Published on January 22nd, 2015 | by Katherine Thome4
We Are All Made of Stars: KATHERINE THOME on Giving Birth in Grief
My daughter carries the history of the world inside her. It never ceases to amaze me. My father would adore her. He was my world, until he wasn’t. He died when I was eight. For a long time that was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Nothing would ever be the same.
In the bath the other night, Ellie asked me, “How much Irish is in me?”
“Irish. You are Irish and Daddy is not, so how much Irish is in me?”
“Well, let’s see. I am ¾ of Irish decent, so I guess you are…”
“But Mommy, we’re actually all the same.”
“How is that?”
“We’re all made of stars.”
“So we are.”
I remember my mother once saying, “The worst thing that’s ever happened to me already happened, so, to answer your question, ‘No,’ I really don’t care what any of these people think of me.” She stopped talking and stared at the horizon. I sat in silence waiting for her to change the subject but she didn’t.
Being unafraid is at once both an irrefutable truth and an enormous lie. I continue to learn how things can be true and false, yet continue to exist, defying the laws of logic, never being quiet or cancelling themselves out. They carry on until we learn the genius of holding two competing facts in our heads without being completely insane.
When I became pregnant, I lived tethered to the earth after twenty-three years of floating through it. A tiny person literally attached herself to me, inside me. She depended on me for food, transportation, and love. I depended on her to teach me how to love her. We were connected and separate.
Children who’ve lost a parent are terrified and longing for attachment. They want the sense of normalcy that having a parent gives them, but when they see love or affection, it is not the same as the perfect love they remember. So they run. They are free to try new things and take risks because the worst thing that’s ever happened to them already has. But the pain hurts so badly, the risk of feeling it again is unimaginable. Attachment is the goal and the enemy. It threatens and promises to return us to the land of the living with all of its hope and disappointment, excitement and dread, elation and depression, love and hate. We are dead and alive at the same time.
Ellie is part of me but she is not me. She cannot be rushed and has no sense of time. When my body decided it was time to push her out, the contractions came on at record speed. One, then another, then another. She was diving into a pool without enough time to come up for air. To rush her was to drown her. The doctors slowed my contractions. The drug they used made my body shake and my teeth chatter.
I wasn’t afraid, nothing bad could happen today, because the worst had already happened. I looked up and saw my husband, Brian, standing at the side of the hospital bed holding my hand. He was trying desperately to be brave for my sake. The worst thing that could have happened to him hadn’t happened. It still hasn’t. So, I lay there, quaking, worried that I could do nothing to comfort him. “I’m ok. I promise.”
After seven more hours and yet another nursing shift change, I accepted the offer of Pitocin. After an hour or so, I threw up. Pain was at a six and I had no interest in seven, eight, nine, or ten. The doctor came with the epidural. Again, my ashen Brian stood dutifully by holding my hand. This was something I had to do – my job. There is nothing to fear when the worst has already happened.
When it came time to push, I was completely numb from the epidural. Unable to control my body from the waist down, I wasn’t able to push with my contractions. Instead, the nurse instructed me to just squeeze (how or what I still have no idea) for a count of ten, rest a bit, and start over. I still don’t understand how it works. For thirty-eight minutes I dutifully pushed. Ellie was ready. She came in thirty-eight minutes (thirty-three hours and thirty-eight minutes to be precise). While I prefer to plod along in straight lines, Ellie still moves on her own timeline – nothing for a very long time, then everything all at once.
The doctor yelled, “Oh boy, she has a necklace. STOP. PUSHING.”
The umbilical cord connecting us was wrapped twice around her neck. Ellie’s connection to me was already strangling her. Seconds old and her mother’s rein was too tight.
I closed my eyes, “Don’t let me hurt her. Please don’t let me hurt her.” Her death would be the worst thing that could happen to me.
For some reason, I was too squeamish to allow a mirror in the delivery room. I heard all of this happening at the foot of the bed, three feet below me, yet utterly removed from it. After a minute, I heard the snip of scissors. Brian freed us both from each other. As I lay back, hormones washing over me, I knew that my death would be the worst thing that could happen to her. I thought, “I must stay here long enough for her to know me.”
In the moments it took for the doctor to hand me my newborn, I remembered talking to my father.
“Are you going to die, Daddy?”
“No, not for a long, long time. I want to see you graduate from college, get married and to meet my grandchildren. You’ll be old when I die.”
That’s not something I’ll ever say to Ellie. It’s too close to a lie.
When they put Ellie into my arms, she became my universe. Nothing would ever be the same again. She is a part of all us. In her cells, parts of my father, ones not even expressed in me, live on before my very eyes. She is part me, part Brian, and part Daddy. Most of all she is part of the stars. Aren’t we all?
So now, I am no longer able to say that the worst thing that could have ever happened to me has. It hasn’t. Now I am just like every other person, afraid of losing the one thing that ties me to the planet.
To my father, his dying would mean his missing out on seeing my life. To me, my dying would mean Ellie’s missing out on showing her life to me.
Being free means taking that freedom and throwing it recklessly to the wind, doing something absurdly hopeful, like loving your own child enough to give birth to her and live her life alongside you. It is braver than anything else I can think of. Yet, it makes us inherently unfree. It creates a new invisible umbilical cord, tying us back to the earth. Our worst fears are again unrealized. We can begin again.