I had been complaining for weeks about not feeling well, but come dinnertime that Sunday, I knew something wasn’t right.
“I think I’m having contractions,” I announced as I hobbled + waddled – hugely pregnant with a broken foot – around the kitchen. I finally went and called the midwives, having grown to expect voicemail instead of an answer. To my surprise, an actual voice greeted me on the other end of the line, only it was the assistant informing me that both midwives were out of town.
Seeing as I was deep into my 35th week of pregnancy, this was alarming to me as it was definitely within the “no travel” zone. I already had a bad feeling, and now it was worse. The assistant, a young gal in training to become a midwife herself, told me to relax, eat something, and count kicks, while she tried to get in touch with one of the midwives.
I relayed the news to B, who did his very best to reassure me, though by now I was definitely starting to panic, if only silently and to myself.
As my family of four gathered around the table, the kids already dressed in their pajamas, I said it again, only this time I knew it.
“I’m having contractions.”
In the bathroom, I discovered that I was spotting, confirming that I was, in fact, having contractions.
One of the midwives had called me from her personal line, which I dialed immediately. I told her about the blood, and she told me that I needed to go to the hospital for a nonstress test. I told her that I wouldn’t pass, I knew it in my core. And when she told me again that my only choice was to go to the hospital, I felt in that moment as if it were Destiny herself speaking to me on the phone.
From the moment I discovered that I was carrying a baby, I also carried with me a certain sense of what was to come. In fact, one of my greatest singular fears was that I would end up having a C-section, which I found to be funny because during my other two pregnancies the thought never once crossed my mind in any real sense. Yet, for some reason I didn’t yet fully understand, I was consumed with fear for the duration of my third pregnancy, which lent a certain eeriness – but also a degree of comfort – to the events that followed.
The tears, they effortlessly rolled down my cheeks as I told my family that we were headed for the hospital. We were so gloriously unprepared! We had only just begun to collect the things one needs when expecting a new baby, but not a single thing was actually ready. There was no hospital bag, because we were having a home birth, “just in case” not really part of our approach. I had to Google the hospital, call the front desk, and ask how to get in to labor and delivery.
A large sign posted at the entrance to the hospital alerted us to the details of its “FLU SEASON POLICY” which basically prohibits any person under the age of twelve from entering. I looked at the faces of my seven and ten year old kids, who were both clearly shaken up by what was happening (What was happening?), and we all just went inside because honestly, what else were we supposed to do? By this time, it was nearly 10 PM. Our choices were limited. On our drive over to the hospital, which turned out to be just over a mile from our home, we called the only two people we’d asked to be involved in our home birth, both of whom headed straight over.
The lady sitting at the front desk of the labor and delivery ward was not at all friendly, aggressively enforcing the part of the flu season policy which stated that my children weren’t allowed to be there. Thankfully, one of the ladies we’d asked for help arrived just in time to rescue my children so that B could focus on me, who was definitely starting to lose it.
I was admitted to the hospital, and escorted to a triage room by a nurse who apologized for the behavior of the mean lady just as soon as the door shut behind us. I was grateful for her kindness. She asked us to try and get a copy of my medical chart faxed over from the midwives, which we were able to do after much back and forth with the midwives’ assistant. Our other friend, my doula, arrived just as the doctor was confirming my suspicions, that the nonstress test was nonreactive and I would need to next have an ultrasound.
While we waited for her to return with the necessary equipment, I used the bathroom and spontaneously lost my mucus plug, a tell tale sign of the onset of labor. This can’t be happening. I’m thirty days away from my due date.
I tried to calm my nerves, but my heart was racing and my blood pressure was steadily climbing. The ultrasound revealed an alarming lack of amniotic fluid, alarming as in there wasn’t any measurable amount. The baby, although small, was moving, with a relatively steady heart rate, so it was decided that I would be observed to see how my labor progressed. I was moved from a triage room to a labor and delivery room, and given a new nurse, who began to prepare me for hospital labor (change my gown, start an IV, hook me up to contraction + heart rate monitors, etc.).
She was an older Filipino woman named Linda, with a gentle voice and a sharp sense of humor which combined for the kind of bedside manner I needed to assuage many of the fears so clearly written on my face. And in my blood pressure, which had climbed to hypertensive levels. She made a deal with me: she would wait to administer any labor inducing medication long enough for B to race home and collect a few personal items. She would however have to give me steroids and antibiotics for reasons that didn’t really make sense to me, but then again nothing was really making sense to me at the time. Thankfully, my doula was there to help me understand and feel better about what was happening as each new instrument and intervention was introduced.
