spinning you mostly just don’t have time to think of how you feel.

There was most likely a surgery to be planned. A hospital stay. Slim chance of complications. Rare and strange issues with the liver. This was uncommon territory for all of us, even the experts. I tried to research and do my best to get a handle on the situation, by reading for hours and days and learning and absorbing knowledge until the knot in my stomach went away, because information is my power and I feel in control that way. But there was so little information out there about it.

So I turned my focus inward, to the birth – to the un-medicated water birth I envisioned with a midwife and a doula and my husband as my support team and a brain load full of research and plans and mantras and positive affirmations that would compensate for all the hell we’d been through. A beautiful and sacred experience that by that point, I felt I’d deserved. I mean really, it would all even out.

You can see where this is headed.

Again, the details are unimportant. Or rather, they’re long, and graphic, and really fucking awful. I had a 30-hour labor. I was in labor on three separate days. THREE SEPARATE DAYS. Saturday, Sunday, Monday. I did the first third of it without pain relief. Then I felt like I was hallucinating and decided I hated everyone ever and I’d rather die than continue. (I’m not really joking.)

Fiona decided to be a giant baby, or rather, giant for a person who is five foot 1 and really not all that big. We did everything we could. One by one, every intervention I never ever wanted occurred. They were necessary. I believe that because I remember the look in my midwife’s eyes, forlorn, so sorry, telling me that we really had tried everything. The whole room stood on edge and I could feel them mourning, almost crying, when the doctor finally suggested a c-section. Natural birth advocates take these things seriously. I really didn’t care at that point. I just wanted it to be over.

And it was. The thing I remember most was how hard my body shook against the table and how I asked everyone around me, multiple times, to pin my shoulders down. And how this uncontrollable shaking reminded me of my epileptic brother having a seizure.

When I saw Fiona I could barely think or speak. She was beautiful. I was still shaking. I was so glad Mike was there, but then I wanted him to leave to go be with her. And then I was alone.

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I’ll spare you the rest. This isn’t meant to be the poor Jamie story. There are therapists for that. The birth was challenging, then two days after coming home from the hospital I woke up having trouble breathing, a tight, sick pain in my chest that prompted me to wake up Mike, wrap up a six-day old baby, and head to the ER. I had never been to the ER. In the span of a week I had unexpected surgery, a sick amount of pain medication that made my previous no-Tylenol philosophy an absolute laughable joke, and then a 10-hour stint in the ER because I was displaying some of the symptoms of a blood clot in my lungs. They hooked me up to a bunch of machines and monitors and made me take my clothes back off and put me into a CAT scan machine and then I threw up. Throwing up right after abdominal surgery? The physical pain just wouldn’t stop. It was all a sick joke.

Everything turned out to be fine, obviously. But having my husband and tiny baby sitting in the car waiting for me at 3am a week after giving birth, begging and pleading with the nurses to feed me something, anything, and then scarfing down three packages of dry raisin bran, having an emotional meltdown while ripping all the cords off of and out of me and threatening to leave “AMA” (against medical advice), crying hysterically on the phone to my dad, who was coming down that day to meet his sweet granddaughter, just really wasn’t what I envisioned. None of it was. Obviously.

It’s all over now.

I’ve had more medical interventions and tests (for both me and my baby) than I envisioned having my whole life, death included. Of course you can’t plan or control these things. That’s the lesson I was meant to learn, I suppose. Which is where gratitude comes in.

I am grateful for my healthy baby and grateful that it turns out she’s fine and won’t need her belly opened up next month and won’t have searing abdominal pain and grogginess from drugs, just like I experienced, right when we’re trying to enjoy her first Christmas. I’m grateful for my health, and my recovery, and for all of the good things we’re enjoying that so many families are cruelly unable to have. Let’s just say I have a whole new perspective after sitting in the surgery unit and watching families and doctors interact over what are very, very serious surgeries on babies and children.

Those things are easy. I feel them every day when I see Fiona’s explosive smile and when I touch the scar on my low belly. Grateful does not even begin to describe it.

But gratitude for having gone through it? In the car that day, I knew that’s what lay ahead. Could I come to accept it and learn something from it rather than having it harden me? Could it even make me softer, better somehow? That’s a question I can’t answer yet. But I’m working on it.

I think bad things can teach you the best about yourself, and about others, if you’re willing to see it that way.

When Fiona had to go under general anesthesia and all I could think about was her tiny 13 pound body passing out before my eyes, those nurses and doctors were angels to me. I’ve hated doctors my whole life, for reasons related to my epileptic brother and which I always knew were irrational but couldn’t control feeling. But that day I put my faith in them. I believed in them. And I loved them for what they did and were about to do.

When Mike and I had the day from hell because of The Mistake, and we came out on the other side of it, all I could think about was how much I fucking loved him. I learned that we could handle anything together, even that, and still love, and want to keep living.

When my body revolted and wouldn’t progress in labor, and then for a quick frightening minute Fiona’s heart rate dropped and everything got real serious, I learned to let go of everything I ever believed had mattered, and I stopped thinking. I really stopped thinking, and stopped trying to control, and I gave thanks for a cold towel on my forehead or my husband’s hand on my back and all of the small gestures of love and support. I’ve never been so present or mindful as I was in that terrifying moment. Or so full of faith. I’ll remember that moment until I die, at which point, I hope I feel it again.

This year I have more to be grateful for than I ever thought possible. Love. Family. Friends. Laughter. Health. My baby. Basically everything that appears on a wooden DIY sign to hang on the family room wall. What’s unexpected is how some of those terrible moments are seared into my heart right alongside the good. How awe-inspired, hopeful, supported, loved, empathetic, or strong I have felt during the most cruel moments.

I guess that’s the point of this life, isn’t it. While I’m happy for none of it, and still exhausted from most of it, I’m grateful for all of it, if only for what it’s taught me about love, goodness, faith, my family, my husband, myself, and the things that really matter.

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