I was born with a superhero talent. I have the power to take any emotional hit and feel nothing, not a twinge of discomfort. A lifetime of neglecting my feelings built a steel casing around my heart so airtight that not even embarrassment, distress, or sorrow could bust in. On the other hand, neither could joy, excitement, or love.
By the time I was 26, I found myself in yet another long-term relationship with someone I had no intention of marrying. Eric was cute, agreeable and made me three-cheese chicken penne whenever I had a craving for gooey, cheese-covered noodles. Like my previous boyfriends, our relationship was not based on love, but convenience. All I asked of Eric was that he keep my tummy full. All he required was that I keep his bong full –- or at least loan him $40 a week to buy an eighth.
Being in a relationship motivated solely by pasta was the perfect complement to my career as a TV news reporter.
My job was more important to me than playing house, so Eric’s lack of expectations made it easy to focus on the day’s headlines instead of whether or not I was happy. What I didn’t know, however, was that reporting required me to feel all the emotions I was so skilled at shunning.
Distress crept in on slow news days when I was desperate to dig up a story. Agitation introduced itself every time I was forced to ask uncomfortable questions in an interview. And doubt became an old friend as I slowly became better at questioning myself than the subjects I was investigating.
After a few years of panic attacks and dread-filled mornings, my love affair with journalism resembled my love affair with Eric: I was showing up each day, but I wasn’t putting in any effort. The pressure of my self-imposed expectations scared me more than the murder cases I covered. In a frenzy, I quit the only job I ever wanted and stayed put with the man I did not want.
With not even a job interview lined up, I did what any broke, apathetic woman in a panic would do: I took a job as a cocktail waitress.
“It’s just for now,” I told myself as I studied a chicken wing menu. I desperately needed a break from all the emotions building inside me. A smoke-filled bar seemed like a good place to hide.
“Didn’t you used to be on TV?” customers would ask.
“Yeah,” I would say and then quickly follow with, “Should we all do a shot together?” It was the only way to quiet both them and the disapproving voice in my head. If there was a Pulitzer for ignoring your feelings, I would have won it. I felt nothing.
Then I missed my period.
In less than one year, I had gone from a promising journalist to a knocked up, unmarried waitress. My life was over.
In the following weeks, I carried my unborn child as though it were a weight and I a balloon -– I imagined its teensy one-ounce presence tying me down to the table at a birthday celebration, holding me back from the party for the rest of eternity.
Nothing inside of me wanted a baby. Yet, everything inside of me said I could handle it. The guilt took over: I reasoned that while I was young, broke and aimless, none of those qualities would make me a bad mom. So, I suited up in maternity pants and prepared for a nine-month battle.
“It’s you and me against the world, kid,” I would say as I rubbed my still-flat tummy. “We can do this.”
Three months into the pregnancy I learned it was my baby and I against the world; or at least against the laws of science. After my first visit to an obstetrician, I discovered the wall of the baby’s heart was not forming properly.
“There’s a chance your child could die in utero,” a specialist told me.
Part of me felt relief at the thought of being free. The other tortured half just felt guilt for thinking such sinister thoughts.
At five months pregnant, the baby weighed more than a pound, despite the defect. I learned it was a girl. She was due on Christmas, just one week after my birthday. If astrology had anything to say about it, she would be my own personal “Mini-Me.” As my baby grew inside of me, she was also growing on me.
Two months later I realized my wavering attitude toward motherhood would no longer hold water. Nor would my body –- my water broke while I was just seven months pregnant.
After only three hours in labor, I had a daughter. Like a lilac bush blooming early after a mild winter, she made her debut ahead of time and surprised me with her beauty. Her dark-olive toned skin had an ethereal shimmer and her long, delicate fingers gave her hands a regal look. As a team of doctors held her up to my face, tears of relief flooded from within. My little girl, who could have died at any time, had made it.
Then, they took her from me.
Born two months premature, my baby’s lungs were too small for her to breathe on her own. Her doctors carefully packed her inside a tiny incubator-looking crib just minutes after she was born and raced her off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She needed to be put on a respirator for her lungs and on medication for her heart, which was beating too slowly. I wondered if she inherited the physical glitch in her heart from the emotional malfunction in mine.
Over the next 24 hours, Eric and I sat by our newborn’s side as nurses fed her, changed her and tracked her vitals. We weren’t even allowed to hold her; it was too risky. We named her Maggie and I prayed, for the first time, that she would live.
The next morning Maggie opened her eyes and looked directly at me. Her gaze jerked my soul right out of the bottom of my stomach and forced me to lean forward as though she were grabbing my shirt collar with her tiny golf ball-sized fist. She knew exactly who I was –- her mother. Her soft brown eyes told me she loved me and would never blame me, no matter what happened. By opening her eyes, Maggie was opening my heart. Then, like a set of elevator doors, her eyelids slowly closed, leaving me with nothing to do but wait until they opened again.
A few hours later, Maggie’s heartbeat started to slow. The medicine was losing its effect.
At less than two days old, Maggie needed to be flown to another hospital hundreds of miles away to have a mini-pacemaker implanted. I flew with her, desperate to keep her in my sight, and my life. I finally found love; I wasn’t going to lose it.
It was 11 pm when we landed and midnight when the surgery started. Eric made the four-hour drive to meet me; we now sat quietly in a half-lit waiting room. Reading the covers of magazines over and over, I tried desperately not to read between the lines of what the nurses were telling me.
An hour later, I could no longer ignore what was happening.
“All I want is to hold her,” I told a nurse who came with dismal news. “I have to hold her just once while she’s still alive.”
The nurse led us to a deserted operating room. I cried as I held Maggie for only a moment, quickly placing her in Eric’s arms. I didn’t want to hog her in the last moments of her life. Maggie died somewhere between my embrace and her father’s hug.
I finally gave my heart to another human being, only to have it crushed worse than I ever imagined. I tried so hard to protect myself for 26 years, but it didn’t make a damn of a difference.
And yet, I was still breathing. Once scared to be vulnerable, I was now available to listen to sweet old ladies who wanted to share their own stories of losing a child. I told my friends about childbirth and how it was the most amazing experience I’d ever known. I even let my boss awkwardly hug me when I cried on my first day back at work.
While she lived for just 50 hours, Maggie’s short life shattered the steely exterior imprisoning my heart. By forcing me to feel pain and anguish, the exact feelings I had been running from, my daughter cleared the way for empathy and gratitude. I may have lost my superpower, but I finally have the courage to feel joy, excitement, and, most importantly, love.