By Sara Nolan
You can’t fail at birth, they tell you.
But you sure fucking can, and here’s how you do it.
It starts when your baby’s heart rate slows down so much that even a novice midwife, or, for that matter, even a four year-old, would know something was wrong.
In my case, you could think whole profound thoughts between those heart beats. You felt like John Cage, because the silence was as loud as the noise. You felt like a Buddhist Monk whose awareness is so attuned she can see through the holes in time and space to an eternal present where your baby’s next heartbeat never comes.
Well, it wasn’t that bad.
Yes, it kind of was.
My husband doesn’t freak out. Generally. But stooped in the desk chair by my bedside, he had the same look on his face I get when I burn toast, or when the baby (yes, there is a baby at the end of this) gets a little too pinkish red around the lips, or when my computer doesn’t save my hard-won revisions. Panic. In him, though, it’s only detectable by those who know that slight agitation in the corner of his eyes means the earth went off its axis to court Mars.
The baby the baby the baby.
By the end of labor, no complete sentences can completely describe the state you’re in. You’re diffuse and ridiculously one-pointed. You’re bigger than the entire universe because that’s how big your pain is– at the same time, you’re so small and useless you couldn’t roll a pebble down a kiddie slide. It’s a paradoxical state where you are about to do the hardest physical feat in the universe having already done the hardest. You want some teenager to take up a video game controller and do it for you, hike your legs apart, eject a baby.
No baby comes.
The pain has already pushed time apart from itself like it is breaking up a school yard fight between minutes. A whole continent drifts between minutes. Icebergs melt into fetal eddies.
Lie down, the midwife barks. You have three chances.
I’m sure I told this story other ways in other places. But I’m telling it this way now. And this is the way I want you to hear it.
Lying down is akin to death in this labor. I have been on my legs for 27 hours and the hole is all the way open and the way I fail is to fail to understand why no baby has come out through that hole like the prairie dogs do so readily at the zoo do when cute kids push their noses against the plexiglass.
I lie down because she is in commando mode. Instructions Moses should jot down.
The doppler sounds like Jesus walking on water: nothing.
They sell dopplers on Amazon, which we learned after being so tickled to hear the baby’s heart-rate at every appointment, wondering if we could get our fix of budding life more frequently. But they warn pregnant people against buying dopplers for themselves. You could hear things wrong. You could misunderstand. You need training to decode what you hear.
But right now– no, you don’t.
The heartbeat on Side 1 is challenged. It sounds like a limping baby horse, maybe even a baby horse that is constipated and waddling. Maybe a horse using a cam-walker boot, a baby horse that has a sprained foot, or four sprained feet, awkward and draggy. I don’t know what kind of beleaguered animal to compare it to, but it’s not that prancing baby colt I remember from our prenatal visits.
On my back, nothing good happens. I look at my husband who is supposed to make me feel better and he is looking down, still, like people do beside graves, while the coffin is lowered. I feel like my whole birth team has receded to the walls of the room and I am alone on this bed with this huge belly no baby is coming out of and these two women who know my fate atop me.
On Side 3, the heartbeat is even slower. I don’t even know how I manage to turn over, I feel like God has me on a stick and is roasting me over a fire, I’m his marshmallow, I’m stabbed and broken, I lie there. I think this was the side Buddhas choose to die on. I don’t want there to be any dying, not even the Buddha. If I met the Buddha I would never kill her, I would ask her to please use her special mental powers to get this baby out and make it live.
Buddhas don’t do things like that, not even on special request for mercy. They don’t resurrect, they know all life is suffering, and ah, here’s one more on suffering’s bloated docket.
They called an ambulance. The ambulance came after 6 years. I switch verb tenses, and switched back. Everything is swaying, everything is still.
Are we going to the hospital after all these hours because I failed to push correctly? It must be that. No, no, no, assures the frazzled birth assistant. She’s faking calm. She doesn’t like that we’re transferring either, she tries to exude measured confidence. But only the Buddha can not fake calm. And that’s because dying doesn’t ruin Buddha’s narrative, or worldview, or client track record.
There was that horseshoe stool under my ass for all those hours while brown dripped out of me and everyone else was sure I could do it, they were sure– well I can’t I can’t I can’t.
You sure can fail at birth, and here’s how it works.
I found my pants, someone else found more underpants, we were packing for a little trip that was all. I said things like My hospital bag is somewhere! I was lucid. I knew where my keys were. I had an insurance card. I was all set. Nothing could be wrong. Except that heart. But it’s always the fucking heart. You have all the right keys, and still, the heart. You pack all the right things, but still, the heart. You move through labor; but the heart, the heart labors right back at you.
We are in the ambulance and I can’t reach anyone and no one can reach me and I’m flat on my back and have this whole new respect for Jesus because every time they hit a bump I’m crucified, and it seems like all the bumps have conspired to be hit, like whack-a-mole, and I arch, and they whack a mole, and I scream and they whack a mole, and I arch, and they whack, and so on.
It’s the most fun trip ever and it takes only 4,000 years, until they pull up into the back of the hospital, and I’m pretty sure the EMT high-fives me. But that must have been a false memory, colored by confusion, by the mismatch between what I’d hoped for and what is happening. They roll me on the gurney arching and swearing through the ER, and I pass people moaning who look like they are dying, and only later do I realize if they were conscious enough they must have thought the same about me.
And you know what? We’re all right. All of us. No one is more right than anyone else. You and me and this baby, we’re all dying. So let’s just fess up and get this mortal coil to stop coiling so tight around my very breath, around my heart beating quizzically fast and the baby’s obstinately slow.