There was a lot of Western medicine going down, and it was doing down fast. I couldn’t really keep up, it just kept snowballing and I did my best to go with it without flipping out altogether. I still can’t believe I didn’t flip out altogether. My hands are shaking as I type this, adrenaline from that night still readily accessible.
Inhale, exhale. It was all I could do then, and it’s all I can do now. Just. Keep. Breathing.
When Babe finally got back to the hospital, everything was in place for the pitocin to begin. My blood pressure was taken one last time, reading higher than ever, and I asked Linda to please let me take a shower. I just knew that if I took a shower, I could at least relax a little bit.
With a latex glove covering the catheter in my hand, B very gently and lovingly helped me to shower in that cramped hospital bathroom, a ritual that would become a central part of our interaction over the next five days. He was so patient, so attentive, and so very, very strong when I needed him to be that most of all.
After I had been bathed, oiled, and dressed again, my blood pressure had lowered thirty points(!) and the pitocin was finally started. Things were beginning to calm down, long enough for us – me, B, my doula, and my friend – to connect with each other and formulate some kind of game plan. The beeping of the pitocin monitor startled us all.
Linda came in to say that for some reason the machine had broken and would need to be replaced. Thirty minutes later the pitocin started again, and the four of us went back to talking about whatever it is you talk about while waiting for labor to get going. Again, the beeping.
For the third time, pitocin was started and by now it was the early hours of the morning and not a lot of progress had been made. One of the doctors came in to say that the baby’s heart rate wasn’t reading well and could I please roll to one side? Ok, maybe the other side? Let’s try an internal monitor, she said.
Despite the absence of any fluid in my uterus, the sac around the baby had yet to rupture near my cervix, so a hook was inserted up there to make a small tear in order for a monitor to be placed on the baby’s head.
Well, the baby, who had been cooperating up to this point, did not like being fiddled with in this manner, and responded by dropping his heart rate so low, it was below 25% of what it should have been. This and the fact that I was bleeding profusely from my nether regions led to much frenzy upon the part of the medical staff and suddenly the population of the room doubled. There were whispers and commands and paperwork was produced and placed in front of me, who by this time had been instructed to make my way to all fours. I looked first to Babe and then to my doula, who told me that I needed to sign the paper, consenting to a Caesarian section at precisely 4:10 AM.
Like a scene straight out of some ridiculous television drama, my fingers were pulled from Babe’s as I was rushed – literally, the doctors ran as they pushed the gurney – to the operating room. We had been told that we’d meet again after I had been prepped for surgery, and I frantically pleaded with anyone who would listen to please please please let him come in the room with me. Thankfully, Linda was there.
She held my hand as more than a dozen strangers moved quickly around me, doing her best to narrate for me what was going on. I heard someone make mention of putting me to sleep and I screamed “You can’t put me to sleep!” and I was told that I needed to sit up quickly so they could give me an epidural. Linda helped me into a sitting position, and hugged me as the anesthesiologist attempted to insert a large needle into my spine.
What felt like a punch in the back was actually the needle rupturing a layer of my spinal cord it was not meant to, and I would suffer a post-dural puncture headache for more than a week on account of this fraction of a millimeter mistake.
Needless to say, the epidural didn’t take, and with the baby in increasing distress, the only option left was for me to be put to sleep in order for the operation to proceed.
Linda came and put her face right next to mine. She spoke in a soft voice, though her words were firm. “You did the right thing coming here tonight,” she said. “You came here to save your baby. You did the right thing. You are so brave.”
The next thing I remember was the weight of a warm blanket being placed around my face. A familiar voice rose over the hum of sounds I couldn’t quite distinguish. I blinked my eyes open and found Babe sitting across from me, his face swollen with tears and exhaustion.
“We have a beautiful boy,” was all he could manage to say before we both started crying again.
Very early on in my pregnancy, before we had shared the news with anyone except our closest friends here in San Diego, I had a vivid dream while we were staying at Campland of an impossibly tiny, impossibly dimpled, light haired baby boy with a button nose and an unmistakable twinkle in his sparkling blue eyes. This was the only time I ever had this particular dream, and I had all but convinced myself that the baby I was carrying was of the female variety. But the picture that B showed me took the breath right out of my chest, because what he showed me, underneath all the tubes and wires, was the little lover of my dreams.
