There was a stillness that December, I noticed it when driving down Sheffield with your father the week before you were due. My squirmy bottom, propped on a pillow, tried to find a position that would be comfortable in the gray Ranger. A shift to the left, an adjustment to the right… neither side provided relief. A straighter back did help with breathing, lengthening my stuffed torso enough to fit in a dewdrop more of air. Outside, I saw that the air was illuminated. There were lights. Red, green, blue…
“It’s Christmas,” I said, looking towards Joshua. Clad in his wool green coat, he had already seen that it must be cold outside.
“Isn’t that so strange? Christmas?”
Joshua looked at me, smiling. I smiled back, like blue.
It was our secret, a secret as loud as the infant moving in my womb. As the world prepared to celebrate the holiday that came around once every single year, we made our own preparations, not sure exactly what it was we were preparing for, but knowing that it would be much brighter, much grander, than any holiday we had ever before experienced.
I have begun this story many times, wanting to write for you the weeks, the days, the hours surrounding your birth. Again and again I have backed off, fearful of not knowing the right words, doubtful of my abilities to render into prose the complexity of emotions and events that marked those moments. I needed a pause, a long one, to allow the memories to float in my body before giving them words.
I try again now, nearly two and a half years after the day you were due. I start not with past drafts, but here and now, while the forsythia lose their yellow flowers for green leaves, while I witness you learn new words and deepen your love for diggers, dirt, Legos and Boomberry ice cream. While I listen to you practice the consonants of “probably” when choosing cereal or a Youtube show – “pwababwe… dis one” – or of “excavator” when you look for your favorite truck. While I absorb your contagious laugh as you wrestle with your father after bath. While I watch the determined furrow deepen in your forehead as you grab your hockey stick in the backyard and wind back to slap shot the ball into the net. The “whiles” continue endlessly, full of the new activities, sounds and experiences that you add to your young life each day.
I’ve now known you now for over 1095 days; for 287, you lived inside of my womb; for the rest, I have watched, fed and cared for you on the outside. I am often in awe of your body, a body began on my inside, fed by my breast. A body that continues to grow, stronger and more robust each and every day.
I’ve now come to understand our pregnancy, which ended in the raucous three days that it took for you to leave my body and enter this world, as a symbol of our relationship as mother and son. All of the emotions I experienced from your conception to your birth nurtured you; your lifeblood began inside of my fear and joy, melancholia and excitement, anxiety and patience. I often feared that the wide span of my emotions would somehow harm you – weren’t pregnant women supposed to be simply happy? Isn’t that what everyone said, chalking up any other emotions to hormonal upheaval? As I grew, I accepted that exposing you to all of my emotions taught you that life was full of complexity. Even as a small, six-pound infant, you knew that each and every one were essential to becoming human.
During the two weeks before your birth, I experienced everything with a heightened intensity. I had expected you to come early, so when my due date – December 9 – came and went, I became more and more anxious and began to doubt whether you were coming at all. In the midst of that last week of waiting that felt like years, your father and I kept to our respective routines. He worked each day at 901, the lake house that he was re-building with Scott's crew. I went to the gym, ran errands, napped and read. Each night we came together. At dinner, we held hands. Knowing that our days as two were numbered, he looked at me, excited, and said, “One day closer.” I smiled, reminding myself to be patient like his eyes. We locked gazes, and I tried to ground myself in the miracle of it all, to accept the growing discomfort, the fear that my skin would explode through my stretch marks before labor began, as pieces and parts of what was happening to me, not as the entirety of my experience. I practiced holding patience alongside discomfort. In spite of my strong wishes to end my pregnancy and meet you on the outside, I wanted to give you the gift of acceptance, of allowing you to come whenever it was that you were ready.
Still, I did all that I could to ease you along. Daily exercise, acupuncture, evening primrose oil, raspberry leaf tea, eggplant, pineapple, spicy food. Nothing worked. Each hour of each day, I was reminded that you could not be rushed, that you would come in your moment.
