My daughter, Haylie, was born eighteen years ago today. If you met her today, you would have absolutely no idea that any of the things I am about to recount could have possibly happened. As my dad says, she doesn’t wear the past or her struggles on her sleeve and she certainly doesn’t bear any of the signs of her brain injury any more, except perhaps the smallest subtle stiffness in her gait at times. You would have no idea, for example, if you saw the beautiful baby blankets that she crochets by hand and sells to raise money for a maternal health care clinic in the Ivory Coast, that she couldn’t even tie her own shoes until she was nearly nine years old. You’d have no idea after talking with her about a favorite book or reading one of her A+ essays for her History class that she was cross-eyed for years and couldn’t read at all until she was about ten years old (and couldn’t read well at grade level until just a few years ago). You’d have no idea, when you hear her bragging about learning to do her round-off back handspring independently, that for years her left foot was so badly twisted and deformed from rigidity that she walked literally on the side of it, which caused her constant pain and limping. Even the specialists we see from time to time, though dramatically less frequently now, cannot tell from looking at the results of her blood work that at one point her liver was in serious danger from all the anticonvulsant medications she took (that didn’t even stop the seizures anyway). Yes, and there were the seizures….but now I am getting ahead of myself. I think it’s best if we just start at the beginning.
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I was twenty-one years and one month old when I conceived my daughter. Single, in college, subsisting almost entirely on diet coke, pretzels, and camel lights, I was about as prepared for young motherhood as for life in outer space. It was early on a December morning in 1992 when I awoke to the sound of angelic bells and chimes ringing heavenly harmonies clearly throughout my one-room apartment.
“She’s heeeeerrrrreeee!” the voices sang.
I opened my eyes, looked around, sat up in bed as the light filtered in through the blinds.
“She is?” I wondered. Hmmm. I had been a little nervous about not remembering when I had my last period. I had been vomitous sick in the morning a couple of times last week. It had crossed my mind, more than a few times, that we weren’t careful enough, weren’t careful at all. Hmmm.
I got dressed, pulled my long hair up into a bun, brushed my teeth, and went out for my favorite breakfast – a chicken sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise and a large diet coke from the Wendy’s drive through. On my way home, I stopped by the drug store and bought a pack of cigarettes and a pregnancy test.
It took me a couple of days to get up the courage to actually use it. I argued that once I confirmed the pregnancy I would certainly have to quit smoking and since I had nearly a full pack left I should wait until they were gone so it wasn’t such a waste of money. I mentally went back and forth about how I would rather spend the upcoming summer – in a cute polka-dotted bikini or a maternity swim suit (do they even make those?) – as if coming to that decision would have any influence on what was already happening deep inside my body. Then, I thought that perhaps, with mind over matter, maybe I could just will it away. Yes, I could just miscarry and be no worse for the wear. My life could just carry on as is with absolutely no sense of direction or real ambition whatsoever.
Finally, curiosity and a growing sense of impending responsibility got the better of me. One evening, I sat alone on my bed, chain smoking my camel lights, when I had a moment of insight about just how ridiculous that was. I stamped the cigarette out, got up and went into the bathroom where the pregnancy test sat on the counter, the box unopened. I knew I was going to have to pee on it or something but that was the extent of my knowledge. So, quickly, I ripped through the package and the paperwork, since I now had a full bladder and a sort of now-or-never feeling about the whole thing. Sitting on the toilet, I pulled the white plastic thermometer-looking thing out of the wrapper and stuck it under me into the stream of my pee, successfully soaking the thing and my fingers.
Ok, fine. Just lay it down. Flat, it said flat! Check the directions again to make sure you understand how to read this thing. Of course right away the first pink line appeared and my heart jumped up into my throat. Oh my god. Wipe. Flush. Pants up. Read the directions again, quickly. Ok, it has to have TWO pink lines if you’re pregnant. Ok. Maybe I am just freaking out about nothing. Good thing I didn’t throw that whole pack of cigarettes away! Wash hands. Dry hands. I did have some spotting so maybe that was just a goofy period. My mind can get so carried away sometimes. That polka-dot bikini does look pretty cute on me since I’ve lost some weight. Gonna be a great summer.
Then, just to finalize the conclusions my mind was reaching for, I went back to the white plastic stick lying on the back of my toilet. Why do they have to look so much like thermometers, I wondered, that’s weird. As I picked it up, there was no doubt about it. TWO pink lines. She’s here.
That was in the middle of December. It took me another couple of weeks to tell anyone. I gave my friend Rachel, who lived upstairs, the rest of my pack of cigarettes. I just slipped them under her door one night. At Christmas Eve church service, I listened to the minister talking about the miracle of birth, and I sat there smiling inside myself, thinking that this must have been how Mary felt about Jesus coming. She couldn’t have been more excited than I was, or more scared than I was, at the thought of becoming a mother and having a whole new life unfold in front of her. I sat there knowing that she and I were sisters and that these stories in the Bible, these beautiful myths were even more beautiful because they could happen to regular mortals like me. After all, I had angels too. The immaculate conception of Christ was the conception of all children. God gave him to the world as a gift just as he was giving my child to the world. She would bear gifts too. All mothers must feel this way (it is the truth, that’s why). I began to think of myself as akin to Mary, and I began to fantasize about my own immaculate conception. That sure was an easier story to tell than unprotected, pre-marital sex with a guy that’s already gone.
On New Year’s Eve, I finally told my mom. We were having a low key holiday, relaxing at her house, when she asked me why I wasn’t out with friends. After all, I had just turned twenty-one, and it was the first year that I could party at the bars. Feeling thankful for the decent lead in to my news, I told her that I was pregnant. Being sensible, and a mom, she said she’d make an appointment for me at her OB/GYN, just to be sure. I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell her that, aside from the positive pee-on-a-stick thing, I had angels singing. And harps. I was sure.
But, the next week off we went to Dr. Ritchie’s office. I had never been to the gynecologist before. I had no idea what to expect. They had me pee in a cup (and I didn’t get my fingers this time). When that came back positive, they wanted to do an ultrasound to find out how far along I was. At this early stage in the pregnancy, the ultrasound is not outside on the belly, as they show in the movies. It’s inside. With my mom in the room. Great. Wearing a flimsy yellow paper nightie, I climbed up onto the table and spread my legs, placing my heels into the shiny metal stirrups as the nurse lubed up her probe with a cold, clear gel. My humiliation lasted only a few seconds, however, because as soon as the black screen became animated I was in awe, completely absorbed in the dancing of this tiny little tadpole, apparently already partying her pants off inside me. Whoa! For real?
From her size they put me at nine weeks along, almost all the way through my first trimester already. Due date: July 23rd. No polka-dot bikini for me.
I began this blog to share pieces of the book I'm writing about my daughter's courageous march down the path from brain injury to wellness. It's the story of how one little girl overcame the odds, a long list of labels, and limiting diagnoses. I hope it inspires other parents to dream bigger by knowing what is possible.