(Another essay tired of languishing without a home. ~JimS)
As far as mysteries go, birth is the only event I can think of that rivals death in its head-scratching miraculous reality. Humans make a big deal of it. I don’t know what animals think about giving birth. They don’t tell us. Or if they do we have forgotten how to listen. Perhaps mammals are the most nurturing parents although birds are right up there with us in that regard. Family units are, mostly, tightly knit and ongoing. Mammalian and avian parents are deeply invested in making sure their offspring survive and flourish. There are exceptions, of course; there are always exceptions. Isn’t that right?
If this story were being written by a female of the species, it would be a whole different animal. Pardon the questionable idiom, but it’s true. I am a male of the species so my take on birth is from mind-blown incredulous awed observation, not direct participation. There are no words sufficient to explain the terrifying emotional bloody joyousness of it. All I can do is report on how it was in my relatively detached role as the only guy in those rooms who wasn’t a medical professional.
Our first-born decided to start knocking on the door while we were bowling in the Gearhart Sunday Night Mixed league. The first game passed without incident. My amazing lovely spousal unit was a joy to watch balancing the bowling ball in various juxtapositions with her very pregnant self. The second game, however, became more of a challenge when she came back from the restroom and told me quite matter-of-factly: “labor is upon us.” After smoothing my eyebrows down out of my hair I asked her if we needed to get to the hospital. “No, let’s finish the game and see what happens.” She went on to roll a 206. Best game ever. Through some kind of mysterious human osmosis it wasn’t long before everyone in the bowling alley knew she was beginning the last stage of having a child. During her approaches near the end of the game, the whole place held its breath as she released the ball.
We did get to the hospital but were sent home after a quick examination. “Nope,” said the nurse. “Two-point-five centimeters is too early. Go home and rest.” So we did. I fell asleep as I was rubbing her back and counting the minutes between contractions. That’s how useful I was. She woke me later and just said “let’s go.” I needed no second urging.
One of the beauties of living in a small town is that we knew everybody in the delivery room. It was comfortable. For me anyway. There’s my male side of things showing. The rest of my recollection is fuzzy until our daughter showed up. She slid out of there in a bloody wad and scrunched up immediately from the dramatic temperature drop. Her faced clenched and a howl impossible from such a small creature filled the room. Deft hands wiped most of the goo from her, cut the umbilical, and gently put her into a handy tub of warm water. The howl ceased. Her face relaxed. Her eyes opened wide. They were deep blue and as dark as the morning outside. To say she was beautiful is like saying the universe is big. I was incapable of speech but heard an immense choir singing a chord in gazillion-part harmony.
My recollection here goes fuzzy again. I remember Doctor Larry sewing up what needed to be sewn. I took some photos. I held my wife’s hand as our daughter was lifted from the warm water, loosely swaddled and placed on her chest amid much tearful cooing. There was so much I wanted to say but there were no words. I was awash in a flood of joyful resolve and fear and uncertainty. Parenthood was upon us. I laid my trembling hands on our little miracle and felt her tiny trip-hammer heart marking its time. She smelled of ocean. I felt my mate’s heart, her kick drum in time with the small one’s high-hat cymbal, and understood our separate lives in our separate skins all bound together forever.
Fast-forward a few years; another baby on the way. A happily amorous and practical plan came together and fruition was apparent. My bride was resting in the bedroom and I decided I needed a walk. “Don’t go far,” she admonished. I only made it a few hundred yards when as sure as a light switch being thrown I knew it was time to go back. Yep. I got back to the house and it was time to go. We bundled young Jessica into the car, dropped her off with her aunt, and headed to Good Samaritan. Like our first child, we’d opted to leave this new one’s gender unknown until we all actually met. The mothering half of our union didn’t want to know. I was ambivalent about it but supported her wishes wholeheartedly. The delivery room in the big city was different than our rural sojourn six years prior. The only medical person I knew in the delivery room was the doctor who welcomed us with a broad smile. Even though his blue mask covered his nose and mouth his eyes lit up. How did I see his smile? Some kind of imagination that hits a limbic truth button? I guess it’s one of those things you just accept and move on.
The new baby wouldn’t turn properly and shoulders were an issue. My brave bride pushed and gasped and gritted but we approached an impasse. They were beating each other up. At one point the doc looked at me past the rim of his glasses above his blue unsmiling mask and said: “I think we’re about one push away from a C-section.”
At this point I did something I do all too often and said something completely inane: “Should I go out and get pizza?” Something between her displeasure at my unconscious flippancy and the doctor’s pronouncement struck my spouse and with a gut-wrenching cry she delivered that kid like a bloody bomb. A boy. We were all amazed. There was no tub of warm water this time. It was a soft heated pillow. As the nurse put him on the warm pillow and cleaned off his birth mess he fussed and kicked and waved his little arms. Somehow, he managed to grab my left pinky finger and hold on with surprising strength. A life grip. At the same time my wife called my name and my head swiveled. She had her right arm reached out to me. I stretched myself as taut as I could and offered my hand. She gripped my index finger with astonishing force. There I was, my left pinky held by our brand new son and my right index finger completely engulfed in my mate’s fist. I don’t have words for what passed through me from mother to son; the closest I can come is bioelectricity. I was but a wire, a synapse, a medium, a conduit, a fiber optic cable…run through by the holiest lightning ever. It was birth and death and prayer and life all charging across me in a crackling buzz. It was everything and probably lasted two seconds, but it changed my life in ways I’m still trying to identify these many years later.
Two births. Two life changing events in a getting-to-be-long blessed life that is learning to render accomplishment into humility, which turns out to be the only accomplishment worth mentioning, in pleasant company anyway. Isn’t that right?
Birth is an expellation, an arguably violent act. How, then, can it be filled with such profound grace? We are nurtured for months in the ocean of our mother, protected. Sure, there are storms like with any ocean, but we live with no less divinity than any sea creature. We grow whole and are then expelled into the bright cold world of air and light. If we are lucky we survive and thrive. Our first breath is searing. Grace happens as we suddenly acclimate to the new world in which we find ourselves. Somehow, we adhere to our mother and acknowledge our father and find a graceful peace. Miracles collect like rosary beads. We find our way. All I can do is stare at this spectacle and pretend I have words to describe it. But I really don’t. Such is life.
(Nebulae: youtube.com; Sperm and egg: webmd.com)
Thank you, Bud. I get it right once a year. Maybe.
Great writing Jim. Your account and witness of a miracle of life as a human, was beautiful.
It really was a joy to write.
Beautiful! I am sure you must have felt a surge of satisfaction after finishing it?
I am starting my online book club, would you like to be a part of it?
Thank you for your kind invitation, but I am buried in books to read and books to write. I hope your book club is a satisfying success.
On the contrary, I think you’ve found the perfect words to describe it. We chose to avoid learning the gender of our first baby until he was born, but wanted to be prepared the second time around. No regrets in either case!
Bravo! I adore your writing!