Exactly 10 days ago my daughter, Catalina, turned 13. It has taken me this long to come to grips with this reality well enough to state that fact. It will take even longer for me to adjust to the reality that I have a “teenager.” It’s not an age thing for me like for a few of my friends, the dawn of a mid-life crisis –“Oh my goodness! Am I really THAT old that I am a teenager’s mother?!?!?!?!?” Don’t get me wrong, I am really starting to feel my age but that’s inevitable. Obviously I’ve always known that Catalina becoming a teenager was inevitable as well but I am just not ready for it.
I was not in a good place when I found out I was pregnant. I didn’t feel right so I went to my GYN. He performed the regular array of tests for someone expressing my vague symptoms. When he got the results, he sat me down and told them to me. My pregnancy test came back positive and my pap smear came back abnormal. He’d have to take a punch biopsy to be sure but he believed that I had cervical cancer (which the biopsy confirmed two days later). The good thing about cervical cancer is that it is extremely treatable and has a very low likelihood of recurrence. The treatments aren’t like that of typical cancers. The options are cryosurgery, laser vaporization or conventional surgery. If you catch it early and it doesn’t metastasize elsewhere, you don’t have to endure chemotherapy or radiation treatments — ladies, for this reason, please get your pap smears done every six months religiously. Truly, if you are a woman and you must get cancer, this in the one you’d want. That’s how my GYN explained it to me.
He also explained that I could not be treated while I was pregnant so if I wanted to move forward with the treatment immediately, I’d have to terminate my pregnancy. Each of the treatments would weaken the cervix to some degree. How much would depend on how far the cancer went into my cervix and they wouldn’t know that until the treatment was underway. You can have a baby with a diminished cervix however it would be more complicated. Precautions would have to be taken including the possibility of going under general anesthesia at 20 weeks and having the canal sewn up (like trussing a turkey) and then having a Cesarean birth rather than a vaginal delivery.
Or I could go to term with this pregnancy, with my cervix in tact albeit with cancer. My doctor explained that Mother Nature is a very clever lady who is singularly focused on carrying forward new life. During pregnancy, the spread of the cervical cancer is generally stunted. During the birth, part of the cervical wall sheds with the afterbirth. Depending on how deep into the cervix the cancer is, often the baby cures the mother.
I was 26 when I had this conversation with my doctor. I was hardly the clear-minded, level-headed woman you see before you today. I was completely blindsided. But the choice was clear.
Just as my doctor told me it would, the cervical cancer was stunted. In fact, except for that, it was rather uneventful…until my 35th week. I had one Lamas class during which we were instructed how to navigate the hospital paperwork so as not to get stuck with any bills our insurance company won’t cover (EXTREMELY useful). I was examined by my doctor on a Saturday and he told me, “If you go to term, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t, you will have a ten pound baby. Easy.” I told him that I didn’t think delivering a ten pound baby would be so easy. He laughed. I didn’t.
The following Monday, on the first day of training the woman who would be covering my maternity leave, my water broke. I worked in Manhattan at the time. My doctor was affiliated with Winthrop in Mineola. My boss threw me in a Town Car with a dear friend and coworker and sent us to Long Island. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. Our driver decided he wanted to save the tunnel toll and go by way of Brooklyn. At rush hour. My friend gave her opinion of this decision, loudly, to the driver.
We arrived at Winthrop at 7 p.m. When we left the office, I wasn’t feeling any pain. During the course of that even-longer-than-it-had-to-be ride, the contractions had begun and I was feeling them, full-force, as I was admitted. My doctor confirmed that my water broke and suspected the reason why was a bacteria had ruptured the membrane. It would need to be confirmed but he was putting me on intravenous antibiotics immediately so the baby and I would not get infected. He didn’t tell me what bacteria it was until the day after Catalina was born when he came to check on us. When I got home I looked it up and saw that there was a 60% death rate for babies infected by it. Even though by then I knew Catalina was safe from it, I just held her and cried. In any case, because she was five weeks early and my doctor was concerned about her lung development, my doctor decided that I would be kept pregnant for a couple more days to strengthen Catalina’s lungs. There were good air pockets. He gave me a narcotic to stop the contractions. The pain stopped and I fell asleep, attached to monitors. I had completely forgotten about the cervical cancer. It was no longer important.
