Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
Last Thursday, March 15th, I sat strapped to 2 monitors in a lazy boy recliner having my contractions and my unborn son’s heart rate monitored, talking to the nurse who was reading the machines. She knew that the same night, at about 11:45pm, I’d be checking into the hospital to have my labor induced. I like this nurse a lot and we’ve talked about many things over the course of the last few months, where I’d be in that chair once a week. She always remembered the name we’d chosen, both for our boy but also the one we’d chosen in the event of a girl, and had said she’d started reading the girl’s namesake stories. I liked her and trusted her. She asked if I was afraid of the induction. My husband was with me on Thursday, off work for the first day of his 3 month Paternity Leave, and he sat nearby on a stool, holding my hand, fascinated by the EKG reports spitting out of the little machine and the steady whoosh whoosh sound of his son’s pulse that sometimes made a louder, almost violent sound (I had to explain to him that those were my contractions coming through audibly on the heart rate monitor, not a disruption in our son’s heart cycle).
“Afraid? No. Well, maybe a bit fearful. But that’s not really the right word,” I explained to her. “It’s more like that feeling I used to get as a little girl standing in line at a haunted house at a small town county fair. Anticipation of fear, surprise and supreme joy. Like you’re gonna be freaked out and you’re excited about it.”
Her eyes grew wide, this RN with 3 kids. “Yes!” She said. “I totally get it! Like you just know there’s a chain saw guy at the end of the maze and it’s gonna scare the shit out of you but you can’t wait for the chain saw guy.”
All three of us laughed out loud until tears streamed down our faces. My husband, a great arbiter of What Is Truly Funny, as he may be one of the wittiest people I have ever met (smart funny, not pun funny or joke funny, but Mark Twain funny, which is a hard funny to pull off), laughed a huge release of a laugh and said, “Now THAT’S funny” and I knew I had my ‘in’ to this entry.
Chain saw guy. You know he’s there you’re just not sure around which corner he lurks and that’s the most terrifying and the most fun part.
Nobody could tell me how long labor would be. How painful labor might be. I just knew it was going to be a bitch of a chain saw guy.
It’s now 3 days later. It’s 1:00am on Monday March 19th and I’m at the hospital, awake and waiting for Courtney the night nurse to bring me my pain meds. I was awoken about 30 minutes ago by Emily the med tech to check my vitals and, knowing that Courtney is coming in a few minutes, why even bother trying to sleep. Everyone has said, ‘sleep!!!’ while I’m in the hospital. But you can’t. At all. They wake you up all the time. We even have chosen to keep our son in the nursery at night so that we could sleep, knowing what was ahead of us at home in terms of sleep/no sleep. But sleep is a dream I once had in between feedings and medicine and vital signs and IV checks and catheters and pain every time I try to roll from one side to another in this bed.
Instead, I’ll stay up and write in the dark on my iPad. There hasn’t been a quiet, solo, reflective moment until now, in the dark of an early Monday morning, my husband snoring on the pull-out couch in the hospital room next to me, the lights of Nashville behind the slats of the blinds in this room we are sharing for 3 days following the birth of my son via an unexpected C-section.
I was scheduled for induction because Dr. Storck decided that, once I hit term, the risks of carrying to 40 weeks at my age and with an IVF baby were greater than just prodding him out a week early. Jamey and I arrived at St. Thomas Midtown Hospital on Thursday night for a Friday 1:00am induction and, as we parked the truck and walked in carrying bags prepared for a 2 day stay, we high fived each other and said, “Let’s go get that baby.”
The induction was not to be. When we arrived, my cervix was only dilated by 1 cm and didn’t move any further over the course of the next 12 hours, not with the 2 doses of pills that were taken to efface me with 4 hour waits in between doses; not with the Pitocin meant to push things into high gear, 0-60 in 20 minutes in a Mazzarati, when before, I was driving 40 in a 55 mph zone in a Honda Civic. I’d been in back labor for a few days and was in a lot of pain. I’d had an IV drip going since I got there as I needed penicillin to fight a Strep Virus they’d found inside me (side note: when nurses say “this may sting/burn/pinch a little” they mean: “this is going to hurt like a mother -f so hang on because I’m lying through my teeth to you about the pain level this will be”). My mother and mother- in-law had arrived at about 8am. My father and father in law followed them at 10am. Jamey had slept a bit between 2am and 8am in the hospital room on the couch, but I couldn’t sleep (who could sleep?). I was poked and prodded by more than a few night-shift nurses all through the night and a monitor next to me beeped and blipped and whirred and shooshed my contractions and my son’s heartbeat in technicolor. My Ob-GYN arrived at 9:30am and put her finger up inside my vagina to check my cervix. She asked permission first, which I thought was funny, as every nurse had done the same all night long, so I joked “Well, why not. I mean, at this point, who hasn’t had their hands cervix-deep inside me today?” (Side note: I wouldn’t advise that joke in front of your parents or in-laws).
