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The Sound of Sound

Last week I went back to the ENT to remove the wick from my ear and confirm that the infection had cleared up. I got the all-clear to resume wearing my hearing aid and then had another appointment later in the week with my ENT’s colleague. He recommended a Baha (bone-anchored hearing aid) for my right ear, the ear that is nearly deaf for all practical purposes. Put simply, my hearing loss is due to middle ear trauma but my inner ear is perfectly normal. While my left ear can still benefit from a conventional, air-conduction hearing aid, the hearing loss in my right ear is much more severe: a regular hearing aid has to have so much power going through it to help at all that it quickly develops feedback. The Baha is surgically implanted into the skull behind and above the ear and uses bone-conduction to transmit sound directly to the undamaged inner ear, bypassing the useless middle ear, and creating a greater overall amplification with less power (which means less feedback). Bonus: since there’s nothing actually in my ear, there’s nothing to aggravate the ear toward infection, to which I’m highly prone.

Before agreeing to have a hole drilled in your skull and a metal screw permanently implanted into it there’s a headband you can try on that mimics the experience of the real thing, though not as effectively since the headband has to go through hair, skin, and tissue before getting to the actual bone. Still, the headband was pretty damn impressive. I haven’t voluntarily had a conversation with someone sitting on my right side since I was five years old. I am constantly positioning myself to have people be on my left. My best friend of 15 years calls it the, “which-side-of-you-do-I-need-to-be-on tango.” But when the doctor put this thing on my head he sat on my right side, had me take out my left hearing aid and face away from him (so I couldn’t read his lips), and then had an entire conversation with me and I didn’t miss a word. I didn’t even have to concentrate or struggle to hear what he was saying. He told me he was speaking barely above a whisper, but it sounded like he was talking into a microphone. He could have been speaking into a sound system plugged directly into my head.

The instant he started speaking and I heard his voice in my right ear I burst into tears. I don’t remember the last time I heard someone’s voice in that ear. He told me the nurses call it his “crying machine” because everyone has the same reaction. That very day I filled out the paperwork to have the surgical coordinator call me to schedule the surgery. It’s set for May 17th.

When I got back to my car that day I sobbed. Every time I started to get a hold of myself I thought about calling my dad and I started sobbing all over again. Someone had just told me, “Hey, I can make it so you can hear almost like normal for the first time in over 20 years. I can make it so that this thing you’ve been coping with for nearly your entire life doesn’t matter so much, so that this thing that has been a fundamental part of shaping your identity doesn’t have to be a driving force in your life. I can make it so that all these little things you do throughout your day – like positioning yourself in the right place, and reading people’s lips, and looking around frantically when you hear a strange noise in the house or an ambulance when you’re driving, trying desperately to locate the source of the sound – virtually disappear. I can make it so that you can hear your children laughing or fighting or getting into the cookie jar from a different room. I can make you hear as well as or better in your deaf ear than you hear in your good ear. Would you be interested in that?” And I didn’t know what to say about it, I didn’t know how to describe it or how to talk about it.

I didn’t know how to tell my parents, “Hey, remember all those surgeries I had when I was a little girl? Remember all those doctor’s appointments, all the time in the hospital, all the physical pain and the even deeper emotional pain, all the hopes, all the disappointments, all my tears, all my frustration, the ultimate failure of the doctor to restore my hearing? It’s OK, Mom. It’s gonna be OK, Dad. Sure it’s still artificial, but with this thing I’ll be practically normal. Just 18 years after we gave up.”

But while this is all quite astonishing and the possibilities extraordinary, I find myself feeling very hesitant. All of this has suddenly brought to the fore a lot of emotions and memories that I’ve never fully dealt with, and wasn’t prepared to be confronted with at this juncture.

I started losing my hearing when I was, I think, around 4 or 5. I’d had recurrent ear infections for years and my ultimate diagnosis – bilateral cholesteatomas – was missed for years. Cholesteatomas are essentially cysts that accumulate dead skin cells and other debris in the ear, growing and eroding the bones of the middle ear (essential for hearing), destroying the connection of the ear drum to the ear, even wrapping around the facial nerve or progressing up into the skull if left untreated for long enough. Surgical removal is the only treatment, and if given long enough to erode the bones of the middle ear hearing loss is inevitable. My right ear essentially no longer has a middle ear at all: the ear drum is gone, as are the bones. My left ear fared better: the bones are intact and the ear drum is still present, though there’s a large perforation, which can’t be surgically repaired (because my Eustachian tubes don’t function properly, which means if we patched the hole my ear would just create the hole again because it needs a way to balance the air pressure in there, which isn’t being done by my faulty Eustachian tubes; and yes, we’ve tried to repair the tubes multiple times to no avail).

As a result of all this, I had numerous surgeries as a child to remove the cholesteatomas, attempt to reconstruct the bones, attempt to fix the Eustachian tubes, remove my adenoids to (I think) try to help prevent future ear infections, attempt to patch my perforated ear drum, attempt to (in my hazy understanding) reshape my mastoid to keep it from being so prone to infections, and perhaps a couple of others that I’m not recalling. All told I believe I had upwards of 10 surgeries, and you now know as much about them as I do. As I was thinking about this upcoming surgery – though really not an “ear” surgery at all, as minimally invasive as drilling into one’s skull can be, and completely removed from all the others I’ve had – I came face to face with something that I’ve known a long time: I really have no idea what was done to me, or why, or what worked and what didn’t.

And I am fucking pissed about it.

