[Warning. This is a long one and so I have decided to divide it into two parts creating two days of entries.]
There are days that cannot be forgotten: happy days, sorrowful days, fearful days, glorious days. Those days that pivot around a life changing event: our wedding, the death of a parent, a brush with our own death, an encounter with God. Those events are burned into our memories and merge together to form the texture of our existence. And then there are those days that are flooded with the full spectrum of our human existence. The day and the event are one, we are face to face with death and life, our mortality and immortality; everything is in full color and life moves one frame at a time. These are the days we not only experience life, we witness ourselves enveloped in the fullness of life. Such was the day of Alethea’s birth.
Before the day arrived we had done our best to prepare. After all, it was 1977 and we were educated and informed first time parents to be. Cheryl’s readings had led her to commit to a “natural” child birth, i.e., no pain relievers, so that she could fully embrace the experience and not pass any drugs into our baby. I was committed to be with her during the birth, something for which I had to get special permission from the doctor and the hospital. We had taken the obligatory Lamaze training. These classes were all the rage and provided quite an experience for us “sensitive” but clueless husbands. I never mastered the breathing exercises, “hee, hee, hee … whoosh.” I was destined to fail as a labor coach.
I must admit it was a great social experiment. Imagine yourself sitting on the floor behind your wife who is in a circle with seven or eight very pregnant young women who have their husbands serving as their backrests. Where do your eyes go while the estrogen enhanced progenitors cross their ankles and practice their kegel exercises. You can’t stair at the men; they’re all too busy trying to blend into the carpet. Besides, they have a backlog of testosterone and might just smack you. And you can only count the cracks in the ceiling so many times (15 cracks, I believe). I focused on scanning for facial expressions. Every woman had the intense look of an Olympic weightlifter just before the snatch, most with their eyes closed as if to visualize their expanding and contracting pee musle.
The momentous “day” began on a Friday afternoon and extended to midnight the next Tuesday and beyond. Cheryl was almost two weeks past due to deliver and she was going every couple of days to see her obstetrician. She had toxemia and was swollen and had a bad rash. In spite of her insistence to the contrary and the fact it was early May in North Dakota with patches of snow still on the ground, he diagnosed her as having gotten into poison ivy and sent her home. On Monday she went in for another visit. By the grace of God her doctor was on vacation and Cheryl saw his associate, Dr. McDonald, who had recently arrived from England. He took one look at her and said, “You have toxemia and you’re going to the hospital, today.” I wasn’t there for the visit. Mom and Darlene had gone with her.
We lived in a house trailer on the campus of Northwest Bible College in Minot, North Dakota. I was working and when she got on campus she filled me in on what the doctor had said. She seemed so calm. Her doctor had given her the option of going straight to the hospital or checking herself in at 5 P.M. and she chose to go home and pack a suitcase. I drove her to the hospital that Monday evening. She remained calm until we got to the room. The woman in the room with her was in labor and she was moaning and groaning with intensity. I stayed with Cheryl until they drove me out around 11 P.M. We were both pretty frazzled by then. I went home for the night and returned by six the next morning when they were scheduled to start the drip. Cheryl was moved to a labor room. The IV was attached and they began inducing labor. The contractions began immediately. They were ten minutes apart at first but quickly moved to five and then three all within the first hour. The labor seemed strong to us and the constant three minute cycle indicated the birth would be soon, or so I thought. That was what the books said; three minutes signaled the end was approaching. The books didn’t include chapters on induced labor.
The longest twelve hours of my life had begun to unfold. I stayed by Cheryl’s side the full twelve hours of intense labor. Only once or twice did I go down the hall to tell Mom and Darlene what was going on. For the first couple of hours I stood and held her hand. Then a nurse got me a chair. For a couple of minutes I would sit and then contractions would hit. I would then stand, holding her hand. They wouldn’t let her have anything to drink but they did give her a few ice chips occasionally. They also wet a wash cloth for her to moisten her lips. She began biting down on the rolled up cloth when the contractions were severe. She also squeezed my hand, hard. You cannot imagine the strength of a woman in labor. On one contraction she confused my hand with the cloth. She squeezed the rag bone dry and bit my hand just short of drawing blood. It was perhaps the most chivalrous moment of my life; I just let her keep biting until her pain subsided and she figured out what she was doing. Her teeth marks remained for days. They could have poured plaster into them and used that to make her a set of dental retainers.
Every few minutes they would come in to examine her. We were looking for the big numbers, eight or nine centimeters in anticipation for the magical 10.. What we got was three. I thought we would never get to five. The nurse would look at me with a frown and shake her head “no,” whispering “no progress,” or “3 ½.” Everything within me wanted to yell, “stick your head back under that sheet and measure again.” At the same time I wanted to break down and cry, but I couldn’t. I had to be strong for Cheryl. Sometimes I could tell the nurse was reporting more progress than actually existed. We were probably the most pitiful looking twenty three-year-olds they had ever seen.
After a couple of hours they placed a belt around Cheryl’s waist that included sensors for monitoring and recording the strength and duration of the contractions and also to monitor the baby’s heart rate. All day long I watched the meter scroll out the graph paper with markings measuring the biological earthquakes and I listened to the swishing of Alethea’s heartbeat. It seemed so loud and so fast. With each set of contractions the rhythm raced. The graph gave me a visual impression of the intensity of Cheryl’s pain.
The nurses came in frequently to adjust the belt. By mid-afternoon their facial expressions of sympathy shifted to frowns of concern with little eye contact. When pressed they finally told us there was a problem with the baby’s heart beat which indicated the cord might be wrapped around her neck. They inserted a probe that attached to Alethea’s head for more accurate readings. The swooshing and beeping became a foreign language screaming messages of life and death; only they could not be interpreted. Is that normal; is it too fast, or too slow?
Cheryl was exhausted and began dozing between contractions. I was depleted; my legs were led from all the up and down … sit, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand. Around five o’clock things began to happen. “She’s at 7.” “We have 8.” “She’s at 9.” At some point they began to refer to “effacing.” And then it was time to move from the “labor room” to the “delivery room.” The former looked like a typical hospital room of the time; the latter resembled more a cold, sterile room for surgery. As they rolled Cheryl into delivery I was directed to another room where I hurriedly put on scrubs including the little booties to cover my shoes.
May 22, 2010