ArtWrite 9/27: Rebecca Brodskis
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
During the final weeks of my first pregnancy, I felt like I was stuck at an airport gate waiting to board a delayed flight to an exotic destination. Life was on hold. Nothing I did counted, not the food I ate, the movies I saw, the books I read, or the conversations I had.
In my mind, my due date was September 1. The fact is, my midwife had told me it was September 15 and that the baby could arrive two weeks before or two weeks after the date. But I heard what I wanted to hear.
When Princess Diana died on August 31, I gorged on the news coverage. Montages of Diana from plump apple-cheeked nanny to statuesque princess to doting mother were initially a great distraction. But after a few days of watching the same footage of Diana and Dodi’s car being chased by paparazzi as it left the Ritz Hotel, I was back to the excruciating experience of waiting.
The baby’s room had been ready for weeks. My nesting instincts, fueled by the love of decorating that I inherited from my mother, had consumed me over the summer. By September, I was floating in and out of the baby’s room like a silhouette of the mother I was to become. I admired the baby quilt I had sewn. I re-tied the grosgrain ribbons that attached the bunting to the crib rails. I moved around the books and toys on the shelves, propping up a drooping stuffed moose by leaning it against a pyramid of vintage alphabet blocks. Every object in the room felt static and desperate for animation that only the baby could provide.
Each morning I would open my eyes, and the realization that I was still pregnant would signal the same hollowness I’d felt waking up in the days following the death of my dad 9 years earlier. I was about to have a baby but felt bereft. By the fourth week, I began to wonder if nature had tricked me, if the baby would never come.
My mother was not as optimistic as I was about the baby arriving early and arrived on September 15, the date my midwife had given me. She was there to help, but her presence only amplified the absence of the baby. When she accompanied me to check-ups, I was bitchy and impatient because I was so desperate to dilate. Driving home from appointments, I became irrationally angry at her because there was nothing she could do to make the baby come faster.
As my mom’s stay extended into its second week, having her around became increasingly unbearable. I resented her need for attention because it distracted me from trying to will the baby to emerge. She liked to be fawned over, to be offered tea, to have the right table in restaurants. My husband knew just how to play up to her. In the evening, when he would bring her a glass of wine, her supercilious “Thank you, Bruce” would make me cringe because it sounded more like approval than gratitude, but it didn’t bother him.
At least my body got a break from being the subject of her scrutiny. I had been at one of my lowest weights ever when I got pregnant and had exercised throughout the pregnancy. I loved that I never had to suck in my stomach and was enjoying a rare experience of feeling good about my body. My arms and legs looked strong, and I knew my mother was satisfied with how I looked. For the first time in years, food and weight were not a tacit or explicit source of tension between us.
Seeing my mom’s palpable excitement about the baby gave me real pleasure. This would be her first grandchild and I think because she was a widow, it meant even more to her. Although I was crabby and impatient, I do have one lovely memory of my mom from that interminable visit. It was a sunny morning, and light flooded our Chicago loft, warming the brick walls. My mom told me to bring her all of the baby’s brand new onesies because she wanted to iron the labels sewn into the collars. “When you were born, I hired a baby nurse, and that’s what she did.”
She handled each cotton undershirt as if it were tissue paper. The edges of the Carters labels curved like tiny toboggans, and my mom focused the tip of the iron on the unruly tags, moving it slowly back and forth as if she were soothing her unborn grandchild.
Everything about this memory is precious to me: my mother’s nascent grandmaternal feelings, her respect for the baby nurse’s experience, the tenderness she brought to such a seemingly mundane task, and most of all, the fact that the memory was about me. My mother wasn’t nostalgic; I wasn’t used to hearing her recount stories from my childhood, let alone my infancy. In fact, I’d always assumed she didn’t remember much about my birth. My older sister’s baby book was filled with my mother’s handwriting, while the entries in mine fizzled out after a few months. The onesies were a bridge to how my mother felt waiting for me to born: expectant and primed to lavish her unborn child with love.
On September 24, my midwife phoned to tell me that my amniotic fluid levels had dropped; she wanted me to check into the hospital the next day to be induced. I immediately asked if there were any chance the baby would be born on Saturday because the 27th was Bruce’s birthday and the anniversary of my dad’s death. No, she assured me. I’d be induced on Thursday evening, and I’d have my baby by Friday.
