Published on April 23rd, 2019 | by Hazel Kight Witham1
The Quiet on the Other Side
The Quiet on the Other Side
By Hazel Kight Witham
The quiet stops when they call my name from the waiting room at Labor and Delivery. I open my eyes, balance my six-month baby belly in my arms as I shift to standing. I need a quick check in, a blood pressure reading, some reassurance. I am not here to labor or deliver.
The quiet that stopped with my name had not been a perfect quiet—there was that low-grade uh-oh that began humming the night before, when sleep had been shallow and slippery, my swollen ankles pillow-propped. The midwives told me to come in. It was Saturday, no office hours, I should just head up to Labor and Delivery at the hospital where I delivered my first boy.
The morning was clear and blue. The roads were open, the lights green. There was 27 weeks and 6 days of baby rounding my belly. There was a parking spot waiting. Two hours should be enough. The thought: I should go into labor on a Saturday, the traffic is so light.
It is Valentine’s Day. I am due on Mother’s Day.
The remnants of ordinary were still clinging: the solitude of the boy I left so quickly, three years old and alone at the table hunched over breakfast, a stolen hug of see you soon. Now he was probably playing with cars, maybe making his daddy get up to play too.
My husband said, “Why don’t you just rest? Take it easy, you’re probably just tired.”
Some voice inside: Go.
Nurses lead me to a makeshift triage area set up in a side hallway on the Labor and Delivery ward, all warm butter tones and folding screens for a semblance of privacy. They help me onto a rolling bed and apologize for the lack of a room; apparently lots of babies want to arrive on Valentine’s Day.
No need to change, they are only going to take my vitals, see if there is anything amiss.
“187 over 110.” I don’t know what the numbers mean, but I can tell by whoosh of air leaving our little screened off island that something is wrong. One says, “That’s high, let’s take it again.”
Distant rumble. They take my blood pressure again and the numbers are the same.
Siren-song, earth tremble: Okay Hazel, we’re going to admit you and give you a big dose of magnesium, it’s going to make you feel AWFUL, but it’s going to help you and the baby. It’ll prevent a seizure or a stroke. We’ll probably get some steroids for the baby just in case, and get a doctor in to check on you. It’s going to be okay. It’s really good you came in.
“Um, I’m parked at a two-hour meter?”
“Yeah, we’re not going to worry about the meter right now.”
Someone says, “Severe preeclampsia.”
It’s really good you came in. It’s really good you came in.
Echoes and avalanche and a lost world.
Eclampsia comes from the Greek word for lightning. We were 24 hours or less away from disaster, me or the baby or both. We know very little about preeclampsia: not the why, not the how.
We do know the what. It is a failure of the placenta to properly attach to the uterine wall, making it hard for the placenta to get all it needs, and then in turn, for it to properly pass along nutrients to the baby. Eventually the flow will reverse, suck nutrients away from the baby. Why, how, does a body do such awful things?
When the word preeclampsia flashed over me, my baby was two days shy of 28 weeks, but only 26-week size. He had stopped getting all he needed.
Syntax fails inside avalanche: fevered snowcollapse over rapidly vanishing landscape / gurney roll into suddenly available room / hospital barcode bracelet / fetal monitor / elastic band / adjust listen adjust / IV prick / tape pinchpull / bolus blast of magnesium / blood pressure / cuff clench / pulse-Ox toe snap / cold swipe / steroid needlestick / beeping blaring alarms / heartbeat hoofbeats / nurses doctors / rapid explanations / consent collected / everything fast and without pause
It is an hour before I am able to remember the old world, ask for my phone, see my husband’s text:
It is not until I am on the phone trying to tell him, trying to narrate what has crashed over my life, that the tears come. I try to tell him how long I’ll be there, maybe a few hours and the nurses say, “Oh, no we’re talking days,” and someone says, “Until the baby comes.” “What about work?” and they say, “Oh, no, you’re all done with work, honey.”
You’re all done.
