My sister came out for a quick visit a couple of weekends ago. She visited us several times during the three years we lived in the vicinity during my graduate school training previously so we didn’t feel the need to do any of the touristy jaunts in the city. Plus she was here for exactly 48 hours and half of that time revolved around a speaking gig I had while she was out here (the focus of why she was here to begin with). During the remaining half of her time we attempted to give her a crash course in what our life and dreams look like now in this new chapter. It wasn’t enough time for that really, but it was just enough time to re-rip out our hearts when we dropped her off at the airport.
The week that followed was pretty brutal. Faith, our 15 year old, cried herself to sleep nearly every night. Her tears held both loss and resistance as she expressed her desire to “go back home” over and over again.
I’ve released a few similarly expressive tears in the months that have passed since we loaded up that giant yellow truck (read: I’ve cried more tears than I’d like to admit). On the surface, the longing presents as a desire to return to a red house that held our story for four years, our lengthiest stay in any dwelling we’ve had together. The girls miss having their own bedrooms. I miss my kitchen and my bathroom. I miss my floors. I knew every inch of that house, the places where the floorboards came unglued from the steps into the front room, where we had to patch up the holes from Briella’s baby gates, where the wall was dented from a water bottle that miraculously flew down the basement stairs. This house held some sacred stories too. Like when I ran down the stairs to greet Brian and the girls holding a positive pregnancy stick as they walked in from the garage. It held our family as we recovered from a couple of bouts with the flu, a broken arm, 3 concussions, countless sprained ankles and knees and of course my six months of recovery after Briella’s birth. Shortly after moving in, we finally answered the girls’ unrelenting requests for a puppy. Jaxson grew into a dog (for better and for worse) in that very house. There were Christmas mornings, family feasts, birthday gatherings, movie nights and family meltdowns.
As I tear up at the sight of any photos taken in our old house, I understand that it was how we filled the space and how we hoped to fill the space that made it what it was and what we hoped it one day would be. But spaces matter too. So the longing is about the house. But it’s also about more. It’s about how we’re not sure what stories this new chapter will hold. We’re not even sure about what kind of dwelling we’ll land in as we’re renting for this first year as we get familiar with the area. So there is no real place to call our own, no defined space to hold our new stories yet. We are each feeling the lack of a physical and stable container and sustainer of our lives. We’re in flux, in transition. And that’s a really hard place to be, so we struggle with a desire to return home often. That’s part of moving. That’s part of leaving and now seeking for a new space to call home. It’s all part of growing through transition.
Featurette: A guest piece written by one of our readers. A small narrative vignette inviting us all to see the world from behind their eyes and hearts for just a moment. You can submit your short story for consideration here. Today’s guest piece is written by Beth Bruno.
In this Mediterranean climate, the air is still warm. The open-shuttered windows let in a refreshing rustle through the newly turned leaves. Though my kids donned costumes and gathered sugar late into last night, my husband and I are half way around the world celebrating 20 years of marriage. The Italian guests congratulated us with “bravo!” this morning at breakfast. Indeed, we know it is something worthy of no small bravo.
It is a monumental passing.
But this week while we traipsed around medieval hill towns, I missed my oldest daughter’s monumental passage. She sent me a brief, “It happened” on kik, the wifi messaging app we are all communicating with, and we struggled to talk around her school schedule and a 7 hour time zone. I fought back tears at the thought of being absent for such a significant week, yet at the same time, thankful for all I had already done.
I have been on a journey with my tween daughter, intentionally ushering her into womanhood through a year I call “becoming.” I have been searching for core, intrinsic attitudes of women which supersede culture and history and that far surpass the more traditional focus on periods and purity.
Of course, periods and purity are conversations worth having. But we’ve been having them for years. The only way to normalize a thing is to talk about it casually and frequently. I’ve been prepared and preparing my daughter for the onset of her period increasingly over the past months. We knew it was coming.
Unlike some 30 years ago when my own first began.
We are a full day’s car ride from home and surrounded by all the relatives. My Grandparent’s house is nestled in a wood with corn fields behind and a mortician living down the lane. The small town feels isolated, stalled, and like their home, frozen in time. The baby blue toilet with the padded seat cover is my hiding place. I am 12 and something is happening.
