I’ve been thinking a whole lot lately about marriage and loss. About not taking our partners for granted. About showing up every single day to be present in our relationships. And I’ve been thinking about the power of this institution, this changing, bending, evolving institution, and the way it’s able to support us. The way this covenant is there for us when times get so hard we can hardly see our way out. All of this is my way of introducing Shana Rae, who’s story is about birth and death and weddings and marriage and family. And as I say now and then, this is NSFW, in a sobbing kind of way. I lost it reading this post in a way I almost never do. Started sobbing, but at the end, felt like I’d learned and grown, felt like I carried something of Shana Rae in me. Which is why we tell our stories, I think. Or as Shana Rae so beautifully said to me, “So many times I’m convinced the world is a cipher, an endless vacuum set to suck, and then something happens and the interconnectedness of it all kisses my face.” And with that, the woman herself:
I’d been married before. I’d had the $2000 dress and the Louboutin heels and an amazing ring with the wedding overlooking the fireworks that went off at midnight. I’d believed that a perfect wedding begot a perfect marriage. I’d deluded myself into thinking that the problems a couple has before marriage go away after the wedding. I left a really stellar man who didn’t cheat, who didn’t spend the money or drink too much, in hopes that I could find someone who wanted to be actively engaged in building a powerfully deep relationship with me. I was plagued for years with the will-I-ever-be-satisfied? / what-is-wrong-with-me? panic as I went on dates with men who were not my partner.
I met Jared in a bar that reeked of 1974 with the smell of fried spam soaked into the shag carpeting. I’m not attracted to blonds as a general rule and let him know that right off the bat. I grinned that he was the exception. He replied in kind that he was not attracted to blond women, but that I wasn’t so bad looking myself. Later, he made a joke that I had an Electra complex and it was over… I was in deep smit. He had timing, wit, an amazing smile AND he knew what the opposite of an Oedipus complex was. Random emails turned into texts, texts into lunches and when he moved to my city, I asked him out immediately.
We moved in together in the summer of 2010 and began making future plans. Jared wanted to go to law school and welcomed my input into the process. We’d be moving to the East or West Coast, it would happen late Summer 2011, we would get married before we moved. We had a plan.
Then, we found out we were pregnant.
I’d gone to the doctor for two issues. I’d had a stomach thing for weeks and it was crampy and tender to the touch. I’d also been playing roller derby and my neck was out of whack. I’d asked for an x-ray. They had me pee in a cup, and then draped me in a hospital gown while I waited in a freezing cold room, asking questions to keep my bearings. The x-ray tech told me I’d had a pregnancy test done as she was about to x-ray me. I asked, “Shouldn’t we wait for the results before the x-ray?” She sighed, went to the telephone murmured a few uh-huhs, and annoyed, she stated, “I can’t x-ray you. You’re pregnant.” I fell over. Excited. Terrified. Excited. Panicked. I revisited the doctor and she told me that I needed an ultrasound. Of course, I would. I know one gets ultrasound when pregnant. “When do I need to do that by?”
“Now,” she replied. “You’re going to the hospital now. We’re concerned you have an ectopic pregnancy.”
Atticus had our attention right from the beginning. From the moment we found out about him.
He wasn’t ectopic. He was 7 weeks in the making. I’d gone to a roller derby boot camp and came in first place in a city-wide scavenger hunt and Been Pregnant The Whole Time. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and the worry of becoming a mother consumed me immediately. Our plans shifted slightly. Getting married became a bigger priority. We would still move for law school. Baby was due in May of 2011. Wedding would be July 2011. The big move would be August of 2011. We would introduce everyone to him at the wedding just when babies start to look less like red faced drooling wrinkle machines and more like pink, plump perfect offspring. Recalibration of plan = DONE and DOABLE.
I drank water, did prenatal yoga, loved my expanding body. Jared and I put down payments on our venue, cupcakes, and oh yea, he officially asked me to marry him in November. I came home after class one night and he had made me a 3 layer Red Velvet cake from scratch and then got on one knee. We bought clothes as I grew out of them. We signed up for classes and settled into the idea that we really were about to become a family and we were happy, not just terrified. We were gonna rule this!
On January 11, 2011, I had my 6 month appointment with my Midwife. She cleared me as good to go and sent us on our way. The next day, I went into preterm labor. At 7pm, the staff was going to give me some fluids and send me home thinking my contractions were caused by dehydration. By 8pm, they had realized I was dilated between 3-4 centimeters and fully effaced. They hooked me up to a Magnesium Sulfate I.V. and injected me with the first of two steroid shots that would help speed up Atticus’ lung development and give him a better chance if he delivered. They prayed he would sit tight for at least 48 hours, but first, we needed to make it through the first 24 hours.
I was terrified for his life, for my life. I was terrified of the needles, the hospital, the procedures. I’d gone to the Midwives because I wanted “control” of my pregnancy. I wanted to read up on the birthing methods of other countries, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a medical procedure that strapped my feet into stirrups and stripped away the magic of birth.
Atticus Bryce was born 3 days later. 1 pound, 10.4 oz. 11.75 inches long. Smaller than a ruler, lighter than a sack of flour. My body had had no infections. They couldn’t tell us why I’d given birth so early, but the staff was going to fight to get our new little son home. They told us that he was severely underdeveloped, having gestated only 24 weeks and 4 days. They told us that our hospital stay would be a roller coaster. They told us that there would be days when we cried so hard and that the minutes would pass so slowly that we’d feel like we could never emerge from the darkness again. So we sat by his bed and started learning about the lines traveling into his tiny body. We read him stories and told him we loved him. We did what parents do.