However, by Friday of that week, four interminable days past your due date, my impatience summited. My face was grumpy. Trying to keep our lives as normal as possible, your dad and I arranged to meet Downtown for coffee and a walk after he finished work, a tradition that we often looked forward to at the end of the week. As I approached, I saw him waiting at the bridge on Cayuga Street. He looked up as I parked, hands in pockets, expression calm and serene. He walked over.
“Hey,” he said as I opened the door.
I smiled, reaching to kiss him as I stepped out of the car. My irritability softened into his hand. Together we headed into Gimme, where he ordered an Americano and I got the same, only decaf. The barista asked me if I was aware that decaf still had caffeine. I answered that yes, I was, and that she could add an extra shot, as I looked forward to the buzz it gave me.
The coffee warmed us through our mittens as we headed back outside, where the temperatures were already colder, the air holding that dense, gray quality that it gets before a snow storm. I was glad that I had loaded the woodstove before leaving the house and imagined it incinerating each of the logs before we got back home an hour later. We walked together into the cold, up the park on Cayuga Street. A man walked past with his Golden Retriever and smiled towards my belly. A woman passed by with her toddler son, whose cheeks burned red from the cold. At the end of the park, we turned around and headed back down the other side of Cayuga Street, then turned again to walk alongside the creek on the cut-through to Tioga and Aurora. I tossed my empty coffee cup into a resident’s recycling can; Joshua did the same. By the time we reached the Monastery, the gray had given way to a deep blue.
Inside, the monks were illuminated golden and red, as people set up their mats. I propped up my bottom on a round pillow, rested my belly between my crossed-legs. On the alter was a motley array of items to worship: small golden Buddhas, hot pink orchids, unopened packages of oreo cookies, tea, candles, fake forsythia, and more. The variety symbolized the monks motto of non-discrimination: they not only accepted, but loved and respected everything that was given to them, whether that item was man-made or natural. They did not judge any gifts as tacky or cheap. No matter what was given, they brought it to the alter and worshiped it for its life-nurturing qualities. As I took in the colors, my eyes drifted shut and my mind began to settle into the present. Each time I began to think about the birth or what I was going to make for dinner, I pulled myself back to the sounds and sites around me: the monks’ chants from the alter, Joshua’s warmth on the mat next to me. Your calm, steady motions soon synchronized with the chants, as if communicating that you were doing well and were about to come out and join us.
Confirming that you were ready, that evening, I woke up at 1 a.m. to a bloody show.
“Joshua,” I said, running into the bedroom.
“Joshua,” my voice could not contain its excitement.
“I’m bleeding. Its time.”
Joshua rolled over and sat up. Our eyes immediately locked in a space deep inside of both of our bodies. He got out of bed and put his arms around my shoulders as I showed him the blood and told him what I had felt. After holding me for a few moments, he gently said, “if this is really happening, we should try to get some rest before you go into labor. We’ll need it.”
I knew he was right, and together we went back to bed. I practiced grounding my thoughts, as I had in the Monastery, bringing my mind into focus on what happened around me: falling snow, howling wind, creaking wood stove, your subtle movements. There was no sleep that night. But there was rest. Rest and the repeated thought that maybe, in the next days, my baby would come.
The next morning, I began to feel mild contractions, and went to acupuncture to help to ease myself into the beginning stages of labor. Joshua picked me up after an hour, and we walked through Mimi’s Attic, the second-hand furniture store next door. I wondered if anyone had ever been in the store while in labor before. When we got back home, the snow began to fall harder, and we tried to continue on as normal of a routine as possible while we waited for my contractions to become regular and more intense. We ate leftover soup, rested. As evening came, the winter gray shifting into a dark sky and an almost full moon, we put on our gear, coat tensing into parka, belly brimming into each zip. The snow had grown so think I could barely move through it. My contractions too grew thicker as we made our way around the perimeter of our yard. When we got home I took off my winter gear and collapsed on the brown lounge chair in the living room. I stayed there throughout the night, too uncomfortable to read or watch a movie. My contractions became regular and painful, but still not intense enough to go to the hospital. I sat, closed my eyes, opened my eyes, and reminded myself to continue breathing as the pain came and went.
