She Will Rise
SHE purges into the porcelain bowl down the hall from the nurse’s station all the while wondering how she can still have morning sickness nine months and seven days into a pregnancy. Eighteen hours away from giving birth, the sickness has not abated at all during this long, arduous journey. Salty foods and acrid tartness are the only two sensations she can stomach—Wendy’s French fries and a large icy lemonade —for most of the nine-month saga. All healthy eating plans abolished. In between were long stretches where all she could subsist on were water and scant traces of Gatorade.
Those women spoke of cravings, admired their swollen bellies, and basked their own “glow.” Instead, she was losing weight and turning green and disappearing.
‘Hyperemesis gravidarum’ they called it – extreme morning sickness that plagues only about three percent of pregnant women. Twenty other women at the company where she worked were simultaneously carrying babies (“don’t drink the water” was the joke around the office). Those women spoke of cravings, admired their swollen bellies, and basked their own “glow.” Instead, she was losing weight and turning green and disappearing. Her own belly did not swell. She wouldn’t step into maternity clothes until her seventh month. Ten pounds gone. Then eighteen. The scale trending downward when it should have been increasing. Some even doubted the veracity of her pregnancy claims.
At the “well” visits, doctors would bring out the dreaded tape measure to record “progress in weeks.” Shaking their heads, they would scold that her baby was woefully behind the developmental charts. She knew ‘he’ was there though, feeling the tiny bubbles pop deep inside her around month three, weeks earlier than the kicking, or the ‘quickening’ normally began.
HER baby became a “he” around month four. She began having technicolor dreams that caused her to wake in a frightful sweat. One brought a vision more vivid than any she had ever experienced. A male child ‘speaking’ to her from the womb. Clear as day. She didn’t need a sonogram to know what grew deep inside. This would be one of the many inaccuracies of this pregnancy. It would not be the last.
Earlier on, when none of the morning sickness cures were working, doctors began imploring her to gain weight. “Try ginger, lemons, seasickness wrist bands.” Each failed until they prescribed the sleeping pill, Unisom. Doctors assured her it was safe, but her thoughts turned to ‘Thalidomide’ and deformed babies of the 1960s. Yet she continued to sparingly take the Unisom– something old people on commercials took when they couldn’t sleep – and worried about aftereffects of this unorthodox treatment. With half a pill before bed, she would occasionally wake up without the four-month hangover that she experienced from the ongoing dehydration.
The blender whirls as HE makes her nightly peanut butter and ice cream milkshake. Doctor’s orders to keep the calories up, even though she’ll never be able to keep it down. He is up at three am thinking about how he must leave in March for extended work travel, trying to imagine her handling this alone. Luckily her good friend, Meredith, has agreed to be there in case he cannot.
Meredith accompanies them to every Lamaze class as they endure judging glances from other participants. (“Why are there three of them? They must be one of those couples,” whispered around the room). They almost get kicked out of a session when the instructor begins a soothing meditation. “Visualization will help with the pain. Yes, that’s it. Prop her up with pillows and stroke her forehead. Ok, ladies, form the vision in your mind. Pretend you are lying on a peaceful raft gently rocking on the ocean. Don’t worry—there are no dangerous sharks or piranhas swimming nearby...”) That was it. The three of them doubled over in laughter. Who could possibly relax with the mention of sharks or piranhas??
The laughing stopped when she ended up in the hospital the following day.
HE sees her lying in a bathtub exhausted in hour twenty-three of hard labor. Not hour twenty-three of all labor, as she began having contractions last Sunday. Today is Thursday. They threw out the baby books when the pains stopped and started for the next three days. He patiently walked her around Cumberland Mall, stopping every few moments to take a breather.
Finally, Thursday as they were shopping for cutting boards, he watched her face go pale as she leaned against a store display because she thought she was being stabbed in the back. It turned out this was IT. Did they have time to go home and get the overnight bag? These stabs were coming fierce, not like the milder ones from days earlier. Five minutes apart. (They should have left for the hospital when the intervals were less than ten minutes).
