THE DELIVERY OF HOPE
July 2009 was the hottest month ever recorded in Austin. My days were spent indoors with hazy light coming through our living room’s north facing windows. The view – a wilting back yard: dirt covered with old leaves, cracked branches of a rose bush, and our small lemon tree that never bore fruit. I continuously marveled at my infant daughter. Me, who could kill any plant.
For much of my life, I’d never imagined myself as a parent, much less a stay-at-home mom. Born to a long line of incompetent cooks, I favored writing poems, studying or teaching to caring for things in the domestic realm. And though I still wrote a few hours a week, it was my husband, Mario, who went to the office. Having played a local role in Obama’s recent election, he’d left political work and returned to the for-profit sector. He had the earning power, and I had the breasts. So this was a plan we’d agreed on.
Somehow six months had passed, and given our lack of sleep, they felt like the fastest and slowest we’d known. I’d become the manager of all household drudgery; yet there was a quiet grace to our days. Eliana and I hung a bird feeder, and a pair of cardinals took up residence in our cedar. We watched for them daily, the way I’d watched for birds with my mom during the endless Februaries of Upstate New York. I found myself longing for the snow-laden branches of our old catalpa tree, the serious stand of pines. In some ways, this summer was not unlike those dormant winters. There was nothing to do but slow down.
Mario’s default was motion, and the heat made him antsy. To get us out of the house, he suggested we attend a weekend rally for healthcare reform. I’d joined him at plenty of events to support Obama as our nominee, but we’d done little yet to support his presidency. This rally, Mario reasoned, would be our perfect re-entry into the world of politics, as a family. I wasn’t so sure.
Politics was a big part of what made our marriage work: we were both Democrats to the core. I’d inherited my views from parents who met as social workers in New York City. Mario had chosen his when he saw how little his father’s aspirational allegiance to the Bushes helped his family. But the expression of our commitments were as different as we were; Mario chose the lime light and worked with intensity while I was more likely to compose careful editorials in my head.
Our baked-to-a-crisp yard had become a metaphor for my own exhaustion. I thought about the crowded rally, Eliana’s napping schedule, the sheer effort of leaving the house. I had gone through childbirth uninsured, an ordeal that had depleted me as much as labor and delivery, and I wanted to speak up. Where would I find the energy?
There again were those resilient cardinals, together, braving the heat. But it was the male who shimmered. If we went to the rally, I imagined Mario greeted, glad-handed, and welcomed back to the fold while I blended into the bark. Despite my more interior nature, I was no good at a life unsung. A familiar tightness rose into my chest: Were other new mothers as resentful as I was?
When Eliana was born, she looked just like my husband, Mario the Beautiful. He’s not tall, and his nose and mouth together take up more than their share of his face. But as he would put it, he’s got one of those smiles that makes every abuella at Latinos for Texas meet-up call him mijo. My parents love him, the neighbors love him, and I loved him from the moment I arrived in Austin. I had joked with friends that I’d come to meet the perfect man; somehow there he was. Even as he was being ousted so I could replace him as my best friend’s housemate, he helped me unload my U-haul.
There’s a picture taken moments after delivery; he holds Eliana aloft, swaddled in her small stripy blanket. His smile fills the room. Behind him, eyes closed, pale as a hospital sheet, I lay in a thin layer of sweat. Twenty four hours of labor is not unheard of, but foregoing pain meds, even while being induced, was an anomaly close to insane. In the steel jaws of pain, I envisioned myself as a soldier in an unpopular war, blown apart and strewn on the side the road. I couldn’t see the love in my husband’s helpless eyes. I could only see someone who would never go through what I was experiencing. Maybe there were good reasons why men were kept out of the delivery rooms. By the time transition hit, if my doula Candice had asked me to leave him for her, I would have signed the divorce papers in an instant.
Those first days at home with a new baby, we lived as one person with a single care-taking mission. There were midnight picnics on our bedroom floor and delirious renditions of Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Mario made me snacks and cheered me on as a champion. I swung between manic energy and a dreamy exhaustion. After nursing, I’d drift off on oxytocin cloud and with Eliana’s breath taste summer nights of my girlhood: sweet with lilacs, a slight lingering of sunscreen on my shoulders, and my nightgown – a T-shirt begged from my father – faintly smelling of bleach.
But then Mario went back to work, and it became harder and harder to relax. After one a.m. feedings, I’d drag my sack of bones back to bed only to find my chest revving. Up again, I’d pour a shot of whiskey into my Sleepy Time tea and replay whatever our evening argument had been. The series could easily be staged as a battle of our disparate hometown ideologies – his “Houston, Texas” vs. my “Gloversville, New York.” Gloversville was a dead end straight from a Springsteen song; until the mills moved, we actually made gloves there. His Houston bred progress and implausible optimism. Where he saw potential for growth, I saw grim, sad facts.
