Nine years ago today – January 3, 2007 – I delivered our first-born son on the cusp of the third trimester. We named him Natan; he is buried in Arborcrest Memorial Park in Ann Arbor, MI. I’m well past the point of wanting to hear “I’m sorry for your loss,” so please, don’t say it. I do appreciate reflecting each year on whether or not changes in my life and personality emanate from the experience. I’ve lived through many millions of big and little events in the many days and nights since then. So if anything, the differences in me are cumulative and it’s impossible to know what stems from what. But I think I can pick out three alterations in my personality that would have gone differently had life progressed as I’d thought it would on December 25th, 2006 – the day before I entered the hospital.
Humility: As of January 1st, 2007, I’d been in the hospital a full week and hope was building that I’d be there for a few more weeks. A very kind nurse helped me wash my hair with a dry shower cap shampoo and Josh brought more items and clothing from home. I began to feel human. I began to feel that maybe I should tell my friends – most of whom were dispersed around the country doing research or if they weren’t also grad students, lived in other cities anyway – that I was in the hospital. The same nurse who washed my hair told me she’d spent more than a month in the hospital herself before delivering her son at 30 weeks. I think he was four or five by then, and she said he’d had some challenges, but nothing major since his third birthday. I found a little hope.
I had one thought that I often remember – I don’t know if it emanated from panic or hubris, but I clearly remember thinking after she left the room that everything had to be okay because I simply wouldn’t know how to live as a person who’d failed like this. It’d be so humiliating, so painful to go back out in the world as a woman who couldn’t do something so common. I felt like such a freak.
Anomaly – exception – freak – failure
Almost immediately after Natan’s death, I met parents like myself through blogging and introductions by friends. In comparing my experiences with theirs, I found I had a source of solace unique among many of them. I’d spent the previous years immersed in archives around the country. I’d read thousands of diary pages and letters looking for 18th and 19th century reflections on celebrity. In the process, I’d skimmed the details of so many men’s and women’s lives from Boston, MA and Philadelphia, PA to Natchez, MS and Freeport, IL. I remembered passages from a Philadelphia diary where a father mourned his daughter’s late miscarriage and his own heartbreak at seeing her go through what was familiar from his own marriage. I knew that despite what so many people believe now, men and women didn’t gloss over miscarriage and infant death. They may have accepted them as more frequent events in their lives than we do, but they also marked them communally.
I have been chastened (but also comforted, truly) by realizing that I’m not special when it comes to biology. I’m a female human who can’t escape the imperfections of the natural process of reproduction. Accepting that it’s inevitable that some babies will die and I don’t have some special exemption from nature – even as I celebrate the improvements in medicine that increase survival – has been tremendously humbling. Humans have limitations. Accepting mine has been humbling, but also liberating.
Anger: I don’t even want to count up the days I spent in the hospital between my pregnancies with Natan and Wise. At least two weeks. I must’ve had at least thirty office visits as well. Back then I didn’t understand the healthcare and insurance crisis in the United States, but I probably thought I did. Adding up our premiums, co-pays and other random categories of health care cost, we spent less than $1,000 on healthcare in those pregnancies. Yet the bills to insurance totaled over $60,000. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I remember the floor dropped under me when we received a statement for over $35,000 for Natan and me. But then I scanned to the total balance we had to pay and it was $0. Never mind co-pays – we didn’t even pay premiums back then.
Thank goodness we were in Michigan, with the University of Michigan’s healthcare plan. Had we been in Mississippi, where we lived when Hoot was born, and on the University of Mississippi’s health care plan, we’d have had to foot at least $7,000 of that bill after having already paid thousands between my premiums and our deductible. With all the strange exemptions, “co-insurance,” and “agreed upon payment” requirements, I have no idea what it would’ve been in Mississippi. And that bill was simply one portion of one pregnancy.
I have no idea if we’d have gone on to have Hoot and Wise in Mississippi had Natan been born and died there. We’re still struggling to gain financial stability after all my calculations for my pregnancy with Hoot were confounded by hidden categories in BlueCross BlueShield of Mississippi’s billing system. This inequality in cost infuriates me.
I passionately despise “employer-sponsored” health insurance. It suggests that we only deserve to live if we are lucky enough to work for an organization with a moral compass and the ability to overcome the for-profit insurance industry. Too many of us do not, even if we are working full time.
Gratitude: I’m grateful to the University of Michigan for its hospital system and to the doctors and nurses who treated us. I’m grateful to the graduate student union for fighting to keep premiums low for students. Without them, Wise wouldn’t be here. Hoot wouldn’t be here either because I used the knowledge and self-advocacy tools I learned in Michigan to navigate the Mississippi health system.
I’m grateful to the friends and family who showed up every day for weeks in January and February 2007. I’m grateful to friends and family who never suggested getting over it was a possibility.
I’m grateful that Josh and I still like and love each other, because, especially recently, I’ve seen others not make it.
In the past nine years, I’ve learned I’m simply not exempt from life. I fit into a pattern of birth, life, and death for women. The beauty and the exceptions in that are in what I decide to do and, what I can do, with that design.