01/20/91 – #3

My water broke about 1:00 in the morning, running wet and warm down my legs and pooling on the wooden floor in my bedroom. I’d gotten up because I thought I had to pee – maybe I did pee, maybe that was part of what was gushing out of me because what I didn’t know then, but is so clear now, is that this thing that was about to happen was not in my control. All I could do was go along for the shockingly painful ride. Shocking because I thought my good attitude meant it wouldn’t hurt so much.

My children were born at home which seemed to me the most reasonable way to go about it. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, fetal monitors worrying my baby’s every heartbeat – to have anyone try to manage my labor was intrusive. I was having a baby, not an operation. So when my water broke it was my midwife, Barbara, that I didn’t call. Didn’t call because I wasn’t yet in labor and saw no reason to wake her. What she said when I called her at 8 in the morning was, “I told you that if your water broke, you should call me right away. You have to come see me now.” I could go into labor any moment. She was an hour’s ride away – that meant an hour there and an hour back plus whatever time I spent with her and while I wasn’t worried that I’d be giving birth in the car, I did think my husband and I should get on the road so I could get back and make myself comfortable. “It’s time to go,” I told Phil, who was sitting at the table reading his New York Times. “When I finish my tea,” he answered, with a shake of the paper.

Being pregnant and giving birth didn’t make me nervous. It was Phil who worried that if something went wrong during birth we’d be blamed because we were having our baby at home. “When time comes, I’ll be at the hospital, pacing,” he used to joke. But it was time to go and I knew he was anxious. His way of tamping down anxiety was to try to slow down the situation. But no matter how much tea he thought he was going to drink, this baby was going to get born.

I’d had a few mild contractions during the morning, but it was on the way home from Barbara that they really started. What I thought they were going to feel like was some gentle vibration from the top of my belly to the bottom, like waves that would carry Philip down and out. Instead they were like a steel band squeezing under my belly and around my back while a mac truck was trying to ram me open. I’d fooled myself into thinking I had this together. I didn’t know that once I was in labor, my body wasn’t my own. She was doing the only job she had to: getting my baby born.

Pregnant bodies have their own intelligence. Birthing starts with hours and hours of contractions to force an opening wide enough for a baby-body to pass through, then hours of pushing to actually get it out. After the baby’s born, the placenta follows. Meanwhile, the mother’s breasts will have filled will colostrum, which the baby will eat for the first few days. It helps their immune system. Milk follows after, and will keep filling the mother’s breasts for as long as baby keeps emptying them. If I think about that, if I think about the intricacies of my pregnancy, intricacies caused by the merging of two microscopic cells, I know I was part of a miracle.

Labor was intense and painful. And the more it hurt the more scared I got until I didn’t have the pain but I was the pain and I couldn’t yell myself out of it. Even when I bit Barbara’s shoulder it didn’t help. Yet there were times I felt I was in some parallel universe, some place where I was watching what was happening to myself, checking in to remind me I was okay, to ask if I really had to yell so much. And during one particular moment of hot pain I heard the words, “There is no way out but through,”  which I wrote a bit about here.

Then it was time to push. It was not a choice. Pushing was an urge, a physical sensation impossible to ignore, an insistence I bear down with everything I’ve got. Which, at that point, wasn’t much. After some hours I thought myself physically unable to do it any more. My body said otherwise. I am not going to make it, I thought. I cannot do this. And when Philip’s head finally popped out, I gave up, too exhausted to care any more. “Push,” Barbara ordered. “I can’t,” I answered. I’d had enough. Let her pull him out. “Push,” she commanded. “Can’t,” I answered, eyes closed and resting. Truth was I wasn’t having contractions and I hadn’t any strength to push without them. Until Barbara stuck her finger up the only other available hole down there, and with one indignant push, out slid my son, a bit blue in the face, but strong and healthy and ready to nurse. He was born around 1:00 on Sunday morning, January 20th, 1991.  I do not remember the exact time. He was a true Sunday’s child, fair and wise and good and gay.

I often say I don’t know the world, but it’s not the world, it’s me that’s different. Am I anything but what I see myself to be? I had a flashback recently of November, 1990, the month I stopped working because of my pregnancy. I wanted to spend the last couple months alone with my baby. I see me in my forest green jacket and black stretch pants, walking in the chill and with a peace like I’d never known. Who was that woman? She was married and about to have her first baby, still living in Brooklyn, so damn innocent of what was to come. Not having any plans other than to be with this baby. Knowing, all the time knowing, that childhood is a small part of life and much as there were times when it was so difficult to be alone with Philip I knew it wouldn’t last. Patience, was all. I saw myself as earth mother, with my nursing, the cloth diapers I washed myself, the beans I soaked, the bread I baked. The baby food I cooked. I was going to do it right and because I was working so hard at right, things would turn out okay.