Like a knot in your gut, resentment is hard to untangle. And despite the monotony of routine with a new baby, there is little space for contemplation: you just do and make do and marvel at the stamina you didn’t know you had. If I felt unappreciated or under cared for, I assumed I was the victim of hormones, exhaustion, caretaking-itis. The truth was I envied the shit out of my husband and nothing had seemed fair for a long, long time.
When that summer heat hit, I’d text him all day and a get angry if he didn’t respond. Hourly news drifted in until I felt I could recite it. In place of another adult to talk to, I began listening to audio books. At a friend’s suggestion, the first was Eat, Pray, Love, but I bristled every time Elizabeth Gilbert used the word “babe.” When she took off for Italy, I thought, “Wuss, stick it out.”
So I opted for the steady voice of our new president. I didn’t think about it at the time, but Obama had played a bigger role in our lives than most of our family and friends. The connection I felt to him was so personal that, just before the primary, when radio reporter claimed Obama was losing support, I called the station in a rare moment of outspokenness. “I don’t know who y’all are talking about,” I said, almost hearing the announcer’s patient smile, “but here in Austin we’re as fired up as ever.”
Now in the quiet of my cloistered home, that fire seemed like a memory. A few chapters into Dream from My Father, Obama recounts a sermon by Reverend Wright. The story of Hannah barren and taunted by her rivals. Hannah – I remembered from teaching the Bible as Literature to reluctant high school students – was Samuel’s mother, accused of being drunk because she prayed with her mouth closed. In his sermon, Wright compared her to a woman in a symbolist painting who appears to be sitting on top of the world, but she’s bruised and bloody, dressed in rags. With one string left on a busted harp, she has the audacity to make music: a few faint notes making their way upward. The painting is titled Hope. As I listened, my face became wet with tears.
With three other equally energized optimists, Mario organized Texans for Obama, and brought Barack Obama for his first Austin visit. It was February 2007, two weeks after he’d announced his candidacy. I dusted off my bike and rode down to the rally. (I was almost late because I stopped to help a high school kid put air in his tires.) And when I got there I found something astounding: 20,000 people had gathered. And it wasn’t just the usual liberal, white South Austin types: it seemed like everyone. College students, grandmas, Latinos, Blacks, little kids too. It had rained most of morning, cleared in the afternoon, and by the time Obama took the stage, the air was blooming with the early spring that comes to places that don’t really have winter.
He was charming. When some one called out “I love you” he smiled and called out “I love you back.” And when he launched in to his speech there was a palpable energy and urgency with which the crowd listened. He said we were a nation at a crossroads. The first issue he talked about was health care. His rhetorical question “Why wouldn’t we take the money we save by making sure that everyone has prevention and put that money into providing affordable, accessible health care for every single American?” left me thinking, indeed, why not?
The cloud I drifted out on after that rally made me feel 21 again – as if the years Bush had robbed us all of had been just a bad dream. But that night I dreamt a disturbing growth, like a small octopus, emerged from my head. In the dream, Mario cut it out, placed it in water, and, to our astonishment, it bloomed into a tropical flower. The morning was so foggy I could hardly distinguish doves from the sky. I located the source of the dream growth as jealousy. If only I had had the equivalent of spiritual scissors, I might have cut it out at that moment. While Mario was gaining a degree of local fame as a political organizer, I was failing at something that, I mistakenly reasoned, should have come easily. We were trying to get pregnant.
My second miscarriage had happened just a month ago. I’d flown home solo from a trip to Boston while Mario stayed at Harvard for a conference on technology and democracy. The plane, I recall, seemed to move underwater. When my period was late, I did a home test that showed two parallel lines. Days later, while Mario was still back East, I started bleeding in a Starbucks’ bathroom. For any woman who has had a miscarriage, which is at least a fourth of us, you never get over how alone you feel. I’d held a secret hope for this pregnancy; that it would somehow connect me to my recently dead grandmother, that no matter how hokey it sounded, her spirit had stuck around, just waiting for the right moment to embody itself through me. So there it was; I’d lost her too.
Where do you go from there? In the short term, you drive home from your meeting at Starbucks, take as much Advil as you can stomach, and call in sick to work. Then you think about your life, and maybe you decide something big has to change. I resolved to quit my job.
I blamed the miscarriage on the stress of teaching high school and found a new position managing education programs for a nonprofit. My new work energized me, but it provided no health insurance. I pressed Mario to get a job with group coverage. But he couldn’t let go of his aspirations for meaningful work any more than I could. He became creative lead with a transmedia startup that encouraged girls to change the world. I felt like I was balancing on a precipitous ledge; Mario pointed out there was no ledge. If I got pregnant, I got pregnant. We’d find a way to manage.
