Sun 20 Apr 2008
two years ago this morning i woke up exactly 36 weeks pregnant, rolled awkwardly over, smiled at Dave as the sun poured in our bedroom window and the cat perched atop my enormous belly, purring, and said, “God, i hope i don’t go into labour today.”
he looked me cock-eyed. i was almost ten weeks more pregnant than i’d ever been before…and while we’d spent most of January, February, and March silently hoping each morning that the day would bring precisely nothing in the way of labour, never before had i actually spoken the words aloud.
but he knows me. “why today?” he inquired, with the exaggerated tolerance of one who does not expect that the answer will hold much relevance.
“it’s Hitler’s birthday.”
“yes….” and when i looked stricken, as if his lack of immediate and evident reaction was dooming our offspring to a life of wretched, hopeless flailing against an evil horoscope, he laughed. “ummm, yeh. but nobody knows that,” he said.
“well, i know it,” was my reply. and then the floodgates of neurosis burst. “…and Finn died on April 30th, and that’s the same day Hitler died, and i don’t want some weird kind of Hitler theme in my children’s dates!” i finished on a slightly hysterical note, and then sulked righteously, feeling silly but strangely content, entrenched in my petulance and my warm spot in the bed.
i’ve always remembered dates without effort. my fixation on them, though unintentional, was a strange, ever-present part of the way i coped with the grief and helplessness of the year between Finn’s birth and Oscar’s. the dates were a grim truth or consequences game of life and death, a measuring out of patience and endurance: on this day last year, or when i last did this, or it has been twenty weeks since he died and in another twenty weeks this baby might have a chance at viability. but that morning, serious as i was about the whole Hitler connection and also my sneaking suspicion that it meant i’d truly turned the corner into crazy, the conversation was…light. it assumed that a baby born that day – however unauspicious the date – would live. it was, for the first time in almost a year, the closest Dave & i came to joking about birth.
and so we kept going. “how do you know all sorts of other horrible people weren’t born on other dates that you have no idea about?” Dave countered. he rolled out of the bed and picked up the laptop. he likes obscure historical information. and before he went to work that morning, Wikipedia most kindly helped us identify not only a variety of pleasant, innocuous things which had happened on April 20ths of years past, but which famous folk had been born on each day of the following two weeks. i set my sights somewhere in May. and promptly went into labour about 8 pm that night.
Oscar was born at 1:47 am the following morning. he made it safely into April 21st, thus putting him in the fine birthday company of Queen Elizabeth II and Iggy Pop, whose sensibilities visibly compete in his cusp-of-Taurus soul. he passed through me like a thunderstorm. i went into labour at book club, eating trifle. for an hour or more i sat with my secret, a Cheshire cat silently timing the increasing, regular contractions. when i left, i don’t think anyone but me believed that i’d be having a baby that night. i made my way home at ten, found Dave webcasting live, smiled and waved, sniffed the tumbler on his desk to see who’d be driving to the hospital, and went upstairs to pack my bag. we took some last belly photos, laid down for a few minutes to watch the Lamaze tape a friend had sent months before, before another year of childbirth classes got cut short by my untimely admission to hospital for bedrest. i wrote in my journal in the quiet of our yellow kitchen, posted a quick post on the fledgling blog. and about twenty minutes too late, not long before midnight, we left for the hospital. by the time we arrived, five minutes later, i was in full-blown, five-centimetres-dilated and hard contractions every minute kind of labour. the second helping of trifle threatened a reappearance at every turn. and then, without warning, when the overwhelming pain would not allow me to bend in the middle and thus sit on the birthing ball i’d been so hopefully looking forward to “enjoying,” i went into a complete, disassociative panic attack. it was what i’ve since discovered is a classic post-traumatic-stress-reaction panic response, not uncommon in women who’ve had traumatic or ill-supported births or post-birth infant losses associated with their previous experience of labour. but no one had ever mentioned such a thing, and it had not occurred to me to anticipate it, look it up, prepare for such an eventuality. not until my labour ramped from zero to sixty in fifteen minutes and there was suddenly no respite from the brutal, muscular jaws of my uterus and my scarred cervix and i could not catch my breath, could not breathe at all and the fifty-one weeks in the interim were burned away as if with acid and i was animal and desperate and pleading and frightened, so frightened, and this time i knew exactly what the abyss looked like and i knew i was not strong enough for that.
i went into labour twice with Finn. the first time, they stopped it with drugs and they airlifted me and put me on bedrest and high doses of antibiotics and more than two weeks later i began to believe all would be well when i woke up one morning in my hospital room with a strange twinge in my belly. they strapped on monitors and wheeled me down to Labour & Delivery faster than i could even rescue my long-distance phone card from my bedside table, so i had to call Dave’s sister, locally, and get her to track him down in Charlottetown where he was closing on our new house, our first home. he had just set foot inside the door, had not even signed for the keys, when he turned around and hightailed it back out the door for that loneliest, scariest four-hour race to the hospital. there was no single day where, even stuck in different provinces, we just got to celebrate being homeowners for the first time. just like there was no single day where we just got to celebrate being parents.
i did not believe, i don’t think, that the timing could really be that impossibly bad; that of the seventeen days i’d been in hospital to date it would, it could be that one, that one with the carefully scheduled dryer delivery and the phone and internet hook-ups and all the necessary paperwork that Dave had to be there for. i had accepted that the baby would be early, had thrilled to reach the 26 week mark the day before, representing a 75% chance of survival. i was feeling positive, prepared to deal with altered timelines, expectations. but not that morning. just not that morning. i spent the first hour or two of active labour in total denial, sure the meds would stop the increasing tide just as they had before. when it became evident that they would not, and i knew Dave was still hours away, i moved from denial to shock. then the pain overtook me.