As night gave way to the following morning, Sunday, I was in so much pain that I became afraid. Tears welled up in my eyes when Joshua woke, and I told him that I wanted to be sure the baby was ok. We decided to go to the hospital to make sure and were reassured when the nurse hooked me up to the monitor and saw that my contractions were more regular, the baby fine, and I was slowly beginning to dilate. After an hour, we decided to go back home to let things progress a bit more before I was admitted.
At home, the snow continued to fall, encouraging us to rest and wait. We would need more energy for what it was that we were about to perform. More patience. I tried to eat breakfast, an English muffin with jam the only thing I could imagine stomaching as contractions came faster and more intense. I ate part of it, but the contractions continued to come, now wrapping around my belly and concentrating in my lower back. I went to the couch, kneeled on all fours and tried to work myself through the discomfort with animalistic yells and feral movements. Time began to blur around itself, and the next thing I knew Joshua had called our doula, Kate, who was rubbing my back as I worked through one contraction and then another. I instructed her to push into the two spots around my sacrum where the pain was accumulating. Her counter-pressure felt intense, but not intense enough; nothing could have been intense enough to counteract the strength with which my muscles were reacting to ease you down and dilate my cervix.
The next thing I remember is sitting on the bottom of the bathtub, naked, pouring lavender bath salt around me as water pelted my back. I let it drench through my hair as I breathed and worked myself through another contraction. When the pain subsided, I got up and Kate helped me get dressed. I told her I thought it was time to go back to the hospital, and we headed into the gray early evening, back down Hayts in the Ford Ranger, the most uncomfortable and longest five-minute ride of my life. When we got there, I stepped out of the truck and immediately doubled over, seized by another contraction.
Again, I began to cry. “I’m going to meet my baby,” I told Joshua and Kate between tears.
It would still be another full day before we met. A full day of intense back pain and brief relaxation, of fear and doubt, of certainty and confidence. A day of trying to ease pain in the birth tub, of feeling my body weaken from exhaustion, of shaking while standing still during an epidural, of trembling while the medicine entered, of closing my eyes and resting, of sharing stories about names with the nurse, of waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Of waiting to be ready to push, and then pushing for hours. One and then two, three and then four, five. Five hours and the exhaustion peaked. I told Joshua I couldn’t anymore. The fear in his eyes told me he knew. They all kept saying I was almost there, and yet it felt like an eternity away.
I took a pause.
I breathed and cried, deeply. I looked at the women surrounding me. I breathed again. Subtly, I felt a renewed stream of energy. When I opened my eyes, I saw women, cheering women, and Joshua, steady Joshua. They all told me how strong I was. I believed them. Another push. A rest. Another push. Another rest. Another push, a sound and you crowned. Black head below. Next, your body, slipping, eased by poop and cries that gave way to coos when you were placed on my chest.
We locked eyes. Nothing else mattered. My body continued to labor, and we continued to look into each other, our bodies recognizing, tearing, welcoming, loving. You were my little bird. Skin tender as the full moon that shined into the room when you crowned. Hair silky and black as the lake below. I knew you were fine, just tired, when they took you away for a moment to warm under the incubator. Joshua protected you while your placenta came out, then while Dr. Milner and Lucy Chapin sewed together the tears in my perineum. None of it hurt anymore. You were here.
“I could do that again,” I told Kate and Lucy, my voice tired.
They laughed, said no one said that after giving birth.
But I could have. And I would. At that moment nothing else mattered, not the pain or the tears. I knew that you were here and alive, and that we would be here and alive now, together, on the outside. A new spring morning for our cold December night.