We are laboring at home. Who am I kidding? She is laboring and I’m watching, wide eyed, brink of terror, astonished and barely able to pretend like I have any kind of clue at all. The skin on her enormous Volkswagen-bug belly is stretched so taut there’s a reflective sheen to it. Oh, yeah. It’s really happening now. My mind keeps repeating these lines in that poem by Sylvia Plath that starts, “I’m a riddle in nine syllables” and ends, “Boarded the train there’s no getting off.”
She’s groaning, her arms outstretched in a doorway, pushing hard at both sides, like Samson pushing at the temple pillars. And the sound. It’s deep. A rumble. I swear it comes from the center of the earth and I can hear it pouring out of her mouth like hot lava. It’s a rumble that makes my balls afraid.
“Maybe we should go to the hospital now?” It’s pleading and shallow but all I can think of. After the rumbling subsides and she catches her breath, she says, “No. Hum will be here soon. She’ll know what to do.”
Hum’s full name is really Hummingbird. Hum is a doula. Kittie and I are the kind of people who know about doulas. We are the kind of people who never eat beef. We forgive ourselves for the occasional turkey sandwich, but we positively will not touch seafood. The oceans are dying. We feel guilty about wearing leather but do it anyway (it’s complicated by the animals already being a part of the factory system), and we are both deeply suspicious of hospitals.
Doula literally means “mother to the mother.” A doula is your buffer during childbirth between the doctors and the nurses and your baby. We learned we needed one during our “birthing classes.” There’s no other way to put this: These classes were straight-up anti-establishment, anti-hospital, anti-white-coated-doctors propaganda of the first order, and Kittie and I ate it all up without thinking.
See, the most important consideration to our wish-we-were-vegan agenda is that we experience “natural childbirth.” In the birthing classes, we learned all about how white-coated-doctors had co-opted the “birth experience.” You see, we’re kind of white but we aren’t white-coated-doctors, that’s an important distinction. It means that we cheered when we learned that up until the 1920’s almost all babies were born at home with midwives. And it means we booed when we learned how the American medical establishment (white-coated-doctors) had turned the natural process of giving birth into some kind of medical emergency requiring sedation and tongs. That’s the truth. Those poor bastards born between 1930 and 1960 in this country had tongs applied to their temples and they were ripped out from in between the legs of an unconscious woman. The drugs used to knock her out had sedated these babies so deeply that a doctor probably held them upside down by the ankles and spanked their wet little bottom. Nice welcome, huh? You can see this in the black and white movies we’re all ignoring.
So there we are, laboring at home so that white-coated-doctors will not dope Kittie, and jab a monitoring sensor under our baby’s scalp while still in the womb, and then deliver the baby by C-section against our will so that our hospital bill will balloon.
Kittie emerges as this magnificently poised, perfectly composed woman about to give birth. We are in our living room. I confess here that it is only the calm of her demeanor that gives me the fortitude to offer her my neck and shoulders to hang on to, as I was directed to do in the brainwashing classes. You see, frankly I would have felt more comfortable cowering in the corner, my eyes rimmed with tears of fear, chewing on the collar of my T-shirt.
But she keeps making this sound. This portentous rumbling, like the earth shaking. Like tectonic plates splitting, pushing, jostling, rearranging themselves. Like Pangaea breaking up.
And always with her jaw set, her eyes focused on some black spot far out into the center of the universe. Perhaps the very center. The empty space that everything is supposedly moving away from after the big bang.
It is very hard to whimper in the presence of true bravery.
So here we are, and some of the contractions are so strong that she pulls on my neck with such force that I am certain my head will be torn off by the strength of her pulling, my spinal column dangling below it.
Hum does not show up. She should be here. She is the doula. She knows what to do. She should have been here an hour ago. I don’t want to break Kittie’s concentration but I say, “Maybe now? Maybe we should go to the hospital now?”
You see, hard-core, earthy, real vegetarians, who never wear leather and would rather get the headache than drink Starbucks, would just squat down in the middle of their garden and give birth over the peonies.
