A nurse took the baby away. Stewart, elated, kissed me goodbye. And someone wheeled me to my room. A young dark-haired nurse pulled the slime-green curtains to separate my bed from the next one. “So you’re the one who precipitated in the bed,” she said. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I had lived all my life in fear of that tone of voice—critical, reproving. She blamed me, apparently. The near catastrophe of my baby’s sudden birth must have been my fault.
“Your doctor prescribed aspirin and a sleeping pill,” the nurse continued, holding out a hand with three pills. “Does he know you plan to nurse the baby? He shouldn’t have sent you the aspirin.”
Here was a problem. Who should I trust? Dr. Eagle had let me down, perhaps, but he was the established medical authority. This cocky nurse might not know anything, but she had that school teacher-style assurance. I didn’t take the aspirin. And I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.
When Dr. Eagle checked on me the next morning, he brushed it all aside. “That nurse didn’t know anything. The aspirin won’t hurt you or your baby. Prepared childbirth isn’t for everyone, but for young couples who are well prepared. . .” His face took on a satisfied, almost rapt expression. “And don’t worry; you’ll sleep tonight.” And he left.
Stewart couldn’t make it to see me that first morning. The hospital was too far away from our home in Raleigh, and he had duties at the church. I wondered if I might not need him now more than I had the night before, and if the distance was an unreasonable price to pay for his presence at David’s birth.
I began to make conversation with my roommate, Jean. Jean was in pain. She’d had surgery to tie her tubes after delivering a healthy little girl, her second. I was surprised that she would have major surgery so soon after the trauma of childbirth. “The doctors said they found something funny inside me, so they took that out, too, while they were in there,” Jean explained.
“Something funny? What? A growth? An odd organ?
“I don’t know. Anyway, now I can’t keep anything on my stomach. If I could just get my strength back.” Jean’s voice was a settled whine. Her husband, a big truck driver with a crew cut, came in with their baby. He asked if Jean wanted to give her the bottle. Too weak even for that task, Jean shook her head.
I went down the hall to look through the nursery window at my son. The grandmotherly nurse on duty explained that he couldn’t come out for a feeding yet. “He’s too little and too cold,” she said gently. I stared in amazement at David’s perfect features. He was lying on his side behind the glass, and his blue eyes were open. His chin and lower lip trembled slightly. “He’s beautiful,” I whispered.
“He’s a fine, clean-cut young man,” the nurse replied.
How in the world could he be anything but clean-cut at his age? I wondered. Suddenly, I needed to cry—for joy, for relief. As fast as my weak legs would carry me, I rushed back to my room and shut myself in the little bathroom to sob. Jean became alarmed. “What’s the matter?” she called. “Are you all right?”
I came out of the bathroom, drying my eyes. “He’s just so beautiful,” was all I could say. I wished for a private space where I could cry for as long as I needed to. I hadn’t felt free to scream during the painful pushing the night before, and now I couldn’t cry without alarming my roommate. So I had yet another strong emotion to cram back down my throat.
When Stewart came to see me that afternoon, Jean had been wheeled out of the room—for further surgery I supposed.
“It sounds like she doesn’t have much will to live,” Stewart commented when I told him about Jean. His remark irritated me. Who was he to judge? And how could anyone know whether or not someone else had “the will to live”?
Stewart had arranged for me to change to the room across the hall, a ward instead of a semi-private room. It would be less expensive. And it was empty for the moment.
I never saw Jean again. When I went back into that room to check, all her things had been removed. Perhaps she had died, I thought. Perhaps the meddling surgeons had taken out something that looked “funny” but was unique to her and kept her alive.
In spite of the botched delivery of our baby, or maybe because of it, I was even more determined to do everything right from here on out. The grandmotherly nurse brought David to me the first morning and showed me how to hold him at my breast. “I nursed all my own babies,” she said with a sigh. David was more interested this time and was fast to catch on. I enjoyed holding him to my breast. Even though I knew he was not getting any real milk yet, I felt powerful as I supplied what he needed. When the cocky nurse replaced the grandmotherly one on a later shift, I was glad that I didn’t need to ask for any more help. I pinched the nipple for the baby’s mouth, and he immediately began his fast, rhythmic sucking. ‘We can manage fine,’ I thought.
Dr. Eagle was right about one thing: I did sleep that night. But I set the alarm for a few minutes before David would be brought in for feeding. I’d read somewhere about how babies learn to perceive faces, after many exposures, putting features together to make a whole. I didn’t want David to be confused by seeing me sometimes in glasses, sometimes not. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to just leave the glasses off. Maybe I wanted to see his face more clearly than my near-sightedness would allow. So I got up, washed my breasts and hands, and put in my contact lenses. I was ready, smiling and waiting. Afterwards, I reset the alarm. I certainly didn’t want to sleep through a feeding.
The alarm went off twice more during the night for the feeding routine. I was awakened a third time by yelling—whooping it was really—down by the elevator. My new roommate had arrived at the hospital.
