V-Day – Tyrese Coleman
“V-Day”—on the pregnancy blogs, message boards, and websites—means the day you reach 24 weeks. My V-Day, my viability day, was on February 14, 2013.
Viable. Oh, what a magic word. “Able to live at birth.”
This is how I celebrated V-Day: I took a selfie in the dining room and posted it on Facebook, officially announcing my pregnancy to the world. I drank two glasses of red wine with my friend from law school. Later, when I went to bed, I watched a porno with Vanessa Del Rio in a three-way and masturbated until I passed out.
I hadn’t had sex for 140 days. 20 weeks. Almost five months.
For me, being pregnant was like that R. Kelly song from the 90’s: my mind was telling me “no,” but my body, my body was telling me “yes.” Almost every night, my unconscious relieved the latent sexual stress gathered inside me, and while I slept, my uterus thumped to climax. The OB, always the conservative one, told me to stop it. The specialist said it didn’t matter and congratulated me, it seemed, on my telekinetic power of vaginal manipulation. Regardless, on V-Day, I was relieved. I thought I didn’t have to wait anymore.
I was 24 weeks pregnant. Less than 24 hours later, I went into labor.
When I went into labor that first time, the doctors kept saying l should wait four more weeks before going into labor again. As if I had anything to do with it.
They wheeled me to the ultrasound room and positioned my chair outside in the hallway to wait for my test. There was a train of wheelchairs lined up, each occupied by a tired-looking woman. We didn’t speak to one another; there was no need. The woman directly across from me rolled her thumbs around one another as she waited. Her long fingernails looked like the fake ones from a child’s Halloween witch costume, and I wondered how long she had been on the inside. What did she do to get locked up? Her shoulders were thin, the hospital gown like paper, never relaxing over her bony frame. I thought about speaking, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to make friends. I didn’t need to make friends. I wasn’t going to see this woman again. I was going to make it to 28 weeks. I was going to go home, lie in bed, and reach 32 weeks. I was going to go back to work, dressed in all of the cute, expensive maternity clothes I hadn’t worn yet, and when I got too big to walk around, I was going to take the agency’s Rascal Scooter back and forth down the halls at my job like the elderly people you see cruising down the sidewalks near nursing homes until I reached 36 weeks. I was going to make it. I couldn’t wait.
The ultrasound results: the blood flow had returned. I just knew it. I knew I had convinced the universe to love me. My hands were clean. My palms were hairless.
My cervix had begun to open on its own sometime near the end of my first trimester. My doctors placed me on bed rest. They also put me and my husband on medically-induced abstinence, since the stress to the uterus from an orgasm coupled with my incompetent cervix posed too much of a risk for pre-term labor. But things had already been dry; fears of hurting the wee ones flared up in our minds whenever we undressed, killing the mood.
So when the doctor said no sex, I rolled my eyes. Ppsshhh, what sex? I felt emphatically unsexy. My legs were so hairy, I could comb them with a brush. My underarms looked as if I had Chewbacca in a headlock. No matter how many showers I took, there was something about lying in bed all day that made me feel funky, and no, not in a James Brown kind of way.
I felt like I’d been in bed for an eternity only after a few days. I didn’t understand how that rectangular piece of cushion I laid in, sweated in, and drooled on could ever lead to anything other than misery and boredom. I wanted out of the bed.
. . . I wanted into the shower . . . onto the floor . . . on top of the kitchen counter.
. . . I wanted Stringer Bell and Dr. Jackson Avery.
. . . I wanted Alex Pettyfer and Channing Tatum in slick rain jackets and G-strings Magic Mike-ing all over my bedroom floor.
Bed rest involves lots of television watching.
My cervix continued to open. At 22 weeks, the doctors—my multiples pregnancy being so complicated I had two—suggested intervention. My OB prophesized this occurrence at our very first meeting, telling me that miscarriages in the second trimester occur when the birth canal opens up for no damn reason and the baby falls out. She said those words to me: “the baby falls out.” The specialist performed a cerclage, stitching my cervix shut. I remembered the OB’s words as they gave me my first ever epidural. I was awake, feeling only pressure and pulling as I watched a team of nonchalant physicians poke away inside my numb womb. I began to hyperventilate. They gave me something like valium. And my boys continued to hold on.