He cursed himself for not bringing the bag with the relaxation CD. Blood pumping at his temples, his white knuckles grabbed the wheel. She was still smiling at this point, until they got to the hospital. The triage nurse only shook her head. In the cruelest of ways, the white coats hooked her up to the monitors, informing her she was only one centimeter dilated. She had not “earned” a room under their hospital roof. Ten pm, he is there helping her back into her clothes, tears streaming down her face. The vice gripping around her. Migraine pulsating in her temples. Contractions still coming five minutes apart. Him speaking quietly to the nurse. “What should I do?”
In a blasé way some nurses speak to nervous first-time fathers, she said, “We’ll give her a shot of morphine. Take her to get some sleep.”
Sleep? HE thinks, looking at his wife doubled over in pain. “When should I bring her back?”
Continuing to stare at her clipboard, she responds, “You’ll know.”
But he didn’t know. He drove home silently as the reality of the long road ahead sunk in. He walked her to the front door with both of their mothers nervously standing by.
“What happened?” they questioned him. Each of these hopeful grandmothers (with five babies between them) had seen their share of false labor, but this didn’t look like it.
“They sent us home,” was all he said and marched his wife upstairs.
SHE couldn’t sleep, but the shot dulled the continuing contractions a bit. He drew a warm bath and climbed in to stay with her most of the night, only getting out to give the mothers periodic updates. Occasionally she would lift her head and hear him whispering to them in the hallway.
This isn’t normal. Why would any hospital send a laboring woman in that much pain home? He didn’t have a reply. Instead, HE climbs back in the tub with her back against his chest as her body goes from tense to limp every few minutes. Attempting to sleep, he just stares at the ceiling, trying to comprehend how much more difficult this night will get.
Early morning the following day, the mothers pace around her, imploring her to eat something. “She will need her strength,” they mutter, exchanging worried glances, aware that the morphine wore off hours ago. Sometime later, with mounting pressure from the mothers, he piles her back in the car and returns to the hospital.
Early morning the following day, the mothers pace around her, imploring her to eat something. “She will need her strength,” they mutter, exchanging worried glances, aware that the morphine wore off hours ago.
This was not the labor they read about nor learned in those ridiculous Lamaze classes. This was much more intense. More fear than he had anticipated. Why had no one warned him it would be this way? Stabbing pain for five minutes apart for twenty-three hours and not much progress? Surely, they must be near the end!
Finally, the nurses announce she is at five centimeters and has “earned a room.” The going is excruciatingly slow. He has seen her overcome many obstacles before, but all of them paled in comparison. She has had little food, drink, or sleep since Thursday afternoon. The exhausting marathon continues.
A bath might give her some relief, so he runs the warm water and helps her climb in. He can only sit and watch helplessly as she essentially passes out every five minutes. Her face tenses, fists clench, and the lump in the middle of her body churns under her skin. He spends the time pacing, wringing out the same washcloth over and over, and checking his watch – the secondhand mocking him counting out the time intervals that stretch into oblivion. She made him promise —no drugs, but this is taking too long. Even he knows that at some point she can’t endure much more. He waits until after the next contraction, wakes her up, and asks. She says, “Not yet but maybe soon.”
Hour thirty-two rolls around. This time when the nurse enters and says, “We’ll have to decide on the epidural soon,” she wearily nods her head. Yes. He was never so happy to see a man in a white coat enter the room.
SHE faces another cruel mocking from the anesthesiologist who is supposed to be the savior after this thirty-two-hour ordeal. Instead, he coldly walks in, cursorily scans her carefully constructed “birth plan” and notices she is a vegetarian. He takes one look at his patient and says, “Usually all you vegetarians want a natural birth. I was surprised to see you wanted the shot.” She has no reply to his candor about a pain he will never know. She wants to laugh or slap him but knows that would be pointless and all of this is pointless. Why is she even here? Why are these knives repeatedly stabbing her? How does she make it stop? Thoughts jackhammering as she holds herself perfectly still during a contraction as the white coat prepares to deliver more pain. He slips the grotesquely long needle into the epidural space.
In a few moments, there is peace. A unified sigh of relief. A weak smile returns to her face. He sees the creases in her forehead unwind and knows, for this brief moment, he can stop worrying. Her eyes get heavy and for the first time since they entered this sterile building, he feels he can walk out of the room. He puts her favorite movie, Beauty and the Beast, into the VCR and leaves just as Maurice is banished from the castle. Meredith offers to stay as he goes to get a cup of coffee.
