Monday, September 16, 2013

The Prouder Fox

TW: You might not want to read this story if you are currently pregnant or have recently suffered a loss: there are some intense images and content.

This is what I remember: Wendy went into labor on Saturday night. I had seen her just a few hours prior at PF Changs for Israel’s birthday and although she was surging away the entire time, she was feisty and hilarious as usual. She told us how she had changed the words of a primary song to “I know that my mother loves me.” Laurel predicted that Wendy would go into labor that night: “Did you see the way she was walking?” Sure enough, the text I’d been waiting for since week 39 came around 3 AM. I thought about going back to sleep, but once the idea was in my brain that Wendy’s baby was on its way into the world I didn’t want to be anywhere else but at Casa Rush. Mary and I dressed quickly and made our way in the dark of the night up to Orem. On the way we talked about how excited we were. I recognize that I went into this experience with a lot of my own hopes and expectations projected onto Wendy. I was hoping that Wendy would experience something powerful enough to vanquish any self-loathing she felt about her body. I wanted her to feel the support and love that she had desired at her previous births and not felt. I wanted her to experience healing in whatever form it took. More than healing from her birth trauma, I hoped that the birth would resolve some pain she carries from family dynamics and strengthen her relationships with her husband and other loved ones. I wanted her to have all the attention that day. I wanted her to arise victorious, amazed at her own strength, I wished for an ineffably sweet greeting of baby in the birthing tub. I also wanted her to overcome the patriarchy and self-actualize as a human being, all in the span of a few hours. There was a lot riding on this birth! I know many others in attendance also carried hopes for Wendy. There were women who were not there who lit candles for her and sent her good energy and thoughts. She is so loved, I know that.

When we arrived at the Rush home, the energy was light and happy, almost giddy. Everyone was so excited that Baby Rush was finally on the way. Sarah had set out a sumptuous feast and the pieces from Wendy’s alter at her blessingway were set up as well as the birth tub. Their home was clean and perfect. Mary and I greeted Richelle and Kayte B, who had just come from another birth, and Laura, Jenny, and Laurel were there too. We could hear Wendy moaning through surges; in a few minutes she staggered out to examine the doula feast and greet all of us. She was wearing a fierce bikini top and we told her she looked like a sexy jungle woman. She had a few surges on the birthing ball and remarked how good the ball felt compared to the bed: “The bed is evil!” she warned us. “Worst ever!” Her surges seemed strong but she was fearless. She knew exactly what she wanted and instructed everyone. When each surge came four or five of us flocked around her applying pressure and light touch with dancing fingers. We played with her hair and rubbed her hands and feet. Wendy said she had felt relief when she realized she was actually starting her birthing time and wasn’t going to be pregnant forever. She was sassy and quick between her surges and we were joking and cracking up. Eventually Wendy suggested that she try to get some rest until the surges moved closer together and sent everyone to get some sleep. Dave, Jenny, Laura and Laurel stayed with her until the morning. I curled up on the floor under a “hideous blanket” and slept for about four hours while Mary slept next to me on the couch. Every once in awhile we could hear Wendy yelling “I hate the bed!” and moaning through surges.

I remember waking up in the cold pale light and feeling so excited. I climbed onto the Rushs’ bed with the group of people gathered in that room. Laurel told me that she and Dave had made a Wendy sandwich during the night and we joked that this was a new service she should offer to all her doula clients. Wendy was in bed looking a little weary and was using her vibrator during surges (like a boss!) She said that she had been able to rest a little; that surges had slowed down but were taking a lot of effort to get through. She said firmly, “I’ve done all of this myself. I haven’t had any checks…I’m completely untouched. I’m doing everything I wanted to do!” I think it had been a dark night of the soul for Wendy. She was still steady, but there was something more childlike and bewildered in her face. I crawled behind her and held her through a few contractions as she moaned and rocked. I thought, my friend my friend, I’m with you, I love you. Richelle suggested that she start moving around to get the surges to come harder and said “Let’s go have a baby!” so we left the bed and returned to the living room. We didn’t have any reason, then, to think she wasn’t close. It wasn’t fair to her, that we thought that, and said things to that effect, but we didn’t know, we didn’t know.   

