It wasn't the pain that woke me—it was the vertigo. It was the spinning, twisting, churning muddle that left me upside down. Burrowed in my blankets, I had just rolled over in bed, away from the window, to shield my eyes from the sun threatening to peak over the mountain tops. And suddenly I was swirling. The room was rotating: my sleeping husband, the dresser, the lamp, the painting on the wall, the ceiling, and back again. I had been tolerating contractions for days, but this was new. In my previous five labors, I had never experienced anything like this. With my stomach roiling, I lay still, desperately straining to focus on any one object, struggling to will the rolling to end.
"Something's wrong," I whispered, tugging on my husband's arm. "Jerry, something's wrong."
Opening one groggy eye, he slurred, "What? What's going on?"
"I'm so dizzy. I don't know what's happening." He sat up and instinctively placed his hand on my pregnant belly. "Is she moving?" he asked.
"Yes, but something's different. I need help."
He sprang out of bed, and in an instant, he was holding me, steadying me, as I shuffled across the room. He stood by as I showered hastily on my knees, dressed me, and somehow led me to the car. The five-minute drive persisted mercilessly. My eyes fastened on the blackness of their lids. My fingernails gouged the leather armrest. Finally, sitting awkwardly in my obstetrician's waiting room, the vertigo began to subside. The rolling ebbed, and so did my anxiety.
"Looks like you're a bit dehydrated this morning," my doctor declared cheerily as he washed and dried his hands. "Let's have you run over to the hospital for some IV fluids and a quick stress test for the baby, just to put your mind at ease." I cradled my belly in my hands and felt the muscles constrict.
"I think today might be baby day," I smiled to my husband as we sauntered into the hospital women's center. He squeezed my hand.
Lying on a lumpy bed in a gray gown adorned with blue hatch marks, thick straps wrapped awkwardly around my enormous stomach, I watched the saline solution drip rhythmically into clear tubing and listened to the musical swooshing of my unborn infant's heartbeat. The contractions began in earnest. Labor was short, routine, uneventful. I watched the mirror surreally as my daughter slipped into the world. My blurry first glimpse of her pink body was through tears—of elation, of affection, of sheer relief. I heard her squawking cry, counted fingers and toes, and admired her soft, black fluffs of hair.
I didn't see the knowing glances passed from doctor to nurses, didn't perceive their nervous movements as they hastily bundled my child in a rough white hospital blanket, didn't note their hurried examination and subsequent administration of high levels of oxygen. I only saw this tiny person I had the privilege to call mine. She was beautiful, perfect. As I held her against my bare skin, we gazed at each other for the first time. Thinking back on it now, I wonder: In that moment, did she know more than I?
"I hate to take her from you, but she needs a little more oxygen," interrupted the nurse as she whisked the precious bundle from my arms. This was not a great surprise to me. All my other children had required an oxygen boost after birth. I was confident my daughter was safe. But the atmosphere in the room had changed. What was it that was making me uneasy, dizzy?
Before I could put a finger on it, my daughter was wheeled out of the room as the doctor ushered out my parents and in-laws who had come to witness the miracle of my child. The three of us were alone in an immense, cavernous room. I wanted to call in my family, the nurses, random strangers, anyone who could fill the growing void in that space. I was desperate to distract the doctor, to stop him from beginning this conversation I was sure would change me forever.
Dragging a chair to the side of my bed, he ran his fingers through what was left of his hair. With a squeeze of my hand and a deep breath, he asked, "Have we talked at all about Down syndrome?" For the second time that day, I was lost in vertigo. His words swirled and jumbled with my tremulous sobs. "It's nothing you did or didn't do...she has an extra chromosome...we had no reason to think...you're only 32...life expectancy is increasing..." My world was spinning—upside down. Almost crushingly, Jerry's arms wrapped around me. Was he spinning too?
I closed my eyes to make it stop, and just as quickly as it had begun, the whirling was over—reality snapped back into place and was still. I felt calm, stable, strangely aware. It was as if I had retrieved a distant memory. Oh, yes, my daughter has Down syndrome; I remember now. I saw us together sometime in the future, images too vague to wholly distinguish, yet we were real and whole. Alive. My grief melted like ice in the heat of the summer sun. Covering my face, I settled in the warmth of an emotion I couldn't identify, couldn't understand. And then I realized—it was gratitude.
My nurse bustled around my hospital room, connecting monitors, scribbling notes, and filling a plastic pitcher with ice chips. "When can I be with her?" I solicited.
"I'm sorry, honey, but you're hemorrhaging. Until we get that under control, you'll need to stay right where you are." I sank deeper into my pillows.
"I'll see what I can do," she whispered. Within minutes, I was holding two Polaroid pictures of my daughter, eyes slathered with antibacterial gel, the upper half of her body enclosed in what the nurses termed "an oxygen bubble," and IV needles protruding from her delicate, downy head. She needed me. Or was it the other way around?
Late that night, I was wheeled into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The room buzzed with respirators, confidential conversations, and constantly scurrying doctors and nurses. I passed tiny figures miraculously cleaving to life, unable to breathe on their own, but enduring the prodding, poking, and pleading whispers of their mothers. Despite the nature of the work done in that room, a hopeful sentiment prevailed. And then I saw her—pink and blue, naked with the exception of what seemed an enormous newborn diaper. Cautioned not to stimulate her in any way, I sat silently near with only a few fingers resting quietly on her perfect form. I was in love.
I appraised every inch of her petite body: her toes, her knees, her mouth, her ears. Clenching my teeth and rubbing my temples, I recalled the conversation I had had with her cardiologist earlier that evening as he delicately explained a significant heart defect. I examined her chest—tried to imagine the scar that would soon mar her soft, flawless skin. Clutching the railing of her bed, head bowed, I dizzily put together the spinning pieces of this day. "I love you, Emily," I whispered. "It will be okay." And I knew it would be.
Eight lengthy days stretched by. Emily remained in the NICU while I dragged myself between home and hospital, until at last, it was time to take our prize home. She had made miraculous leaps, was drinking breastmilk from a bottle, and had overcome a bout with jaundice. Equipped with bulb syringes, oxygen tanks, and cannulas, and several referrals to specialists, we wrapped our bundle and strapped her into her new car seat. She resembled a pea in a teacup. Before I climbed into the back seat next to Emily, her nurse flung her arms around my neck, knocking me off balance. "I'm so happy for you!" she cried. So was I.
We returned home to a house full of excitedly nervous siblings. They had painted a large banner on butcher paper welcoming home their new baby sister. Unsure what this child would mean for their family, they cautiously gathered around us as we stepped through the doorway. Jerry invited them into our bedroom and asked them to sit in a circle on the bed. Then he gently rested our tiny treasure in the center. A rush of elation swelled through my shoulders, neck, and scalp as each child, in turn, caressed her silky head and kissed her stubby little fingers. They didn't see the label—the disability. This was their baby. She was one of us and always would be.
Years later, I stood on the curb with my husband and five older children waiting for Emily's return from her first day of school. I held my breath as she cautiously descended the enormous bus stairs. For a moment, she faltered. But before I could reach her, the strong hand of her oldest brother grasped hers, steadying her until she was on solid ground. An exultant cheer announced her arrival, and she disappeared in a vortex of excited hugs, kisses, and congratulations. Grinning, I stepped away to survey the scene. My husband's arms slipped firmly around my waist, and as I leaned my head against his shoulder, a flicker of a memory began to grow. I recalled a winter day when I remembered—when I witnessed a hazy image and savored a balmy stillness that allowed me to embrace a new child, a new life. Our life with Emily has been its own kind of adventure. The scar on her chest has faded to a thin white line. It reminds us of the pain, yes. But it also heralds the victory of healing and of new beginnings.