I’m not even pissed at anyone in particular. I’m just pissed off about the whole nasty business in general, just on basic principle, I suppose. Most of the surgeries happened between my 8th and 10th birthdays, which means I was old enough to have developed long-term memory and I have plenty of memories about it all, but I wasn’t yet old enough to really understand what was going on or to have reliable memories. I don’t know what’s true and what I’ve made up. I don’t know what really happened and what’s just the scared impression of a 9-year-old girl with 20 years of baggage piled on it. It seems the surgeries were coming every couple of months for awhile, and I distinctly remember (or do I?) one summer, the August of 1991, I believe, excitedly (because I thought it would restore my hearing) writing “Surgery” on my calendar and then writing it again just three weeks later. My 9th birthday fell in between. This entire chapter of my life – and it is a long, sad chapter – is shrouded in mystery even to me. I can’t trust my own memories of it, which means I can’t own it, and if I can’t own it I don’t know how to end it. And believe you me, after 20 years of this bullshit I am ready for this chapter to be fucking over.

I already knew that all these surgeries at such an impressionable age had the result of giving me a fairly intense fear of hospitals, particularly anything having to do with surgery: anesthesia, being asked to count backwards from 100, the little thing they clip on your finger to monitor your pulse, doctors in masks and hair nets, oxygen masks, and let’s not even talk about the “recovery room,” where a scared, groggy little girl wakes up completely alone, far removed from her parents, barely able to talk or move or do anything but whimper, and, once, with an oxygen mask on her face, leading her to believe something had gone horribly wrong and she was on the verge of death, because the only time people ever wore oxygen masks on TV was when they were dying. I also despise IVs, though they don’t scare me (but the cold and horribly unnatural feeling of solution running through them into my body does).

I especially hate anesthesia, the way you can feel your brain slipping away from you, the unnatural sound of people’s voices as they hover around you just waiting for you to lose consciousness, the powerlessness of it all, the sensation of waking up and being immediately confronted with that post-op smell, that absolute stillness like you’ve been abandoned or, worse, that horrifying bustle like something’s gone wrong and everyone is rushing to fix their mistakes before you’ve noticed. I hate having to place so much trust in someone who never even seems to notice that this is my brain, my personhood, my consciousness that they’re expecting me to thoughtlessly hand over to them without so much as a by your leave. Totally apart from surgery, I’ve spent so much time in ENT offices that I can’t even have my ears cleaned without tearing up, not from pain but because it’s as if the process immediately strips me of power over my own life and turns me into an 8-year-old girl again.

I decided that if I was going to really be comfortable going under the knife again I’d have to come to terms with all my previous surgeries. I’d have to understand what they were, why they were done, what worked and what didn’t. I needed to make them mine and shift the balance of power from the hands of some doctor treating a little girl to my hands, the hands of an intelligent, well educated, successful woman. So I called the doctor’s office in Ohio and requested my records.

They don’t keep records for longer than seven years.

I still can’t believe that it’s even legal to just wipe out a person’s entire medical history (and after only seven years, which seems like a ridiculously short amount of time) and I frankly don’t have the energy to go into the rage this inspired in me. I felt as if a part of my own body had been stolen and violated. There are literally pieces of my body that are gone, however small, and those records were the closest I was ever going to get to making my body whole again. Those records were the only link I had to understanding what’s gone on inside my own body, and they’ve been permanently destroyed. I can still get the surgical records from the hospital (whose staff has apparently heard of, you know, off-site archiving) but those will only have information about anything done in the actual hospital. None of my audiograms and none of my post-op follow-up will be in there. None of the “why” in all the decisions that were made will be a part of the record, and it’s the “why” that I really need.

My disappointment and frustration at not being able to receive my records spiraled into despair and despondency that the Baha, which by now family and friends are expecting to be my “miracle,” would be worth it at all. I’m afraid that things won’t sound natural, that it will amplify background noise too much while not amplifying speech enough, that it will cause too much feedback, that I’ll hate and resent having another piece of my body – however seemingly small and insignificant – permanently removed and altered because of my underachieving ears. I run my fingers along my head behind and above my ear, and wonder what it would be like to confront metal, to feel the small area where the hair follicles are intentionally killed and where I would never have hair again. I fear that I will come to feel about the titanium screw as I did about the wick in my ear last week, and will want to rip it from my head, but like some avant garde body modification it’s permanent. There’s no going back and you’d better be pretty god damned certain that you can live the rest of your life with a piece of metal sticking out of your head like some kind of post-modern Frankenstein.

One of my surgeries removed a small piece of cartilage from my tragus (the kind of pointy part of your ear next to your head) to be used for some purpose or other in my middle ear. Now my tragus isn’t pointy; it’s just kind of flat. I doubt many people notice, but that’s not really the point. I notice all the time and I resent that such a change to my body was made without my really understanding and consenting to it, especially since the goal of the change ultimately failed. How much more will I resent a piece of titanium sticking out of my skull like some 19th-century medical experiment if it fails to provide the desired results? And what happens when I’m an old woman and my hair thins, allowing other people to see it, this thing which will surely by then be uncomfortably and sadly outdated? Will I feel like I’m walking around with an ear horn permanently attached to my head? Will getting this cutting edge technology now (which isn’t really so cutting edge: it’s been around since the ’70s) brand me, place me into a sort of time capsule, and make my very body obsolete by the time I have grandchildren?