Curse words are everywhere, my mouth is water breaking, every burst of hope explodes in an expletive. They are the only things that help, because they add a down-beat, a heart-beat to my reality, which has one heart hammering and the other tip-toeing. Little one, little one. The midwife is chasing me with her hand-held doppler. But they are ripping me from her jurisdiction. They frown at her in their whites and blues and she must stay back.
I’m in a room. I’m dressed. That gown, that fucking gown. The whole reason I opted for home birth. Things are happening. More things. And then The Thing.
She is on me. She’s pounced. I remember thinking her hair looked nice, that chestnut brown some people manage, the pony tail that even under duress gleams and bounces. What brand of rubber band–
There is yelling. Her hand is in my vagina. I understand she is holding my baby’s head. Off his cord. I can’t move. I’m not supposed to, but I also can’t. She’s locked in with me, she’s not letting me shit or get off the pot, in fact, she’s the boss of me. She says, your baby’s cord is prolapsed, we are going to have a c-section, don’t move, you’re going to be put under immediately. Immediately. We have 1 minute to get him out. This is an emergency.
Everything disappears. The cord is falling.
I close my eyes and shout as the hospital bed flies through the forever hallway: I give consent for whatever you need to do.
There, I have something. I have the power to say yes to what is already completely out of my control.
That is the only power I have.
And I use it.
When you are dying, I assume, there is this moment.
You turn into the darkness and hope and pray all your experience becomes a raft. All those hours meditating in your 20’s, remember those? Butt to the cushion, back when no one was making you push, back when nothing was at stake.
It must have been for a point.
I can feel the gurney flying not just into the OR, but through double-doors of the mind and into outer space. I close my eyes and decide that I will trust. I haven’t just given my consent– but my Consent. I will trust this fucking horrible process, because it’s what I can do, because I hope some day to recover, and I know trauma freezes us in time, and that clenching is part of that, shutting down to the moment is part of that. I think in whole sentences. I feel my not-long dead Uncle, my appointed guardian angel, nodding at me from the huge expanse of black behind my will-not-fucking-open-you-at-any-cost-eyes.
Buddha, buddha, buddha, Jesus, Jesus, Jeeeeeeeezus.
I mouthed these unalienable truths like I was reading them off ticker-tape. I don’t to this day know what unalienable is, but it felt like the word most suited to dying.
My husband is a disappearing dot. They are shouting at him that he cannot come. He cannot be my witness, my companion, my hospital ally. He has to go to the waiting place. I have never been more alone, though the ER is buzzing with noise, tools, jostling, even shouting. I am alone and underneath the ruckus the valves of mortality are pulsing.
I will trust these medical professionals , these tools, this intervention. I will trust my baby and myself to let go. I cannot control this one iota, any more than I control the position of the stars in the sky. Changing the angle of my head won’t affect the length of Orion’s age-old belt, or slow the whip of that belt as it lashes across my entire life.
I open in the darkness, labor is like a blue whale frozen in front of steamer-ship moving at breakneck pace. I vow to trust, and I use all my human powers to relax. I will have a baby or I won’t have a baby. They will coerce me into letting go with powerful anesthesia, that no consciousness can argue against. But I will let go first. I will let go myself. It is the only choice I have, and I make it.
The black hole pulls my entire life into it with a single suck, and on the other shore there is a baby.
You can’t fail at birth but you can fail to let go into the birth you have.
I dreamed nothing while under morphine’s influence. A pure blip.
You can’t fail at Nothing, where I was deposited. No, Nothing is the arms of the Great Mother, where those suffering in labor must turn. It is there waiting with all your failures past and future, and they crumble at Nothing’s feet, like burnt toast.
Nothing stifles my heartbeat, stifles the baby’s questionable heartbeat. It transforms me, under the radar, under everyone’s radar but god’s, without my awareness or participation.
In retrospect, something was happening.
I imagine as I lie on the table, failing, and the baby is retrieved, that the newborn horse that brought excitement to those prenatal check-ups has returned.
That baby colt comes bounding toward me. I have a sweet crab apple half-hidden in my palm, and as the baby colt approaches, hooves percussive, I slowly open my fist and extended my hand. The horse seems familiar with me, to already trust me, though I’d done nothing to earn it and I’m hardly an animal person.
Its little leathery lips flutter against my skin, its feet drumming on the new grass, wet dirt, a tiny ruckus on the hoof-strikes. Don’t stop running, I beg. And the way dreams resolve contraries, its hooves still pound though it has come to a standstill to take my apple. It’s little lips against my palm, against the only thing I could hold out.
And with it, the darkness lifts, and I see the crosshairs of the styrofoam ceiling plates. I am in a place they call the recovery room, but the instant the ceiling comes into focus, I know I have not failed at home birth, despite the bullshit I told you in the first paragraph. No. Here I am, at home in the unknowing, in the stale light of the hospital, in the aching sacrum, in the woman who comes up to me as listens to me when I ask, “Is my baby OK?”
OK is not a lot, but it’s something.
OK is a lot, OK is everything.
OK is the birth that failed.
I have never clung so to two letters, though I had already died with my baby.
I cannot sit up, but I don’t mind. I have been pinned to this spot my whole life, and the colt is running away from me into the vanishing point.
I must owe that baby horse something.
So I shout silently after it, I give you my consent— my husband is already reaching for my empty hand– silently as it veers off, as the heart revs back to life, slapping against the surrounding tissue, the heart filling up all the space we have, slapping and clapping and lapping against its surroundings.
Sara Nolan teaches personal essay writing as to young people as a means of transformation and critical inquiry (and, where relevant, college admissions) through non-profits (currently, The TEAK Fellowship) and her own business Essay Intensive (www.essayintensive.com). Sara believes everyone should live with their bullshit meter on and their hearts as close to their sleeves as possible. Only then it is possible to lick your elbow.
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