I’ve never seen the show A Baby Story, but I know many people who love it. The births of my own children were unique and intimate experiences. I’m pretty sure I’d feel uncomfortable being “in the room” with someone I didn’t know who was giving birth. I may be wrong though, because when I read this week’s essay, which is a birth story, I was riveted. Emily’s essay is emotional and beautifully representative of the circle of life. By the time I was done reading, I had chills. —Allie
A Baby Story
By Emily Page Hatch
My mom loved watching “A Baby Story,” the TLC reality show that follows couples in the late stages of pregnancy and films their births in detail. She always wept at the end when the baby appeared.
“Why does it make you cry?” I asked her.
“They’re happy tears,” she replied.
“It’s so graphic though,” I scoffed. “How are you not grossed out?”
“Because it’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “I think of you and your brother.”
Many years later, as I reclined in a hospital bed in Boston in the midst of a January snowfall, I thought about that show. I was in the thick of my own baby story, about to give birth to a son. It was not being televised. I was being induced on my twenty-fifth birthday and feeling nervous about exposing myself in the loud, messy scene that is labor.
My husband, Tyler, and I were about to meet the boy we’d been touching and feeling and talking to for months through the itchy skin of my overstretched belly. My due date had come and gone uneventfully nine days prior. It turned out no amount of mall walking could kick this baby into gear. And as impatient as I was to meet my mystery boy, I was also secretly satisfied to have provided such a comfortable home that he never wanted to leave.
His name would be Cody and I already adored him. He woke me up every morning with karate kicks and he danced the Macarena on my ribs. My heart raced when he rested too long and I couldn’t feel him boogying; I’d tickle my belly until he awoke, and smile with relief.
The older I get, the more often it seems relief stands in for happiness. The two almost feel synonymous.
I so looked forward to holding my baby, but wished I could just snap my fingers. I hated that labor could take so long and be fraught with difficulties. I also hated the prospect of shitting in the process, which everyone warned me would happen.
My gaze drifted from the swirls of white dancing in the gray sky to the framed photo of my mother resting on the shelf across the room. It was the same photo that had been used in her obituary and funeral pamphlet, a stunning photo of her, highlighting her straw blond hair and slate blue eyes that smiled as brightly as her mouth did.
But the picture wasn’t palpable for me, not anymore at least. I saw a distant idea of my dead mother. I didn’t sense her presence or feel more connected, like I sometimes did when I sipped iced coffee or heard that Crosby, Stills & Nash song, or saw my brother smile. But I wanted to feel her—I felt more human when I did, more like the self I used to know—so I kept this photo on my bureau at home and brought it to the hospital. I figured halfheartedly it could bring me luck.
“Who’s that?” barked one of the nurses in a thick Boston accent, pointing to the picture.
“That’s my mom,” I stammered. “She passed away a few years ago.”
But it was closer to a decade ago, and I hated saying, “passed away.” It’s too nice a description for what really happened, but it makes people feel more comfortable, myself included maybe.
My shoulders tensed, a familiar frozen stance, bracing for her reaction. People always feel sorry once they find out, but sorry can feel a lot like pity.
The nurse’s eyes softened as she offered her condolences. Then she pushed a rattling cart of supplies up to my bedside and announced she was going to break my water.
The next several hours felt like a few minutes. The Pitocin kicked in and my contractions raged. Without much hesitation, I accepted an Epidural that knocked me out cold. I woke up to find that I couldn’t feel my legs.
The nurses and doctors seemed to rotate so quickly I could never remember their names. I could only recall one doctor named Emily, because she shared my name. She had been on shift when I was first admitted and in she walked twelve hours later.
“Who’s that in the picture?” she asked.
The epidural wore off as I dilated. It felt like one of those claw cranes that picks up stuffed animal prizes was scraping the insides of my abdomen. I don’t know how people do this naturally.
I was given a button to press if I wanted more drugs, and believe me, I did. But I couldn’t bring myself to touch the button, convinced that I’d overdose. So I begged my husband to press it for me and begged him to stop when he did.
At some point, an unfamiliar doctor entered. He explained that although I was not one of his patients, he wanted to meet me, because he’d heard that my mom died of pancreatic cancer—the same kind that had killed his dad.
I was touched that he shared his experience with me. It’s remarkable how loss can connect us, as total strangers, through a deep and sensitive understanding.
He spoke about what an awful disease it is, and I agreed, but felt my face go hot. I had witnessed my mother go through her illness, but most of the time from a distance. I saw her suffer immensely, and yet, I had been disconnected, steeped in denial.