We’re used to thinking of the human body as timeless, but this thing would place me in a very definite time, and that makes me uneasy for reasons I can’t identify. Somehow it’s like putting a time stamp or an expiration date on my very body. I’m afraid that when I’m 70 people will look at my body and think of it the way we do now about floppy disks: so critical to our lives in the early 90s and so laughably inadequate and outdated, even quaint, now. Our bodies should be timeless, immune to the whims and follies of technological fashions, and if I do this I’m not sure that mine will be. Will my grandchildren look upon my Baha screw the way I look at my parents’ bellbottoms, with an uneasy, indulgent smile, like I’m some sort of unfashionable relic of a bygone era that’s only cool at retro parties?

Mostly, I’m afraid that the world will just be too loud for me. Some noises – the creaking of our hundred-year-old wood floors, the refrigerator in an otherwise quiet kitchen, my son’s cries when he gets himself really worked up – sound pretty darn loud already. Will they become unbearable? And how much else will I hear that I don’t know about and don’t want to know about? What if I simply don’t want to hear everything I’m suddenly able to hear? If someone gives you the gift of hearing after 20 years of silence, oughtn’t you be grateful and ecstatic? But maybe life is just simply easier with a bit of quiet.

When I dialed the doctor’s office phone number it took me several minutes of shaking and crying before I was able to actually hit Send. I kept picturing the doctor’s office, imagining it as it was when I was going there, fearing I’d be able to just sense Dr. B’s presence on the other end of the line. When I looked him up to find the phone number the website included his picture and the sight of him brought needles of tears into my eyes. He’s not a bad man and I rationally know that, and as a child I even liked him. But 20 years later he’s become a sort of Boogeyman in my mind and his visage, his existence really, terrifies me.

When I told my husband about how difficult it was to actually call the doctor’s office he said, “You experienced a childhood trauma, it’s normal, it’s to be expected.” While I appreciated his saying it, I don’t like to call it childhood trauma because, oh, boo hoo, middle-class white girl is so traumatized from receiving the best medical care in the world, what a fucking tragedy. But I can’t deny that certain medical places, people, and procedures bring my irrational and uncontrollable subconscious to the top and completely stifle reason and calmness.

Still, the 9-year-old me has been hanging around here a lot lately, reappearing at most inconvenient times and stubbornly sticking around like a bad case of hiccups. Yesterday, I wondered what she would think of me for thinking about maybe not getting the Baha. I know instantly that she would call me a coward and cry her eyes out at my feet, begging me to just suck it up and get the surgery, to let her hear. I’ve never put much stock in wondering what our younger selves would think of us. After all, our younger selves don’t have the benefit of our experience; what do they know? But inherent in that notion is the assumption that our experience is indeed a benefit, and not a detriment, as mine perhaps is. It is only the 20 intervening years that have turned all those surgeries into trauma. I remember my parents at the time repeatedly calling me strong and brave, and me thinking, every time, “That’s stupid. I’m not strong. I have to do this; I don’t have any other choice. Brave people do scary things they don’t have to do.”

Well, kiddo, I am trying to be brave for you, but, like me, our stuffed zebra – that powerful talisman you took to every surgery – has been aged by these last 20 years and he no longer seems to have the strength to push me forward. He wants to rest and frankly, so do I. He tells me that we’ve been doing just fine since we got the hearing aid for the left ear, and maybe that would be enough for you, that if you knew about that maybe you’d be content and wouldn’t need the right ear, too.

But I know he’s wrong and I know you would never settle for “getting by,” and I know you’d be disgusted by a few fears keeping me from even trying.

I wanna go back to going crazy
Believing every word that I was told
You know sometimes growing up I think I’m getting wiser,
And then other times I think I’m getting old.*

*Todd Snider – I Spoke As a Child

The Sound of Silence

I’ve been fighting a massive ear infection (actually two for the price of one, as I’ve got a middle ear and an outer ear infection in the same ear) for the last week, which means that in addition to so much pain that at one point I actually had doctor permission to take 3 Percocet every 4 hours I’ve also been living in a silent world. I can’t hear a thing. First there was too much fluid buildup and my ear canal was so inflamed it was practically swollen shut and now I have a wick in my ear (to help the ear drops get down inside where they need to be), which is – and these are the doctor’s words – kind of like sticking a tampon in your ear. Since I’m nearly deaf in my other ear anyway, this means that I can’t hear my son cry, I can’t hear him giggle, I can’t hear my husband talk to me unless he’s right next to my ear, and I can hear only the loudest of environmental noises. With the exception of some IM chatting I haven’t had a real conversation in a week.

Whenever I take my hearing aid out at the end of the night, the suddenness of the absence of sound is always a little jarring. I call it the Sound of Silence. But I adjust, and I can still hear some things (I made it 21 years without hearing aids, after all). This is more absolute and it’s taking so long to get back to normal. It feels like my ears are being suffocated. Perhaps that image doesn’t scan for you, but I assure you, dear reader, it is the most accurate way of describing the sensation.

And you know something? Silence is loud. Deafening. Numbing. Maddening. It’s like living in a giant wad of cotton, trying to dig my way through to the outside world, which I keep catching glimpses of but can’t quite get to. Silence doesn’t just affect your ears; it closes in on your whole body and if you think about it too much you start to panic with claustrophobia. You can feel the silence wrapping tighter and tighter around your brain like a corset and clamping around your heart like a great metal vice and squeezing against your insides like a cancer encroaching constantly deeper and further. It’s all I can do to stop my hand from flying to my ear and ripping the wick out, shredding the delicate skin with it, just for the possibility of hearing something, anything.

