I laid awake in the hospital bed, needles in my back and hands, a bag hung off the rail at thigh-height, funneling my waste away. My baby slept in the plastic bassinet at the foot of the bed. All the recovery rooms were full, so they rolled us into an office after midnight with free meal vouchers and apologies.
My bleary eyes took in the incongruity of the IV pole jammed against the computer and my husband’s makeshift cot pressed against cabinets. Through the fog of pain medication, I wondered how any of this happened. Two nights before, I had been in labor, eager to meet my son. Fragments of the last forty-eight hours spun through my groggy mind. My husband standing behind me in the shower, putting counter-pressure on my back as his clothes grew heavy with water. Curling on the side of the bed, terrified that I wouldn’t be able to hold still as the anesthesiologist threaded a tube above my spinal cord. Then the hours of pushing, the smile on my doctor’s face freezing, the final order for a C-section. The waiting on the table as the medication bag dripped dry and all the pain of labor flooded back into my body while they scrubbed the operating room in preparation. The way I’d begged, dignity forgotten, for chemicals in my veins. The way the meds had rocketed me into oblivion while my baby’s skin received its first touch by gloved hands.
When we were home, I avoided the red slash in my abdomen, imagining the jagged line of dirty Steri-strips away. I shuddered when I thought of that line being cut, the inside revealed to the outside. I was haunted by the semi-conscious, shaking minutes stretching between my Caleb’s first cry and when he was placed in my arms. The birth I’d imagined, the joy I’d anticipated, was corrupted by my body’s failure to perform.
In the days following his birth, my body continued to fail me. My breasts wouldn’t produce enough milk. I pumped and swallowed herbs and taped tubes to my nipples, but every time the lactation consultant weighed my son after a feeding session, he had taken in less than half an ounce.
My body was defective. The wonders of the human body were praised in blog posts and the doctor’s office, but mine had refused to birth or nourish. It also stubbornly clung to the forty pounds it had accumulated during pregnancy, an added insult.
I’d always wished my body looked different—thinner arms, larger breasts, flatter stomach. But after giving birth, this dissatisfaction evolved into full-blown loathing. I felt cheated, left with a piece of faulty equipment.
When my Caleb was nine months old, I started working as a nurse on a bone marrow transplant unit. Twelve-hour chunks of my life were spent with people tethered to IV poles and medication schedules. As I watched my patients struggle for things I had always taken for granted—the ability to eat a popsicle without throwing up, to breathe without tubes taped to my face, to kiss my loved ones without a stifling mask—I began to recognize my ingratitude. Many patients helped me appreciate the gift of my healthy, imperfect body. One in particular led me to reflect on just how much I had been given.
I cared for a lovely young woman who had been attending college after achieving remission a few years earlier. After one semester of Japanese classes, roommates, and freedom, her cancer relapsed, landing her in the hospital for a bone marrow transplant. She suffered every side effect imaginable, every “may cause” becoming a reality she was forced to endure. From nausea and nose-bleeds to high blood pressure and infection, her treatment yo-yoed from therapeutic to life-threatening. Eventually, she was released—but within a few months she was back, with a severe complication of her transplant that required aggressive treatment. She took steroids that made her face so puffy she was unrecognizable. She was unable to keep down any food, so after days of picking at fruit cups and pedialyte pops, all her nutrition went through an IV. Her body stopped producing insulin, so she had to be poked with a needle every few hours to check her blood sugar levels. She battled sepsis, blood loss, anxiety. Her organs shut down one by one as her medication lines grew more and more tangled.
Still, her bedside table was piled with notebooks, creativity guides, and novels; her walls were plastered with art. Music boomed from her room to the hall, movie soundtracks escaping past the glass barrier; her friends stayed, playing trivia, until the loudspeaker announcing the end of visiting hours banished them from her tiny room. She told me about the college courses she’d been taking before she got sick, how she met her boyfriend, the places she longed to visit. She tried so, so hard to live in her broken body.
I was on maternity leave with my second son when I heard of her passing. In a way, I expected it—her body was so scarred from the battles waged between her disease and her treatments. But my heart still ached to think of her light extinguished so early from this life.
She wasn’t the first patient I’d lost, but her death affected me deeply, in a way I hadn’t before experienced. We were close in age, and I think we had some of the same dreams, some of the same passions.
One of the last times I took care of her, she needed a urinary catheter. She argued with the doctors, begging them not to order the procedure. After a conference and some explanations, the order was placed, and her face was stony and resigned.
Inwardly, I panicked. I’d only ever placed a catheter on a mannequin, but during my C-section, I’d been catheterized four times, and the trauma and indignity was scarred on my brain. Technically, I was qualified, but the anxiety written on her face stopped me from enacting what would, essentially, be a trial performance. Swallowing my pride, I sought out another nurse to place the catheter. I squeezed my patient’s hand, watching tears slide down her face, and sucked back my own. For the first time, I was intimately familiar with her discomfort, and my own body responded with phantom twinges and aches.
I couldn’t help imagining myself in her place for just a moment. But at the end of that shift, I walked to my car on able feet, ate dinner, used the bathroom without tubes and medications.
I looked down at my body—the body that could process food, fight infection, fall asleep at night. This body that could not only keep me alive but could run five miles, grow a baby, hold my loved ones close.
My body isn’t perfect.
My body is enough.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama to two blue-eyed boys, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. She recently moved to North Carolina. She blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured before on Coffee + Crumbs, and in other publications including Mothers Always Write, Holl & Lane, Upwrite Magazine, Tribe Magazine, and Parent.co. You can find her on Twitter.