Five years ago today, I held our youngest daughter for the first time. She was 24 hours old. She was down to almost 3 pounds. She could fit into the palm of her father’s hand. I held her for the briefest of minutes until she stopped breathing, her alarm went off, and she had to go back in her incubator. I remember being too scared to hold her, she was so tiny, and yet the nurse, Layla, told me she would be okay. That being held by us would only help, that we would get used to the alarms, the wires, the tubes. That what Augustine needed most at that time from us was our touch. It was the one thing we could do.
I wasn’t supposed to be able to get pregnant on my own. I still remember the doctor being as surprised as we were. The whole pregnancy with her was one fraught with complications. 8 weeks in we thought we lost her, but it turned out that it wasn’t her that was causing the bleeding, it was the blood clots that I had. After weeks of bleeding, and so many ultrasounds we could fill an album, the news came that they thought she had Spinal Bifida. One more ultrasound in a darkened room as they meticulously scanned every centimeter of her body. Her gender was revealed as a side-note, “…by the way you’re having a girl…” and I remember calling my husband, Brandon, to tell him. Standing in front of the hospital shouting into my phone over traffic; we’re having a girl, and she may be okay, they didn’t see any holes…
When my labor started at 29 weeks, we were surprised, yet didn’t think it meant anything. Surely, it would stop. Surely, it was much too soon. Yet, 6 days later as Augustine came so fast that the nurse caught her because there was no doctor in the room, we became part of a tribe of families that got to take the elevator up to the 8th floor of the hospital, to scrub in, to watch their baby grow under plastic. Who got used to alarms beeping and others caring for a child, we were supposed to take home. Whose crib stood empty as her siblings asked us what happened to the baby?
And to this day, while I see the child she has become, the child that knows no limits, I also am reminded of the events of her birth, of the brutality of her birth. Of how we didn’t know why I was in so much pain that even the strongest pain medicine they could give, didn’t do anything. Of how my mother came to visit and didn’t know how to help. How Brandon stood by my side, holding my hand, imploring the doctors to figure out what was going on. How I couldn’t even scream in the end and just cried silently as I felt like I was being torn apart and they couldn’t make it stop.
In those events, wrapped up in pain and fear, Augustine came into the world. Silently and quickly. Brandon was the first to tell me she was breathing as they rushed in and rushed her away.
It was then that they realized that the lining had separated from my uterus. A condition that can kill your baby and cause massive bleeding to the mother. Having Augustine early was my body’s way of saving her. Forcing her into the world was my body’s way of giving her a chance.
And she is fine. She just turned five. She is in school and knows how to write her name. She knows our phone number. She is a great friend and role model. She loves her teddy “Puppy” and asks me to sing to her every night. The doctors have declared her perfectly average years ago and yet, on her birthday, and in the days leading up to and away from it, I am reminded of one of the most traumatic events that happened to me. Of the fear, of the pain, and of the incredible guilt that comes with giving your child such a hard start to their life, even if you know rationally it is not your fault. I can see that she is fine. I know she is fine, and yet, the joy is wrapped in memories that are hard, still, to process.
How many others carry memories such as these silently?
I think of our students as they come to class with unknown trauma surrounding them. Of how small things that we see as harmless may be triggers. Of how we all carry our stories with us and within us and that sometimes those stories can still make us cry when we are reminded of them. That one of the things trauma does to you is to intricately change the connections in your brain and that you might never fully heal, even if you know you should. That it causes you sometimes to act in ways that don’t make fully sense at first, but then later can be traced back to a reaction caused by something that happened to you. That it is something I have had to recognize within my own actions as I cried on her birthday and I couldn’t figure out why.
And so as I share this seemingly too personal story, I do it in the hopes of giving myself the freedom to speak these words out loud. When I recognize that her birthday, while joyful, is also one that carries many layers, I can feel the burden lighten. When I write out the thoughts that continue to haunt me, they seem to lose some of their weight as we look to a new year of memories.
Sometimes I wonder how some of our students do it every day, knowing full well the lives they live in, the lives that continue to produce trauma in their world. How perhaps in our rooms they can feel safe. How perhaps our time together can be something good in their lives that doesn’t cause them more pain. How perhaps with us they can find courage if they need it, reclaim their voice if they lost it, find hope if they seek it. Because I know that what we do everyday matters, that how we help kids feel everyday matters. And as Augi sits here next to me, I am reminded of what we all know to be true; every moment is but a moment, and yet, every moment has the power to break us or empower us. We choose its legacy. Happy birthday, Augustine Grete, and many more.