Published on April 26th, 2022 | by Jennifer Alessi1
A Story of Two Births
After three years of fertility injections, I didn’t want any pain. I’d attended childbirth classes, glossing over the breathing techniques, focusing on the epidural. My OB, a petite, no-nonsense New York City transplant, eschewed elaborate birth plans, especially at my “advanced maternal age.” She endorsed the epidural. Beyond its sanctioned numbness, my husband and I joked, “The only plan is Dr. Chan.”
She determined I should be induced on my due date. Kiera was fully formed, and my blood pressure risky. For the past month, per Dr. Chan’s orders, I’d stopped daily at a drugstore to check my blood pressure on its public machine. Laying my arm in its cuff I’d fret: What if, during labor, a blood clot congealed and launched? It didn’t escape me that roughly seven hundred women in the US die from maternity complications each year.
I was to report to the hospital at five pm. Until then, I spent the day with my mother. We drove to Target for an air mattress should she and my husband both want to sleep in the room. I didn’t trust my feet on the escalator (How many women had miscarried, tumbling from one?), so we took the elevator instead. The twin was cheap, a fraction of the king and queen. Beaming we headed to a register, where the cashier and item scan confirmed the price was actually forty dollars more.
“But the shelf says $19.99.” My bulging stomach had been an advantage for months.
Not with her.
“No,” she stated, “it doesn’t.”
“Why don’t we check?” my mother suggested, squeezing my hand.
The cashier flicked off her register light. “Let’s go.”
“And if the shelf says $19.99, I get it for that?”
Magnanimous, a soon-to-be mother, I added, “But if the shelf says $59.99, I’ll pay it.”
I gloated over the luck of this discount.
But after a lunch out (my last meal for a while), when we got to the hospital in Glendale, it was deemed that we couldn’t use the air mattress after all. Self-inflating, it could overload an outlet. I’d called and asked permission, but I didn’t argue. Vitals taken, strapped into a gown, I reclined in a hospital bed. My husband arrived and the mood turned festive. Giddy, my mother fished tiny wine bottles from her purse. She handed one to my husband while I feigned disapproval. A few remote clicks and I found Grey’s Anatomy. What was Meredith up to? What marvel was she performing while pursued by which intern? It felt indulgent just to lounge. My first trimester, Dr. Chan had warned—because of my age and blood pressure—she might put me on bedrest. Secretly, I was pleased. No more teaching and grading, I’d binge-watch The Good Wife and Scandal. That never happened, but this would do.
Then a nurse arrived to induce me. I’d been through countless pelvic exams, prided myself on not complaining. Most recently, Dr. Chan had clicked into the room, high heels and Louis Vuitton purse, patting my knee before leaving.
This nurse thrust a hand up inside me.
“Wider,” she prodded. “Don’t clench.”
Frowning, she twisted her hand—bruising an organ? Wincing, I gripped the bed rails, desperate not to squirm. Something’s not right, I nearly cried.
But then, she was done. Tablets inserted, she withdrew her arm.
I felt my insides uncoiling back into place.
Peeling off her gloves, she counseled, “It might take a while.”
“I’ll want an epidural.”
She smiled before leaving. “Just push the call button.”
In no time, the room began to tilt. One moment, the glint of clinking Sutter Home, the next, the TV undulating.
“Turn it off,” I whimpered.
One or both leaned in. “What, honey?”
“Turn that fucking shit off.”
Someone hit the call button. No one came. Someone rushed to the nurses’ station; still no one came. The contractions, a creature, twisted my uterus, lancing its nails. I tried to breathe through them, but there was no space, no time.
My pleas died in the corridor’s stillness. An intercom cracked to life: All available…report to… White coats, stethoscopes flapping against breasts, flew down the hall, followed by a hush that felt like fear.
Eventually, a different nurse appeared, checked my vitals and dilation, then sat down beside me and took my hand. “We haven’t forgotten about you. We’re updating Dr. Chan.”
“I need an epidural. The pain is too much.”
She wiped a cloth across my brow. “Of course.” Her voice turned tight, hesitant. “There’s an emergency down the hall—a woman in labor. All doctors are needed there. It’ll just be a while.”
A while lasted four hours.
Alongside the pain, was the knowledge that another woman who’d had her last meal, her expectant day, was in trouble. I sensed there was something seriously wrong. Huddled, desperate voices ruffled the silence.
The anesthesiologist arrived—sitting me up, baring my back. And alongside the numbness (a liquid, pooling warmth), I understood, somehow, that the other mother was gone.
When the nurse returned, chin trembling, I said, “She didn’t make it?”
“I shouldn’t say.”
She glanced into the hallway then near tears answered, “An embolism. Out of nowhere.”
“Was she alone?” I needed to know that she hadn’t been alone.
“Her husband was there.”
I nodded. It mattered. And yet it didn’t matter at all.
Another check and then Dr. Chan stroked my arm. “You’re not dilated enough. And your baby’s cord is wrapped around her neck. The safest course at this point is a C-section.”
I cried then. “Anything.”
Down the hall, she drew a curtain across my waist to block the cutting. The anesthesiologist kindly slipped the oxygen mask toward my cheek when I’d begged him to let me breathe. Soon, I heard my daughter’s shrieking wail and the ding! ding! of a monitor celebrating time of birth. Her wobbly father cut the cord then lay her in my arms. As I gazed and cooed, I commanded myself, “Never forget how lucky you are.”
And for the five years since—pushing Kiera on a swing, comforting her when she cries, helping her complete a jigsaw puzzle—I haven’t forgotten. But I don’t think that’s of any consequence to the woman down the hall, or her husband. Nor does it matter that my great-grandmother died in childbirth, leaving three kids to orphanages, her last words, Oh, my poor children! The woman down the hall rages. She roars, “How dare you?” She admonishes: “You know nothing.”
So why write about it?
Because her story occurred next to mine. I can’t write about my birth story without acknowledging her death.
I imagine the white sheet cloaking her deathbed. I see myself tucking a blue sheet around Kiera’s legs, and a faceless woman draping a yellow blanket around her son’s narrow shoulders. A love so fierce must be eternal.