In the kitchen, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and the mortician neighbor enjoy happy hour. It is Christmas and we are all together. There is no privacy, though I pull my mother down the hall to the baby blue bathroom next to the 13 inch TV with Miss Piggy sitting atop. I am horrified. My underpants are brown and sticky and I have absolutely no paradigm for this. My mother pauses. An embarrassed smile is gone as quickly as I detect it and she brushes it off, “too much chocolate” she says.
Six months later it is Spring and the sticky returns red. Now, from health class I presume, I know what this is. I know what to ask for. I know what has happened. Years later, on the eve of my wedding, when the same smile returns to her face, I will recall the baby blue toilet. I will remember that at age 10, I had asked what French Kissing was and she said she had no idea. I will remember another toilet at age 14, from which I received coaching from a friend. She handed me a tampon and mirror and closed the door, not letting me out till I was successful.
And though I managed despite my mother’s embarrassment around intimate and feminine topics, what I recall her telling me that Christmas at my Grandparents, has framed the bulk of my parenting: there will be no topic too intimate to discuss candidly (and age appropriately) with my kids.
So my daughter and I have been having body talks for years, whenever her curious mind pops a question. In 5th grade, I bought her a little coin purse, put some sanitary pads in it, and told her to keep it with her. She has been prepared and knows what is coming. There will be no public celebration, but I will try to muster excitement (tell me a woman who actually enjoys this reality! We aren’t spending 5 days out of the month sequestered in a red tent with our friends and sisters after all!) I will do my best to welcome her to this life-giving gift we have of bringing babies into the world.
At the same time, she is joining the ranks of women from all time, from all over. I want her to know that though she’ll continue on as a kid who now has pads in her backpack, still getting tucked into bed at night, some of her global sisters are experiencing a radical change of life. At the same age, a young girl in Afghanistan or Yemen is now declared eligible for marriage. A peer in Uganda may stop going to school at this point because she lacks sanitary pads to keep her clean. In fact, maybe our celebration of her first period will be to sponsor a year’s supply of pads for a girl of the same age.
These are all thoughts I’ve been having leading up to this reality. But here it is and I am not even with her! By the time I return, she’ll have endured her first cycle. In all my determination to handle this differently than my own mother, in the end, it was out of my control. And in the greatest irony of all, my mom is the one with her right now.
In God’s great sense of humor and grace, my mom gets redemption.
I have contended from the beginning of this process that ushering our daughters through a process of becoming touches our own story and soul. It is as much about the mother as the daughter. It can be both painful and restorative to rifle through our narrative. But what a delightful surprise that my mom is included. Removing me from the picture allowed her to do things perhaps the way she always wanted to, but wasn’t free to at that point in her own process of becoming. We’re journeying together, across generations.
And for now, across oceans.
Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here. ~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
I was recently afforded the privilege of spending the afternoon with an old friend who is in the midst of grieving and processing a miscarriage in her second trimester of pregnancy. As we sat on her couch in her cozy and charming little mountain house, warm drinks in hand, we opened up the storybooks of our lives to one another. The trauma and loss related to her miscarriage was still so fresh. I listened to how she was beginning to understand and make meaning out of her experience. I watched as she grappled with the bizarre nature of life moving forward even though death had found its way into her own womb. Such wanderings through the territory of loss led us naturally to the re-opening of my own archived story of miscarriage.
I was 11 weeks along when we discovered that what we thought would be our third child was not thriving as an embryo over a decade ago. I had not walked through that narrative in quite some time. I was often reminded of it throughout my entire pregnancy with Briella. The D&C procedure that the miscarriage necessitated was listed on all of my medical charts as it was seen as a possible contributor to my risk for placenta accreta. Most of my charts would indicate that Briella was my 5th pregnancy but my 4th child. So strange now to think of that part of my life story being reduced to a number on a chart, just a little blip on my medical record.
As I sat there in the midst of our mutual story-gifting and story-receiving, I realized that whenever we invite others into our stories we are asking them to become a memory-keeper on our behalf. We need each other to hold the fullness of our stories, to help us discover and attribute meaning so that our stories never become little blips across the pages of our lives. We need each other to remember that our stories continue to live on through us even though time travels right on by.
These #ALSIceBucketChallenge(s) have flooded all of our social media accounts these past few weeks. How bout yours?
Though we were each a part of this genius campaign of virtual tag, we were mostly inspired by this guy because his story matters.
