It is impossible to tell India’s birth story without first telling the story of my sister. They are and forever will be intertwined. They share a place on the shelf in the history of our lives: of India’s and my sister’s and her baby’s. Of all of our families and all of our friends and of acquaintances and strangers and hospital staff. And of mine.
But before telling this story, I need to explain that this is only my story. Given the circumstances, it feels selfish and self-centered to write about my own experience. But it’s all I have. Soooooo, here goes.
After Owen recovered from his staph infection and viral rash, we settled into our new routine: markets three days a week and making artwork to sell during the other work days. There were also doctor’s appointments, and it seemed like we were constantly driving the 45 minutes to Puerto Vallarta. We were busy as ever. Eventually, we dropped one of the markets that wasn’t working out for us to free up some precious time. Thanksgiving came and went without much notice, because American holidays can feel so damn weird in a foreign country. Next thing we knew it was almost Christmas.
As we put the finishing touches on our first Mexican Christmas, I got the message about my pregnant sister, Chris. She hadn’t been well for the last few weeks, and she’d gone to the ER for what she expected would be a breathing treatment for asthma. But instead of a breathing treatment, she was transferred in an ambulance to another hospital with a NICU and admitted to ICU with pneumonia. H1N1 was the culprit. There was talk about an emergency C-section. She was only 5 months pregnant, while I was 7 months along. My mom was flying down from Illinois to Oklahoma City to be with her. The news was sudden and crushing. I recalled that my sister had posted something on Facebook recently about being sick. I’d been scrolling through and hadn’t even said anything. No “Feel better, Sis!” I vowed to never make that mistake again.
Instantly and once again, I wondered what I was doing in Mexico. Our ‘adventure’ felt shallow, incredibly lonely and inconsequential. I longed to be with my family and to see my sister but knew that I didn’t belong in an ICU or on an airplane. “I don’t know what I’m DOING here,” I frantically told my mom, not thinking about how my own situation might add stress to everything else she had on her plate. Later, my other sister, Jenny, told me that she and my mom were worried about me. That was a huge wakeup call. Get it together, I thought. “I’m fine. Really. Please don’t worry about me. Tell Mom, please don’t worry about me. I’m not the one who anyone needs to worry about.” After that, I just accepted that I was going to feel incredibly uncomfortable but that Mexico was where I was supposed to be.
On Christmas Eve, I decided to make Peanut Butter Buckeyes with Owen. Chris had posted something about them recently, and they were always a family favorite. We’d had a few invitations for Christmas, but nothing had felt quite right. Then my friend Leia invited us over, and it immediately felt right. Her entire family was in town since the birth of her baby a month prior, and they were preparing a proper Christmas feast. We arrived with Buckeyes and wine and a need to be around some serious family love. The combination of Leia’s thoughtful and peaceful spirit, her ‘real’ Christmas decorations, her amazing family and her delightful, foodie husband was perfect. We really needed some Christmas cheer and found it that night. Later, her husband, Keith, would give me his amazing bone broth when I was battling a cold, and Leia would give me a giant bag of chamomile tea to help ease my anxiety.
The week of Christmas, our Internet was down. I couldn’t communicate without it—I’d been making calls using Wi-Fi but mostly used Facebook messaging to stay in touch with my family. So a few days after the initial message regarding my sister, I went to a coffee shop to check my messages and found out that she’d been put on a ventilator. She just couldn’t keep up with her breathing anymore. The staff had been holding off for as long as possible due to the complication of her being pregnant. I read the message over and over again with tears rolling down my cheeks and surrounded by tourists on Christmas vacation. Being put on a ventilator also meant being put on a paralytic, which meant that she was in a medically-induced coma. I think I might’ve muttered, “Fuck.” I kept reading the words, hoping that they’d rearrange themselves and change the outcome.
The rest is a blur of bad news and anxiety. Chris developed some blood clots. She also had an infection somewhere that was causing a fever. She then acquired ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) which can happen when people are hospitalized with pneumonia. As soon as I heard the news about the ARDS, I Googled it with a lump in my throat. High mortality rate. Odds not in her favor. Long recovery if she did survive. I asked my mom if she’d Googled it. She hadn’t. Did they know how scary this was? They did. They were there with her and witnessing it firsthand. The anxiety was overwhelming, and my sister occupied my every waking thought. There were nights that I’d wake up and start breathing very deliberately, in and out, praying simultaneously, ‘Sister, I’m here, you’ve got this, I’m breathing for you.’ Then I’d talk to family the next day and find out that she’d had a hard night the night before, that they’d thought they were going to lose her. This happened several times. Jenny said, “You two have always had a strong connection.”
