Sample Autobiography (5)

            The child possessed so many angelic traits, Elise thought, because she was born on a Sunday. Labor had not been easy and the obstetrician opted to put her to sleep for the delivery. Later, of course, she would suspect why he did this.

            As Elise awakened, she was aware of the sounds of moaning and incoherent babble. The next sensation was one of warmth; her hand enclosed in that of another. Blinking and trying to clear the fog of anesthesia, she looked up into the face of her husband, Robert. It was over, then, she thought. The baby had been delivered. Confused and full of growing anxiety, Elise tried to focus her eyes and looked around for the baby. She saw only the large woman in the next bed, snoring heavily, and an incomprehensible bustle in the hallway beyond. She was drawn back like an anchor to the sadness and pain in her husband’s eyes.

“What is it? What’s happened?”

He produced a sad smile. “We have a beautiful baby girl, Elise, but she has some problems.”

Feeling the cold tight fist of fear clench around her heart, Elise said, “What kind of problems?”

She’d suspected something was wrong throughout the pregnancy. She hadn’t quite known why and the doctors had no explanation. Everything had seemed fine to them. But she felt the sharp, awkward kick, and had been somehow troubled by an inexplicable foreboding. Only a week before the delivery she’d gone to Doctor Bond and told him of her concerns. He sent her to the hospital for an x-ray to ease her mind. She’d taken it as a good sign that he hadn’t called to alert her of a problem. Now, however, she wondered what he had seen in those x-rays. If he’d known something that it was simply too late to advise her of and if that was why he’d allowed her the reprieve of anesthesia during the birth. Now Robert explained that the baby’s fingers were webbed and Elise tried to picture this in her mind, trying to understand what it meant. She’d never heard of such a thing and could not shake the confusion. How could such a thing happen? What did it mean? Surely, though, a problem with the fingers was not significantly detrimental to the child, right?

“Will she be okay? Can I see her?”

Robert nodded. “The pediatricians are checking her now. They can do surgery to correct it. There may be other complications…but she’s beautiful, Elise. She’ll be alright.”

Elise felt relief slowly ease the grip of fear, but knew she would not be free of it until she saw the baby and held her in her arms. In the anxiety of the moment she had not recognized the uncertainty in her husband’s voice or known that he’d said that the baby would be alright to not only reassure her but to convince himself that it might be true. She understood much later that what he did not tell her was for her own good. She would not have been able to comprehend it all in that moment. The obstetrician came in next and Elise turned to him, hopeful that he would be able to offer further reassurance.

Doctor Bond stood beside the bed and smiled kindly. “Before the nurses bring your baby in, I wanted to talk to you about her condition. I have to tell you that we don’t know much at this point and I know must be terribly frustrating for you. What we do know is that she appears to be otherwise healthy and that there’s no one to blame for this. These things happen and we don’t understand why, but I know you did all you could to make sure this was a healthy pregnancy. There are amazing things that can be accomplished through surgery these days. There’s much reason to be optimistic.”

He reached out and put a hand on Elise’s, giving it a gentle squeeze. Elise felt the tears in her eyes just before they slipped down her cheeks. She had not realized how much she needed to hear these words: that she was not to blame for whatever was wrong with her daughter. Still, the thought wedged itself in her consciousness and would be the single unanswered question that would revisit her throughout her life. Why?

When the doctor left, there was little to say. Robert and Elise clung to one another’s hand like a lifeline. The sounds of the busy recovery room pervaded all of Elise’s senses and she closed her eyes. Still groggy, she slipped into a restless slumber and was only awakened when she was moved to a semi-private room. With waking came anxiety.

The minutes passed slowly and finally the door opened and a nurse came in carrying a small bundle in a pink blanket. Elise recognized her as the nurse who had been with her during the delivery. Her name was Marty. She held the baby close and walked to the side of the bed where she lowered the infant into Elise’s waiting arms. All Elise could see of her was a head of black hair and a sweet, perfect face. The miracle of the tiny baby in her arms erased all of Elise’s concerns. She felt only love and peace.