Saying that I’m lonely is an understatement. Lonely really only captures the loss of interaction with people. What I feel is alienation. I miss interaction with the world as I know it with five senses. I don’t hear the familiar creaking of the floor boards as I creep past the baby’s room. I don’t know when someone comes into the room behind me. I can’t hear the cars going by or the birds chirping or my idiot neighbor yelling at her son. Christ, I can’t even hear myself take a piss. Nearly all the sounds we use to put ourselves in context in the world are missing and I’m left floating above the world, looking at it from afar, unsure of where to plant myself, of how to be a part of it all. It’s like going through life in a dream, like the I that has been living my life for the past week isn’t the real I, but just an imposter, an understudy (and a lousy one, at that) while I’m off on vacation or something.

Through all of this there hasn’t been a single moment in the last week that I haven’t had music playing in my head. Not one single moment. I always have a song going in my head. It’s like my brain can’t tolerate the notion of a silent world. And it’s not like when you get a song stuck in your head and you just can’t get it out. I don’t think I’ve heard the same song twice all week. It’s like I’ve found the perfect radio station. No repeats and only music that I love. I have “listened” to music this week that I haven’t heard in years, and it has run the gamut of my musical tastes. Black Sabbath; Heart; The Allman Brothers; Pink Floyd; Johnny Cash; Cannonball Adderley; The Moody Blues; Fleetwood Mac; Chuck Mangione; Poison; B.B. King, the few rap songs I don’t hate and dozens of songs I love but don’t know the artist of.

Even stranger, I have been completely making songs up in my head. And they’re good songs. They’re songs I wish I could hear again. They are bad-ass songs. Seriously amazing guitar riffs. Impressive piano solos. A wicked fiddle. Trombone and trumpet melodies to make the best of the big band boys sigh in appreciation. Oddly, even a lot of experimental stuff, the likes of which I don’t really listen to. Weird electronic synthesizer stuff that I’ve never been all that into, but which sounded “right” (for the most part: even my perhaps drug-induced compositional genius had some off moments). Crazy ass shit that should probably only be listened to by the light of lava lamps after smoking a lot of dope. I think those were the pieces that tended to come out in the height of my Percocet haze along with some pretty crazy half dreams-half hallucinations.

Suddenly, I feel this bizarre connection with Beethoven. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not comparing my internal melodies to Beethoven’s symphonies. But his ability to compose even after losing most of his hearing suddenly doesn’t seem astounding, it seems the natural thing to do. Beethoven’s brain loved music and lacking the resources to hear it, it simply made it up for itself, and listened to it anyway. Obviously, Beethoven was still, well, fuckin’ Beethoven, and his musical genius is indisputable. But the very act of being able to compose after he couldn’t actually hear the music he was composing no longer surprises me. Of course he could hear the music he was composing. His brain needed the music he was composing to break these chains of silence, to bust apart the corset around his brain, and I like to think of Beethoven’s symphonies as a big “Fick dich” to the Sound of Silence.

I’m Too Sexy

I have been officially postpartum for exactly 4 months. I’m back down to my pre-pregnancy weight, and have been for some time, although the same number of pounds are being worn in different locations: my butt and stomach are a little smaller but my thighs and boobs are a little bigger, not to mention my fingers (I still can’t get my wedding ring on and off without lubing up). I’m back into all the pre-pregnancy clothes that I’ll probably ever manage to get back into, and I had a purifying, cathartic, ruthless cleanup of my closet a few weeks ago. Several pairs of pants and skirts had to go because my hips are bigger and that ain’t never gonna change. But I had clothes in there from high school, high school, from which I graduated ten years ago. I had clothes from college and from the semester I spent in Wales and went nuts buying European (read: slutty) fashions. Into the Goodwill bag went the tight shirt with “I will not tease the boys” written over and over in glitter and the even tighter red pants I wore clubbing in Europe, which made me feel oh-so-sexy at the time, but which now displayed just a hint of camel toe. (I kept the black shirt with the completely see-through back with a starburst pattern of glitter that I typically wore with those pants, not because I ever expect to wear it again, but because I couldn’t bring myself to toss it. We need relics in our life, memorials to times we’ll never re-live, so that from time to time we’ll come to the back of our closet and brush our fingertips against that cheap polyester and fall headlong into an ocean of memories of nights of freedom, stupidity, immaturity, too much booze, fantastic friendships, and one hell of a lot of fun.) Being pregnant taught me that I can survive on about a dozen shirts, two pairs of pants, and one pair of shoes. I wanted to purge my closet. I wanted to be able to actually see what clothes I own instead of having them all jammed in so tightly that I couldn’t look at any of them, much less wrestle a particular shirt out without bringing three or four others with it.

Do you know how bad my clothing situation had gotten? I’ll tell you. It was so bad that I threw away 30, count ‘em 30, pairs of panty hose. I don’t wear panty hose for work. I have never worn panty hose for work. The only time I ever wear panty hose is for an interview, of which I’ve had three in my life, the most recent one in 2007. There is absolutely no reason for me to have ever owned that many pairs of hose. I tossed 30, but I kept at least a dozen. And that pretty much sums up my closet and dresser situation. By the time I finished I’d filled four trashbags, pitched well over a dozen pairs of shoes, and emptied so many hangers that I actually threw away a bunch of them because I deemed we didn’t have the room to keep so many empty hangers lying around. So now I can not only fit back into my pre-pregnancy clothes but I can actually access them to put them on.

I hadn’t spent much time looking at my naked body since my son was born, primarily because I was too busy taking care of an infant to ever have time to look at myself. But over Christmas we visited my in-laws. I took a shower and when I got out and was toweling off, I looked up and suddenly saw my naked body in my mother-in-law’s enormous, perfectly spotless mirror, with perfect Hollywood dressing room lights over it. Every detail of my post-baby body was on full display. I froze and just stared.