Wendy’s movements were so painfully familiar to me, her tentative steps and arms reaching softly for Dave, for her mother. Like if she moved too quickly the surge would roar up and tear her apart. I remembered during my son’s birth feeling like I was too far away from the floor and would shatter and fall unless someone held onto me. Even though I wasn’t experiencing Wendy’s surges as Laura seemed to be, there was a dull ache in my body from the memory. I wished I could share them and take some of the force away, soften them, but she had to bear it all, every one. The wave would crash into her and we all let out our breath so slowly, hoping it would go soon. One less to get through, one closer to the baby coming. We rocked with her, flocked to her every limb, supporting her arms, her knees, her back, tying her to the earth with our soft hands. We swayed together like a six-pointed star. We were one creature with unknowing arms and a nucleus of fire. Dave wrapped his arms around Wendy as tears slid down her face. Silent tears. I could tell that seeing this vulnerability gave him such a tender heart for her. The first time she knelt in the tub, he patted her back and said fondly, “You, you’re really tough, you know that?” He was always at her side; even in the thickest and deepest places of pain she instinctively turned her face towards him. He heard all her whispers, her hands continually searched for his.

The giddiness of the night before had stilled into a solemnity and our presence in the room became a vigil. A time came when the breaks between the surges were stretched out to minutes (later they figured this was because of the short cord and Wendy’s body struggling to get into a consistent labor pattern). During those breaks the flurry of fingers and intense words and eye contact were relaxed and Wendy rested with her face on the edge of the tub, eyes closed. She was so lovely, so far away. We were still and so present with her. The refrain in my mind was sweet lady, please let her be done soon, please let it be over soon. Later, Wendy told me that from within that silence she was re-living the anguish from her previous births. She was also conscious of frightened, panicky feelings that something was not right, but she felt paralyzed and couldn’t express that. She described it as one of the darkest times of her existence. She felt very alone, and no one could follow her there.

Richelle broke the silence and sang:

“Come, baby, come. Come, baby, come. Mommy wants to hold you, Daddy wants to name you, come, baby, come.”

It seemed like such a Richelle thing to do. I wasn’t sure how Wendy would respond from the sub-cognitive recesses of birth intensity,--would she be annoyed? but she lifted her head slightly and mumbled “Keep singing…please keep singing.” The memory of this brings tears to my eyes. In an instant we were all singing. Everyone in the room slipped into Richelle’s song and it spiraled naturally into a round and was so clear, loving, perfect. Holy tones, committed tones. I knew that in those moments, any of us in the room would have given Wendy anything. Touching wasn’t comforting her; she was beyond affirmations that were sincere but clueless, but we could sing to her and remain with her that way. I remember feeling relieved that I could at least sing, and by that act bear witness to my love for my friend, and maybe help ground her, remind her that there was something beyond the dark helplessness she was feeling. We sang to Wendy and we sang to Beckham and it was one of the most meaningful, sincere acts of my life. There was nothing casual or performance-like associated with that singing, it was about survival, it was pure soul. (Out of respect to Wendy’s atheism I wouldn’t sing the line “Daddy wants to bless you” but instead sang “Daddy wants to know you.”) Haha.

Next we sang “Rose, Rose, Rose” and how do you describe beautiful tones? I can still hear them. They swayed into and away from each other, lovely, haunting, powerful. I remembered what Wendy told us the night before about changing the words to the primary song and we sang:

“Whenever I hear the song of a bird, or look at the blue, blue sky Whenever I feel the rain on my face, or the wind as it rushes by Whenever I touch a velvet rose or walk by a lilac tree, I’m glad that I live in this beautiful world, that my mother created for me.

She gave me my eyes, that I might see the color of butterfly wings She gave me my ears that I might hear the magical sound of things She gave me my life, my mind, my heart, I thank her reverently… For all this creation of which I’m a part…yes I know that my mother loves me!”