As I’ve said, Kittie and I admire those people, but not enough to forgo an arterial clamp or oxygen should it become necessary. (Cowardly, I know.) While we cheer all that natural Nineteenth century home birthing, we are aware that a lot of mothers and babies didn’t make it. In short: they died. So we’re cautious. Our bona-fide-organic, always-eat-raw, vote-for-Bernie-even-after-he-dies friends tolerate us but think of us as “uncommitted to the cause.” We couldn’t possibly care less.
“Where’s Hum?” It slips out, along with half my T-shirt. I’m in the corner, sniveling.
“She’ll be here. Relax. Remember, who’s really in charge?”
This is a trick question. It’s a whole concept that I am having trouble getting used to. It’s about faith. Wanna-be-vegi, guilty-about-penned-veal, moon-howling, drum-pounding, Dave Matthews Band listening people are supposed to have found their “still, small voice within.” We are supposed to “just trust the process.”
It is difficult to trust a process that has caused my wife’s belly to swell like the moon. It is difficult to trust a process that once every few minutes causes her to groan like an earthquake.
And now she is belly dancing before me. Long, deep breaths between the door frame again, arms spread, legs spread, and it looks for all the world like now she is pushing. She is not in a contraction. Slow, rhythmic, graceful, fluid motions of her hips. She is smiling. She says, “I’m belly dancing.”
I smile back. I cannot speak for fear that my voice will crack into a falsetto and I will crumble in fear and be forced to crawl in shame back to my corner. Where is the doula? I want to shout it! But I don’t. I stand there, smiling the vapid smile of that yellow seventies smiley face.
“The belly dancing is really helping.”
I nod, smiling, “Good. Good.”
I do not let on that I am worried that the baby will slip out of her womb and land on the hardwood floor.
“Knock. Knock.” Singsong and way too happy for three hours late, her voice flies in through the screen door and down the hallway. Like a hummingbird.
I open the screen door and embrace Hum. We are all huggy people. And I whisper, “Hum, please, tell her, it’s time, it’s time to go.”
Hum whispers back. She has seen all this a thousand times. Me, I’ve never seen anything like it. Not the swelling like the moon, the groaning like the earth or the belly dancing. None of this is making sense to me. Black and white images of me pacing around a waiting room handing out cigars, keep flashing through my mind. That. That would be easier than the sound.
“Everything is fine.” Hum whispers and pulls away from our embrace to look me in the eyes, “Remember, who is really in charge?” She snaps a selfie of us in embrace for her social media platforms too numerous to count. Another satisfied customer. I am far from satisfied.
Hum’s appareled in colorful, flowing silks and she smells like a Yogananda Meditation Center. It’s a sweet, soothing smell of rich incense and cedar. She’s a big, soft, confident woman with long cascades of gray hair who has seen all this for decades. I let the panic subside a notch.
“Okay.” I say. I’m calming down. Hum’s here. There will be no further need to chew on my T-shirt.
“Just keep breathing,” she says.
Kittie is Samson pushing at the pillars when we get there.
“That’s right, honey,” Hum says. “You got it. That’s terrific. That’s just terrific.” Hum pretty much gets paid for saying “that’s terrific.”
The contraction passes and they embrace. They are talking. I am desperately trying to become one with the process. Kittie has been laboring at home for hours. Surely it must be close.
“We got plenty of time,” Hum smiles, feeling the surface of the moon-belly. “Do you guys have any tea?”
Doulas get paid for saying “that’s terrific” and drinking tea.
So we relax and drink tea. Kittie belly dances. I dance with her. Hum watches with beatific calm, and even I am suddenly able to be at one with the process.
After a while Kittie says, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
Hum leans forward with interest, “Does it feel like you have to go poo?”
Hum relaxes, “Yeah, go ahead. Don’t flush.”
Kittie waddles into the bathroom. Hum and I chat in the hallway, glancing in nervously through the open door every once in a while.
