He is seven paces in front of me when I realize he is too far away. The pain and fear take over my body, move toward each other, join into one awful spot in my back. I stand still, hoping nobody will notice. We have been through this routine so many times, moving wordlessly through the grocery store, dividing and conquering. For the previous three nights we have also been in labor all night long, not sleeping, squeezing hands when a new contraction starts, breathing together, he timing, me moaning if it gets that bad, occasionally crying or screaming or swearing, having the dog lean against my leg and breathe meaningfully as if to coach me along, and unfortunately, not really dilating. It is hell.
The contraction passes. I catch up to him. “Don’t walk away from me,” I say, allowing the panic to show on my face, hoping only he can see it. Being overly pregnant in public has its issues. People make jokes (are they jokes?) that they don’t want to be on an elevator with you, “just in case.”
He asks if we need to go home. “Nothing is going to happen,” I say, frustration creeping into my voice. “We know that nothing is going to happen. Just stay close to me.” We stand close together for several contractions throughout the store, choosing cereal, juice and pasta. In the space between the deli and the cheese I realize this is getting serious again. This isn’t the daytime labor I’d been hiding through conference calls that week, the kind where you can close your eyes, press your back against the chair and push your palms flat into the table. This is evening labor coming back, the almost-real deal, with contractions strong, long and close together. They play by the rules of when you are supposed to go to the hospital. And then I get nothing.
Standing in front of a display with ready-made dip I realize this isn’t going to work, although it — playing it cool, getting the groceries, having a baby — has to work. I am terrified. The pain is strong. When will this end? He stands with me, we try to make it look natural, I murmur that we are going to need to pick up some deli food for dinner to keep it simple, okay, I am indecisive and having contractions that stop us so it takes awhile but we do that, and then we leave.
In the car, I begin to cry. I have never loved my husband as much as this terrible moment. I was alone in public, but I could trust him, and so then we were alone in a bustling fucking grocery store, standing there, two statues waiting for the wind to blow.
Having been through three nights of it, the evening is, predictably, a nightmare. Some screaming, some crying, mostly resignation, a “k” coming out of my mouth or a squeeze from my hand when it is time to start the timer. By this point I am not ready to trust my body to direct us to the hospital unless there is a tiny hand sticking out of the cuff on my pants. I believe there is no way this baby is going to come fast, by the side of the road, although I wish.
By 3:45 a.m. we are downstairs with the lights on, “watching” a TV show to the extent that is possible. Finally I break down. We call the doctor again. He explains that he knows I have not been dilating, but less than five minutes apart and over a minute long is a big deal. (Believe me, it felt that way the last three nights.) The only way we can know is to go to the hospital. We draw out leaving as long as we can, and at 5 a.m. my husband suggests we just try lying down to see what happens. We haven’t slept since Sunday night. Exhausted, we lie there holding hands, squeezing them through contractions, breathing together, and then sleeping for the three or four minutes in between them. It is sweet, sad and intimate. The sleep is too precious, and we call the hospital and let them know we’re not intending to come over just yet.
Around 9 a.m. we call one of the OB-GYNs we have been seeing. I try to talk, and then burst into tears, unable to speak. He takes the phone for me and communicates our questions. It is time to go to the hospital for the third time in five days. Here goes nothing, I think.
Every time I see someone in the maternity ward I feel like we’re crashing a car into someone’s bedroom. There is a memory that continues to haunt me from 4:30 in the morning two nights before, a couple by the elevator. Her husband trying to help. The sounds she made. The movement of her leg. The invasiveness of our presence, our pillows, our being sent home next to an illuminated elevator button not changing quickly enough. The day before, when we had been sent over for fetal monitoring after the doctor was concerned at a routine appointment and told us to be prepared for an induction on the spot, another woman had been standing by the entry desk. Uncomfortable and trying to play it cool like me. And with all three visits, exhausted and intense men darting out for supplies to bring back into labor and delivery rooms.
