In my world, no date marks time like July 5. Sure birthdays are a big deal, especially as the Mom of two children. Yet, July 5, 2007 remains the great chasm in my life- everything before on one side and everything after on the other. Each year since we lost Strachan it brings a heavy, solemn pause. A day of sadness for what we lost, celebration of what we had, gratitude for lessons learned and, of course, the stomach-punching reality of how much time has passed and how much he is missed.
Not this year. This year, reflection got shoved aside by punch drunkenness, pain killers and hormones.
On July 4, 2014 we welcomed 9.2 pound Vukile Strachan Mbiyozo to our little family. This year, at 5 am on July 5 I was awake as usual for yet another anniversary of my brother’s last breath. But this time, instead of silence and reflection, a nurse woke me up to ask she could clean me. “And if I said no?” I joked, as if I had an ounce of vanity left.
Vukile Strachan arrived by emergency c-section after 25 hours of labour. Despite both our best efforts, he was not progressing and his vital signs began to drop. As it turns out, the not-so-little dude had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, so they pulled him out of the sun roof, much to my discontent.
The birth of my two kids were vastly different experiences. Both involved challenges. I have my handsome husband to thank for big babies that my body is not fully equipped for (I was 6 pounds at birth, we have no records of his birth but aunts and uncles all agree he was huge). Khaya was in distress, got stuck, broke her collar bone and spent her first night in the ICU. But she made it and I became a mini-celebrity on the maternity ward for my 15 minutes. Doctors and nurses knew of me and were quick to congratulate me on my efforts. I would be lying if I did not admit that it felt right. Despite the complications, there was something very ‘Hartley’ about being the toughest lady on the floor.
This time, they only congratulated me on the baby.
With a rate of 80%, private hospitals in South Africa have among the highest c-section incidence in the world (the global average is 12%). In fact, if you opt for a cesarean, it costs you and your insurance less than natural. I knew this when I chose to have babies in South Africa and subsequently spent a lot of energy defending against it. All doctors’ appointments included less than subtle reminders of my preference. This pregnancy involved a new doctor in a new city. “I’m German” she responded to the perennial question “and I should sure hope you want natural birth, you did not push out your first 9 pound baby for nothing”. Add in that my body had been tried and tested and had good reason to feel confident about my birth plan.
My heart broke when after 25 drug-free hours my doctor delivered the Germanic facts: “cervix is not moving, baby is sky high and heart rate keeps plummeting on contraction. We’re going to operate”. There were tears. They poured even more when the anesthesiologist missed my spinal cord and stabbed his needle into my nerve.
Only then, when things stopped going according to plan, did the date come into consciousness. I started to replay the exact time 7 years prior when my brother was hooked up to machines under bright lights. Now it was my turn, along with the tiny little person inside me. The prognosis was the opposite. Still, my mind skipped rationality and was overwhelmed instead by deeply cached memories. Things went so very badly once, it was possible for it to happen again. When I lost control of the process, I collapsed into the situation and switched from determined to fragile. Last time I was the super tough chick, this time I was the over-dramatic lady that would not stop crying over a routine procedure.
Vukile Strachan arrived healthy as a wee horse. Sure enough, joy replaced fear and sadness perfectly on cue. My tears changed to happy ones when I heard his scream for the first time. I stayed sobbing when I watched my husband’s face gloss over with sweet love when they put him in his arms.
I did not like this birth experience. I hated the bright lights, the cutting, the room full of people. I cannot stand that I could not will my way to a different outcome and failed my own vision. I am embarrassed that reason flew out the window and raw vulnerability took over. I hate that dozens of people saw me naked, pulled apart my insides and had to wipe me down for days (and that’s to say nothing of the flatulence). I am frustrated that I still look pregnant, am not allowed to leave my couch and that it will take even longer to look or feel like myself again.
Of course, only an ounce of perspective is needed to get over it. Seven years earlier, our family sat around Strachan waiting and watching powerlessly while the unthinkable happened. We will never know what fears he had to face or how he faced them. So things didn’t go exactly as I wanted? I will get over my little story by the end of the month. Life did not end in on July 5, 2014, it began.
This year I may have missed the significance of July 5, but it did not miss me. I did not pause solemnly, yet it continued to mark time. The permanence of my brother and our loss continues to surface in so many ways. Sometimes in a song, a memory or a dream. This time in expected and unexpected ways with the birth of our first son. My cousin Lauren sent a message welcoming him and mentioned that between the date and name, it is as if a part of Strachan was born again. We noww have a son, nephew and grandson. He is so very loved and will live out the rest of his days carrying on the names of his two uncles that are so very missed.
Strachan Hartley July 5, 2007. Life continues to move and change, but you stay with us, live through us and are forever loved. Still. Always.