High Risk High Risk
Original text | castellano
I could hardly tie my shoes when I was already thinking of childbearing. I don’t remember my exact age at the time, but playing with dolls was my way to practice motherhood. Always. Many years later I’d come to realize that this was my unconscious strategy not to be alone. I was surrounded by people at home and yet I was no stranger to loneliness. The root of it all was that my mother had me at age 40 and I was the youngest of her five children.
When I was 15, one of my friends made me promise that my first son (since I wanted a boy) would be her godson: Alejandro. Our relationship, built in a public boarding school, made us yearn for a future wherein something more than our lives as students would bind us.
My only real pregnancy—I’d mistakenly suspected a couple—- came when I was just 18. This happened while I planned to continue my studies and enjoy university life. My friend Celita can probably tell this better as she supported me closely during that phase of my life, given our tight friendship at the time.
We were in a two-couple circle. Our boyfriends also really good friends, were players in the national football playoffs. They both belonged to the Sub 23 Team that was to compete in the upcoming 1991 Pan American games.
One time, while at the place of Celita’s boyfriend Bernardo I met Wilfredo. I was enjoying the best Cuban music when I met one of the best dancers Cuba has ever had and will continue to have.
… we began a relationship and went on to live and love as young people without major responsibilities or issues…
How sweet was that life without major responsibilities!
In time, we began a relationship and went on to live and love as young people without major responsibilities or issues. We’d go camping anywhere though the beach was almost always our final destination. How we loved those tubs full of spaghetti, made at Regla’s Pizzeria. How sweet was that life without major responsibilities!
I remember that August of 1992 because of the changes to my body, which until then, gave no signs of pregnancy. In two different occasions, my dear friend Lary took me to her mother who worked in the ob-gyn unit of a Havana hospital. There I was examined by obstetricians,
but no one could see that Lisandra was forming inside me. The doctors blamed the menstrual absence on my adolescence.
The only hint of pregnancy lodged itself in just one part of my body: my breasts, now huge and seemingly growing by the second. To reduce the heat they produced, I’d place moist hand towels under each of them. When my body, joined by my worries and couldn’t take it anymore, I reached out to Celita.
Celita and Minerva, her mom, took me to another doctor who confirmed my suspicions: I was 16 weeks pregnant.
Minerva gave me all the love that a desperate girl like me could possibly need. Pregnant teenagers often times caucus with their friends and those friends’ mothers rather than with their own.
I had a special affection towards her as she represented the mother I wanted to become and that my own mother, due to our substantial age difference, couldn’t be. Minerva was young, open-minded, supported her daughters Celita and Gerda in everything, and she never missed a thing going on at school. Every April 5th, Minerva would go, cake in hand, to knock on our door—H hall, Unit 4, to celebrate Celita’s birthday. I still remember the bits of cake smeared on our faces. What a way to celebrate we had back then!
She then became my confidant though she wouldn’t ask too much. She just availed herself to assist me and took me to that doctor. For a time, Minerva played a sort of motherly role for me.
Fear of losing my university trajectory led me to seek out my friend Idelys, whose mother was the closest gynaecologist I had. With her I thought I could solve “my problem.”
The thought of not being able to finish school was mortifying. I come from a family headed by a seamstress, someone who prepared us the best way she could so we would be university-bound. “You’ll be less Black, daughter of mine, when you graduate from the university.” My mother was what’s called a “positive discriminator”; my commitment to walk at Commencement was strictly for her.
With that pregnancy I was disappointing her. I, Sandra, the child she had at 40. The only one to go to La Lenin, the most prestigious pre-university boarding high school in Havana, was at risk of delaying or abandoning her studies. That possibility was killing me. A song by Pablo Milanés was like torture; I felt oppressed by the stigma and rejection:
What I felt, was like a ray inside me,
that my heart surprises me,
everything breaks, everything explodes,
and something just died.
To feel another way to be happy,
another way to suffer,
another way of living
what until yesterday was to laugh.
What will happen, where will my games go?
and my innocence to finish,
what new love will it be,
what if he will love me,
what am I going to do if he says no,
I do not send the heart anymore,
what confusion, what joy, what pain.
Lo que sentí, fue como un rayo en mi interior
Que me sorprende el corazón
Todo se rompe, todo estalla
Y algo acaba de morir
Para sentir otra manera de ser feliz
Otra de manera de sufrir
Otra manera de vivir
Lo que hasta ayer era reír
Qué pasara, adónde irán mis juegos a parar
Y mi inocencia a terminar
Qué nuevo amor será
Qué tal si me querrá
Qué voy a hacer si dice no
Ya yo no mando al corazón
Qué confusión, qué dicha, qué dolor.
