Do not read if you have not seen Season 3, Episode 4 of Downton Abbey. Also, do not read if you are pregnant with your first child and are already scared shitless about the whole birthing process (I know, girlfriend!—what WAS God thinking?)
Do you know what I’ve discovered? Even when one tries to get away from the chaos and meanness of everyday life and wants to submerge one’s brain in the soapiest of soap opera fantasies with a bottle of wine and a bucket of chicken wings, pooh-pooh always occurs and snatches one’s mind right back to reality and the horrors of the past! So says one.
Downton Abbey Cast 2013/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE/PBS
Having coerced my husband to watch the “can’t miss TV Episode 4” of Downton Abbey in exchange for two episodes of Homeland and some hot wings, WW (“White and Wonderful”) promptly fell asleep leaving me riveted to the 52-inch screen in his man cave contemplating what it would be like to have been born white, rich, and British with a to-die-for wardrobe, mountains of bling, and tons of servants. As soon as Lady Sybil (the youngest daughter) took to her bed in the final weeks of her pregnancy, with swollen ankles, high blood pressure, high fever, and random crazy talk, I started beating WW’s leg with a chicken bone to wake him up to witness what I knew was the inevitable: Lady Sybil was going to bite the dust with something that had almost killed me 28 years ago—preeclampsia (what used to be called “toxemia of pregnancy”). Having the baby is the only cure for preeclampsia and sometimes that doesn’t even help.
ME: Wake up, WW! Wake up! That damn writer, Julian Fellowes, is going to kill off Lady Sybil—I can feel it in my bones. I know these symptoms. I swear to God if he kills Lady Sybil off, I’ll have to get on a plane and fly to the UK tonight—tonight I tell you—to open up a can of whup-ass on his chubby little British butt.
WW: Huh? No, no, no, no, no. You’re getting all bent out of shape about nothing. You’re watching this so that you can relax, remember? Fellowes knows he has you women wrapped around his finger. The writer is just messing with you. Look, the baby has arrived. It came through with flying colors and all is well. In the meantime, stop beating my knee with that damn chicken bone.
ME: It’s all a ruse! I had this sickness when I was in the final stages of my pregnancy almost 30 years ago. Don’t you remember? I almost died, and I had modern medicine and antibiotics. Lady Sybil doesn’t have a chance. I’m telling you: a tragedy is unfolding in my favorite happy place! Rich white people are going to suffer and I can’t handle it. Nothing is supposed to mess with their world—they’ve got it all. In fact, when I finally come face-to-face with God, I’m going to ask him why the hell he didn’t make me white, rich, and a man. So I don’t want to hear about death and mayhem messing with my “upstairs” Downton peeps.
Joss Barratt photo|Lady Sybil and Tom Branson|Downton Abbey
Sure enough, when everyone at Downton Abbey (both upstairs and downstairs) was doing the delirious “Hallelujah-glory-dance” over the birth of the first Downton Abbey offspring from one of the Crawley girls, Lady Sybil suddenly went into a seizure and died from: dun, dun, dun. . . “eclampsia” while two doctors (one of them, an arrogant asshole) looked on helplessly. As Tom, the husband, and Cora, the mother, flung themselves on Lady Sybil’s body and pled, “Please don’t leave us, please,” I broke down into inconsolable sobs while flinging chicken bones at WW for falling asleep in yet another eclampsia episode. (Oh, oh, you wonder, is this foreshadowing? Can it possibly be true that WW, “White and Wonderful,” slipped from his god-like pedestal and royally blew it by falling asleep in his wife’s hour of need—say it isn’t so?!)
Cartoon by Dave Coverly|speedbump.com
In defense of WW, my eclampsia crisis happened a long time ago in a far, far away land—the land of Jesus’ birth. We lived in a border town that connected to Lebanon and eventually Syria where WW’s job provided the occasional stress of having his bullet proof-jacketed-ass shot at while going to and from work, the periodic necessity of shuffling his family into a bomb shelter while Katyusha rockets reigned down from the north (Lebanon), the medical requirement of driving his bed-ridden pregnant wife back and forth to a doctor who was two hours from our home, and the fatherly duties of taking care of our newly adopted older daughter, while doing all the shopping, cooking, and cleaning. This was not how we had planned our lives would transpire.
