Perspective: Thoughts from a hospital bed on gifts and giving
None of us is fully autonomous, although we may not fully appreciate that until we have children of our own — or a surprise, life-saving surgery
The human condition has been much on my mind of late. Coverage of opposition to the Dobbs decision dominated media as I finished reading Carolyn Kasteler’s “Watching Over Angels,” which tells the stories of parents whose unborn babies had conditions incompatible with life.
Working with a pediatric hospice team, those sorrowing couples found ways to welcome their children. They could not stop their children’s deaths, so they found ways to love their children’s brief lives. Their grief and courage stuck with me. Running through my mind was a paraphrase of Anne Sexton’s mournful refrain in the poem “The Abortion”: somebody who should have lived was gone.
Thoughts of those families were still with me one recent Friday morning as I began packing for our weekend back home in rural Utah. I was derailed by the increasing intensity of the odd pain that woke me early. My insides felt twisted in decidedly unpleasant ways. By midmorning, I was at the ER, where I was diagnosed with a condition which, without surgery, was incompatible with life.
“I’ll give you something for pain,” the ER doctor told me. She did, and it worked: I don’t remember the CAT scan, the time waiting for results, family members and nurses holding me still for a spinal block nor my time in post-op.
That evening, I roused in short snatches to the remarkable luxury of being alive without significant pain. But by the next morning, I was bleeding profusely and again was wheeled into surgery. I woke to the soft wheezing of the pressure cuffs around my legs squeezing, then releasing. A nasal cannula kept my oxygen level up. Input and output bags were attached to the bed and a bedside pole, their tubes connected to me in places which left me neither the expectation nor the ability to go anywhere independently.
In a matter of hours, the autonomy I had so long enjoyed became dependence. King Lear’s observation came to mind: “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.”
But unlike the beggar Lear met on the heath in a fierce storm, I was much accommodated. My family was there caring for me, though I could do nothing in return. Richard, my husband, was with me daily; our children took turns staying nights with me.
I slept a lot, but repeatedly woke astonished at being helplessly alive and at receiving such kind care while relearning how much core strength it takes to roll to one side, sit up, stand, walk.
Hospital stays in my 20s and 30s replayed in my mind. Those visits were brief and joyous with the births of each of our five children. Christian, our firstborn, came to us breech and blue. As they warmed him and coaxed him to breathe, I prayed for him to live — live now, live forever! — and was overcome by gratitude and relief as his skin pinked up and his APGAR score normalized. We took him home in fearful triumph. How, I mused, could God or any responsible medical provider possibly trust a wretched novice such as I with that small being wrapped in my arms?
Of course, birth is only the beginning of parental amazement. Biology seems an inadequate explanation of how children enter this world, of how we grow with our children. Each comes, if not trailing clouds of glory, certainly as a bright light inviting us to put aside ourselves and respond to an irreplaceable soul seeking connection.
For so many of us, the cascade of joys — from first smiles and first steps, to graduations, marriages and grandchildren — temper the tantrums, the worries, the physical, mental and economic stresses. And now my firstborn was taking the night shift for me: hunting ice or a warm blanket, trying to find a clear liquid or soft food to awake my appetite, and then, finding the window seat too narrow for his shoulders, easing his tall body over the recliner as he tried to sleep.
I thought about the scares and the saves. Half my lifetime ago, my mother drove snowy canyon roads to be with me two weeks before I was due to deliver Lacey. She thought I might need some help. I thought her coming a bit premature. She was right. My water broke that night, and I began bleeding. She stayed with our children while we went to the hospital for Lacey’s birth via emergency C-section due to an abruption of the placenta.
The ordinary miracle of birth — of life — relies on the bonds that connect the generations. Again, Sexton’s poem came to mind: “and me wondering how anything fragile survives.” Lying in the hospital bed, I was overwhelmed by the gifts of family life.
None of us enters this world by means of our own will. Each of us is invited into being by a father and a mother; each of us is accommodated in our dependency by our parents and others who were and are willing to love and to care for us even when we cannot reciprocate. We learn to love because they first loved us.
I know saintly souls whose children’s development is stymied by illness or injury or addiction, whose days, months, years of care and devotion bless and lift their struggling offspring. I know mighty souls with mother- and father-hearts who have nurtured their students, or their siblings, their parents, their friends, even strangers, in various ways.
But many of us are slower to recognize the obvious truth that none of us is fully autonomous, each of us depends on others across the lifespan, and we may not fully appreciate that interdependence until we have children of our own — or surprise life-saving surgeries.
The ecology of our human family entrusts to us the care of the vulnerable: our unborn children long before we see their faces, the dependent infant, the ill, the injured, the aged — each in whom we see our own weakness and for whom we feel the pull to help and comfort, to carry them in their coming and becoming —and to grieve their leaving.
The narrator of “The Abortion” recounts: “up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man/not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all.../ he took the fullness that love began.”
The “fullness” she referenced was the child taken from her body, of course. But God be thanked that for so many of us — though fearful and inadequate — the fullness of pregnancy is only the beginning. It is the beginning of a life full of many good things for the child and for those who give life, as our poor straws of parenting are, with time and love, spun to gold.
Camille Stilson Williams, who earned a Juris Doctorate from Brigham Young University, has taught reading, writing and family law for undergraduates at BYU, and has also published articles related to women and the family and law in national magazines and journals. She is a contributor to the book “Common Ground, Different Opinions: Latter-day Saints and Contemporary Issues.”