I awoke in a fog to the rhythmic sound of the breathing tube still lodged down my throat. I was surprised at how anti-climatic it all felt. There I was, lying again in the same ICU room attached to what appeared to be all of the same machines and equipment. Having only a slight awareness that it was late into the evening, I began trying to sort through the sequence of events. My mind was hard at work grasping for the few details I could recall. Briella. Her name came to me first. Yes, I reminded myself, I now had a set of four little women. My family was complete. But how can she be okay if I am here connected to all of these tubes? Panic began to set in as I wondered where everyone was…where my baby girl was. Wait, I thought, am I really here? I’m assuming I survived whatever the heck just happened…otherwise, why would I be in this sterile, cold, loud ICU room void of any sense of nurture or comfort?
The panic did not sit well in my stomach and the questions brought forth attention to the pounding in my head. I was only awake for a matter of seconds before every last bit of substance from my stomach began hurling itself up and out of my poor beat up body as if it was expressing it’s bitter grief for all it had endured in less than 24 hours. Bile filled my throat and mouth and began to rob me of the air my lungs weren’t strong enough to reach for anyway. My poor mother, who unbeknownst to me, had nodded off after one of the longest days of her life only to be awakened by the stench of my vomit and the sound of my desperate pleas for air. I was helpless lying there, restrained and at the mercy of those willing to care for me in those moments. The irony still causes me to take pause. Like an infant entering into the harsh circumstances of life outside the womb, I too was tended to with a maternal love that can only be described as ferocious. My mother’s care as she helped clear the vomit from my mouth and call out for assistance assured me that I was very much alive. I must have fought hard to be here. Of course I fought hard to be here.
My mother tended to my needs throughout the remainder of that awful night as my body continued to be repulsed by the cocktail of narcotics, fluids, transfused blood and anesthesia it had been forced to receive during both the c-section and hysterectomy as well as the emergency surgery to address the hemorrhaging. All the while, Brian was mothering our new baby girl in his own room on the Mom-Baby floor of the hospital. He held her all night long mutually offering and deriving comfort in an effort to tend to the emotional trauma they’d both endured. It was one heck of a dark night of the soul for all involved, but the dawn finally appeared and with it came a new hope that the storm might actually be over.
They were able to remove me from all of the life-saving machines by midmorning and transferred me to a new room to recover and reconnect with that little human that needed her mama, her home, her person. And what a glorious reunion it was. Briella was accompanied by her big sisters and the man they are lucky enough to call their father and I am honored to call my partner in this wild life. Faith, our then 12 year old, was the first to speak, “Mommy, you look so much better!” The relief in her eyes revealed that these spoken words were more characteristic of a sigh of relief than words of affirmation for my own encouragement.
That day was filled with doctors filing in and out of my room attempting to construct the narrative of exactly what had happened in both of my operations. In the initial cesarean section, the doctor discovered early on that not only was it apparent that I had the condition everyone had warned me about (called Placenta Accreta) where the placenta attaches to deeply to the uterine wall, but that the presentation of this condition was in it’s worst form. The life source for Briella while in utero was actually jeopardizing both of our lives all along as it’s blood vessels had grown through my uterine wall and out into my abdominal cavity adhering slightly to my bladder as well. Had any of those blood vessels ruptured throughout my pregnancy both Briella and I would have been in grave risk of fatality. It was this condition that necessitated an emergency hysterectomy once Briella was removed from my body. There was an injury to my bladder during the removal of the uterus that required initial reparations from a urologist and because of the presence of a benign tumor, my right ovary was removed as well. As a result, the blood loss I experienced put my life on the line as the surgeons and anesthesiologists worked tirelessly to transfuse enough blood product to stabilize the borderline DIC condition of my body. After six hours, everyone that mattered believed I was stable enough to be sent to the ICU for monitoring.
It was only a few short hours later that they discovered I was hemorrhaging. With an estimated two liters of blood in my vaginal canal the doctors believed that their only option was to conduct an exploratory abdominal surgery to sort out where the bleeding was coming from. Though they were never able to confirm the source of the bleeding, they inspected and re-sutured organs that had been impacted most by the previous surgery. They also transfused even more blood product which likely provided the balance of blood and platelets still needed for my body to stabilize. At that point, everyone collectively exhaled a sigh of relief as it appeared all would be well. Once all of the doctors were finished explaining the outcome of my surgeries, I was left with a catheter that I would have in for two weeks as my bladder continued to heal. It was difficult for my mind to rest comfortably in the hope that all of this trauma was behind us, though the doctors all agreed I was now on a relatively short road to recovery.