When the baby blinked and opened her big brown eyes, Elise smiled at her and kissed her head. She looked so normal. How was it possible that anything was wrong with this child? The nurse stood by, expectantly. Robert remained next to the bed, allowing for the moment of bonding between mother and child. Then Elise delicately pulled back the corners of the blanket to reveal the tiny hands that looked like mittens. A flood of thoughts filled her mind. She’d never known such a thing was possible. She wondered many things but mostly, why, why, why? She continued to unwrap the blanket, touching the baby’s soft skin with her fingers, releasing the tiny, kicking legs. And then her heart thudded and her chest tightened. Something was horribly wrong. There were no thoughts then because none of what she saw made sense. The baby’s right leg was misshapen and very short below the knee. The foot was turned inward and had too many toes. She stared for a moment, trying to comprehend and then she looked up, a question written on her face.

There were tears in her husband’s eyes which were glued to the baby. The nurse was silent but tears streamed down her cheeks. Elise turned back to her daughter.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, speaking to no one in particular. Even as she said it, she knew the answer. It was easier for her this way, with the baby in her arms, to understand that there was no changing what was, there was only acceptance. The cloud of unreality and disbelief still clung to the moment, however, and the unanswered questions were almost too much to bear. Only in the baby’s eyes did Elise find any relief from the turmoil in her mind. Afterward, when the baby was fed and Marty came to take her back to the nursery, she bent down and hugged the young mother.

“It is difficult,” she said, “It always is, but love wins out. You’ll see. She’ll be the light of your life and that’s something to be thankful for.”

As she was leaving the room, Marty turned back and said, “I have such a special feeling for this baby. She’s brightened my heart like she’ll brighten many more.”

They named her Janie. Word travelled fast about the new addition to the Pine family. Not only was the maternity ward buzzing about their newest charge, but the residents of that small town in southern Georgia were gathering themselves up and preparing to lend their support. The following day, Elise woke in a private room with her mother beside her. The comfort of her own mother’s presence was worth more than any words and the two women sat together in knowing silence. Elise knew the obstetrician must have pulled some strings to get her there when the rest of the maternity ward was full to max capacity.

As the morning sun began filtering through the blinds, the visitors began to arrive. Throughout the day a steady stream of friends, family, neighbors, churchgoers, and well-wishers came to see Janie and to give Elise and the Pine family their love. It was breathtaking for Elise and there were tears. Many tears, but there were even more open arms and blessings showered on little Janie. In the middle of the afternoon, Robert came into the room with a grin that Elise had not seen since before the baby was worn.

“Can you stand and walk to the window?” he asked.

“What are you up to?”

“I want you to see something.”

Tentatively, Elise stood and let him guide her by the arm to the window. He pulled open the blinds and said nothing. He didn’t have to. Outside her first floor window, Elise saw the people milling about and talking, lining up at the entrance of the maternity ward. All of them there to see Janie and shower the new mother and baby with support. Tears sprung to Elise’s eyes and spilled over. Robert hugged her.

“It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright,” he whispered.

For the rest of the day, the operator in the main lobby had to call over to the maternity ward to advise them to keep the visitors moving so that a line didn’t form at the entrance. One of the last to visit was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Albany, a man Elise knew to be quiet, caring, and understanding. He paid his respects and congratulations and laid one hand on Elise and one on Janie, who slept in her mother’s arms.

“Elise, there was only one perfect human ever born.”

The wave of his words washed over Elise and she found peace in them. It was in moments like those that she knew there was peace to be found in the situation, but there was no end to the heartache.

The flowers filled every available surface and the room reeked with the sweetness of huge yellow chrysanthemums and pink roses. Elise’s mother had left the hospital and was stationed at the Pine house where additional visitors were dropping off food and gifts for the new baby. She called once to let Elise know that there was so much food she’d had to start freezing it.

The next morning, Elise woke up alone. Somebody help, she thought. Will she be able to walk, write, function normally, have a long, full life? Later in the morning, when Janie was curled in her mother’s arms again, the pediatrician came into the room and gave voice to the one thing that Elise dared not think.

“These are, of course, only the visible defects,” he said gently, but no less earth-shatteringly. “There may be others that we cannot see.”