Did I deserve his empathy?
When she died, I was there; and I wasn’t. Perched next to her on the bed on a dark Tuesday morning in spring, rain coming down in sheets, I watched her take a last labored breath before I covered her face in kisses. I stared in the mirror at the two of us, and we both looked like strangers, starring in an awful movie.
I was in another movie then in a maternity ward in Boston, on a bitterly cold evening, the buildings blanketed in white, looking down at myself with my legs splayed open, feeling strangely serene.
My sheets were soaked in sweat and fluid. I began throwing up cherry-flavored Italian ice that I, of course, believed to be blood.
Grunting and moaning and making the grotesque facial expressions I swore I wouldn’t make, I forced my baby out of me, gradually at first, revealing a spiral of blonde hair that looked black because it was wet—or so his father told me. Next, I freed his full head of downy hair, big round head and wrinkled neck—he was an actual human, and I was floating on the ceiling, watching this woman I didn’t recognize panting from fear and exertion, exhilaration and pride.
With sweat and tears streaming down my clammy face and unfamiliar guttural sounds emerging from my mouth, I released my boy’s sweet neck and shoulders coated in fuzzy peach hair, and time did not exist.
At some point, I pushed one final time, shrieking as I ripped apart in every way possible, my baby sliding rapidly out into his father’s shaky arms, never to live inside of me in this literal sense again.
Within seconds, my son—my son!—was in my lap and there was a nurse snapping our photo, and my heart had swelled to such massive proportions it was spilling out of my body, exploding into a billion tiny bits that I would never get back, because they belonged now to this boy that was laying in my lap, more real and perfect than I could believe.
There was the photo of my mother across from us, forever young in a frame, that still made me feel nothing, because a photo is just a thing, because maybe it’s true that our souls leave our bodies as soon as we die, because as I sobbed endlessly at the sight of Cody, whom I’d only just met but had somehow always known, and I leaned down to cover his face in kisses, I felt my mother’s arms wrap around me and she was weeping, too.
But my son, he didn’t cry. And I didn’t notice that, until he was being taken from me.
Lifted from my arms in a sudden swoop, he was placed on the warming table, stuck with needles and tubes. Machines beeped aggressively as Doctor “Emily” took out her pager and uttered words no one wants to hear: “We need everyone in here.”
Medical staff swarmed the room, but no one told us what was going on.
One doctor had her hand, wrist, and then whole arm inside of me, trying to extract my placenta, which was as stubborn as Cody had been and refused to come out.
Later I would learn how much blood was pouring out, but by that point all I knew and all I’d ever know for sure was that my son could not die.
The room was spinning and I was positive now that I had overdosed. The most intimate moments that make and break our lives—the surreal seconds of last breaths and first breaths and gasping for breath—I never thought it could happen like this.
My eyes darted back and forth from the doctors with my son to the doctor with her arm inside of me. Convinced that I could make a difference in whether my baby lived or died if I put up enough of a fight, I advocated for him, for the first but not the last time, though I was not in my right mind. I wanted to blame someone for what was transpiring. I swore that if he died, I would die right then, too.
He was taken to the NICU and I pleaded with the doctor to let me go with him. But the placenta hadn’t budged and she insisted it wasn’t safe.
What did it matter? What good was my body without my heart and my soul, which were leaving with my son?
His dad accompanied him and I passed out from a fever that had drained the color from my face. I fell into a deep and delirious sleep that lasted until dawn, when I awoke with a start. Had it all been a dream?
I found out later my baby had aspirated and there was fluid in his lungs. He needed help breathing, which he received from an oxygen hood placed over his head that we would later refer to endearingly as his “astronaut helmet.”
We were told it was common. And that he would be okay. I can’t imagine my life if he hadn’t been, no more than I can imagine my life if my mom had lived.
But if she had, I would tell her I get it. I understand now why she loved that show. I know why she used to cry. Baby stories are overwhelmingly beautiful, no matter how they end.
I gave birth to my son on a snowy night in the city two years ago, but his story isn’t over. Neither is my mom’s. One of the only things we have left of the loved ones that we’ve lost are the stories that we tell—small, but staggering consolations.
When my baby arrived at last at the tail end of my birthday—forevermore our birthday—something else was born, too, that had died with my mom on that rainy day in May.
Emily Page Hatch is a freelance writer, therapist, and mother. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Babble, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and other publications. You can connect with Emily on Twitter @EmilyPageH and at http://www.emilypagehatch.com.
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