Cecilia Zwanzig

Hello, my name is Cecilia! I am the youngest of five children born to Stanley and Veronica Zwanzig. My mother married my father at the age of twenty-five, which in the 1940’s was considered old for a woman. My mother was a very strong woman and a wonderful role model for us. My father was charming, and great in a crisis situation, but a functioning alcoholic. I consider the term, functioning alcoholic a contradiction in terms.

My father functioned in that he was able to attend to his job, but when it came to the family it was my mother who handled everything. Let me be clear, I believe my father did the best that he could considering his upbringing. I mention this to help you understand the actions that occurred later in my life.

My siblings in order are: Connie, twelve years; Ronnie ten years; Rosie nine years and Jimmy two years older than me. I believe that my brother and I were whoops! babies, in other words, not planned. I came to this conclusion because my mother was a devout catholic and actually asked the church for a special dispensation to practice the rhythm method, and we all know how that works!

My mother had me at the age of forty-two. I was always told that I was a change-of-life baby. I was told this to explain why I was born with Spina Bifida. Today, it is known that the lack of Folic Acid in the body of a pregnant woman in the first trimester, which is when Spina Bifida occurs, is what causes Spina Bifida. Spina Bifida is a neural tube defect, which literally translated from Latin means open spine. Spina Bifida has three levels of damage to the spine: Occulta, which is internal and can go unnoticed for years or until something goes wrong with the spine; Meningocele, which causes some damage but is usually minimal; and Myelomeningocele, which causes the worst damage to the body and can include brain disfunction.

I have Myelomeningocele Spina Bifida. Myelomeningocele Spina Bifida can cause a myriad of physical problems the worst of which, to me is hydrocephalus (water on the brain). Thankfully, the damage to my body was physical and did not affect my brain. Although, there are some who know me very well and may think differently!

When my mother was pregnant with me she told me that our family doctor suspected something was wrong and at eight-months pregnant, our doctor x-rayed her to see what was happening. However, because my mother was a nervous nellie, the doctor did not clarify his suspicions to her. Instead, on the day that I was born my mother told me she had a doctor’s appointment with him. At this appointment, he told her to make sure she brought a long book because labor would be a long time. This was the very first of many errors in judgement the doctors would make. That evening, my mother went into labor. Instead of going to the hospital she went to the doctor’s office. At this time, the doctor was at rounds in the hospital. I was born in a chair in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. My father delivered me, but he did not cut the umbilical cord because he was afraid of doing more damage to me. By the way, my father never forgave the doctor for not being there.

My mother and father had an entourage of family that day that included my grandmother and my aunt Ethel. Once the doctor cut the cord, the fear was that I was going to die, which was the case for so many born with Spina Bifida, so he conditionally baptized me. My grandmother, who of course, was even more devout than my mother, was horrified at the way the doctor baptized me and insisted on doing it herself. I was then whisked off by taxi in the arms of my grandmother to St. Vincent’s Hospital, a catholic hospital in NYC.

Now, my grandmother was deaf and had a sound amplifier that hung on her chest. It seems that for the duration of the cab ride to St. Vincent’s, I hummed in my grandmother’s hearing aid. This is how I got my name. You see, St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music. When I arrived at the hospital the nurse/nun conditionally baptized me a third time. My aunt Ethel noticed a small hole in the sac on my back that was leaking spinal fluid. I was operated on immediately to close the opening in my spine. I was in the hospital for another six weeks, and when I returned home, I was baptized for real. I was told by my family that as I underwent that lifesaving surgery my aunt Kathleen, a sister of charity, petitioned all of her convent to pray for me. Imagine that, in the world less than twenty-four hours and I received a huge circle of prayer for my life. How blessed is that?

In the meantime, my mother was taken to a different hospital and the doctor gave my father a sedative to be given to my mother which she never received, because my father was so upset himself, he forgot to give the sedative to her. My dad was so upset that I was born with a defect that he went into a church and cursed God for doing this to him. I know this is true because whenever my father was drunk, which was quite often, he would tell me this story. When I became a teenager, I realized what that story meant. My father was feeling sorry for himself for my disability. This story made me very angry, especially, when I became a teenager. Coming from an Irish, Catholic family, nobody expressed love openly. I think love was supposed to be assumed. At the same time my dad would tell me this story, he also would tell me, “Ceily, I love you. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I love you.” Drunk was the only way he could say it.

Although my family was not very demonstrative, I know I was loved. For the first ten years of my life, I was in and out of hospitals usually for months at a time. When I was six years old, I entered the rehabilitation hospital in Haverstraw, NY for an entire year. This was the worst experience in a hospital I have ever had. The reason it was so bad was nobody ever told me why I was there. It was a time when the medical professionals believed children could not understand, and therefore, never explained the situation to me. This was a mistake on their part.

The prognosis my mother received when I was born was pretty devastating. She was told I would be severely retarded and not live passed my teens. In my mother’s mind, the doctors knew best, so even when I began to talk in full sentences at nine months old, she still worried. My father hid away from all the hospitals and doctors, he really could not handle it. My mother made all the life and death decisions by herself. She was amazing! As a single mother myself, now, I can not imagine how I would have handled that.

Cecilia Zwanzig