Thursday, February 21, 2008
I watched a beautiful sunset jiggle and dip through the redwood trees that lined a winding two-lane road out the small back windows of an ambulance. I was strapped down and every few miles the driver would pull over and he and my attending EMT would switch roles, take my vitals and I finally asked, “is there some regulation that you have to switch drivers after so many miles?”
The older of the two, the one who looked like he was maybe 23, looked embarrassed. “No, it’s just, we both get car sick”. This cracked me up.
I focused on the sunset. I wasn’t dying. I wasn’t in pain. I was uncomfortable and sad. My husband was following the ambulance with our two young boys. We had planned this camping trip on the last day of school and they were so excited. My achy back I attributed to the packing and the drive. I had taken the boys for a walk while my husband set up the tent and started a fire for dinner. I lay down in the tent for a while and when our 4 year old came in for a shoe tie, I sat up and Pop! A warm water balloon leaked into my lap and I knew. I felt responsible for holding this crew together while I told my husband that we were not having this baby and telling our boys that they were not going to sleep in tents outdoors with s’mores, but that we were now going to pack the truck after 45 minutes of camping and drive for a few hours.
We drove up to the ranger kiosk and my husband says to the female ranger, “We need a doctor, my wife’s not feeling well.” Just as she is asking what is wrong I push my husband back and lean forward meeting her eyes, “I’m having a miscarriage”.
She tells us to pull over. The ranger has two teenage sons who take my boys for some marshmallow and fire fun as the local EMTs arrive.
The Salt Point EMT crew is a young outdoorsy woman in her mid thirties and her partner, who is scrappy with a white beard and is a dead ringer for the Burt’s Bees dude in that little postage size ad in the New Yorker. He is very gentle and kind and as he takes my pulse, tells me about his wife’s miscarriage years ago and how it was sad but that they went on to have several children. There had been some talk about medi-vacing me out but I nixed the helicopter idea in the bud. As Burt and the young EMT’s load me into the ambulance, I worry that I might be too heavy.
After two and a half hours of a winding road in an ambulance I welcome the cool night air when I am unloaded. When I see the entrance to the Emergency Room of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, I am immediately panicked about what we will do with our boys. My husband finds me as I am being wheeled inside. He has called our friend Saskia and she is on her way up from Mill Valley to get our sleeping boys and take them home. They will wake up in their own beds and tomorrow this will all be over.
Inside the ER, I was transferred from the downy comfort of an ambulance gurney to a steel table with a disposable paper mattress and met the least charming nurse in North America. The queasy ambulance boys said goodbye and wished me well. It was almost midnight on a Friday and the room was chaos. A curtain was drawn around my table. To my right I hear the wheezing of an old man and his wife crying. He’s dying. Through the gaps in the curtain I can see a young woman across from me who is writhing, screaming, gagging and has my vote for the best string of expletives growled in a single breath. She is having a really bad night. I learn later from a nicer nurse that she was ODing on ecstasy. Somewhere there is a burst of yelling in Spanish and two Hispanic men were being tackled and pulled off each other. They had been brought in with knife wounds and were still going at it with their fists. Their loss of blood and the alcohol content of what remained were throwing off their aim and they were losing steam. So was I.
My drama was not even a blip on the radar in this circus. I was happy to be low priority. All around me was death and agony. I kept my jiggly sunset in my mind as the nurse came by to bully me and I cried as the final bits of our former baby made it’s exit. I was sad and tired and lucky to only have those complaints. I kept bleeding though and that got their attention. Bully nurse took one more swipe at me when she asked my blood type and I couldn’t remember. Hers was no match for Miss Ecstasy’s mouth. I was eased into a wheel chair and taken upstairs to a dark and very quiet sonogram room. I bled on everything and nobody seemed to notice. I kept apologizing. The sonogram revealed a quarter sized bit of placenta attached to the tippy top of my empty uterus and that was what was causing the blood loss.
I was prepped for a D & C. It was 2 AM and I was a wrung out rag and had to be helped to take out my earrings and remove my watch and wedding band. Then I remembered the navel ring. We couldn’t get it open and the anesthesiologist and surgeon found that amusing so they let it slide. I asked the surgeon if I could have a pair of scrubs to wear home, since my clothes were trashed and then I told the anesthesiologist I didn’t want to remember anything. They both smiled and assured me not to worry. I woke up coughing and a nurse reading a magazine next to my bed gave me ginger ale and wheeled me to a recovery room where I tried to sleep, but heard babies crying, and realized I was in the maternity ward.
We have a third child now, and the five of us drive through Salt Point every year when we vacation at Sea Ranch and I get a shade less sad each time. I don’t tear up immediately, like the first few times we drove through, I just get quiet. I don’t feel like we lost an actual baby, or a person, but rather a hope was lost or a promise was broken. Less a death than a wish that didn’t come true.
Annie loved crawling into her bed at night.
Before the divorce, the new baby, and the summer move to Phoenix, back when she was a housewife who lunched with the Junior League, her mother had painted the twin bed olive green with streaks of black and glued a curly cartouche to the center of the headboard. This fit of early 1960’s do-it-yourself decorating fever had been corrected, sanded and restored to the original blond Heywood Wakefield mirror finish. This was during her matching handbag and pumps phase, when she had once put a rinse on her blond bob and it came out light blue, perfectly matching her cornflower blue shift. This was a very fashion forward moment for Roswell, New Mexico.
