Dark Light


by Erin Morrison

She has always been slow to move, languidly flipping and splashing in her warm pool. Today, she’s given me a few quiet indications of her presence, but nothing definitive. Busy with my students, I push any worry into the back of my mind. Jeyna, my perky and blindly enthusiastic student teacher, chirps away about her plans for teaching Hamlet. I half listen, smiling and throwing in an “uh-huh” or a “sure” at what I hope are appropriate moments. This is, after all, the third time we’ve reviewed her unit plan, and although I am in awe of her endless energy, there are only so many times I can differentiate theme verses motif for her.

As the bell to begin fourth block rings, I feel a twitch, but I am distracted by the blinding light of the overhead projector, shining directly into my eyes. I am almost sure that she’s there. Once class is in full swing, I’m so engaged in the process of explaining John Proctor’s martyrdom that I can’t concentrate fully on her. As soon as the students are safely occupied in groups, many of them giggling over Giles Corey’s threat to “fart on” his accusers, I am able to sit down at my desk for a moment. Quieting my mind, I wait, expectant. Nothing. I will it. Nothing. The worry surfaces.

Leafing through the “Hottest Beach Bodies” issue of People magazine from 2003, I wonder if these stars still sport their toned figures all these years later? I certainly won’t be wearing a bikini anytime in the near future. Let’s be completely honest: I’m fat. Always have been and probably always will be. But, everything in my body works the way it’s supposed to, so what’s the use in comparing myself to the unattainable? Even before my first pregnancy, in my early twenties, I was rockin’ the skirted swim dress. Okay, I looked like granny at the pool, but my cottage cheese thighs were duly camouflaged.

Edward Thomas Ciravola was due eight full days ago. Eight full days! Perhaps eight full days seems like an infinitesimal amount of time in the span of human existence, but when a miniature human being is riding shotgun on your bladder, eight full days feel like a lifetime.

I was supposed to be induced on August 13, but all those women who were able to naturally go into labor—la dee frickin’ da—were filling the rooms on the damn maternity floor. Instead, I had to wait until morning.

After hours of “labor” (no contractions worse than a mild menstrual cramp), the obstetrician on duty decided it was time to break my water. Unfortunately, my birthing classes hadn’t warned me that my uterus was going to be attacked with a crochet hook. After indulging in a warm and sticky bath of amniotic fluid, I was looking forward to the speedy delivery of my precious baby boy. Unfortunately, Eddie was stubborn even before birth. Instead of heading towards the light, Eddie climbed the umbilical cord like a jock in gym class.

Meanwhile, my hubby munched on trail mix and nectarines while I looked on enviously, having been forbidden from eating during “labor.” I was still pregnant and hadn’t had a bite to eat since seven-thirty that morning. I would have killed for a Snickers, but, instead, I continued my endless games of solitaire, rocking myself numb in the “birthing suite’s” vinyl-covered glider and dreaming that the spades were transforming into chocolate kisses.

I was still endlessly rocking, playing solitaire, and willing my son to make his grand entrance into the world at nine p.m., twelve hours after my induction began. Dr. Sena peeked her head in to check on my progress. “You’re far too comfortable,” she commented.

“Great,” I thought, “this kid is staying in forever.” But I was wrong.

At eleven-thirty, an alarm rang out from the machine monitoring my belly. We weren’t worried. The belt strapped around my bulging waist had probably slipped out of alignment. A nurse immediately arrived, a smile plastered across her face. Reassuring. What wasn’t reassuring was when that smile flattened and her brow furrowed. “Get in bed,” she ordered.

As I hefted my enormous girth onto the bed, I was growing anxious. Dr. Sena rushed into the room and over to the monitor. “Don’t worry,” she said. I immediately begin to relax. “We can have him out in five minutes. He’ll be okay.” Never mind.

My body convulsed with panic. And, of course, with panic comes the urge to pee. Ten months. Ten months he’d made his cozy home inside of me: nauseating me, prodding my ribs, constricting my diaphragm, kicking me awake in the middle of the night, amazing me. And, this was the conclusion of our journey together? Me, strapped to a gurney, being rushed towards the operating room, quaking with fear and twisting my legs in the hope of stopping myself from pissing all over the bed.