When I woke up, another member of my doctor’s practice (during the course of my pregnancy, I was seen by all but one of the doctors in the practice — they do this so that in case your regular doctor is unavailable, the doctor who delivers the baby will be a familiar face. It would be a heck of an introduction if you first met in the Delivery Room, huh?) and a man I’d never seen before came to visit me. The stranger told me that I would be giving birth in a few hours. I told him he was wrong. I told him that Dr. Goldstein told me that I would stay pregnant for a few days. The stranger said that he was a high-risk delivery doctor and because of the bacteria’s presence, he thought it best to deliver sooner rather than later. I told him I was on antibiotics which should take care of the infection and my baby’s lungs had to be fully developed before she is born. He said in his opinion, it would be safer to deliver now (remember, at this point I still had no idea what the bacteria was or its potency). I told him that with all due respect, Dr. Goldstein has been with me and my baby for the last 35 weeks. I know him for less than five minutes. I trust Dr. Goldstein. If he says giving birth now is right, I’ll do it. Otherwise, no. The stranger and Dr. Goldstein argued in the hall outside my room for a few minutes then Dr. Goldstein came in and told me that I’d be giving birth by the end of the day. They gave me more drugs to counter act the ones they gave me to stop my contractions.
Those drugs worked. I was feeling the pain of the contractions. Much worse than in the car on the way to the hospital. Much more frequently, too. However, my damn cervix was not cooperating! It would not dilate (ironically, quite the opposite problem of a cervix that had been treated for cancer). Unbelievable. They gave me more drugs — an epidural — to deaden the pain while they maxed out the dosage of the petocin to get me ready to deliver. I fell asleep again.
When I woke up, I felt incredibly sharp pains. Regularly. Very regularly. I was confused. I asked the maternity nurse why I was feeling pain because I had the epidural. She left to get the doctor. Lo and behold, the one doctor in the practice I hadn’t seen previously came in. Dr. Goldstein had been at the hospital 36 hours straight and delivered twins. He went home to get some sleep which was good; he looked like Hell the last time I saw him. The new doctor came in and introduced herself to me, Dr. Valderaama. She said I was just about ready to start pushing. I was in blinding pain that this point and full of quite an array of drugs. I told her I was done. She would have to give me a C-section because I was in too much pain as it is and I didn’t want to subject myself to more. She told me that she doesn’t cut open healthy women carrying healthy babies and that I just have to push. I told her no and that she couldn’t make me. She agreed that she couldn’t make me push but at the same time told me that I couldn’t force her to give me a C-section. That the baby was going to come out the only available opening, soon. She turned and walked out saying that she’d be back when I was ready to push.
I was a lot more spiteful then than I am now. My maternity nurse begged me to push and promised me that it would make me feel better…”If you’ll only try it…” The pain started to get really bad so I gave in and said I’d try pushing. The nurse ran and got Dr. Valderaama, who, by the way, bore a striking resemblance to Ronnie James Dio. I pushed. I felt better! Now I wanted to keep pushing. Dr. Valderaama told me to stop pushing. What?!?!?! I told her I didn’t want to. She said I better stop. The cord was wrapped around the baby’s throat and pushing would tighten the noose. It was difficult to restrain myself because the pushing brought such profound relief, but I did. They had a bit of a hard time loosening the cord from Catalina’s neck because rather than crowning, she decided it would be better to come out face first. Even from the moment of her birth, she was wide-eyed and curious, ever-anxious to see everything that is before her.
I don’t know if I can accurately explain how I felt in those moments where I gave that one last, great push but I’ll try…you know how people say as death approaches you see your entire life flash before your eyes? It was something like that but it wasn’t my life, my past that I was seeing. I felt the overwhelming feeling of hope and saw an incredible brightness. Like all the answers about life and what it means were answered when I held my baby for the very first time, both of us crying and exhausted from birth. I had never felt love so strong before, a different kind of love. It made me strong and humble at the same time.
After 24 1/2 hours of labour, on Tuesday, February 4th at 5:07 p.m., Catalina Leah entered the world…and my cervical cancer exited (it came back later but that’s a story for another time). On the day she was born, Catalina literally saved my life. And she has been spiritually and emotionally saving me every day since.
All this seems like yesterday but it was 13 years and 10 days ago. She’s a smart, kind, beautiful person with her own life and interests. It went by too fast. I wish that I could have some of it back again but I can’t. And that’s okay. I will always be her Mama and, God willing, will always be part of her life. Wide-eyed and curious, ever-anxious to see everything that is before her. Take it all in, my baby. Take it all in and make it your own. The world has never been the same since you entered it. Mine especially.
Today Catalina and I spent the day with my sister-in-law who is pregnant with her first baby. Our men were back working on the house, getting it ready for the baby’s arrival in late September. After going to the movies, the three of us went to Barnes & Noble. I bought my sister-in-law the all-new “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” It was the best book I read to guide me through the pregnancy and I was thrilled to share that with her. It is a special connection mothers have with their babies. Through all the weirdness, discomfort and pain, there is an incredible bond that mothers and babies form that only they can share while they share a body. It’s mind-blowing. I am excited for my sister-in-law as she begins her adventure, her incredibly special and absolutely individual relationship with her baby.
After that we went to the diner, picked up dinner and all of us — men and ladies — ate together while watching the Ranger game (they won, Hallelujah!). It was the perfect Valentine’s Day. It was what love is all about.