That summer intuition told me I was pregnant. One day during my regular morning swim in Lake Chelan, I felt disoriented in the water. The next day I was summoned to my estranged maternal grandmother’s deathbed. I had refused to speak to her in over a year, after several attempts to come to terms with her decision to stay married to the man who terrorized our family for many years. She believed in the morality of her choice – that it was God’s will. But I was her favourite and first grandchild. My mother told me that she was suffering, and they believed she was waiting for me to come. So I went.
They said my grandmother was unable speak or move, but that she might be able to hear me and know that I was there. They left us alone.
I wrote a poem about the experience shortly after.
Hard hands already?
You won’t even die for three more hours.
I know you can’t hear me, but I love you.
Is it too late to say I’m sorry?
After 12 months of silence, here I am, talking, but you’re quiet, still
Most of you already leaked out and filling the room
I wish I could grab the air, thick with your dying,
And push it back in your body – the now quickly emptying shell.
Do you remember when I was born? And what was it like before me?
I can’t help but expect that the two states of non-existence – the one before and the one after – should be frighteningly similar. Simply not here.
There you go!
Wait! I forgot to tell you I’m pregnant!
I hope somehow you know.
I hope you see Jesus before the light leaks away forever:
That’s what you always wanted.
And it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong.
The Christian, the atheist, there’s no more fighting here.
I just came to say goodbye, to forgive you, to let you know it’s okay to go.
I will look for you in my child’s face and give her a mother’s love like you never knew.
It just may make all the difference for the in-between time.
So much I can never say, so much you will never hear.
I’ll hold your hand and cry.
It comforts me to remember:
We are the life you leave behind.
As I held her hand, praying, a small miracle happened. My grandmother suddenly reached up and placed her hand on my belly. I felt stunned. Could she possibly know? She groaned and then fell still, silent.
By the time of her funeral and memorial service I was beset by daily nausea. In the middle of the service I grew feverish. I fainted in the bathroom. My sisters carried me out to the car. For nearly a week I lay in my old room at my parents’ house in a terrible state. Perhaps that is when the damage was done to my daughter’s brain.
At the 20 week ultrasound they told us. Our baby had enlarged ventricles and parts of her brain had not formed as expected. They told us we had options. We decided to wait and see. A lot can happen as the pregnancy continues. I started to pray to my baby. I spoke to her constantly. And again, I wrote a poem.
Barks gives us Rumi:
“Enlightenment is joy when sudden disappointment comes”
Yet we wonder how can we be happy when we are so afraid?
The disappointment when:
“We don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl as long as we have a healthy baby”
Becomes, “We’re not having a healthy baby”
And so the doctors huddle together, quietly consorting with their technology
To sum up the gift of God growing in our belly as… broken
“Send this one back” they say with less candour and more jargon
Yet we forgive them, knowing they too are afraid.
Then power like thunder from the earth, and the sky swells and pours
We asked this baby to come and now it is coming
There is spirit here to learn from us, and to teach us
And we are unable to shake our sense that here is something wonderful
Not to be diagnosed and discarded in the dark
But to be brought to the light and held and remarked upon as Beautiful
And so in wonder we begin to smile, and then to laugh
A deep belly rumble of quaking laughter as joy springs up
For we stand amazed
That a miracle as mundane as a baby
Could call forth the full spirit of love
And bring us into counsel with God
We bade farewell to our dreams of a home birth with our lovely midwife and entered the realm of perinatology. Regular ultrasounds, even a prenatal MRI were used to determine the severity of the condition. And we researched the diagnosis: Dandy Walker Syndrome. We prepared for her special needs. Due to the size of our daughter’s head they scheduled a c-section for 38 weeks. The doctors wanted her to come as soon as possible because of her hydrocephalus. She would need a shunt placement to reduce the risk of brain damage.
The day before the c-section we met with the Head of Perinatology at Swedish Hospital. An amniocentesis was done to make sure her lungs were ready. As we waited for our squirmy fetus to settle down, my mother-in-law and I chatted about how I had wanted a natural childbirth experience. The doctor listened with sympathy. He measured my daughter’s head. Circumference: 38 cm. He said that he thought I could deliver vaginally, but said she still needed to come the next day. He said I could try it. So we rescheduled for induction the following day. Joy and hope filled my heart.
The next morning we arrived at the hospital around 8am. I was already dilated to 3 cm. They gave me pitocin and gel straight away. My husband, mother, and close friend attended. Our nurse gave her full support for our plan of keeping the experience as natural as possible.
For hours I moved about the room freely, rocking my hips in the waves of contractions. Then I lay in a warm bath. At the start of each contraction my friend would spray my belly with warm water. I reveled in the sensation, welcoming the force that would become strong enough to bring my daughter across the veil of existence. The doctor broke my water. The intensity increased.
Around 5pm I transitioned. Suddenly, vomitting my breakfast. The pain tore at the edges of my resolve. I felt that primal pull and surrendered, descending into my sacred place by way of self-hypnosis techniques practiced for more than 10 years. My consciousness floated across space and time. My awareness stretched beyond my own body. Women across the world labored with me. My ancestors labored with me. Their strength became my strength.
Soon I was counting out contractions. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Eyes closed. Friend holding my shoulders. Mother on the left leg. Husband on the right. Sometimes I looked up into his eyes, strong and solid support. Later they said my moans sounded like a woman in ecstacy, like orgasm after orgasm. And I experienced something incredibly wonderful – as if my nervous system could not identify if this intensity was pain, or pleasure.
And then pure hot fire. It seemed my daughter would tear me open. But my doctor had faith in my body. She stayed with me, stretching and massaging my vagina. I had already rejected the episiotomy. What seemed like years or seconds later (time had disintegrated into sensation) the doctor said it was time, that the baby was coming and I needed to push hard. Exhausted, it seemed impossible. An instant of searing pain tore through me. And then relief. My angel emerged suddenly, triumphantly. It was 8:30pm May 4, 2005.
A team from the NICU was there waiting, though I had barely noticed. They whisked my little one away for just a moment. And then she was in my arms. Her face was beautiful, perfect. I spoke her name, “Sierra Grace” and she opened her eyes for the first time and looked for me. Such intense happiness flowed through me.
A specialist from New Zealand examined our daughter. He was exuberant. “Your baby is asymptomatic,” he said. No way to explain it, quite unbelievable, but the baby is perfectly fine.
This year our miracle turns eight. And I remember the grief, fear and uncertainty that surrounded her arrival. And yet, despite our fears, we really were courageous all along. We never gave up hope or faith in the little soul who trusted us and chose us for this life. We stepped past fear and chose love.