Monday, April 15, 2013

Fear, Anger, and Phantom Baby Kicks

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
C.S. Lewis

            Parker also managed to occupy me during my recovery, particularly so on the day when he “experimented” with a soft gray pussy willow he deftly and stealthily plucked from one of my hospital flower arrangements. During the course of his scientific investigation, he succeeded in firmly lodging the furry grey catkin up his nose. After frantically calling around town for advice, Parker and I spent three stressful hours in a specialist’s office, awaiting the doctor’s return from surgery, while I fervently prayed Parker wouldn’t inhale the plant part deep into his sinus cavity. Seventy-five dollars and less than five minutes later, the pussy willow was safely extracted from Parker’s nose.

            He’d been a picture of valiant patience until the actual extraction, when the doctor quickly velcroed him into a child restraint to immobilize him. That elicited screams of terror from my son, and I held and comforted him—as much as I could­—during the procedure. When we finally emerged from the building and started across the parking lot toward the car, Parker firmly grasped my hand, surveyed me with enormously round eyes and asked, “Mom, can I sniff now?” I laughed and breathed a sigh of grateful relief. (He had followed my firm instructions perfectly.) “Yes, buddy, you can sniff now!” He responded by smiling, expelling his own sigh of relief, and happily, victoriously sucking in a huge volume of air though his nostrils.
            When we arrived home, I didn’t waste any time in relocating the pussy willows to a high shelf.
            Not content to let me reminisce about one mishap, Parker frightened us awake in the middle of one night with a terrifying, barking cough. Chris and I quickly bundled him up, deposited him in his car seat, and drove in panic mode to the hospital. By the time we arrived, Parker was smiling and happy, with no signs of a cough. We also carried along a little plastic cherry from the game Hi-Ho Cherrio—a birthday present he’d been playing with that day—on the slight chance he’d ingested one of the cherries. The doctor obligingly x-rayed the tiny plastic berry, then Parker’s airway to see if they had a match. No cherry, just croup, and a prescription to take Parker home and keep him well moistened with a humidifier.
            This sudden, unexpected return to the hospital permitted me to carefully survey the emergency room where I’d arrived weeks earlier, and to interrogate Chris about that night’s details. So much of the scene had emerged in my mind as a blur of green and white moving objects and flowing privacy curtains. Walking circumspectly and cautiously around the ward while making mental notes of the setting, flashes of images struck my conscience as memory fragments unraveled chaotically.
            The private accommodation I’d been taken to upon arrival was now occupied, so I couldn’t scrutinize that room. Good thing. Why did I want to attempt a re-enactment? What purpose would it serve, except to transport me mentally and emotionally back to that night; and why would I want to go back there and relive it anyway? Shaking my head to dispel the images, I abruptly stopped my intense, purposeless wandering and gratefully returned to my husband and son.
            It wouldn’t be my final visit to their emergency accommodations. Within several months, Chris orchestrated another step across the ER threshold when he accidentally caused a screwdriver to lacerate his cornea. It seemed impossible to extricate ourselves from the place.
            In general though, the days wore on, and, as valiantly as I tried, I found it impossible to escape the complex, tormenting grieving process. Throughout the weeks and months following Victoria’s death, I was swept along in the violent torrent of emotions: sorrow, pain, guilt, anger, resentment, regret, sadness, and depression. Sometimes all of them engulfed me simultaneously. And I came to understand what C.S. Lewis so aptly wrote after his wife’s death: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Fear of never being able to surmount the pain; fear of never feeling “normal” again; abject fear of another loss. Fear of simply living through a day.
            Following the initial shock occurred immediately after surgery. Then I slowly progressed to feeling abnormal, as if controlled by artificial, ultra-rational emotions—laughing, smiling, conversing as though nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened. I teetered—sometimes rapidly—between an eerily calm composure and hyper-animation. I often felt as though I was acting out a dramatic role in someone else’s life.
            Emotional shock sets in rapidly like anesthesia: God’s built-in protection system against the inevitable anguish that arrives too soon. Anguish that stands poised to, without invitation or fair warning, to destroy you body, soul and spirit.
            I lost a sense of stability; an involuntary switch seemed to control my emotions. At times a weary numbness descended upon me like a heavy blanket of fog. Then all-consuming anger seeped through the crack carved out by the shock; anxiety and anger bubbled to the surface when memories and thoughts were too painful to acknowledge or feel.      
            Then, along with the breast tenderness, my uterus taunted me with sensations of baby kicks—sensations that are usually a wonderful reminder that you’re carrying a life, anticipated, precious movements alerting a mother to continued breath and strength within the womb.
            Initially I thought I willfully imagined them. Okay, that I was nuts. Then I read information validating my experience: the physical response can be compared to the phantom-limb pain amputees suffer following appendage loss. But that revelation failed to delete what seemed a cruel joke. My body was temporarily disconnected from reality.
            These daily reminders of a womb once boasting hopes, dreams and the miracle of life, continued for weeks, sometimes strongly enough to cause me to abruptly stop my activities and lay my hand lovingly over my vacant womb, like an expectant mother patting her baby reassuringly when that baby announces their existence with foot and fist jabs and pokes. Strangely, I experienced the phantom signals of vitality with joy and thanksgiving for the life once held, protected and isolated, within my body, the precious life, once mine to share and anticipate with ravishment and wonder. Lingering recollections of hopeful, promising motherhood. Encouraging memories of sweeter dreams.

           And then there was that Saturday morning trip to the mortuary to claim Victoria’s ashes. The mortuary had called repeatedly for nearly three weeks about the arrival of her ashes, wondering when we’d pay for and collect them. Chris loathed the prospect of walking into the building to retrieve the little box containing the remains of his infant daughter, so he avoided returning their calls.
            The mortician had promised that Victoria’s remains would come in a “nice, little white box,” so I’d decided to forgo the expense of a crematory vase. A fresh shockwave rattled through me when I saw the simple, square, white cardboard box, folded and closed securely with clear tape. It looked like a generic shipping box displaying nothing more than a legal paper and envelop describing its contents as the remains of “Victoria Lee Owan.” The box was so homely and bare; so light-weight, cheap and sterile looking.
            “Here,” Chris said, quickly shoving the box into my hands. “I can’t look at it!” After grasping it tenderly, first hesitating, then gingerly shaking it up and down to validate the contents, I laid it gently in a corner on the floor of our pickup truck, out of sight.
            “What’s that?” Parker questioned when spotting the container from his car seat vantage point beside me.
            “Just something Daddy needed to pick up,” I said quietly. He didn’t press me. When we arrived home, I rushed the box into our study and placed it high on a shelf behind a picture of Parker—out of visual display but within Chris’s and my reaching distance.
            Victoria had finally come to stay with us.
            What a dismal homecoming.  


NEXT WEEK: The C-section scar screams a daily reminder, the despair deepens, and the loss begins to strain and fracture our marriage…

*On Wednesday of this week I will add a special post describing how we commemorated Victoria’s death this past two days, and, for the first time in this 20 years since her death, really came together to memorialize her life and passing, grieve together, and give Victoria the cherished resting place and prominence she deserves. How healing spiritually it was for both of us!

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!