It was becoming clear that this induction was more than a bit troubling and may take way longer than what I’d envisioned being at most an 18 hour labor. The contractions were getting worse, but not quickly, my cervix wasn’t dilating, so when Dr. Storck dangled the carrot of a C-section in front of me, saying that there would be a high chance of me being in labor for 36 hours without dilating enough for a baby to move through my body ending with a potential emergency C (which meant full anesthesia, not being awake, and a vertical cut), not to mention the stress on my baby and my own body, it was an easy decision to make. We weren’t tied to a natural birth. I had no ‘birth plan’. Nothing past a playlist of music Jamey had made for the event. I wasn’t attached to vaginal vs. C section, natural vs. epidural, formula vs. breastmilk. I was prepared to do whatever my doctor suggested and I was prepared to just strap in and try to enjoy or at least be completely present and lean into every moment. We just wanted the baby.
The nurse came into describe to me the surgery and the risks (I think I just heard “infection” and “death” and then checked out). I signed the papers. And at 3pm, I was led to the OR on a gurney. Jamey said he’d never seen me so Zen. A shifting had begun. I’d been extremely calm over the last few days. A meditative state of acceptance had taken over my usually neurotic tempo. Even the bright florescent cold white of the OR was a meditation for me. The room was too bright, too much steel.. Green and bright. And cold. I wasn’t even that freaked out by a spinal that didn’t quite take as they jabbed me a few times, sharp electric pains up my spine, a nurse barking “relax!” (kind of funny; kind of not). I was in a zone of “all of this for my son” and had no time for fear. I just stayed focused on the one mental focusing spot like I did when I ran marathons years ago, through excruciating pain, exhaustion, doubt and fear. My mantra then was “Finish the race. Fix your life. Finish the race. Fix your life.” This time there were no words to my mantra. More a breathing, a calling in of my Higher Power Trilogy: my Grandmother’s voice, Patti Smith’s calm bearing and the great protective wings of a falcon. Lying with a curtain separating my shoulders and head from the lower half of my body, I visualized the incision but didn’t feel a thing, not even much pressure. Jamey sat next to me, stroking my head, holding my hand. My teeth chattered and tears ran down my cheek. My blood pressure dropped and I was falling backward in a fog. The room was spinning slightly and my tongue was thick and my vision doubled and for a minute I thought that I may not survive this, I might die in childbirth and I said a prayer to my old NYC friend Michal Friedman, a woman about my age who died a few years back giving birth to twins, who’s death was tragic and jarring and impossible to believe, even now. I felt her presence in the army of women angels in the room and said what I call “the fear prayer” over and over, moving my lips. “God, please take this fear and let me BE who you need me to BE”. I visualized my son. I looked to Jamey. I remembered to keep alert and tell every symptom to the Nurse Practitioner who was the anesthesiologist’s assistant and she adjusted the fluids in my IV to bring my blood pressure up and kept repeating “you’re going to be fine” to me until I believed it. I heard the voice of Dr. Storck say “oh, he’s so cute, he’s really adorable” and to my husband, “get your playlist ready, he’s about to come out” and Jamey, who had made a very well-timed playlist on his phone, played our wedding song, Willie Nelson’s version of “The Rainbow Connection” and I began to weep and realized I should try to keep still as there were knives near my coochie, and then, I heard Dr. Storck say, “Here he comes” and the song changed to Tom Petty’s “Learning To Fly” the song we’d decided we wanted our boy, Huckleberry James Wood, to hear first as he breathed air. I could barely breath air myself. It had become reality; not a theory. A human boy was being pulled from my body through a very small incision and I was being transformed into a mother.
