The night before Ori came, we went to a reggae concert. The base thronged in the speakers positioned like sentinels around the small stage. Bodies cluttered forward, and I hung back. I thought for sure that the steady rhythm and boom would bounce my baby right out of me. Surely his impulse must be to evacuate. That's what I would do if the building I occupied started to shake.
But he waited.
I went home and crawled beneath a thick blanket and curled on my side to find a comfortable perch on my ever rounder belly and pitched down into sleep. I don't remember what I dreamed.
I woke with back pain. Three trips to the fluorescent bathroom in the wake of 3 a.m., and I began to wonder if I would ever get back to sleep, if I was sick, if something was wrong. The obvious was untenable. I rose and ebbed in my rocking chair next to the bed, waiting for the wave of nauseating ache to pass, and realized I was in labor. The room was dark, but I didn't need the light to see my baby moving in my uterine cavity. He was ready.
I rocked for nearly four hours before anyone else stirred. My friend, Deb, my pseudodoula, poked her head in, took a look at me, and knew. She asked if I was ready to go, and I said no. I hadn't really bothered to clock anything yet, but I could tell that the contractions were not that close yet, and I felt that I would know when it was time to move. Ryan, the father, and Paul, another friend, bobbed around me and then disappeared. Deb returned with chicken broth and water and tea. Light slid through the curtains and crept up my pulsing leg. I breathed. And breathed. And breathed.
Two hours later, the pain was sharp, and I knew if I was going to move on my own locomotion, I had to do it. Immediately. So we did, and I pressed myself down to the car and bent and bent and rode and bent again at the front desk, and laughed when the nurse asked if I was sure that I was in labor.
We got a room, and the real work began. I was already dilated and the pain was swift, strong, so I didn't think it would be long. Not my son. He was going to make me earn him. I could feel him working, and me working, but I was so absorbed that it didn't occur to me that the pain was not quite right. I wasn't really feeling the contractions in my uterus, not like I was supposed to. It was all, almost all, in my back. Had I been less preoccupied then I might have recalled that severe back pain was a sign of a baby turned sunny side up.
But Ori was my first. I followed his lead and let myself feel my way. In a divided gown, in the propped up hospital bed, next to the bed, near the bed, I stood and sat and knelt and rocked. Drums keyed up on the CD player, and I heard a thick Swahili voice lift. Amandla! Power to the people! And then Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. And back to the drums. The drums pulsed through my muscles, through my baby, and worked with us.
Deb tugged my hair down, brushed, braided. I oozed into the spasms. Paul was peripheral, a long-legged blink of motion behind a camera. Ryan took up his post in a deep leather seat, silent as ever, but watchful. Now and again, one or more of them disappeared for snacks or cigarettes or fresh air. I just kept rocking, undulating, working.
The intern flashed in, propped me back, prodded, spoke, flashed out. I scarcely noticed him at first. The nurse did her checks, asked me questions. I'm sure I answered but I don't remember what I said. The music thronged and swam in me. My body heat spiked and fell. I was hot. I was cold.
I didn't have painkillers. I drank water and tea. I had some crackers. An hour sped by, another dragged. I was fairly far dilated at first, but then seven or eight hours passed without another centimeter opening. I thought about my babe. I talked to him, in my head and heart and blood. I fed him urgency and love through the umbilical cord straining for release. I remembered the words of the midwife: Your labor is not something happening to you. It is you and your baby working together. The pain is muscle. It is working pain. Work with it.
Deb sat with me, watched, rubbed my back, shoulders, neck, back. Paul came and went, appeared with a video camera, disappeared, changed the music. Ryan observed, stoic, quiet, but present. Around the ninth hour, he drew me a bath and helped me in the soothing water. He sat with me, held me up, kept me from slipping under.
About 15 hours along, the intern decided to break my water to spur dilation. It worked. I widened. Then labor slowed again. Then it picked up again. After 20 hours, I began to push. And push. And push. I pushed on my back and on my side and on my knees and on my feet. I pushed against a bar and against the hands of the nurse, the hands of Deb, the hands of Paul. Ryan sat and stood by me, as overwhelmed as I was in his own way, I think, unsure what to do, frozen by uncertainty. I was too absorbed to guide him. I could only look over occasionally, and ask how he was doing. He was a phantom. They all were.
I pushed so hard and so long that I broke all the blood vessels around my eyes.
When I first saw a mirror the next day, I didn't recognize myself. I looked like a battered woman.
I pushed so hard that everything possible escaped my body except my baby.
I pushed for four hours. That's a long push.
Sweat lathed me. I was pure motion and effort. The pushing had become a rote reflex. I couldn't have stopped if I tried.
Finally, after four hours of pushing, the OBGYN, a four-star general of a doctor, decreed that the baby was facing up and his head could not angle past my pelvic bone without help. I had two choices: an epidural and forceps or a C-section. I asked Ryan what he thought, and we decided on the former.
Everyone started to move more quickly. I was turned and moved. An anesthesiologist appeared. Rough hands, rough voice. He told me to stop pushing, and he didn't seem to understand that I could not. Somehow, he inserted the needle, and the nothing spread. I felt nothing, beneath my waist. My uterus, my hips, my legs, my toes—they dissipated. I sighed and fell back, still pushing but without the same vehemence.
They moved me from my dimly lit birthing room to a fluorescent surgical room. If the forceps failed, they would go directly to a C-section. Nurses in masks surrounded me. The intern was there. The OBGYN. Ryan appeared in scrubs. Everything was plastic and metal and blue-green polyester.
And I just kept pushing, though I couldn't feel what I was doing.
I apparently only pushed for a few minutes. Twenty minutes after receiving the epidural and being rolled from my birthing room, Ori, my son, slid out. The motion of his birth was swift. I sensed the release, heard the doctor, heard him, and then a slimy wet dark little body slipped across my shoulder. Tiny. Naked. Perfect. He was covered in ambiotic fluid and mecomium but he still smelled appealingly familiar. His head was cocked up toward my face. His small lips hung open, breathing, bewildered. His eyes, eyes that have never lost the peculiar shape of his father's, peered up at me, wide, indigo, and aware. I will never forget the moment I saw that face and looked in those eyes.
I held Ori's little body to keep him from slipping. I said hello. I’m not sure how long I held him, but soon, the nurse came for him to check his vitals. I didn't want to let go, but I did, and told Ryan to stay with him. They both disappeared. Movement below worked at stitching up a tear. Then they rolled me along again. Ryan and Ori had already returned to the room. I resisted the urge to reach for Ori right away, waited, watched. After a few moments, Ryan passed him back to me. He was swaddled and capped and surprisingly calm, just watching and staring into the eight inches of space that was his newly formed vision.
The ensuing hours were a blur of sleep and nursing and looking. Ori knew exactly what he needed to do, and had no trouble latching onto my breast the first time and sucking, though the first latch pinched and we had to adjust. He quickly grew frustrated with the thin trickle. He wanted more, but my milk supply was just forming.
Still, we made do. His mouth quickly settled into a rhythm. He held on simply to hold on. His impossibly small fingers rested on my skin, brushed, tapped, occasionally jerked as he realized that he had limbs. His cries were alarming—but tender. His scent unimaginably sweet.
I had read in more than one book that you should not expect to love your child instantly, that you should not expect to find him or her beautiful, because your body and your mind has gone through so much that you can easily be overwhelmed by a rush of mixed chemicals and responses. While I honor that this may often be true, it was not how I felt. I did love Ori instantly, and he was beautiful.
Then and now, it seems hard to imagine that the world ever existed without him.