A last word

The man and I fell into step with one another on Macquarie Street.
He was heading east and had just crossed at the traffic lights.
I was walking north and had just hit the T junction.
Neither of us had any other way to go.
So we walked awkwardly alongside each other, each slowing to let the other pull out in front.
But neither of us did.
At least we had a talking point.
In my arms I was carrying a crying, jerking, off-her-face Fairy Floss.
“We’re just out at dinner,” I explained over the wailing. “Thought I’d take her for a walk and try to calm her down.”
“My daughter’s 19 now,” the man said, gazing at the thrashing pink jumpsuit in my arms. “I’d give anything to have her be that little again.”
He gave a small wave and disappeared through a doorway.
The ball of anxiety in my chest began to unwind.
I walked along the lit city street, singing ‘Li-ila, Li-ila’ to the tune of ‘Daisy, Daisy (give me your answer do)’ and felt her warm little body relax against mine.
She gave a little sigh, banged her head one last time into my collar bone, and then suddenly dropped into sleep.
My last baby.
Every woman, every parent, must realise at some stage that they’ve had, or are about to have, their last little bundle of joy.
You don’t think of an end point when you have your first.
You’re too caught up in the wonder, the awe, the exhaustion, the hot heart-exploding surges of love love love.
For me, it was just my little Master Baby every day – a teeny bit longer, a smidgen less vulnerable.
I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.
But it didn’t matter, because the ‘tunnel’ was so beautifully lit by him.
But every day with Fairy Floss carries with it a little ‘last’.
And suddenly everything that’s tough about babies becomes precious.
Any night could be the last Learner Dad and I sit together in her darkened room, one patting her chubby thighs while the other scrolls aimlessly through Twitter.
Any night could be the last I stare at the perfect little ‘0’ of her mouth, her four white picket teeth, the yodelling pink tongue screaming out that wailing midnight song dedicated just to me.
Any day now we’ll be unable to squeeze her fat arms under the capsule straps.
Any day we’ll have to turn her round to seek out green lights and fire engines, instead of passing out under retreating clouds.
We’ve had our last slippery soak in the baby bath.
Our last non-solid poo.
Our last first smile.
We won’t have a last first rolling over.
She did that when we were out of the room.
And now she’s crawling.
So I’ve pulled the last baby rug up off the floor.
And moved the glassware a final time.
I dread the day I’ll have to put her down in the shower.
The day she refuses to get in with me.
The moment I realise it’s been days since she wanted me to pick her up at all.
This morning I showered without her.
But I wasn’t alone.
Lil Fatty was balancing on a stool, desperately trying to fill the sink before Master Nine got to the plug.
Master Nine was straddling the bath, supposedly cleaning his teeth.
And Fairy Floss was jolly jumping on her fat little legs in the doorway, squealing with delight at us all.
As I stood under the fluctuating hot and cold water, I felt exhausted.
Exhausted yet humbled.
These three little creatures are mine.
And I am their universe.
I know it’s only a matter of time before I’ll shower with only the steam for company.
Life will have pulled my babies in other directions.
We can’t dwell on their growth.
It will happen anyway.
The only thing we can do, should do, is try to enjoy them.
Photograph them, sure, immortalise them in frames, albums, online.
But mostly, watch them.
Smile at them, smile with them, sing to them, listen to them, kiss them, cuddle them.
Even when their warm soft bodies have been replaced with long cold gangly ones.
Treasure them.
For at the end of this ‘tunnel’, this insular world that is parenthood, other roads stretch ahead.
Travelling, re-claiming careers, making new friends, bonding anew with old ones.
Loud music, clean kitchens, spare rooms, long lunches, movie nights, hobbies.
One day, grandchildren.
I’ll pack up my precious kaleidoscope of mummy memories and take it with me wherever I go.
Look back into it often.
And remember that incredibly intensely exquisitely sweet time that I was the sun to three little planets.

