“Now!” I had 30 seconds before the next contraction and I couldn’t afford to waste time telling her how I’d given up on the concept of a drug-free childbirth. I was only four centimeters dilated after ten hours of labor and quite certain that I would never make it without the kind of chemical help that only a day earlier I had sworn I would never take.
The anesthesiologist who gave me an epidural was easily the most popular person in the hospital. Laboring women who saw him greeted him with the fervency of disciples. It was no different for me. Ten minutes after he painlessly inserted a needle into my lower back, I was pain-free and briefly entertained the notion of naming my baby after him. I could feel my body relax in the absence of that intense pain, and I was prepared to go through many more hours of labor. But within 20 minutes, I had progressed to full dilation.
That was the moment when things began to go wrong for BB. The fetal monitor started showing dips in his heart rate with every contraction, and as the minutes passed, the dips became more sustained. Because I had BB at a teaching hospital, I met the doctor who would deliver him only an hour before it happened. This doctor looked at the monitor’s printout with concern and started talking over my body to the nurse on the other side of the bed.
“Have her tracings been like this all night?” he asked, and the nurse murmured something about the last half hour.
Alert now that I was free of pain, I asked him what was going on.
“He’s probably caught the umbilical cord around his neck,” the doctor told me. “Looks like he came down pretty fast after the epidural.” He went on to assure me that I wouldn’t have to worry, that the baby was on his way out now and that he didn’t think it was severe. He also told me that I should start pushing immediately.
I pushed on command, totally removed from any internal cues. The doctor, intern, and labor nurse had all become very serious, engaged in the clipped, instructions-only dialogue peculiar to crisis. In a small, unoccupied portion of my brain, I realized that had I not been in the middle of the most difficult act I’d ever performed, I would have been terrified. I could see nothing over the equipment I was buried under and relied on the reflection in my sister’s eyes to see what was going on in my own body. She was rapt, occasionally prompting, “Come on, I can see the head.”
I heard the labor nurse say, “Lots of hair on this baby.”
I felt my ribs stretching and my body tearing.
I said, “I can’t do this,” and I was ignored.
The doctor said, “There it is, there’s the cord.” I asked if I should push and they all yelled “No!” in unison. The umbilical cord was tightly wrapped twice around the baby’s neck. The doctor had to literally cut it off his throat before pulling him out of me and laying him on my stomach. BB had entered the world strangled by his own lifeline.
BB was positioned so that his face was turned up to mine. His eyes were dark but wide open, and I looked directly into them. They were full of brand-new life, and they were gazing right into mine as if to say, “Here I am, it’s me.” I could see his very soul in that moment, shining and silently beckoning. My hands went automatically out to him, and I cupped them around his small body. “Oh, it’s you,” I said out loud. “I know you.” And then I started weeping.
That look was BB’s first gift to me. Women talk about falling in love with their newborns. There was all of that for me too and more, because, in that instant, I recognized him. He let me in at that very first moment, and I understood the connection between the two of us. In doing so, I missed the flurry of activity going on around us. I didn’t notice that he wasn’t making any sound. I missed the nurse calling out an Apgar score of three (a scale of one to ten measuring heart rate, respiration, and muscle tone on a newborn — three being not that far from dead). I never heard anyone say “blue and floppy.” All I saw was the life, startled but intelligent and powerful, in his slate-colored eyes. My faith in him was born at that moment. Sometimes you get little blessings sent your way that make you believe in a higher power. Sometimes a little grace is thrown in your direction, a silver lining inserted in the darkest of clouds. That moment with BB was mine and I have never forgotten it, nor have I ever denied its power.
I was still weeping tears of joy when the nurse lifted him carefully from me and said gently, “We’ll bring him right back. We’re just going to give him some oxygen. He needs a little jump start.”
It was many weeks before I learned what happened to BB next. My parents, afraid of sending me into frightened hysterics, waited until then to tell me the following scene: My mother, who was outside the door with my father, realized that the baby had been born when she heard me crying. Those tears were familiar to her. They were both anxiously waiting to be let into the room, but moments later, the nurse came out holding the baby and ran across the hall to the neonatal care unit. My mother, predictably, went into a panic. My father was more decisive. He strode across the hall after the nurse and walked into the unit capless, maskless, and unscrubbed. He leaned over BB, who was surrounded by doctors and nurses administering oxygen, drawing blood, and requesting a section of the umbilical cord for blood gases.