Thinking & Feeling

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Horace Walpole

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The healing power of telling your story....

I was recently asked to talk at a friend's women's group gathering. I was surprised to be asked, and didn't know why I was chosen or what I was meant to speak about. When I was told 'just talk about yourself'. I couldn't imagine why. I mean what do I have to say that matters to anyone else??

But because the person who asked is simple lovely and I wanted to help her, I said yes. And I have to say that in the end it was the most enriching and fulfilling thing to do. I still feel the warm fuzziness of being able to share my precious children's stories. And for their stories to matter and for them and their names to be remembered through the retelling...

It was such a healing and heart warming experience. I am so glad I decided to do it!
This is what I said (and yes it's a consolidation of several of my other previous writings).
And it was accompanied by a large collection of photo memories in a slide show.

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Hello everybody. Some of you here sort of know me. Or know at least part of my story already. And you mostly know the story of one of the biggest tragedies and regrets of my life. It's not an easy story to tell, nor to hear. My intention is not to focus just on the tragedy though, but rather to tell the bigger story. The story of how Nathaniel’s story came to be, and what has happened since. It's quite a long story.

I have long-said that given a choice between stuff and an experience I will always choose the experience. I have come to learn that your life-memories and learnings are usually formed around connections & experiences. And they usually happen when you did something different. When you said yes, and tried something unusual, rather than just following your regular routine.

I mean, who remembers all the times you brushed your teeth, made your bed, went to the gym or did the laundry last year? Right? But I bet you remember the time you decided 'screw the laundry' and went to the beach instead. Not to say that you should always do that. The normal day-to-day stuff does need to be done, but sometimes you should mix it up! That’s where the LIVING happens.

This is why shortly after my divorce, rather than fix up my house (which actually really did need a makeover), I chose to take my 2 boys Griffin and Quinn, who were 6 and 8 years old at the time, on a trip to Thailand. On my own. As a 'start of our new family of 3’ adventure. And we had a wonderful & very memorable time there which they still fondly recollect often.

It is also why during that same divorce period I decided to do an egg donation. Which weirdly paralleled my divorce journey. Shortly after I got separated. My lovely friend Tertia started up an egg donation business. I was intrigued. So when I saw her branded vehicle one day, I took it as a literal sign that I should register. Which I did.

A couple of months later I had started the divorce proceedings. My lawyer called me after receiving an email to get some more information. As I put the phone down at the end of the call. My phone rang again almost immediately. I assumed it was her calling again... But no, it was the egg donation service saying I'd been selected as a donor! What!? Initially I thought the timing was bad, and that I’d be mad to do it… But almost immediately I thought, what the heck and said yes!

The egg donation process followed my divorce process so closely that I did the egg donation the day before I appeared in court to get divorced. This was not an easy or amicable divorce. There was a LOT of drama involved for everyone. And truth be told complicating that with the super-doses of hormones that egg donation involves might not have been the best idea I have ever had. But here's the thing. When I realised the timelines were coinciding that actually cemented my decision to do the donation. You see that's how I work.

My reasoning was that if I was going to be experiencing something bad, traumatic and an ending, then I liked the idea of also having something good, positive and worthy to focus on too. A new start... To take the bad and turn it into something good. To do something that mattered.
That's important to me and something I come back to often in my life, and which seems to drive me. Including now tonight. I am NOT a natural public speaker. I am not particularly good at it. I am really not very comfortable doing it. But when Cathy invited me, it felt like something different, challenging and something that might end up being meaningful to me. And so, much as I don't really want to be the one up here speaking, I said yes anyway. I chose to go with the experience. That's just me.

And I have had some incredible experiences in my life. Some phenomenally wonderful and inspirational, and others have brought me to the depths of despair with heart-breaking suffering. All have brought me to where and who I am today though.

A huge theme in the past 2 decades of my life has been pregnancy and birth. I was drawn to it from early childhood. Knowing it was something I was destined for. My first pregnancy was when I was 23 years old, in 1997. After seeing photos of a midwife-assisted home water-birth, I decided THAT was what I wanted. Everything about it just seemed right to me.