Womb to move

Obviously, I wasn’t convinced I was going to die.
I just wasn’t convinced I wasn’t going to.
It all began around week 18…

“You have a low-lying placenta,” my obstetrician said, wiping the gel off my belly. “Probably nothing. We’ll get a better look at your big scan.”
That was two weeks away.
It turned out to be the last two weeks of pregnancy I’d ever get to enjoy.
I settled on to the bed at Women’s Imaging for what would turn out to be the most unsettling ultrasound I’d had.
And I wasn’t a stranger to pregnancy drama.
Early bleeds, gestational diabetes, super huge heads.
I’d worried over everything.
I’d worried over nothing.
And my boys were both fine.
“You have complete placenta previa,” the sonographer said. “C-section for you I’m afraid my dear.”
Ugh.
Master Nine’s birth had been less than perfect.
Induction, gas, epidural, ventouse, retained placenta, surgery.
Undeterred, I took pregnancy yoga ahead of Lil Fatty’s big entrance, even convincing myself I could actually ‘laugh’ my way through it.
But he very quickly became an emergency caesarean.
I’d barely begun to experience the disappointment of another c-section when another word popped into the discussion – ‘accreta’.
“I’m not going to Google it,” I declared to Learner Dad on the way home.
But alarm bells had been ringing in my head from the moment I’d heard it.
Accreta.
I knew that word.
And I knew it wasn’t good.
That night, I Googled it.
‘High risk’, ‘heavy bleeding’, ‘haemmhorage’, ‘hysterectomy’, ‘life-threatening’, ‘transfusion’, ‘rupture’, ‘catastrophic’, ‘maternal morbidity’, ‘maternal mortality…’
Maternal mortality maternalmortality maternalmortalitymaternalmortality…
‘Accreta’ is diagnosed when the placenta is too attached to the wall of the uterus.
There were two more serious varieties – ‘Increta’, where it actually penetrates the uterine wall, and ‘Percreta’, where the placenta eats right through the uterus, often invading other organs, such as the bladder and bowel.
Rates of all three have been increasing in conjunction with the rise in c-sections.
My scan had been on the Thursday.
I wasn’t seeing my obstetrician until the following Wednesday.
On Friday I rang his rooms in a panic.
“Ok, let’s see,” the midwife said in a calm, almost patronising tone. “Don’t get all worked up now. I’ll just scan through your report. Here we go. Placenta previa, suspected percreta…”
Her voice faded away.
She knew she’d told me more than she should have.
“Don’t panic. And don’t get on the internet. The doctor can talk you through the results. In the meantime, you must come straight in if you have any bleeding whatsoever…”
But I wasn’t really listening.
‘I’ve got the worst one, I’ve got the worst one,’ was all I could think.
The percreta was, at this stage, only a possibility.
One thing that was still certain was I had placenta previa.
Previa means the placenta is covering the cervix, giving baby no access to the main door.
This condition also put me at risk – of sudden and heavy bleeding.
I researched both conditions exhaustedly.
I joined Facebook support groups dedicated to them.
Overwhelmingly the women with percreta had had hysterectomies.
Women with previa had occasionally lost babies to premature delivery.
Some talked of months on hospital bed rest and then months in neonatal intensive care units.
They wrote about bleeds so big they’d left the bathroom a crime scene, of late night panicked emergency calls, of being flown from rural towns to big city hospitals by helicopter.
But, despite all the near-death drama, I was a little encouraged.
These were all stories of survival.
Although I had a lot of support around me, only these women knew exactly what I was going through.
Like me, they’d pulled down their pants fearfully every time they went to the toilet.
Or dashed in panic to a toilet every time they thought they felt wet.
They’d had insomnia. And steroids.
They’d faced countless ultrasounds and MRI’s and many a grave face.
They’d sat up late in bed writing goodbye letters to their children (yes I really did this) – just in case.
And they’d tried to contemplate their kids’ lives without them in it.
Everyone’s biggest fear – and I was no exception – was of being put to sleep and not waking up.
The mortality rate (which most of us had frantically searched for at some point) seemed to range from 2 to 5 to 7 to 10 per cent.
A lot of the data was dated.
My obstetrician said much of it emanated from the 1970s, when accreta was largely undiagnosed.
When women did often die.
The fact I was diagnosed and being closely monitored put me in great stead.
But I still felt bleak.
I counted the weeks away with relief.
24 weeks – we called it V Day (for viability).
28 weeks, 30 weeks, 32 weeks, 34.
Sometimes, late at night, I wished I’d just have a bleed and be done with it.
It would force my doctor’s hand and the whole damn thing would be over with.
But I made it to my scheduled delivery date of 35 weeks and four days.
Not one bleed.
My baby girl was born at a healthy six-and-a-half pounds.
Along with her, they extracted my poor spent uterus.
The placenta had eaten its way through, coming to rest alongside my bladder.
I’d be making no more babies.
At age 37 and with two boys and a girl that didn’t seem a huge sacrifice.
Regardless, it was no longer my choice.
These days I look back on my pregnancy and Floss’ birth and wonder if I was being dramatic.
Then I read the posts of my poor diagnosed friends on Facebook and I remember.
When you’re the extremely hormonal home to a human life and the walls are starting to crack, nothing is unreasonable or irrational.

