By Abbie Gascho Landis
The weekly playdate prompts me to clean, which helps to chase off cockroaches. Here in Alabama, land of robust flora and fauna, the consequences of sloppy housecleaning can be cockroaches nearly the size of mango seeds crossing your living room wall by lamplight. So I clean, wagging my full abdomen behind the vacuum and holding my vacuum-phobic toddler on my hip. Every Wednesday morning, Sam and I welcome a handful of moms—most of us in various stages of pregnancy—and three other toddlers for a couple hours of nonstop play and food and mom talk.
I am the only mom working outside home. This week, as we sit swapping stories about our toddlers’ naps and eating habits, discussing labor and delivery, I feel like I left half my body at the clinic. In the past three days, I worked forty-two hours as an emergency veterinarian. I wonder how other people stitch together their various lives.
Just over twenty-four hours ago, I lost a patient during a surgery to repair his diaphragmatic hernia. Today, the woman cradling a pregnant belly, cross-legged on the floor, jumping up to redirect toddlers or serve tea doesn’t feel like the same woman who orchestrated anesthesia, surgery, and ultimately resuscitation attempts at three in the morning. My hand prying open the elastic to check for a full diaper is the same hand that reached through the hole in the diaphragm, grasped a still heart muscle, and squeezed rhythmically until it began to twitch in my palm, for a moment. My voice singing “The Wheels on the Bus” told a tearful young woman that the gentle three-legged dog who brought her through a painful divorce had been too damaged by the car that hit him to make it through surgery.
Every now and then, one of the other moms asks me about work. One conversation began, “You deal with animals, so you might know what to do. Something died in our ductwork and there’s a horrible smell.”
Another time, someone wondered if people actually bring their pets to the clinic during the middle of the night. I answered honestly—yes—citing an unfortunate recent example involving euthanasia.
“I had to euthanize him,” I repeated, prompting a rapid subject change.
Mostly, we just talk about being moms, which is, in fact, my harder job.
At work, we sometimes order food, the way most offices do. Taking an index card around, someone collects orders from the staff and phones China Garden. The anticipation usually beats the real eggroll, which drips oil down my fingers yet remains dry inside, requiring syrupy orange sauce squeezed onto each bite. On the other hand, the crab rangoons are perfectly crisp and creamy inside if I can get to them while they’re hot. Often, just when the food arrives, I’m racing around, aware of the patient family who’s been waiting almost two hours in room three, the pushy woman who’s harassing the receptionist and seems to have no money, and the elderly gentleman in room four who, my staff informs me, is diabetic and needs to get home soon. Also, two critical hospitalized patients, one of whom does not seem to be breathing well at the moment, tug my attention.
I cram a crab rangoon into my mouth while scrutinizing the radiographs of the diabetic man’s dog. With my free hand, I press my aching breasts. Lactation makes me ravenous, and with limited time to eat or pump breast milk, my body distracts me with discomforts. One friend of mine, in her obstetrics and gynecology residency, pumped when and where necessary, putting milk production and comfort over privacy, earning the T-shirt they made for her at graduation with Creamery written across the front. I lack her moxie, and her hands-free breast pump.
I cock my head and stand back, chewing fried dough and deciding about the x-rays. Also, I’m organizing my plan of action. Get that diabetic man home now, check on the hospitalized patient with dicey breathing, examine the pet in room two for potential drop-off, and have a technician triage the pushy woman’s pet and finances while I race to the bathroom to pump. Those x-rays are normal. And go.
At home after working overnight, I wake in the early afternoon. I am molten, a liquefied rock settled into the bed, the long pillow between knees and arms. My head has melted into the pillow during this nap. Some heavy low sound slips from my chest. Sam rattles his crib in the next room, while the baby stretches and jumps in my abdomen. Her movement is like a mild electric shock that twitches an involuntary muscle, the only part of me able to move at all. On my overnight shift, I rested briefly after five a.m. Several critical cases kept my attention all night. One eventually stabilized, with fluids dripping into an elderly canine vein. The other patient quit battling to breathe against the thick fluid around her lungs. A flat-faced Persian cat, she gasped in the oxygen cage for hours, then flung out her legs and died. She left the clinic in the arms of two devastated people, and I felt relief for her. The night removed my bones, leaving me a motionless slug with maternal responsibilities.
More sounds from Sam, with words now: “Up!” I find my limbs individually, sliding them under the blankets. I crawl up out of the well. In Sam’s room, I sit on the floor by the crib, where he grins and hops around, peering at me over the front rail, through the rungs, over the side. I go back and forth like a limp metronome, joining our favorite game, “I See You Over the Top, I See You Over the Side.” I aim his space heater at my lower back and knead my lumbar muscles, laughing with him as he flops into the blankets. Joy is this: my warm back, a radiant boy, electricity of the daughter I contain. Stiffly, I ease sideways, then stand up one foot at a time. I snag Sam under his armpits and hoist him into our afternoon.
Last Sunday we were so busy at the clinic that I added sitting down to pee when calculating minutes off my feet in the past fifteen hours. We were so busy that one large German Shepherd mix stayed for several hours on the floor in the exam room where we’d euthanized her. Her status—recumbent, dehydrated and shocky, with a maggot infestation in her hind end—went from the top of our triage list to the bottom after she was dead. Short-staffed, we kept her in our thoughts but turned towards the living, trying to alter the course of other patients’ lives.
I began that shift with an emergency Cesarean section on an English Bulldog. Four puppies. Two with detached placentas were dead. One with a malformed head and severe cleft palate lived two hours. The fourth puppy rallied and made it home. Bulldogs are seriously impaired when it comes to reproduction. And breathing. I finished the surgery with my pregnant belly soaked in amniotic fluid, but glad to have mama bulldog recovering nicely.