The nurse disentangled my fingers from my husband’s. I had been clinging to him for dear life. Apparently, it was incredibly important that he don little paper booties over his shoes while the anesthesiologist jammed a six-inch-long needle directly into my spine.

When the cutting began, I was out of my mind with worry. Too bad I hadn’t taken the time to notice that no one else in the room seemed worried. It was after midnight and the operating room radio was blaring the worst possible music to be born to: The Black Eyed Peas’ “Don’t Phunk with my Heart” and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” The nurses were giggling and chatting in the background, and the atmosphere was laid back. But I was completely in my head, desperate to hear that first cry.

My husband had finally been allowed into the room and was sitting by my head, attempting to hold one of my hands that had been strapped down to the operating table.

“You’re going to feel some pressure,” Dr. Sena informed me in her soothing Cajun accent. Understatement of the year. Dr. Sena pressed all of her weight directly onto my sternum, apparently pushing baby Eddie off of the cord he’d been clinging to for the past few weeks. Just when I thought I would pass out from lack of oxygen, Dr. Sena called to my hubby, “You’re about to meet your baby.” Bill stood up to see our son arrive into the world with comforting screams.

As they whisked Eddie away to be assessed and cleaned, Bill sat down next to me, looked lovingly into my eyes, and revealed, “I just saw all sorts of your guts.”

Meanwhile, I had yet to see my handsome boy. As Dr. Sena was sewing me closed, she reassured me, “You have a healthy baby boy. And, your incision is very low. When it heals, you will be able to wear a bikini.” Seriously? This coming from a woman who, at forty, weighs all of 120 pounds, has skin like the smoothest caramel, and appears to have been a runner-up in the Miss America pageant.

“Doc, I wasn’t wearing a bikini before I was pregnant, and I’m definitely not going to be wearing one now.”

Called over to the bassinet, Bill had just been handed a squirming bundle of blankets. He carried Eddie towards me for my first glimpse of my son. There he was: beautiful, perfect, dozing, and rooting like a champ. As my nose nuzzled into his downy soft skin, I knew that I was a mother.

My mother pokes me to gain my attention. While I’ve been lost in thought, we’ve been summoned. Standing is going to take a concerted effort on my part. Turning my body to the right, I brace myself against the wooden arm of the chair, lean my torso forward, and perform an extremely awkward mock push-up. As I perform this ungraceful maneuver, I notice the lovely rolls of bloated ankle fat hanging over the top of my Duck boots. I suppose Duck boots are appropriate footwear, as I am certainly waddling with great aplomb. As Mom and I follow the nurse through the maze of hallways towards the “pee-in-a-cup, blood pressure, and weight check” room, I feel something. It’s the tiniest of hellos, but it’s something.

I’m pregnant. This is supposed
to be the only time in my life
when I can eat whatever I want
and not be judged for it.

“How you feeling?” Nurse Ramos asks with a sincere smile.

“Decent, besides the constant urination—I’d say I’m up four to five times a night fumbling around in the dark looking for the toilet—and the cankles, of course. Oh, I’m also strangely addicted to eating fresh strawberries. Unfortunately, it’s the end of February, so they’re not easy to find. And, I’m also suffering from some horrendous heartburn. I’ve had a few bouts of gas which have left me completely incapacitated, rolling around on my bed in agony for several hours at a time. Other than that, fine. Yeah, fine,” I summarize.

“Alright, then. Your urine dip looks good, and your blood pressure is normal. Perhaps the weight is a bit on the high side?”

As if my chubbiness is something that has eluded my attention all these years. For the love of all that is holy, I have a mirror and a scale! I try not to use them too often, but I have them.

“Well…If I’m being honest, I have been indulging in a brownie sundae every day,” I confess. “But the baby wants it. She loves it.” I’m blaming the baby. Okay, that’s not too horrible. She’ll never know, right?

I’m pregnant. This is supposed to be the only time in my life when I can eat whatever I want and not be judged for it. Jesus, for the first four months of this pregnancy I threw up at least once a day. Couldn’t eat anything but dry Cheerios (not even Honey Nut) and plain mashed potatoes. Don’t I deserve to have a little dessert without being chastised?

“No. I don’t think that is very wise,” says Nurse Ramos.

“Maybe you should cut down a bit. How about, instead of a whole brownie, you have an eighth of a brownie?”