Three months ago, Suzanne Mazzola gave birth to her fourth child.
Like me, she had placenta percreta.
Like me, she made it to her scheduled delivery date of 35 weeks.
Like me, she had a healthy baby.
Unlike me, she never woke up.

Final Delivery

I wasn’t ready to part with the pants.
I’d taken off my top, my bra, shoes and socks, even my jewellery.
But pulling off my black trackies seemed too final.
Like taking off the last part of me.
I had the hospital gown on over them.
To stand naked under it would be to feel like a patient.
Or worse, a corpse.
So I stayed in those trackies as long as I could.
I stayed in them when they came and asked Learner Dad to go upstairs ‘just for a minute’ (were they secretly asking him if I was an organ donor?)
I stayed in them when he came back and silently, wordlessly, enveloped me in a big hug.
It was the wordless part that made it different.
He always had words.
I stayed in them – well sort of – when I went and sat on the toilet and tried to process the enormity of what I was about to do.
But eventually I was told to take them off.
So I did.
I was all theirs now.
It was time.
After months of anxiety and weeks of fear, I felt surprisingly calm.
I slowly got up on the bed.
Was that the last time my feet would touch the floor?
I’d tried to appreciate those precious hours between getting out of bed at home early that morning and on to this one.
Not just appreciate life, but pregnancy.
This was my last one.
I’d soaped my exhausted stretched belly in the shower one final time.
Then stared at it in the mirror as the steam lifted.
There was no final cup of tea.
I was fasting.
I watched our tidy white weatherboard home zoom out as we reversed up the driveway.
And I took a long hard look at the outdoors before entering the hospital.
(But Argyle Street at 6am on a Monday really wasn’t very inspiring.)
Now they were shaving me.
Having been told I was having a vertical incision, I hadn’t bothered.
But apparently it was still necessary.
One of those big burly trolley guys came to wheel me to surgery.
The kind who might have a second job as a nightclub bouncer.
I felt silly being pushed along.
I was perfectly capable of walking.
As we turned a corner I saw the humidicrib being wheeled along behind me.
It was like a punch in my bulging guts.
That’s where my little amigo would go.
Straight from my hot squishy belly into that clinical sauna.
From the dark into the oh-so-bright.
Would he or she need all that stuff, I wondered, staring fearfully at the tiny oxygen masks and tubes.
The image of that tiny trolley being wheeled along behind me is the only thing that still brings tears to my eyes today.
I met my midwife and her student at the lift and we made small talk on the way up.
“Two boys huh? So you’d be hoping for a girl then?”
‘Just to wake up actually,’ was my only hope.
My anaesthetist was first to greet me.
“He’ll be there two hours early,” my obstetrician had joked about him. “He’s always on time.”
I’d met him a few days earlier – an awkward appointment where he either sat staring silently at me or spoke of the potential for things to ‘get hairy’.
‘I’ll give you hairy,’ I thought, staring at his giant moustache.
But he was cheery this morning.
Then I met the urologist.
Also chipper for a Monday morning.
He’d be in an operating theatre next door, he said, and would only be called in if I had a damaged bladder.
I was wheeled into the operating room.
And suddenly people were everywhere.
My obstetrician, who’d spent the latter part of my pregnancy also looking quite frayed, breezed in with a quick hello.
He’d surgically removed a wayward IUD for me a year or two before and had actually spent more time patting my arm on that day than this.
He asked the nurses if the second obstetrician had arrived yet.
I never got to meet that guy, but I’m told he did turn up.
I was introduced to the paediatrician, a pleasant man who was apparently quite the heartbreaker in his day.
While all of this was going on, Learner Dad sat in the corner, his eyes bright with tears.
My rock was liquefying.
He’d been stoic throughout my pregnancy, calming me with cuddles, shouldering and then shrugging away my fears.
But today he actually looked worried and, for the first time, I comforted him.
“It’ll be ok,” I mouthed.
He nodded.
The anaesthetist put a canula in my hand, the nurses hot blankets over my body.
“Ok, come and give your wife a kiss and tell her you love her,” a nurse instructed Learner Dad, like he was about to say goodbye to his mummy at kindy.
(And yes, I was wrong, the moment that followed brings tears to my eyes too.)
“We’re going to put you to sleep now,” a voice behind me said.
The last thing I saw was the worried look on the paediatrician’s face.
And then I was gone.

To be continued…