Survival of the Fittest
Words by Di Vatinel
I was on a women’s retreat with seven others (+ a baby) on a picturesque, private tropical island off the coast of West Sumatra, Indonesia. It’s the kind of island where there is no internet, where you lodge in little cabins by the shore, and fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves. A perfect location for a new TV season of Survivor.
We all live less than two hours away in a majority Muslim city where daily life is hot, humid, and isolating. We think about survival a lot in this context. It means different things to different people at different times. When it comes to food and drink, for example, the American lady with six kids has a giant stash of imported Hershey's chocolate chips in her freezer; the English lady with three kids has a soda water every night with her favorite TV program; and I (an Australian) have my own personal supply of Vegemite.
“If we all got stuck here, who do you think would survive the longest?”
Zara asked the question and our eyes scanned around the table, trying to imagine who might be the best candidate for "island survivor". I immediately wished I were one of the hermit crabs on the beach in front of us; I wanted to crawl into my t-shirt. I'd found the last session of the retreat very emotional and had cried my heart out as all of my bottled-up fears came bursting out. I was feeling embarrassed (post-cry blotchy red face) and weak, and now we were talking about survival on a deserted island. Just. Great. “I'd be the first to die, and they all know it,” I sulked sorrowfully to myself. C'mon, somebody change the subject!
"I choose Freida," someone said, voting for the almost-retired woman at the table. She was definitely the physically weakest person of the group, but it was true that her brain was a library of survival tips.
A new vote came in: "I choose Shannon, she'd take a spear into the forest and go hunting for some wild meat." Shannon’s the American lady with the Hershey's chocolate chips. She's bold; the kind of bold that would send a coffee back to the barista if it wasn't good enough.
"My money's on Ally," someone else piped up. Ally’s the newbie, the youngest of the group. "She's got that I'll-do-whatever-needs-to-be-done spirit," continued the person justifying their vote, while young Ally beamed proudly.
Finally the subject changed and I slowly crawled back out of my invisible shell. I knew if this conversation had continued, eventually everyone would have gotten a vote - except for me.
If only they knew who I used to be! If the teenage version of me were sitting there I would have won the unanimous vote of island survivor - or so I fantasized (and we all come out as winners in our fantasies). "Di! Hands down! She's a sports freak and a Hatchet fan!" the table would cry in unison while I blushed back, flattered. Back then I was playing tennis at national tournament level and in my spare time I immersed myself in the Hatchet books - a series of survival novels about a teenage boy who gets stranded in a forest and learns to survive in the wilderness with only his hatchet. I related to the strength of the protagonist, obviously.
The conversation on the island continued but I'd zoned out. What happened to that fearless girl? Sigh. I looked down at where my athletic abs used to be. All I could see was a wobbly little pudding of postpartum flab dangling over the c-section scar. That’s the thing about young high-achievers: when the bubble bursts and real life kicks in, we feel like prematurely retired superheroes navigating the world without our superpowers. Once we were confident and carefree, like Leonard DiCaprio in Titanic on the stern of a ship screaming “I’m the king of the world!” Then suddenly we find ourselves thrown from the boat we thought was unsinkable, freezing to death in the great ocean of life, struggling to survive.
I was on my back on a hospital bed while the lady performed the trans-vaginal ultrasound. It felt like medical rape at 36 weeks pregnant. With my knees up and my privates exposed she stuck the cold lubricated instrument into me, wiggled it around and watched the screen intently. I watched her intently, looking for clues. “There are fetal vessels across the cervix,” she whispered quietly to the intern next to her. Mental note: Fetal vessels across cervix… I’ll google it later.
“DON’T GOOGLE,” my husband ordered the minute we got home. “I forbid you to google, OK?” “Mmm.” Then I casually went to the toilet with my phone in my pocket, and promptly began typing “vessels across -”. Predictive text took over. “Vasa Previa” splattered across every page. My heart started to beat rapidly as I read and read and read. Major risk… pregnancy complication… vessels may rupture… rapid fetal hemorrhage, exsanguination, death… urgent pre-term delivery by elective C-section…
I walked out of the bathroom and burst into frantic tears. My body suddenly felt like a ticking time-bomb. One wrong move. Burst vessels. Stillborn baby. Lord, protect her, I begged. Deep down I knew he already had. By the grace of God we were back in Australia and I was only a car trip away from high quality medical care. But the “What Ifs” plagued my thoughts and I continued to be anxious. Survival. AlI I cared about at that time was my baby’s survival. Whatever it takes, God. Please.
48 hours later, I was lying on my back on a hospital bed again. This time, I couldn’t feel my anesthetized legs. A man in a gown walked over to me holding up a razor and ever so casually announced that he would now be shaving off my pubic hairs. He may as well have been a waiter informing me of the menu of the day. I squeaked “OK” but secretly wanted to kick him in the balls… but oh darn, I can’t move my legs. Who in their right mind would politely say “OK” to such a disgusting, humiliating, invasive menu? I did. Whatever it takes for her to survive.
"It smells like popcorn," I said to my husband a short time later. He was sitting next to me, dressed in hospital scrubs looking semi-ridiculous with a blue hairnet on. He squeezed my hand and smiled at me with nervous, longing, loving eyes. The crowd of doctors on the other side of the curtain were burning open my flesh and there I was thinking I could smell popcorn. Then suddenly, we heard it: our baby girl’s first cry of life. They lifted her up and we saw her tiny body cradled in the surgeon’s latex-gloved hands. I lost it with tears of relief. She’s alive.
Many hours and painkillers later, I clutched my husband’s arm and hobbled like a geriatric over to the bathroom. He tenderly bathed my naked, bleeding body, then gently washed my hair. I felt weak and wounded; the experience was humiliating, I had surrendered all control over my body, and now I bore a burning scar on my abdomen. And yet, somehow, I also felt indescribably victorious. In time I came to recognize what a vivid illustration it all was of the deepest truth humanity could ever know: new birth comes at a painful price - humility first, then glory. The savior of the world willingly endured humiliation and burning, piercing, suffocating pain; and then he rose in triumphant glory. All who follow him must walk as he did.
With fresh pajamas on and my hair now smelling like Herbal Essences Shampoo, we went over to snuggle our newborn baby girl; our little survivor.
The sun was rising over the ocean. The other ladies were still asleep but my smiley 7-month-old was wide awake; so I took her for a walk along the beach. I thought back to that question from the day before and began wondering about who really was stronger: teenage me or present day me? Teenage me certainly knew a great deal about self-earned glory. She knew how to work her body so hard so that every muscle ached after a tennis match. But did she know what it felt like to give every ounce of her strength for the sake of someone else? She knew the humiliation of being defeated by a tennis opponent... but would she have been willing to suffer greater humiliations, purely out of love for another?
I squeezed my baby girl’s feet in the palms of my hands as we walked on the sand and I considered life’s great paradox: that weakness and humility are the surprising road to everlasting glory; that a greater kind of strength can hide behind a flabby facade; and that by the willing humiliation of someone strong, the weak can truly be made into Survivors.
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About the Author:
Di is an Australian wife and mother who loves to reflect, people-watch, tell stories, and drink hot milk tea.