I walked from surgery into the treatment area. All of the exam rooms were full. The long, U-shaped benches in the lobby had people seated shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting to see me, the only veterinarian in the building. I had to pee.
Two nights ago, I thawed and browned some venison—cuts I didn’t recognize because they were a gift from a friend. My plan: fajitas. The pieces looked miserably chewy, and the smell struck me as unappetizing. I set it aside in my crockpot and made veggie fajitas instead, intending to spice the meat and slow cook it. I forgot about it overnight. In the morning, I felt wary of the meat still sitting on the counter. So I ignored it. By noon, I was actively guilty and disgusted by the meat and myself. So I put it in the fridge. This morning I made my move, almost in tears about it, and threw away the perfectly good—though neglected—food. In the trash bag, it totaled only the size of my two fists. But it was food, the flesh of an animal who died to be eaten. Either way, it made me sick.
I learn in a continuing education seminar that hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, are considered hazardous substances. “Beware,” the pharmacists say, reciting regulations guiding the administration and disposal of such pharmaceuticals.
“No wonder,” I think, eyeing the other pregnant veterinarian beside me, and closing my eyes to feel those hazards in my own veins. I have been newly pregnant, then postpartum, then breastfeeding, now pregnant, heading toward postpartum and breastfeeding again. I have worked through both pregnancies and breastfeeding, feeling larger than life. Hazardous. “Don’t mess with the pregnant lady,” I joke to my coworkers.
But I do feel somehow superhuman, more than myself. I love the wide eyes on my clients, watching me enter an exam room belly first. Everyone can see the power that I carry. Little did I know that mothers everywhere carry the weight and strength of their motherhood at all times. Beyond pregnancy, it simply becomes invisible.
Hazardous. There is no end to the changes wrought upon a pregnant body, both during and lingering after gestation. I have learned not to underestimate progesterone and estrogen, and the rough seas when the two trade places in hormone hierarchy. So I grin at the pharmacists and their regulations for such dangers.
I lean between wall and exam room table, transfixed by the woman across from me. It is four in the morning, and her cat is dead on arrival. Nothing I can do, but we stand talking, two women close in age. One year ago, today, her daughter died. And now her cat.
She tells me to take photos, videos, to hold each moment like glass. Her daughter, not quite one year old, was asleep. Something stirred her husband, nudged him to check on the baby. She wasn’t breathing. They acted fast. Her heart still beating. A local hospital. A need for life flight. No helicopters available. A desperate drive. Days on life support. And then it was over.
We are both weeping. Her cat lies between us.
My cat prowls and stretches and climbs onto the shelf of my belly. I’m not settled in for napping yet. She’s ready, though. First I must arrange pillows strategically to support my back, neck, protruding abdomen. I turn off the cell phone. Let the dog in. Set the baby monitor on its charger to avoid low battery beeps. I fold myself around the pillows and begin with a deep breath inward, filling my chest and womb, allowing breath to flow down my curving legs to the soles of my feet. Purring, the cat joins me. I lift the blanket corner. She nestles against a shifting baby. As I focus, my face heavies, sinking against my bones and teeth. My breath, again, washes through me like a wave carrying light foam up the sand, then receding back into the ocean. In labor, these waves of breath will carry us to delivery, transforming wild pain into something I can hold.
Later, consciousness rises back to my eyes when I hear squeaks and murmurs over the monitor. I slept for an hour, pressed by the cat. Lead flows in my veins, holding me into the sofa crevices. I wiggle my toes, stretch, then roll to a stand and prowl back to the bedroom where my small, golden-haired boy grins. “Good nap!”
I open the oven to pull out the chocolate almond biscotti, filling the house with aroma. We’re standing in the kitchen along the countertop’s wide peninsula. Two blonde heads bob up and down as two-year-old boys climb the stepstool to munch banana nut muffins and blueberry cornbread. It’s a typical Wednesday playdate: three pregnant moms and two kids. We’ve just decided to head outside into the sunshine when Jenny, two days past her due date, gasps softly. “My water’s breaking.” She heads for the bathroom, and Rachel and I nearly follow her in there in our excitement. We giggle and our eyes fill. I offer towels and dry pants and assurances that amniotic fluid is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever had on our kitchen floor.
Jenny calls her husband. We settle down a little, finish our snacks, and speculate about Jenny’s next twenty-four hours. Husbands arrive to drive Jenny and the extra vehicle back home. They’re all gone within minutes. A flurry of astonishment and biscotti and well wishes bustles out the door. Sam, perched high in my arms above my own round abdomen, leans his head on my shoulder. We head down the hall. Naptime.
When my daughter is three months old, I discover that I can sing and whistle simultaneously. I’ve never tried that before. If fact, I’m not trying it now. After a full weekend of work and waking nights with Stella, I stumble around the house. A sound escapes me, something between a vocalized sigh and a descending whistle of amazement at how tired I feel. The result mixes my vibrating vocal cords and pursed lips into a warm buzzy feeling in the middle of my mouth. I try a tune. Success.
The next day, I try again but have to muddle through some bizarre, atonal, not-so-nicely-buzzy variations before I find the hummingbird in my mouth again. I zuzz out “Twinkle Twinkle” for Sam.
As I’m parenting two children and being an emergency veterinarian, sometimes I squawk out ineffective days, unable to balance my focus, like losing the melody between my lips and my voice. Sometimes a warm buzz fills me and fills the room. There. I find a balance, and a tune wavers along.
ABBIE GASCHO LANDIS is a veterinarian and writer in rural upstate New York. She is working on a book about her relationship with freshwater mussels, set in Alabama. Her writing appears at www.thedigandflow.com.