I would like to viciously slap the smile off that judgmental little face of hers, but I resist. Who the hell eats an eighth of a brownie? That’s not even a bite! Oh, right, skinny bitches eat an eighth of a brownie. I will see her smile and raise her two brownie sundaes when I get home today.

Who makes these tiny paper medical gowns? This “sheet” barely covers my lap and sure as hell doesn’t shield my enormous behind. Maybe if I shift it to the left? Nope, right cheek totally exposed. Okay, maybe I’ll tuck it beneath my beach ball of a belly to cover the bits and pieces. But, what’s the use? As I learned during my first pregnancy, there is absolutely no use in having any dignity when it comes to the lady parts. Everyone and the nurse down the hall is gonna have a look-see, so get over it, Liz.

“Want to go to Wendy’s after the appointment?” Mom says. “They have these delicious grilled chicken salads with dried cranberries.”

I see she has quickly found her angle on the weight issue. Get Liz to eat a salad, that’ll solve everything. “Sure, Mom. Wendy’s sounds great,” I concede. Followed by a delectable, syrup-covered brownie sundae. Hooray!

Just as I plot my delicious scheme for the evening, Dr. Trey enters. After my somewhat traumatic birthing experience with Eddie, I left Dr. Sena’s corporate practice for a smaller, more personal obstetrician. The nail in the coffin of my treatment with Dr. Sena came when, during my first appointment immediately after the positive test for this pregnancy, she encouraged me to schedule a C-section. She didn’t even want to discuss the possibility of my delivering this baby vaginally. Well, excuse me for wanting to avoid another gaping wound in my abdomen, but I believe babies used to be born without an operating room.

Dr. Trey is a full-on Birkenstock-sporting, “Don’t call me doctor, call me Stacey”-saying, non-makeup wearing, sending-the-baby-good-vibes-through the laying-on-of-hands hippie. It’s just her, two nurse practitioner midwives, two nurses, an ultrasound tech, and a receptionist. She doesn’t seem quite as on top of things as Dr. Sena, but she remembers my name every time I come in for an appointment.

“How are we all today?” she sings.

“Hi, Dr. Trey. I’m wondering…”

“Oh, no. Stacey,” she interrupts

“Okay, Stacey. I’m wondering if we can talk about VBAC[1]Vaginal birth after cesarean today? I really don’t want to be strapped down to a table this time around. I want to do it the old-fashioned way.”

“So, you want to attempt a VBAC without any epidural or anesthesia. Sounds like a wonderfully natural…”

“Oh, hell no, Doc! Drug me up. I’ll take the epidural now if you’ve got one hanging around.”

“You’re so funny, Liz. Let’s have you lie back and have a listen to your baby girl.” She beckons me to scoot forward.

Squeezing a giant dollop of jelly onto the top of the Doppler wand, Dr. Trey simultaneously adjusts the volume on the device. Being that I’m thirty weeks along, I’ve been hearing baby’s heartbeat for eighteen weeks. This is nothing new to me, but it is Grammy’s (my mom’s preferred moniker since Eddie’s birth) first time hearing the heartbeat of her only granddaughter.

At eighteen weeks along, Bill and I met Janice, the office ultrasound tech. She was a bit brusque, but I was too excited about seeing our little one dancing on the high-def to care about her attitude. As long as she does her job and shows me my babe, I don’t care if she’s Stalin.

Uncovering my swollen belly, I wonder what we’ll discover. If I could have taken a pregnancy test that would have turned either blue or pink, there’s no question that I would have done so. But, since that doesn’t exist, I’d been waiting anxiously for this day.

We’d been preparing Eddie for the arrival of his sibling. Following the advice of several parenting books, we bought him a doll. He immediately proceeded to play “crusher,” using the doll’s solid plastic skull to whack piles of Matchbox cars. Many of the books suggested we bring him along to the ultrasound. But we figured that, because he was just two at the time, Eddie wouldn’t appreciate the pictures, which tend to look like poorly done spin art. So, he stayed at home with Grammy, eating Goldfish crackers and watching “Curious George.”

Billy was sitting on a stool next to me in the darkened room. We attempted to differentiate between a spleen and a liver…or was it an arm and a liver? Who can tell? All of it looks like an inkblot test.