I had hired a lovely midwife and I was all set to replicate that birth scenario, but sadly that pregnancy did not go according to plan. At 6 months pregnant while travelling on the train from JHB back to Cape Town, I went into premature labour. At the time we thought I had a stomach bug… I was young and na├»ve and didn’t want to bother anyone, so while my instincts told me something was wrong, I just desperately, stoically tried to cope and hang-on.

Eventually, about 12 hours in, it was obvious I was not ok. I was taken off the train and to hospital in an ambulance in small Karoo town. After being examined I was told I was in full labour and was already 6-7cm dilated, and that there was nothing they could do.

When given the option to transfer to Kimberley, which has neonatal facilities I jumped at it. I was given medication to stop my contractions, and bundled back into an ambulance which sped off across the Karoo in pouring rain for over 3 hours in the middle of the night.

We finally arrived in Kimberley at about 5am, where we were greeted with extreme reluctance. The nurses wouldn't admit me and wanted us to go back! They were not in the mood for dealing with another case close to the end of their shift. When we explained that we were there for the neonatal ICU, they rolled their eyes and told us that 25 weeks was too young, and that the incubators are expensive. The whole attitude was that we were an unwanted nuisance and irritation to them. Finally, a doctor was called. I thought that, being a trained professional, he would know the right thing to do and would take charge of the situation and help us. I was wrong.

All this time my baby had been fine with a strong healthy heartbeat, my waters were intact and the contractions had been stopped. After that things happened VERY quickly. I wasn't consulted about anything, and the nurses were very abrupt. The doctor ruptured my membranes; I remember feeling so very sad then, knowing that was a point of no return. The doctor then proceeded to insert a Pitocin IV. WHAT?? He was INDUCING me! At the time this seemed strange and wrong, but I thought he knew what he was doing, so I didn’t question him. Then he walked out. I never saw that doctor again...

The Pitocin caused a massive contraction. It felt as if it was going to rip my legs off, I didn't know what to do with myself.  I started to panic, I didn't want this to be happening, I didn't want the baby to come out. I was frightened and in a lot of pain, a nurse simply told me to push and walked away. After just three pushes I gave birth to my baby. A small perfect little doll of a baby girl was born. A perfect little angel. Delicate, pink and alive. I felt desperately anxious that nothing was done to help her - but I knew that it was already too late...

There’s more to this story, and rest is just as bad. At the time I didn't know any better, but I now know that the reason for losing our little girl Angelique was incorrect medical intervention. I was treated like a problem, which needed to be eliminated before the inspection in the morning. It was simply awful. Profoundly traumatically tragic and it changed me forever.

I have shared this story often, it reaffirmed my belief that interference in birth can do much more harm than good. After that experience I had a conviction that I wanted a birth with NO interference, and I secretly actually wanted to have an unassisted birth – which is when you give birth on your own with no medical professional present.

I went on to have two successful mid-wife assisted natural births several years later – in hospital - with my boys Quinn & Griffin who are now 19 and 17. They were very healing and empowering experiences for me. I was so inspired by my wonderful gentle, kind and caring midwife Kate that I actually wanted to become a midwife after that. I ended up training and certifying as doula, and helping with about 20 births. And still wherever possible I try to help to empower other people to have positive; births without fear. I always felt like I wanted one last ‘perfect’ birth experience though. I wanted to have that gentle and calm home water-birth experience I had visualised.

Then in 2011 Tertia contacted me again, she had expanded her egg donation business into surrogacy. She asked me if I wanted to be a surrogate? By this time, I had been a single self-supporting mom for several years. I was intrigued by the idea, but as the bread-winner with no support it did not seem like a feasible idea. It didn't feel like something I could just say yes to. I juggled it around in my mind though...

Some months later she contacted me and told me about this guy she was communicating with, who was interested in having a child. She said he was potentially interested in contracting a surrogate, but was unsure about whether he wanted to commission a child on his own. He was exploring options to have a baby but hadn't yet visualised the option where he would be a single-parent. He also was apparently struggling to understand WHY anybody would go through a pregnancy and birth without the 'prize' of a baby at the end. In short, he knew nothing about parenting, pregnancy or birth... (Ok that's not true, as always with Andrew he had read fairly extensively. But he had no practical or first-hand knowledge.)

