ESSAY: Dark Face in the Window

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This essay was published in the Houston Chronicle on October 12, 2014.

For the three months I lay in a hospital bed, I was surrounded by hands. I was at the Women’s Hospital of Texas for a pregnancy that involved preterm contractions and a baby’s faltering heartbeat. There was my hand under my head, growing numb and uncomfortable. There were hands of nurses, plunging needles of hormones into my arms, pricking my fingers for blood, moving my legs and arms, strapping my pregnant stomach with monitors. Doctors’ hands, searching for the baby’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. Hands quickly and with efficiency examining the tenderness of my cervix to determine my readiness to deliver.

Everything was done with care, but without the care of human connection. It couldn’t be. Hospitals are made for passing through, to monitor and mend the body, not to take on a patient’s inner life.

I watched the window that faced another hospital building, blocking most of the sky and, always, the moon. At night, a person paid vigil to another patient, his silhouette in the window of the other building across from my window. I counted on seeing this shadow every night, as I repeatedly pressed my cell phone to see my daughter’s two-year-old face light up the screen. If I couldn’t sleep, I would play a three-second video of her, an oval face white in the dark hospital room and eyes deep buckets of night. Hi Mom, Hi Mom, Hi Mom.

The pain was so powerful and seemed so endless that I thought for sure I would die. And the loneliness, especially being away from my two-year-old daughter and husband, made me feel as much pain, mentally and emotionally, as I did in my body.

As difficult as it was to be away from my daughter, I couldn’t hide my pain from her, or anyone, and I was grateful she couldn’t see me often in the hospital. The pain was constant. I had spent several months at home on bed rest, until I felt searing pain in my pelvic bones, contractions that never went away, that came back to tighten my abdomen in its angry squeeze. The pain of the baby’s foot lodged into my cervix almost made me pass out.

The nurse’s helped me to the restroom or held up ice or a cup of water to my mouth. Once when the nurses did not appear fast enough, there I was like an animal, crawling on the floor to the toilet because of sudden unexpected pain in my cervix. When the nurse found me screaming, the doctor prescribed medicine to sedate me and numb the pain. Thankfully, I didn’t experience this level of pain again until I went into labor. But often, I had to fend for myself for simple tasks, such drinking sideways from a straw. The water would dribble down my chest or into my face.

 

Many of the night nurses would come in at 3 or 4 a.m., when I would obviously be sleeping, and turn all the light on in my room, bursting in without a greeting to jam medicines into my mouth or adjust my monitors. There I would be, my hair usually tangled and sticking to one side, heavily pregnant and groggy, jolted awake and frightened every time. I felt reduced, below the level of a human.

I watched hours of reality television — toddlers at beauty pageants, families in trailer homes with heavy accents being made a spectacle, the lives of little people — and felt even more poor from it. Everything was on stage.

Except reality, which was not camouflaged. I watched the monitors as the contractions approached, watched the baby’s heart rate fall dangerously once again. All previous prayers I had ever said felt like non-prayers compared to this. But there was no divine presence in my room, especially at night, just the glow of the television, bright hall lights from under the door. Every day the woman who cleaned my room said “God bless you” before she left the room. It felt like an insult, though I know she didn’t mean it as one.

My prayers were simple: Let me out. Let the pain stop. I will be a better mother, I swear.

Though I am a converted, practicing Jew, I grew up Catholic, the punishing-you-are-going-to-hell kind. I had sinned. After my first daughter, for more than year I had been low with postpartum depression. I held her like a duty, kissed her in the middle of the night when no one was watching to ensure that she knew, somewhere inside, I was a good person and could love her. I was laying punishment onto punishment. I did not know what a mother should be, and intrusive thoughts harangued me as if from a demon: You are an awful person. You’re the lowest creature on the planet. I got better, but somehow the remnants of that time came back to find me during my second pregnancy.

Now, the pain felt angry because I was. Angry that I did not still know what it was to be a mother, that I felt orphaned, that the pain felt like punishment because of my own poverty of human connection.  One day, my mother visited. “I have such a migraine,” she said, looking at the television and suddenly laughing at a commercial. “Oh, that reminds me of something.” She told a story while I lay, as if it were a choice, frozen in pain. A beep from the monitor chimed and a nurse came in to check the contraction strips. They were still three minutes apart. The nurse gave me another shot of Brethine, an asthma medication that helped slow and ease contractions but made me shiver as if I was naked in a tundra. As my mother continued talking, I shook her out.

That night I prayed hard to the man in the window, the one who sat in vigil, and my stomach squeezed and burned. And as I prayed, something happened. He turned to face me, the dark of his face more full than any light that had poured in the room before. I knew my room was completely dark, and most likely he could not see me at all. But the possibility was there, that sometime he had seen me, and wanted me to know that he saw me, and in return, I could look back. He saw me and was not turned away by the frightening figure that I made. That was enough for me.

I felt forgiven, and forgiving, for his simple look toward me. An acknowledgment, a recognition.

I knew it was a stranger, that this was something less than the real connections I had with my own family. But, in my mind, it was a divine sign to me that I would survive. My mind turned in that moment to believe that I could, and would.

Some people need divine presence in their life, an angel of God to visit their bedside in a Technicolor glow. I didn’t want or need that. I just wanted something human — sight, touch, speech — something that I could give back.

In the hospital, it had felt like that basic human connection had been taken from me as I was pulled and prodded. But the man in the window was a signal from the universe that I was seen, that I could be seen as I was.

The contractions finally became less risky to my baby’s health, and I was released to go home three months from the time I was admitted. When my husband came to pick me up with my daughter, to take me home to finish bed rest there, I was ready. I was prepared to accept whatever additional pain I would face through the last weeks of my pregnancy, and I was prepared to accept the fear. The dark face in the window showed me the presence of the divine. It was in the people around me, every day. To find more courage, I just had to turn and look at the people already in my life.

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