Reading Room: Winter Star

It was winter on the peninsula. February. The ground mostly bare. Some people were disappointed. They had anticipated the brightness, lightness, softness of snow.

But I like unconcealed ground. The clarity of brilliant days, of open frozen meadows sloping down to the sea. Their color hard to describe. A kind of parched yellow, with a sheen of grey frost in early morning.

The powerful thing was the light returning, afternoons lengthening, and darkness gradually being pushed back. In a northern world there is nothing more hopeful. Days packed with light, packed with promise.

What I am trying to say is, the signs augured well. I don’t know about the stars, don’t know how to read stars, but the sun--the clarity and dazzle of those days in mid-winter--was encouraging.

Basha had been on a shoot in Cincinnati when she started feeling pregnant. She never described the feeling exactly, but she badly wanted to come home. How she hated Cincinnati that week. Arriving home, she went straight upstairs to use the pregnancy test kit.

Birth experience, death experience. I had had more of the latter. My family had been shrinking for a long time, until it seemed to be defined by its losses. My father was dead. My sister Anne was killed in a car wreck a few months before my mother died. There was only my sister Mary and me left, and neither of us had children.

Through the next nine months I tried to help her deal with the discomforts of pregnancy but hadn’t wanted to think a lot about incipient fatherhood. I wasn’t convinced it was incipient. It made me uncomfortable when Basha bought or was given baby clothes; such preparations seemed to be challenging fate a little too boldly. I was reluctant to help get a nursery room ready, didn’t want to know the baby’s sex. Sure, I had names in my head, boy names, girl names, but it made me uneasy to say them aloud. It seemed another unnecessary challenge to fate, which might be tempted to deliver a wicked backhand.

Most of this was undiscussed. I’d grown up in a vestigially Irish Catholic culture that was not in the habit of acknowledging its superstitions. Even talking about them could bring bad luck. (nice Irish detail) Possibly Basha shared my fears.

They did distract me from any practical, reality-based worrying. How was I, an unpublished novelist, ever going to earn enough to support a family? Such mundane concerns never troubled me, not for a second.

The day in February, roaring with light. Sunlight glowering across meadows, dashing off the blue sea.

In the morning, having tea with friends, Basha felt her water break. At least, she thought that was what had happened. She wasn’t sure. The due date still a week away. At noon she took herself for a blustery walk on High Street and felt a cramp, but it passed. Returning to the house, she telephoned Caroline, our doula.

We live eleven miles from the hospital. Caroline is two towns away from us. Her husband (is) an electrician and they own a seafood restaurant on the wharf, open in summer. In winter, Caroline volunteers to counsel pregnant mothers on the peninsula through the experience of childbirth. Doula is a strange new word, in our culture anyway, for someone in an ancient role, the mother’s standby advocate, the wise woman. Caroline hopped in her jeep and was at our house in half an hour. Together she and Basha decided that, yes, water had definitely broken. Maybe the cramp had been early contractions; maybe not.

We had been attending new-parent classes at Blue Hill Hospital, along with sullen boys slouching uneasily, ball caps pulled low over their eyes, and teenage girls with anxious faces and strong Maine accents. They all looked about eighteen. Easily they could have been my children. (love this picture)

What I remembered from the classes:

Bundling is good.
Support the baby’s head, because its neck muscles are weak.
Never use talcum powder, it gets in the lungs.
Don’t bother coming to the hospital until you’re getting contractions at twenty-minute intervals.

Caroline and Basha were in the kitchen. Basha was staring at an alarm clock brought down from our bedroom when the set of contractions arrived, sharp and unmistakable. The interval had probably been an hour. No reason to go to the hospital. Not yet. We agreed that I might as well go for a run, and I went upstairs to change. When I came down, Basha was leaning over the kitchen counter, panting. There had just been another wave of contractions. Caroline was standing behind her, massaging her lower back.

Do you think I should go for a run? I said.
A fast one, Caroline said.
Basha started gasping.
How you feelin’, hon? said Caroline.
Oh dear, said Basha.
Hurts, eh?
Yes. Oh. Oh. Oh.
Yep, said Caroline. Let’s get mama to the hospital.
Uh--you mean after I run?
No. Now.

There followed the classic, panicky, drive to the hospital, me at the wheel and Basha gasping and writhing on a reclined front seat. It was the drive I had been anticipating—and looking forward to, I suppose--all my life. The roads were gritty with sand spread on ice and snow that had long since melted. Basha was grunting with another flurry of contractions. I was driving too fast.

Still, I remember that road, the winter emptiness of it, yellow meadow grass in stiff bunches, that damned sunlight flaring on Blue Hill Bay. There were a couple of sharp bends on the Parker Point Road when I felt the front wheels starting to slide on the sand. Caroline, following us in the jeep, had fallen behind, was out of sight.

Blue Hill Hospital is just old-fashioned enough that its innate suspicion of intrusive technology and pharmacology feels hip and contemporary. Very difficult pregnancies end up at Eastern Maine Medical in Bangor, an hour away; Blue Hill has a birthing tub. Basha, a swimmer and a sailor, had always liked the idea. Water is to her a beloved, familiar element. The nurses helped her climb into the tub. Her body was full and firm, like a not-quite-ripe peach. Caroline stood by. I began rubbing Basha’s back and neck and shoulders whenever the women let me close enough. I was talking to her. Can’t remember what I said. Probably trying to be funny.

