The Zipper


Eighteen years ago this week, I was given a Zipper as a gift. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it much, but after all these years, it’s grown on me. As a matter of fact, I’ve carried this Zipper with me every day since I received it. You might not see it, but I’ve got it, always, just under my shirt.

I thought it was ugly, and I cried about this gift at first. I couldn’t give it back though, because once it had been opened, the Zipper was un-returnable.

I hated it because it was red and purple, and because I didn’t like the way it felt on my skin, and because it was hard and itchy and angry and painful.

I was 20 years old – just under 2 weeks shy of turning 21 – and 36 weeks pregnant with my first child.

I kept getting sick, and kept having pain, and kept being brushed off as a nervous first-time mother. I was told by a sturdy, well-seasoned nurse that all pregnant women felt this way and I wondered to myself how any woman could possibly survive feeling this ill and having this much pain more than once in a lifetime.

Every time I attempted to swallow any type of liquid, the searing pain in my back would attack me, feeling like a Charlie horse between my shoulder blades, and I couldn’t swallow, and if, by some miracle, I managed to swallow a sip, I would immediately begin vomiting.

So I was hushed and shushed and told it was par for the course, and on the day of my baby shower, I couldn’t eat any of the food, my most favorite foods, that my mom and sisters and aunts had made for me, and I spent a good portion of the party crying in the bathroom and vomiting.

My lips had become so dry they cracked and bled, and when at last I became so overwhelmed by the pain and misery that had been with me every day for weeks, I began to cry.

But I was so dehydrated, I had no tears.

My husband was worried and frightened and when he feels that way he tends to come off as angry and loud, and he scooped me up off the floor, giant belly and all –mine, not his– and carried me to our little beater of a car.

This time, we did not go through the emergency room, we went straight up to the Women’s and Children’s department and he carried me in his arms and walked right up to the first nurse we saw and demanded help; in fact, he stood there and said in a very loud, firm voice, “WE WILL BE STANDING RIGHT HERE UNTIL SOMEONE COMES AND HELPS MY WIFE.”

And the nurse came around the long, white desk and peered into my face as if I were something suspect beneath a microscope, and said, “Let me get you a room and a doctor. Something isn’t right.”

I considered that nurse an angel. I wanted to kiss her, but thought it might be inappropriate, considering my dry and bloodied lips.

So it turned out that the horrendous pain actually wasn’t “just the baby kicking”, but a gallbladder filled with stones and near rupture, and I had a fever because I was pretty much filled with infection, and this was all rather upsetting considering I hadn’t yet made it past the 38 week mark that meant I was full-term.

My OB/GYN was called and he came and was sorry for the news he had to bring, but he sat by my side and held my hand and told me we had to get my gallbladder out. There was no way to do that without delivering the baby first, so I was being scheduled for an emergency C-section.

And I started to cry, because we hadn’t covered much about C-sections in the birthing classes I had attended, and because it sounded frightening, and because it meant I wouldn’t be awake when my baby was born, and because I was 20 years old and didn’t want a scar.

And I continued to cry, because it wasn’t in my plan, the way I had been dreaming about it for the last 30-odd weeks; the plan where hours of laboring ended up with me engulfed in my husband’s strong arms as he held me up, and we counted together, and did the panting and breathing, and my face would be tear-streaked (but make-up intact) and my hair would be wet with the sweat of the whole ordeal, and I would grit my teeth and perhaps scream a time or two just there at the very end of it all and the doctor would hold up our perfect baby and smile in victory, and my husband would look down at me in admiration and tell me I was so brave, and I would smile and say it was all worth it, because now look, we’re a family.

But I didn’t know quite how to get all that information relayed to those now in charge of my body, so instead I said, quite stupidly: “But I was planning an all-natural birth. I didn’t want any drugs! I wanted to breastfeed! Look! I have a birth plan!”

And of course they looked at me with pity, because maybe they thought I was actually a little bit stupid, but more likely because they understood the panic behind my words.

Everything went so quickly I felt as if there was no time to catch my breath; decisions and forms and more decisions and phone calls to be made and more forms to sign.

Then my OB/GYN asked me to sign a form stating that if my baby was born with underdeveloped lungs, I was giving permission to have her air-lifted to a different hospital, one with a specialty neo-natal unit. There were already helicopters on the hospital roof, waiting to whisk her away if needed.

I cried again but signed the form.

And because the entire mess had been taken out of my hands, all of my plans thrown out the window, I made some quick decisions that I could still control, and demanded that nobody be let to hold my baby until I did, and that nobody feed her a bottle because I was still determined to breastfeed, and that, under NO CIRCUMSTANCES was my baby to be given a pacifier.

These may seem like silly demands, but, you know, I was just trying to take control of something. Anything, really.