Eventually she did something 'unorthodox' and connected Andrew and I via email. With the view that I could pay a consultative role, in essence a bit of a doula-role really, to help him understand his options and to get perspectives on parenting on your own, as well as around what pregnancy and birth is like, and why anyone would want to be a surrogate.
We emailed back and forth for a month or so and then in July 2011 we met for dinner.
We got along well and chatted easily. And over the next few months we continued communicating intermittently via email and had the odd dinner or cup of coffee in between.

Andrew was warming to the idea of commissioning a child for himself and started skirting the topic of whether I would be prepared to surrogate for him. I remained non-committal explaining my situation; that I was intrigued and interested, but wasn't sure it was the right decision for me and my lifestyle set-up. But I felt a strange compulsion, there was part of me that REALLY wanted to just throw caution to the wind, say yes and do it. But this was a big decision, with potentially very high stakes. I had to consider the risks to myself and my boys etc. Also Andrew is a very methodical, deliberate and thorough decision maker. It was not something he was going to pursue on a whim and without serious due process.

So instead he read and researched extensively. He consulted with all and everyone for advice, warnings, and experiences. He started inviting me to dinners and introducing me to selected friends - I knew I was being not so subtly screened. For sanity? Suitability? Genetic qualities?? I wasn't sure, but took it at face value. An invite to a lovely social dinner! (I think I met Cathy & Paul in this time too) 

A few months down the line our relationship shifted and we both realised, or admitted, we had grown fond of each other. And well as humans have been doing since the dawn of time, we let nature take its course. Though in true Andrew style this was not before he had deliberately and explicitly paused the baby/surrogacy discussion with me. Knowing that would be clouded by a romantic relationship.

So we started 'dating', went on a few holidays and basically had a good time getting to know each other during 2012. Eventually the topic of a baby was raised formally again. It was something Andrew really wanted to do. He asked whether I would be willing to participate, or if he should look for another surrogate? I was still slightly unsure. But didn't really want him to look for someone else.

By this time, I had thoroughly screened HIM too, and I honestly felt that he more than deserved to become a dad. Moreover, I knew he would be a wonderful, dedicated, mindful and committed father. I felt compelled to ensure that he got a baby conceived, grown and birthed with mindfulness, dedication and intent. In the end my decision was based on doing something that mattered. What was the one thing I could do which would to make a meaningful, and significant difference to someone else? And that was it; decision made. I signed up...

2013 became about conceiving Natey. Surrogacy is a long, complex, expensive legal and medical process. Our agreement was that the pregnancy and birth would be 'mine' while the baby would be Andrew’s. And that meant that I got to make all decisions for the pregnancy and how the baby would be born. And for that I was planning a home-birth as this was a big part of my motivation and drive for being involved in the first place. I was striving for my 'fantasy birth'.

Since we were already having a physical relationship, it seemed crazy, unnecessary and even unappealing to me to medicalise the conception part just for the sake of the formality of a surrogacy.

And so, making a long story short after consulting with a host of people from doctors, lawyers, mediators, psychologists etc. We decided to go 'off script'. Instead of the full formal surrogacy, we proceeded with a civil agreement in 2 parts.  A Pre-Pregnancy Agreement to cover the period of conception, pregnancy and birth; covering rights, responsibilities and consequences for us each for an extensive array of situations. And then a Parenting Plan for once the baby was born - in effect what is usually done as part of a divorce agreement.

After conceiving; the pregnancy went very smoothly. I stayed active, fit & healthy throughout. A week before my due date we moved temporarily to Andrew's house to prepare for the birth. The idea was that I would birth the baby there at his house, help to get him settled in with Andrew, and then my boys and I would go back to our house. I hadn't thought too deeply about when or how, I just trusted that it would all work out somehow...

Eventually at 41.5 weeks I became aware of contractions a few hours after going to bed. I got up and laboured on my own for a couple of hours until Andrew heard me low-moaning through contractions and got up. The midwives were called.

Soon contractions picked up, I decided I wanted to be in the bath. After about 20mins in the water, the contractions started to get really strong and the pressure was intense. I said ‘I think I need to push soon,…’and next thing I was pushing!

The baby's head was moving down with each push and within just 2 or 3 he was crowning. I remember realising then that this was Andrew's very first birth experience and we were on our own, there was no one there to support or reassure him! In the next push the baby's head slowly eased out into my hands. I remember saying to Andrew ‘The head is out! - But don't worry it’s ok…’. I felt pretty calm and in control, but wanted to make sure he wasn’t panicking or worrying.