I remained confident that the universe was on my side. My sons had already survived two surgeries; they wanted to be a part of this world. My cousin called to check on me after the cerclage. Her sister had a baby at 26 weeks, she said. She told me to take it easy. She knew what it was like, seen what could happen. Her nephew is autistic and doesn’t speak much. I told her don’t worry; I got this. I had a premonition they would come early. Most multiples do. They were due June 5, 2013, but I expected their birthday would be sometime in May. How beautiful—a spring birthday party in the park.
Pregnancy is waiting. Naturally, it takes time to grow someone.
They admitted me to the hospital after the ultrasound, transferring me from one bed to another with the hopes that my stay would be temporary, just until I reached 28 weeks. I stocked up on DVDs—The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the X-Men series, and others—and organized the unread books on my Kindle that were collecting dust on my virtual shelf. I was ready to serve my bed rest sentence armed with everything I needed to fight monotony. My dear, sweet husband sent me videos of him walking our dog, Luna in Rock Creek Park. I watched Harry Potter DVDs and listened to Stevie Wonder on my phone at night while I tried, in vain, to rest.
I couldn’t sleep. No, it wasn’t more nighttime uterus knocking keeping me awake. My nerves, maybe even my maternal instincts, put the smack down on my prefrontal cortex’s smut slinging. No more nocturnal emissions for me.
I couldn’t sleep because my doctor’s orders were that I stayed under observation. Nurses were continuously in and out of my room, messing with me, sticking me with needles and catheters, giving me pills to swallow, and screwing with the heart-rate monitor. My stomach, slippery and sticky from ultrasound gel, was belted with a Doppler machine that had to stay on. One of the babies had diminished blood flow from his placenta. That little tube his cells threw together wasn’t very efficient.
They prepared us. The specialist asked if we wanted to risk a premature birth of our healthy baby to save the life of the other one.
Did I want to? What kind of question was that?
After twenty-five weeks and five days, the C-section took no time.
My boys came out breathing.
They rolled me into the NICU after sewing me back together. I laid back on a gurney, another bed, my stomach empty. The lights above me ran down the ceiling as the nurses made lefts and rights to take me to my sons. I remember seeing a transparent box, bright tanning lights, hearing lots of beeps, different kinds of beeps, noticing flashing numbers, so many tubes, and two tiny babies the size of rutabagas wearing sunglasses. I cried and told them to take me out of there. Guilt was pressing a bony kneecap on my sternum. I couldn’t breathe.
81 days. 11 weeks and four days. Approximately three months. That’s how long we waited.
But, the NICU is full of people waiting.
There are babies waiting to feed, waiting for surgery, waiting for oxygen, waiting for medication, waiting to see their parents, waiting to be held; some wait to be loved. There was a teenage couple in our area of the NICU whose baby was three pounds of chocolate sweetness. When the nurses dressed her in pink, she looked like a Hostess Snowball. The couple was hardly ever there to see her. I overheard one nurse say the little girl was going to think she was her mama. There were a few evenings when we would see them there, slouching in plastic chairs, never touching, never speaking to the child. I wanted to steal that baby, take her to a friend, someone I knew of whose maternal clock had run out of batteries, but could still feel the hands of time moving inside of her. The hospital staff called the kids more than once with the happy news—come pick up your baby, she’s ready to go home. The parents didn’t show up right away. When they did, they packed their baby’s luggage, her heart rate and oxygen monitors, and disappeared.
In the NICU, there are parents waiting to take their babies home. Some just wait hours. Some wait days, weeks, months. Many wait forever. I worked while the boys were in the hospital, choosing to use my medical leave for when they came home. But there were days where I would take off and spend hours there, sitting in the terrible wooden rocker between their isolettes, staring at them as I desperately milked my breasts with a machine like a industrial farm cow willing myself to produce something natural while surrounded by all the artificial. I left NICU room “B” and took a lunch I bought with me down to the hospital lobby to eat. I happened to meet that woman from the wheelchair train, the one with the long fingernails. She had had twins too—a boy and a girl. She delivered at twenty-eight weeks, a goal I once had for myself. Her daughter died in utero, also suffering from placental insufficiency. We exchanged emails. She never wrote me back.
Doctors and nurses wait; their anticipation measured in the dipping numbers of a heart rate, the increasing hum of a ventilator or the progressive beating of a pulse-oxygen machine. Langston, Baby B, was small. The diminished blood flow had stopped his growth. He was one pound, three ounces at birth, the average size of a 23-weeker, the size of a baby one week too early to be deemed that magical word. Yet, Langston was the calm one. He was small, but he had hardly any problems. He breathed well. He gained weight. He learned to suck and swallow. He was our Mr. Incredible.