It was one of the sweetest moments. It felt like we were describing to the baby the beauty that awaited him, as well as honoring Wendy’s gift of giving him that life. I don’t remember if it was Laurel or Laura who started singing “Homeward Bound” but it was heartbreakingly beautiful and the words crushed me. It’s a song about finding your way, coming back to who you really belong to. Jenny sang and cried as she reached over and squeezed Wendy’s shoulders; Laura was next to her, threading her fingers through Wendy’s hair. I thought, these women, what they’ve been through together! Wendy leaned against the side of the tub and sang with them, eyes closed: “Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow, set me free to find my calling, and I’ll return to you somehow…” The room was filled with longing. I was aching for Wendy. I was remembering my own losses. That song conjured up in all of us the ways we had been chained, the ways we wanted to be free. The way we wanted someone waiting when we ‘found [our] calling,’ to understand, to see us. I looked around and everyone in the room was openly weeping. I thought, “She is chained to the plow!”

Next they sang “Turn Around” and then “Lullaby and Goodnight” each of which made me cry harder and harder. The Lullaby song also seemed to deeply affect Melody Rush. When the refrain ended, she kept singing to her son, chin quivering, eyes overflowing, she sang the lullaby to her grown son who was sitting on the couch, head in his hands. “You are my darling, my Davey,” she sang. “Mama will always…take…care.” He looked up, blinking, his own eyes teary. “Thanks, Mom,” he said shakily, smiling. “I wasn’t expecting that.” She reached for him, pulled him into her arms, held him and cried. I don’t know how to describe that moment without crying myself, again. It was so poignant, horrible and beautiful, in her mind she was remembering when he was the baby, and she herself the young girl in pain and in love with her little boy, and he accepted that song as her child even though he is a father now and has his own children. We always remember. We are the same. We are so connected, just a scattering of a few years determining when we take our turns in the circle. I cried for Wendy because I was sad that she had to hurt and was discouraged, but I was so happy in that moment to be alive and to be with others who were living and reliving the deepest moments of their lives. I had chills all over my arms and I kept thinking, this is real, this is real It felt like everyone’s humanity was hanging in the air like something shimmering, we could touch it and hold it and marvel at it. It felt so good to sing to my friend, it was all I could do, no one could reach her, we made beauty ring in the air but she was still so alone.

Richelle encouraged her to talk to her baby and to her body, beg it to open. At one point Wendy puffed out her cheeks and moaned, “This is really hard.” Laura said, “Just DO it, Wendy! Get the baby out!” Wendy snapped, gritting her teeth, “I. Don’t. Know. How.” Sarah Asay brushed back Wendy’s hair, peered piercingly into her eyes, seized her face in her own hands and encouraged her to fight.

Wendy pushed out her lower lip and narrowed her eyes, like I saw her the first night I met her when she was infuriated with the government—her mouth twisted into a pout and she began to confront her surges. “Okay,” she breathed, climbing up to her knees and slowly shaking her head back and forth, trying to dispel the dizziness grounding herself. “Let me tell you somethin’…I’m gonna swear, and that’s just the way it’s gonna be. So I’m sorry if that offends anyone.” She paused, and then as the next contraction came: “You wimpy little surge, you think you’re gonna come around here, and make me hurt, and make me cry…Fuck YOU! “ She started growling through the surges. Everyone encouraged her. “Keep getting mad, Wendy!”

“Fuckin’ hurrrrts!” She bellowed. Wendy described this time later as when she became “officially pissed.” What was happening didn’t make any sense to her. It was confusing to witness; much more so for her to experience. She didn’t understand why it hurt so terribly. Why the surges weren’t getting closer together. Why she ever wanted this in the first place. Her rage and frustration erupted in cursing and pleading for help. She was calling out Goliath, calling out the Minotaur. She fought and shouted until her voice was raw and cracking.

