It had been a very unspecial day. A draggy morning. Too warm. A misty rain. High humidity. None of us feeling perky.
The bright spot of the morning had been arguing over the cover of the issue. Sy called from his office, “Hey! Want to come in here and fight with me and Prissy about the cover?” It was welcome relief from my own case of the blahs, the kind I get whenever I sleep more than 6 or 7 hours.
When Priscilla called around 5 p.m. to say she’d been having contractions — strong ones — Sy and I tried to keep this information from becoming what-we’d-been-waiting-for.
The week before, we’d rushed home when Pris called to say she was having contractions (more false labor) with an eagerness that made Pris laugh. But everyone’s eagerness, including her own, had become tiresome for her these past few days, so we all pretended not to be eager. I stayed at my desk instead of leaping into the air, jumping up and down and making squealing noises the way I had last week when she’d called.
“This is your last chance,” Sy told her. “What do you want me to bring home? Pickles?”
“An ice cream sundae,” she said.
Whether this was the day or not, just buying ice cream for Priscilla made it a special day, sugar being right up there with the worst on the Safransky list of “don’ts.”
The ice cream had mostly melted by the time we got home. On the drive, Sy bravely refused to eat the melted overflow, giving it to me instead. “Sugar makes me feel imbalanced and this is the wrong time to be imbalanced,” he said, his tone facetious and serious at once.
He was not bouncing in his seat, but I could feel jokes rising in him the way they do when his mood is peaking into unquestionable glee and pleasure with life.
When we arrived, Mara ran to the door with her hello’s; Pris was curled up on the bed watching Andy Griffith and Barney Fife try to talk a hillbilly into getting a tetanus shot from an attractive nurse Andy had the hots for. Sy gave Mara and Priscilla their ice cream and we sat there with the certainty that had crept into the day that this was, indeed, the day.
Priscilla’s smiles were long and calm and beautiful. Sy began to tell funny stories, his voice rising in pitch, his story about childhood birthday parties funny indeed, coaxing laughter from Priscilla and me.
Sy: “Well come on, Prisseeeeeee, have you had another contraction?” Priscilla smiled languidly, looked at the clock, said she was “unsure.”
Sy’s excitement spilled slowly into rich release. He looked at Priscilla, loving her, proud of her, his happiness in this moment making him loveably ridiculous (his eyes and voice full of curly laughter, he leered love at her, teasing her with words of endearment: “Prissy, you creep, this better be it!”).
Her subdued teasing and his overt teasing had a calming effect on me little else could. My idea of the oncoming labor, despite glowing reports by friends who’d been through it, was still one of pain. Controlled pain, but still pain, and I was having a hard time sharing Priscilla’s calm, even though all I was to do was care for Mara.
At 6:00 p.m., the contractions were 5 minutes apart and 45 seconds long. By 10:30 p.m. when Steve and I came back with our pillows, books to read through the night, apple butter and biscuits, the contractions were no closer together but getting stronger.
When I put the food on a table in the bedroom, Sy moved it to the living room, his excitement obviously having transformed itself into practical forethought about immediate preparations. He explained politely, “this table is for birth stuff.”
Vicki arrived when we did, and the four of us sat around Priscilla on the bed, talking in whispers so as not to wake Mara in the next room. Pris was in long underwear, wearing her hair down, looking very unlike someone who was about to go into labor. She’d close her eyes when contractions came, and Sy would rub her back, but other than that, I’d never have suspected she’d be giving birth to a child in three hours.
Sy began reading aloud from the Guinness Book of World Records to entertain himself and us: “There was a woman in Russia who had 69 children.”
Sy and Priscilla’s mood was much lighter than mine, or seemed so. I was excited, a little nervous, and, as a woman, relieved to see another woman having contractions, not dying but seeming only mildly uncomfortable.
By 11:15 p.m., Vicki had left, Steve and I had arranged sleeping spaces in the living room, and Cedar and Stephen Koons and their sleepy little girl Woodwind had arrived, checked on Priscilla’s condition and gone to bed themselves in their van.
I was too excited to get to sleep, but Steve was soundly asleep on the floor. I had to go outdoors to pee twice in the fitful half-sleep between 11:30 and 1 a.m., squatting near Sy and Pris’s bedroom window, feeling a tenderness for both of them in there, probably awake, oblivious of this night of quiet misting rain outside their window, and me squatting, feeling the pleasant warmth of urination and of the warmth of the two of them as father and mother giving birth.
