A Mother’s Day reflection, dedicated to the one who first made me a mother:

Not for sensitive readers. (I’m serious – this one is a bit icky.)

This COVID-19 lockdown has stirred up memories of another period of self-isolation I experienced, back in 1991, also not of my own choice.

When Sean was born, almost 28 (Yikes!) years ago, someone commented that he was a miracle baby.

He wasn’t really (any more so than other newborns who survive at the hands of bewildered maternal academics who don’t realize that babies cannot and have not read Marina Petropulis, The Baby and Child Care Handbook, cover to cover like them). He survived birth despite a massive head (It has since proved to hold a magnificent brain at least) that required a caesarean section to prevent us both from becoming maternal and infant death statistics (12 in every 100 live births in 1992 in South Africa – not including HIV/AIDS stats).

His Great-Aunt Jean’s remark was not referring to these facts however. She was in fact reflecting on how a year previously I had been recovering from some rather unpleasant chemotherapy after a hydatidiform mole in my uterus.

At a time when I have been googling coronaviruses and other such nasties, I finally took the time to have a look at the suckers that took over my innards like grotesque, water-filled red bunches of grapes. Hideous:

I’ll spare you the real-life photographs because there ain’t nothing pretty about the condition, which arises from an aberration just after conception and results in the chorionic tissue around the developing embryo, going into hyperdrive and blowing up like balloons, resulting in the natural abortion of the embryonic life and causes extensive haemorrhaging, which in my case necessitated chemotherapy.  (pardon my lay(wo)man’s biology, my dear medical friends)

We’ll never know how long the early life within me survived, but what should have been a happy visit to the doctor to see and hear the heartbeat of the baby that would make us parents, ended in tears (even though I’d been unprepared to be pregnant in the first place). All I remember from that occasion was the awkward silence that greeted the radiographer’s first enthusiastic movements of the sensor around my already swollen belly (a symptom of this condition btw, in that a woman presents with larger-than-normal uterine growth at an early stage because of the explosion of beta-HCG hormones). Then she stammered that she would call the doctor, and he confirmed our fears: no heartbeat, the miscarriage already showing as a Milky Way of snowflakes.

So, we went home to grieve and get used to the idea that the previous weeks of trying to come to terms with an unexpected pregnancy were over, and the realization that there is something worse than unplanned parenthood– not being pregnant anymore. And a sense of defeat. And guilt. No amount of soothing from the gynaecologist who tried to console me that 25% of first pregnancies abort spontaneously, could prevent that combination of loss and failure.  

There was a sense of relief when I actually began to bleed, but that soon turned to fear as the bleeding continued over days and I had to abandon my final examination invigilation of the 1990 Grade 10 English examination my students were writing, mid-exam, and race home, where clot after clot soaked into our new grey carpet.

The resultant procedure was quick, if unpleasant, after a nightmare drive through to the hospital in mid-morning traffic atop a pile of towels which fortunately I never saw again. I remember awakening from the anaesthesia in a foetal position on a gurney, in an awful mockery of what should have been growing inside me. I was crying for my mother from the pain, and, noticing the fingerprints on my stomach the next day, it’s not surprising – they must have pressed really hard to scour out the remnants of the miscarried pregnancy.

It didn’t end there though, because, as it turned out  thanks to the instinct and foresight of my doctor who dispatched samples for biopsy, a diagnosis of hydatidiform mole was possible… and treated effectively over the next four months. It was no consolation to hear that this was a very rare condition (One in 2 500 women in those days were the proud sufferers of the special privilege of being this unusual!)

But that’s how I happened to have a front row seat on the First Gulf War because I was booked off during the treatment, which was progressively more debilitating as the weeks wore on with the last couple of sessions necessitating my husband who was not very tall, having to stagger to the car with me (no light-weight, despite my small stature) in his arms, in a comical parody of a romantic hero carrying off his princess, following a drip containing Actinomyacin (I still remember how it looked, a substance kindly Professor Bloch jokingly referred to as pricier than VAT 69, obviously his Scottish malt of choice! I didn’t care then…(or now).

A10025-0.005 - Actinomycin D [Actinomycin C1] [Dactinomycin], 5 ...

On good days, I sat in our small lounge (the marks of my miscarriage now hidden under a strategically-placed coffee table) sorting out teaching resources and glued to live reports on the first war to be televised live, like a sick action movie.

This was the age of war correspondents like Christiane Amanpour, Peter Arnett, and Bernard Shaw. (In a feminist aside, it is interesting to note that it is Christiane Amanpour I remember the most, although you won’t find her in the Wikipedia pages on reporters during that time!) I, like so many other watchers, stared in fascinated horror at the destruction of Baghdad and the human suffering that resulted. In a macabre way, it distracted me from my own unfortunate situation.

Eventually though, the effects of the chemotherapy became too great even to sit, and the last couple of weeks I spent in bed, unable to get up and go down to the lounge at all.

Sadly, chemotherapy does not involve a romantic, Little Women-ish state of fatigue. It is accompanied by horrible side-effects which made the knowledge that this was supposedly good for me, seem like a ghastly, dishonest joke and further punishment for being such a rubbish incubator of life. I suffered from mouth ulcers that made eating impossible so I lived on a diet of Ultramel custard and yoghurt. When my veins collapsed they sourced places all the way up my arms, but to this day when someone flicks the top of my hand, I devolve into paroxysms of panic.

The worst was the acne. It seems foolish now with the distance of wisdom and age to remember that disfigurement with so much agony, but for an insecure young woman it was devastating. Painful, angry red blotches in a rash of leaking cysts covered my entire face and chest and spread all over onto my back. (it is not called acne vulgaris for nothing). I have never felt so ugly and consequently have always felt exquisitely protective of my school pupils over the years who have suffered from this condition.  I suppose this suffering was worth it to deepen my compassion for teenagers.

My sanity-saviours during this time were my friends, Traci and Jean (who would later become godmother to Caitlin) and my mother’s daily ‘just-popping-in-for-tea’ visits. I am forever grateful for their ‘not seeing’ the vileness, and loving me through it all. The memory of their care is the one positive memory I carry from that time of struggling through the pain and exhaustion and the unspoken fear that I would never have children of my own.

Months of regular testing (ironically the same as a pregnancy test) followed the chemotherapy and so the transfer of my husband to Port Elizabeth, away from my support system, was especially hard, along with the realization that career trumps wives for many couples in the cold world of businessmen.

…And then there was Sean, who came along after we were given the all-clear. Many think that having a (now) large family was an unconscious desire to prove that I could have babies. They may be partly right, (Perhaps I’m just greedy) but all I know is that Sean was the first of the five best things I have ever done… and a special kind of miracle.

I wish my mother were still with us to see the wonders that are her grandchildren (She saw only two, who were infants when she passed away).

Happy Mother’s Day, especially to those mothers who have triumphed over miscarriage and disease to find that indefinable joy of motherhood, and cried along the way.