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I stood naked in my parents’ bathroom. Even with the tub filling, I could hear my family chattering behind the door. I longed to be with them, not hiding alone with my seven-month round belly, sleep-deprived, and covered in pox-like marks.

For three weeks, I’d tried Benadryl, lotions, and other suggested remedies to cure the strange rash spreading over my body. No luck. By Christmas Day, my life had been reduced to survival.

Day and night, I tried to resist itching, but gave in, especially in my sleep. At 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m., the feeling of fire ants attacking my wrists, belly, chest, legs. Someone suggested mittens at night, but they were unbearable against my skin. Every type of
material irritated me, so I lived in cotton—the weakest offender—and cut my fingernails to stubs. Still, in misery, I scratched myself raw.

Sleeping about two hours a night, I often opted for a soothing bath in Grandpa Tar’s bonfire-smelling soap versus staring at a ceiling, willing my body to a sleep that would never come.

During this season, I fell in love with James Herriot’s books and the PBS television series. The quaint and charming countryside and the tenacity of the rustic farm life. Small and large victories, heartbreaks, and mud. Lots of mud.

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“It’s PUPPPs,” the dermatologist explained when I went to see her a few days after Christmas. PUPPP is a pregnancy hive-like condition that causes itching and burning sensations wherever it spreads. Many women find the itching debilitating. Sometimes, the only relief is giving birth, which meant I would have to crawl out of my skin for 8 to 10 more weeks. I barely restrained myself from crying in front of the dermatologist.

Then my O.B. called. “It’s cholestasis,” she confirmed from a test. A liver condition whose main symptom is intense, uncomfortable itching.

“But the dermatologist said . . . ”

“It must be both,” my OB determined, “because cholestasis wouldn’t cause a rash all over your body.”

With the second diagnosis, I was sent to the maternal fetal specialist for a medication that would reduce the itching. The appointment began with a routine ultrasound. I chatted with the technician about her love of pottery making and traveling in a camper van, my bubbly mood influenced by the prescription that would fix me.

“Everything look good?” I asked as the tech paused, her wand narrowing in on the baby’s stomach. She snapped a photo. Then another. The cold jelly on my naked skin started to itch. I wanted to go back to small talk, but she was quiet now. Finally, she looked up with a tight, forced smile and said those awful words every parent fears.

“Just a minute, I’m going to get the doctor.” Panic swirled through my body. I pressed my hand into my swollen abdomen. No, not this sweet baby. We passed our 20-week ultrasound without a worry. My husband isn’t even here—I’m alone.

The doctor introduced herself before proceeding to point out the fluid buildup around our baby’s heart, stomach, skin, and liver. In summary, she said it was likely hydrops, but please don’t google that.

“We can perform an amniocentesis,” the doctor said, “to try to figure out what’s causing the fluid buildup.”

My mind spun, “But it’s not a lot of fluid, right? It can go down on its own?”

“It can,” she said politely. I clung to hope like a fading light in a darkening world. And went back to itching.

The medication I’d put my hope in didn’t bring relief. James Herriot and Grandpa’s Tar soap continued to be my only solace. James falling in love with his bonny lass Helen. James saving a calf from lead poisoning. James drinking in a Yorkshire pub on a chilly winter’s day.

James, James, James. Baths. Baths. Baths. Itching. Itching. Itching.

I scoured the internet looking for survival stories. Most came with the promise of healing using this or that product. I tried everything from beet juice to special PUPPP tinctures. Nothing worked. With grim determination, I counted every week left in my pregnancy, wishing I was a snake who could shed my skin.

They performed the amniocentesis on a Thursday. The long needle made my husband nearly pass out, but it didn’t hurt much. What hurt worst was that they didn’t find causation for our baby’s fluid buildup.

I leaned into peace and prayers like a rickety ladder that might hold me up, might not. Mostly, I distracted myself with Grandpa Tar and James’s stories, like the first time he performed a cesarean relying on a cocky medical student’s guidance. Only to discover the medical student had no firsthand experience. To Herriot’s amazement, the cow and calf survived.

I wept at the idea of this mother cow licking her baby for the first time. Would I have the honor of cradling my own child after his birth? My stomach lurched at the idea of his swollen body being whisked from me into the NICU world of incubators and tubes. A world I knew too well from my first two children and their rocky starts.

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After a hopeful ultrasound appointment that showed no inflammation in the baby’s heart, I googled hydrops. My own heart fell out of my chest. I called my mom, my husband, my medical friend—all of them asked me the same thing: Why
had I Googled it? But how could I not?

The word was like an itch I wasn’t supposed to scratch but couldn’t resist. We went from knowing our son would possibly need some intensive care after birth to
wondering if he would live to see his first birthday because of the condition’s bleak statistics.

I spent a weekend in triage monitoring my blood pressure. The strap that kept the scratchy fetal monitor on bothered me, of course, but resting in that hospital bed was like my wildest fantasies come true. I relished not having to cook or clean or look after my family’s needs.

When I returned home, my feet felt like they’d caught fire. I dug into the tops of them until they were covered in open sores. It was winter, but I couldn’t wear anything except sandals. Everywhere I went, my sore-ridden feet were on display.

When February came, we received better news. The baby’s fluid levels were improving, which meant he had the symptoms of a virus (not hydrops) and was on the mend. For the first time in months, I felt hope settle over me. Since my cholestasis persisted though, induction was necessary.

As the sun rose one late February morning, I gave birth to a 6 lb, 12 oz baby boy.
The nurse whisked him away for a little oxygen but assured me he was healthy.
Healthy. The word rolled through me like spring after a harsh winter. A few minutes after his birth, I got to cuddle him, just as I’d longed to.

Those first few weeks of life, whenever the baby fussed, I walked him to the sound of James Herriot’s audiobook All Creatures Great and Small. The British voice soothed him. “You know James as well as your own dad, don’t you?” I cooed.

This February, my boy turns one. Sometimes, holding his healthy, chunky body in my scarred arms, it hits me. Because in James Herriot’s farm world, you must make peace with the unjust and the mud. But sometimes, you witness a miracle.

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So God Made a Mother's Story Keepsake Journal

Kris Ann Valdez 

Kris Ann Valdez has had personal essays included in Motherly, Motherwell, Her View from Home, The Kindred Voice, Motherhood Mag, and elsewhere. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and three children.

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