In the cafeteria, he checks his watch and feels his own stomach churn with nausea as a third-shift worker mops nearby. He wonders how he can possibly stay awake for another hour. What he doesn’t see is the third shift nurse enter the birthing room for the fourth time to check the fetal monitor. He is also not there to register the concern on this nurse’s face. Fetal distress. He doesn’t see her page the midwife who grumpily enters somewhere around two am. Or is it three? This seasoned midwife has seen it all before. “These damn rookie nurses. I just need a few hours’ sleep to get through this shift. Epidural is in. Just push more Pitocin and get the contractions going. Things should start moving.”
Yet they don’t start moving. The same nurse enters the room twenty minutes later and says, “Okay, let’s check again.”
The MOMENT arrives— ten centimeters. Hospital lights are glaring and she cares nothing that her vulnerability is bared for all to see. They can strip everything away for a moment to finally see this child enter the world. SHE is now Eve. Every female who dared to grace the Garden of Eden, experiencing the curse of every woman for a bite of that sweet apple. The eternal punishment for a taste of its juicy flesh. Now it all comes down to this woman… this child… this moment. If they both go back to meet their Maker, she will go with both fists blazing and then HE, the Almighty, will have a monumental fight on his hands.
From her angle there is nothing to see. She just knows that after a night spent in this dimly lit space, the show is ready to begin. The hours, the ice chips, the bath, the large needle have all brought her here.
The team assembles. Without warning, the spell of peace seems broken. The blaring lights go on. HE has returned from the cafeteria. Meredith and several others are gathered around her bed. All eyes of this crowd of cheerleaders are upon her, the quarterback who has reached this imaginary endzone. She keeps hearing the word PUSH but she is numb from the place she is supposed to PUSH and she does what she thinks they are asking and they say “good” or “more” and she thinks time goes by in minutes but it is actually hours. She doesn’t mind because this is the first time in days where she is not in pain and things are moving forward. All she remembers are the blurry faces surrounding her and the mirror that they roll up so she can “see what’s happening” yet she can’t see because it is blurry and why doesn’t somebody hand her her glasses? that are on the nightstand, but they don’t think to look there because their eyes are elsewhere. All they see is a tiny head with lots of black hair.
“Did you have lots of heartburn during your pregnancy?” one of the nurses absentmindedly asks her.
Yes, SHE thinks but does not say aloud.
SHE opens her eyes. The delivery room has gone quiet. The cheerleaders frozen. She is still seeing them in a blurry haze. Then, the realization. How long since they told her to push? One of the white coats says the baby is out and notes the time. 6:19am. She throws her head back in relief, rejoicing in the first good news she has heard in months. All she can think to say is, “Wait, is it a girl or boy?” She knows, of course, but still wants confirmation. She is waiting for the BIG MOMENT depicted countless times on television in a time before gender reveal parties. The hugging and lit cigars and popped champagne. The royal proclamation she’s been waiting for. The “IT’S A BOY!”
The delivery room has gone quiet. The cheerleaders frozen. She is still seeing them in a blurry haze. Then, the realization.
But that moment does not come. Instead, HE turns to her, distractedly muttering, “It’s a girl.” His throat is hoarse. It comes out as a whisper. She smiles in disbelief. This joyous moment she celebrates solely in her mind until the realism sinks in, and she realizes. The room is still. She was watching an exciting film and someone pressed pause. The players silent. The faces avoiding her eyes. There is no celebration. There is no champagne, no confetti, no embracing. The moment where someone is supposed to place a pink-faced, wailing baby on her chest doesn’t happen. No sound. Only swift movement as more fluorescent lights blare and the tiny clear glass bassinet that is across the room is suddenly filled with the warm body that is supposed to be in her arms but is now looks to be a shapeless ragdoll. A ragdoll with black hair.
“Why won’t somebody give my glasses?” is all she can think to say, as she still hasn’t registered all that is going on. Slowly, the hallucinations of this bad dream are creeping in, morphing, shapeshifting into the realm of a nightmare. A word cruelly and maliciously dances into the frontal cortex of her mind: stillborn. All she thinks to do is scream but doesn’t know if it comes out loud or is the rage that is pumping through her body as they are still working on the “sharp end” as the British call it. The rage boils inside herself, an invisible fight with the Devil that dared to enter this room. She bares her fists and screams into his hideous face. “Oh, hell no! This is NOT the ending I was promised after the wicked journey I’ve just been through. There is no way that this is my sick reward at the end of your twisted roller coaster ride.