I didn’t see life for what it was. I saw it the way I wanted it to be. I was no earth mother, beans and bread or not. I was not someone who could stay in my marriage til death did we part. I was not someone who could live in the shadow I thought I was in. I was not someone who could stay as disconnected as I felt I was.

And I was not someone whose son would live longer than she did.

If there is anything that will get me to make peace with Philip’s death, it’s if I’m afraid of mine. Every change I go through is a little death, and gives me a chance to practice for my own. I do not want to wail and mourn for myself, to be this wracked and grieved when death reaches out for me. Philip has said I might think I’m not afraid to die but what is true for me in life will be true in death. And that whatever keeps me from loving life fully keeps me from loving him fully. These are hard truths and no twisting of my mind can help me escape them.

Philip, honey – Happy Birthday. It will always be Happy-Birthday, this day. And even though it’s your day, you are the one who gives the gifts. I love you, sweetie, I miss you being here, I miss the sound of your voice, your laugh, your midnight phone calls to tell me you love me. But I’m grateful for your constant presence, for the life you’ve given me to live. You know I’m still on the fence – patience, please, until I get off it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

Enough

I’m still unsure about the world I live in, still rather stay home than do much of anything. I don’t much resist, for sure. I haven’t the strength. Or the will. Resisting life takes an energy I don’t have. I’m tumbling along and if life’s too fast for me, it simply passes right through. There is love, laughter, lightness. There is terror, grief, despair. There’s the bloody churning in my gut, always. I said, in my last, I was kind of numb. Not so now. Philip’s birthday is in a week, and next month will be three years since he died. And I don’t feel like wailing as much as I feel like I’m choking on it all.

But if I could – I would like to throw my head back and howl at the stars until I emptied out all these things I feel that I don’t want to feel, until I collapsed under that blue black sky, safe in all that darkness. Then there’d be stillness and oh, what relief. But who can remain some empty vessel? We are not made for that. Like the night turns into dawn, in that stillness, back grows my grief. Would I want it gone? I think not. It’s what I have to live with, it’s sacred space when I don’t muddy it up with things that don’t belong there. Like if I make some disappointment turn into brooding over Philip when it has nothing to do with him. Or when it seems safer to despair because that’s what I was used to way before Philip was born. So maybe that’s what I want. To clean myself out, start all over again, figure out how to grieve honestly.

But his birthday. Then his death day. And call it what you like, the hard truth is that it is his death day. It is birth and death that are opposites. Life simply is. Always, it is. Philip shows me that every day. He’s blurred the line I’ve constructed between life and death, and that forces me to contemplate what I think my body really is. It is an instrument, is all; it is a way life expresses itself through me, it is a useful tool for communication. But it is also what is so easy for my five senses to perceive – and to that end, I miss my son. That he is here is not a question. It’s his body, his hard and warm body, that’s gone. Like everyone’s body will be gone. His is gone too soon for me…but he is here and I cannot figure out what terrifies me, what this longing is, why I feel defeated. It’s an acceptance, I guess, this “defeat.” What I mean is I know in some new and strange way that Philip’s not coming home. He simply isn’t. And I am living on two levels and maybe for that I should be grateful. Maybe I can’t ever bridge the gap between them, not truly, not while I see myself as mostly a body even though I know I am more. Else how to explain the extraordinary way my son – my son – communicates with me. He is offering me, in his death, a way into life.

These months, in all their colors, fly by, and all of them lead back to Philip’s birth, Philip’s death. March icy blue and April tinged with white – months I’d rather avoid, months that reek of life anew. March is spring, April I was born. I do not like the awakening when I want to stay away and hidden. I am too vulnerable for new life.

Then May’s soft pink, June back to white, July hot yellow, August gold and red. September is golden, October glorious orange, November gray, December red. Then comes January – the time to rest, the time where it’s still safe but we’re heading toward spring and I can’t stop it. January is white and black, February dark green. Hard as these two months are, I want to stay with them, stay close to Philip’s extraordinary birth, to the tragic shock of his death. 24 years ago this black and white month I was waiting for Philip to be born and what that meant to me then stays with me now.

Sometimes I try to remember what I felt like to be pregnant, when I carried Philip, when I was first deeply in love with him. He is, of course, always with me. So let me remember the fullness of it, let me know that I loved him from the moment I knew I was pregnant and even though he wasn’t here, it was enough. And he is still here, and that has to be…enough.

© 2015 Denise Smyth