Kittie gets up and walks back into the hallway.
I follow Hum into the bathroom, as though I am assisting some great archaeologist through the ancient tombs, having no idea what we are looking for, nor what we will find.
She looks down into the toilet. I look down into the toilet. We are not archaeologists. We are two adults looking down into a toilet and no one has prepared me for what lies beneath us, dissolving in the water. It’s milky and red with tendrils and mucous. Collar of T-shirt goes into mouth. I am suddenly very much out of the hippy-dippy-induced daze created by the cloud of celestial incense that follows Hum around.
Hum looks up and into my eyes. She is calm, loving, knowledgeable, confident and wise. (Maybe I am a satisfied customer?) In the shock of my terror, I trust her completely. She says this next thing very slowly, her hand rising up to pull the wad of cloth out from between my clenched teeth, “Now…” she pauses, “we…” more pause, “can… go.”
“Okay.” It shoots out of my fight or flight and I am turning in flash.
“Chris.” She stops me.
Kittie is on all fours in the cargo area of our Subaru hatchback and I am driving as fast as I can, but I am careful not to look like I am speeding to Hum, who is trying to keep up with me as she follows in her own car.
We pull up to the emergency room and I am told to park the car and come on up. Kittie disappears behind the swinging metal doors.
When I finally get there, my arms are full of pillows, relaxation tapes, candles, incense, crystals and all manner of homey, earthy paraphernalia. Kittie slides off of an examination table.
“Nine and a half centimeters!” She beams. “Nine and a half centimeters!”
It’s the magic number they talked to us about during the birthing classes. You see, to have a baby successfully emerge in the natural way, your cervix needs to dilate to ten centimeters. If you walk into the hospital at nine and a half centimeters, you could not possibly have timed it any better than that.
Thank you, Hummingbird.
It means that there will be no subcutaneous sensors stabbing into our infant’s head, no scalpels slicing open Kittie’s belly, and no chemicals injected into her body to induce labor or kill pain. It’s everything that we wanted. In short, it means that we will have a natural childbirth.
A nurse rushes in and says, “Your doctor is on her way, she’ll be here momentarily.” Kittie puts on a hospital gown and sits up on the birthing table. Our doctor comes in and we introduce Hum.
“Well,” our doctor looks at Hum and I, “grab a leg.”
Hum walks over to me and shows me how to hold Kittie’s left leg. She goes back and grabs the right. Black and white pictures of me pacing in the waiting room handing out cigars flash into my head again. No one had told me about this leg holding, either.
Kittie is pushing. Hard. Her face is red. Her neck is as taut as bridge cables. This doesn’t look fun or easy anymore. She’s been at ten centimeters for a while, and the baby has moved through the birth canal and is now “crowning.” That means that the top of the head is visible down there.
I lean forward to take a peek. This is the honest to goodness truth: I have no idea what I am looking at.
I have lovingly studied that particular area of my wife’s body at every opportunity that it has ever been offered to me during the twelve years we have been together. I have written poetry for that area and about that area. I have sung to it and whispered to it in shared delight.
Right now I do not even recognize it.
It looks like the back of a tarantula after a rain, soft and glazy.
Our doctor really wants this little baby to come through and she says to Kittie, “Come on honey, keep pushing. Just one more time.”
A nurse keeps reaching in and pouring mineral oil down there. It’s pooling on the floor. The baby just seems stuck; his little head is a hairy, black, wrinkly sponge (about the size of a silver dollar) poking out.
Kittie is a freight engine of pushing. She is harnessing the energy of the sun. She could not possibly push harder.
“Come on,” says the doc. “Just a little harder.”
Kittie falls out of a push, exhausted.
“Don’t give up, honey. Come on. Reach down here and touch your baby’s head.”
Sirens go off in my brain. Bad idea. She shouldn’t touch it. It’s black, hairy, wrinkly and gooey. I want to tell her not to. It looks like a moist tarantula caught on top of the shower drain. I know it’s not going to go over well.
