I sit in the driver’s seat and shuffle the thin stack of papers while my daughter in the back complains at her too-tight straps. She’s outgrowing her car seat already. I’m only now readying myself to read about the days when she was too small to fit in it, bolstered by pads and blankets in her loose newborn clothes. I make it through two and a half pages, then hastily toss them to the passenger’s side for later, or never. I throw the car in reverse. We’ll go somewhere else, instead. Anywhere but the hospital parking lot.
One of the very few things I know about my daughter’s delivery is that we made good decisions, as informed as a person can be when waves of outrageous pain are crashing down. Surgery was the best choice. We signed the dotted lines and went for the C-section. But from there, I am adrift in uncertainties. There were complications that got resolved in further procedures; there was more pain, and an awful lot of aloneness in silent recovery rooms for a day that otherwise would have been a time for togetherness. There was a gray stretch of hospital days, the coldest on record for that week of the year in Virginia, punctuated by doctors appearing at the foot of the bed to ask, “How do you feel?” There were breastfeeding consultants with strong personalities and a penchant for not noticing when I was falling asleep. There was a constant rotation of juice boxes and yogurt from the cafeteria, and there was a persistent sense that something had gone wrong, very wrong.
And then we finally went home, and we kept on going, now a family, forward-looking. We were carried along in the current of caring for a baby day and night. The weather warmed and my body healed accordingly, and our very own wee small being came into a personality of her own. There were higher, better, lovelier things to think about, and so the confusing events surrounding her birth got hung in a back closet alongside the frustrations, not least with God, and the winter clothes that wouldn’t come out again until the end of next fall. Next fall, of course, arrived, and the uncertainties were still hanging there, alongside some rather rumpled and very real emotions.
Where does one go when answers are needed? To the Health Information Management Office, they tell me, so that’s where I start. After days of shifting the trip to the next calendar day, I trek into the unknown, baby in tow. I walk out of the hospital a surprisingly simple ten minutes later with an envelope of printed sheets dotted with disturbing phrases like “significant blood loss” and “extravasation of dye.”
I sit in the car and hold the surgery notes in my hands, but the results, as they say, are inconclusive. Somewhere between “IVP needed to be performed” and “The patient tolerated the procedure well,” something is missing. I look closer and see that it is me, crying in a dark and empty X-ray room, my post-operation pain killer lying forgotten on the pharmacy counter one floor below. I never knew “alone” until the moment a slapdash X-ray tech asked unfeelingly if I’d had a hysterectomy (I hadn’t), while his stony-faced colleague jolted me on the steely table, up, down, and around to get all the right pictures.
My ureter was torn and my midsection racked with pain that had nothing to do with pushing a baby out. The baby herself was in a far-off bedroom with my husband, and I was in a dark space, forgotten, with techs who didn’t have all the information. I was too sorely alone to give them any answers—or to ask the right questions. The nurse ran in apologetically with the painkillers. I cried. This is not in the doctor’s notes.
One of our chief communities is church, and lots of friends prayed before our baby came: healthy delivery, safe arrival. One friend even prayed for green lights between our home and the hospital. I have no recollection of the traffic signals between here and there in the snowy dark of that December 4 a.m., but I do recall a January letter from a friend who’d given birth decades earlier under similar circumstances. She voiced a frustration that hadn’t surfaced for me yet: “But we asked God for better than this!” Did He not hear us? Were our prayers ineffective?
There are straight answers to these deeper questions. I know what book to find them in, but they mostly ring hollow or harsh in my ears. I find I’ve suffered a loss without losing anything tangible—only my faith in medicine to give conclusive answers, my faith in doctors to exercise care, my trust that life events will generally make sense, my confidence that prayers prayed in a certain way will always be answered. It’s a loss of understanding, and thus a loss of control.
But wait. A corner of my brain reminds me that loss of control isn’t always bad—or surprising. Of course it is normal to hope, in any life circumstance, that knowing what to expect will mean safety and control. That’s why it’s a trend these days to have a birth plan. “Knowledge is power.” There’s comfort in the thought. But what if that confidence is, ultimately, misplaced?
In the various moments of that winter morning, I didn’t actually ask God for anything. I couldn’t. By the time we got to the hospital, I was past thought of prayer. I was not much more than a thrumming conductor of heat and pain, sending shock waves forward and back through myself, again and again. I was beyond knowledge or power. I was beyond placing myself or my faith anywhere in particular. God, fortunately, was not beyond any of it.
In the nine months preceding that day, there was one prayer I had asked constantly, obsessed like a widow looking for her last dime, unembarrassed as an obsessively anxious mother-to-be. Knock, knock, knock. The prayer was answered: my daughter emerged healthy and whole. The sense of relief in the midst of that terrible morning was so palpable I can still feel it. That, at least, didn’t get washed away by the waves of pain. Lying on the table, I knew from whom that gift came, and I haven’t forgotten.
Today, I am in the driver’s seat, and I make myself keep reading. In a section of the hospital papers, I find another kind of answer. The doctor had vaguely indicated that the bits and pieces of me that suffered extra damage had to do with my daughter’s head lodging so low. “But isn’t that often the case in a C-section?” I had wondered. Now I look over the surgery notes, and I begin to understand. It seems that the baby wasn’t too keen on giving up her restful spot. I can picture it now: I go in her room to pull her from her crib as she whimpers herself awake each morning. She rolls away from me every time. “Not just yet, Mommy,” she tells me by the thumb in her mouth, pretending sleep for a few moments longer. “Not just yet,” she tried to tell the doctor, as she rolled over in her nine-month sleep spot. And so he curved his hand farther into the incision, cupping her head, tugging her out feet-first, like a heavily slumbering teenaged boy. It took some extra work, and my body took a beating. She was just being human, reaching for her pillow, as it were. Wanting to remain in the predictability of a place where everything made sense.
C.S. Lewis talks about his earliest attempts at prayer: “It never crossed my mind that the tremendous contact which I solicited should have any consequences beyond restoring the status quo.”¹ What is it, exactly, that I’m soliciting from the Health Information Office, and from God? I seek immediate, tangible answers, explanations that will make sense of memories and erase the pain. Back to normal. I cannot see that the status quo has been shot to hell, and we either have to move somewhere new and better, or else never get out of this dark, lonely room we’re lying in, pretending control. I mindlessly munch my daily bread and, unforgiving, try to figure out what somebody else did wrong to cast my labor and delivery so far out of the realm of God’s plan. I can hardly see the kingdom for my desperation to get knowledge.
In the memory of my daughter’s birth, I recall that the hardest part to bear was not actually the lack of knowledge or understanding, but the aloneness. It still is. There remains a deep, chilly loneliness in the remembrance of an experience that is fully known only by me. Surprisingly, the beginning of comfort lies therein. Because any experience that is known only by me is, impossibly, known also by God. And so prayer blessedly becomes less a request for information or results, and more an acknowledgment of fact. An exercise, however small, of faith. I will keep open communications, if only to hear that I am, actually, not alone.
1 Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy.