Oh why did I do this to myself? Why?
For class tomorrow, I’m having my students read Susan Ito’s “Samuel” and Suzanne Kamata’s “You’re So Lucky.” I chose these pieces to spark discussion about point of view, emotional distance, and writing about heartbreak. But I’m not going to talk about how talented I think both of these writers are or how pieces have been crafted because my response to their writing is so personal. I must, instead, record that.
You see, I’m sitting on my front porch in the sweltering heat, balling. I’m not talking a tear or two. I can’t catch my breath.
“Samuel” is Ito’s essay about her first pregnancy, which ended when she developed severe preeclampsia (it would probably be classified as HELLP syndrome today). At that point (and in 1989), the fetus, her son, was not viable. He needed two more weeks inside her to even have a chance at survival. But Susan would not have made it two weeks. She would have died. The only way to cure preeclampsia, no matter how far along the pregnancy is, is to deliver the baby. But because Samuel was not yet viable, the doctors had to stop his heart. He was evacuated.
Now, the whole essay is heartbreaking—clearly—but the part that hit me hardest was the moment when Susan’s husband, John, is taking her blood pressure in his office. They have no idea she has preeclampsia:
“I heard the Velcro tearing open on the cuff, felt its smooth blue band wrapping around me. I swung my feet and smiled up at John, the stethoscope around his neck, loved this small gesture of his taking care of me. I felt the cuff tightening, the pounding of my heart echoing up and down my fingers, through my elbow.
“The expression on his face I will never forget, the change in color from pink to ash, as if he had died standing at my side. ‘Lie down,’ he said quietly. ‘Lie down on your left side. Now.’”
I can see this. I can feel it in my bones. I know what it is like to feel hopeful and innocent. I also know what it feels like to realize your pregnancy is over, finished, that nothing will happen as you planned.
I was sent to the hospital for bedrest at 32 weeks because I was leaking protein in my urine and had swollen up like a blowfish. But, my blood pressure was still normal so I was just going to the hospital for bedrest, so they could “watch me.” When I arrived at the hospital, my blood pressure was no longer normal. It was 170/110. There would be no bedrest. They had to get the baby out.
Of course, I had a viable fetus, and I would later overhear a NICU nurse say, “A 32-weeker can practically walk out of the womb.” Well, not exactly, but we were lucky. We are so lucky. And maybe it’s because I know how lucky we are that I can’t stop crying now, as I read how things could have been for us, too.
I feel the same terror reading Kamata’s story. “You’re So Lucky” was written as fiction, in the second person, but it’s autobiographical, about the premature birth of Kamata’s twins at 26 weeks and their stay in a Japanese NICU. Kamata writes:
“You had been planning on starting a program of Mozart and poetry in the seventh month, had already picked out a layette in the Land’s End catalogue. You had just started wearing maternity clothes and ordered a gray cotton dress which hadn’t even arrived yet. You had an appointment the next week with a doula recommended by your hippee friend who lives in the mountains.”
But nothing goes as planned, of course. You must give up all your birth dreams.
In both Ito’s and Kamata’s pieces, I read part of my own story. And in fact, the first time I read each piece, I had an oh shit writing moment: I’ve written what she’s written. And it’s true. I talk about the “pre” in preeclampsia in a way similar to Ito. I describe being afraid to touch my baby in a way similar to Kamata. But now reading the pieces again, months later, I just say yes, that’s right. You’ve got it exactly right. I relive it through their words, their experiences, and now I can’t stop crying.
The other reason I can’t stop crying is because I can imagine it happening all over again. Their stories and my own are still a possibility for me. No one can tell me, exactly, what my chances are of developing preeclampsia again. And so I sit here on my porch in the sweltering heat, clutching my barely eight-week pregnant belly, balling and hoping and feeling crazy that I put these two pieces on my syllabus this summer.
But I had to because they do what I’m trying to teach my students how to do: write heartbreak without sentimentality, craft stories out of devastation.
Note: “You’re So Lucky” appears in the new anthology Not What I Expected: The Unpredictable Road from Womanhood to Motherhood and “Samuel” appears in It’s A Boy. I would also like people to remember that the latest abortion ban upheld by the Supreme Court does not contain an exception if a woman’s health (or life) is in danger. A fetus, even a nonviable one, has been given more weight, more importance, than a woman.