As Jared and I weren’t married, Iowa state law said we couldn’t list Jared on the birth certificate. We had to fill out another form and have it notarized before they would add him to the certificate. It probably sounds like a ridiculous deal to get bent out of shape over, but it was the back breaking straw. We got married 5 days after Atticus was born.
I already had the dress. I had bought it a bit big in case I was still preggo plump two months after delivery. Jared already had his suit. My mom asked what we needed before an Iowa Supreme Court justice married us on Friday. I suggested flowers and a cake. She asked what kind of flowers, I said, “I don’t care as long as the bouquet is small and pretty.” She asked what kind of cake I wanted, I replied, “I don’t care what kind of cake it is as long as it tastes good.” And that is how our wedding of spreadsheets, our wedding of meticulous planning, our wedding of vintage-we’re-so-hip-it-looks-thrown-together-but-made-the-bride-pull-her-hair-out-daily vanished. None of it mattered. We just needed to be married and supporting our son. We needed to do it together in a way that the state wouldn’t dream of making either of us feel less than. We stopped by the hospital in our wedding fancy and told Atticus what we were doing that afternoon, that we’d be back to spend time with him after it was all done. Armed with just a few family members, the judge and one tear stained, drippy nose bride, we were wed. An official family was formed that day, a paper contract of a covenant we’d made to one another long before.
Our son’s health improved and declined, just like they said it would. On February 6th, at 3 weeks old, he failed to digest some of the breast milk I’d been dutifully pumping for him. A green substance entered his belly from his intestines. The x-rays and examinations went into high gear. We were conferring with surgeons, with kidney specialists, with pulmonary specialists. That Tuesday evening, we waited up most of the night with Atticus, sure that his body would not be able to take the stress of the illness or the methods to get him better. My mother, a minister, stayed with us that night, the three of us baptized and named our son to the beeps and blips of medical machinery.
He made an incredible improvement. A real miracle in front of us. Two days after losing hope, our little BoyWonder (our nickname for him) showed us all his true resiliency and that we had sold him short on faith. His x-rays started looking really good, he had started urinating again, his near lethal levels of Potassium had returned to normal. In two days, he was moving, opening his eyes, interacting with us again. I was so, so proud of his effort, his will to survive and show us the force of his chutzpah. His doctors had told us that they didn’t think he would make it and he gave them his little baby middle finger in response.
On Monday, our doctor huddled us into a room to suggest that Atticus have surgery in the morning. He had responded so well to treatment, but he’d probably gotten as good as he was going to get and on the x-rays, he had what looked like an abscess in his gut. They were going to go in, clean it out and then he would be able to finish recovering from this bout of illness. The next morning, my husband was surprised I was handling Atticus’ surgery so well. It was still a dangerous procedure to do to a very sick little boy, but I knew, just KNEW that I’d lost faith in Atticus the week before and I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. He would always have me in his corner cheering him on.
And then it all changed.
The bacteria from the week before had killed his entire colon. It had killed over half of his small intestine. What they mistook as an abscess was the liquification of his dead bowels. We were placed in the position that we had to decide our son’s fate. The doctor’s could remove the dead gut and if he survived the surgery, they would give him a colostomy. He would never poop regularly. He would never be able to eat food. All nutrition would be from TPN, delivered intravenously. TPN is incredibly hard on the liver. If he made it out of infancy, he would be looking at needing a small intestine and liver transplant as a toddler. Then he would have to suffer any complications from transplants. Or we could choose to let him go.
Previous to February 15th, I’d held Atticus for exactly one minute when they changed out his bed. Jared had never held him. We’d barely been allowed to touch him initially because of the negative stimulus. He was a baby that was supposed to be inside me, in the dark, with no people poking at him, changing his diaper, drawing blood gases. That day, we made the most terrible decision to release him from the pain of his body. As they unhooked all the tubes that had been sustaining him, we were allowed to hold him. We knew we were keeping him until 10:30pm when his grandfather from Tulsa would get to the hospital. So we rocked him. We told him how incredibly proud we were of him. We told him how much we loved him. Jared and I took turns holding and loving him all day long for hours at a time. We did what parents do.
At 10:30, the staff removed his breathing tube. We held him as he let go. Each of his grandparents held him for the first and last times, each having time to have their own private conversations with their beautiful grandson.
We had him for 30 wonderful days.
We thought our summer wedding would be flowers and excitement and one very loved, very passed around baby boy. We thought our future plans and our savings and our frank conversations were solid. My husband and I are a team. We showed up. We supported our son. We supported one another. We asked for help. We asked questions. We spoke honestly.
We will still have our summer wedding and we will invite joy into our venue. We thought our wedding would be the celebration of our family, of bringing our son home. Atticus is home. He is in our hearts. He is in our prayers. Our wedding will be a celebration of our family, past, present and future. There will be laughter in our dance steps and hope in our smiles. There will be a confidence in our vows that conveys the depth of our partnership.
It is no longer about the flowers, my dress or the place cards. It is no longer the innocent glee of marrying my best friend. I mourn the loss of those things; there is sweetness in the crazy pressure we put on ourselves to create the perfect wedding. So I urge all couples to press on in the glorious maelstrom of wedding planning and to meditate on your relationship today. Show gratitude. Say to your love, “I respect you.” Say something like, “I am so incredibly honored to be your partner because the day after our wedding, we begin our life together…”
Be the love you feel.