In the next contraction after a hearty push; one shoulder eased out, then the next and out slipped the baby into my hands. Still in his sac. I peeled it off him and brought him to the surface of the water. I felt his neck and the cord was wrapped around it, so I slipped it off over his head. I then patted and rubbed him. It took a minute for him to really respond. I still felt like I knew what I was doing, but I was holding my breath waiting for him to visibly breathe and ‘wake up’. I think we were both very relieved when he did splutter, open his eyes and start breathing! And there he was little Nathaniel Leonidas Thor Canter.

The birth team only arrived about 10 mins later. And helped us to finish up and clean up. The whole experience was very calm and peaceful just felt right. So I had had a spontaneous unassisted home water birth!!! Andrew was calm and quietly and gently supportive, watching but giving me space to do my thing uninterrupted and with no fear or panic. It was really amazing. Beyond even what I had imagined. I felt like my circle of healing from Angelique's tragic birth to Nathaniel’s triumphant birth was completed.

We basked in the glow of birth. Andrew and Nathaniel bonded immediately, fully and deeply. We all somehow seemed to have slipped into a new natural family unit. Soon the days rolled into weeks, then months. Despite the fact that I was breastfeeding the plan was still that I was there in a temporary capacity. Andrew being the official 'primary parent' as planned, had taken 4 months off work, and I went back to work 8 weeks after Natey was born.

The more time went by, the harder it felt to consider leaving, and the less likely it seemed. After our unusual start and strange plans, we'd created a pretty standard practical arrangement. One that felt whole, right and comfortable for us all. And we lived life knowing how blessed we were with this beautiful angelic and wild free-spirited little boy who became our literal son as we all revolved around him.

When Natey (as he grew to call himself) was 10 months old a minor heart-defect was found, needing open-heart surgery to fix. It was a scary and traumatic time. I moved into hospital and spent a week with him in the hospital, where any personal doubt or pretence that I was anything but his fully invested mama-bear was thoroughly quashed.

We lived charmed lives. And we knew it. Life was good. And then it all came crashing down...

That fateful day on 30 December 2016, when after a gorgeous fun-filled loving day together Natey inexplicably went to the swimming pool during the minute or 2 I had turned my back on him to communicate with Andrew. I’ll probably never understand what actually happened, or how it happened so fast.

I wrote a blog post recalling every small and painful detail of that worst day of my life. I think most of you have read it, so I won’t go into detail here…

People tend say you are brave or inspirational when you survive something. The truth is you aren't, or at least I don't think I am.

I think bravery is choosing to do something really difficult or scary. When you are thrust into that position, it doesn't feel like bravery at all. But when tragedy strikes you, I guess then you only have 2 choices; you either survive - or you don't…

The fact is that time marches forward whether you want it to or not, and so you have no option but to move forward too.

When Natey died at home at 2 years 4 months old, it was also in water, and again with no one else there just me - alone this time. That circle of healing and completion shattered open again. It shook the very core and foundation of who I was and made me doubt everything I knew. How could that have happened? How could the most beautiful, perfect and cherub-like little boy be gone so quickly and so incomprehensibly? It just made no sense.

So there I was, having lost not just one but two of my dear, longed for and much loved children... How does one carry on from that??

Honestly, I don’t think I have any profound truths or insights, and the fact is it is hard and it hurts a LOT. But in both of these great loses of my life, I have been almost immediately very aware that they can either break you or strengthen you. And somehow being broken and to give up, doesn't seem like a good way to honour my children. I almost feel obligated to live on, to do well, and more-so to do GOOD, because they can't.

And I do think it's a choice. But it's not an easy choice & to some extent anyone who suffers such a loss is ‘broken’. However, for me, I felt I had to live on and live well FOR them.

In dealing with Angelique's death, birthing became my passion. I learned everything I could about pregnancy and birth and for a better way to bring a child into the world. I studied to be a doula and started volunteering at Mowbray Maternity so I could to assist and empower the helpless and scared moms there to have better, less scary and traumatic births. I did this as a way to make Angelique's life matter and to try to ensure that no one else had to endure a traumatic and incompassionate birthing experience.