Kittie reaches around her belly and feels down there. She is immediately alarmed, “What’s that?”
“That’s your baby, honey,” says the doctor. “Now push.”
Kittie pushes. Veins in her neck swell. She looks like an Olympic weightlifter tossing half a ton up over her head.
Hum has fallen back into a chair. It’s even too much for her. I take the right leg and a nurse grabs the left. Boarded the train, there really is no getting off.
The doctor is a little frustrated, “Listen, I know you guys have wanted no interventions, but I really think we have to do the episiotomy. The opening is just too small.”
The doctor wants to make a small incision at the bottom of the opening. We look at Hum. She nods, yes. We nod, yes.
The doctor makes the incision and says, “Push.”
Kittie pushes and it is like a rifle blast. A baby is howling. A baby is flying. A chord and a baby are floating up and down in the air. The doctor is juggling the baby.
She can’t catch the baby because he has picked up all this mineral oil and the umbilical cord is wrapped in a great X across his little torso, the way Pancho Villa wore his ammo belts. This is one slippery little fish.
Finally, she lands him. I don’t think I have taken a breath since the juggling act began. The doctor holds the baby in one hand. A boy. He is howling lustily. I know from the birthing classes that this is a very good sign. Kittie falls back, relieved and exhausted.
The doctor hands me a pair of scissors while a nurse stretches a strange blue rope before me. My brain is oxygen deprived from the juggling act, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why I am being offered shiny scissors and a strange blue rope. I am literally thinking about this blue rope, “What in the hell is that thing?”
I smile the yellow seventies smiley face again.
The nurse is impatient and not a little unpleasant, “You do want to cut the umbilical cord, don’t you?”
Oh, that’s what that is.
To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t ever given it much thought. I had never pictured anything like this moment.
“Oh, sure. Yeah.” I take the scissors and try to cut. The rope is mostly gristle and really doesn’t look very much like anything I have ever seen on this planet. That is a nice way of saying it really looks like something out of an H.R. Giger nightmare. I find myself squeezing and sawing at the lumpy, blue, black veiny, creepy cable that is coming out of my wife’s special place and attached to my brand new howling baby boy’s belly.
I am once again finding it very difficult to be at one with the process. It’s all very surreal. I want to ask someone if the doctor nearly dropped the baby, but I am distracted by the gristle and the howling.
The doctor is encouraging me now, “Real hard. Squeeze real hard.”
I squeeze the scissors real hard and the blood sprays in my face, the doctor’s face, and all over our clothes in a fine mist.
And even more surreal, at the exact moment that the scissors sever the umbilical cord, the baby goes silent.
His eyes are open. Looking around. But absolutely quiet.
The doctor lays him on Kittie’s bare chest and she is beaming. I am beaming. Forty-five minutes after walking through the swinging doors of the hospital, here he is. Wet and beautiful and looking nothing at all like a tarantula.
“What are you going to name him?” Hum sidles up for a peek.
Kittie and I look at one another. We are reading each other’s minds: we haven’t thought of a name. It wasn’t really that important to us.
We don’t say anything.
The doctor lays him on Kittie’s bare chest and she is beaming. I am beaming. Forty-five minutes after walking through the swinging doors of the hospital, here he is. Wet and beautiful. She was “A riddle in nine syllables” as Sylvia Plath wrote. “This loaf’s big with yeasty rising” “Boarded the train there’s no getting off.” But this train–this train with all its power, all its forward momentum, all of its timing and precision and energy–this is the train that takes me home.
Chris Riseley published his first short story in Los Angeles’ answer to The New Yorker: BUZZ Magazine. His poetry has appeared in the English poetry journal Anima and the American journal Months to Years. His screenplay White Room Night was optioned to Parallel Pictures and continues to inch toward production along with his novels Coffee Drinkers Preferred, Stayin’ Alive, and Rare Species. This summer he walked 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago with his family. Riseley teaches creative writing, composition, and Shakespeare at a Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon. He is a co-founder of the Peer Empowerment Project.