Oh all right. Here it is!
They keep counting to ten. I keep holding my breath, pushing. Between contractions I fall asleep, or pass clean out from the pain. I wake up to see Husband and the doctor patiently waiting for me to start again. One time, I wake up and its just Husband and Nurse Helene; the Doctor has wandered off to check on someone else. Who’s going to catch the baby now? I think, and pass out again. When I wake up Doctor H2 is back and I wonder if I dreamed her absence.
Someone suggests a mirror. I never wanted a mirror. In fact, I was appalled by the thought of a mirror.
“Okay, the mirror,” I say, and they roll one in on cue. It’s a big mirror on wheels with a wooden frame. Funny, I’d always envisioned a slender vanity hand mirror, perhaps held by a manicured medical student whose only role is to tilt it in the right direction. In the mirror I can see some wrinkled part of the baby’s scalp, with a little bit of blond hair darkened by wetness. It’s terribly close to the exit.
The mirror does the trick. I know one thing: This pain can be over in a matter of moments. There is only one surefire way to make this pain end. I really do push with all I’ve got. I realize a few days later, when I collapse in tears after walking four whole blocks, the extraordinary physical effort of this moment.
The baby’s head pops out. I see it in the mirror but it looks like a purpled lump, and I can’t see very straight. Could be the Stadol goofing with my senses, or my eyeglass lenses steamed with sweat. No one mentions that the shoulders don’t feel so good coming out. For a few seconds, someone down there manipulates them through. And then the whole baby is through and out.
A door opens to another universe, and through this door a living human being is placed into my arms. I don’t know who puts him there. Past the door’s frame I do not see. He is accompanied by light. His eyes are dark and big and his face is nothing but light; he is light itself. His arms pedal. There’s a flash of red near his legs (genitals), a flash of pale, milky blue (umbilical cord), an overall slippery sheen of wetness. He gazes right at me, a little outraged. His eyes are dark blue, blinking. Already, he has a stare that evaluates and questions. His brow furrows and his mouth opens.
Expecting a shriveled little raisin of a baby, empurpled and cone-headed, we are completely stunned by his beauty. There is a rift in the air, and I don’t think to look up and through it, from where he came. For a moment he carries a trace of the eternal world, the world of pure ideas. He brings it in with him like a trail of light.
(Two weeks later he sometimes gazes at the edges of rooms, where shadows go missing. He stares and bicycles his legs and looks sometimes frightened, sometimes mesmerized. Husband says ghosts. I think perhaps there are ephemeral gaps and tears through to that other world, and he sees them opening and closing, invisible to the rest of us. By the time he can tell us of them, will his gaze will brush past them, favoring solid shapes and sharp lines?)
Nurse Helene lifts the baby off my chest and deposits him in a clear bassinet in an alcove off to my right. He scrabbles and clasps the edge of it while they try to pin him down for his first-ever assessment test, the Apgar. This one is feisty, and strong. Husband and the baby lock eyes, and Husband tells him things in French. They seem like they are in another room, a well-lit room of soft upholstery and fine music. Meanwhile, Doctor H2 is depositing the placenta in a plastic tub. Then I’m getting stitched. (Two stitches only, despite that eggy-headed baby! Perineal massage: a good idea.) I don’t feel the stitches at all. I’m watching the baby and my husband. Why are they so far away? I feel a mild, dissociated sadness, as if the parade has moved on and I’m no longer needed.
But soon the baby is back for his first grab at the breast (assisted by Nurse Helene’s rough, overly vocal ministrations). I’m not sure how I feel about him yet. It’s all too strange. A few days later, I will know.
There’s more to the story, of course. There’s Tao, the hospital’s lactation consultant, who comes around to affix the baby’s maw properly to my breast. Tao is much gentler than Nurse Helene, but her instructions make no sense since her English is poor at best. She also teaches a complementary postpartum class at the hospital which may as well be in Chinese. We learn absolutely nothing, except that the other babies born during the night look like squished lumps of uncooked dough. I feel even prouder of our handsome infant, despite a blotchy red rash that he’s developed during the night. In the middle of the class, Tao asks me how I’d feel if my baby had jaundice.
“Not great, I guess.”
“Your baby have jaundice!” Tao shouts. “How you feel?!”
A large, redheaded nurse from Slobovia or some such country comes by later with tips on how to rouse a sleepy baby at the breast.
“Should I tickle his feet?” I ask.
Slobovian nurse looks outraged, as if I’d suggested prodding the baby with a fondue fork.
“Oh, noooo!” she cries. “You NEFFER teeckle a baby!”
During our stay at the hospital, we’re given six different opposing instructions on how to care for the baby’s circumcision site—from “don’t touch it” to “drizzle water over it” to “apply gauze squares, one per diaper change.” I’m offered a vile meatloaf studded with peas or similar greenish items (it’s so gross, we actually take a photo of it). My husband clogs the toilet in the room, and a disgruntled janitor shuffles down the hallway with a plunger (did I mention that the brimming toilet—which WILL overflow with the addition of one more droplet of pee—is also filled with blood, like something out of the film The Conversation?). It’s clearly time to go.
My mother-in-law helps me pack up our things and we head for the elevators. Husband waits below in the car. On the way out, a young Chinese nurse waves goodbye.
“See you back next year?” she asks brightly.
“What? Oh. No, no I don’t think so.”
We take our baby out in the world. He’s tucked into his car seat like a small, curled bean. All that night and all the next night, too, I dream his face in the few minutes I sleep. And when I’m awake I see his face as well, as if burned into my retinas by that shocking moment when he arrived in my arms. So sleep deprived that I begin to hallucinate, I see his face in the curtains, in a twist of bedspread, in the shape that a stack of books makes in the dark. For a time, I imagine that my face has taken on the shape and dimensions of his own; that we are one and the same. I wear his face. I lose all sense. I sleep heavy and dream fantastic, multi-chaptered dreams for the first time in months.
He sleeps, and flexes his back. His fist bunches near his ear and shakes, as if he’s clenching a tiny bell. I realize how he almost wasn’t. And then again, how he had to be, and how every small event has led to him. Every past decision now makes sense. That is why I turned south or north that day, that is why I paused, that is why I (and we) came back. He is. He exists.