Meg LeDuc

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NONFICTION

Lighting Peace

On the Second Sunday of Advent 2019, the Sunday we light the Candle of Peace, Pastor Ara invites people to the rail to pray, saying, “If you are broken today, God promises to give you shalom—peace—to restore everything in your life to its proper order.”

In Messiah’s sanctuary, a white-vaulted room with gleaming oak pews and a stained-glass window of a dark-eyed Jesus leading a luminous flock, people of all ages—black, white, and brown—join in the Lord’s Prayer before taking Holy Communion: “May Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven…”

Pastor Ara tells us that it is God’s will that the Christ Child be born in each of us, afresh, today.

And then we join in the breaking of the bread, the sharing of the cup.

“My Shalom,” I pray, taking the wafer and the grape juice onto my tongue, “bind up my brokenness.”

I need peace. In this Advent season, in the pell-mell of this life of mine with bipolar disorder, I am deeply bewildered: What am I meant to do? Where am I meant to work? What should I be spending my time on?

I don’t know anything except this man—my husband Tim—this moment. Not one moment into the future. And the past stretches back and back, a wasteland. I refuse to travel there.

Tim is excited about saving for a house. I want to have a baby—and am terrified of having a baby. I don’t know what the future holds.

Ambition torments me. To have a full-time job. To make more money. To contribute, so that Tim and I can afford a house more quickly. But I think all these knives would turn into so many doves and fly away, if only I held a baby in my arms.

Bind up my brokenness, Lord. In this Advent season, we wait for a baby, a baby who will change everything.

And I don’t want to wait much longer.

Tim panicked when I said I “want to get started next month, in January.” He assumed I meant trying to get pregnant in January.

I leaned back and laughed. “Honey, I don’t want you to knock me up in January!”

That cracked him up—with relief.

We had this very unromantic conversation on Friday, our date night. I was dressed up, in the yellow, orange and navy-striped dress I bought in San Francisco, a form-fitting wrap dress. I felt attractive—I knew the woman in the mirror was beautiful.

We sat at our favorite sushi restaurant, at the corner table, a guitar duo setting up microphones and an amplifier opposite. People chatted under twinkling Christmas lights that glowed against a lustrous tin ceiling, as waitresses served steaming dishes of rice and fish.

In a low voice that I hoped didn’t reach other diners, I explained to Tim that first, we have to undergo genetic testing; two, I have to wean off whatever medications my doctors tell me to stop; and lastly, I need to get my IUD removed, and it might be some time before I am fertile after it is removed.

It was this process I wanted to start.

Tim blinked rapidly a few times.

“We will have to time this, so it works with moving into the house.”

We both paused and did the math in our heads.

“We were planning to move in early summer, right?” I asked. “I was hoping for a pregnancy in the fall.”

“But what if you get pregnant right away?” Tim asked.

My husband seems to think that a nurse midwife will remove the IUD and bam! I will get pregnant. I worry that my body will be far less cooperative.

“Somehow, I think it might take a long time. I am 36, you have to remember,” I replied.

“Oh,” Tim said. “You never know.” He grinned. “I might have special powers.”

I laughed. “You never know.” I paused. “What I am really excited about is our appointment on Tuesday.”

Tim smiled at me and reached for my hand. “I know, babe.”

On Tuesday, Tim and I are scheduled for a consult with a specialist in OB/GYN and psychiatry in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan, where I went to college. I am hoping—desperately—that the specialist will tell us that my medication regimen is safe for pregnancy. Above all, I hope the specialist will confirm that I can remain on Saphris, the medication that restored me after a break with reality four years ago.

I stroked his hand with mine and gaze at him tenderly. “I think Michigan Medicine will give us a good answer on Tuesday. I am optimistic.”

I said this—and yet, for all my bravado, I need comfort—a quieting of the heart. In this Advent season, I need peace.

Now, today, the Sunday before our appointment, Pastor Ara invites a family to light the Candle of Peace.

They gather around the Advent candles—the tall, white Christ Candle in the center—an older woman in a denim hat with a brim, a young woman she introduced as her niece, and her daughter. A little boy and a little girl—grandchildren—huddle around the women’s knees. Together, this little unorthodox group makes a family—and, it suddenly strikes me, as its members gather around the Advent candles, a family that is pleasing in God’s eyes.