Annie made her bed every morning looking forward to when she could crawl back in. The Winnie the Pooh cotton sheets were smooth and cool and the heavy cotton bedspread sealed her in and she could escape in her dreams from the sad disappointing place she now lived. She rubbed her cheek on the pillow and looked at the shelves made of stacked plywood cubes her mother had painted white. Inside were her Disney musical jewelry box shaped like an upright piano, a rainbow coin bank with snoopy lying on it, many miniature clay dishes she got in Mexico, a small eclectic collection of picture books, a children’s bible, The Chronicles of Narnia, Stuart Little, Wind in the Willows, Runaway Ralph and the Little House on the Prairie books and a yellow threadbare wind up sleeping rabbit with blue striped ticking in his ears.
She untucked herself from her cocoon to hold the rabbit and brought it to bed. It had been wound so many times over the years that she couldn't wind it even a full turn and all it’s fur was rubbed off around the key. It slowly plinked out ‘Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail’ and very gently the rabbit rolled its head back and forth. The musical rabbit had been given to her when she was in the hospital as a very sick newborn baby.
She wasn’t able to keep milk down, and was losing weight. The doctors thought she might have a virus. Then they thought she might be allergic to her mother’s breast milk and put her on formula. She was fed around the clock and continued to projectile vomit and was getting dehydrated. This led to surgery and the diagnosis of infantile hypertrophic pyloric stenosis. The lower portion of the stomach that connects to the small intestine is like a ring muscle that allows food to pass from the stomach into the small intestine. This opening, the pylorus, narrows when the muscles around it enlarge. The surgery is called a pyloromyotomy, and the surgeon slices the pylorus to relax it while the inside lining is left in tact. Dr. Lemon fixed her tiny insides, and for a few weeks she kept her milk down and started gaining weight. Then she started giving up the bottle again and loosing weight and strength. She was readmitted to the hospital for X-rays and observation. The X-rays showed that the pylorus was again not letting the milk through, and this time the doctor prescribed smooth muscle relaxers, scopolamine drops to be put in her milk. From noon until 5 P.M. she took three bottles of milk and formula with the drops and began to come back to life. Her grandmother would talk to her and she would respond by kicking and cooing and emotion that was heart warming to everyone present. Annie knew all these details thanks to notes her grandfather had taken that she found in the back of his client address book. She of course had no memory of this, just a ragged scar on her stomach and this rabbit.
The music slowed and stopped but she was already asleep.
It was windy and she was barefoot on the damp grass wearing only the oversized Jerry Jeff Walker t-shirt she slept in. It was dark but she knew she was outside of their old house in Roswell, where she had lived before her sister was born. There was only the light of the moon when the clouds blowing by didn’t obscure it. The neighbor had a light on in the living room but her old house was dark. The backyard where she used to play on a swing set looked so much smaller. Everything did. The wind was blowing the swings and the trees were groaning. She wanted to see into her old room so she lifted up her arms and pushed off. Up she flew to the window, but it was too dark to see in. Annie leaned to the left and circled the yard and swooped down low over the split beam fence and landed on the neighbor’s balcony. She knew she was dreaming now, the color was different in dreams, like a Batman comic book. She didn’t know much more than her old block, which was made up of three houses with hers in the middle, and that’s as far as she flew. On the next block over was a large house where she had trick or treated. Her mother had fashioned a pair of pink sleeper PJ’s into a rabbit suit and she had hopped. The man who lived there was a wealthy oil man and drove a big convertible and he and his wife had made a big fuss over the rabbit at their door and had offered to get her some radishes.
When Annie woke up she knew she had been flying. The sensation stayed with her for a few seconds and then it was gone. She was energized by it and always woke up famished.
How can this be possible? How can I be reading the local paper and stumble across an obituary of someone I know? I am stunned. A vibrant hip mom of two young children is suddenly gone. I had fun conversations with her about parenting and kids and politics and fashion while I shopped in her Mill Valley boutique. I hadn’t been in her store for a while and I wasn’t a close friend. I didn’t know she was sick. We said hello to each other when we crossed paths on the street or in the market or at a coffee shop. The write up said it was cancer. This infuriates me.
I know too many Marin moms who have been victims of this disease. They all led healthy lifestyles. I try to be aware and thoughtful when I choose our family’s foods and food containers and lotions and potions. I take care of my body and try to scrub out all carcinogens from our home and environment. And yet still this bright important mom wife and sister is gone and it makes me feel like it’s all completely pointless.
I also feel that my time vacuuming the living room and unloading the dishwasher this morning was an absurd waste of precious time. I should have been hiking or painting or writing an overdue letter to a friend. If I knew I would be gone in a few years, I sure as hell wouldn’t care about the dog hair on the couch or folding the towels. I’d be at the beach or on one of Mount Tam’s many trails. More likely I’d be on the couch eating an entire vat of garlic mashed potatoes right out of the pan and watching a Viggo Mortenson movie. My holiday cards might be late this year and my house will surly be a wreck, because I’m going to get the leash and put on my trail shoes.