When I started this blog I just wanted a context to write. I had no idea that I would start with nine chapters telling the story of my mother’s last year of life. As I sit here now, I wonder…well, what’s next? What’s coming up for me in this moment.
Three years ago I started a blog called: Musings of a Mountain Midwife. I realize that I want to re-post my first story from that blog. It marked the beginning for me of my professional life relating to birth and death. Seems good to tell this one again…
I could have gone home; it was the end of my shift and I had the weekend off. But she had absolutely no one and I could not leave her, so I stayed. It was 1963. I was a student nurse in San Francisco and just beginning my obstetrical training when Margaret was admitted to Labor and Delivery. She was five days from her due date and at her prenatal visit the day before, the doctor was unable to hear the baby’s heart beat. Sadly, her baby had died in the womb.
I was but nineteen, and she was forty-two. There we were, two women—an hour ago strangers—now sitting together in the dim light of a hospital room, waiting for the doctor to come in and induce her labor so her dead baby could be born.
In the quiet of the evening, tearfully clutching my hand, she asked if I would stay by her side, bear witness to her story and her pain. She talked and she wept. I listened and my heart ached.
She had lived her entire life on her family’s dry, dusty farm in Oklahoma. Never ventured very far, never had a date, never been in love, never known warmth and tenderness other than her secret yearnings that were always unrequited.
Then one hot day in July…a salesman came by the farm. He was a sweet talker and that night she gave up her maidenhood in a haystack in their big, old barn. In the morning before dawn he slipped away, and just like that, in one night, her life as she had known it was over.
She hid her pregnancy as long as she could, but after five months, and after contacting an adoption agency, she moved to San Francisco. There she rented a room in a boarding house to wait out her pregnancy.
She told me that for the first time in many years, she was happy, deeply happy; she felt that her life finally had purpose. She was growing another human being inside of her body. She shared with me that, as the baby grew stronger and more vigorous, she had delighted in its movements. Her heart opened and all the love she was capable of poured into the child. She sewed baby clothes, and knitted blankets and sweaters. She spent long days walking and singing old childhood songs to the baby.
Throughout these months her intention had been to still go through with the adoption. However, two weeks ago she said she realized that this was no longer possible. She couldn’t give this baby away. This child was her child. And now… here she was…waiting in a hospital bed to give birth to a baby who was no longer alive. What she would be facing in these coming hours was inconceivable to me.
The doctor came and went. Hooked her up to the IV where pitocin dripped into her body and induced the labor that would squeeze this child from her womb.
As wave after wave of contractions ripped through her body, she moaned and writhed. I held her in my arms, whispered words of encouragement in her ear, and wiped away her tears and sweat. We entered together into the ancient dance of birth.
Slowly, as the hours passed, I had a sense of déjà vu – that I had been here before. It was familiar; the wild movements of her body; the primal sounds that wailed from her throat. I was very young and inexperienced, yet I felt completely calm and present in the face of her raw power and her suffering. I seemed to intuitively know what to do.
As the sun rose the next day, Margaret pushed a little boy from her body. He was beautiful and perfect, except he did not breathe. There was no cry. She took him in her arms and kissed and caressed his little body. She cried and she grieved. She held him for a long time, and then when her tears had stopped flowing, she asked to dress him. With the tenderness of a new mother she put on him the clothes she had made, wrapping him in a soft, knitted blanket. Only then could she let him go.
She fell into a deep sleep. I continued to sit by her side, feeling a need to still watch over her. When she woke we held each other. There was no need for words. There was nothing left unspoken. We were two women who came together for one sacred night and did what we needed to do. She did the work and I accompanied her.
Speak to any midwife and she will tell you she was called into the profession. And that night sitting at her bedside, I felt that calling. It would take another sixteen years.