THE DIALECTICAL HOLIDAY EXPERIENCE WHEN YOU ARE NOT IN A GOOD PLACE.
Just under 14 years ago I was pregnant with my third child.
I remember how young and innocent I was… oblivious to many "real world" challenges.
I got married young, got pregnant relatively quickly, and then had my second child relatively quickly after that (I say relatively because I had c-sections, so the doctors recommended I wait to heal between each pregnancy). I was pretty much cruising.
At the time I didn’t appreciate what I gift that was. I didn’t know anyone who struggled with health issues, infertility or child loss at the time (or at least I didn’t know that I knew them). I was living in a serious bubble.
During Purim that year I remember being really anxious about giving birth just before Pesach. My c-section was booked for a few days before, so that left a bit of time for recovery, and possible baby incidentals like jaundice or low birth weight (although my first two were pretty big, so I was sure that would not be me). The timing was "perfect", although I was still anxious that if my plan didn't work out exactly as I felt it should, I would be in the hospital over the first days of Pesach.
I could never imagine being away from my kids for a holiday. They were (and still are) my greatest joy. My husband and I used to go all-out for holidays. I was “that mom”, you know the annoying ones that seem to have it together… love notes in the kids lunch boxes… parsha or holiday themed table-scapes, menus and desserts… 150 home made mishloach manot… The house would be decorated for each holiday, each meal an experience... we even used to make audio recordings of all the seder songs (well before voice notes) so our kids would be excited and completely involved from start to finish, even at young ages. I did not want to miss any special moments with my kids.
I envisioned our seder almost 14 years ago as an extra special one. Not only would I have a brand new adorable baby in my arms, but I would get to wear my pajamas to the seder… What more could anyone ask for?
You might be wondering why I am already talking about Pesach when we have not even begun to experience this year's Purim in full swing yet...
What prompted me to write about my Pesach experience now, was the many people who will be facing Purim differently this year because of the corona virus quarantine and other challenges facing people that I know.
I wanted to share my Pesach experience from almost 14 years ago in hopes that it might give you, the quarantined of our community (in more ways than one), a bit of strength and hope, as you navigate this holiday a bit more alone than usual.
In my mind, the most beautiful moment of the birthing experience, in general, is that first snuggle... That single point in time when the most precious little bloody and slimy creature gets placed in your arms before the nurses and doctors do their thing cleaning, weighing, measuring and testing… That was the moment I had been waiting for for 9 months. The second best part was always being wheeled into recovery, skin to skin with my newborn... as he nurses to his heart's content while my husband calls all of our family and friends to tell them “it’s another boy”...
This time, it didn’t happen at all like that.
My brand new baby was whisked away right after they cut the umbilical cord. They did show him to me before they took him away, which I guess was nice… but I wasn’t allowed to hold him... They let us take a quick photo… What? Where are you taking him??? I was wheeled into recovery with no baby. No snuggle. No clue what was going on. I was in a panic. Where was he? Was he ok? No news.
I was Alice, falling down the rabbit hole into a vortex of unknown experiences. I was scared and anxious. Why are they not telling me what’s wrong? He’s probably hungry! He needs his mother!!!
Four excruciatingly long hours after giving birth (that seemed more like weeks) the doctor came in and told us that he was born with immature lungs, and that when he tried to breathe at birth, he blew a hole in one of them. They were not sure about the prospects of his recovery. Breathe… breathe… breathe…
“I want to see him!!! He needs me! He will be ok if I can just hold him”, I shouted at the doctor. I had seen it in an episode of one of those fiction doctor shows (probably ER, if you want to know how old I am) that skin to skin contact and touch was really important for infants and could for sure cure whatever he was going through. I was sure that was all he needed to get better. And then the doctor said, “I’m sorry, you just had surgery. Until you can get up and be stable enough to walk to the bathroom on your own (because they would need to remove the catheter), you can’t go to the NICU.”
Ha! Those doctors had no idea who they were dealing with.