My breasts were enormous and heavy with milk, resting low on my chest. They were crisscrossed with a complex network of deep blue veins, much darker and much larger than they had ever seemed before, all heading to the areolae, which had previously been smooth and very light pink, barely distinguishable from the rest of my breast, but were now larger, bumpy, and much darker. My nipples – deemed “flat” by the lactation consultants in the hospital – were certainly flat and smooth no more, but instead looked like perfect, succulent red berries. New stretch marks, much deeper than the ones I’d gotten in puberty, were clearly visible all around the outer part of my breasts, making the faded ones from my teenage years seem barely noticeable. My stomach, although back to its previous size, was, well, squishy. It was back to its normal size but there were no abdominal muscles left under it, so it was just jelly-like and wobbly. When I laid down I could put a hand on either side of it and shake it back and forth just exactly like a bowl full of jelly. All that extra skin sagged down into an upside-down heart ending just above my panty line, and right in the middle was my stretched-out and oddly dark belly button, along with the disturbingly stretched-out and even darker hole where my belly button ring had been. An unbelievable number of stretchmarks covered my entire stomach and continued down my inner thighs all the way to my knees. All that extra skin and all those stretch marks combined to make for an awfully wrinkly stomach. A series of wide, deep, painfully red stretchmarks lined my hips, stretching all the way to my back, and looking exactly like I’d been clawed by some vicious animal. My butt, always one of my good features, had lost weight and become too flat to be of much note, and my thighs, always one of my sensitive problem areas, had gotten even bigger. There was nothing whatsoever to feel sexy about, to find beautiful, to want to have admired by others. My body was permanently altered, aged, scarred. My skin would forever be mottled with dark patches and the uneven fading of stretch marks,  and it would never be smooth again.

So why is it that in the last few weeks I’ve felt sexier than I ever have before? I feel more at ease in my own skin – with all its wrinkles, and stretch marks, and dark patches – and more at home in my own body than I ever have in my life. I feel more connected to my body, though I never felt disconnected from it before. My body and psyche feel like two parts of a whole, rather than separate entities that happen to be going around together, or rather, my body feels like a crucial part of Me, of my identity, whereas in the past it was just what I happened to have and so I made the best of it.

My body and I have both been permanently changed by the birth of my son. His gestation and birth are experiences that we – my body and I – share, and that bind us in a way that, oddly, we weren’t before. My body created this beautiful, wonderful, frustrating, maddening, breathtaking creature, nourished him, allowed him to grow into a being that can survive in this world on his own, and we worked together to birth him, through nearly a day of unmedicated labor and more than an hour of pushing until finally he emerged, took his first independent breaths, and was cut permanently from my body’s life support. How could I fail to love and cherish that which gave life to my son? How could I fail to forgive my body’s new flaws, knowing what treasure they bought? How could I feel anything but sexy and confident, knowing what power my body holds?

In the last four months I’ve had only two chances to get dressed up and look my best, to go out with my husband wearing an outfit especially selected to entice him to watch me walk and move. There have been only two times when I’ve had any real reason to look myself over in a mirror and size myself up and admire what I see. Yet I have spent hours looking at my body. There is a full-length mirror in my son’s bedroom and when I’m dancing him to sleep, holding him to me, my cheek pressed against his head, I’ll catch sight of us together in that mirror and I’ll just stare. Sometimes I’ll have gotten up so hastily from nursing him that my shirt will still be lifted halfway up my body, my sagging stomach hanging out and falling slightly over my waistline. I rarely take the time to shower and do my hair if I’m not going anywhere, so my hair is frequently in disarray. I never wear makeup unless going some place where I’ll see people I actually know. I often spend the entire day in pajamas or sweatpants and fuzzy slippers. And so I’ll watch myself dancing my son to sleep, hair sticking up at odd angles, no makeup, sweat pants, a T-shirt pulled halfway up so my stomach is lopping over my waistband, deep, red stretch marks visible even with only the glow of the nightlight. And I’ll love what I see. Sure it’s not an image that’s going to have the men lining up to get my phone number, but it’s so … right. My body was made to bear children. I was made to be a mother. It’s as if, for the first time, my body and what I have always called “me” are working together, are part of a greater whole. My body is no longer merely the vessel I happened to come into through chance genetics and lifestyle. It is part of Me and it’s a part I revel in.

Yesterday evening I was lying in bed running my hands over the new texture of my stomach, and I squeezed the sides of my stomach, pushing all the extra skin and fat in toward the middle, pushing it up, and do you know what it reminded me of? It looked just exactly like a lava cake. My stomach was the cake and my belly button was in the middle, where the chocolate syrup would pool up, and stretch marks flowed from the center down the sides like streams of chocolate syrup. Sure, not the sexiest thing ever, but who doesn’t like a good lava cake from time to time?

What is sexiness, after all, other than a somewhat arbitrary cultural construct? When I started to develop breasts, my mother’s were the only ones I’d ever seen, and so I wondered when mine would become “long,” because I thought that was the desirable way for them to be. So perhaps it is not so surprising that I’m more comfortable now with all my sagging and squishiness and stretch marks than I ever was with my youthful smoothness and perkiness. Youth is fleeting after all, so there’s not much good in becoming too attached to the treasures of a youthful body, but motherhood is forever, and I’ll take all the scars it dishes me for the smile my son gives me when he sees me in the morning and for the look in his eyes when he’s figuring out something new about the world and for the contented noises he makes when I nurse him at my breast, and for all the memories I have of my body’s effort to give him life and bring him into our world.

