When I was barely 22, I became a mother for the first time. The few years before, my life had been quite difficult. Between the ages of 14-20 a lot happened; my parents divorced, my sisters and I went to multiple schools, suffered multiple moves, experienced constant betrayal, parental (father) abandonment occurred and I experienced abuse, rape and assault.
One of those events could’ve been enough to throw a sheltered, entitled kid from the SF Bay Area into a life long trauma response, so maybe the list of them forced me into a state of such incredible – ‘wake up, dummy!!!’ – I actually did.
Wake up, that is.
Of late, the phrase ‘woke’ has become a big negative for some, but truly – in my own experience – waking up to our connection to everything and everyone is a good thing – as long as you consciously avoid becoming an imperious asshole. But, I digress…
Becoming a mother shocked me into what is required to give life and sustain it with the sense of complete surrender to my child’s well being, rather than my individual self. This event also changed me from a broken, traumatized human, into a fierce, curious and directed woman. In that shift, I found a deep well of spirituality I have NEVER lost. This spirituality is something which remained informative and dynamic through all the decades of my life, since then.
At the root of parenting, is compassion and humility. None of us know how to be great parents when we start, but if we remain humble and open, our children show us the way… if we so chose.
Memories of how my instincts were naturally activated when my first daughter was born rushed into my consciousness when my second born, Sarah, was completely overcome with the same instincts the moment her Gunner was born. She just went through the exact same transition I had gone through 40 years before, but my precious daughter had an enormous mine field of ‘how do I keep this child alive???!!”questions, inclusive of multiple and significant choices she & her husband had to make for Gunner to survive.
They didn’t know anything medically, but they did know Gunner AND they did know they wanted a chance for him, but ONLY if he had the possibility of having a life worth experiencing. If keeping him alive meant he would not have any of the joys of being human, but artificially hooked up to machines in order to be here… A life they DID NOT want for him.
Their love for their son was obvious from the second he was born and it was so strong, neither of them required he remain with them, while both of them were willing to do ANYTHING – if he wanted to be here. The most powerful messages they received were from their son, as each day that went by during the first week of Gunner’s life, gave them one promise after another that Gunner was fighting to be with them as much as they were fighting for him to stay alive.
Such a wondrous time; but the tears!! Oh, SO many tears and wails from our hearts due to the vast unknown in front of this little boy & the daily ups and significant downs he had. During those first weeks, his mother shared her fears and joys with me, as I was the primary person with her for the first weeks of Gunner’s life when Jacob was on Maui working.
My heart broke every time she lamented the normal joys she’d expected and couldn’t have; nursing him, cuddling with him and his papa, taking him outside to feel the sunshine, showing him off to the world, sleepless nights sitting in soft light and cooing with her perfect child… and even sadness for things she hadn’t even imagined she would miss. My heart broke with her over and over and I had to keep reminding her that he was still here and THAT ALONE, was a fucking miracle. “One step – then Another. One moment – and another” was all she could possibly do. Cry for the losses & the broken dreams… and as the tears streamed down her face, I asked her to celebrate the miracles.
She did it all.
My first night on Oahu was completely out of body and weird… Hannah and Jacob secured a pretty shitty hotel room near Waikiki Beach; the only room available on such short notice. All three of us squished into that room and went directly to sleep. As weird as it is to imagine sleeping in the same room as my daughter’s husband, I don’t think anyone blinked an eye. We were all that exhausted and frankly, sleeping hadn’t been all that easy for anyone in our family for many long nights since February 18th.
My ‘three hours ahead of this time zone’ body got me up before dawn and I decided to slip out to rustle up some coffee for everyone and do SOMETHING about the fact that I only had fluffy UGG boots to wear (remember when I mentioned earlier about my packing job?).
If you were to spend a few days with me in a metropolis, you’d see I’m not wonderful about knowing where I am. Often I’ll head in the opposite direction I’m directed to, even with GPS help. It’s curious, as I am pretty good at navigating larger areas – even vast, multi-dimensional ones, but I am utterly dreadful in cities. That morning was no different and it was so early, none of the coffee shops I had found were open yet. Giving up, I found my way to a canal and sat on a bench to call my husband. We both cried a bit, but it was SO good to hear his soothing voice that morning. Another small/huge miracle, this love I have and I believe it helped me manage my day and acclimate.