when you labour that early they strap you to your back on a delivery table, because the baby must be monitored at all times. i had back labour. i had scar tissue on my cervix that was preventing dilation, even though my contractions came a minute apart for almost two hours straight. i had young nurses who were competent but inexperienced, unable to rise to meet me and hold my eyes through that fog of pain. when i broke with all my own preconceived notions and begged for an epidural, i discovered the main body of anesthesiologists for the hospital were on strike, and due to some c-sections that morning it would be close to two hours before i could expect one. it was exactly two hours. Dave arrived ten minutes later, and for a window all was calm. then the baby’s heartrate dipped badly, and suddenly it was rush and bustle and there were noises being made about a c-section and i said yes, yes please but the doctor, white-haired and cold and never met my eyes said no, no we’d have to do a vertical cut and it’s just not worth it for this baby at this point and i remember blinking, yet another shock because clearly my baby needed to come out and i didn’t give a shit about me thank you very much and i was honed in utterly on the 75% chance of survival, you see, because we’d already had a bad enough day so surely all would be well if we could just get the baby out. and an older nurse who had come in a moment before with the 3 pm shift change, curly-haired, she looked me in the eye for what felt like the first time all day and said meaningfully do you want a second opinion? and i said yes and then there was someone else there and he wanted to just check one more time manually and i felt nothing, numb, but he said the cervix is gone – the scar tissue had torn, finally – this baby is coming! now! and an alarm and two quick pushes and my eyes locked on Dave’s, beseeching, and in a rush of blood i saw one small, perfect ear as ten people in yellow gowns and masks rushed into the room and they whisked him away, our tiny son, the baby i had just birthed. it was 3:24 pm. he lived for eleven hours.
so it was that i went into Oscar’s birth, exactly fifty-one weeks later, four weeks early, assuming that it couldn’t help but be better, that so long as i came out with a live baby on the other end all would be well. and yet the irony is that i walked out of Finn’s birth broken-hearted but feeling nonetheless amazed and proud of what my body had done, however insufficiently. i was awed by the fact that i had borne him, made him in the first place, from that perfect ear to his tiny toes, replicas of his father’s. in the hours before he died, i was so high from the sheer wonder of having given birth that had you handed me an ashtray instead of a baby to hold in those moments, i think i’d have cradled it tenderly, fallen in love. for months after he died, one of the only ways i could manage to treat myself with any care and respect whatsoever, to stave off the bleakness and the craving for destruction was to remind myself, “i am Finn’s mother.”
Oscar’s birth did not leave me with the same sense of anything, except ultimately, relief that he was safely out and then bewilderment and guilt that i could not summon the same high for a successful birth as i had for the doomed one. O’s delivery was quick and dirty and out of control, a clusterfuck of interventions i didn’t want and didn’t believe i needed, and it culminated not only in a third-degree episiotomy – done with scissors i still see in flashbacks – that i begged them not to do and that caused me raw pain for a year afterwards, but worse, in being rushed off to the OR only minutes after birth to have the stitches ripped open again because the placenta did not disengage. i had good nurses, good solid nurses, and Dave with me until the moment they took me away, but they could not reach me where i was, in the grip of visceral flashback. i was helpless, and then acted upon, quickly and without my consent, because all was happening so fast. i did not get to hold my baby for more than a minute. i did not get to nurse him, to do more than glance at his small self, to breathe. after the placenta was scraped out and the hemorrhage stopped, i was left alone in Recovery, shaking and utterly beaten by the panic and a sense of shamed, helpless violation and failure, and once again, shock, that i could have managed yet again to be so completely unprepared for what birth would bring. and sure, somehow, that when i emerged from that dark night of the soul, that this baby too would have disappeared forever, another tiny ghost ripped away.
he did not, bless him. he was there, squalling and puffy, three hours later when i finally got to cradle him for a moment, hours again after that when the morning shift ultimately brought him back for me to try to nurse. and so i landed, finally, shakily, gratefully, in the place that comes after labour, in the land of the living and of moving forward, of babies and spit up and sleep deprivation and smiles and joy and bittersweet milestones.
but labour, to me, is like another country, that only those who have been there can begin to imagine or describe, and that never turns out quite the same in any two depictions. only now, a full two years after the night O was born, can i look back on that birth and say, with any conviction, all that matters is a healthy baby. it does, beyond all measure. and yet i hate the phrase, wince each time i hear it. because being torn and broken and alienated does matter, does impact how a person experiences new motherhood, no matter how truisms may shame or belittle her experience. birth can be a trauma and wound in and of itself that requires processing and grieving just as real and profound as that demanded by loss. birth for me has been a profound and great and terrible thing, a wild horse that brings me to my knees. every minute of it, both times, was worth it, to meet my babies, to watch my beautiful living boy try to blow out candles for his birthday. i will do it again, without hesitation. and yet i am terrified, utterly. i am afraid of more shock, more surprises. i am afraid of a reprise of the guilt of having my body fail one child and my endorphins fail to soar at the birth of the other, afraid of what possibly could go wrong that i haven’t even thought of yet. i am afraid of being that afraid again.
i wonder, sometimes, if it is like this for everyone, each in our own way. and i wonder, in some small, fool part of me, if hoping that the third time’s a charm will make everything easier when the time comes around again.
hopefully it will be months and months away from April.