I’m too sexy for my youth.

Letter to My Firstborn

Dear child of mine,

I have many things on my list of things to do today, all of them in preparation for your arrival. You could decide to make your grand appearance any day now and I still have not packed my hospital bag, or written notes for your father about what I think will help me in labor, or completed preparing your nursery, or cleaned out the freezer to make room for breast milk. But, my child, there is something I hope you will learn quickly in life. Sometimes there are days when you have a lot to do, and those things are valid and they really do need to be done, and still you have to say, “Later. This is what will make me happy and this is valid, too.”

I have been intending to write to you for nearly this entire pregnancy, yet every time I spent some time alone with you to tell you all the things I’ve been thinking, I ended up simply talking to you, just enjoying our time together, and not capturing any of it in words. And that’s probably OK, too. I know you won’t recall these times alone together, but they are some of the most treasured of my life and I’ll remember them enough for the both of us. Though I know that you will soon be here and we will embark on a whole new journey of getting to know each other, and that I will finally be able to see you, and hold you in my arms, and stroke your face, I know that I will miss you for a short while. I have shared every moment of my life and yours with you for nine months now, and though I hope I am never one of those mothers who can’t leave her child with other people for a night out, the thought of the first time I will be in a separate room from you makes me ache for your nearness, to feel the reassuring signs of your life within me, to know again that our lives are completely intertwined, that my breath is your breath, that my food is your food, that the sounds of my life are the sounds of yours. I am excited for this new step you are taking toward independence, eager for you to know your own life separate from mine, to experience this world of ours through your own senses, and to see what you make of it all. I just sometimes wish I could continue to be a part of it all, the way I have been for your life up to this point. Forgive me if I am sometimes overbearing or intrusive: I will try my hardest not to be.

We have spent many hours lying together: you kicking and squirming and punching and rolling all around, while I watch your movements and feel them with my hands, and poke at you when you stop because I don’t want you to go to sleep yet. When you were about six months old we visited your grandparents for a week and while they were at work all day you and I raided their music collection. You liked the blues and we danced together in their den and it was better than any dance I’ve ever had with a man.

Later that week, as I cradled my belly and tried to fall asleep, it occurred to me that you will experience pain: deep, heartwrenching, emotional pain, and there will be times when I am powerless to do anything about it, and that, worse, there will be times when I am the cause of it. I wept for all the things your father and I will do wrong in our relationship with you, for all the times we will cause you heartache, for all the times you will know anything but the joy of life.

I don’t know how I can love you as much as I do, and I don’t know how the human heart and psyche can withstand love of such intensity. I hope for many things for you, and among them is that you will get to know this kind of love. I am beginning to recognize what I have always suspected: that as much as I love my parents, their love for me is of a vastly different kind, one more primal, more visceral, more consuming. I have never fully believed in truly unconditional love, but you, my child, may just make a believer out of me yet.

I am anxious to meet you, little one, and to get to know you, and see you get to know yourself and grow into the person you will become. Very soon I will hold you in my arms instead of in my body and I will do my very best to be as safe and comforting and nurturing as I have been for the past nine months. When I fail, I hope you will learn to forgive me, and when I succeed I hope you will, every now and then, give me a smile that’s just for me.

I love you. With all my being, I love you.
Mom

Diaries of My Past

I haven’t written in a long time. First, I was too tired all the time. Then I was too depressed. Nothing seems to happen when I try to write. I’m consumed with thoughts of pregnancy and the baby, except not really. It’s not so much actual thoughts as this sort of cloud that hangs over my brain at all times, forcing out all other thought unless I work really hard at it. And that’s just not interesting to write about, and it’s even less interesting to read about, so I haven’t written. Since I’m not writing, and I’m not in class this semester, and I’m not playing my saxophone, and winter will never truly end, and I’m not doing a fantastic job at work these days, and I’ve pretty much cut out everything in my life that means something to me, I’m just depressed all the time. Coupled with hormones the likes of which I’ve never experienced – on Easter Sunday I told my husband that I felt like I could shoot flaming balls of hormones out of my eyes at anyone who looked at me (“the f – it -flam – flames. Flames, on the side of my face …”) – not to mention that I’m pretty unattractive these days (I’m 16 again, complete with acne, bacne, and a cyst on my chest reappearing in the exact location it was for junior prom) and I don’t own a single article of clothing that truly fits, means I am one sad pregnant lady. Nobody tells you that you might be depressed during pregnancy. Oh, sure, we’ve made great strides in publicizing postpartum depression and making it a recognized medical condition instead of just brushing it off as the “baby blues.” But during the pregnancy, well, you’re supposed to “glow” then, and you’re supposed to be happy, overjoyed, ecstatic, ALL THE TIME, and if you aren’t, you’re probably a terrible mother and a terrible person, and you don’t really deserve to have a child.

Several weeks ago my mom told me that maybe I needed to not try to blog anymore and just go back to writing in my journal. She was right of course, but I’ve tried that, and the problem is that writing in my journal requires actual writing. Pen on paper. Mechanical manipulations of my hand. A decent pen. Do you know how long it has been since I’ve written anything of any length by hand? Years. Even in class I don’t take notes really because my classes just aren’t really note-taking classes. You can’t be expected to take notes on the esoteric secrets of the universe as you wax philosophical about art, literature, spirituality, history, and the wonders of the human brain. It gets in the way. It has been at least four years since I was in the habit of writing anything of any length by hand. I’m out of practice and it hurts after just a few minutes.

