When you’re a kid, few things rival the exciting anticipation that comes with celebrating a birthday. This Sunday, my daughter will turn nine. Like most families, we have a lot of birthday rituals to uphold; a party with friends, cake, and presents, a special birthday breakfast, and a family dinner at any restaurant the birthday child selects.
My daughter’s birthday also marks the nine year anniversary of my descent into a nightmare that no one saw coming. 12 hours after her healthy birth, I suffered grave complications that were partially caused by my scleroderma masking some symptoms of preeclampsia. This ultimately led to a 218-day hospitalization where I lost my colon, spleen, underwent eight major surgeries and was robbed of my ability to speak, breathe, eat, or move. With every passing year, the memories of the dark days following her birth grow dimmer and I am able to fully focus on my beautiful daughter and all the joy her life brings to everyone she knows.
I try with every fiber of my being not to associate her birthday with my near-death experiences. I never want my daughter to think for one solitary second that I am anything but eternally grateful for her birth. She is truly the sun, moon and stars in my sky and I would endure every moment of that 218-day hospital saga again in a heartbeat to have her. She is my miracle and I was destined to be her mother. I can’t imagine life without her.
I used to think about all the horrible anniversaries that accompany spring with ritualistic absurdity. I would battle to block out thoughts like, on this day 3 years ago I had an emergency collectomy and my family was told I had 48 hours to live, or, 5 years ago today I bled out on the operating table and everyone thought I was a goner, or, on this date back in 2006, I was hallucinating in the ICU and was tied to the bedrails with restraints. Ah…good times indeed.
I have slowly stopped reliving these anniversaries, but there is one I don’t think I’ll ever let go of commemorating. On May 15, 2006, I was lying in the Intensive Care Unit, fighting to stay alive. One of my closest friends, Stacy, flew in from New York, thinking it would be the last time she ever saw me.
While Stacy was visiting, my husband, Dave, insisted that I write a letter to our newborn daughter. Even in my half-dead haze, I found this alarming. I am the sentimental one in our marriage. It has been me who has written in journals, created scrapbooks, pulled out the camera and took pictures and video of our life together. To this day, Dave still hasn’t even watched the video of our own wedding. (“Why do I need to watch a video if I was there?” he says.) Why then, was Dave so persistent in his request for me to write a letter to our baby? Crap, I must really be about to kick the bucket if Dave is getting sappy, I thought.
“Stacy, would you write down a letter to Em for me? Obviously, Dave thinks I am going to croak any second now.”
Stacy let out her signature rich laugh and said, “Of course I will.”
“Okay, but Stace, please make sure you use correct spelling, punctuation, and your best penmanship. You know I pride myself on having beautiful ‘teacher handwriting.’ If I die, I don’t want Em to think that I was a moron who couldn’t spell.”
“Yes Lisa- that would be the true tragedy—if Em thought her mother lacked a firm grasp of grammatical rules.” With pen in hand, and a broad smile on her face, Stacy recorded my dictation.
My Dearest Em,
There is one page written on 4/26 all about your birth in your brother’s journal. One day, Mommy will sit down and explain to you everything that happened after 4/26. Please know that if there was any way mommy could have written during these days, she would have. There were complications after your birth and Mommy is still in the hospital, trying to get better so I can go home and be the best mommy I can to you and your brother. The moment I held you in my arms, I fell madly and deeply in love with you. You are beautiful both inside and out. Everyone says what a wonderful baby you are and how calm you are. It is pure agony not to be home with you, your brother, and daddy. The only thing that keeps me going here is knowing what an amazing life we have to live together. I know all daughters will hate their mothers at some time or another. And all mothers will vow not to make the same mistakes their mothers made, but end up becoming their own mothers in spite of themselves. I know your life will not always be perfect—no one’s ever is. I can only pray that I will be allowed to stay with you here and provide guidance, comfort, and listening ears. The one thing I have learned from this experience is the power of friendship, the immeasurable love from family, and the strong influence of knowing how deeply you are loved. I can only hope that your life is as powerfully blessed with these things as mine has been. My darling Em, no matter what life brings us, I hope you know how loved you are and there is nothing you cannot come to me with.
Whenever I reread this letter in Stacy’s handwriting, I am awestruck by her incredible courage and strength. Had she been dying and asked me to do the same, I would have instantly dissolved into hysterics. Stacy—strong, beautiful, remarkable Stacy—transcribed this for me and did not shed a single tear. She kept smiling and talking with me as if we were at Starbucks sipping coffee.
Every year, as my daughter’s birthday approaches, I reread this letter and bawl like a baby. I used to cry because it reminded me of how much I missed out on when I was sick; my daughter’s first smile, or my son’s first day at a new preschool. I cried for my husband who faced the news that his 31-year-old wife was not likely to pull through the night and then went home to care for a newborn and toddler. I cried for all the sacrifices family and friends made on my behalf ; holding my hand and refusing to let go, regardless of the cost to their own personal and professional lives. Nine years later, I cry tears of joy because of all the things I didn’t miss and for the intricate tapestry of support I received from hundreds who carried me through my darkest hours.
My husband does not like to think about the past. Look where you’re going and not where you came from, he always says. I try to remember this and not allow myself to be swallowed whole by the traumas of the past. I still say it’s good to look back once in a while, though. Where you’ve been often shapes where you’re going and gives you the perspective to get there. I know where I’m going this Sunday. I’m going shopping with my Em for a special mommy-daughter birthday celebration. I will revel in all the happiness her birthday brings and the miracle it represents.
- Of course, my son is also the sun, moon and stars in my sky. My kids don’t read my blog, but I don’t want anyone to think I play favorites.
- I am compelled to mention that Stacy is an actress and left her theatre tour to fly to Chicago. Stacy was playing Mrs. Quimby in the children’s stage production of Beverly Cleary’s, Ramona Quimby, Age 8. While Stacy was gone, the other actors performed the play without Mrs. Quimby. Yikes! The poor kids in the audience must have been so confused- did Mrs. Quimby run off with Mr. Kemp from across the street?
- I’m just the slightest bit impressed with the coherent letter I dictated. Given that I was heavily sedated and on a wide array of narcotics, I give myself a solid ‘B’ for sentence variation and vocabulary usage.
- If you are a first time reader, my entries are usually way funnier than this one. Click here for evidence.