I couldn’t see through the tears. I couldn’t breathe through the awe. They gave Huck to Jamey first as I was shaking and unsteady. Jamey was crying through the surgical mask, saying “this is our son. This is our son,” as if he was trying on a new language. He laid Huck, swaddled and clean, next to my head and I turned to him, trying to breathe his skin and spoke softly to this absolutely new life, “Hi little guy. Hi Huck. I’m your mama. I’m your mama.” And my entire world went upside down.
Huckleberry James Wood has arrived. Now, nothing is the same. The stars and planets and suns have changed places, reversed direction. The speed of time and light and sound is unrecognizable. Of course, everything is exactly the same. The sun will come up today as it went down last night. 25 other mothers gave birth the same day in the same hospital in the same OR and they are probably up right now wondering what meteor hit them too.
This shifting wasn’t sudden, right after his birth, right after a human being emerged from a slice in my abdomen behind a blue curtain.
The shifting didn’t happen when they raised him above the curtain, umbilical cord still attached, surprisingly less smeared with muck than I’d thought he’d be, a human being with long legs and arms, eyes squeezed shut, and Dr. Storck saying “There’s your son!”
It didn’t happen when Jamey brought him to lay next to my head and I could barely see him for the deluge of tears smearing my vision as I said, “Hi Huck. I’m your Mommy.”
It happened that night sometime after our parents left the room, leaving Jamey and I alone with Huck as we both stared at him laying on my lap, suckling from my breast, with tears streaming down our faces. Something happened, like a miracle.
My heart, broken and healed like a wound, was re-broken but not as a wound, more like a letting out of the old air. A seal was cracked and old skin fell away. The heart crawled like a worm out of the old and into the new, shaking off the shell. The heart escaped the bars of my rib cage, seeped through my skin and put itself back together on the outside of my chest red and raw, without armor, re-attached to my body outside — a living, breathing, vulnerable thing, completely without protection. My heart is now the wrapping of skin around my son, quite literally feeding off the milk my own body is creating minute by minute. I can’t breathe without everything I know turning upside down into the most exquisitely painful joy.
I’m not sure I really understood all the cliches until now. To be honest, I’m not a cliche person and I judge them and mock them with an arrogance I now regret. They are all true and they are coming at me like shooting stars. I’m not sure I have ever loved like this. Before Huck.
When I was 3 months pregnant, I went to a writer’s retreat. The leader of the retreat, a writer and a coach of writing, Suzanne Kingsbury, a beautiful angel, said to me that the child growing inside me was coming like a ‘beautiful wrecking ball to crash through all of my carefully laid plans’.
At 5:08pm on Friday March 16th, that wrecking ball came in at 7 pounds 12 oz and rearranged my cellular system and made me a mother and I knew I would never be the same. Last night, while holding him, swaddled tightly and cooing after feeding off my breast, rocking him in the crook of my arm and talking to him, my tears falling on his soft, smooth, unblemished cheek, I told him of the story of the day in July Jamey and I drove to Chattanooga to put a 5-day blastocyte into my body with faith and science as thunder and lightening raged a storm outside and we held our breath. I told Huck of meeting his father at a church-basement kind of meeting, a tall handsome man with a wide inviting smile and blue eyes I couldn’t take my eyes off, who kissed me for the first time at about noon on my front porch on a non-particular Monday, stealing my breath away. I told him of the day his father proposed to me on his bended knee on a sandy beach of the Tennessee River with a storm coming in fast behind the double rainbow that we watched grow and straddle the water after I’d said yes while trying to catch my breath from the surprise of it all. I told him of our two weddings in two backyards surrounded by friends and family, rivers and music, singing and laughing and exhaling the most glorious of breaths of relief for finding our soulmates just in the nick of time. And I told him of the day Jamey posed a question to me that led me to rethink my old answers and challenge my future and what I thought my life would look like and I said yes as quickly as I had when his knee was wet with riversand so that, when the opportunity appeared for the chance to let a baby into our lives, I walked the crooked path through grief and fear and selfish determinism and ambition to exhale the most vulnerable “yes” I’d ever breathed in my life.
My heart lives outside my skin, outside my ribs, on my sleeve and measures about 21 inches right now and is about 36 hours old. My heart has a name: Huckleberry.
Learning to fly, indeed.