After that, there was nothing but an overwhelming cloud of depression. How long would it be for the answers to come? How will I care for my other children and deal with this as well? And even more difficult to put words to: Will she die? Is there so much wrong with her that she won’t live? Elise prayed with urgency then, overwhelmed by the impossibility of handling this—any of it—on her own. Please let her live, God. Don’t take her from me. Please. A fierceness seemed to take hold of her as she prayed and was reminded of a similar moment, years ago. She’d already lost one baby; a premature infant who went to heaven not long after birth. I can’t do it again. She’s my baby. I want her. I need her. I can’t lose her, too.

Later that day, Elise received a pre-planned tubal ligation and woke up from the anesthesia in the evening. A high, full-moon was already filtering its pale light into the room. Shadows fell around the sweet-smelling flowers and everything was so peaceful and quiet that Elise thought perhaps she hadn’t made it through the surgery and this was heaven. Then she felt the tiny movements of the baby on her chest and smiled. This was not heaven, then, because this baby was meant to live.

Elise’s mom and dad were both in the room when she woke and her mother’s quiet strength was contrasted with her father’s beaming pride over his new granddaughter. Neither of these, she suddenly thought, could she do without.

Coming out from under the cloud of anesthesia, Elise became aware of the pain. Her entire mid-section was sore and made for a very uncomfortable night. Still, Marty had displayed her usual compassion and left Janie in the room to sleep with her mother through the night. Even waking and feeding the baby was a balm to Elise’s body and soul.

In the morning, the orthopedic surgeon came. Elise and Robert had been told that he would be visiting, but not when. When he came into the room, Elise was alone and had no idea who he was. Finding out, however, she was immediately optimistic that answers to their numerous questions might be forthcoming. Her hopes were quickly dashed, not only by what he said, but by his manner in general. The doctor walked into the room brusquely, without so much as a cordial greeting. He proceeded to describe the examination he’d done on Janie that morning as impersonally as if he were reading out of a medical text.

“I’m not going to lie to you, the defects are severe. There will be a long line-up of surgical procedures in her future—a dozen on her hands alone—and even then it’s not reasonable to expect that there won’t be complications. Every surgery opens up the possibility of infection. And as far as the leg…” Here he lifted a page on Janie’s chart and shook his head, “I don’t think it’s worth trying to work with what’s there. Amputation is the likeliest option.”

Throughout his speech Elise sat upright and motionless in the bed, stunned beyond words. A mix of fury and sadness welled up inside of her, knowing that she did not deserve to have this callous man fill her with fear and toxic pessimism. She withheld any show of emotion until he left and then the entirety of her many days of pain, fear, worry, and doubt overwhelmed her and she cried with abandon. She was nearly hysterical when Marty came into the room and instantly put her arms around Elise and began calming her.

The two women sat together for a while.

“I feel your pain,” Marty said, “I’ve felt it, too. I had a daughter, a beautiful baby girl like yours. When she was born the doctors told me something was wrong with her heart, but they had no answers. It was a torment for me, but I trusted in God as much as I could and felt that peace would somehow come to us. She grew and she filled my life with joy, but she did not flourish. The answers came and they were not what I wanted to hear. She was very sick. She left us when she was three years old. She was a precious gift; a miracle to us and I am forever grateful that we had her for as long as we did. In the end, peace came to her and for that I must always be thankful. I see your little girl—I see Janie—and feel the same love I have for my daughter. I like to believe in the great possibility that her life represents.”

With this, hope bloomed again and Elise understood that the blessing of those people around us, and the goodness of human compassion in the face of adversity is a daily miracle. She took comfort in the kindness of her obstetrician who talked of releasing her and Janie the following day. His eyes seemed to reflect her pain and his gentle manner was a simple but effective acknowledgement that he understood and respected her needs.

When he last visited, her pastor had said, “We believe in miracles, but to experience them we must remain strong and not allow despair to claim us. Be patient with people and understand that they often won’t know what to say. This is not a sign of apathy, but quite the opposite. You will find, through this, that there is more good in people than you would otherwise have known.

Later, Elise would appreciate this as one of the wisest things anyone had ever said to her.