“This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
~ Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart
I planned a pretty ambitious summer vacation this year. First, I took the baby to Texas for two weeks. My beloved life partner, Bladi, did not come with us to the States due to the fact that he is Colombian and does not (yet) have permission to legally enter the U.S.A.
Then, baby and I jetted to Mexico, reunited with her papa and traveled to his home town.
We spent about a month hanging out there and then got legally married on July 19. The next day, we bussed several hours to Popayan, Colombia, where we had arranged to house-sit for some friends.
All was well until baby came down with a fever. Our best option was to go to Cali, a bigger city about two hours away. On the doctor’s orders, we took her to a lab for blood and urine tests. We checked into the hospital on a Monday, because her test results showed a bacterial infection.
Thus, I found myself in room number 103 of a government-run children’s hospital in Cali, Colombia.
Each step in this process was excruciating, of course. I went through various phases of guilt, regret, blame, worry, and frustration. It is no fun when a baby gets sick.
Things hadn’t really fallen apart yet, because I was still able to read, write and even meditate and do a little yoga.
The hospital had some nice qualities: scenic courtyards filled with lovely gardens, mostly friendly nurses and nice private bathrooms with hot showers in each room.
The hospital also had some extremely shitty qualities, at least in the opinion of this gringa consentida (spoiled American). Our room was “furnished” with a metal crib that looked like it belonged in a mental institution, a low cot for me to sleep on with a vinyl pad about the size of a yoga mat, a plastic patio chair and a TV.
The rooms have no privacy. There is a window in the door, and large windows into the neighboring rooms. I could see my neighbors and they could see me. Each time the doctor and head nurse made their rounds, they brought about ten medical interns or nursing students along.
This was definitely life in a fish bowl.
There were children screaming bloody murder at all hours of the day and night. Naturally, kids howl like none other when they are getting blood drawn or shots injected.
I tried to stay positive. I wrote a list of good things about spending your honeymoon at the hospital. I did have lots of time to read, write and meditate. I tried to view it as a personal yoga retreat.
It was an ideal place to practice Tonglen meditation.
At one point, it became clear that my next-door neighbor, a 13-year-old boy with lupus, was in great pain. His mother was trying to get a doctor to come check on him, which took about an hour. Meanwhile, she was pacing in the room, making phone calls and trying to comfort her suffering son. I was a silent witness to the whole scene. I tried my best to take in their pain, confusion and worry and send back solace, health and comfort.
At times, it got too intense and I had to stop.
The next day, I saw his mother in the courtyard and went right up and hugged her even though we’d never formally met.
The hospital had a long list of rules that made it feel like we were incarcerated criminals. For example, visiting hours were from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Other than those three hours, only one parent was allowed to be in the room with their child. Due to breastfeeding, it had to be me most of the time, including all the long, tumultuous nights.
Also, we were not allowed to eat in the hospital, yet there is no cafeteria. Bladi would bring me breakfast and lunch each day and I had to go outside and eat it while he stayed with the baby. The security guards were mostly a bunch of jerks who acted more like prison guards than hospital greeters.
Within a few days, my baby was back to her normal, bubbly, tranquil self. I, on the other hand, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The pediatrician wanted one more test to confirm that baby could be released, a gammagraph. Turns out they don’t do gammagraphs on the weekend. So, I was stuck in this hideous hospital with a healthy baby all weekend long.
Bladi would come and relieve me, and I’d go walk around for an hour or two.
I started doing all sorts of things to regain an illusion of control over my self and my life.
Like buying new clothes and other forms of consumer therapy, eating chicken (I’m normally vegetarian), smoking joints which were conveniently for sale at the urban park a block away from the hospital and getting my hair cut. I wanted a buzz cut, and I discovered that it’s pretty much impossible for a woman to get a buzz cut in Cali, Colombia. Latin American culture apparently requires women to have long hair.
By Sunday night when some nurses came in to give the baby her meds and rudely woke me up, I was at my breaking point.
I was no longer able to read or absorb the teachings of When Things Fall Apart. I had lost my yoga powers.
I was going nuts, and something had to give.
I spent most of the night in the bathroom, the only place I could go and have privacy. I maniacally scrawled ideas and notes in my diary, listened to music, and took a series of photos with my iPad mini chronicling my breakdown.
I was still coherent though.
Unlike a manic episode in 2005, in which I totally lost touch with reality, this time, I knew exactly what I was doing.
I laughed. I cried. I waited for the sun to come up. Baby was sleeping soundly the whole time in her bed.
Early in the morning, I decided to lock the doors. I wanted privacy and I was desperate for a sense of control.
I took baby with me into the bathroom. I had put the patio chair in the shower stall and was sitting in there breastfeeding when I heard them knocking on the outer door to our room. I sat, silent, ignoring the knocks. It took them about an hour to get the door open, which I found pretty amusing.
Then, they started knocking on the locked bathroom door. Again, I was silent. They probably thought I’d killed myself and my baby. Finally, I wrote a note and slipped it under the door. It said that I wanted to see my husband and the gringo doctor.
The gringo doctor was a 23-year-old medical intern from New York who was studying medicine in Colombia. I had met him two days prior, when I was attempting to ask a question in my stressed-out Spanish and he said, “Do you speak English?”
“Uh, yeah. Do you?” Doctor Kenny and I made fast friends, as he helped explain my baby’s medical chart to me in my native tongue.I am fluent in Spanish, but due to my high stress level, I was not able to communicate clearly or understand much of the specific medical terminology used by the Colombian doctors and nurses.
The morning when I barricaded myself in the bathroom, Bladi was on his way to the hospital.
Doctor Kenny came to the other side of the door, and I explained that I was practicing civil disobedience and that I wanted my daughter to be given the final test she needed and to be released that day.
He said that the hospital had issued an ultimatum: I either had to come out or they were going to call the police.
I yelled, “Call the fucking police! I don’t give a shit!” It had never felt so good to curse in English.
So, they called the police.
An officer very gently opened the door. I stood there with my baby in my arms and saw about 20 people staring at me. Nurses, interns, janitors—all curious onlookers who wanted to see what the crazy gringa was up to. I screamed at the top of my lungs several times. When I stopped, a woman started telling me to calm down in broken English. Later, I found out she was a social worker. At that moment, I yelled in her face, “Who the fuck are you? I’ve never seen you before in my fucking life!”
Then, Bladi arrived and everyone cleared out except Doctor Kenny. I handed my baby over to him so they could check her vital signs—even though she hadn’t had a fever or abnormal blood pressure for six days. In the end, my act of civil disobedience worked. She got the test she needed, the results came back clean and we were released that evening.
Sometimes, it’s good to be mad. It’s important to express your emotions, even the ugly ones. It’s okay to fall apart.
It’s essential to realize (through your own lived experience) that control is an illusion and to identify all the ways in which we seek to maintain control over our daily lives.
In any case, the honeymoon continues.
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
~ Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
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Ed: Sara Crolick