I emailed my midwife back ‘home’ in Missoula and explained what was happening. She reassured me that it’s normal for pregnant women to feel vulnerable and anxious even without the added stress of my sister’s illness. And even without the added stress of preparing to give birth in a foreign country. Oh, yeah. Right. I was also battling my own demons, because I adored my midwife back home. She’d been there for me throughout my pregnancy with Owen and had attended his birth in our home. She was a wise and incredible woman who I fully trusted. No one could compare to her in my mind. While I was incredibly relieved and happy to have found Doctora Tony in Puerto Vallarta, I found myself very much longing for the familiar.
To treat the ARDS, they put Chris into a crazy contraption called a Rotoprone bed. She was now in a coma, paralyzed and strapped face-down into this thing that swayed her back and forth. It all just sounded so Frankenstein-like. I felt more and more like I was losing her. Where was she? How was her baby? How was her baby possibly going to be okay? I researched the drugs that she was on. ‘Grade D for pregnant women.’ After a bit, I asked Jenny, “Do I want to see the bed? I kind of do, but I also really don’t.” Eventually, she sent me a picture of it with my sister in it. It sort of helped and sort of made it worse.
I became addicted to staring at my Facebook messages, waiting for a reply from family and for some good news. I’d lurk on her home page, since extended family would tag her in updates. I noticed how utterly faithful her husband was throughout the entire ordeal and how his updates were often in stark contrast to my own families’ updates. I’m certain it wasn’t easy for him, but his faith never seemed to lag. I wondered what was wrong with us that we couldn’t be more faithful. I sought out and found immense comfort from friends and family who were all praying for my sister. While I was just beginning to establish my Mexican community, our online network rallied around all of us in an indescribable way. It was incredibly comforting. And since I couldn’t NOT talk about my sister’s sickness even in casual conversation, I found myself more and more surrounded by caring people in Mexico.
Throughout her hospital stay, there was a sort of tug-of-war happening. On the one hand, there was Chris and her medical team. On the other, there was the baby and the baby’s team. There were doctors who were caring for Chris and wanted what was best for her, and there were doctors who had to concern themselves with what was best for baby. This is awkward to admit, but my concern early on was primarily for my sister. My feelings toward her baby were incredibly complicated. I resented any doctor who might not opt for the very best care for my sister if it wasn’t in the interest of the baby. Tricky, right? It’s hard to even write about it, but it was how I felt—absolute concern for my sister and a sort of ambivalence toward the baby, who was quite possibly lowering her chances for survival. It’s not that I resented him. It was more that I resented the situation. Throughout her weeks in the ICU, there was always the possibility of an emergency c-section. I was often confused. Was the concern for the unborn baby who would be healthier on the outside? Or was it for my sister who would fare better without growing another being inside? Or was it best for both? It never felt like it was best for either. And so the baby stayed inside. But later on, when they’d leave the room for the night with a scalpel placed strategically next to my sister’s bed, just in case, I realized that there was another element. Just in case my sister coded, they would try to save the baby. The image of Chris in her room with an isolette warming in the corner and a scalpel nearby just in case was, well, horrifying.
I began to worry about how the stress was affecting my own pregnancy. I had to get a grip. I had to find a place of peace somehow. I had to come to this utterly helpless place of accepting that my sister might die, and that if she did it was meant to be. That if her husband and three children were left behind, and if my baby lived and hers died, and if our family suddenly had three siblings instead of four… it was all meant to be. And even though no one ever wants to find themselves in that place, it is ultimately where I found peace. I finally had, as I remembered from a nursery school song at church long ago, a ‘peace that passes understanding down in my heart’. I could not control the situation, and I needed to stop trying to control it. I had to let go of my sister in order to free myself.
And then slowly, very slowly, she began showing signs of improvement. Relief. A step forward and then a step back. They weaned her off of the ventilator. More relief. Then she was put back on it. We danced for a while between joy and sadness. And then, eventually, she was finally ‘out of the woods’—just in time for her birthday, January 22nd. HUGE RELIEF!!! And I got to talk to her on the phone. While it was the weirdest conversation I’ve ever had with my sister in her coming-out-of-a-coma-state, it was incredibly comforting to hear her speak. “I had a dream that you died,” she said. Once I truly believed that she was on the mend, I turned my attention more fully to my own baby’s arrival. She was due on February 16th.
Sister, there are no words. You made it. I love you. You are a miracle.
After a 4am nursing, I checked the time on my phone and saw the notification of this. I knew I HAD to read it right then. Oh. My. God. This was so heart wrenching and yet I needed it so. You even made me laugh at a point in the midst of it somehow. I cannot even imagine how very hard this was for you – thank you is not enough, but it’s all I have at this moment. I love you so very very much and cannot wait to hug you!!
You did good, little one. Real good. Thank you! Love you!
Amazingly well written, Melanie. I followed Chris’s journey on Fb but your words gives a profound understanding of what you were going through. Blessings!
All praise to the Creator for His mercy and healing.