The Birth of Gram, Part 1

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, February 27, 2008 |

All day it rained in Detroit, and all the snow melted away, and it was like a full threat of spring for the first few hours of contractions. She'd been having mild cramping for days, nothing worth telling me about, not one contraction that followed another, just the occasional glimpse of a smile on her lips that would fade into frustration as the seconds ticked on and on. But on that rainy Sunday, rhythmic contractions started in the afternoon, so we went out and walked around the neighborhood a half dozen times in the rain without an umbrella. As it came down harder we stopped at the corner store for an umbrella and I remember watching neighborhood girls running from sheltered spot to sheltered spot across a parking lot and squealing in the open. So this will be the day that he will be born, I thought, and looked at the sky and considered it quite a portent of misery. What snow remained lingered on the edge of parking lots with that stubborn, urban patina: mercury and sick dog piss.

Wood has this thing about jinxes. She wouldn't let me be Gene Kelly, stomping on clogged drains, even though my heart made me want to swing from street lamps knowing that the day was finally, finally here. I'm not sure if I was more excited about the birth of my son or the end of my wife's anxiety. By now they were one and the same.

I was all packed and ready to go at a moment's notice so that we wouldn't have to have the baby sitcom-style in the back of the car with the evil mother-in-law gabbing away and the birthing-vaginas-are-gross jokes. But I didn't need to be ready. The contractions weren't very intense, and despite our best efforts to make them more intense, I somehow had time to make dinner, watch a Tommy Lee Jones-in-relentless-pursuit movie, take a shower, and put the kid to bed. We weren't even sure we should go to the hospital until my mother arrived, joining Wood's mom who'd been there for days, and we realized we didn't have enough beds for everyone, so, hey, why not go to the hospital and have a baby. Better than sleeping on the floor.

"Want to go to a movie?" I said once we got in the car. "I hear that Tommy Lee Jones-in-relentless-pursuit movie by the Coen Brothers is still playing up in Royal Oak."

"No, let's just go to the hospital."

"It's probably not as good as Double Jeopardy anyways."

Wood had been on and off the phone with the midwife since the contractions started. She'd initially told us the baby could come by nine o'clock, but we didn't get to the hospital until eleven. It turned out she was the only laboring mother on the floor. We had chosen an "alternative birth center" where they didn't even have the staff or equipment for medical interventions: no IVs, no monitors, no epidurals, and no pitocin. The center did have all kinds of strange chairs, yoga balls, queen-sized beds and hot tubs in every room. It was more like a Tokyo love hotel than a labor and delivery ward. Except the one nurse on duty wasn't a "sexy" nurse. She was more like a middle-aged lesbian gym teacher with an endless supply of rubber gloves. Wood's contractions were still so mild she was able to complete her paperwork during the middle of one without it affecting her penmanship. The midwife on duty was one we'd never met, an older no-nonsense woman who looked exactly like Wood's crazy aunt. Later, in the delirium of delivery, I think she even called this woman by her aunt's name. The midwife stuck her finger up my wife and said there had been no progress from the three centimeters Wood had been dilated at her last office visit. The words hit my wife a shot put to the belly. "I'll give you two hours to progress, but if nothing happens by one a.m., I'm sending you home."

This all happened during Juniper's birth: the hours procrastinating before we left for the hospital, the contractions that just weren't strong enough to advance dilation, the disappointing news after every finger test. In the first labor, the water broke early, revealing meconium in the fluid. The hospital wouldn't let us go back home, insisting we stay at the hospital with my wife attached to all kinds of equipment. I was so proud of her then, watching her handle all that pain and disappointment covered in wires attached to beeping seismograph machines and IV tubes. She stayed like that for hours, and the labor didn't advance, and there was little we could do. I say I was proud and filled with admiration for the way she handled this internal and emotional beating, but I must admit I was even more proud and astonished to see her go through this the second time, in those moments after the midwife told her she might have to go home. One look in my wife's eyes told me there was no way we were going home. This baby would be born tonight. Where before she withdrew inward, this time she confronts the pain directly. It is the difference between the soldier who does not give up his ground and the one who leaps up out of his trench and advances into the tracer fire of the enemy. As her body is begging her to retreat, to succumb, she stands up in the middle of the night and we walk and walk around the empty ward. The longer we walk, it seems, the more the pain accelerates. We walk up and down those halls for two hours, every few minutes stopping as she bends over some empty nurse's station covered in stuffed animals and greeting cards and the kinds of toys you get in happy meals, and I stand behind her rubbing her back and counting with her, each contraction a song that crescendos at 34 seconds, and the sound of her voice: "Tell me it's fading."

"It's fading," I say.

We do all this by ourselves. Occasionally the nurse stops us mid-step and uses a handheld monitor to listen to the baby's heartbeat. "Keep it up," she says. "You two are doing great." Twenty minutes later than when she told us she'd be back, the midwife returns and snaps on a rubber glove. It is time to check the dilation again. Hard to believe at the time, but an hour later they'll be trying to get Gram to breathe and the room will look like a troupe of marauding Vikings used it to perform the Blood Eagle on a group of Anglo-Saxon peasants. But for now everything is clean and quiet as the whole night and the beginning of a new life hangs on the finger rolling around my wife's cervix.

"Four centimeters," she says. "You can stay."

[Onward to Part Two]