How was I supposed to hold inexplicable joy and inexplicable grief at the same time?
[Trigger warning: This is the story of a woman whose mother passed away from cancer.]
I was nine weeks pregnant, and my own mama was in the ICU on the day of my first ultrasound. I flinched at the cold gel, looked at my midwife and told her, "We really need a win today."
She put the ultrasound probe on my belly and there it was; that reassuring "whomp, whomp, whomp" of my baby's heartbeat filled the room, It was our first precious win in what was about to become a season of loss.
Carrying our good news, my husband Kelvin and I flew to Washington that afternoon and told our families. My mama was in a hospital bed when I told her, too sick to hug me, but overjoyed all the same.
I've never met a woman stronger than my mama. I'm not certain I ever will.
Tiny in stature but enormous in hope, she refused to let anything beat her. When I was little, she was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that her doctors could not make go away. As the years rolled by, sarcoidosis took a slow, steady toll on her body, quietly creeping into her lungs, her liver and her spleen. She had a lumpectomy, a lymphadenectomy, chemotherapy and radiation to beat breast cancer. She had her spleen removed as a result of the sarcoidosis.
She was then diagnosed with smoldering myeloma; she and her doctors quietly waited and watched for it to show its true colors.
The day I told my mama I was pregnant, she was in the middle of a four-week stint in the ICU, her lungs bravely fighting a dangerous combination of flu, pneumonia, sarcoidosis and fungal infection.
So we talked of death and life, diapers and baby names, fear and hope. We spoke of trusting in what we can't control. I grieved, and I celebrated, sharing our news, growing our baby, and desperately praying for my mama.
I'm a labor and delivery nurse, both a blessing and a curse when you're pregnant with your own. I'd seen so many births, had so much time to decide what I wanted—what I hoped it would look like. But I'd also seen the things that could happen. I shared due dates with mamas who came into our triage, their babies struggling to live while I quietly and gratefully rubbed my own belly.
Knowledge is power, but at times, it can also bring fear.
Over the next few months, I tried to ride all the waves of worry and elation, fear and joy. Yes, I knew too much to be blissfully naïve, but I was also a first-time mama, joyfully marveling over every new thing. I wanted what many want: a healthy baby, an unmedicated delivery, and the privilege of breastfeeding. I choose to see a midwife, as I had loved the care I had watched them give.
But ultimately, like my patients, I knew I couldn't control much—I just had to trust.
When I was seven months pregnant, my mama was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was cancer number three on an already exhausted body, and it quickly became clear that my baby would not have the privilege of knowing their Nana the way that I desperately wanted them too. This was, finally, the thing that would beat her.
Her plans to be there when our baby was born, to fold tiny baby clothes, to make me dinner and to share naps with our sweet newborn quickly unraveled.
Kelvin would not get the privilege of proudly proclaiming gender and weight and length to my anxious mama in a hospital waiting room.
I would not get the sweet privilege of my mama taking care of me, her own baby girl.
It was the most painful collision of two equally hard and beautiful truths. I was losing my mama and becoming a mama at the same time—a roller coaster of emotion, unlike any I had ever known.
How was I supposed to hold inexplicable joy and inexplicable grief at the same time? How could I be a mama without my own mama? Would she somehow get to meet my baby? Who would I call? Who would I cry to? Would my baby be okay if they only got a broken version of me? Who was going to tell me I would be okay when all things seemed to say that I would not?
I was staring at mamahood, sure to be the greatest challenge I had ever faced, while painfully coming to terms with the likely truth that I was going to have to do it without her. So there I sat, amidst baby kicks and hiccups, a new crib and a guest room we would no longer need, grieving, desperate, grateful—again, I just had to trust.
My labor started
I was 39 weeks and two days pregnant when I went into labor. It was 2:26 am, and aside from my approaching due date, I had gone to bed with zero indication that labor was coming. Contractions woke me, quietly and painlessly, but clearly present.
I lay in my bed, contemplating whether to wake Kelvin. I went to the bathroom, drank some water—all the things I told my patients to do, I did.
And still, they came—every 8 minutes, then 7 minutes.
