I didn't bring up the castor oil in my first post is because who wants to know that my son was propelled into the world by the aftershocks of contracting bowels? Certainly not him. I'm sorry boy, if you ever read this: I would have invented a better beginning for you, something Dickensian, perhaps, or something like the nativity of a scion in a Rougon-Macquart novel. But your mother had to be all "honest." I was against the castor oil from the beginning. I was deeply aware that the story of a man's birth becomes a part of his personal mythology: I would have invented Herodic adversaries, astronomical anomalies, inclement weather, stealthy flights, shepherds. Athena burst from her father's head, fully clad and armed; Aphrodite rose from the foam of Cronos' testicles; Dionysus was rescued from Semele's womb and sewn into Zeus' thigh. And yet none of the gods or heroes entered the world as the direct result of self-inflicted diarrhea. Needless to say, I expect mighty things from you.
It's not as though you won't fit right in here, though. Your sister is currently obsessed with diarrhea. I once made the mistake of describing it as "when your poop is like brown water." She made me repeat that four times just so she could soak up all the gloriousness. Then I made the bigger mistake of teaching her "The Diarrhea Song." You'd think I hung the moon. Her favorite verse is the one I invented in a church camp cabin the summer before fifth grade: "When you give someone a hug/ and it ends up on the rug / diarrhea [fart noise, fart noise] diarrhea [fart noise, fart noise] ." Now we sing together: "When you drink some of that castor/ to make your baby come out faster/ diarrhea [fart noise, fart noise] diarrhea [fart noise, fart noise]." Yes, humor in our household exists in a state that would make Cracked magazine, circa. 1984 look like The Economist.
I really should have put a warning at the top of this post, like the kind they use to sell super-violent, disgusting albums and video games to children. Really, I'm just using all this talk of diarrhea to warm anyone still reading this up for the coming descriptions of amniotic fluid, blood clots, and gooey placentas yanked out of vaginae by cartoon-sausage-like umbilical cords. For all the talk of how "beautiful" birth is, there is much less acknowledgment of how humbling it is, too. I suppose to many it's all a disgusting reminder that despite being made in the image of a god, we still come into the world like goats or dogs or chimpanzees.
So the room is dimly lit when the midwife offers to break my wife's water. The lighting seems wrong to me, the same way it seems messed up that the investigators on CSI consider the evidence under atmospheric wall sconces and not the overhead lighting of your typical laboratory. Babies, like suspects, I figure, should be first exposed under fluorescent lights. My iPod is playing Music for Egon Schiele by Rachel's somewhere on the far side of the room. The nurse is on the phone with the regular labor and delivery ward, telling them she needs backup right away. Wood is naked and still wet and warm from the bath. I am on my knees up on the bed with her when the water is broken, but I'm worried that it would be full of meconium, so I crawl down to watch it cascade in pulses, like a squeezed rag between her legs. "Meconium?" I ask, and the nurse shakes her head. I crawl back up to be by Wood's face and wait with her for the next contraction to start. Up until now, I'd been helping her work through them alone, without the nurse or midwife in the room, and suddenly with both of them there and a third nurse arriving to unwrap all kinds of stainless steel, I feel self-conscious, like they think we're doing this all wrong. I remember everything I'd read about Lamaze and the Bradley Method and the breathing chapter of The Birth Partner but it has all kind of gone out the window with my wife. She only wants me to count in her ear and massage her back. She sometimes responds to my suggestions about breathing, but then she gets pissed that I'm not counting out loud and I am in no position to argue with her about what is the right thing to do here. So I count, in front of the nurses and the midwife, and she rests on me between the next few contractions.
"I really, really feel like I need to push," she finally, breathlessly tells her midwife. "That time, I really wanted to."
"Let me check," the midwife said, and did her thing. "Well, you're fully dilated, so go ahead and give a little push with the next one."
"How do you want me to sit?"
"How do you want to sit?"
I can tell Wood is a little annoyed with the midwife's lack of direction. I'm sure she has nothing but good intentions, but my wife doesn't even like to decide what to order on a pizza. She remains almost paralyzed on her back. "Why don't you try sitting on your knees and bending forward." My wife rolls over into the position that probably got us all here in the first place. The midwife and the nurses stand poised behind her. I am up on the bed when the next contraction starts.