Someone (Dave?) turned on Jonsi and numbly, bravely, Wendy threw her soul into that music. She started out rocking and singing, squeezing her eyes shut, clutching the edge of the birthing tub. She said later “I knew if I kept singing I wouldn’t lose myself.” Then she was standing. Holding her belly and lunging. Shaking her head. Singing loud. I was stunned by her beauty, power, colossal and sacrificial energy. She was in such pain. It was tearing her apart from the inside and still she stood, she sang, she danced, she dipped with her heaving belly, she stood and swayed in the tub, a being consumed with fire from within that the gentle water couldn’t touch. She appeared to me more than human in that moment. I remember thinking, who is this? This is the little girl who loved to sing, who felt second-best, and who so badly wanted something for herself. She never would have dreamed of this moment in her life. The music floated over us like soft sunlight. Outside, through the blinds, I saw the Lowe boys milling around in the front yard, eating pizza. It seemed absolutely insane that they were doing something so mundane while Wendy was dancing through her agony. I had never seen someone so completely surrendered and courageous. She held nothing back, she kept nothing for herself.

I thought of how I’d seen her at Richelle’s earlier that week when my appointment was right after hers, and she had wanted to sneak out so no one would see her crying, until she saw it was me and Jon. She seemed relieved and comforted to see us that day. I held her then and told her it must be so hard to be 41 weeks pregnant. She was wearing her blessingway necklace that day, clustered with dragons and elephants and symbols of her strength. I felt like we were friends and I had something to give her. Now I was ashamed of my empty hands, my confusion. I wanted so badly for the baby to just come, so she could rest.

At some point someone decided to let Dave and Wendy retreat to their bedroom and try to rest. Wendy asked to be checked and got the miserable news that she was dilated to around a 7. The next time I saw her was a few hours later.

She was shaking by the bathroom sink, looked up at me with dull eyes from the floor of the tub. “Have mercy,” she whispered, “have mercy.” There were no words, so far beyond fair, so far beyond control, so lost in this unrelenting labyrinth of pain. She stepped meekly and wetly and tenderly down the hall again, Dave and Richelle clasping her hands. Richelle was murmuring more firmly that it was time to have the baby and Wendy whispered something about the hospital. Dave told her no, firmly, that it was time, and she said “what about a spinal, or something?” They helped her move her exhausted, convulsing body into the tub for the last time and she started pushing, so painfully that she almost gagged. No one could have known that as the baby inched lower, the too-short cord was yanking on the placenta. It must have been excruciating, but she kept going. It was more than birth, it was more than anyone should have to experience.

 Richelle gently informed her that she was doing great but that it was going to take a little more time for the perineum to stretch—Wendy faced Richelle and asked for an episiotomy. Richelle hesitated with the scissors in her hands, stammered, “Wendy, I really think you can do this, you just need more time—“ I remember placing my hands on the chair in front of me and thinking white, short thoughts, almost bargaining not to breathe again until she was done. Please Please Please, no more. The midwife must have checked the heart rate again, but I don’t remember that. Suddenly Richelle was putting down the stethoscope and in her quiet, firm way told Wendy that she needed to get the baby here right then. Wendy pushed; I could see her bearing down with every minute muscle in her face, neck and arms visible above the water. She pushed hard, and I didn’t know it at the time but she put her hands on her own flesh and made way for her baby. That same skin that was assaulted and cut by strangers, that she wept over and had such hopes for; she did the impossible and chose to part that flesh to make way for her baby. She pushed as though she were throwing all her weight against an enormous boulder to move it out of place, and cried out this brutal scream of raw despair, and it moved, and oh God, he was there, he was there, little floppy white boy was in her arms cradled close to her aching flesh, and he was out and real and so white and limp. For a brief instant we were flooded with relief so sharp it stung. Wendy announced, voice shaking, “It’s a boy!” and there was a flutter of excitement and happiness before Richelle seized the baby and sealed her mouth over his. “Come on baby, breathe,” she muttered between breaths. What? At first I thought Richelle was just taking precautions, just in case, but he’d cry any second now and we’d all laugh and say how freaky that was and how for a minute we were worried something was actually wrong. Right? I saw Dave Rush put his hand over his mouth and the smile slowly disappeared from Wendy’s face. He wasn’t breathing?