I stayed on COBRA coverage, even as my premium went from $500 to $600 a month. We looked at some individual plans. In Texas, there was no mandate that maternity be part of any health insurance. The best we could find was worse than bad. Only $2000 could be allocated toward expenses for a first child. And the price? As much as my COBRA plan.
I could stay on COBRA for a total of eighteen months. We kept trying.
I was diagnosed with antiphospholipid syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system mistakenly produces antibodies against normal proteins in the blood. The syndrome caused blood clots, and for reasons that weren’t totally clear, could cause pregnancy complications, such as miscarriages and stillbirths. The outlook didn’t seem good.
Months past. Seasons. Obama returned to Austin and gave a speech at the Capitol. When he mentioned the importance of poetry in public schools, I hooted long and loud.
But I was fixated on my own private irony. No one tells you that, after all of the time you spend trying not to get pregnant, it sometimes doesn’t just happen at the drop of a skirt. No one tells you that working for political and social causes could earn you zero in the way of health care coverage. One night in May, I woke up at two a.m. and anxiously starting counting off days. It was too late. If I got pregnant now, our coverage would run out by the time the baby was born.
We stopped trying. We went to a wedding in Dallas, and for the first time in a year, I indulged in more than one drink, more than two. Swimming in margaritas, feet dangling in a pool, I felt the freest I’d felt in a long, long time.
Of course I was pregnant. But I’d learned not to hope. Even as week five turned into weeks six and seven, we called the cells growing inside me “Maybe.” In June we went to Colorado for another wedding. The Breckenridge altitude was agony. I reeled with nausea at the smell of barbecue and slept for fourteen hours a night, but we still wondered if the pregnancy would stick.
It stuck. Worried about my diagnosis, we found a specialist who sat us down in a room full of books, and with the complete calm of experts told us she found my blood work inconclusive. I could start taking heparin, but there was no real evidence that I needed to. Instead, I took a baby aspirin everyday. She monitored the pregnancy, and with each visit, the ground beneath us felt surer.
Mario’s political drive became more of a sore spot. With Obama’s campaign now in full gear, he spent evenings and weekends strategizing and block walking. At first I joined him, eagerly ringing doorbells and handing out oranges to the crowd of voters who showed up for the Texas primary. Then I tripped on the cement stairs of a nearby apartment complex. Then the heat hit, and my hands and feet swelled. In August, Mario went to Denver for the nomination. He came back in high spirits bearing banners lifted from light posts on the city streets. There were crowded parties where people didn’t remember my name. And paychecks that never came.
I went to work each day, took vitamins and daily walks, and cried when I felt like it. I tried my best to push worries about how we’d pay for everything out of my mind. But there was my due date: February 6th. My insurance coverage would run out on at midnight on January 31st.
Still, as the election neared, it was hard not to feel excited. I blossomed into the bliss of second trimester. Obama was the nominee. And then came that wild night in November when I pulled an x-large Texans for Obama shirt over my belly and joined Mario downtown. In the packed ballroom of Austin’s oldest hotel, a sympathetic bartender poured me free 7-Ups. Election results rolled in on big screens and excitement mounted until Pennsylvania tipped the pendulum. Suddenly, we were dancing, my belly between us. Strangers were hugging. Once out on the street and into our car, we crawled through the traffic, windows rolled down, high fiving celebrants who’d lined up on the curb. I’d spent the millennium in downtown Seoul, but this was like nothing I’d seen. We had done it. We had won.
For a moment in time, everything glowed. The world as we’d known it had changed. I hardly looked at the bills, except to ensure that we were at least breaking even with our over-the-top COBRA payments each month. An express envelope arrived for Mario. Inside was silver inauguration ticket dated January twentieth two thousand nine in the way of wedding announcements. We agreed it was too close to my due date; this time he’d stay home.
I told my OBGYN about our bad timing. I can’t induce you, she said with the slightest smirk. It wasn’t a solution we’d considered. Knowing we’d be uninsured we’d set out to educate ourselves through a Bradley Method class. We’d practiced positions, monitored my diet, watched movies of C-sections, and learned what questions to ask. I felt was prepared to labor for as long as possible at home and to forgo an epidural.
But on the morning of February 6th, there were still no contractions. Mario joined me for a routine visit, and, when everything seemed normal, left before the monitoring. My first clue was the tech’s silence. The second was her insistence that I go back to the waiting room. Then Rachel, my favorite nurse, called me in. “The good news,” she said “is that you’re going to see your baby soon.” The amniotic fluid had dropped to a two; normal was an eight. I should go pack my bags.