And then it was time, and my mom smiled a very wobbly, watery-eyed smile, and my husband kissed my head and it all became quite a blur until I woke in a horrific haze of pain and pain and more pain.

I asked, “Is my baby okay?”

Somebody said yes.

I asked, “Are you sure?”

Somebody said yes.

I said, “It hurts so much.”

Somebody told me to push my little red button, so I did. Over and over. It didn’t seem to help at all.

And in another blur of passing doors and elevators and faces of strangers, I was back in the room I had started in, and I asked again, “Is my baby okay?”

Somebody said yes.

And I said again, “It hurts so much.”

Somebody told me the morphine would kick in soon, just keep pressing that little red button. So I did.

The pain was greater than anything I had ever experienced, like I’d been sawed in half and my insides ripped out and then hastily put back together.

Which is, in a way I guess, pretty much what had happened.

So I lay very, very still and quiet in an effort to shrink from the pain, so it wouldn’t see me and attack me again.

Then my husband came in and told me we had a little girl, and that even though my mom and his mom and everyone else was quite put out about it, he hadn’t let anybody hold her. His eyes were shining and his smile was beautiful and hopeful and young.

They brought her to me, then, and I cried again because she looked exactly as she had looked in all the dreams I’d had while I was pregnant, when I would fall asleep holding my own belly and wondering.

And I kept asking if her lungs were okay and I kept being assured her lungs were fine and then I would ask again anyway, just to be sure, and I stared at her face that was at once so tiny and so chubby, and her perfect blue eyes and little wisps of hair and the way she would clasp her dainty little fingers together on her chest as if contemplating the great big world she was suddenly residing in. She yawned and my husband and I both laughed at the way her tiny mouth opened so wide, like a mouse, we said, and seemed to take up her entire face.

The laughter made me feel like I was ripping apart and I cried again.

The lactation consultant came and helped me figure out how to feed her, how to not hit my incision and taught me about the “football hold” and how to make sure she was latched on. I loved this action so much that I cried again.

It was several hours later, when the night shift nurses came on, that somebody realized the reason my little red morphine button wasn’t working was because there was a hole in the line, and all the meds had puddled in a wet mess beneath my bed.

I fell asleep content and hurting and happy and relieved that my baby had been a girl because I hadn’t really liked the name I had agreed to if it had been a boy.

The next day they came, the medical people, and explained what had happened and that my gallbladder had ruptured and there had been sixteen stones and I was probably sore because they had to “go fishing” for them to make sure they got them all out.

Then they none too gently pulled off the bandages to check the incision that ran from sternum to pubic bone, and because the head of the bed was sitting up slightly I could see it and it there it was, the Awful Zipper, angry and red and purple and stapled shut, and it had cut through my belly button and made it look like something from a horror movie where a person had been chopped up and haphazardly stuck back together.

I didn’t want it, this Zipper. It was ugly and horrible and I knew it would stay with me forever, and I hated it and just the thought of how it made me look caused me tears, and I knew my husband would think it was ugly, too, and I didn’t want him to see it.

But my baby was perfect and beautiful and every single good thing in the world, and her lungs were just fine (I knew because I asked again, just to be sure) and I was so happy to be able to name her Olivia Faith, because I just adored the way it sounded when it rolled off my tongue and I said it over and over and over.

My hospital room was filled with many pink presents. And balloons. And flowers. And more pink everything.

Underneath all the joy and pink happiness was this worry that I was always going to be ugly, because I had opened this present I didn’t even want, and now I was stuck with the Zipper.

Time went by and the Zipper faded some, and stretched some, and it sometimes still gets itchy and my belly button will never again be the pretty little thing she once was.

My next two children were natural births, and my fourth child, six years after the first, was a planned C-section. I actually questioned the doctor – hesitant and almost whispering – if he thought, during the surgery, he could fix the horrendous scar left by the birth of my first child.

He said it wasn’t his business to fix another physician’s mistake. And that was that.

It didn’t matter anyway, because my fourth child actually ended up being a natural birth, too.

And over the years I’ve had friends tell me there must be a way to fix it, that a good plastic surgeon could probably make it disappear.

Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never pursued it.

Because the thing is, this Zipper has grown on me. I’ve carried it with me wherever I go for eighteen years, and now it’s mine. It’s been with me through three pregnancies and the births of all my children. It’s been with me through medical scares and deaths of family members. It’s been mine when I was grieving and mine when I rejoiced, and after all this time, this Zipper has sunk into me the way tree roots sink into the ground that nourishes them.

And now it’s just part of me, like outrageously curly hair and freckles and the large, pickle-shaped birthmark on my right leg and an inability to ever understand more than basic math.

My tiny little baby girl is now a high school Senior, and when I watch her laughing with her friends or concentrating on difficult homework or watch her face light up when she is telling me about a topic that she is seriously interested in, I look at her, this woman-child, so filled with grace and happiness and intelligence and I feel overwhelmed by it.

