Monday, May 11, 2015

Fear, friends, and motherhood.

I was standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth when I first noticed. With the tip of my index finger I pushed into my right side. After 35 weeks of pregnancy, I knew exactly where your tushie was and just what it would take to make it dance. "Wake up, sleepyhead," I said aloud. When you didn't wiggle, I shook my head and chuckled. "And here I was thinking you were a morning person like mommy."

Normally, it was you who woke me up. Rhythmic hiccups that came in the wee hours of the morning like clockwork. Every moment of my pregnancy with you kept me in such awe. I'd lay my hand on that right side--the dancing tushie side--and try to predict the next tremble of your tiny diaphragm. Harry was always still fast asleep but I didn't mind. This was our me and you time. And I loved it.


You had a right to be tired that morning. I was giving a lecture to the residents that day at noon and my pregnancy brain had me pretty out of sorts as I attempted to finalize my slide set. I guess all of the late night movement made you euphoric. I felt your little legs kicking and arms punching with every stroke of my keyboard. It was well after 1AM when I finally turned in and, fortunately, you let me sleep that night. I guess that's why I wasn't too alarmed by the fact that you weren't up and at 'em at 7 the following morning.

By the time I was about a mile or two away from home and en route to work, I'd poked that right side at least ten different times without much of a response. Instinctively, a wave of fear washed over me and I tried to shake it off. I turned the nob on my radio dial to the gospel station and brought the volume up as loud as I could stand it. I guess I hoped that some throaty vibrato thumping from my speakers would reach God's ears a lot more quickly than my fretful whispers.

A few minutes and several more pokes later, I reached for my cell phone and called Tracey, my obstetrician. She immediately picked up on the first ring.

"How's my star patient?" she playfully asked.

"Good for the most part. But your little fella is being lazy this morning." I was careful not to sound like I was worried. And my hope when I said that was that the very act of bugging my OB at 8:30 in the morning would get the tushie dancing immediately. But it didn't.

"What do you mean, bud?"

"Um, well. I guess it's just a little weird because I've not felt him moving this morning. Like, at all."

I could tell she heard the mounting fear in my voice. "This happens when you have a big baby in a small space sometimes. All the little fella needs is a sugar rush and he'll be up in no time. Are you near a McDonald's?"

I looked from side to side to note my location. "Actually, I'm coming up on one right now."

"The orange drink," Tracey said. "That orange drink is like a doggone glucose tolerance test. He'll be awake until I deliver him. Get that and something to eat and hit me back, okay?"

"Okey dokey," I replied. And honestly? I felt fully confident in this plan and that it would be the money shot.

I should explain my relationship with my OB/Gyn to give better clarity. Tracey L., my obstetrician, was more than just my doctor. She was the very first person I met in the parking lot on my very first day of medical school in 1992. She, a recent graduate of Florida A&M in Tallahassee, and me, a proud Tuskegee alum, immediately clicked upon first meeting. Our friendship developed quickly and easily, too. And interestingly, we didn't hang out a whole lot during med school. But we did always have an understanding when it came to our friendship.


As you've gathered by now, Tracey went on to do her post graduate training in Obstetrics and Gynecology. After finishing residency at Tulane in Lousiana, the Atlanta native returned to her hometown and arrived here right around the same time that I did. Time and other factors had caused a drifting between us. I think this is the reason why I felt comfortable seeking her out as a patient when I needed an annual one year. I knew her enough to trust her. Yet we weren't so connected that it would be weird. Tracey had just started up a solo private practice and I couldn't see a reason why supporting her wouldn't be a good idea. And so I did.

It may sound odd but that annual visit is what put us back in stride as friends. And since I didn't really need much of anything as a patient, I continued to go to her each year as her patient. Which was, in my opinion, no big deal.

By the time I got pregnant, we were very close again. I went straight to her to ask her opinion on a referral for an obstetrician to manage and deliver my pregnancy--because clearly our friendship was too tight now for her to serve as that person.