Tears come when the midwife who was there the day my first son arrived walks into the room and finds me in the midst of shatter. One look at her worried face, and the words roar out of me:
“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen to me—foolsong of us all, no? But I was the juggler, the queen of keeping it all together, all these years of dancing responsible: partner, teacher, writer, mother. My life, my lives, loud with busy, a cacophony of doing.
And now. Everything roaring raging snowcollapse. Stop.
I play my good patient self until two doctors from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit arrive to tell me what they can do for babies that arrive early, even at 27 weeks. They are all gentle calm and quiet data and I want nothing more than to heave my beached broodmare body up and hurl them from the fifth floor window. I say, “My plan is to keep this baby inside until full term.” That’s 37 weeks, thankyouverymuch. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I defy medical odds.
I hover in shallow slippery limbo for four days. My husband visits for brief hours each day before returning to the three-year-old, the lost life.
My body becomes world: fetal monitor elastic strap around middle, the constant sound of my small swimming boy’s hoofbeat heartbeats galloping across a beach I dream we will someday run. Fever of everything else: blood pressure cuff and tether of IV prick and circulation leg sleeves and oxygen monitor and sometimes oxygen cannula, a thin whisper of arctic air.
I listen to a guided meditation on a loop, try to will my blood pressure into calm. I believe I can do this through force of will, the story I have been telling myself for a long time.
I delude no one but myself with that 37-week plan. Four days later my tiny boy, all one pound, ten ounces, is cut from my inhospitable womb, placed inside an isolette and driven away, through three doors, along two halls and into another universe: the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
I see him for the first time the day after he is born. My husband wheels me from my quiet Maternity room to the NICU. He shows me how to scrub in, two minutes on the clock, and then he drives me to where our boy waits in his spaceship pod in his space-age nursery.
He is tinier than tiny. A purple light interrogates his body, blasting him in rays that help his early skin adjust. He has on gauze sunglasses to shield his eyes from the bright. His arms and legs are skinny. I think starved. He wears the smallest diaper I’ve ever seen—the size of a dollar bill—and he swims in it. His legs are frog-flung, his arms lifted in don’t-shoot surrender. My heart clenches to see this baby so tiny, threaded with so many lines and monitors, all the things I had been hooked up to and more. My nerves frizzle with a terror I’ve never known. I wonder how we will survive all this, any of it. How can a boy so small make it in this too-big world?
Somehow he does, and we do too. I get discharged from the hospital but the distance is new torture. My body is a Sahara without him, longing to know the skin of him, the sighing of his small body. I begin a brutal breast-pumping regime, eight times a day so that I can establish milk for my early boy. A thing I can control. But breast pumps offer none of the sweetness of warm baby.
My postpartum days are still in the jangled rhythm of hospital chaos: pump, check blood pressure, take pills, pump, blood pressure, pills, pump, again and again, until all minutes are stolen and even my visits feel frantic—arms leaning on plastic portholes, hand cupping head, small feet palm-pressed, whisper-song to bridge the longing, to tell him I am here. Trying to hold him through my voice, how they say babies know the sound of us from earliest days inside. I spend all my hours reaching toward him, at home and hospital.
Until Day Ten of life. The nurse helps me lift my earlyboy’s line-littered body from his isolette onto my open chest. His skin to my skin, his tiny warm head cupped by my hand, our world stills and slows and shushes.
We are skin-to-skin communion, melting back together into a quiet I realize I have been missing always, not just these last ten days. Everything stops, all the roles I play, all the noise of my hectic breathless life, the avalanche of doing, all of it stills into quiet relief. This baby that came so early and just in time teaches me to live in the inhales and exhales, instead of in the endless doing.
This learning will be practiced first in those warm honey hours every day when I get to hold him and breathe quiet the demands of pumping and mothering the other boy, managing the loose threads of the lost life. It will stay with me when he comes home finally on Mother’s Day, his original due date, my favorite poem of all time.
That very first morning of holding, Day Ten of life, we breathe into each other on the other side of disaster. My hand cups his plum head, my other holds small bottom. His breaths double inside mine, his heartbeats hushed but here, our silence drowning all that once deafened. We are pooled in the sun of a beach we will one day run. His tiny hand splays across the smallest acre of me, and we are quiet inside all the loud that surrounds.