Thursday night, as most of America tuned into a live broadcast of ER, my own hospital drama began. I received a shot of Pitocin and waited for the contractions.
Twenty-four hours later, my labor still wasn’t progressing. I lost all sense of time, but at some point, the baby’s heart rate began to drop. Although I had spent nine months considering how everything I put in my body would affect the fetus, the connection between us took on a new magnitude. My anxiety was robbing my baby of oxygen; his life was truly tethered to mine, and I was terrified. A nurse gave me an oxygen mask, and even when the baby’s heart rate normalized, I refused to take it off.
After hours of fruitless pushing, an obstetrician supplanted my midwife, examined me, and ordered a nurse to get the vacuum. The word “suction” and an image of a toilet plunger flashed in my mind, marring the crunchy vision I’d had of natural childbirth. I didn’t care as long as they got the baby out. Fuck Bradley classes and notions of a birth plan. All of that now seemed like the frivolous fantasies of privileged women who had no idea what the hell they were in for.
As the nurses hooked me up, I closed my eyes, determined not to look at the brutal machine. I tried to focus on breathing through the awkward plastic mask; it calmed me to imagine it delivering a smooth flow of oxygen to my baby. Bruce held my hand and whispered encouraging words, but I couldn’t ignore the mounting tension and concern in everyone’s voices. Eventually, someone announced that the motor on the vacuum was not working properly, and I lost it. I began to wail uncontrollably, convinced that my nightmare was going to end in a tragedy that I couldn’t name but to which I seemed destined.
By that point, the baby had finally descended, and the doctor’s tone shifted from no-nonsense to encouraging. I only needed to push just a little more, he assured me. The baby was close. Depleted, frantic, and hopeless, I fixated on the notion of a C-section, how easy it would be to cut me open and remove the baby.
“No,” I refused. “I am done pushing.”
My midwife was incredulous. She tried to convince me how close I was, but the doctor, either because he believed me or because he didn’t want to waste any more time, ordered the nurses to prepare the operating room.
My mother was there for all of it. Except for when she was charming the nurses in the exaggerated, flirtatious manner that got under my skin when I watched her interact with people in stores, she initially seemed out of place in the drab room. She wasn’t the type to fluff pillows to make people comfortable; she did it to make beds look photo ready. In a hospital, she couldn’t be the center of attention unless she was the patient. There was no place for her emotions; she couldn’t make scenes or complain.
However, as one crisis had followed another, I was truly grateful to have her there. Her demeanor was uncharacteristically calm, and she maintained a sturdiness that I’d never before witnessed. She never lost her cool, continually assured me that everything would be okay, and was shockingly unflinching when I excreted shit as I pushed. As I became increasingly consumed by fear, it was her face, and not Bruce’s, that I turned to for reassurance.
I didn’t find out until later that when the vacuum motor had made only futile grinding sounds, my mother had briefly fled the room. She found some private space where she promised a God she’d never prayed to before that if the baby and I survived, she’d make a donation to the hospital.
Bruce and I had agreed that we’d name the baby after my father. William for a boy, and Billie for a girl. On September 27, 1997, Willie was delivered by C-section, and a few weeks later, my mom wrote a check to the hospital.
I was in my my last year of college when my father was diagnosed with a rare stomach cancer. The night before he died, he asked my mother to go to the deli around the corner to get him a chocolate chip cookie. He had not eaten anything for a few days, and when he took a few tiny bites, my mother was elated to give him this small pleasure.
A hospital bed was scheduled to be delivered the following day, but my father never slept in it. On the morning of September 27, 1988, he passed away in his sleep, with my mother at his side.
I don’t believe that the convergence of these life cycle events on September 27 is a coincidence; coincidence is a word that was invented to allay people’s discomfort with the idea that larger forces are at work in life. I believe my son was meant to be born on that day, and that’s why my labor had been so protracted.
I am also hesitant not to extract too much meaning from the convergence. When I married Bruce, I knew I was not marrying my father, and I also didn’t see my son as my dad’s reincarnation.
My father’s nickname as a boy had been Bill, and when I overheard one of the nurses refer to my baby as Billy, it immediately made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want my son to be overburdened with the connection to his grandfather, and as much as I loved my father, he was not the person I wanted my child to become. So, from that point on, we called him Willie.