(by Wendy Patrice Williams)
Coming Home To My Body
Giraffes surrounded me on the wall, those long necks. Covered by plastic, they were cold when I touched them. The smell of alcohol reminded me of the nurse who would dab my arm with a wet cotton ball and prick me with a needle. Dr. Constad’s voice was warm gravel. “Look at you,” he said, squatting so his eyes were at equal height with mine. “You are a miracle.” Happiness filled up my little body, like air rushing into a green balloon. “Unbelievable,” he continued. “I wouldn’t have bet a plug nickel on you when you were a baby.” The balloon burst. I was so ashamed I could hardly hear him continue. “But look at you now.”
As soon as I was naked on the examining table, his hands kneaded my stomach. He dug deep, asking questions with his fingertips and palms. I stared at the ceiling, afraid. What was he looking for? He searched quickly, furiously, but methodically, bent on discovering something hard, that olive of stone, seed of death. His hands seemed determined to find any possible intruder.
“I don’t feel anything hard,” Dr. Constad pronounced. “Nice and soft.” “Will she have trouble with her stomach later, say when she’s fifty?” my mother once asked Dr. Constad after the examination.
“She shouldn’t,” he answered. “We’ll keep checking, of course.”
I had no idea what fifty meant. I was not yet two when I started to worry.
In records from my hospitalization after my suicide attempt at age twenty-two, I found the familiar phrase from when I was twenty-six days old. My mother had told the social worker about the operation that I had undergone as an infant. He wrote no special note to follow up on this information. The rest of the report focused on my thyroid gland and the irregularity of my periods. Blood had been drawn, a gynecology exam administered. Hormones, or female problems, had contributed to my admittance to the hospital, the notes conclude. My cold turkey withdrawal from Valium prescribed for a TMJ (tempero-mandibular joint) problem—the actual precipitating factor of my breakdown—was not something that I would have mentioned at the time. After all, according to the dentist, Valium was just like aspirin.
The notes refer to my one brief meeting with the psychiatrist and his prescription for anti-depressants and to a consultation with a social worker three weeks after my admission, who wrote: Patient advised to seek employment (want ads supplied). Patient should pursue stable family life (stipend allotted for purchase of feminine hygiene products and new clothes).
Years later, I understood the origins of my instability. At the encouragement of my therapist, I drew the image I had of myself as a baby—a floating monster, wound round with strands of red spaghetti. A fetal body with a blue belly and blue rubbery legs, small feet webbed like a duck’s. Bald, blue head and red face. Giant amber insect eyes as if on fire, the eyes windows to my insides. A gash on my belly, red and purple angry strokes. In the picture, huge hands held up as if screaming STOP! yet the fingers were limp, wavy as if boneless. In fact my whole body was floppy, cast adrift, given up as if flowing with a current.
This was the image of my beginnings that I carried with me—a larval creature floating in outer space. A baby who, in all likelihood, had not received anesthesia for stomach surgery at three-weeks-old. A baby who was given a muscle paralyzer. At the time, it was believed that anesthetic drugs were too dangerous for infants. Besides, they rationalized, babies did not feel pain. And if they did, they would not remember.
* * *
As a baby, I had a condition called pyloric stenosis. The muscle around the pyloric valve between the stomach and small intestine swelled and food could not pass through. This problem is more easily diagnosed nowadays and the remedy less severe, but in 1952, the obstetrician diagnosed my symptoms incorrectly and by the time I had surgery to open the passageway at twenty-six days old, I weighed only four pounds, down from six pounds, seven ounces.
I used to believe that my mother saved my life single-handedly. Her stories said as much. I pictured her as twice her size, bent over a huge medical book propped up on a lectern at the public library as she searched day after day for the cause of my illness, flipping page after page. Suddenly, she pointed to the obscure paragraph describing my symptoms: projectile vomiting, weight loss. “Pyloric stenosis!” she cried. She called Dr. Constad, who corroborated her diagnosis on the phone, and whisked me off to the hospital. To me, she was Supermom. A God, only more so: she gave me life twice.
Later I learned the actual story. The obstetrician caring for me, Dr. Karr, blamed my mother for my problem digesting food, saying that she was nursing me incorrectly. My mother doubted this from the beginning since she had nursed Mike, my brother, successfully. Reading a paperback written by Dr. Spock while sitting at our kitchen table, my mother noticed a paragraph describing my symptoms perfectly. Was pyloric stenosis the answer to the question that burned inside her? Soon after, Dr. Constad, my brother’s pediatrician, actually saved my life by looking in on me during a house visit for Mike. I was twenty-six days old and weighed only four pounds. The light drained from his face, my mother told me, when he saw me in the crib. “Take her to the hospital immediately,” he said.