The niece is tall and painfully thin—no more than a teenager really—clad in a purple dress with sleeves extending to her brown wrists, a bright green skirt falling to her ankles and a head covering adorned with emerald and royal purple sequins, the colors of an Indian peacock.

Tossing her sequined head back, she exclaims in a loud voice as she reads the words of the Gospel of Luke: “…every valley shall be filled in! And every hill and mountain be made low! The crooked ways shall be made straight! And the rough ways smooth!”

“Amen!” rings out from the congregation.

We sense she is on fire for Jesus.

We catch fire, too.

The oldest woman takes the microphone back and finishes reading, in a low voice: “And all humanity will see God’s salvation.”

They struggle to light the candles—Pastor Ara is rising to help—until, finally, with an exasperated huff, the young woman grabs the red match lighter from her aunt and clicks it over and over, hard. She strikes a flame, first lights the Candle of Hope, second the Candle of Peace, then shoos the little ones back down to their seats, all in a jiffy.

And then, just like that, it is over: The lighting of the Candle of Peace.

Jesus, our shalom, our peace, descends to us by way of an earthly family—a family that doesn’t quite fit.

Any family of mine wouldn’t quite fit either. But I am convinced—it would be pleasing in God’s eye.

***

On Tuesday morning, the day of our appointment, my peace shatters. I wake from a nightmare —blurred images of my nieces, my brother David’s children, and something about them going away to college. All I know is that they are at risk—going away to college is dangerous. The phrase, spoken by Dave, “ACE inhibitor abuse.” I wake from the dream, at 5:45 a.m., convinced that it means something, tells me something.

A secret. A clue.

When I wake, I Google “ACE inhibitor abuse.” ACE inhibitors, I discover, are blood-pressure medications, sometimes used to treat migraines. My mom used to suffer from migraines.

Suddenly, in a flash, I connect dots, dots that aren’t there to be connected—my mom abused ACE inhibitors while she was pregnant with me. That’s why I am so messed up.

I huddle on the couch, staring into the darkness outside. The whole world crashes down around me. Who can I trust besides Tim? My family kept a terrible secret from me.

Are my parents trustworthy? Has everyone been lying to me all along? What else have they been lying about? Suddenly I am terrified.

But as the light gradually strengthens outside, as Tim runs his fingers lightly down my spine as he slides onto the couch beside me, I begin to relax.

“This is paranoia, Meg,” I whisper to myself.

At 8:30 a.m., winter sun now pouring into our living room, I text my psychiatrist and tell her I am having paranoid thoughts. She doesn’t immediately respond, but I take an extra 5 mg of Saphris anyway. As it dissolves under my tongue, chemical calm flows through my blood.

Afterwards, I clamber onto our basement treadmill and walk briskly for 20 minutes as Kelly Clarkson’s “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” pulsates in my ears. Exercise always helps, even small doses.

At 9:30 a.m., I call my mom.

“Mom, I had a strange dream last night,” I tell her, as I stretch in the sunlight on our living room couch. “It made me have strange thoughts.”

I describe the dream and the resultant paranoid thoughts.

“Oh, Meggie,” she says softly. “Don’t you see? The dream was about you.”

“What do you mean?” I twist our nubby afghan between my fingers.

“You are going to college today. And today you might—or might not—get answers about how your medications will affect a baby. The dream was about you, honey. It had nothing to do with me.”

“These thoughts were so scary, Mom,” I start to cry. “I wasn’t sure who to trust except Tim for about two hours this morning.”

“This is a big day, Meggie. You may get a lot of questions answered today. And then again, you might not.”

I sit up. My voice shakes. “It took me back to the break with reality, Mom.”

“But you have recovered, sweetheart. And the most important thing about your recovery was that eventually you let go of the delusions and you opened your hands to receive good things. But first, you had to let go of the delusions.”

I take a deep, calming breath. Peace is slowly returning. “Yes, and I think the ability to open my hands was a God-thing.”

“I think so, too, Meggie. But you did it. You did it yourself.”

