Once at the hospital, we take the elevator to the maternity ward on the sixth floor. A phalanx of blue-clad nurses greets us from behind a desk; we are checked in and shown to a room almost immediately. It’s nice to go through this process without a speck of pain. Other items missed from the checklist: the old question of when to head to the hospital, the anguish of potholes.
A nurse opens a cupboard and chooses a gown for me, from among a collection of well-washed garments with strings at the neck still knotted tight. We find a knot that she can pick apart with her fingernails. I am told to take everything off. I slip on the gown, my abdomen still swollen and taut (or, as my mother has deemed it, “rather bulgy”). I have now become hospital fodder; the extensive collection of loose and comfortable clothes that I brought (for some ambitious reason) will remain unworn—at least until I leave. The nurse bids me lie in bed and expertly hooks me up to a fetal heart and contract-o-meter. In almost the same smooth movement she flicks on the television and adjusts the volume.
Within the next 15 minutes, a parade of people enter the room one after another: an eyeglassed administrator to collect my insurance card and address, a nurse waggling a flat, disposable thermometer, another nurse to insert a heparin lock in the back of my left hand, yet another to fuss with the monitor, several others who enter and exit without immediate purpose, and one or two more random vitals-checkers. (In fact, my vitals will be taken throughout the next 48 hours as if someone’s fortune rode on the minute fluctuations of my temperature.)
I’m lying on the bed. I recall the Space Mountain ride at Disneyworld: once the car passes the entrance, it drops precipitously into darkness. I inspect the heparin lock on the back of my hand. The vein bulges grossly, pinioned under clear tape.
A young blonde doctor enters and introduces herself as Doctor H. She’s carrying a small blue pill case and inside it are two small pills intended to jumpstart my labor. The drug my doctor has ordered is Misoprostrol, otherwise known as Cytotec. It’s a drug intended for stomach ulcers, not labor. A drug I am leery of, but that I will try despite my reservations.
Doctor Hayley pokes the pill high up into my cervix (oofh!) and there deposits it. Now there is no going back. She tells me I need to lie still for one hour, at which point I’ll be released from the constant monitor and free to move about. A show about the Wright Brothers is on Channel 13 and we watch it, but I remember barely anything about it now. I think it may have had something to do with flight.
By 10:00 p.m. no one has come to release me from the monitor. I’m on my back and I expect some pain might be around the bend. I don’t wish to be on my back with pain around the bend; it makes me nervous and cranky. Nurse number 686 in the long procession of unknown nurses enters. She fails to introduce herself. I note immediately the serious cast to her face. Her lips purse when I ask her to remove the monitor.
“You need to lie there for two hours,” she informs me.
“The doctor said one.”
“I’m afraid it’s two.”
“Well then, it’s been almost two.”
“Has it?” she says. “Well, if you wish to ambulate, I can unhook you. Once you are done ambulating and you lie down to rest, you will need to be on the monitor.”
Ambulate? I just want to use the bathroom, maybe sit in a chair! But I’ll play her game.
“I’d like to ambulate, yes.”
If the past is any judge, this new nurse will quietly disappear and will be replaced with strange nurse number 687 shortly. So it’s likely I won’t need to obey her anyway.
She washes her hands at the sink and I take one last stab at arguing. “By the way, my doctor said that I wouldn’t need to be hooked up to the monitor while lying down. Only for half an hour, she said.”
“No,” says the nurse, expressionless. “Unless you are ambulating, you need to be hooked up to a monitor at all times. This is an induction. It’s a medical procedure. We need to make sure the baby is okay. At all times.”
This is exactly the reason why I wanted to avoid an induction in the first place. This nurse is clearly evil. Regardless, she releases me around 10:15 and I proceed to “ambulate” until she leaves the room. Then I sit down on the vinyl couch with husband. We are both silent, depressed. There’s something about this place that reminds me of a stark college dorm room at the lower end of the housing lottery; the kind of room where you spend a lonely year reading and writing bad poetry. The city outside is dark, and the fluorescent lights over the bed are dim. It’s terribly silent.