“Do you want to know the gender?” Janice asks in a bored tone.

I desperately wanted a daughter and, when we were told that Eddie was a boy, I had a mild panic attack. I am an only child, which means no brothers. What the hell do I know about raising a boy? The first time I opened my newborn’s diaper to discover an erection, I nearly had a coronary. “My baby is a pervert!” I despaired. I ran to my bible, What to Expect the First Year, and was thrilled to discover that my two-week-old was perfectly normal. Hey, we figured it out as we went along.

“YES!” I reply, a little less than bored.

“It’s a girl,” she informs us, still bored.

Bill and I looked at each other, astonished.

I began to celebrate, but quickly stopped myself. “Wait! How sure are you? ‘Cause I had a friend who was told she was having a girl and decorated the nursery in pink and bought a whole bunch of frilly little lacy outfits. Then, guess what? Baby girl is born with a penis.”

“I’m about one hundred percent sure that your daughter has a vagina,” Janice responds, still bored.

I had almost forgotten that there was any other purpose to this ultrasound than determining gender, but Janice continued swooping the wand around my stomach and clicking pictures.

“Everything looks good,” Janice said. “Dr. Trey will contact you if she sees anything of concern.”

When a week went by without a phone call, my fears were allayed.

“Okay, loud and clear. A strong one forty beats per…” Dr. Trey stops. Her smiley, happy demeanor turns serious.

“Is something wrong…”

“Shhhh…” Dr. Trey demands. “I need to listen.”

Even to my completely untrained ear, I realize that something isn’t right. Baby girl’s heart rate is dropping significantly. I hold my breath and stay as still as possible, hoping that I can will baby girl to wake up from her obvious slumber and quiet Dr. Trey’s concerns. She just needs to wake up and move around so that her heart rate will return to normal, then all of this will be a silly memory, and we can make plans for a VBAC.

Removing the Doppler from my belly, Dr. Trey has made a decision. “Okay, I’m a little concerned about the baby’s heart rate. In-utero, the baby should have a heart rate around one forty beats per minute. That is what I heard when I first placed the Doppler. However, your baby seems to be having trouble maintaining this rate. Her rate is dropping down to eighty-five. I’m going to go ahead and send you to General for some further tests. It’s probably nothing. Ninety-five percent of the time, we send someone over to the hospital just to be told that we were worried over nothing…”

It’s right after she says the word “worried” that I stop hearing. I’m trying to listen, but I can’t hear. The blood is pounding in my ears. My breath quickens, and I can’t seem to swallow the giant lump in my throat. I attempt to calm myself by repeating “ninety-five percent of the time it’s nothing,” but it doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps because something else is screaming in my head, and it isn’t a voice I can silence. It’s my motherly intuition.

It’s just my luck that one of my former students is working the counter at the lobby café, and I have been instructed to “eat a sugary snack” to give baby girl an energy boost. And, once again, it’s just my luck that I don’t have the faintest clue as to this kid’s name. I recognize the face, which is wearing a big ol’ “I recognize you, Mrs. Ciravola, and I’m gonna want to talk to you all about my post-high-school adventures in food service” smile. Most days I would love to hear all about what night school my former student is attending while making panini sandwiches during the day, but this isn’t one of them. Hence…

“Hi, I used to be your teacher, right? Is that a blueberry muffin? I’ll take it and a bottle of apple juice,” I snap. The poor kid’s face drops as he grabs the order and rings me up. “Great to see you, kid. Hope everything is going well,” I rush through the transaction. I need to get to the obstetrics triage and find out what is happening.

Mom in tow, I’m shoveling the muffin and guzzling the juice in the desperate hope that this will be the solution to the problem. My fellow elevator travelers are eyeing me as if I am a binge eater unashamed to gorge myself in front of complete strangers. I wonder if my shaming “teacher look” will work on them?

As the bell tolls (all right, the noise that indicates that the elevator door is about to open), I start to shake. Wobbling through reception, I’m directed down the hall to the right.

As we enter triage, a bleached-blonde nurse with unattended roots welcomes us with a grimace. “Name? Age? Insurance number? Social Security number? Obstetrician’s name? Height? Weight? Number of pregnancies? Number of living children? Complete sexual history?” she peppers me.