"Say what?!" she said.

"It's too close for comfort, don't you think? Way too much pressure for you, I think."

"Naaah. I'm good. But I tell you what--if I start to feel overwhelmed, I'll let you know."

And that was that.

The truth is that it was probably a horrible idea. Babies are so high stakes and having a close friend as the responsible party could be disastrous if anything went awry. But in our youthful idealism, we went forward. One of my best friends and medical school classmates would be the doctor to deliver my first baby.

That brings me back to that fateful day. Just as Tracey had advised, I bought an orange drink from McDonald's. And yes, she was right that there was nothing more sugar-laden that I could possibly have picked up through a drive thru than that. But even with that mighty high fructose bomb, I still didn't feel even the tiniest kick.

This was what I'd dreaded. A complication. And my friend having the agony of having to navigate the awful of it--not just as my physician but as someone who loves me.

"How's our little fella?" That was the first thing she said when she called me in my office a bit later.

"Uhhh," I stammered a bit, "he's . . uhhh. . .still being a little bit sluggish this morning."

"You didn't get the orange drink?" I could hear a twinge of something in her voice and I didn't like it.

"I did. A large one at that."

"Huh." That was all she said. Tracey was thinking. I know her so even through the phone I could tell that much. "Okay. So do this--where are you?"

"In my office where you called me."

"Oh yeah. Okay. So lock your door and lay down flat on your back on the floor. Babies don't like their moms to be flat on their back so that's a good way to get your little pumpkin moving." She was careful to use pet names to lighten things up. I appreciated that.

"How long should I do that for?"

"It shouldn't take long."

"Um, okay." I looked at the clock which read 10:30 A.M. My lecture was just one and a half hours away at noon. Before I could say more, Tracey got paged and had to get off of the phone. She instructed me to call her back as soon as I felt my baby move.

I carefully climbed down to the floor. First on all fours, then rolling over on to my bottom, and finally leaning back to lie flush with the floor. Limp like a rag doll, I lay there, staring at the ceiling. My heart was pounding hard in my chest and I wasn't sure if it was because I was nervous or due to some physiologic response to being supine.

But still. . .nothing.

Being down there hurt my back so I'd lie there for ten or fifteen minutes and then roll to the side and get back up. Then I'd do it again. Next thing I knew, it was 11:40--just twenty minutes before my lecture was scheduled to begin. I took a deep breath and fought back the emotion when I called Tracey back.

"I still can't feel anything," I whispered. "I. . I . . just. . I can't feel movement. At all."

"Buddy, really? Are you sure?"

"I'm sure."

"I'm coming to get you."

"I . . I. . I'm giving a conference in a few minutes. And I know folks will get all worked up if I cancel and say there's an issue with the baby."

"Kim. What do you want me to do?"

"I don't know." Now I was full on crying. I wanted her to make my baby move again. I wanted her to remove the sinking feeling and the dread that came from knowing the medical side, the reality that sometimes  babies stop moving. At near term. For unexplained reasons. "I need to call Harry. I need to.  . . okay. . .I'm just gonna get this lecture over with and maybe. . ." My voice trailed off.

"Call Harry. Or I can call him."

"No. I'll call him."  Which is what I did.

Poor Harry. He got this very matter of fact, staccato sounding call with me trying to sound anything other than terrified.

"What did you say?" Harry asked.

"I can't feel the baby moving. And haven't been able to all day. So I'm going to give my lecture. And after that, I'm going to drive over to Tracey's office to look for a heart beat. Yeah. So I'll keep you posted."

"A heart beat? What?"

"To see if that's why the baby isn't moving. Like to see if it's a intrauterine fetal demise." I used medical jargon to keep him at arm's length. I knew if he truly knew how upset I was, he'd be at Grady hospital in five seconds flat.