I’m thankful for that present I never wanted to open, and sometimes in the mirror I look at myself, and run my forefinger up and down, up and down that Zipper, feeling the cracks and ripples in it, the way it has spread wider in some places and stayed quite narrow in others.

It’s beautiful, this gift.

It reminds me I am strong, and capable, and of all the Super-Hero things my body can do if one of my children needs me.

I wouldn’t return my Zipper now, even if I had a receipt.

Olivia 2014 (29)

108 Squares

108 squares

Five years ago today, at around 8:30 in the morning, I suddenly lost my father. He hadn’t been ill at all, and it was a horrendous shock. Dad collapsed at home, and my mother called 911. I curled up on the floor of the garage, screaming for my daddy. My husband picked me up in his arms and carried me to our vehicle, and I remember with painful clarity watching the back of the ambulance bouncing in time to CPR compressions. My sister stood in the neighbor’s yard, vomiting Sunkist. My brother held his arms around her. We followed the ambulance to the hospital, and as we pulled into the lot, the song playing on the radio was “Dead and Gone”. A short while later, I was calling family and friends, sobbing into the phone as I told them my father was gone. I can’t count how many people asked if I was pranking them for April Fool’s Day.

About eight shirts – unwashed, of course. About eight shirts was all I needed to get 108 perfect, 3×3 squares. Blues, greens, plaids. A bit of red. It seemed paramount to work with them unwashed, protecting that scent that was so uniquely you. Old Spice, Stetson, and something….something from the garage. Gasoline? Maybe. You were always so busy working on a project out there, it seemed as if the scent of it permeated everything you wore. Oh! And cough drops. Cherry Halls, can’t forget that scent. Always in your pocket, always in the truck console.

It took a few months; I remember starting the squares the fall after we lost you, and I was still finishing it a couple of days before Christmas. It was a slow process; first, carefully cutting off the buttons and buttonhole strips; next, the sleeves and collar. Laying the shirt out flat on the living room floor and pinning the makeshift pattern pieces cut from grocery store paper sacks onto the fabric, I began to cut. Slowly, slowly, carefully. Every clip of the scissors a measured action; I didn’t want to waste any of this fabric that could never be replaced.

Some days I had longer to work on the squares than others, a few hours perhaps; some days, the process was so exhausting, so painful, I could not spend more than a few minutes working, even after I had taken the time to haul the supplies up the stairs and into the living room. I would sit, legs splayed, leaning against the couch and holding the precious fabric in my hands, soaking in the scent of you and remembering.


Eventually, all the squares were cut. 108 perfect squares. Stacked evenly into towers, according to color. The machine was threaded, and the next phase began.

Pinning. Red, blue, green. Blue, plaid, red. Green, red, blue. Three squares sewn together and matched to another set of three, and then one more triple row. A simple nine-patch was formed.

And then, another nine. Over and over; slowly, carefully.

Pressing the seams, so the patch would lie flat. The pointy nose of the iron forcing its way into the tiny crevices where the corners of the seams met.

I would not cry on the fabric; I was afraid my tears would dilute your perfect scent.

Sewing the nine-patches together, it became so long that I had to lay the excess over my shoulder when working on it. I didn’t want this fabric to get dirty on the floor. Besides, I could imagine your hand was resting there on my shoulder, watching.

Finally. Nine rows by twelve. It was heavy already; the weight of it, comforting. On the table you once sat at the head of, I spread my 108 squares. One side face down, the underside with jagged bits of fabric teasing the seams, a few knots of tangled thread showing. I am not a perfect seamstress.

I brush at any small wrinkles with my thumb. It needs to be straight.

Unroll the batting. Slowly, carefully. Evenly. Line the edges up.

I ask the children to help me hold the topside above the rest; corner to corner, we wave the fabric up into the air, like a preschooler’s game of Parachute, and it glides down to rest peacefully in its own place.

The border is blue. A deep, navy blue, the color of the coveralls you wore daily. Shuffling about in the garage, those coveralls were as ever-present as the worn, brown work boots with the scuffed zippers that accompanied them. For many months, your coveralls hung on a peg near the door in the garage, waiting for you to take them down and shrug into them, ready to work.

The blue coveralls are gone now.

The border corners are always difficult for me. It can be tricky to taper them just so, keeping all four even, but I try. Sometimes I feel frustrated, but I keep at it.

Almost done, now. Navy crochet thread, and a needle. Down and up, down and up, I must exert a great deal of pressure to force the needle through the layers. Tying it off, effectively suturing three layers together.

It is finished.

The children clamor to lay on it; wrap themselves in it; hold it close; smell it.

My tears fall then, but I am careful to keep them from falling onto the blanket.

The quilt made with eight of your shirts. I could not bear to give them away.

108 perfect, 3 x 3 squares.