Soon after my second trip outdoors and getting resettled on the sofa and reprogrammed for sleeping, I thought I heard Steve snoring. Or breathing the way he does when he has a cold. It was rhythmic, and got louder, and wasn’t Steve, but Pris.
At 1:15 a.m., the bedroom door swung open abruptly and Sy said, “Get Cedar now.”
By the time Cedar and Stephen got inside the bedroom, Priscilla’s cries were clearly audible, sounding almost like chants, long, deep, steady aaaaaAAAAAHHHHHHHHH’s.
I sat up, feeling alone, my heartbeat speeding up with excitement, apprehension, anticipation and a little fear of the unknown as Pris’s exhalations got louder. I wondered how Steve could sleep through this. I thought about waking him.
The next cry did. He sat up, for a moment looking confused, as if he had no idea why he was asleep on someone’s living room floor. We could see each other’s eyes in the dark, and felt like children together, naive and ignorant, not at all familiar with this sound that was breaking the silence, a sound unlike a speaking voice with intentions of speaking to someone; this was a cry to one’s self, a raw naked sound that seemed to start from deep inside and move out, booming, bursting energy breaking sound barriers within her, echoing in every room, a sound that didn’t scare me the way I’d imagined it would. There was a sense of competence in the full-bodied energy riding her voice, the competence of a natural order, a powerful sound in this quiet night, not frightening at all.
Steve and I listened, motionless, feeling invisibly captive, obedient to whatever drama was going on in the next room and this energy that seemed to be inside and outside of Priscilla, energy sweeping over her, obsessing her, creating almost a tone of surprise in her cries, as she rode through the contractions, her focus exploding and releasing through her voice.
Soon we heard a different cry join Priscilla’s, that of a frightened young child awakened in the night — our cue to get up, to come inside. The bedroom door swung open wide at that moment, and Cedar gave us a simple, direct order, “Take care of Mara,” a relief for us to awaken from our motionlessness in the living room dark.
Fumbling for Mara in the dark of her bedroom. She was out of her bed. Fumbling for the light switch, feeling calm inwardly, realizing I was trembling outwardly, with excitement. Hands closing around Mara’s soft head, her cheeks hot with tears, I carried her into the kitchen. We sat on the kitchen floor and Steve and I tried to soothe her. She was not soothed by all my old standbys: “Juice? Want juice? Nuts????” She shook her head, still crying; she could hear her mother’s cries, wanted to go into the other room. Steve held her and I went into the bedroom, feeling hesitant about distracting Sy as he knelt by Priscilla who was on her side; there was water or liquid of some kind all over the bed. He said no, don’t bring her in yet, but I had been back in the kitchen a mere minute before Cedar’s voice reached us: “Bring Mara NOW.”
Steve and Mara and I, the only ones untouched by the childbirth experience except for our own, came in quietly and knelt by the bed on the floor, and the magic of this moment welcomed us, telling us not to be afraid. All was silent, the dissolution of time began for me, leaving only Priscilla, on her hands and knees, her head bent down between her arms, her body that of an animal mother, straining and strong, ripe with the same distended quality of the moment, a continual pushing, the rhythms of nature giving birth to itself, and in its silence Priscilla’s motherhood becoming magically real, in our full presences, gathered round, able to see, in a perfect illumination provided by the light above the bed, the face of this child emerging from her flesh, eyelids flickering with consciousness, small mouth opening with breath, the rest of the body from the neck down still inside Priscilla.
In those moments, I understood that this child was one of us, we were all her parents, in service to her, a part of her existence as she was a part of ours, no less intimately intertwined with our lives than with her parents.
It was Mara who spoke to the child first, her eyes large and full of her own young comprehension, breaking the silence with one soft word out of her hundred word vocabulary: baby.
I felt us united behind Mara’s simple welcome to this child, honoring the rite of passage, an arrival from whatever world comes before this one.
At a quarter of two, Priscilla gave another push, and the rest of the baby slipped out into Stephen’s waiting hands.
The beauty of Priscilla’s graceful transition from the inner concentration of labor to the open heart of a mother’s selfless absorption in her newborn: Still on her knees, long hair hanging round her naked body, streaked with blood from the waist down, her beautiful head turning, weakly now, her voice raw with emotion as she spoke to her baby for the first time — my baby — her eyes, her touch, her voice enveloping the child. She turns slowly, and lays back on the bed beside her child, her body quietly trembling with exhaustion, her skin soft and warm, her mother scent filling the air: the smell of opened flesh, naked spirit.