all of the selves we Have ever been
Following my usual route along a nondescript section of urban bike trail,
I spot something new! A row of tall banners blows in the breeze and forms a lively parade along the guardrail. I look for the cause of such celebration. Beyond the guardrail and down a small slope on the far side of an enormous parking lot, a new establishment is open for business.
One of the signs unfurls on an east-to-west wind, and I see the words, “Dry Needling” displayed on a banner that looks like a boat sail. I repeat the words to myself as I move along the path: Dry needling? What can that be?
I scour my mental glossary and come up with an ancient parental rebuke, “Quit needling your sister!” The tone made it clear that continued needling came with consequences. And needle each other in public? A girl better be prepared to grow her hair out like Rapunzel if she ever wanted to leave her room again. These needling memories increase my curiosity, and I imagine a business built on a model developed by kids in junior high school. If only I had known then that I could build a profitable empire on those sarcastic, uninspired, and mean years!
Making my way home with the words dry needling still jabbing my brain, I look up the word needling and find that it is “a teasing or gibing remark.” But then I have to dig into the word gibing – “to make someone the object of unkind laughter, deride, jeer, laugh at, mock, ridicule, skewer, scoff, or make fun of.” Yep, my parents knew what they were talking about.
I dig deeper. What can dry needling be? My parents were not that explicit. Perhaps they assumed that at age 12 there was no alcohol involved in these exchanges of psychic puncture wounds. Therefore, I assume that despite the fanfare, this new establishment along the bike path is not a bar. I guess people of any age can needle while sober.
I walk the short distance home and think of how long it has been since my parents scolded us for needling. If only they had lived a little longer, they would have seen that those junior high skills and the art of needling can have a big pay-off. Today, we call it Twitter.
“How old are you?” the substitute teacher asked.
“Eight and three-quarters,” I said, as I stretched myself to my maximum height and wished that she would have asked me the question in one week when I would be eight and seven-eighths. I was already a whiz at this higher math.
“Be careful what you wish for,” my mother frequently advised.
And now, here I am, long past eight and three-quarters but still feeling like that earnest girl wishing to be more, to measure up.
Recently, I looked at a picture of myself on a friend’s smartphone. It was not a smart thing to do. What I saw was a face sliding off a skull. I had to squint to make out a few details to confirm it was me. Yes, there was that dark spot on my left cheek, just like my mother’s, but the rest looked like a bad disguise. I hadn’t realized that in cognito was my new life stage.
I have not authorized a picture of myself since my senior portrait in high school. There were some wedding photos, but that was staged, and I was in costume and make-up. Typically, I don’t study myself from the outside. I am usually obsessing about what’s going on inside. But with this latest photo-update, I was forced to acknowledge how others see the outside of me. A recent example involved a young man arriving at my door in response to a work order I had submitted. He came to replace a broken light. He tells me, “Another old lady in the building has a similar problem.” My inner eight and three-quarters self said: I’ll race you to the tool shed, repairKID. I’ll be there before you put down your phone.
Later, I stopped at the convenience store where a teenage cashier patted my hand and called me sweetheart. I smiled, but in my mind I was challenging her to a blood pressure and cholesterol check.
At the grocery store, a middle age man bagged my groceries and asked me if I needed him to carry the groceries to my car. “No, thank you,” I said politely. But I will carry you to yours.
A neighbor described a serious family problem. She had been consulting the teenage dog walker and seemed surprised by how much I knew on the subject even though I’ve been a professional in the field for almost 40 years. My head is not full of lava. My head is not full of lava. My head is not full of lava…
Like a stroke victim locked inside herself, I wanted to scream at the world, “I’m still in here.” And like the eight and three-quarters girl I once was, I wanted to shout, “There is more to me than meets the eye. I am capable. Give me a chance.”
I moaned about all of this to my old friend, Kay, who is holding up pretty well. Kay wears sunglasses so that she won’t go blind from looking on the bright side. After droning on, I mentioned a friend who was shaken up at her annual Medicare wellness exam. She had been asked to remember three objects, but when she was asked to name the objects later, my friend had forgotten one of them. She panicked and ruminated about it for weeks. Was she losing her mind?
“So now I am facing my first wellness exam,” I said to Kay. “I’m not sure I can take it.” Kay’s optimistic response was, “Aren’t you glad you’re not taking the SATs?”
Touche’. While I long to be seen as youthful and capable, there are some things I don’t want to do again. I’ve paid my dues; I just haven’t updated my ID card since college.
I guess we are never the right age. When we’re young, we want to be older. When we are old we want to be younger, and in the long middle of life, we just want to survive. But we always want to be seen as capable participants in the game of life. We all want to be chosen for the team and not dismissed as inconsequential observers who can watch from the other side of the fence.
And so I study for the wellness exam.
I went into labor on Labor Day.
The holiday that traditionally defines the end of summer was about to redefine my life. By midnight contractions were coming close together. The doctor could not be reached, but the answering service advised me: “Get to the hospital.”