Damn. I can barely remember my name between my frayed nerves, shaking hands, and the baby dancing joyfully on my apple juice-full bladder. By the way, the sugar boost has done the trick. Baby girl is somersaulting and cartwheeling, using my bladder as a trampoline. “Can I use the bathroom before I get naked for you?” I attempt some humor after being grilled.

“Please make it quick. We need to get you hooked up,” she replies, not even a hint of a smile.

Hovering (the last thing I need right now is to worry about catching something from the triage bathroom, despite what my eighth grade health teacher assured us about toilet seats and disease), I’m hoping that the heart rate drop at Dr. Trey’s office was a freak occurrence. Based on baby girl’s current aerobic routine, she must have been sleeping at the doctor’s office. What should I make for dinner tonight? I live only five minutes from the hospital, so if I can get this done quickly, I could walk in the door by five-thirty and get dinner on the table by six. Something easy. Pasta?

After a quick flush and wash, I am ushered into a cordoned-off bed area and thrown an oversized gown. “Please remove all your clothes, and notify us when you’re ready.”

No underwear is a weird feeling for me. I know that with pregnancy-related medical care, waist-down nudity is usually required, but I am still freaked out by inviting complete strangers to inspect my business.

“I’m all set,” I call. A young, attractive nurse enters the room. I’d go so far as to classify her as “lithe.” All right, she’s definitely going to judge my lumpy thighs and less-than-manicured body hair. Awesome. Let’s get this over with.

As Nurse Eden straps the monitor belts across my mountainous belly, the curtain that is offering me some semblance of privacy is pulled aside, and in strides the most adorable, teenage boy.

“This is Brad, our nurse intern. He’ll be observing us today.” Eden sheepishly grins. “This is a teaching hospital.”

Double awesome! Now Brad will be observing the svelte mass of baby and chub that is my body. Not only am I in the middle of a potential medical nightmare, but I have a kid who looks like he could be one of my students checking out the complete package.

As I’m pondering whether Brad has ever seen a vagina before and if I’m somehow traumatizing him for all future sexual encounters, Eden is having trouble placing the monitor discs. Okay, my attention is now drawn.

“I’m having some difficulty finding the baby’s heartbeat. Just give me a minute. Don’t panic,” Eden says.

“Don’t panic” means “panic” right? Because I’m panicking! Why can’t she find baby’s heartbeat? What if there isn’t a heartbeat?

“I can feel her moving,” I cry. “I know she’s in there!” I feel that I might be screaming this to reassure myself rather than to inform the nurse and her teeny bopper sidekick.

Then it hits me. What if I’m not really feeling her? What if, like a soldier who feels shooting pains in an amputated limb, I am feeling the movements of my ghost baby?

“Excuse me for just a moment,” Eden says as she sprints from my bedside.

And…awkward. Me, mom, and Brad. Just hanging. Silence. “So, Brad, what school are you attending?” I ask, searching for conversation to fill the void. But before Brad can answer, Eden has returned carrying some sort of medical contraption.

“We’re just going to insert a quick catheter,” Eden informs me matter-of-factly. “If you could just spread your legs so that I can clean you.”

I am so overwhelmed by this rush of strange information that I almost follow her request without question. Then my eye catches Brad’s innocent face, and everything pops.

“Wait!” I demand. “First, Brad, no offense, but I need you to step out of the room for this part.”

Brad acquiesces.

“Second, why do I need a catheter? If I have to go to the bathroom, I am perfectly capable of walking over to the toilet to do it.”

“It’s standard procedure,” replies Eden, confidently.

Okay, standard procedure. I begin to reason with myself. Perhaps this will somehow help Eden find baby’s heart rate on the monitors. She must need to drain something in order to move the baby? What do I know? This is where I should have asked these questions, but, instead, I grab hold of my mother’s hand and allow Eden to do what she needs to do. My, this is both incredibly awkward and thoroughly uncomfortable. There are so few times in my life when pain and embarrassment have combined so seamlessly into a whirling dervish of humiliation.

Soon after Eden has finished her procedure, the obstetrician on duty arrives, dragging an ultrasound machine labeled with my name.

“Hello, my name is Dr. Immaculae.” A baby-faced doctor in his late twenties shakes my hand as an afterthought while starting the ultrasound machine. “Let’s find out what is going on with your baby,” he says, still facing the booting device. I finally get a peek into his eyes via the reflection of the screen.

