Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
Tessa Meyer Santiago
And I told him
Although I hadn’t been a fantastic mother,
I sure enjoyed the trip
The part where children become
Friends and people I like to be with
—Mervyl Meyer, May 1985,
speaking to her husband
[p.58]Her flowers sit on the television still. A pot of white chrysanthemums. I think they died sometime last week, curling brown around the edges. The label says to cut the flowers off and plant them in the early spring, treating them as a perennial. What’s a perennial? And it’s already June, albeit a cool June. Still I’m not sure June is early spring. So they’re still sitting on the television.
It was my first Mother’s Day and I lay under the pile of quilts, shivering with breast fever, unable even to get my first legitimate carnation corsage from the elder’s quorum. I could hear her moving around the kitchen holding her grandchild in her arms. I hadn’t been able to hold Julia for two days. I was sure she had forgotten me and would suffer dire side effects when she reached adolescence. But then I was also sure that she would freeze in her sleep without those four blankets and the quilt the widows from the 13th Ward made her. After all, it was the wettest spring in memory. Mom had once written to me from South [p.59]Africa: “My love to you my dearest daughter. I often long for you and wonder what happened to have me miss out on your growing years. Perhaps better this way. I love you.” And now she was here, holding my child in her arms while she made Sunday dinner for our small family
I ate half a potato that afternoon. “Mom, this is One story you never told me about,” I complained as she fetched my plate.
“You would never have had a baby, my darling,” she replied quite matter-of-factly.
She should know. She had seven.
Motherhood has given me new ways to define pain: one finger, two fingers; and latching onto a cracked, bleeding, engorged breast. All stories I had never heard before.
Whenever I asked my mother-in-law before the birth what labor was like, she smiled and said, “Oh, it’s all worth it Once you hold that little thing in your arms.” I sensed she wasn’t telling me something. Mom was really no better help when she arrived. “Oh, my darling, it’s been so long, I really can’t remember.”
But how come their memories cut sharper than a two-edged sword as soon as Julia arrived? Sitting around the dining room table sipping herbal tea, in what resembled an age-old sitting up with the patient ritual, suddenly they remembered. The stories came thick and fast. Suddenly then Mom could remember back thirty-four years, as if it were yesterday, to that little stone cottage which she brought Margo home to. Suddenly she could remember that the doctors had sewn her episiotomy up too far. Suddenly she remembered waiting as long as she could, sometimes three or four days, until she doubled over with cramps, before emptying her bowels. And then, held in my young father’s arms, she screamed as the skin ripped apart to let the movement through. And somehow she couldn’t quite remember that until 3:00 in the morning when, held in her young American son-in-law’s arms, her grandchild clamped down with newborn gusto on my cracked and bleeding nipple.
Why was Ella suddenly so willing to tell me of the time she nursed Scott all day using a special ointment for her nipples which she didn’t know made the baby ill? Almost laughing she said: “The more he would nurse, the more he threw up. The more he threw up, the hungrier he [p.60]got. The hungrier he got, the more ointment I put on my nipples and the more I nursed him. And so we went all day until Frank got home to a screaming baby and a crying wife with bleeding breasts.” Perhaps she was laughing because it all happened twenty-eight years ago.
I never laughed. Not once. As each feeding time drew near, the fear rose inside me, like gangrene through a broken limb. I dreaded hearing her start to wake up. In quiet panic I would decide which breast hurt least and unbutton my blouse. I tried to talk to her, not really to say anything, only to fool my husband into thinking I enjoyed this, and also to calm the fear inside. I wanted to be a good mother. Besides, formula cost $6.98 a can; $8.98 if you ran out and had to buy it at Kents. But no amount of appropriate desire in the world could have prepared me for the pain. I can’t even describe it. I had never felt such pain in my life. Well, perhaps once, as my father held me down, and a doctor with a large blade lanced an abscess in my armpit without any painkillers. I don’t really remember the pain, but to this day I abhor that man.
There was hardly any ecstasy with the agony that this six-pound fourteen-ounce being brought with her. Only pain and more pain, and muscles in my body in spasms. Even when I wasn’t feeding her, my breasts were swollen to a dull brick red, purple under the armpits, shiny with fever and infection. There they sat on my chest, immobile, rock hard, hot. And I was supposed to willingly let somebody suck on them. I might as well have attached a vacuum cleaner to my nipples; Julia’s suction was just as powerful.