Her name was Bunny Wren, and she started talking as soon as she was wheeled into the room just before daybreak. “My mamma is gonna be so proud. She has ten children, and I’m the first one to have both a boy and a girl. Did you hear that hollering in the night? That was me. I’ve never even been for a checkup. I had an appointment at the clinic for tomorrow. (I thought I was about seven months along.) And here came the baby last night. Wait until my uncle gets here tomorrow. He’s the one that named me. Boy, will he be proud. Where’s breakfast? I sure am hungry.” And she bounced off the bed and into the bathroom as soon as the bag of fluids was unhooked from her arm.
I stared at her in amazement. Moments after delivery, Bunny had more pep than I had after more than twenty-four hours. I was sore, and I tottered when I walked down the hall. My muscles were flabby, although I’d avoided anesthetics. But Bunny seemed completely unshaken.
Bunny Wren chirped on. She was going to bottle feed her baby, she said. None of that nursing mess for her. That way she could go right back to work as a bookkeeper at the trailer sales lot. “And I’m gonna have those doctors fix me up so I can’t have any more,” she declared. “This is enough.”
I started to warn Bunny about Jeanette’s experience, but I decided not to. I tried to tell her about Lamaze but gave up. I wondered if Bunny’s way wasn’t closer to “natural childbirth” than mine. Most people get through childbirth one way or another, I told myself. Peasant women squat in the fields. They make it. What had I been so worried about? But Jean’s disappearance and the childbirth fatalities recorded in my grandfather’s book of family history left doubts in the back of my mind.
It was Sunday. Stewart was preaching, giving an account of his joy and excitement at being present when David was born. He brought the audio tape of the delivery in the afternoon. We had shared the experience, but we felt entirely different about it. I couldn’t explain to him the panic and guilt I felt when I remembered that night. Now I felt very remote from him—exactly what we had been trying to prevent.
Except for the times when Stewart was visiting, I tried to tackle the unending list of thank you notes for shower gifts. Bunny babbled on, and the hospital routine interrupted any attempt to sleep. There was always someone clanging up and down the hall, and at least half the time that someone had a task for me. “Put this heat lamp on your stitches for twenty minutes.” “It’s time for supper.” “We need to take your temperature. “The nurse needs to check if you’ve emptied your bladder.” “Are you ready to feed you baby?” I wondered how anyone ever got any rest in a hospital.
That Sunday night, time began to slip. My watch seemed to stop or speed wildly ahead. The cocky nurse scolded me for calling the station to ask about the 4:00 AM feeding when it was only 1:30. As soon as it grew light outside, I decided that I had to get out of this place. I didn’t want to meet all the friends and relations I’d heard Bunny calling on the phone the day before. I wanted to go home.
“You’ve only been here two days and three nights,” remarked Dr. Eagle when I asked about going home as soon as he made his rounds after breakfast. “But I don’t tell my patients what to do. Go ahead if you’re sure you’re ready.”
“But I’m not ready,” Stewart protested when I called to ask him to come get me. “The dishes aren’t done. The house is a mess. I was going to do all that this morning.”
“You can do it after I get there,” I urged. “After David and I get there.” (I had almost forgotten about bringing him home with me.) “And Mother is coming in tonight to help out.”
Stewart came to get me. The nurse who came in to help us dress the baby for the trip home shook her head at the lightweight clothes and blankets Stewart brought on this January day. “What you call yourselves trying to do? You better dress that child warmer in this weather.”
I was embarrassed. I put David in his new infant seat to carry him to the car, but I took him out and held him in my lap for the trip home. The rules were different then, but I knew this could be dangerous. Still, I remembered the friend who had said, “You know you’re going to want to bring that baby home in your arms.” How could I follow everyone’s conflicting advice at once? How could I meet my goal of doing everything right? I had to get some rest.
* * * * * * * * * *
On that day when my mother sat me down to sort things out, I saw nothing at all on the calendar for the two weeks after January 22. By now I had filled in the three days I’d spent in the hospital and firmly written “Home” in the square for Monday, January 25. But what had happened in all the blank spaces that followed? I had not left the house, Mother reminded me, except for trips to Dr. Betts during the first week of February. What else had happened during those unmarked days?
During that period, so many thoughts had churned around in my mind that I knew I might never sort them all out. That’s what I had to work on, with my psychiatrist. But I thought I could remember the first day or so clearly enough.
“Would you like to give David a bottle while you think?” Mother asked. “See how cute he looks in his new outfit?” She drew back the blanket.
Why on earth is he wearing that? I thought. I would never have dressed him in that little tee-shirt and short pants in winter. He needed to have his footie pajamas on. But I kept quiet. I was just beginning to sense what a large burden my mother had been carrying—care of a house and an infant and a young mother out of her head. I took David meekly and held the bottle up, as Mother instructed. I stared into his eyes, wondering if he recognized me at all. “He won’t even know me,” I sighed.
“Of course he knows you,” Mother reassured me. “You nursed him for a week, and even if you don’t remember it, you’ve given him at least one bottle almost every day since then. Stewart and I helped you. It seemed to relax you. Hold the bottle up a little higher, now, so he won’t swallow air.”
I wondered how I would ever establish communication with this small person. He ate greedily, and then Mother changed him and put him down for a nap.
“Don’t we need to play with him?” I asked.
“Babies this size mostly need to sleep,” she replied firmly.
I sighed and began to reconstruct our first days after the hospital stay.
* * * * * * * * * *