When we first moved to the land of the Messiah with our two-month old adopted daughter, it was assumed that I could not get pregnant. Well . . . more like I could get pregnant, but I couldn’t stay pregnant. WW and I had made peace with being dealt our infertility hand, and figured there were worse things in life. Besides, by the time all was said and done, I was way too old to start popping out babies. But as is common to most, as soon as we stopped “trying,” we got the news:
ISRAELI DOC: Congratulations, Bubbe (translation: grandmother in Yiddish)! You’re carrying the gift of life.
ME: Say what? No, no, no, no, no . . . I came to see you because I’ve had the stomach flu for three months, and I can’t stop throwing up. What kind of joke is this? Something is definitely being lost in translation between us, because I can’t get pregnant: אני לא יכול להיכנס להריון! (Mumbling to myself) Although, come to think of it, I was contemplating suing Jane Fonda because her exercises sure don’t seem to be working—my tummy is blowing up like a balloon.
ISRAELI DOC: What is that to me? You’re in the land of miracles. If your Jewish Messiah could be born here from a virgin Jewish mother, then you, Bubbe, can get pregnant. Mazel tov!
Cartoon by Jeff Swenson|swensonfunnies.com
I thought being bed-ridden for six months (because I almost lost the “miracle baby”) was hard enough, but nothing could have prepared me for the preeclampsia manifestations. By the eighth month my ankles were the size of elephants, my body looked like a chocolate Goodyear blimp waiting to take flight, and when I walked into my Israeli doctor’s office in Haifa for my penultimate pre-natal appointment, I had a fever of 103 and high blood pressure of 260 over 110—stroke level. (Oh, did I forget to tell you that I lost my mind and turned into a crazy woman?)
ISRAELI DOC: I’m worried about you, Bubbe. You have all the symptoms of toxemia. I can’t risk you going back home via a mountainous two-hour drive. I want to check you into a hospital.
ME: Hell, no, Doc! I’ve got to get back to my 20-month old. I’m pretty sure her baby-sitter is a serial killer or at least wanted by the Mossad. But she was the only person available who speaks English who could watch the baby.
ISRAELI DOC: You don’t have a choice in this. Besides, I’m sending you to one of the best hospitals in the country—it’s a Kupat Holim hospital on Mt. Carmel. You’ll get the best of care. The midwives are waiting for you.
ME: Read my lips, Doc, I’M NOT GOING! I have to get back to my baby. I don’t know this baby inside of me (maybe he’s someone I’ll like—maybe he’s not—only time will tell), but I do know the one that is at home, and I’m telling you that psycho-chick is her babysitter. I don’t know why I let WW talk me into letting her sit for my baby, but she’s his secretary, and he insisted I couldn’t miss this doctor’s appointment because I was all feverish and shit. But you need to know, the secretary-bitch has a legion of demons running around in her and eyes like Rosemary’s Baby. Besides, I’ve heard about that hospital you want me to go to and I ain’t havin’ it, Doc. It’s on Mt. Carmel where Elijah fought the gods of Ba’al and won, BUT not until Jezebel almost fricasseed his ass. I know the Talmud—you can’t fool me. That hospital is sitting on some pretty funky ground. Who knows what might come up through the basement and possess my baby?
ISRAELI DOC: First of all, Bubbe, how do you know your baby is a boy? You wouldn’t let me use my new magic machine from America called the “ultrasound.” I’ve got the only one in town.
ME: Cause I don’t know what that thing is! They didn’t have those when I left America. For all I know that radiation thingie will turn my baby into a Conehead from the planet Remulak, and it will be entirely your fault. Besides, all my Jewish neighbor-friends assured me I was going to have a boy by the shape of my belly. We don’t even have a girl’s name. Anyway, I had a dream from God and he told me to name him Brian Eden. If this baby doesn’t come out sporting a penis to claim the name of Brian Eden, then it will go through life nameless.