In shock on the drive home I fixated on a radio announcement that seemed to repeat endlessly: the next day was Reagan’s birthday. When we were kids, my brother and I bought our dad a punch puppet of Reagan clad in the flag. We’d gotten so used to hearing my dad’s complaints about the president’s lies, we thought we’d give him something to fight with. Now not only was my daughter going to be born in Texas, she was going to be born on the birthday of a man that my father had taught me to loathe. I thought about the mill town in Upstate New York, the trees turning red in the fall. My dad who never gave up his city accent, feeling wary of folks with pick-up trucks. How he knocked on doors day after day, only to lose a run for council by just three votes. All that sacrifice and for what?
The long haul began. I packed. Mario drove to the hospital. We found ourselves in a sterile room where we were immediately told our trusted doctor had prescribed a cervical softener, Cytotec, that was unapproved by the FDA. After a long phone call in which Mario pointedly asked “Would you use it if you were in our shoes?” we realized it was this or a C-section. We had our Bradley guns to stick to, and we knew what a C-section cost.
Morning rolled around and I still wasn’t dilated, though the contractions were unbearable. Minute by minute, contraction by contraction, the hours passed. I threw up. I screamed. I slept for thirty seconds at a time, then awoke to wave after wave of pain. Mario, with tears streaming down is face, looked to me like a baffled stranger.
Then she was in my arms, arms that could barely lift all six pounds seven ounces of her. Then Mario was holding her swaddled, aloft, and smiling for the both of us. We named her Eliana Hope. Though Mario might tell you differently, the middle name was my idea: in part to instill her future with his optimism, but more so to remind me of what had brought her here to begin with. The glimmer that had allowed us to continue, even when I’d felt torn down. And the energy embodied by the Obama campaign that had pulled us apart and together and, in some ways, through. Now I wanted a reminder not of how often I’d wished my husband wasn’t so beautiful, but of the possibility that my daughter could look up to a leader who exercised compassion and good judgment.
And so, on a hot afternoon in July 2009, when Eliana had just turned six months old, and Obama had been in office for as long, I agreed with Mario that we should attend a rally for healthcare reform. It would be our daughter’s introduction to politics.
Outside the ACLU building, I expected to see the familiar Obama crowd, but another group, in red, had already formed. Signs emblazoned with swastikas. Obama as Hitler, Obama as a communist. Again, I felt overwhelmingly tired. I was sprinkling Eliana with bottled water then blowing her cool when one of the counter protesters caught my eye. Her placard? Nurses against Obama.
I was thrown back to the nurse who held my hand through transition, the nurse who held one leg while Mario held the other and I wanted to die, or at least go home. The nurse who ran water in the sink until I found it in me to learn how to pee again. The nurse who held me when my legs were like the legs of a wobbling colt.
Now, there was this nurse, screaming something as I tried to cool my baby in the heat of an Austin afternoon. I wish I could remember what she said. I wish it was something seeringly offensive. But what it was exactly didn’t matter. I was already hurt. I needed recognition, some one to say it’s hard to not have insurance coverage, to be at home with an infant; it sucks to be sleep deprived, to feel your marriage tested by the very beliefs that brought you together. I went after her. I shoved myself in the line of rightwing picketers and got right in her face, screaming: Do you see that baby over there? Do you see her? We paid out of pocket; we had no insurance; it cost us almost $20,000! She yelled back, you’re a liar! I had tapped into a truth that had been raging inside me, and I’d been told the truth was false. Mario and my brother had to hold me back.
When I told the story later (and I told it like the ancient mariner, again and again), I ended with “I didn’t know I had in it me.” But of course I had it in me. I had all of it in me, the myriad emotions – dedication, frustration, joy, and righteous anger – the result of having politics and a personal life entwined. The cost of having your husband work for a campaign, the cost of believing in causes. And of course I had it in me: the strength I’d uncovered in labor, and a desire I now had to claim center stage in my own life and to fight for something better.
We still have Mario’s inauguration ticket, unused; it was our first gift to our daughter.
And today, three years later, she is with me as I vote in the 2012 primary. I punch the button next to Obama’s name, and it all seems so easy. Eliana squirms as she waits on grocery store floor, tugging off her socks and re-strapping her sandals, complaining that I’m taking too long. It’s not fair she says, you’re not being fair. If only I had more time to unravel this moment, trace each injustice to here and now. If only I had power to make sure my daughter would always be insured. But at some point you have to let go of “if only.” We still have to get our groceries. There’s so much left to do.
Laurie Filipelli is a writer, editor, and educator living in Austin, Texas. Her book of poems, Elseplace, is scheduled for release by Brooklyn Arts Press.