The glimmer of hope that the doctors had dangled before us was snuffed out before we could ever grab hold of it. Later that first night out of the ICU, I heard those infamous words once again, “Don’t worry too much…” a nurse responded after I communicated that I was experiencing lower back pain on my left side. Yet again, those words did not provide the comfort they were likely spoken to deliver. Instead, my mind fell easily into the trap that trauma creates. What if something else is wrong? How can my body possibly endure another surgery? What if coming this far was just so I could have a day to tell everyone how much I love them…but now that I’ve been afforded that luxury, perhaps it really is my time to go. These were the thoughts flooding my mind. I was drowning and a voice of reason or a reassuring statement were not an adequate life preserver.
My fears weren’t silenced by sleep that night. Instead, I repeatedly woke up feeling like fluid was escaping every pour of my body. At one point, I sat straight up in bed (a painful thing to do after undergoing two abdominal surgeries) and woke Brian to check and see why my back was drenched with some kind of fluid. He was confused as he felt my hospital gown and realized it was dry. It is a strange thing for a therapist who has studied the impact of trauma to observe oneself experiencing symptoms of PTSD. I oscillated between the triggered panic and a reflective awareness that sounded a bit like, “Ahhh…so your brain is in a state of hypervigilance and hyperarrousal, Shauna. Don’t worry too much…it’s just your brain.”
By morning, though, the pain in my lower back had not dissipated or decreased. In fact, over the course of the next four days the pain went from bad to worse. The first couple of days, nurses and doctors alike presumed that the pain was from the excess fluid my body had retained after the two surgeries. One nurse even suggested that it could be gas. Looking back on those conversations now can at times send me into a conversation with my inner critic:
Why didn’t you trust your internal voice, Shauna? Why was it so hard for you to listen to your body and all the ways it was still trying to tell you that it was not okay? When did the voices of strangers, medical professionals though they were, become more important and more trustworthy than you own?
But even now as shame tries to weave its way through every step of those questions, I know the answers already and can always find my way back to grace. I learned early on, like many other victims of abuse, to disconnect from what my body was feeling. So much of my journey has been about finding my way back to wholeness, and I have made such significant strides in that direction, but there are wounds that may need tending to for many years to come.
On the third day of experiencing excruciating pain while on morphine, I met my limit of tolerance. I remember thinking at the time that the pain in my back was far worse than any labor experience, which would explain why mentally I went to a different land entirely. I hope to never have to re-enter that territory for the rest of my life. It was a desolate land where hope was non-existent, where the desire to live had no place to call home in my being any longer. Whatever survival instinct I had tapped into the few days prior had abandoned me in that place. I just wanted the pain to end.
Once again, it was my own mother who came to my rescue. She trusted the pain in my body more than I had been able to and she became the bullhorn I desperately needed her to be.
“SOMETHING IS WRONG. FIGURE IT OUT NOW!” She demanded and they finally ran enough tests to determine that during my second surgery, the surgeon had somehow obstructed both of my ureters. Your ureters are tiny little straw-like organs that connect your kidneys to your bladder. They are a very necessary part of our drainage system. So for days upon days, urine was backing up in both of my kidneys, but most significantly in my left kidney. MY POOR KIDNEYS WERE LITERALLY DROWNING IN URINE. Had it been another couple of days before the identified the injury, I would have likely lost at least my left one.
What we had been told previously would have been a relatively short road to recovery became a 5 month ordeal filled with what I not-so-fondly referred to as “pee bags,” multiple tubes inside and outside my body, a ridiculous number of trips to and from various doctors offices, on-going infections leading to on-going bouts with Thrush, and nearly a dozen invasive procedures ALL involving my lady parts. It was one of the most vulnerable, life-altering, perspective-shifting seasons of my entire life. It is not something I can tie a pretty little bow on…and thank GOD, because bows are overrated and overused. But what I can tell you is that this story, like any story, is connected to the grander narrative of my life- a life of trauma and healing, a life of desire and loss, a life of grief and glory. It’s messy. And I like it that way…because I’m really good at sifting through the mess.
Thank you for entering into this ridiculously long and drawn out story. Though I have gifted all of you with the major details in this four-part series, there is plenty more I have to say about the meaning(s) I’ve discovered along the way.
*Our first night home from the hospital. After going over a week without eating food, I was under strict orders from the doctor to drink lots of milkshakes!