Motherhood, for most of us, comes with its own language. We learn to divide our experience into trimesters; we become familiar with all things maternal, including “instinct,” “bond” and “leave.” Many of our new words slide into a kind of noun-heavy babyspeak: onesies, binkies, sippies, nummies. But there is a kind of motherhood that catches you by surprise, one that empties your heart and mind and leaves you struggling to find any words at all. Vicki Forman writes about such an experience in her memoir, This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood, which was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize in Creative Nonfiction.
Forman gave birth to Evan and Ellie, each weighing less than a pound, at twenty-three weeks gestation. It was an easy delivery (such small babies were not difficult to birth), but Forman knew that what followed would be fraught with complications: her babies were at great risk for many medical conditions, even death. “One of life’s great illusions,” she writes, “is the notion we can want — and get — things on our own terms, no matter what. It’s human nature to seek pleasure and avoid suffering, but what happens when suffering finds you?”
Forman began writing about the ordeal in her now-retired Special Needs Mama column at Literary Mama, and in other places such as The Santa Monica Review and the anthologies Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers On Raising a Child with Special Needs, and Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined. This Lovely Life, which is her first book-length work, explores the experience in depth. From the start, she writes with clarity and balance about issues more complicated and painful than most of us ever face, including the ethically thorny business of mercy. Her stance on this one is clear: “My husband and I had tried for two long years to conceive these twins, had lived through miscarriages and fertility treatments to bear them. When I learned they were coming so early and so fragile, I had only one wish: to let them go.” But California law demands resuscitation, and so what might have been an ending instead becomes the beginning of an eight-year odyssey that includes teams of medical professionals and numerous hospitalizations in multiple hospitals, and expands to impact not only Forman’s life, but the lives of relatives, strangers, other parents and children.
Forman tells her story in four parts, consisting of three longer sections and a final, slim ending, as if stopped mid-sentence with much more left to say, which is an accurate and fitting way to conclude this narrative. It’s a book that describes a life of small victories and tiny accomplishments, set against a backdrop of immense issues: challenges, risks, odds. This dichotomy reappears throughout the story — hope in the midst of despair, joy despite sadness, life surrounded by death. Some of the sections have the feel of a daily diary, as Forman scours her world for all forms of personal and professional help:
September 9 Today I read about the tonglen meditation — deliberately bringing all the rough stuff of the world into your body so that you can relieve others of their suffering. How by bringing that suffering into yourself, you know the full depth of pain, and learn too that you can survive. Okay, I thought. I can do that; sometimes it nearly feels like I’m doing that already. But why? I don’t like these spiritual tests, I’m not enjoying them. Just like having a child like Evan, this is not what I signed on for.
Other sections are written in retrospect — as if Forman’s older, wiser self is speaking directly to the reader from a distance, where she is able to see her feelings and the events that provoked them in hindsight:
Years later, I would reach a point where I could love Evan apart from (or because of) his disabilities, for the person he was. At the time of his birth, I did not want this life, this kind of birth. I have learned in the years since the twins were born that my honesty about not wanting them to survive provokes a strong response.
This story of four parts centers around a son who is later suspected of a heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, in which there are four heart malformations. Forman receives the diagnosis for the first time on a trip she’d taken with Evan to Desert Health in Albuquerque, New Mexico, far from her native California, for two days of alternative touch-therapy sessions. While at Desert Health, Forman learns practical things about her son — such as how to read him, how to see him as a holistic being — and she begins to learn other things, too, such as how to look past his physical body to the person residing within, who is brave and true and literally open-hearted.
Whereas other mothers might drink apple juice from their babies’ first sippy cups, or taste the mashed sweet potatoes on the tip of a tiny spoon as a way of sharing these new bodily experiences, Forman’s bonding happens instead by ingesting her son’s medications, including phenobarbital and Topamax. “I wanted to know what the drugs did,” she says, “how Evan felt with them in his system. Once the Topamax kicked in, I understood all too well why my son was so woozy and unresponsive.”
Forman’s motherhood story is filled with these unfamiliar terms and strange landscapes — not Mommy-and-Me, not Kindermusik, but doctors’ offices, hospitals, waiting rooms — and this is where Forman shines: in taking a story many of us fear and most can’t imagine, and making it something we recognize and even accept. “I came to understand,” she writes, “that if I didn’t sit there, learn how to change his three-inch-square diaper, wait for the moment he opened his eyes for the first time, and question the doctors about their every move, then who would? I was suffering? I had not gotten what I wanted? What about Evan and this early, fragile life?”
More understanding comes in the book’s last few pages, when Forman finally opens the medical records of Evan’s and Ellie’s birth and learns the cause of the premature delivery: acute chorioamnionitis, or an infection that began in the placenta. She writes, “Even if the doctors had discovered the infection prior to my premature labor, there would have been no means to treat it. Women with acute uterine infections must give birth or risk the lives of their unborn children.”
As it happens, Ellie dies despite all the medical intervention, just four days after her birth. Eight years later, Evan also dies, of complications that ultimately had their source in his extreme prematurity. Forman explains this last ending here:
When my husband and I left the hospital the night Evan died — the same hospital where Evan and his twin sister had been born — I said, “I am so done with this place,” as if by putting my own words of finality on the subject, I might also bring the matter to a close. We want, in an ending, a sense of justice and purpose, a feeling that the inexorable is also comprehensible. In truth, no ending is ever complete, no goodbye sufficient. I was not done with my son, and yet he died. Did that mean he was done with me?
And so the story circles back to where it began: Within the walls of a hospital, a mother is trying to have a say, to voice her wishes, to find control, in a situation that does not recognize such a plea, such a voice. This Lovely Life is Vicki Forman’s voice — affirming, reassuring, loving, but also strong and sure — because in the end, it is what remains.