Doctor H will be back around 12:30 to check my progress. We wait. Eventually, husband pulls out the side of the couch to assemble a type of bed, albeit one for a stumpy-legged gnome. He fashions a pillow out of a pair of sweaters and curls up unhappily. I wait and read, alert to any subtle pains. There’s something there underneath the familiar Braxton Hicks tightenings, like a disturbance under the water, more sensed than felt. The sensation grows to a tangible cramping. And then to a point where I can say “this doesn’t feel good.” But it’s not too bad, either.
Evil Nurse returns, accompanied soon after by Doctor H.
“Progress!” the doctor announces re: the cervix. “It’s working; the miso has thinned it out quite a bit.”
Of course, I had hoped for a painless dilation to seven, but who can complain after three weeks at one centimeter? The doctor says she wants to monitor the contractions for a while. Evil Nurse is pleased; she rewards me with a supercilious little smile that says, “I am in charge here.”
They affix the stretchy bands that hold the monitor in place around my abdomen. Evil Nurse asks if I would like any pain medication. This surprises me; these pains are quite manageable. It gives me that pitifully optimistic stab of hope that all those crying women throughout history were wimps. If this is what requires pain medication, then my tolerance is greater than I had ever imagined! I refuse the pain medication and she duly notes it on my chart (I sneak a look later, after she’s gone).
Then they leave me. Husband drifts back to sleep on his makeshift bed. The pain starts to arrive, piece by piece. I had often asked others “what do labor pains feel like?” and the perennial and frustrating answer was either “you can’t miss them” or “you will know,” statements always punctuated with multiple screamers (!!!) when seen in print. I persisted. No really, what do they feel like? Like really bad menstrual cramps, people would say. Okay, there’s a start. Like menstrual cramps times forty, one person offers. But how much does that hurt? The mathematics do not seem to help. I’ve been determined all along to describe them and I knew that I, too, would forget. I would become a “you will know” veteran. So in the midst of it, I pull out my journal and write the following:
“Hospital. 2:56 a.m. Pain is god’s blood pressure cuff, tightening into knots at the top, then a flare, a bloom, an apron of pain along the bottom. Was thinking in paired words: moonstone sea, ocean bayberry, wound wrathmot. At first could float like a golden leaf upon Allagash Lake wave. Then tried fixating my attention on the ceiling. I walked. A ribbon of wet blood ran down my leg into my sock. I thought: I am a king. I am a warrior. I thought: I walk in the shadowed lands without fear; this cannot hold me. But words don’t make any sense, in the end. They are so much metallic clatter.”
That’s what I wrote and it’s not much good either. Pain means the loss of pronouns, a staccato rhythm, compressed verbiage. Maybe pain is poetry. This is the last thing I wrote before I died. (Because, it seems, this pain walks too finely close to death. But that is not such a bad thing. Memento mori; you are alive. You were a long shot. A strange chance brought you here.)
I will say this: There is a certain inherent rhythm underneath the anguish, as if women are tuned to intangible metronomes. I know this because I can hear another laboring woman crying out along the hall in exactly the same tempo. One-two-three-four-five and on, slow and steady, like something rising up and cascading over the top of a dark wall. The noise is more like the crying of a dumb animal than anything else.
In the room is a wooden rocker-glider. It is the best and most magnificent thing in the history of human invention. It tops automobiles, telephones, air conditioners, radio towers, pacemakers, penicillin. I rock, rest, rock, rest. Sometimes the rests descend into a valley of blessed normalcy, and other times they sink only slightly below the level of true badness. I deem this quite unfair.
I listen to music through headphones: “Two steps around the room, once around the block, I’ll be your future boy.” At some point I remember to pinch the nodules taped inside my ears. They have absolutely no effect. I begin to suspect that I was duped. Ever optimistic, I leave the beads in place. Maybe when the pain gets really bad, they’ll work. That’s bloody likely.