It would be another four hours before I would get to meet him, but I knew he was the one I had been expecting all along. He was tiny, at four pounds and three ounces, but he was mighty. As the minutes ticked by, it was clear he was stronger than any of the doctors had anticipated. The prognosis continued to evolve as each test came back negative. No scar tissue on the brain. All organs functioning properly. Responding appropriately to various stimuli. And finally, stable. Not enough so that I could hold him, but enough that we could be escorted into the NICU so that I could see him for the first time.
Through all of this, Linda waited for me. Her shift ended a full two hours before I came out of the fog of anesthesia, but she waited for me just the same. While B and I waited for the head of the NICU to inform us when the baby was ready for us to visit him, Linda came over to my bed. I could barely sit up, so she leaned in to me, held my face in her hands, and with tears in her eyes told me how proud she was of me. I hold this moment very close in my heart. I don’t know if she is aware of just how much her presence meant to me, but I could not have survived were it not for her selfless care. We were just saying our farewells when the doctor came to tell us that they were ready for us in the NICU.
The NICU is a funny place, where joy and sorrow float in equal measure through the air the way confidence and insecurity do in a high school hallway, each moment magnified by the gravity of just being there to begin with. Our baby lay uncovered under a lamp, where his body temperature was slowly being raised back to normal after being decreased to 92° in order to minimize the stress on his organs as they performed their series of examinations in an attempt to determine what exactly went or was wrong. When at long last I could get a good look at him, the first thing I thought was “that chin!” and still to this day, when I look at him, I think the same thing. That chin is delicious.
After only a few minutes, we were told it was time for us to be taken to the room where we would stay for the next four nights. The baby was being hooked up to an EEG, a scan which would last a full 24-hours, preventing me from holding my newborn until its completion. The rest of that day passed by in cycles of breast pumping, vital sign checks, and elevator rides to visit the the NICU. B did his best to keep me comfortable, though heavy drugs were doing most of that. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon the following day that I would be crippled by intense headaches anytime I was vertical.
Around dinnertime, about sixteen hours after the baby was delivered, my friend snuck my big kids into my hospital room. I was able to give them proper hugs, the kind of hugs I wasn’t really able to give them when we parted the night before, too engulfed in the drama of the situation to be fully present in our exchange of goodbyes. Now that it was clear that we were to be separated by hospital policy for the better part of a week, I was able to love them up good and proper the way a mama does when she’s bidding farewell to her babies. There were tears. And there was laughter, as there most always is when the two of them are around.
Long after the night nurse had come on duty, I paged her asking for help in cleaning myself up. She brought me a change of clothes, put fresh sheets on both my bed and the one in which B would be sleeping, and helped us make our way to the shower, where I caught a glimpse of my heavily bandaged belly. The tears just came, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t fight it either. I let the sadness, the anger, the exhaustion wash over me as the hot water rinsed the residue of the day away, though a million showers couldn’t clean me of its memory.
Even now, a full year (and almost three thousand words) later, I’m not able to completely articulate just how incredibly monumental a day it was when Roux Huckleberry Baker came into the world, though I’m almost positive there was no other way for him to do so than the way in which he did. He might be my third child, but almost everything about being his mother has been a first for me. See: chicken broth. The first year of his life has been gut-wrenchingly raw and transformative. I hardly recognize myself a year ago, the scar on my abdomen a tribute to the kind of alteration I’ve undergone as a direct result of being this baby’s mama.
There aren’t many people who meet a deep-rooted fear so directly, most of us just fantasize about things that are unfortunate yet unlikely to happen, and I have found a lot of gratitude for being given the opportunity to grow past something so ugly in such a beautiful way. I haven’t healed completely, but I’m a lot stronger than I used to be, and in possession of a lot more self-compassion.
I count the nine days we spent in the NICU amongst the best days of my life, each bearing stories worthy of their own telling. And perhaps, someday, I’ll tell about the time I stopped the nurse from feeding him formula simply because I could tell the color wasn’t the same as my colostrum, or how it took getting a social worker involved to get the process for our discharge started, or how my Huckleberry friend brought a smile to every person that saw him. But my baby just woke from his afternoon nap, and I’ve only got a few hours left to enjoy what’s left of his first trip around the sun.
What a glorious journey it has been.