I arrived at the office of Idelys’ mother, Dr. Crespo. The doctor confirmed that, indeed, my pregnancy was as real as the near impossibility that I wouldn’t give birth. Those 16 weeks of pregnancy—and the doctor’s refusal to carry out a procedure she said to reserve for extreme cases and not a voluntary interruption—brought me before my mother, my biggest worry.
Hildelisa, who appeared calm, heard my story. She didn’t say a word, however. I never knew how she took my pregnancy. She never shared her thoughts.
I returned home, and to my neighborhood clinic. From that moment forward, I became “the late arrival”; that’s how doctors referred to me to indicate that they had belatedly discovered and registered my pregnancy. I was also “the teenage mother.”
Late arrival-teenage mother-unwanted pregnancy=high risk pregnancy. That label summarized my life.
In Cuba, it’s customary to see, as in any patriarchal culture, that a woman is such until she gets pregnant. From there on, she becomes the container, the wrapping paper. Regarding my own experience, the entire medical establishment, moving forward and until the baby was born, forgot my name. I became “the gestational.”
In September, a few days before turning 19, I returned to the university. I was entering my second year, with the news of my pregnancy and the accompanying glances. Also, my pregnancy itself set a record: my baby was the first to be born of that cohort of Psychology majors.
Days went by and I began to carry, like nothing, that growing belly as spheric as a full moon. My neighborhood clinic doctor extended as much as possible her home-bound directive, “so I don’t have to admit you to the hospital unnecessarily,” she admonished. Each day I wasn’t ready for labor was a day that felt like months. I was anxious.
On week 42, they had no other choice than to admit me: checkups, exams, reviews of medical history. Six days later the time came.
It was mid-morning when I began to feel weird. A heaviness in my belly, on top of contractions becoming more and more severe, were leaving me breathless. On days prior, they had placed me, over and over, on the monitor—a most undesirable machine given the resulting discomfort—to amplify the fetus’ heartbeats, to see how the baby is reacting to the stress of going into labor. We have to remember that, as contrary as it may seem, the fetus is the true protagonist of the birth process.
After Wilfredo’s brief visit, my pain increased. Nonetheless, I spent hours watching other expecting mother entering and exiting the room I was in where they held those of us whose start of labor was still hours away.
With the “teen” suffix wrapping up my age, I was and felt like a baby myself, with zero experience of life or the world. I knew very little of my own life. I couldn’t decide what made me more panicky, giving birth or what would come after, taking into account the responsibilities of parenthood.
Amongst all those white gowns and green caps all around me, I only remember two people: the doctor who applied the so-called “tourniquet” and the nurse who readied me for the C-section.
The “tourniquet” is the common name [in Cuba] of a procedure that— by inserting and opening the index and middle fingers inside the cervix and turning them frantically right to left— is done to help dilate the uterus. That level of pain, as I remember it, still gives me goosebumps nearly 26 years later. I imagine “the tourniquet” has an official name, but this euphemism is perfect: as used in obstetrics, you feel this is not only turning your cervix, but your life itself.
This triggered more pains and contractions, a big stronger, but still, and apparently, not unbearable enough. I continued seeing women entering and others leaving that hall; by now I felt nothing but envy. I wanted to shove people between my legs so they could tell me how much more dilatation I still needed after the breathing exercises, the walking up and down the halls, the squatting, and who knows what else. It was simply, and still remains, the longest night of my life.
The sunset also brought the new shift. It was decided that I’d spent too long “in that.” They decided, without preparing me, without consulting me, without adequately informing me, that they would cut me open. “Are they really gonna give me a C-section?”
I still remember that gray-haired Black nurse who shaved my pubic area, installed the catheter and the IV, and explained, step by step, what she was doing while compassionately caressing my hair.
What she was unable to explain to me was why I couldn’t continue my natural labor. There was no overwhelming reason: there had been no issues with the pregnancy; I was not diabetic or hypertensive; the fetus was fine; there was no meconium.
“The doctors are the doctors. They decide and we just gotta trust,” she said.
When I woke up from the anesthesia I didn’t recognize my surroundings, nor was I aware of the result of my surgery. I didn’t know who I was either. There was no recognition of the face in front of me, with eyes wide open and shining with emotion. Seconds later I knew it was Karina, that high school friend who still intended, 4 years later, to be the grandmother of my baby whose name would not be Alejandro after all. Her goddaughter Lisandra had been born at 11:05 a.m. on January 30th,1993.
They decided, without preparing me, without consulting me, without adequately informing me, that they would cut me open…
“The doctors are the doctors. They decide and we just gotta trust,” she said.