Once again my belly is smothered in cold jelly, and I am asked to twist my stomach towards the doctor. Immaculae sweeps my belly with the ultrasound wand. After a breath-holding couple of moments, the image on the screen comes to life, filled with a squirming little person. And there, beating away in the middle of it all, is her heart, thumping proudly as if to say, “What, Mom? I’m here.”

Dr. Immaculae continues to push into my stomach with the wand, searching for better vantage points, clicking pictures, and having a hushed discussion with Nurse Eden. From my perspective (just the mom over here), I can feel her moving, I can see her moving; everything is ok, right? Right? My stomach is churning with nerves and the strain of attempting to hold absolutely still in a very awkward position.

“Is everything okay?” I say. “Doctor? Is everything looking okay?”

“Weeelllllll…” responds Immaculae, still refusing to make eye contact.

Okay, Lizzie. Breathe. Give the doc a few minutes to figure it out. Be patient.

More poking, prodding, and sweeping of the wand. More clicking and hushed conversation, still none of it directed at me. What the hell is happening? I look over at my mom, hoping that her medical background may be helping her to better understand all of this. Maybe she could be my guide, my translator for this foreign medical garble.

“Mom, do you understand any of this?” I ask with hope.

“No. I’m scared,” she replies. Way to comfort me, Mom. To be fair, thirty-five years of working as a nurse in an elementary school probably didn’t prepare her to understand an obstetrical emergency room.

Let’s give this another go. “Doctor, is everything okay?”

“Uuummm…” wavers the doctor. Still not even a glance.

At this point, I should be starting to make demands. I am educated, thirty years old, and a person who can effectively wield authority over thirty-two teenagers at a time. I should be able to draw the attention of this pipsqueak with a God complex. Come on, Liz! Bunk up! Get your answers.

I open my mouth to begin my lecture, but before even a syllable can escape my throat, people scatter. Eden is running. Brad is standing just outside the perimeter that, just moments ago, was protected by the curtain, but that, in the twirl of tense excitement, has been tossed aside.

“Pop the locks on that bed,” Eden demands of Brad as she grabs a stack of papers off of a shelf. Brad begins to move. Dr. Immaculae is ordering one nurse to start an IV, another to notify my personal obstetrician, another to call Faith Memorial Hospital to check on transport options, and another to “get anesthesiology down here STAT!”

At this point, I think I’m yelling, “What’s happening? What’s going on?” But, it is entirely possible that I am sitting dumbstruck in my bed choking on my own fear.

Eden returns with the stack of papers attached to a clipboard. “All right, Hon, we’re gonna need you to sign these right away.”

“What are they?”

“They’re standard forms releasing the hospital from any responsibility in the event that something goes wrong with your C-section today.”

“Wait. What?”

“You had a C-section previously, correct? These are those same standard forms that we need you to sign in order to perform your emergency C-section.”

“Wait. What?”

Eden stares back at me, searching her brain for a new way to explain what these papers signify.

“These are forms…”

“Nurse,” my mom says, “she knows what a release form is.”

“Oh, yes,” says Eden. “Dr. Immaculae feels that the baby is in jeopardy. We need to get her out quickly. You’ll be under completely. It’s likely that the baby will be transferred immediately, before you wake, to the neonatal intensive care unit at Faith Memorial.”

“Wait. What?”

Brad has finally figured out how to unlock the wheels on the bed, and is attempting to maneuver the bulky mass through the doors. I sign the stack of papers without even a glance. What choice do I have?

I’m looking around wildly, hoping to communicate my concerns to one of the people in my growing posse. “But, my husband isn’t here! Mom, call Bill. Tell him to get a babysitter and get over here. Call Jeyna, tell her what’s happening and have her put lesson plans together.”

Jesus! Seriously? I’m thinking about lesson plans right now? I am just thirty weeks pregnant today. That is a full ten weeks early. All of those “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” kids were born at thirty weeks, and they’re relatively healthy. If you consider being raised by an egomaniacal, fame-hungry mother and an allegedly cheating, immature, pot-smoking lout of a father healthy.