Four hours after surgery, I told them to take the catheter out, pulled myself out of bed and into a wheelchair. I went to the NICU, in search of my delicious little baby who I could heal with snuggles… and then I found him... with tubes and wires coming out of what seemed like every opening of his body (and then some), and he was in a box. No arm holes to reach in. I was not allowed to touch him. I burst out crying uncontrollably. I think I started shouting at the innocent nurse who wouldn’t let me touch him and told her about the ER episode that I saw and that she should go back to nursing school.
I felt useless.
I couldn’t even touch my baby, let alone nurse him. I am naturally a "fixer" type of person, and I think this was my first experience feeling like there was nothing I could do. I could not fix this problem. I was scared and heartbroken.
And then, when they told me to go back to my room to rest, the reeling thoughts got more creative... and not in a good way.
All I wanted to do was spend time holding my new baby. When my other kids came to visit and were so disappointed that they could not meet their new brother, I worked so hard to hold back drowning them in my tears. And then it hit me... I was useless to my new baby, and I would be useless to my other kids too, because I would be spending the first days of Pesach in the hospital without them. I was just useless.
The two days leading up to Pesach were a blur. I know my husband and I spent time in the NICU davening (praying) a lot. I was pumping a lot. I was anxious about being useless, and that I would miss a year of having meaningful and lasting Pesach experiences with my family. I felt like the trauma of this experience would never end.
The first night of pesach came. My friends, Shoshi and Aaron (both medical students at the time) came to run their seder in my hospital room while my husband stayed at my parents and ran the seder for our other children. It was actually a beautiful and uplifting experience, especially when we went to visit my baby after the seder and he started to turn around. Of course, it was Leil S’murim (the night where we are historically watched over). They were more hopeful about his recovery than they had been earlier that day. My heart danced as he began to turn a corner.
The second night my friend from childhood, Rachel, came to experience the seder with me. Her family was in town for the holiday and I was so grateful that she ditched them to spend time with me while my husband again did his best to make a memorable seder for our children at home. Rachel and I went to go visit my baby after the seder, and again, he was making progress. I was so hopeful that I would be allowed to touch him soon!
When I reflect on the rest of our time in the NICU, there are lots of missing pieces. I can remember some of the details as if they were yesterday, and others I have no recollection of. I eventually got to feed my baby milk from a little dropper… I eventually got to touch him… and then my heart burst when I finally got to hold him. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life to-date (until I lost a full-term baby, but that story is for another time), and yet… I look back on our time spent at the hospital over Pesach as one of the most beautiful times, one that helped shape the person who I am today.
I would never have imagined that a Pesach in the Hospital could be so spiritually elevating while simultaneously horrific and scary.
It was different from what I was used to… but then again, after that, life became full of experiences that were “different from what I was used to”. I have been challenged on many occasions since then to shift, re-evaluate, and re-connect with new realities.
It’s not always easy.
In fact, his bar mitzvah year was last year, and it included many roller-coaster rides for so many different people that I love, including our own family. Life can get pretty unpredictable.
I have friends who have been through what I would consider “way worse” than any of my stories (I try not to compare, but objectively, some challenges are more difficult than others). Across the board, they all feel that they have grown tremendously from their challenges (even the ones that lost loved ones that they would never trade in a million years for this newfound growth).
But we don’t choose our struggles.
We are tasked with taking our reality, whatever it is, at any given time, as challenging as it is, and rise up from it (at our own pace in our own way).
For those of you stuck at home this Purim or forced to experience Purim differently than you are used to, I challenge you to find a meaningful way to elevate whatever situation you are in. Given, this reality is certainly disappointing… I would love to hear all of the incredible ways you found to elevate the holiday within your new reality. Send me e-mails to let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org .
There is a concept in Purim called V'nahafoch Hu, when everything that is seemingly dark gets suddenly flipped around and becomes clear.
For anybody who is struggling with anything at this point in their lives; It is my greatest hope that your struggles get flipped very soon… That you find some clarity within the fog, and some sort of peace of mind, whatever that looks like for you.
Have a meaningful Holiday.