Let me tell you, at that point I was really feeling sorry for myself. However will I stop bleeding now? I wondered, supposing that I was at my wit's end.
Shannon had a fairly bad case of the chickenpox, with red spots spattered approximately every two to three inches apart, over all of her. I treated her with Aveeno oatmeal baths for the itching and Tylenol for the fever, while doing my best to distract her from scratching and scarring herself. This, while continuing to deal with thrush and bleed heavily, along with the regular care and feeding of a new baby and an eighteen-month-old. I'm not solid on the dates, but it was shortly past Shannon's third birthday. Perhaps it was right at Halloween time. That would seem appropriate.
Shannon was always a trooper, and this was no exception. Her chickenpox fever broke and the spots began to fade, just as the gentian violet began to do its good work on Laura's thrush. I thought maybe things were looking up. I took this picture for our 1992 Christmas card:
If you look closely, you can see that there are some faded spots on Shannon's face,
and Laura's lips are purple from gentian violet.
Perhaps a day or two after I took that picture, I was in the shower. I think it was a Saturday, and Shawn was at home, which would explain why I was able to enjoy a shower. Leaning back into the hot water, I rubbed the bar of soap in my hands and then spread lather across my shoulders and upper chest. Near my left shoulder bone, through the slippery soap, I felt a bump on my skin. Rinsing and investigating, I saw a small red dot. Leaning forward and looking through the steam, I scanned from left to right across my chest and found a whole crop of red spots.
I had the chickenpox. And so did David and Laura. I'd thought Shannon's pox had been a solid spread, but David, Laura and I had chickenpox on top of chickenpox on top of chickenpox. They were on our eyelids, inside our noses and under our fingernails. Can I just say, it is a nightmare to try to nurse a new baby when both of you are covered head to toe and in every intimate place with itching, oozing, crusting pox. Oh, and Shawn had used up every vacation day and personal business day on his work calendar by then, so I was on my own to deal with it.
There is something called PPD, or postpartum depression. I am not sure if that is exactly what I had, but I had something bad. I am not sure how I survived the deep, flooding despair and hopelessness I felt in those days. Something like hiccups, or sobbing, or desperate anger existed around the surface of my consciousness, and I felt--alongside the chills of the fever--like I was going to snap, except that I actually was snapping, bit by bit, a snap here and a snap there, and as I snapped, brittle and broken, I kept functioning. The grace of God is astounding, and so is our frequent blindness to it.
I flapped, too. I remember wearing loose clothing and flapping my shirt violently to keep from scratching. I flapped, pulled my hair and ran up and down the stairs doing laundry because it gave me something to think about, something to do with my hands and body to overcome the urge to scratch. I washed dishes, too. Fed the kids. Wiped off the kitchen table and counters. Changed the diapers. Adrenaline coursed through my body, and I shook, trembled, spilled tears, swallowed air and breathed panic, but I kept functioning. By the grace of God, I took care of them. The fear in my head said, "I can't do this. I can not do this." But I did do it. By the grace of God, and nothing else, I did. I don't know how, except that somehow He was silently holding me together.
I couldn't feel it at the time. I didn't know He was there. I felt completely and utterly abandoned. I had no awareness that it was a miracle that I was able to get out of bed and take care of my children each day through that time. I only knew what I wanted, and I was not getting what I wanted. I wanted a kind, gracious, gentle, comforting woman to come into my home and take care of me. I wanted her to speak kind words to me and confidently gather up my children in her arms and make them happy. I wanted her to put me to bed and bring me tea and homemade soup. I wanted her to care for my children and clean my home the way I wished I were able to do it, better than I could do it. And while she was there, I wanted to fall into a long, deep, peaceful, restful sleep and wake up healed. That is what I wanted, and that is what I did not get. That is not real life, but I didn't understand. I thought it was what I needed and that a person should get what she needs. I didn't know that Jesus was enough, and He was there. I couldn't see it until I looked back, and that is why I need to look back.