And so. I gave my lecture. It was supposed to be from 12:00 to 1PM. But I was so distracted and so worried that the entire time all I could do is poke my sides with my finger and imagine whether what I was feeling was in my head or truly some kind of real response. I reached my last slide by 12:33--shortest noon conference ever.

I fielded a few questions and then went tearing out of that lecture hall before they could even finish applauding. Scrambling for my phone from my lab coat pocket, I frantically called Tracey once again. "I . . .heee. . heeeee. . .I still don't. . I don't . . .no.. .  I don't. . .he's not . . .he's not moving." My body was heaving and those tears that I'd choked back for 33 minutes were now spraying from eyes like a faucet. And just as I reached the end of the sidewalk and looked up to cross the street, I saw something familiar.

Tracey's car.

"Do you see me?" she asked. "I'm here. I've been waiting for you. Just get in and come with me."

"I. . I. . .I need. . I need to . . I need to call . .Ha-Ha-Harry. And. . and . . I--"

She cut me off. "I called Harry. He's on his way to my office. And so is your mom. Okay? Come get in. I'm here."

And that was that.

I got in the car and not only was she in the driver's seat, my other best friend--also our med school classmate--was in the back seat. "We are with you," she said. "It's okay."

And she rubbed my back while I cried hysterically all the way to Tracey's office. Which, by the way, was closed that day since it was a Wednesday.

Harry was waiting near the entrance when we got there. He didn't say anything. He just took my hand and we followed Tracey into the office.

It was dark when we got in there. No people in the waiting room. No staff. No hustle or bustle. Just us.

She reached down to plug in the ultrasound machine. "Go ahead and sit up here, okay Buddy?"

I nodded and did as I was told. And all of us just sat there with hitched breath as she squirted that cool jelly onto my protuberant abdomen and pressed that ultrasound probe firmly into the side of it. Harry clasped his fingers around mine and Lisa stood by quietly. I think my mother may have come in shortly after that, but I can't fully remember. What I do recall is that poor Tracey had the horrible task of guiding that wandering device around my abdomen during all of this.


Those moments. . .the ones where we were waiting and looking and hoping? They felt like a million years. Harry squeezed my hand harder. I wasn't sure if he was bracing himself or me for the impact of whatever could be coming. I just stared into his eyes and held his gaze, knowing that no matter what was going to happen next, we were together and we'd get through it.

And then. . . that's when we heard it. Hard like a washing machine. The welcomed whooshing of that heart beat--Isaiah's heart beat--strong and . . .just. . .alive. Alive. "Heartbeat!" Tracey announced. And when she said it, I could feel her arm trembling on my belly. She was fighting with all of her might not to break down crying.

But me? I came completely unglued in that moment. Because for those seven hours before that announcement, I'd been trying to get my mind and heart around this little baby who'd been growing inside of me for all of those weeks being a baby I'd never get to truly know. Because sometimes that is what happens. Except this time, it didn't.


I realized something really important with my pregnancies. I loved those boys from the first moment I peed on the stick. I mean it. Because even taking a pregnancy test when you desire pregnancy fills you with ideas and dreams. You imagine what if I am pregnant and then you pull out a calendar and count the months. He'd be a spring baby, you tell yourself, and then you start making mental plans around what that will mean for your summer.


So, to me, the love that goes into the idea of motherhood is a part of the tidal wave that becomes the reality of it. And I guess I'm just reflecting on that and how none of it is promised. I'm also imagining every single woman who has ever been pregnant, whether she carried her babies to term or had the dream of their life interrupted by bright red blood trickling into cotton briefs. For some, that happened many times. It did.

I guess, I'm thinking, you know? I was Isaiah's mother long before May 6, 2005. I was his mom when I stared at that pink plus sign as it emerged before my eyes in my guest bathroom. I was his mother as I stared at the ceiling tiles in my office while lying flat on my back hoping that would coax him into moving. I loved him just as much as his mama when that ultrasound showed me his beating heart and his nearly nine pound body in a breech position--that had simply run out of space in my smallish frame.