But James. James, my Baby A, was probably the most like me. In his hard-headedness, he took on every stereotypical preemie complication with the rebellion of a teenager. He was the average-sized one, weighing one pound 13 ounces at birth, normal for a 25-weeker. He should have been the easier patient, but as the nurses and doctors used to say, “You can’t trust a preemie.”
James had heart surgery. A titanium clip smaller than the size of a pencil eraser was permanently placed inside his chest to close one of his blood vessels. James had eye surgery. A man wearing glasses used a laser to blast abnormal cells from inside my baby’s eyes so that he didn’t suffer from the same disease that blinded Stevie Wonder. But worse than all of that, James had an infection. The doctors again prepared us, showing us x-ray images of his chest, his lungs resembling a tree covered by clouds of locusts. James had necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease that is one of the leading causes of death among babies in the NICU. If they don’t die, they receive surgery. Their intestines are removed, feeding tubes are inserted into and attached onto their bellies, and they face a lifetime of long-term disabilities. That was my baby’s possible future—all, I thought, because I couldn’t wait to cum.
After praying one night in the hospital’s chapel, my husband and I went home. I lay in my bed, the scene of the original crime, still smelling the acetone scent of antiseptic foam coating my hands. I always cleaned my hands before I touched them. Because I was unclean. I’d thought I was clean, but I couldn’t wash away my guilt. Because there is no worse punishment for sin than guilt. Guilt crushes you, paralyzes you and makes you see who you really are. Even when James recovered with medication alone, I didn’t take that to mean that God had answered my prayers, or that he forgave me as I had before. No, the guilt held me back from being happy. It replaced my confidence with fear.
Now, my restless nights were spent facing the white tube of light from my cell phone, looking into the future. My internet searches: “cerebral palsy and premature babies,” “25-weeker, autism,” “developmental delays.” I had imagined, as some expecting parents do, my boys’ future. My husband and I talked about teaching them to ice skate at two, how cute they would be pushing the little blue buckets across the ice with puffy gloved hands and red cold-pinched cheeks. We talked about how they would be handsome and popular. I imagined hating anyone who would try to date my sons, yet feeling overwhelmed with joy and pride when they settle down and have children. We talked about their education and talents; it was inevitable that our sons would be intellectuals, brain surgeons, or musical virtuosos. We talked about sports, my husband forbidding football and me not keen on being an ice hockey mom sitting on cold bleachers yelling at other five- or ten-year-old kids trying to bully my boys. But, I would do it. I would scream and shout and cheer on my talented, athletic, good-looking, successful, intelligent, able-bodied children with all the vigor of a woman ignorant in her privileged bliss. Now, I wondered if they would ever even walk. Would they ever even talk? Did I take away that future?
Guilt is a bully holding your arm as you try to run. Both of my sons got bigger, they both passed their car-seat tests, they came home with oxygen but were tube-free in a mere two weeks, they gained even more weight at home removed from the stress and noise of the NICU, they thrived, are thriving, and yet…
One night after we had bought them home, I became hysterical. I held onto James; his cheek pressed against my chest, sweaty. My husband reached for him, and I felt like running. I was going to run the hell out of there with him. No one was going to take my baby. He was mine. He was alive. I had him. I cried and screamed, I don’t even remember what for or why, but I was going to hurt my husband if he tried to take my baby. When I calmed down, my husband took him from me and told me to rest. I lay down in our bed, repulsed. I never wanted to touch myself again.
Whoever came up with the cliché, “time heals all wounds” is an asshole.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. It may dull the pain of some of them; help makes the scabbing, the healing process, more tolerable. It may make you forget that you were even injured, for a moment. But, time doesn’t heal everything. Time—waiting, anticipating, wondering, hoping—can make things worse. And when those unhealed wounds inevitably open again, you feel all the pain again.
As they reach almost 26 months, and I have two healthy, active, and playful toddlers, I am unable to rejoice in the small victories, always wondering when the next catastrophe is going to take place. Langston isn’t talking. His vocabulary is limited to “da-da,” “na-na.” I find it hard to believe my husband when he tells me that the boy said, “hey” this morning, or that he pointed to the dog in a book, thinking it’s my husband who just can’t face reality. He doesn’t know that God hasn’t forgiven me. All I can do now is just wait for it, for whatever is coming next, and in between, try to live. So, yes, even after having them, even after V-day, I am still waiting for viability—my own. Patience not ever being my thing, I struggle with graciously accepting delays.