My mind flips through the “what if” section of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Given the best neonatal intensive care services and an otherwise normal presentation, babies born as early as twenty-four weeks can survive. My baby is thirty weeks. But my baby isn’t normal. My baby’s heart isn’t normal.

The last thing I see before I am pushed through the swinging doors of the operating room is my mother, weeping, my cell phone clutched against her head.

I am asked to slide from my bed to the operating table. The intensity of my shaking causes my jaws to slam tight. I’m staring up into the bright fluorescent lights, while my body lurches and twists. Where is my husband? I hear the nurses read off a checklist as metal instruments are placed on a tray. Above me, the anesthesiologist sticks cannulas into my nose, pumping oxygen into my constricted lungs.

“You have to stop shaking. It’s very difficult for me to get a clear reading of your vitals,” orders the anesthesiologist, so absorbed in his work that he has failed to even introduce himself.

“So, what are you going to
name your daughter?”

“I can’t stop,” I plead.

At least ten people are swarming around the table. I feel as if I’m underwater, able to see and hear them, but not to understand what they’re saying. What the hell is going on? Why isn’t anyone explaining anything to me? They’re all attending to me, but ignoring me completely.

“Please, somebody, I need to see my baby before she goes. I need to see her before…” I gulp back a sob.

It’s then, when I’m feeling most alone, that my unexpected white knight enters the room. Genuinely looking me in the eye, a naive smile spread across his face, Brad walks towards me. He sits down next to the table. “So, what are you going to name your daughter?”

Immediately, a tear spills down my cheek. My daughter is going to be born today. She’s going to be here. “Pearl. I’m going to name her Pearl.”

Within moments I hear Dr. Trey in the hallway. There is a new direction to her voice, a stern, take-charge attitude that I’ve never before experienced, “I want an ultrasound brought in immediately. We’re not cutting until I get a look at this baby.”

Her voice is imbued with confidence. Dr. Trey pushes through the doors of the operating room and, before addressing anyone else in the room, she grabs my hand. With a quiet voice, she takes care of me. “Try to stay calm. I’m going to take a look at this little one and find out what is troubling her. They’re bringing in the ultrasound now. Your husband is out in the hall dressing in scrubs. Do you want me to bring him in?”

This is a new side of Dr. Trey, one I haven’t seen before. “Yes, please,” I whimper.

Before she turns to retrieve my hubby from the hallway, she says, “I’m a perinatologist, you know? It must have been something in the universe that brought you to me, a specialist, for this high-risk pregnancy.” Oh, there she is, return of the hippie.

My husband, clothed in tight blue scrubs from head to toe, rushes into the operating room. Maybe I should rephrase. My husband is a big guy, so even the XXL scrubs are stretching at the seams to compensate for his girth. Makes it challenging to run, per se. But, he’s doing his best to get to me a quickly as possible.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“No. How ‘bout you?”

“I’m gonna go with ‘been better.’”

Wheeling my personalized ultrasound machine behind her, Dr. Trey comes back into the room. Brad moves aside so that Dr. Trey can, once again, expose my enormous belly and smother it with ultrasound goo. And, within moments, Dr. Trey’s steady hand has guided the wand to my little girl. Baby’s heart chugs along like the rhythm of a Johnny Cash song, slow and steady, but with drive and determination. Baby girl dances about, not a care in the world, completely unaware of the drama that is taking place because of her.

“Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” confesses Dr. Trey. “Probably not what you want to hear, but there it is. She doesn’t seem at all bothered by whatever is slowing her heart rate. You see, when a fetus is truly in jeopardy, she will stop moving to conserve all of her energy to stay alive. Your daughter is moving and grooving. Could be heart block? In any case, she’s not coming out today. We’re going to send you over to see the experts at Faith, the pediatric cardiologists.” Dr. Trey faces her crew “Let’s get her unhooked, people.”

And, just like that, I’m de-catheterized, un-IVed, and signing release papers. Surreal.

“This baby can’t seem to maintain the heart rate for a fetus at her developmental stage,” explains Dr. Trey.” Her heartbeat is very slow, bradycardic. But, again, we seem to be much more bothered by it than she does. I think we’ve made the right decision, leaving her in. Nothing is certain. I mean, I think she’s going to be okay ‘til tomorrow, but, if I’m being honest, it’s possible I should have pulled her already. All we can do is plan for the worst and pray for the best.”