I don’t know whether you’re supposed to use Lamaze for breast feeding but I did. As Kevin held Julia and pulled my nipple into her mouth, I sat on my hands to stop me from pulling her away. I started singing church hymns to stop the scream and imagined all the pictures on my family’s living room wall. My mom collects art, so I could wander through the gallery for at least the forty-five seconds it took for the pain to subside. When I looked down through my tears, I saw a little head nestled against my breast, a mouth sucking my nipple. I was actually feeding a child, my child. These ornaments on my chest that had served so well for decoration before I was married actually had a practical purpose. (The long talks in the bath tub as they rested on my swollen belly must have motivated them to produce—I wasn’t sure they knew what to do once the baby arrived so I would talk to the pair pe-[p.61]riodically to make sure they knew they were up next in the unfolding saga). So perhaps yes, there was ecstasy: that peaceful image, and when she rolled off at the end of the feeding. But most of all, just pain.
It was a pain nobody, no woman had ever told me about. It was as if I had entered this secret society that really knew the truth, but wouldn’t tell until you knew it too.
Like the blood that keeps coming out of you for weeks after the birth. Only one woman told me about that: Suzanne Bradley, the basketball coach’s wife. She’s not Mormon. Maybe that’s why she could speak honestly about birth. She didn’t have to look at it as “but a sleep and a forgetting,” as some church leaders are so fond of quoting Wordsworth to remind us. I wonder if they ever attended the birth of any of their children. I’m not sure their wives were taking a nap through the whole procedure. But I guess Wordsworth was never at his wife’s confinement either. Suzanne told me to save all the Maxipad coupons from the Sunday newspaper because I’d be needing them for the next six weeks after the birth. I’d never really thought about how the rest of the fluid inside would get out of me once Julia was gone. She didn’t exactly come “trailing clouds of glory”—more like strands of blood and placenta which dripped. For four weeks they dripped. That was a new mother discovery.
Another one I discovered at 3:00 in the morning after I had delivered. I woke up to a burly nurse making bread with my stomach. Over and over she kneaded the folds, punching down the air inside, forcing the fluids out of me. I felt like Julia’s green worm in the bathtub: Squeeze him hard and water squirts out his bum. She helped me to my feet. As I stood upright, both legs turned red as the eighteen-inch industrial strength pad between my legs reached saturation point and gave up. Blood splatter-painted the floor like a cheery kindergarten art project. As I shuffled my way to the bathroom, I felt like those old men I’ve seen in rest homes who wear bathrobes over their clothes and shuffle up and down the linoleum corridors in their slippered feet. “Let’s see you go to the bathroom, now,” the nurse encouraged me. I never go to the bathroom at 3:00 in the morning, I thought as I tried valiantly to pass wind. Nothing, not the faintest whoosh.
Little did I know that my diet was connected to my bowels’ ability to pass gas. They had been put to sleep by the epidural. I think mine [p.62]stayed asleep. For four days in hospital, a lone styrofoam cup of warm water and a packet of chicken noodle soup graced my lunch tray. Dinner was Jell-O through a straw and a carton of apple juice. “No solid foods until you toot,” one nurse reassured me with a smile and a pat on the arm.
I could feel the air bubble inside me. Sometimes it would reach down to my breastbone. Sometimes it would even go as far as my belly button. But for four days it never went past the incision. Nothing was going past that incision. And when it did, my bisected stomach muscles didn’t know how to help it on through me. It took weeks before I could pass a bowel movement without tears in my eyes, fists in my stomach trying to ease the pain. No women told me about that either.
Of course, the men were no help. Kevin had already informed me that no pain I ever felt would match the pain in his back from an old basketball injury. In fact, on certain nights he bids me a loving farewell because “People have died from this before, Tess. If I’m not here in the morning, remember I love you.” I remind him that he says that every time his back goes out or his nose starts to run. So I don’t trust his definition of pain.
I’ll never trust a male doctor’s definition either. After all, how does a male obstetrician know “this will only hurt a little.” He doesn’t even have one of his own to find out with. Male obstetrician-the very term defies an empathetic approach.
