Last September 19th, I sat at my kitchen table with my mom, breaking down the first part of an 8-quart box of tomatoes from the farmers’ market to be roasted and stored for future meals. Mike had a huge pot of chicken stock on the stove, and a plan to make chicken soup for dinner. My dad sat and relaxed in the living room with the news on, the hum of some talking head on MSNBC barely registering in my ears.
I was distracted and more than a little out of sorts; at that afternoon’s visit for monitoring and such at my OB’s office, an ultrasound revealed that my amniotic fluid was low. That, combined with my “advanced maternal age” and the fact that our baby boy was now nearly a week past his due date meant that I would be scheduled for a nonelective induction.
An induction. As anxious as I was to meet this little guy who had been living and growing and bopping about inside of me since the previous December, an induction was on the short list of Things I Did Not Want with respect to this child’s birth. So I halved and cored tomatoes, quiet except for the occasional benign exchange with mom or Mike, trying not to think about this induction business. Then Mike’s cell phone rang. It was someone from Women & Infants Hospital, calling for me, calling about this induction which we thought would happen the next day, but which we now were told would happen in a matter of hours. While I was on Mike’s phone, my own cell phone rang. Mike answered – it was my doctor’s office, telling us (a little late) to expect a call from the hospital, with instructions to report to the hospital that night. This induction was happening, whether I liked it or not.
So this was how this pregnancy, unexpected and blessedly uneventful, easier than I had ever dreamed it would be, would be coming to an end. It was not at all as I had hoped or planned. All of the calm I had felt in the months before was out the window. I sat in the bedroom like a petulant child and cried. I was feeling sorry for myself, and I was scared. I called my grandma and tried not to fall apart as I told her we were on our way, that her newest great-grandchild would be here in the world soon, and that we loved her.
The folks on the phone told me to make sure to eat something before reporting to the hospital, but I couldn’t think about food at all. Mike considered our options in terms of what was nearby and would actually be open on a Monday night, and with a smile, whispered in my ear, “how about Julian’s?” I managed to smile back through my tears, nodding yes. It was fitting and fun, a little inside joke, as my parents had no idea that Julian was the name we had long ago decided on for their first grandson. Julian’s it was. I had a cheeseburger and fries, basic, simple, and comforting, and despite everything that was going on, I somehow found my appetite and finished every bite.
I spent that first night in the hospital watching the minutes on the wall clock tick by. The drug I had been given to get things moving along (Cervidil) left me with horrible cramps, and by the time it was administered, my window for getting a sleep aid had passed. I was already exhausted when I was moved to Labor and Delivery the next morning and given Pitocin, but I was determined to labor without pain medication. I walked, with Mike’s help. I breathed through contractions like it was my job. I listened to our music. I used every position on the adjustable bed, I used a birthing ball, aromatherapy pillow, and every other tool available to me to help me get through. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I felt like I was managing it fairly well. The hours ticked by, slowly.
Dr. Sharp was the OB on duty, and she broke my water at some point on Tuesday afternoon. Things got very intense, very quickly. I’m not sure how much longer I held out, but at one point, I had three contractions right on top of each other, so strong and painful I couldn’t catch my breath to breathe through them. I soon began to feel like I was going to pass out – in fact, I was so exhausted that Mike said I kept falling asleep between contractions, little micro-naps that happened wherever I happened to be. The next time the doc checked to see how far I was dilated, she told me we were halfway there.
I asked for the epidural.
At one point earlier in the day I was alone in the room – I think the nurse on staff had taken Mike to show him where he could refill our water or something. All of the low-grade bustle of the previous hours had stopped for a moment, the afternoon light was soft and low, and I lay there, listening to Julian’s heartbeat, watching my contractions graphed on the monitor next to me, while the music Mike had loaded onto our iPod played in the background. He had chosen some great stuff for this very important playlist, without much input from me, and I smiled as one song in particular began: Rosemary Clooney singing “Corcovado”. It was the song that was playing when Mike asked me to marry him.
I remembered that moment in our apartment in Brooklyn with its deep red walls, the brother and sister cats who are no longer with us, curled at our feet. I remembered the Fung Wah bus trips between New York and Boston, the way I felt when I saw his face after those long rides, and how my heart broke a little every time we’d say goodbye. I remembered the unseasonably warm January day when we said our vows at a Manhattan municipal building, surrounded by a small, merry band of friends, then spent the rest of the day visiting some of our favorite places in our favorite city, eating and drinking and laughing, hearts full to bursting, with no idea what our future would hold, but ready to face it together.
I tried to summon those moments as the anesthesiologist tried once, twice, three times before finally getting the needle into the right place in my spine, while Mike held my hands and two nurses tried to fold me like a card table, to hold me still through my pain. The moment I began to doubt my endurance, the moment I questioned whether I would be able to deliver this baby safely without more assistance, I knew I had to go for the shot, to do what was best for the baby. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but I had to get through this. It wasn’t what I hoped for, but I have no regrets.
The hours after the epidural are a bit of a haze. I remember how my legs felt, cold as ice and leaden, but when I brushed a hand against them my skin burned. I slept on and off, as Sue, the wonderful nurse who was with us through the home stretch (even staying after her shift had ended), rolled me from one side to the other throughout the night to keep the drugs working properly, a tangle of IV cords attached to my arm and back, and later, an oxygen mask over my face. The sleep wasn’t good, but it was enough.
We had been told that the doctor would probably come in for us around 1 am, and that then it would be time to push. It was several hours later when that actually happened, and I think Mike and I were both surprised at how this finale played out. For most of the pushing, the only people in the room with me were Sue and Mike, with each of them holding one of my legs, and Sue counting aloud. It felt counter-intuitive, taking a breath and holding it in while pushing – my instinct was to breathe out as I pushed – but I focused harder than I ever have on anything, and within just 30 minutes, we were ready for Dr. Sharp to return and bring our baby into the world.
In an instant, all the stillness in our room was replaced with the bustle of nurses and technicians, metal carts and warming lights. Dr. Sharp sang along with our Ella Fitzgerald tunes, then she stopped and instructed me to make my final push. I both felt and heard a POP as Julian’s head emerged, then Mike’s voice rang out, joyful and almost overcome with emotion, “oh my god! Oh my god!” There was another gentle tug and our boy was out in the world, finally, purple and wriggling and absolutely perfect.
What surprised me the most was that I didn’t cry – me, who is prone to crying at the drop of a hat. I didn’t shed a single tear at what was probably the most emotional moment of my life. I remained clear-eyed and calm as the nurses handed me our son, this tiny, squalling person for whom everything was brand new, and me perhaps the only familiar thing to him – and my only concern was to soothe him, to calm his crying. I spoke to him softly as I held him to my breast: “I love you. I love you, Julian. Everything’s fine, your mama’s here. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
And so it was.