Almost two weeks past my due date, my husband and I were ready. The hour-long drive to the hospital took on the extra seriousness that travel takes in the lonely, dark hours of the night. I timed my contractions by the glowing blue digits of the dashboard clock, reassuring myself that this was no false alarm. My husband and I did not speak. He concentrated on driving and kept his thoughts to himself. My own mind was stirring with both concern and excitement.
It had been a long nine months. This pregnancy followed a painful miscarriage. While delighted with another pregnancy, life had not been easy. I suffered from serious anemia; the low-iron fatigue was complicated by repeated travel from Ohio to California where my father was dying of cancer. In between trips, the old pipes in our home blew out and all of the plumbing had to be replaced. Both my life and my home had been torn apart, but, at last, a wonderful new chapter was about to begin.
We arrived at the hospital where I was assigned to a labor room and placed on monitors. The hours ticked by with no increase in the intensity or frequency of contractions. Drugs were added to an IV in an effort to move things along. One-by-one signs appeared that a baby was on the way and so did the signs that it was a baby in distress. The decision was made to proceed with a cesarean delivery. A nurse anesthetist began the epidural. Almost immediately I felt a strange, intolerable heaviness from my lower back to my toes. I focused all of my energy on holding my body together. Tingling and discomfort moved up my spine, through my neck, and to the back of my head.
In the delivery room I struggled to maintain consciousness. My mind began to register that something was terribly wrong. “I should care about this but I can’t,” I thought. It was like someone had thrown a switch in my head that separated my emotions from the reality of the emergency taking place. I was more apathetic observer than participant.
At 3:12 PM my daughter, Emily, was born. She was wrapped in a blanket and handed to her father who turned Emily’s tiny, red face toward me as the staff whisked both father and daughter from the room. The doctors finished their work. My eyes next opened somewhere in a hospital corridor, and then I was out again. The next moment of awareness came as a young nurse approached my bed in the recovery room. I could see her face coming closer. “Something is wrong with me,” I said. “I’m all wet.”
The nurse lifted my covers. I heard her cry out, “Oh, my God!” and I faded again. When next I came to consciousness my obstetrician was standing at my bedside yelling, “Where’s the father?!” Fourteen pairs of legs surrounded my bed, each connected to a pair of hands working on some separate part of my body. Blood was pouring out of me and onto the cart, dripping down to form a puddle on the floor.
“Fifty-over- thirty,” a woman’s voice called out my blood pressure. I was shaking with cold. In his desperate haste to get blood into me, the young technician preparing the transfusion had by-passed the blood warmer. “This is how dead feels,” I said to myself. “I am going to die,” became my last terrified thought, and then a sweeping sensation lifted me backwards off the bed. I transcended the room completely oblivious to the lifesaving efforts and drama being played out on the bed below.
My entire life passed before me--not like the play of a videotape on fast forward as I had always imagined, but an overwhelming sense of my entire life presented in the capsule of a nanosecond. I felt comforted, but the comfort did not last. A vision followed: my baby daughter, no longer a newborn, looking straight over her daddy’s shoulder and into my eyes as her father carried her away from me. The depth of sorrow her eyes conveyed was unbearable. I prayed: “Please, God. I have to make it back. She cannot grow up in that kind of sorrow.” In answer, a commanding presence, not really a voice or an image, pressed me: “Choose!”
The rest of that very long day is recorded in my memory as a series of snapshots taken in brief moments of consciousness: procedure rooms, doctors behind glass walls, strange other voices, my own voice screaming in pain. The next day was not much better as I came to consciousness in the intensive care unit not sure if I would live.
My husband went between the hospital nursery and the ICU bringing instant Polaroid snapshots of our daughter. Each time a new photo was taped to my bedrail, my husband gave me an update on the babies leaving the nursery for the neonatal intensive care unit at the nearby children’s hospital. Despite my confused and agitated state, I thanked God that it was me and not my child struggling for life.
After a couple of days in intensive care, I was moved to a regular post-partum room. Still tied to multiple IVs, I was a virtual prisoner of tubes. In addition to being extremely weak, I could barely open my eyes or flex my fingers due to swelling from the copious amounts of life-saving fluid I had received. As soon as I was settled into my bed, a nurse appeared with my daughter in her arms. When she placed Emily into my lap, I immediately noticed two large red marks—one on the center of Emily’s forehead and the other at the nape of her neck. “Angel kisses,” the nurse stated as she reassured me that these marks were innocent and would likely fade in time.
Our room soon filled with the balloons, flowers, and cards that had been waiting for my step-down from the ICU. So many prayers and good wishes! I received multiple copies of one particular greeting card. Each copy came from someone different and unknown to the others. The message: “For His angels will watch over you and guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). That psalm became my mantra in the following days and months of recovery, an antidote to fear and discouragement.
I have faced many hard times since Labor Day 1990, but none so terrifying. In each instance it seems a guardian angel has been nearby continuing to watch over me. And the baby whose sorrow saved me is now an exceptional young woman of great competence and deep goodness. Others tell me so. Of course, I know this. She is the gift of an angel with the kisses to prove it.