I often wonder what kind of untraceable lasting impacts traumatic events in infancy can have on our adult lives. Apparently, every single day is buried deep in there, just like we learned in Disney’s Inside Out, stored in little colorful spheres in our memory banks, deep in the archives of our coiled brains, just waiting for a trigger that will send the memory up the brain pipes. I don’t recall much before 30, but I’m working on it.
I don’t remember almost dying as an infant, but apparently I did. My parents retell this story with such a sense of dramatic plight, and yet in my retelling, I think it sounds like one big farce.
I won’t go into the long details of my Russian birth, but highlights from the story I heard growing up include no epidurals, no sonograms, and no monitoring. My mother said she laid in a room with other birthing women, all who took turns pushing their babies out. She saw one woman give birth to a stillborn. She said she pushed forever and never dilated enough. She recounts how the orderly was washing the floor with dirty water right as she lay spread eagle trying to push a human out. Finally a nurse – or doctor – it didn’t matter – came in to help my mother with her delivery. She demonstrates to me with a hand gesture. She puts her hands in a prayer position, then darts them rapidly towards me, and then spreads them open. That’s how they dilated her; no rubber gloves. Eventually, I was born, looking similar to a monkey, with thick black hair covering my head, shoulders and back. In other words, a healthy Russian baby.
My mother and I stayed in the hospital for two weeks, the standard stay for healthy deliveries, and my dad was not allowed to see me until I came home. Instead, in typical Russian fashion, my dad bribed a nurse to hold me up to the window overlooking the courtyard so he can see his little monkey.
But that’s not trauma; that’s Russian Birth Story: Status Quo. The drama comes 6 weeks later after they brought me home. I got sick. So sick that I was LOSING WEIGHT! Can you imagine a baby losing weight? My family pooled their collective medical connections and they got a professor, as my mother referred to him, to conduct a house call.
“Can you imagine what he saw?” My mother says he walked in demanding to be shown the sick child and when she shyly brought me over, he seemed shocked. With those huge cheeks protruding from that scarf around my head, that child couldn’t be losing any weight. But then, the professor undressed me, listened carefully, and declared I had pneumonia.
The doctors said they didn’t know what they would do for me, but that I should be admitted to the hospital immediately. Now this seems so extremely ridiculous to me in 2016 America, but in 1974 Russia, it may as well been 1924 Russia the way my parents described. Then the story gets fuzzy, but my logical and medically-centered questions are not important to the story.
This is the part that got retold so many times, it’s tattooed on my mind as if I almost do remember it. Not only has this moment impacted my childhood, but my eternal health, but it has created a lifelong connection to my father and somehow put down one of the bricks in the wall between my mother and me.
My mother threw up for 9 months and then had an orderly rip her crotch with the double-handed prayer motion so that I can slide out. Then she failed miserably at breastfeeding because apparently she had blue milk. (That’s what she called it.) Then her 6-week old baby had pneumonia. She was terrified and felt like a hopeless new mother.
But my father, Russian Super Dad (and honorary blood expert), came presenting his Popeye arms to save the day. He immediately insisted the doctors give me a blood transfusion. When he retells the story, he flexes his arm to its fullest capacity to demonstrate how he literally offered up his arm. He points out how good his veins are; pulsing under the white skin as if they’re screaming, “TAP THIS SHIT, THERE IS SOME SERIOUSLY GOOD RUSSIAN BLOOD.” This was my father’s Magnum Opus. He decided that he was single handily going to bring me back to life by giving me his blood.
“You should see the size of the shpritz* they used to prick me – and I think they took a gallon. Maybe more. I didn’t know where they were going to put it; you were so small. I think they gave it to other babies too.”
My mother, who had it in her head that she had inferior blood because she was Type B, rather than Type A, felt a silent stabbing of guilt that she was not a match. She always explained that her B blood made her a sicklier person, with a weaker immunity, as opposed to our A blood, that ensured we would enjoy a life full of health with the first-rate blood.
“They totally replaced all of your blood with mine,” my father proudly says, “and if, by magic elixir, you instantly got better. The doctors watched, in amazement as your cheeks turned pink and you got your appetite back.”
He asked the doctors if anything was wrong with me anymore and they explained that they didn’t understand why, but miraculously I seemed to be cured. He asked if he could take me home, and they said they wanted to do more tests and hold me there for observations and he said, “If there’s nothing wrong with her, I’m taking her home.” While the doctors were conferring with each other, he swaddled me in the Russian wool baby blanket and he marched with me out the door.
Clearly I was never sick again.
I’m still unclear why he thought the blood would save me – and I often wonder if I ever needed it at all, but somehow this eternally bonded me to my father. I always thought part of why he loved me so much was that I was physically a part of him beyond the genetic contribution. Now I had his thick, fierce, blood coursing through my veins.
They say sometimes a heart transplant patient fears their personality may be affected by a new heart. I often wonder if there is any soul in the blood – and if any of his permeated into mine.
*shprtiz – Russian (with a Yiddish accent) for a needle.