So. On this day-after-Mother's day, I'm celebrating every woman who has ever known motherhood at any of its stages. Because you, my sisters, are mothers, too. Your heart knows that love, that yearning, that angst. And whether you got the chance to see your babies walk and reach milestones or never had that part work out . . . or even said good bye to them too soon. . .you are mamas, still. You are.

And let me just say this lastly--I have some amazing sisterfriends. They are brave and loving and wonderful. But if you read here, you know that I believe in women needing women to survive. So yeah. I'm really glad that Tracey was my doctor that day. And also my fearless friend.

That cramped little baby who was mistaken for sluggish, decided to turn back over just one week before I delivered. He arrived a few weeks after that day and Tracey caught all nine pounds and two ounces of him. That beautiful baby boy is now a happy, healthy ten year old.


I guess this is one of those stories that I'm writing down for him to read some day. So that he can know that he was loved before he was here and how these women that he calls his aunties and this man he knows as his daddy and his mama and his grandmama all cherished him even then. I want him to know that nothing is promised and that we must let our actions show our devotion. That day? That was a day of love in action. And that day when I stepped out of Steiner Auditorium and saw my friend's care parked outside--on her off day and waiting for me? It's one I'll never, ever forget for as long as I live.

The first person to ever meet my children--the one who delivered them, Tracey. 

Okay. I'm rambling. It's late and I'm getting tired. That's all I've got, okay? Thanks for listening. Really.

Happy Mother's Day to every version of a mother.


  1. Cindy LutenbacherMay 11, 2015 at 6:39 AM

    Oh, Dr. Kim--ya know what? When you and the crew heard that heartbeat, I busted out in tears, too. Beautiful story, and thanks for sharing it in your amazing voice.
    Happy Isaiah Day.
    Some of us went through that heartbeat from a different route. Three years I cried over every bloody undie because, as a single, wannabe mom, I went the alternative insemination route because I wanted the experience of pregnancy and birth. Had one on the hook but only for about two-three months before the blood came in clumps. I howled like a she-bear.
    Now, I thank all that is sacred for every red drop of those monthlies, for I adopted the two most glorious girls I can imagine. Older is an honor student, junior in college, and Younger is intellectually disabled and roaring through middle school.
    Both are the daughters I didn't even know my life needed. Both are the utter definition of motherhood for me. Both are the center of my soul.
    Rocio--for a friend's daughter. "Morning dew."
    Nikki--for Nikki Giovanni "Two trees."
    All the blood has meaning.

    1. Cindy, you made me cry with this testimony. Thank you, sister. Thank you for Rocio and Nikki and for reminding us that, yes, every drop of blood has meaning.

  2. Replies
    1. You are the epitome of mother. Thank you for reading this.

  3. You have written some really great posts, but to me, this one is the most beautiful. I enjoyed reading this one, and I even teared up a few times. You are right. We become mothers even before our little ones are born. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Yes, we do, Alicia. I appreciate you reading and commenting. Truly I do.

  4. This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Even though I knew this *must* be a story about your oldest and that it would end up ok, I sure as heck felt the emotion of it and was very relieved with tears in my eyes when you told of hearing his heartbeat. I remember driving in to work one morning and not having felt my daughter's movements and how relieved I was when I was sitting at my desk and it felt like she was rearranging furniture in there. :-) Happy belated Mother's Day! :-) ~ Laura

    1. Same to you, my dear Laura. I hope your day was awesome.

  6. "nothing is promised and ... we must let our actions show our devotion"

    Beautiful. And wonderful pictures of Tracey with your happy, healthy boys.

  7. Cuddling and nursing my 6 month old and trying not to wake him with my tears. Wow, lady. So powerful. Happy Mother's Day, both this past Sunday and this past Wednesday (incidentally, Isaiah shares a birthday with my baby bro, albeit 20 years apart). Thanks for sharing your heart!


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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