During labor Dr. Gamette, all 278 pounds of him, comes to check on me. “You’re a medical oxymoron, you know,” I tell him as I watch his hand disappear into the rubber glove. Suddenly his fingers look very wide and very stiff. All I want to know is whether it’s a two-finger or a one-finger inspection. One I can handle with a little squirming. Two is beyond even the best acting. “It’s two, but this will only hurt a little,” as he snaps the rubber against his hairy wrist that looks as if it could tackle a buffalo on the run. How come it’s always the linebacker and not the piano player who decides to be an obstetrician? But, anyway, the fingers are disappearing below the end of the bed to plunge themselves into the very area you were told to guard with your life if necessary. (Better to come home on the stretcher than deflowered.)
Four times in four hours the hand disappears in its antiseptic sheath to check my cervix’s dilation. Nothing. Even the pitocin won’t induce [p.63]this child to head down the birth canal. She’s lingered in my womb for three extra weeks. The doctor, after the fifth search, says I have a malformed pelvis. I think he calls it cephalopelvic disproportia. To put it simply, my pelvis is square, her head is round. We don’t match up very well. If! had been giving birth one hundred years earlier, the medical books would have had the following advice for Dr. Gamette: comfort the mother until she dies. I have a choice: try induction for another twenty-four hours or have a C-section. Twenty-four hours means at least five more missions into the interior. I opt for the C-section.
Twenty minutes later I’m lying on the operating table in a white room with high ceilings. The intern from the paramedics is watching me in case he ever has to do an emergency C-section in an ambulance. He has a moustache. I wonder if facial hair is unsanitary in an operating room. I had a boyfriend with a moustache once. It used to smell slightly of old food. Germs got lost in there quite easily.
The Indian doctor is fixing the epidural tube in my back. She reminds me of the cafe owner on the corner of Main and River, who used to sell me curried meat pies after school. Her accent is comforting. Something familiar in a strange white world. Even Kevin looks like a green creature on a vegetable can. Dr. Garnette is the bishop in our home ward. I’m not sure it’s proper for a bishop to have his hands in my womb. I feel like I’m in a scene from a B-grade horror movie: Bishop masquerades as doctor in sacrificial operation. Everything seems to blur together.
They tie my wrists down at the end of my outstretched arms. I can’t see anything but the ceiling because they put a large screen in front of my face and an oxygen mask over my mouth. Later, in a haze, I will see bloody sponges flying over the doctors’ shoulders, splashing onto the floor. But now I see nothing but the white ceiling. I am scared. I feel the vomit rising in my throat. I want to run away. I fight the urge to gather my arms to my chest to comfort myself. I have visions of my stomach hanging permanently around my knees because they sewed the muscles together backwards. James Walvin’s Victorian women with prolapsed uteruses dance in my head. I can hear the whispers from the doorway behind me. It’s three grandparents, also dressed in green. My mother has a large nose. She’s wearing a hat which pushes her hair flat against her face.
[p.64]Kevin strokes my hand. “Tell us when you’re ready, Tess,” the jolly green bishop booms over the screen, “and we’ll start.” He’s pushing on my stomach. Probably stretching it to find a good place to cut. It can’t stretch any further than it has. I’m already splitting my skin in silvery streaks all over my hips.
I can feel my toes. I can feel my toes. The fear rises in me. Oh, no, I can feel my toes. I try to wiggle them without anybody noticing. They wiggle. They move. I thought I was supposed to be asleep from the third vertebra down. I can move my toes. I can feel my toes. And he’s going to start cutting me very soon. Should I tell them? What should I do? I know I’m going to feel the knife cut me. Maybe I’ll just be brave. No, I’m not brave. I’m starting to hyperventilate. I’m starting to cry. I can feel my toes. I bite my lip to hold back the tears.
My mother is standing in the doorway behind me. She’s thinking how calm I look. She’s so very, very proud of me. I’m biting my lip harder to hold back the tears of terror, readying myself for the cut of the knife.
Just then I hear somebody say, “We have a hand; we have a shoulder; we have a baby.” The cut never came.
I can handle the requisite pain of breastfeeding, the agony of broken bowels, the gush of blood and chicken soup for days on end. That’s part of a woman’s travail. But fear, unnecessary terror and fear: that’s not fair. They were already through seven layers of muscle, fat, and tissue by the time I felt my toes. Kevin thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen. I wish somebody had told me it’s okay to feel your toes.