This saddens and distresses me. I like writing by hand. Throughout most of college, I wrote all my best papers mainly by hand and then typed them: I found the flow of thoughts came more easily that way. I liked the look of the paper with my secret system of color-coding, and the text in the margins until every usable space was filled with my words, the arrows pointing this way and that so that when I read through what I’d written I had to figure out which passages I really wanted where. I appreciated the tactile sensation of the bumps and dips of the ink, the sound of the shuffling papers, the increasing rattle and brittleness of the paper with the more ink it had to hold, the smell of paper and ink joining together, the seeming fragility of it all.

Writing by hand was liberating. I wasn’t tempted to edit as I wrote because it was just too damned much trouble.

Now my hand hurts too much and the feel of the pen is no longer natural, and I get frustrated by the inability of my hand to keep up with my thoughts. I have succumbed to the need for speed, and while typing provides none of the inherent pleasures of writing, it does allow me to put words on a page at nearly the rate I think of them. Perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps not.

Last night I fell asleep thinking about all the journals I can remember keeping. There’s the spiral-bound one made of recycled paper and cardboard that my cousin gave me in junior high. That’s the one that started it. It was followed by the enormous one with a lion on the cover that I bought for myself from Borders: it housed many a dramatic day of junior high and high school, and bears witness to the several variations in how I wrote my a’s, k’s, and G’s. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but next I recall the one my friend Bethany gave to me as a high school graduation gift. It was just the right size and it carried me through all five years of college (albeit with a six-month break as I used a smaller one – also a gift from a friend – for my travels in Wales and Europe). I recall many fond hours with that diary. I carried it around campus with me and would write in it in quiet moments before class. I don’t know how I would have come to anything approaching self-actualization without it. Its last entry was written through tears hours after I handed in my last paper and sat alone in my dorm room drinking champagne out of an OU-05 mug, wondering how I had reached the point of college graduate. I finished that entry on the last page of the journal. The aforementioned journal I used in Wales is another favorite, full of my wonder and observations about the places I visited, the people I met, and myself in the world. There’s the dream diary I bought, one side for daydreams, the other for night dreams. I have recorded exactly one dream in it, and an unpleasant one at that. There’s the Sierra Club one that I’m certain was a gift, also from Bethany, I think, that I carried everywhere for years, and used as a “story and essay ideas” journal, though none of my particularly good work ever materialized from notes written in it. There’s the beautiful blue suede one that snaps closed and has wonderfully soft pages that my mom gave to me, which became the place for writing down my questions about religion, Bible passages, spirituality, and what faith I ever held. Though I have long since abandoned Bible study, I miss the mental and emotional quests such study sent me on, and the neat (my writing in that journal is always strikingly neat) questions, observations, and occasional conclusions I drew. Then there’s my diary of today, a small, red, faux-leather bound college graduation gift from a wonderful woman I hold as a friend, though I don’t know her well. Though I have had it for four years it is less than 1/3 full, and most of the entries are pretty uninspired and uninspiring. It seems that as I entered the adult world, I forgot how to put pen to paper and write.

While journaling electronically is not an acceptable long-term solution (imagine all the journals above being replaced by filenames: there’s no magic in that,  no romance, no sense of centuries-old joy and ageless continuity) it may have to be my interim solution until I can get my hand back in shape and teach my brain to slow down a little or to accept that I can’t capture it all. If I don’t start writing again I’ll have no way of keeping these hormones in check, and that’s really just not fair to my husband.

So, starting immediately, I will no longer be writing here with even the vague sense of audience that I have always reserved this space for, and I will no longer try to make anything comprehensible to those outside of my own head. Maybe I’ll even use that nifty “private” feature if I’m so inclined to get fancy. Eventually, I fully expect to turn this back into something resembling a blog (but then, I also fully expect to someday fit back into my old jeans after I have this baby, so I’m possibly delusional). Until then, I hope a few of you will enjoy the ride as I crack open this new journal for its virgin entries.

Lately I have been either too exhausted or too paralyzed by thoughts of babies and motherhood tumbling around in my head in no rational or coherent order to do much of anything. When I don’t do anything, when I’m not accomplishing anything, when I don’t have a project to work on, I get depressed. And when I’m depressed and exhausted, it’s damn near impossible to pull myself out of my funk. So I’ve been reduced to a queasy, tired, hormonal lump of expanding flesh in sweatpants watching episode after episode of Babylon 5, or sometimes HGTV. It isn’t pretty. Some might say that baking a baby is my “project” these days, but that’s a load of crap. I want something that exercises my brain, something that’s tangible now, something that hasn’t been done by billions of women for eons.

In my darkest moments, I wonder if this is to be my life. If I can’t find the energy or the intellectual coherence to do anything now, how am I going to be able to do anything once I actually, you know, have a baby? I hear they’re pretty demanding, and you don’t even get any say in what model you get. You just pays your money and takes your chances, which seems like kind of a lousy way to go about the whole thing, if you ask me. Once upon a time I had hobbies, goals, ambition. I was a grad student at a pretty prestigious private university. I blogged somewhat regularly and occasionally wrote something worth reading. I read books that didn’t have the words, “Lamaze,” “birth partner,” or “pregnancy,” in the titles. I was quickly proving myself at work and moving up the corporate ladder (yet without embracing corporate life or becoming a soulless human being). Husband and I shared great travels and had plans for more: maybe Egypt or India would be next. I was socially conscious, fiscally conservative, and environmentally friendly. I had plans to become a basement jazz and blues saxophonist, get myself published, and hone my skills as a photographer.

And now … well now I’m going to have a baby. And that’s nice and all, and I’m sure it’ll be fulfilling and joyful sometimes, but I can’t help but whine what about meeeee?