After Natey died we also wanted to somehow do good. I adopted the hashtag #DoingItForNatey and also #LongDays - which came out of the customary Jewish greeting to mourners of 'I wish you long life'. The sentiment also seemed to inspire my broader circle of friends to do something that scared them or that pushed the boundaries of their capabilities, or to just get out there and LIVE. To make the most of each day!

It was used for a number of initiatives to raise money for charity.  As an example. A wheelchair-bound friend of mine decided she had no excuse for being unfit and out of shape and so she started exercising and bought a recumbent bicycle. She has to-date lost about 30kg and training to ride the Argus. Another friend ran her first marathon and then also completed a Half Iron-Man. Others simply said yes when their children wanted to play with them, or went for that picnic on the beach, or had ice-cream for dinner... All #DoingItForNatey

As for Andrew and I we also challenged ourselves. We ran races, signed up for the Argus Cycle Tour, competed in the Platteklip Charity Challenge, all #DoingItForNatey.
We also asked people not to spend money on flowers and gifts for us, but rather to donate the money so it could do some good. In this way we helped raise about R75 000 for the Red Cross Children’s Hospital and about R15 000 for other charities.

Andrew also almost immediately knew that part of his healing and journey forward in life had to include another child. I didn’t hesitate to agree to trying again. This time I was nearly 44 though, and risks were that much higher… We worked with my gynae to track and regulate my cycles. I realised I might need some more medical and scientific help than before. We tried a few things, none of which were working…. Then we went on a watershed trip to Iceland, on an epic hike to Thorsmork (Thor’s forest) in memory of dear Natey. We hiked the 90 odd kilometres with photos of him and some of his ashes – which we scattered on the top of the volcano on the new vents ‘Magdi & Modi’ named after Thor’s children. We placed photos and love locks on the bridge between the 2 continents.
We came home from that trip mentally and emotionally exhausted, but realising that we had to move forward with our lives.

For me that meant committing to the Post-Grad degree I had signed up for, but had deferred in the wake of the tragedy. We agreed we’d pause the baby-making to allow me to embark and concentrate on my studies. Only to find 3 days into the first module that I was pregnant! Somehow at the end of that Iceland trip, where we metaphorically said goodbye to Natey and released him, we conceived with no monitoring or tracking at all.

And true to style I did my post-grad degree while pregnant and with a new-born! Benjamin Bodhi Achilles Canter was born via another beautiful and peaceful home water birth last April. And as chance would have it, I graduate tomorrow!

I guess I have learned that message is that life is short, you have no idea how much time you have here… And so you should live your life fully and appreciate what you have, and who you have, while you are here. Take the chances, grab the opportunities. Do things that matter!

Again, I don't think we are special, remarkable, or inspirational (ok well maybe Andrew is, as his generosity of spirit, and capacity to forgive IS remarkable and very inspirational to me), but I think we just decided that we had to try, somehow to take the good, and to try to release the bad.

While losing a child is truly the most awful thing that can happen to you - and it is not something you get over or get better from - we have learned that no matter what, there always is a lot to be grateful for and:
- I am grateful for the immense, and continued love and care of our colleagues, friends and family - and our community who really helped to carry us through those first dark and difficult early weeks.
 - I am grateful for the precious time we had with Natey and the lessons he taught us. To take delight in every day. To marvel and wonder at the smallest of things. To enjoy life's small pleasures. To love freely and with abandon.
- I am grateful for Benjamin. Who has certainly not replaced Natey, or filled the big Natey-shaped hole in our lives. He couldn't do that and shouldn’t. But he has created new hope, new purpose. New love and new inspiration. We are very aware that Benjamin wouldn't be here if Nathaniel hadn't died. It's hard not to feel grateful for that somehow.

In the end, I think it comes down to that while you don't get to choose what will happen to you in your life, you do get to choose how you'll respond, and how you move forward from what does happen. So I try to choose the positive. Not because it is the brave or easy thing to do, but because for me it just feels better that way.

I have no idea now if my life journey is a circle, square or spiral, but I just try to live #LongDays #DoingItForNatey now.

Thank-you.

2 comments:

  1. Jane, so so perfectly written. I wish i had been there to see you deliver it. Every word spoke straight into my soul, thank you for sharing and being you. xx

    ReplyDelete