***

“Molly will be conducting the interview, if that is all right with you, Margaret,” Dr. Tran says, crossing his right leg over his knee and resting his folded hands on his thigh.

Dr. Duy Tran, the resident psychiatrist, is young, younger than me it seems—a delicate, slim, black-haired, brown-skinned man, dressed in a tie and khakis. With him is a dark-haired, broad-faced medical student in her mid-to-late-twenties.

Tim and I have followed them down a hall of the Rachel Upjohn Depression Center, part of the University of Michigan’s Medical Campus, to a small, nondescript room. We sit on a couch, facing Dr. Tran, while Molly sits kitty-corner.

Molly starts out gently enough: “First, how are you doing today?”

But then she begins matter-of-factly taking a history: diagnosis, symptoms, hospitalizations. Suicide attempts.

“Suicide attempts blur in my mind,” I say, shifting in my chair. “I really have no idea how many times I’ve attempted suicide. Multiple times. The memories are hazy.”

In my own ears, I sound crazy. Will Dr. Tran tell me I am unfit to be a mother?

“And how did you attempt suicide?”

“I overdosed.”

Tim reaches for my hand.

I describe the break with reality in 2015-2016, and Molly works to understand what exactly happened.

“So, you thought your grandmother was a queen?”

“Yes.”

“And that implies that you yourself were royalty, too.”

“Yes.” I shift again.

About an hour into the interview, there is a knock on the door. A burly, black-haired man in a white lab coat enters the small, crowded room, instantly making it much smaller.

“I’m Dr. Juan Gomez, the attending physician here. I’m supervising Dr. Tran.” He turns to Dr. Tran. “And who do we have here?”

“This is Margaret LeDuc. She is consulting us to see if her medications would be safe in pregnancy.”

“And you, sir?” Dr. Gomez addresses Tim. “Are you any relation?”

Tim pauses a split second. “Uh, her husband.”

“Oh, wonderful!” Dr. Gomez claps his big hands. “Not many spouses come, you know.”

Dr. Gomez pulls up a chair beside Dr. Tran, sits with his beefy legs splayed outward, one hand on the edge of the chair. “So, tell me what you were saying about Mrs. LeDuc’s case before I came in.”

“Margaret has been diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, PTSD and an anxiety disorder. She is taking these medications—you can see—Saphris, Vraylar, Topamax…” Dr. Tran indicates his chart. Dr. Gomez leans over the other doctor’s shoulder.

“Saphris has been essential, according to Margaret, of restoring her to stability after what seems like a pretty clear episode of bipolar mania with psychotic features in 2015-16.”

“Saphris, Saphris… always reminds me of the saffron my wife cooks with,” Dr. Gomez comments, rubbing his fingers together as if pinching spice.

Tim and I laugh, the tension in the room suddenly eased.

Dr. Tran continues, explaining that Topamax, one of my mood stabilizers, would put a fetus at an elevated risk of a cleft palate. Another of my medications, Klonapin, an anxiety medication, is recommended against in the first trimester by the FDA.

Two other medications—Vraylar and Viibryd, a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant—wouldn’t harm a fetus, but are simply, as Dr. Tran puts it, “too much.”

“For the health of the fetus, we would like to see you on the lowest number of medications you possibly need to go forward with a pregnancy,” Dr. Tran says.

He recommends eliminating all four medications from my regimen—slowly, over time.

“Yes,” Dr. Gomez agrees, “Mrs. LeDuc is on another antidepressant, isn’t she? Pristiq? Her psychiatrist could maximize the Pristiq and eliminate the Viibryd entirely.”

Dr. Gomez leans back and addresses me directly, his tone suddenly very serious.

“Ma’am, it is very important for you to know, and I can’t stress this enough—it is our duty as doctors to stress this—that very, very little is known about Saphris and pregnancy. It is so new that there is no information, no studies.”

He keeps his deep, Spaniel-brown eyes focused on me as he continues.

“I will tell you that the class of medications Saphris is in has been found to be safe. But nothing is known about that particular drug. It is a risk you will have to discuss with your husband, with your medical provider. We can neither advise against nor recommend.”

I can feel the tears trickling down my cheeks.