Ultrasound| fins cartoon by Mark Elden fins.voot.com.au
Yeah, I was shit-faced delirious and in full-blown preeclampsia. After fighting for 45 minutes with my very patient and wise doctor, he and WW tricked me into going to the hospital for a urine test which they both adamantly assured me wasn’t situated on the part were the “Ba’al gods” used to roam. They promised I could go home and rescue my older daughter from Satan’s helper once the test confirmed that I didn’t have elevated protein levels in my urine (a sure sign of preeclampsia).*
My saint of a doctor conspired with the hospital to detain me and perform an ultrasound test while WW had everyone he knew from the States call me and try to pull me back from the brink of insanity. At 10:00 p.m. I started down the road of 20 hours of the most excruciatingly induced labor I have ever heard of in my life (I will never let my youngest child live this down—ever!) It felt like a watermelon was trying to ram through a vagina hole the size of a pea. At the 21st hour WW fell asleep for a few minutes and woke up to the screaming of a banshee: “ARE YOU FUCKIN’ KIDDING ME—YOU’RE ASLEEP?” At the 22nd hour, midwives stepped aside and let my Israeli doctor perform a C-section, and Baby-girl (“CDT”) was born.
When I awoke some time later, I asked WW all the questions you might think: was our baby okay, did it have all its fingers and toes, and was “Brian Eden” a lovely chocolate-brown? WW looked at me and slowly said the doctor had assured him our baby was fine, but WW was convinced that the nurse had given him the wrong baby to hold and promptly told her so: “This is not my baby—you made a mistake. First of all, it is a girl (we don’t have a girl’s name picked out), she is completely white with grayish-green eyes (obviously, she’s supposed to be brown), her head is in the shape of a cone, and her face is a canvas of bruises from trying to push through the birth canal. I gave the baby back to the nurses and told them to look for a mocha-chocolate boy.”
Before I could even begin to process WW’s information, I lapsed into eclampsia (name of malady after the baby is born), and began a week-long struggle with high fevers as I muttered: it’s a “girl,” she has a cone head from the ultrasound, and she doesn’t have a name—oy!” Anti-seizure meds were fed to me like water, and at one point, the nurses pushed my bed into a storage closet to get some sleep and escape the chaos of my “semi-private” room of 12 new mothers and their extended families in a hospital that seemed to have 24/7 visiting hours and rockin’ out birth parties.
The fever would break on the 7th day and I would take my beautiful “ginger baby” (as the Arab women in the hospital called her) home to meet her big sister (“KLT”). My beautiful baby-girl would no longer have a cone head and bruises, but her older sister (having been promised a little brother who would be her playmate), after two months of listening to crying, eating, burping, farting, and watching Baby-girl sleep would summarily announce: “You know that baby you got at hospital? Take back—it broke!”
Not our baby but sure looks like “CDT” when she was born—only her head was pointier and her face was so bruised it looked like she had been cage fighting
I am discovering that all bets are off when it comes to filling in the blank space between birth and death, if you survive the birth. I don’t care how rich you are—whether to the manor born like Downton Abbey or born in the projects of Cleveland like me—few things in life will follow our best laid plans. At the time of Lady Sybil’s death, 37 million had died in WWI and 27 million were severely wounded—no young men were still alive for the women to “court” according to Lady Edith, Sybil’s middle sister. Until WWI, tragedy was not a Crawley relative. If we’re lucky as humans, a couple aspects of life will turn out better than we expect, but most of life will be much harder than we could have ever imagined. It takes great courage to live life. It is easy to be born and it doesn’t take that much effort to die. It is the stuff in between that takes everything we’ve got.
“Don’t tell your kids you had an easy birth or they won’t respect you. For years I used to wake up my daughter and say, ‘Melissa you ripped me to shreds. Now go back to sleep’.”—Joan Rivers
“Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth – look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.”—Soren Kierkegaard
“When you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.”—George Carlin
“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”—Maya Angelou
* “Nobody knows what caused preeclampsia in the early 1920s or causes it now. It appears to be an out-of-control state of inflammation.”—David Brown (“Lady Sybil’s shocking death. Did it have to happen?”) Health and Science/The Washington Post. My story was presented tongue-in-check but preeclampsia is no laughing matter. I almost died and women still die from it today. Even though I told first-time mothers (the most likely candidates for this condition) not to read this blog, if you disobeyed me and read it anyway, and you start to display any of the symptoms suffered by Lady Sybil and me, run don’t walk, to your doctor’s office because preeclampsia is serious shit.
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