I want to call my mom almost every day (down from wanting to ring her every hour), but I don’t because I know I have nothing new to say to her (attributed to the aforementioned lack of doing anything). But it’s like if I’m talking to her and she’s doling out advice then she’s still The Mom and I don’t have to be. But if I’m still counting on my mom to kiss my scrapes and tell me that she loves me, how can I be Mom to someone else? This kid is going all-in betting that I and my husband will be adequate parents, and sometimes I want to tell him to save a few chips in case he loses this hand. It might not be a bad idea to have a backup plan. I may, like Big Nutbrown Hare, come to love you all the way to the moon and back, but love doesn’t do the heavy lifting. And don’t you forget that when you’re a little older and you start to fall in love: you can love someone to death, but there’s a lot of work involved, too, and you both have to be willing to do the heavy lifting.

Oh, God, someone is going to break my baby’s heart someday, and then I am going to have to kill that person.

Sometimes I wonder if my marriage is strong enough to handle the responsibilities, selflessness, boredom, struggles, and fears that go into raising children. It is as if I am, at this moment, growing one of the biggest tests my marriage will ever have to endure. Who does that voluntarily? Who says, “You know, honey, I don’t think we’re challenging each other enough. I think we should see if we really meant those vows we said. Let’s see what this marriage is really made of. Let’s earn our happiness.” You can’t tell me that happiness is better if it’s earned because that’s garbage and I won’t believe you.

A couple of weeks ago my husband was at work and got a call from Howard Community Hospital. He works for Johns Hopkins University, and does a lot of business with hospitals, so this wasn’t an unusual call. But as soon as the person on the other end of the line told him he was calling from Howard Community Hospital, my dear husband’s heart stopped as he thought, “Oh, God, something happened to Josie and the baby.” (It doesn’t matter that there are least a dozen hospitals closer to my office than HCH; there is no room for rationality in the minds of expectant parents.) He told this story to his boss who laughed and said, “Welcome to the rest of your life. You will forevermore live in fear of phone calls.”

I am going to imagine this kid’s death, aren’t I? Like it’s not bad enough that I devise horrifying deaths for my husband, parents, and myself, now I have to do it to a baby. What kind of sick bastard do you think I am?

Oh, Jesus, we need to have a will, don’t we? And we have to decide who should raise our child if we die, don’t we? There is obviously no one qualified for that position. How do you make that decision? Something tells me that you do not call people in for interviews, but I think that’s pretty shoddy. We are talking about the job of raising our child, yet we’re supposed to make that decision on the basis of what we think we know about someone, of how we think they’ll be as parents, without asking them any direct questions? Then there’s the problem of what if we actually agree on someone, and feel fairly okay with it, and then they say no, they don’t want to raise our child in the event of our deaths? Awk-ward.

Sometimes I wonder what if I give birth to a serial killer? Those people have moms, you know.

On the other hand, what if I give birth to a Mozart and she lives a tortured life because her brain is not of this world, and she can never be understood by anyone, not even her mother?

Yesterday I bought my child’s first book. It’s called Guess How Much I Love You? and it tells the story of Little Nutbrown Hare trying to show Big Nutbrown Hare how much he/she loves him/her, and Big Nutbrown Hare thwarting all attempts by showing that really Big Nutbrown Hare loves Little Nutbrown Hare even more. It’s not a book I had when I was little, but I chose it over one of my own childhood favorites Are You My Mother? because I already have a copy of that, and I’m still practical even if I am a little irrational and weepy these days. I love this book. I love the story. I love the names of the characters. I love the illustrations. I love that my extensive library now includes a book made out of cardboard.

Well, I suppose it isn’t a part of my library, but I will be the keeper of it for quite some time. And now my library will be the family’s library. I will loan books to my kids, and make recommendations to them, and we will talk about books, and they will see things in books that I never have. This fills me with a happiness I have never known.

Two Little Lines

I apologize for my long absence. As you can see, things have been busy around here.

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After 60 hours of periodically looking at these two little pink lines, the only thing I can think of to say is, “No rabbits were harmed in the making of these test results.”

Apparently, being pregnant means that it’s okay to – in an otherwise mentally sound household – keep a urine specimen lying around for an unspecified period of time, checking in on it every now and then (e.g. every time I go to the bathroom: which is a lot), just in case the results have changed.

You must understand, these two pink lines are the only evidence I have that there is another creature taking root and growing inside my body. Oh, sure, my tits are a little tender, but nothing I would probably otherwise notice. Yes, my nipples are suddenly quite pronounced, standing at attention the likes of which I have never seen on my body, and I’m grateful that it’s winter and I’m always wearing several layers. (I do not know how I will handle this situation in a few months; I’m counting on not giving a shit by then.) Just why are the breasts the first thing to change? Doesn’t that seem like a pretty low priority? Shouldn’t we be dedicating more resources to developing that placenta, the better to nourish my baby with? Breasts: stand down for awhile, all right? We’ll get to you! And yes, I’ve been ready for bed by 9:30 every night for the last week, and I’ve been having bouts of slight queasiness for the last few days (but I’m saying that’s just all in my head because it didn’t start until I took the pregnancy test; by this logic, every single symptom I have for the next 8 months will be all in my head).

But none of that is terribly substantial. None of it definitively says, “Baby!” So I keep looking at the pee stick to reassure myself that I didn’t just accidentally see two lines the other 900 times I looked at it and that there really are two lines there.

I’ll get back to you when I’m more capable of complex thought and when it isn’t 20 minutes past my new bedtime.

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