Where I grew up, you try to make people laugh at the most painful, emotional moments. When things are scary. It’s a way of renouncing, defying, or just avoiding reality. Also a technique for self-protection, for keeping your distance from undiagnosed emotions.

Another wave of contractions. Basha was squatting in the tub, gasping and shouting. More contractions. She said she was starting to feel cold. We helped her out of the tub. The women wrapped her in towels and guided her to a bed that cranked up into a seated position. She sat with her legs spread and the pain arriving in short, brutal shocks. She released it in little screeches, desperate whispers. After every screech, she instinctively apologized to the nurses.

They were solid Maine women, amused by the apologies. You had the feeling that, like veteran sergeants, they had seen it all. Nothing was going to fluster them.

I was the only male in the room, and the only role open to me, apparently, was videographer. Women kept speaking to me over their shoulders, suggesting where I might stand to get the best possible camera angle when the baby came out. No one seemed to notice I didn’t have a camera.

Maybe I should have been offended by the gender stereotyping, my assignment to passive observer status. Instead I felt we were both lucky, blessed even, that this powerful circle of women had gathered like a herd of Indian elephants around Basha in her vulnerability, and were guarding her ferociously.

I did, however, intend to get closer to the action. I kept sidling in, grabbing a hand, touching a shoulder, pushing back a strand of damp hair. She was riding waves of pain. It was terrifying to watch. I tried to gauge what the women were thinking. They didn’t seem worried or tense, so everything was normal, presumably.

Then the baby was crowning. It was hard to believe that the white gleam of what looked like clean bone was the crown of our child’s skull, trying to push its way out into hospital world.

Push, push, push, the women were chanting.

After every sequence of pushes, they allowed Basha a few moments to rest, then she had to start pushing again. They were ruthless. By now I had inserted myself into the bedside team, and was allowed to support one of her legs. Our doctor, a shy young woman, new to the peninsula, had slipped into the room, but it was clear that the senior nurse was still in charge.

I was flushed with what might have been adrenaline. The only other time I remember feeling so charged was on a subzero afternoon when I fell through the ice in a lake in the Rockies. After floundering helplessly and nearly giving up, I managed to drag myself out of the hole, and as I flopped onto the ice I had felt the adrenaline surging, delivering the jolt of strength and focus that I’d needed to survive the rest of that ordeal.

What it stimulated now was a fanatical instinct to protect Basha and our half-born baby. Protect from what, exactly, I don’t know. There was nothing threatening in that place. Nonetheless all my hackles were up. If a stranger had bumbled into the room at that moment I might have flown at him and bitten his throat.

The cycle of pushing, short rest, and more pushing continued. The white skullcap was showing but nothing more. I saw the head nurse whisper something to the young doctor, who quietly assented. They were going to make a small vaginal incision. This was quickly done and almost instantaneously the baby slipped out, packed in the shape of an egg, hugging itself within its own oval. I saw hormone-swollen testicles red as fire, and knew we had a son. Then the egg-shape unfolded itself like a piece of origami. He waved his arms, kicked his legs, unscrunched his face, and immediately transmitted a sequence of expressions suggesting by turns resentment, confusion, fear, wonder, curiosity and hunger. Each mood lasting for maybe a second. He let out a yowl. They were wiping him down, bundling him, putting a silly bright blue tuque on his head and handing him off to me while the doctor quickly sewed up his mother.

I carried the boy down the hospital corridor, hackles still up. His defender, protector, advocate, bodyguard. His father.

(Later I learned that my sister Mary, at that same hour, was flying over Montreal and looking down at the cemetery where our grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, sister are buried. So life was a circle, after all. A wheel that might keep spinning, not a dead end.)

The nurse led us into a bright room where she briskly weighed, measured, injected. I carried the boy back to Basha and her mother, who had just arrived. I could feel my parents stir the ground. I could imagine my sister Anne’s laughter.

Himself nursed greedily. Then Basha nibbled bland hospital food, while the boy’s grandmother and I took turns holding him. Suddenly famished, I headed off to the local roadhouse bar to grab a hamburger and a glass of beer. When I returned he was feeding again. When he was done I lay back in a faux-leather reclining chair, with him on my chest. The weight of him containing the future. I felt relieved. Grateful.

They were asleep when I left. I’d promised to come back first thing in the morning, bringing Basha a latté from the Blue Hill Co-op, and a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.

Black loam sky above the hospital parking lot, jabbed with stars.

I drove along the coast road with all windows cranked down, the winter scent of balsams and fir floating through the car, and the sharp, complex aroma of the sea. As soon as I got home I dug out a framed photograph of my grandfather who had died before I was born, and whom our son was named after. Then I put on a CD of the Bach cello concertos and turned the volume up loud. I felt like a kind of animal, crudely and deeply satisfied, and with the violent music roaring through the house I went upstairs to bed and to sleep.

From GREAT EXPECTATIONS: 24 TRUE STORIES ABOUT CHILDBIRTH, Dede Crane and Lisa Moore, eds., Anansi 2008