He leans forward, speaks very softly, “And I will tell you that there are other ways to be a mother. I myself am a father to two beautiful adopted boys.”

The tears run faster.

“You would make a great mom. I can tell. I can tell just by looking at you.”

“Thank you,” I manage. I wipe my eyes. Tim rubs my shoulder.

“But why are you crying?” He leans back, raises his voice and beams at me. “There are women in our hospital who give birth and they are on all these medications, and they have beautiful, beautiful babies! It does happen. We are just telling you that there is a risk.”

“There is a risk.”

***

After the appointment, Tim and I head for my workplace’s annual Christmas party, north of Detroit, about an hour and a half drive away. I am charged with shooting the event and can’t miss it, much as I would like. I stowed my camera bag in the hatchback all day.

We order sandwiches to go at Subway. As Tim steers east on M-14, he and I both dribble dressing on our clothes.

“Shit!” Tim curses, veering slightly as honey Dijon spatters onto his khakis.

I grab his sandwich. He straightens the car. I hand him napkins; I mop oily spots on my own clothes.

“Do we have time to run home and change?” Tim asks me, rubbing at the dressing on his pants.

I try to say, “Let’s check, babe,” but all of a sudden, I bust into sobs. Huddling in the seat besides Tim, I cry great, hiccuping gulps.

“Sweetie!” Tim exclaims, glancing over at me. “What’s wrong? Was it the consult?”

I gasp for air before I can answer. It is several moments before I can speak.

“As-much-as-I-want-a-baby-Tim,” I cry, “I’m-scared.”

“Oh, babe…” Tim murmurs. “What are you scared of, Meg?”

“Too many medication changes,” I manage.

Tim glances over at me, his brown eyes warm. “Are you scared so many medication changes will destabilize you?”

I cry harder. “Y-e-e-e-e-s-s-s!”

Through tears, I hand the sandwich back to Tim. He looks at it, then puts it back in Subway bag and shoves it behind the seat.

Finally, I say, “Tim, I know it’s expensive, but—what do you think about adoption?”

Tim touches my cheek. “Babe, if you are worried that this is too much, then that’s what we’ll do.”

As we drive north, pulling off I-275 onto M-10, I crouch low in my seat, my hand pressed against my abdomen, and say to myself, over and over, “I would be a good mom.” The tears stream silently down my cheeks.

Steering through traffic, Tim browses music on his stereo, presses “Play.”

Suddenly, the first bars of our song float through the Equinox, the track we hummed on our honeymoon, on long drives across the Arizona desert as the sun set in flaming pinks and crimsons under amethyst skies: Hootie & The Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand.”

With a little love and some tenderness
We’ll walk upon the water
We’ll rise above this mess…
‘Cause I’ve got a hand for you
I’ve got a hand for you…
Hold my hand
I want to hold your hand…
I want to love you the best that I can

Tim reaches over and takes my hand.

“We’re going to be O.K., babe,” he says. “I love you.”

I look over at him and try to smile through my tears. “I know it, sweetie. I love you, too.”

I want to love this man the best that I can. I know—I know—I must remain healthy, for him, for myself.

But in everyday life, does anyone walk on water? Does anyone ever truly rise above this mess? I feel as if the equivalent of walking on water will have to happen for me to bring a baby into this world—a real-life, honest-to-goodness miracle. My messed-up mind refuses to cooperate with my yearning heart, my aching body.

Nevertheless, miracles are God’s purview—he has gotten me this far. There is nothing to do but trust.

Snowflakes spin through the air, riding the winter winds that gust against the Equinox. We drive north—to a party, a Christmas party. Tim continues to hold my hand as music sounds amidst the snow. Slowly, I allow my body to relax into the notes, into my husband’s touch.

It is Advent. We wait for a baby, a baby who will change everything. But how exactly this baby will get here, that—that is God’s mystery.

And, for the moment, as I stare into the whirling white, I am at peace with mystery.


Meg LeDuc graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English. She served as a staff writer for a daily newspaper, winning a 2014 Michigan Press Association Award. She will be published in American Writers Review and the International Human Rights Art Festival magazine and is working on a memoir. Visit her website at www.megleduc.com


Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

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