On two separate days, women from my church came over to help me. One came one day and another came another day. Bless their hearts, there was no way they could have lived up to my unrealistic expectations. They didn't have deep relationships with me or my children. They didn't know what my kids liked to eat, or how I folded the laundry a specific way so it would fit into the drawers, or that I was obsessive-compulsive about organizing the kids' sets of toys when picking up after a play session. Bless their hearts, they tried. They did their best. They were kind, and they reached out, and to this day I remember them with fond gratitude mixed with shame over the way I was unable to accept their help, unable to rest or relax or trust while they were in my home. The adrenaline continued to surge, screaming, "Hyper-alert! Hyper-alert!" I cried with anger after they left, because they were not the perfect lady in my imagination. I don't know what you are supposed to do when you are so broken to bits that you have nothing, no self-awareness even, when you're no more than a shell of bitter despair. It is incomprehensible grace the way Jesus holds onto us when we are unable to hold onto Him.
Chickenpox is a particularly humiliating thing to experience as an adult. You feel so sick, so weak and feverish and drained. Then you walk past a mirror and see the Swamp Monster that is you, and you can hardly grasp that you look even far worse than you feel. Most people don't get the chickenpox when they are a 26-year-old-mother-of-three. Do you know, when I called the pediatrician's office to ask what I should do for my eight-week-old baby with the chickenpox, they told me, "A baby that young cannot get chickenpox. She will have immunities from you, from the breastmilk she is drinking." But my breastmilk didn't have any immunities to pass on, because I didn't have any immunities myself. And so my children suffered with me.
One night, after many sleepless nights, Shawn and I decided that he would sleep in our bed upstairs, and take care of David in the nursery across the hall, while I would take Laura down to the guest room and sleep on the futon with her. I remember lying on the futon in the darkness after struggling through a poxy feeding, and realizing that my bleeding had finally, somehow, tapered off. I thought, I should be thankful. And anyway, I thought, itching is bad, but it isn't as bad as nausea. I was nauseated for nine months while I was pregnant. Now I just itch. I should be thankful. I fell asleep. Ironically, I woke up a few hours later with my stomach stretched tight as a rubber band, so in the end, I found myself vomiting after all.
I understood why the people from our church needed to stay at arm's length. I understood that if I were in their position, I would not myself go into someone's house that was rife with chickenpox germs and risk bringing chickenpox back to my own children (it was a small church of virtually all young families with little children). I understood, and it made sense, and I didn't blame anyone. Still, it hurt when they'd drop off a meal with a ding-dong-ditch punch at the doorbell, so all I'd find upon opening the door was a box of food on the step. I was thankful for the food. It's just that I wanted that perfect, nurturing woman to be there, to hug me and carry the box of food into the house, to tell me that I'd feel better soon. "Just hang on," I wanted her to say. "You will be okay, and I'll be here for you until you're okay again."
As Thanksgiving drew near, the church wanted to help, tried to reach out. They called and asked if they could buy us a premade Thanksgiving dinner from Wegman's. I said no. I was so shattered, so messed up. I was mad because I wasn't getting what I wanted. I wanted love and support and community. I wanted relief from feelings of loneliness, abandonment and isolation. I did not want an impersonal, boxed Thanksgiving from a grocery store. So I said no thank you.
Chickenpox hits like a mace, but it leaves gradually. First the fever and chills abate, and then the itching slowly subsides. After that, there is the long process of healing for the skin: gradually the spots fade from dark red to lighter red to pink to pale pink. Some of the spots scab and scar, leaving memories that will linger indefinitely or virtually forever.
I'd like to say that the story ended shortly thereafter, that the spots faded away and life went on, improving day-by-day. That's not quite what happened. For one thing, PPD. It's taken me years, perhaps decades, to work out that PPD was involved. Maybe it wasn't exactly postpartum depression, but it was depression, and postpartum hormone swings were certainly involved. For another thing, a bad case of chickenpox in the fall can wreck your immune system for winter. I was warned about this by one of the women who had spent a day helping me. She'd had chickenpox as an adult herself, and she knew. I remember her telling me, "Be careful when you get through this. Don't try to get back to full speed too fast. Your immune system will be weakened." I remember listening and nodding.
But I had no idea what she really meant.
--to be continued--