In the hospital, juice is served in a humiliating fashion, these tiny little cups that can never satiate you when you’re dehydrated. You need a straw and from the bed, attached to the monitors, the juice drips on your gown. Finally, this third day in the hospital, nurses sympathize with my totally terrible fucking “prodromal labor,” as I learn it is called. (Later, I will learn the total adventure was also back labor.) By this point I am swearing constantly, which I am assured is just fine to do. “Try to surprise us,” the nurses say. “We’ve seen it all.”
I have grown most familiar with the labor and delivery room beds. There is a digital LED clock moving needlessly slow in the upper right corner, drawing out the days. Fortunately upon arrival I am dilated 2.5 centimeters. I nearly cry with joy. We agree to induce labor around what would have been lunchtime if I hadn’t failed to eat the vegetarian sushi picked up at the grocery store the night before, and observe every other meal or snack interval following that. By 4:30 p.m. I am receiving pitocin, which will induce additional contractions on top of the ones my husband and I have been breathing through all day.
To speed things up, the doctor comes in and breaks my water after the pitocin begins to drip. It is a hot gush that keeps coming out with subsequent contractions. It is difficult to be bothered by the soaking and bloody pads I’m sitting on, because these contractions hurt like hell. For four hours my focus is so painfully narrow, on breathing and the pain. I start to get too frustrated and my husband knocks me back into shape. “Don’t get frustrated,” he says firmly. His eyes never stray, and when mine do he speaks up.
I need an epidural. In advance, I had planned to use pain medication only if I needed it. I need it. I tell a nurse that I need it at 7:30 p.m. and it doesn’t arrive until 9:36 p.m. Within five minutes my field of vision expands from the kaleidoscope that was the LED clock, my husband’s eyes and the pain. My nurse has light blue nail polish on. I compliment her. The epidural works. I can’t feel any contractions anymore, as strong as they are. We watch an episode of LOST on the iPad and then nap through the contractions until 2:36 a.m., when I wake up with a nurse standing beside me.
“Uh-oh,” she says. My husband is sleeping in the corner, calm on his face. Suddenly everything moves fast. The print out of my contractions shows dramatic lines strong and close together, whereas the fetal monitoring line has reacted in a way that makes the nurse nervous. She tells me so. I ask if she is going to slow down the pitocin. She says she has already cut it off. A doctor is in the room. I need to have the baby now. We are going to do an emergency cesarean section. My body is shaking uncontrollably. My throat begins to close. My husband wakes up and walks over. I cannot calm down. I am terrified. 40 weeks and six days pregnant. What if we lose her?
The shaking will not go away. The nurse says bodies do that sometimes when they are ready to go into labor. But beyond that, I cannot calm down. My husband tries to calm me down. He is trying so hard. We are both trying so hard. It doesn’t work. I stammer, “I need a logic puzzle, something else to think about. Help me.” We realize that going through the presidents of the United States, backwards, is what I can handle. When we exhaust those, we go through the states from north to south, west to east. He is holding my hand and helping me remember them as I am wheeled into the operating room, tears running down my face, no longer whispering, “I am so afraid.”
I am nauseous and alone in the operating room, behind a vertical blue sheet. Top 40 music is playing on the radio. My husband is gone for a few minutes that seem longer than my collective 34 hours staring at the labor and delivery room clocks, returning in scrubs and a face mask. I continue shaking. The C-section is not painful, but there is heavy pressure and pulling on my abdomen. It ends.
They tell us we can pull away the sheet to the right of my head. She is crying and flailing her arms. “I am going to throw up,” I whisper. There is a kidney-bean shaped yellow pan to the left side of my head. I turn, dry heaving several times as she screams. Finally I vomit, and I’m able to turn right again, lift the sheet once more and watch my little girl.
Her story begins here, in a plastic tray surrounded by doctors as her parents watched from a short distance beneath a red clock that said 3:32 a.m. on Saturday, June 8, 2013. I suspect her story is and will remain much more interesting than mine, but that’s for her to sort out. Remarkably for me, I had a baby.