Get the fuck out!”
SHE doesn’t hear the nurses announce the results from the first test this child will take. A simple assessment: the “Apgar” score. A score of TEN means a pink healthy bouncing baby. ONE means very grave concern. She doesn’t hear the nurse say “zero.” An impossible number. How can you fail your first test? She doesn’t hear the air being sucked from the room. All she sees is black hair.
There is no way that this story ends with a score of zero. Stillborn. The desert oasis she is in begins losing sand like an hourglass. All she can picture is a stiff, plastic baby doll in a cellophane-wrapped childhood present. No matter how hard she tried to cradle it, the arms remained cold, rubbery, and its legs would not bend. Stillborn. That word lingers there, dancing on the edge of insanity which mocks her to the point of hysterics. All she can do is laugh at this cruel joke. It has to be a joke.
Time is slipping in and out of the water glass enveloping her head. Swimming in an endless lake with no boundaries. She will never reach the edge. She thinks Please just take me under if this is to be the fate of the life I have just created which is not life.
HE can’t decide which scene to focus on. A fight between two incredulous sights. His mind cannot process either of them: the first sight of HER being stitched up but they are not sewing fast enough. He keeps hearing “more compression” as he watches her face moving from ash to whiter, registering the oceans of blood seeping from her body.
The second sight is even more indescribable. The color of another face which he would later describe as “purple” but only because he is color-blind and doesn’t know that the blue pallor under the black hair of the ragdoll is the word for ‘fetal asphyxiation’ from that cord wrapped around her neck as she came into the world. By now, she was supposed to take her first breath but has yet to do so. All he sees are a team of people tapping on her back, trying to get her to breathe.
The somber faces switch places in the room. More people in scrubs enter. SHE doesn’t see Dan and Meredith move into the hallway and collapse in tears in each other’s arms, not happy tears as they were expecting after this all-night party but overwhelming grief as in How are we going to tell her?
She lays back after her internal scream subsides, knowing she needs to gather the courage to take in her surroundings. She forces herself to look at the black-haired ragdoll in the clear bassinet in the corner of the room. Suddenly, she glimpses what she thinks is an arm move. And she knows. Grabbing her glasses, she can now see not only the black hair but the blue eyes. Not blue, no violet— the color, her grandmother later tells her, of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes. She already sees those violet eyes full of wonder, taking in her new surroundings. This is not the end of the story. This is the beginning.
SHE is flooded with a waterfall of knowing. Given the all-powerful sight. The Devil has been driven away. Tranquility washes over her and she knows what the team of people in this room don’t know— that this child will be fine. She is already smart. She is a masterpiece.
They don’t see that she will go on to read at four years old. That she will become a world-qualifying Irish dancer and travel the world performing. She will run track in high school, her relay team will win the State Championship. Her college team will win the Penn Relays, breaking all sorts of records. She will go to college in Boston, study abroad in Italy, and attend an Ivy League graduate school in New York City. They have yet to see her kindness, her compassion, and the quiet grace with which she will go about her daily life. They will have to wait to experience her love of gardening, her patience with animals, and her gentle guidance as a big sister, which she will become a year later. They are blind to the fact that before all of that, she will defy the odds at every pediatric appointment, even though her parents will endure the “concerned doctor” stare for several more years to come.
And SHE will just smile back at them and go on to read this child book after book after book. They don’t see any of that, but she sees and knows. This child, this DAUGHTER, will have two, no three, no four names because she is that much of a miracle. SHE continues to watch the skin under the black hair turn from white to pink and all she sees is one word – FUTURE.
Denise reimagined her career as an engineer to return to graduate school in pursuit of her life-long dream of becoming a writer. She recently received a MA in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University, winning the “Work-In-Progress” award for her novel excerpt. Her favorite topics to write about include travel, food, and family – usually attempting to combine all three. She grew up in New England but currently resides in Georgia along with her husband, two daughters, and two rescue cats. Denise is currently working on her first novel based on her travels to Ireland.