A Labor of Love
When I was pregnant with my son, I experienced some of the happiest moments of my life, a calmness I hadn’t known before, a complete peace with my surroundings.
Yet I knew from the start there was something very wrong. At first, I wondered if the fetus had implanted incorrectly. But for the duration of the pregnancy, whenever I raised my fears with my OB, I was told the same things: There was nothing wrong, everything was normal. I was just being neurotic.
I told myself the doctors were right. Then, days before the due date, I went back one final time with my husband, who spoke for me – “She’s itching all over, she’s vomiting, she’s not peeing at all. Isn’t this unusual?”
Again, the doctor laughed it off. One night later, I was in the NeuroICU, the intensive care unit for patients with brain trauma.
I had gone into labor the evening after that last visit. While I was pushing, I complained of severe headaches and chest pain, vision problems. I was ignored again. For my heart pain, I was given Alka Seltzer.
Twenty minutes after delivery, I had a seizure, and there my memory fails. What follows is what I was told by others.
Eight hours after my seizure, I was finally wheeled down for a CT scan of the brain. It showed what the doctors weren’t expecting: two hemorrhages, one in front, one in back.
I also had liver failure. Kidney failure. Heart damage. Pulmonary edema. Single-digit blood platelet count. Blood that had stopped clotting. Such severe brain swelling that it wouldn’t respond to medication, and the doctors were planning to drill a hole in my head to relieve the excess fluid.
Hundreds of strokes, that was what one doctor thought was happening in my swollen brain, a galaxy of popping and shooting blood vessels.
The neurologist told my family that if I was lucky, I would die. If not, my husband would end up being my ward.
Despite being awakened frequently, I went into a deep coma. When I was awake, I am told, I did not recognize anyone, not my best friend, not my brothers or parents, not my husband.
So what is it that I remember of those precious moments during delivery, before I entered the coma?
I remember Isham shoving and winding his way out, and I remember thinking he had a long body. I remember the shock in seeing him, his face so different from what I had imagined. I remember wanting to hold him.
Then there is darkness, with two people inhabiting it.
The best way to describe the experience is by comparing it to the sensation I had after getting the epidural. I hadn’t wanted it, enjoying each spike of pain that brought me closer to Isham, but the nurses insisted.
Then the doctor injected it incorrectly, so it numbed only my right half. I was thrilled and, during delivery, reveled in my left half, the side that was alive to the pain of emerging life.
Like that, there were now two selves in the darkness where I was, and only one was “waking up” at the doctor’s insistence.
This self, whenever she was awake, thought of Isham, screaming that he was still inside, wanting to come out. It seems the internal clock must have stopped during delivery. So the one who had her eyes open, shouting for her son, was the one who was asleep.
And the one awake was the one inside the darkness. Darkness. That is what I remember. An enveloping darkness in which there are no relationships, no ties, no love, no fear, no creation, no connections.
And, in this way, there is peace.
It is said that at the end of Buddha’s life, when he was asked what there was to know about death, he turned over his bowl. Meaning, an emptiness within an emptiness.
I was living inside that turned over bowl.
Coming out of it – the miracle that it was – was indeed a reincarnation.
But a month after being released from the hospital, I was still sunk in a depression that frightened even me. I kept asking myself why I had suffered so much – and still was: right eye blindness, debilitating headaches, breast milk so full of toxins it had to be pumped and thrown away.
I was a writer whose speech had left me. If I wanted, I couldn’t stand by myself and walk from my bed to the bathroom let alone take a shower or brush my teeth or sit on the toilet in privacy. Although I was now a mother, I was as helpless as my newborn. How would I raise him when I couldn’t take care of myself?
Then one morning, while I was holding my son, he reached up and touched my face. His gray-blue eyes stared into mine, as though understanding something about me I didn’t understand myself.
I’m not alive, I suddenly realized, not even now that I’ve returned from the hospital. I had become so focused on what I’d been through that I had lost sight of what was before me: my son, our future together.
I was going to be able to watch him grow up. Me, the one who had seen the darkness.
Life, it is not simply to be alive, it is to be awake. This is what my son taught me.
When I now think of Buddha turning over that bowl, I see an image of a full belly, of pregnancy, of creation and connection, the miracle of one love holding us all together.
The following morning, I gathered the courage to begin my life again.
Excerpt first appeared in:
Hear what my neurologist has to say:
She was nearly dead and her newborn was critically ill. All hyperbole aside, her recovery was miraculous. She now has the ability to change the world; her interests in advocating for women and her life threatening illness provide parallels to Malala. Maybe she survived for that reason.”
— Wade S. Smith, MD, PhD
Professor and Vice Chair of Neurology
University of California, San Francisco
Author of Emergency Neurological Life Support
Want to know more about what happened?
Already did that? You can download a free ebook I wrote on the dramatic delivery experience and read details on those days I spent in the neuro-ICU that I haven’t written about anywhere else!
I haven’t forgotten my roots! I also have a novel-in-progress. And this time, I’m not writing it through brain damage!
Broken: Diary of a Muslim Woman is about a young woman named Nadia. She was born and raised in California into a Muslim family. By any account, she has a privileged life. Yet a tragic event unravels her. Find out how this fully assimilated American girl turns to extremism.