I remember I couldn’t feel my body, was I still in my body? “Turn the fan off!” Richelle snapped at the people behind her, laying Beckham on the floor, continuing filling his little chest with air. Turn pink turn pink, turn pink, this isn’t really happening is it? This is happening. Just cry just be okay, oh baby please please be okay! For the first time that day, this felt too private to watch, and I knew I had no right to watch this, but I was paralyzed. At some point Laura ran outside and Julia followed her. My phone was buzzing with Mary demanding updates from work, and I had just texted her “It’s a boy!” and she wanted more details. The universe was spinning out of control and it felt like a scene from the Serengeti was unfolding right there in the Rushes’ living room, reminding us of what the events of the last day had been screaming at us, but I guess it still hadn’t quite sunk in—how frail, how mortal, how fragile, how precious we are.

Richelle was still methodically giving the baby breaths. Dave was sobbing into his hands and Wendy was leaning over the edge of the tub staring fixedly at her baby, speaking clearly and forcefully. “I need you to breathe. I need you to breathe for your mommy. Breathe for your mommy. Breathe for your mommy!” Crystal and I crept closer together instinctively and as soon as we touched she flung her arms around my waist and sobbed into my side. I put a tentative hand on her head, I would have stroked her hair but I couldn’t comfort her, I didn’t know what was going to happen, I had to see, before I could move at all. Dave kneeled on the floor above the little guy, begging him to breathe, holding the oxygen tube near that tiny nose, crying. Laurel lay on the floor next to the baby and called cheerfully, “Wendy, his heart is still great! Wendy, he’s pinking up. He’s a fantastic color. He’s going to be just fine. Wendy, everything’s fine, he’s just taking a second.” Sarah echoed her reassurances and I thought they must be mad to be so confident. I remember thinking wildly “HOW DO YOU KNOW!” but she was right that Beckham had turned rosy and soon he made a gargling little cry, which made my knees buckle, and opened his eyes. Ohhhhhh! Soon he was screaming. My arms came back to life and I squeezed Crystal, and Julia ran in and announced that Laura’s water had broken (not) and the room began bustling with more Lowes and fussing about getting Beckham situated. No one knew that Wendy had begun to hemorrhage, that she’d been so focused on the baby not breathing that at first she hadn’t realized she was slipping away. She said later that it was a bizarre feeling, like she might disappear completely. She was as pale as the baby had been. They moved her to the couch and cut off a piece of the placenta to place under her tongue. She chewed methodically, looking around thoughtfully, and asked for the baby to be brought to her. “I want my baby, bring me my baby,” she said quietly. I remember his sweet face and trembling lips. He was finally safe in his mother’s arms.

It seemed like a thousand crises were going on at once (they were) and everyone’s hands were full of some task or overflowing feeling. Kayte showed me how to cut up the placenta, I wanted to be helpful, but I wish now I’d told Katie Loveless to take a picture of it first. Wendy had been so excited to see it.

There was a lot of chaos in the room. There were so many tears. What happened the day Beckham was born, it shoved us out of where we were comfortable, reminded us of the things we don’t like to look at, bore witness to the fragility and wonder of life. But he lived. And although he was screaming painfully with a tight white belly, he was breathing. The next day, when they explained about the short cord, my heart broke. The blithe fairy tales I’d spun about birth melted into something wiser, stronger. It wasn’t my story to work through or pull lessons from, I’m not the one who gets to decide what it means, what Wendy did that day. I know how it makes me feel about her. I know I saw human strength that day that I’m not likely to see again. I had to process my complicity as a member of her support team, upholding a narrative that wasn’t ever possible. I felt guilty for my ignorance. I realized though that some specter of pain lay at the end of any path Wendy could have chosen that day. “It hurts—it hurts either way.” I stood with her on the path she chose, and I’m so glad I was able to be there. She was the “prouder fox” who walked free. I love you, Wendy!

An Emblem of Two Foxes (and a third fox, Beckham Fox)

Simply to breathe
can make him bleed,
the fox whose leg is trapped,
whose will awaits the kill.
Why should he flail?
Moving hurts,so he lies still.

Around him walks
a prouder fox,
his severed leg a homily
on going free,
as if to say
it hurts, it hurts either way.

(Barry Spacks)