At some point, I got out of bed, doing laps around our tiny house. I labored alone, quietly, for four hours. I walked and walked, making my body prove to my nurse's head that it was real.
Six minutes, 5 minutes, 4 minutes—my labor pattern was textbook. Finally, I woke Kelvin, certain that our baby was coming.
He and I continued to labor together at home, the minutes both short and long, as we waited for the right time to head to the hospital. Somewhere in those hours, I stopped thinking like a nurse, instead of a woman in labor like anyone else.
Four minutes, 3 minutes.
And then there it was, a contraction that felt different, that said, "time to go." Kelvin questioned me once, as our birth instructor had told him to, but I insisted. "Trust me, Kelvin; I want to go."
I remember no car ride more than I remember that one. My husband's eyes on me in the back seat saying, "Good job, babe, 18 minutes to go… we're almost there, 8 minutes to go."
We arrived at the hospital
We pulled into my hospital, my workplace, at 10 am. I ran up the stairs, vaguely noticing the familiar faces sneaking smiles at me.
In triage, we learned that I was eight centimeters with a bulging bag of water (which means it would likely break at any moment). Things moved quickly then, as they do when a mama is that far along. They placed me on the monitors and my nurse brain briefly kicked back in—the baby's heart tones were perfect, and the contractions regular.
The monitors came off, and we moved to our room. Kelvin and I continued to labor together.
Three minutes, 2 minutes.
The room stayed quiet. I had been clear with my coworkers and friends that I wanted no one in the room except those who had to be there.
I remember the pain, panic and fear, all emotions I'd been told I would feel as I transitioned, as I got closer. There were brief intermittent checks of the baby's heart, the rhythm always steady. I got myself onto my hands and knees on the floor, looked up at my midwife, "I think I have to push." It was too soon, wasn't it? I'd only been in active labor for a few hours. But my midwife knew to listen.
"Okay, Laura. I trust you."
My husband ran to the bathroom, and I asked my midwife to check my cervix. I was 10 centimeters, and my bag of waters was still intact. I asked her to break it; I was ready to be done. Water went everywhere, all over the floor and up my back. Meconium, too—our baby was ready to come out.
My husband came out of the door, panic on his face. A lot can happen in two minutes.
I looked at him and said, "I'm complete. I need to push." I pushed once on the floor, but I wanted to be in bed. I panicked with the next push—it was an indescribable sensation of fullness and pain. My nurse and my husband simply said, "Breathe Laura. Trust your body."
I knew I needed to charge right through it. It took four more minutes, two more contractions and six more pushes. And then the baby was out and on my chest.
I looked to Kelvin. "A girl," he said, tears streaming down his face. "We have a daughter."
The time was 12:26 pm. The day—my mama's birthday.
My baby and her Nana
Emmeline Jean, 7 pounds 4 ounces, 20.5 inches long, was born my own mama's birthday. She was named after her Nana, Tammy Jean.
Emme and I Facetimed my mama daily for four weeks until we flew home for Christmas so they could finally meet.
That Christmas was beautiful but hard. My mama's hair was thinning and falling out. We found out the chemotherapy wasn't working, so the plan was to try radiation next. Over the next few months, my mama's health continued to decline. I quit my job and flew home many times, trying to get Emme and me as much time as possible with my precious mama.
Those trips were painfully lovely, Emme and her Nana the most incredible picture of life and loss, joy and anger, of enduring hope in the hardest circumstances.
My mama died on April 29th, 2017, five months after Emme was born.
Though they never blew out their candles together, I still consider their shared birthday nothing but a miracle. It's a hard day for me each year, but I don't ever want Emme to feel my sadness. The joy of celebrating Emme's life is such a balm for my pain, the sweetest reminder of my mama's legacy.
The love of my mama was a love unlike any I have ever known. Her loss has been both everything and nothing that I thought it would be—an unraveling of who I am, and the slow, steady and painful process of redefining myself as a mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend.
Today, two years and one more granddaughter later, a little bit broken and a little bit okay, we continue to (try to) trust in what we can't control.
The sweet privilege of loving my own girls has been the most precious glimpse of how much my mama loved me—limitless and unconditionally.