"OH MY GOD!" she shouts, followed by a long string of profane zoological sounds that throw me off my count. "KEEP COUNTING!" she roars. I make a guess about how long it's been. "OH MY GOD THEY AREN'T STOPPING THEY JUST KEEP GOING."
She's pushing. The nurses and midwife tell her to try not to push so hard if she can help it. "I CAN'T HELP IT!" she screams. The contraction finally ebbs. She looks at me and says, "Can't we turn this all off just for a minute?"
"You're so close," I say. "I don't think you would even believe how close you are. He'll be out soon, and then all this is going to fade into nothing."
"I would like that a lot," she says. Her eyes are closed.
I can see on her face the next contraction coming, and that's when her mother walks in the room.
"Oh my God I'm so sorry I'm late who'd have thought there's be so much traffic at two in the morning! And I swear, if you're going to own a gas station, you should at least know something about how to get around the neighborhood." Then she looks up and sees her daughter screaming on her hands and knees not wearing any clothes with blood and fluid streaming down her thighs.
"Oh," she says, suddenly ashen. Fully-coated, she brings with her a whiff of cold air and gas station coffee and fresh cigarette smoke. She comes over to Wood's side and puts her hand on her cheek but it's a lot of scene to take in, so she soon fades into an armchair across the room. I imagine it would kind of be like accidentally walking into the wrong theater during the climactic scene of The Exorcist. Except, you know, real. Later Wood's mother will admit this was the first live birth she's seen: Wood was born with forceps under anesthesia.
"OH MY GOD I FEEL LIKE I'M RIPPING APART!" she screams as she pushes. "OH NO I FEEL LIKE I'M RIPPING IN HALF."
This strikes some horrible vulnerability in my imagination: my poor girl, ripping in two! I imagine her lower torso rendered like concrete in an earthquake movie. The assuredness with which she says it makes me almost certain that it's true. I don't want to leave her steady grip, but I feel compelled to look, just so I can reassure her. Thankfully, nothing has ripped. The midwife confirms it as she busily rubs warm wet washcloths on the perineum. But there is blood up to her elbows. I return to face my wife, who is sobbing. "You're not ripping apart," I tell her. "I just saw everything." But then, again, on the next contraction:
"I FEEL LIKE MY WHOLE BODY IS RIPPING IN HALF." A minute more of pushing and all the air is suddenly sucked out of the room. All sound, too, except for this one sound that I can't quite put my finger on. I picture Hollywood sound effects artists trying to replicate it: a water balloon pressed into a bed of nails; half-set jello thrown against a wall; a jellyfish dropped from a ten-foot ladder. Squerlch. Thud. My son, slipping between the hands that were there to catch him, lands with a liquid parachute on the bed, gray as a submarine.
I feel a sudden aloofness. A buoyancy, I'm a few feet above myself, staring down at the room as they oblige my wife by letting him rest for a second on her breast, but as the midwife clamps the cord I notice the cold urgency as they stick a tube down his throat, sucking out the fluid, another instrument shoots a stream of oxygen just under his nose. I try to stay out of their way while holding his tiny hand. A nurse is talking to me: "Sometimes they're born so fast, they still have it all in their lungs and they don't breathe when they're born." How long? Twenty seconds? Breathe. A minute? Breathe. They are slapping his feet. Then I hear a small bird. Thirty seconds (an hour?) later, a phlegmatic shriek. I am afraid to say his name.
But an hour later I am up on the bed again, joking with my wife, our little Gram at her breast. "Some women push for hours," I say. "You couldn't even handle six minutes." She says she can hardly remember pushing. I tell her how she screamed about being ripped in half. She's embarrassed. It may seem like this is cruel, but really, I'm intensely proud. Though she's had twelve hours of contractions, true labor only lasted about an hour and a half.
Then I feel something wet on my leg. They haven't changed the sheets, so I peel back the blanket and look at my jeans and socks drenched from a pool of blood and fluid. I remember the nurse massaging the postpartum uterus, the way the blood oozed right there onto the sheets. "Look at all the blood on the floor, too," I say, and Wood peers over the bed. "Well, at least you didn't poo all over the place, too."
"Yeah," she responds. "Thank God I got rid of all that yesterday morning."