In Hawaii, there are these touristy shops selling everything a traveler may require called the ABC Store. They tend to be on every other corner, open early and late so I bought a pair of slippers (or ‘flip-flops’ as mainlanders refer to them) with the word, ALOHA, written on the sole with tropical flowers on a black background. They were $4.99, ridiculously ugly and totally sucked to walk in, but I honestly didn’t have the time to get something better. After I acquired those babies, I found some great coffee and bought three big cups to share with my Hannah and Papa Jacob. Once I found my way back to the hotel, the day launched quickly – and without food – while my feet began to blister from my new slippers. We had to get back to the hospital AND move into another hotel, where we would be staying for another week or so.
The first week of Gunner’s life was topsy turvy, all over the place. As I settled into life in a hotel, in a city, surrounded by millions of humans, my daughter stayed with her baby – day in and day out – ignoring her own physical pain, which was nothing compared to the pain of losing him at any moment. Her feet were swollen (she lamented they felt like floppy boobs), the incision hurt, her back was on fire and her heart felt like it was literally bleeding. Every day was a gift, while they brought little in the way of certainty for Gunner’s long term survival. He seemed to be handling life without a small intestine, but the prognosis was grim due to the severity of his condition.
Usually, this sort of situation occurs in premies, but after they are born not in utero and it’s often due to a birth defect or when the intestine hasn’t developed enough. What occurred was Gunner’s intestine twisted up (a ‘volvulus’) a few days before Sarah started labor. This situation caused the blood flow to his developing intestine to stop, which created ‘necrotizing enterocolitis’. Completely rare in utero and often not detected in already born babies, who typically die of sepsis because the symptoms are throwing up and diarrhea, both of which can be considered ‘normal’ behavior for an infant. In the cases where the parents aren’t seeing the symptoms for what they are, the baby will die from sepsis very quickly.
In most ways, Sarah and Jacob’s journey into birth was a boon to Gunner’s survival. Had she not given birth as early as she did, the dead cells of his intestine would most certainly have caused him to die prior to birth and possibly impacted Sarah’s health as well. At the end of her pregnancy she was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, causing baby to get bigger, faster. This was also a good thing as Gunner was very well developed at birth, even though he was many weeks from being fully gestated.
Still, his situation was presenting to the doctors as ‘unsurvivable’ and those first days of his life were incredibly difficult. On one hand everyone was elated that he was still alive. On the other, his tenuous hold on life was significant, especially according to the specialists. They didn’t mince their words about his situation and his parents were constantly thrown around emotionally with the grim reality that their boy may not ever live anything close to normal, would be unable to take food in by his mouth, may never swim in the ocean, play with other kids or ever be without a backpack full of intravenous food 24/7.
Sarah and Jacob had to listen to all these dire prognoses from knowledgable and experienced experts AND kept making decisions considering what they were being told with their knowledge of their boy and HIS desire to live and thrive. To say they were incredible, is quite an understatement. They showed us all what an obvious exercise is faith looks like.
During the first surgery Gunner had, the surgeon removed all of his small intestine and sewed what was left (called ‘stomas’) to the outside of his body. Generally, the surgery conducted where the two stomas are connected inside the gut doesn’t happen for a few months, or 6-9 weeks post birth. In this case, the lead surgeon told us, during an impromptu visit outside the hospital, that he kept thinking about Gunner and feeling like he should reconnect what was left of Gunner’s intestine right away. He considered it a way to take advantage of the natural growth little babies do between gestational weeks 35-40.
Even though Gunner was no longer in utero, this growth could occur, or at least this is what the surgeon kept thinking about. Maybe doing this surgery now would help Gunner develop a bit more small intestine… and wasn’t it worth a try?
As the quiet grandmother, providing solace, meals and running errands for the family, I simply watched Gunner’s father urge the doctors to ‘think outside the box’ for his son. While Sarah was keeping Gunner alive through presence and touch, she was also racked with fear about his situation and wasn’t always capable of the same process as her husband; mentally. Jacob listened and respected the specialists, but also challenged them to do things specifically for his son, not what was ‘normally’ done.
Nothing about Gunner’s situation was typical or ‘normal’ and I wonder whether those dialogs inspired the doctors to take unheard of or tested actions for our Gunner. Looking back, it seemed these choices have made a big difference in his survival and current condition. At least this is how I see it.
We will NEVER know the how’s or why’s of Gunner’s ability to thrive in the face of such an intense physical condition, but certainly every step of the way the medical intervention and energetic support (prayers, belief and faith) of hundreds of family and extended community members, worked together to help this little guy, who clearly wanted to live.
Mid week of Gunner’s life, it was decided to conduct a 2nd surgery on his little body to connect the two ends of his intestine. The medical team scheduled surgery #2 for that Friday. So we soldiered on…
Sarah and Jacob were a united front and we all followed suit.
One moment. One step. One hurdle at a time – then another.
(To be continued).