My stint in the hospital thirty-two years ago taught me something very important about women’s friendship. Women who’ve been through stuff, or are going through stuff – they share each other’s pain. Back in 1983 I was admitted to St. John’s Hospital on Fifth Avenue in New York City, almost seven months pregnant and in preterm labor. One day I was a young lawyer with everything going for her and her life mapped out on a perfectly planned path, and the next day I was nothing – a bedridden disaster with no control over my life that was unraveling by the minute. Things went from shocking to bad to worse to hopeless to tragic. I lost my baby. I had never before felt such grief, guilt, failure. But I also received something very valuable – the feeling of sisterhood, extended by the many women who didn’t just care for me and treat me as medical professionals; they felt my pain and they enveloped me with warmth.
In the first hour, there was the nurse who patiently held the little dixie cup between my legs and looked out the window and chatted with me amiably as the snow sifted down through the darkening sky onto the trees of Central Park and I, awkwardly balanced on a bedpan, tried to pee lying down; then my birthing class instructor who brought articles to my bedside every few days, things she’d printed out about halting preterm labor and about neonatal survival after preterm birth; the red-headed middle-aged woman who washed my hair every other day in a bin she slid under my head as I lay prone in the bed, who leaning close over my face, said each time in such a kind and sad Irish brogue, “Please God, let your little baby survive”; the head nurse on the afternoon shift, Lily, who time after time came striding into my room, as angry as I was at the nurses who forgot my medication or wouldn’t come to take the bedpan away; my doctor whose face had gone white ten days earlier when she’d examined me at her office and then sent me straight to the hospital, who gave me my last examination on the tenth day and, her eyes welling up, reached up and clicked off the drug that had been dripping into my arm to try to stop the contractions – no need for it anymore; Lily again who came right away when I begged for her, and said nothing but leaned down and gave me her hand to clutch, who stayed after her shift to walk beside me while I still clung to her, tears pouring down, as they rolled me out of my room and down the hallways to delivery; and the woman I was paired with “after” in the middle of the night, who I thought was asleep as I tried to muffle my crying, and who, when I finally became quiet, asked me, “Are you OK?” and who chuckled just barely when I said “Yes” and then “No,” and who then said “Me either.” We lay in the dark in the wee silent hours on either side of the curtain that separated us and told each other what had just happened to us – I’d lost my first baby, a son; she’d just had a hysterectomy after years of hoping for children but conceiving none. Neither of us said things like “it was god’s will” or “maybe it was better this way;” we were just sad and feeling it fully, holding hands figuratively with our words. I never saw her face; we didn’t bother sharing our names. In the morning she was gone. I will never forget her. No one but another woman feeling the same loss as mine could have made me feel so understood and so loved.
All of these memories were brought floating to the surface by Rita Wilson’s story of women helping her when she was not – and then was – diagnosed with breast cancer, and again by Paula Wooter’s post on her blog, How to Become A Cat Lady Without the Cats. Paula had just completed three weeks of daily radiation treatments for breast cancer, and she wrote, “I was affectionately known as ‘Woot’ by Sam, Paul & Amanda, the radiation technicians. They were quick to tell me I had ‘the best name, EVER!’ I’m guessing it tickled their fancy to say they were treating Wooters’ Hooters.”
In a crisis, your medical caretakers and your co-sufferers are your friends, plain and simple. They know the shit that’s going on, and they don’t worry about what to say. They’re in it with you, walking by your side, giving you their hand, feeling your pain.
In the last several years, I have come to understand that every woman in my over-50 world is in it with me, walking my path. It’s a given that she’s been seasoned and softened and hardened and opened to a greater level of understanding by her own trials and losses over the years. When we meet we bond; we are already old friends. We don’t necessarily share our tragedies or our disappointments at all, but we know they’re there without having to know a damn thing. Some women are naturally the information-givers; some the advisers; some the huggers; others the doers; all have learned to be, at least at times, those who let us talk and don’t interrupt. Women of a certain age evolve into Strangers Who Are Already Friends.
Such is womanhood past fifty. All of it new and all of it familiar, all of it unexpected and all of it accepted. It’s good.
And that’s what we honor and celebrate at Women At Woodstock.