As we stand in the hallway outside the triage center, Dr. Trey’s hand feels warm on my arm. “Try to rest,” she advises. “Keep track of baby’s kicks each hour. If the patterns change or slow down, call me immediately.”

Rest, but count her kicks every hour? Sounds a bit contradictory.

“Trust your instinct. I very much believe in mother’s intuition. You’re going to know if there is something truly wrong,” Dr. Trey comforts me. Or, attempts to comfort me.

After repeatedly kissing Eddie’s cherubic little cheeks, I tuck him in and move down the hall to the unfinished nursery. The brand new crib sits unassumingly against the wall, an undressed mattress inside. My grandmother’s bedroom set, now my daughter’s, stands empty in the darkened room.

Slipping into bed next to a snoring husband (it is seriously amazing how soundly he can sleep after the trauma of the day), I settle in and begin to count: one…two… three…four…five…six. I drift into a light, dreamful sleep and wake with a start two hours later. Can I feel her? Is she with me? Has my need for sleep caused me to lose her? I silence myself, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Nothing. I poke my belly. “Come on, baby girl. Wake up. Say ‘hello’ to mommy.” Waiting. Nothing. I grab hold of my belly and shake it, swaying baby girl from side to-side. “Come on, baby girl. Let me know you’re there.” Waiting. Waiting. Nothing.

Bill’s snoring reminds me that I am alone in this journey. As much as he might like to take the burden from me for a few hours, to monitor movements, to be responsible, he cannot. It’s not possible. It’s all on me.

As suddenly as this terrifying thought strikes me, I am struck with an idea. I run quickly and quietly down the hallway and the stairs. I rummage through the kitchen cupboards to find that bag of festively wrapped Hershey’s Kisses left over from Christmas. Once I have those neatly tucked into my arm, I pull open the fridge to retrieve one of Eddie’s juice boxes. I settle into the couch and gorge. I pack at least five Kisses into my gullet and attempt to chew. I jam a miniature straw into the juice box and slurp down the apple juice. A few more Kisses, and my mission is complete. Now, the most difficult part begins.

“Come on, baby,” I plead. Ten minutes pass and nothing from the baby. Still nothing. “This is it,” I say. “This is the night when I deliver a stillborn baby.”

As this thought devastates me, I feel a whisper, a tiny communication from below. I hesitate to take a breath of relief, attempting to determine if this is my imagination or the blessing I’ve been praying for.

Within moments, baby girl is gyrating and thrashing, whooping it up, high on sugar. Tears of relief stream down my face as I hug my belly tight.

This becomes my nightly routine for the next eight weeks. I’m sure that I am training the world’s worst sleeper When she does arrive, if she does arrive, she will wake up every midnight jonesing for a chocolate fix.

I’ve been pulled from work, so I spend my days pacing the living room floor when I’m not at one of my many medical appointments: two to three ultrasounds weekly, pre-natal counseling at the Faith Children’s Heart Center, and one very disturbing introductory visit to the Faith neonatal intensive care unit or NICU for short. It was intended to comfort me, to show me the stunning technological advances that will keep my baby alive. But, all I can think is “My baby won’t be born into my arms, but into an incubator.”

There will be no VBAC. The Faith cardiologists are worried that my baby’s heart couldn’t survive her journey through the birth canal. It will be a C-section, and baby girl will be taken immediately to the NICU.

The day after Easter, I finally open the door to the nursery. We’ve made it this far, thirty-eight weeks, and she’s still cooking. It’s time to face my fear: to dress the bed, set up the diaper changing table, and hang the tiny outfits. I’ve avoided this room in the hopes that I wouldn’t look at that empty crib and see just that, an empty crib that would never be filled.

Unwrapping the flowered sheets, I feel a twinge. The twinge blossoms into a steady cramp as I pull the cover over the convex changing pad. By the time I’ve hung the final pair of ruffle butt pantaloons in her closet, I’m out of breath and doubled over.

Having called both hubby and Dr. Trey, I am waiting on the front stoop when Bill pulls into the driveway. I did it. I kept you safe ‘til full term.

The panic sets in as I sit atop the operating room table waiting for the anesthesiologist to administer the spinal. Billy is out in the hallway wriggling into the double XL scrubs once more. The sounds of preparation for this C-section are eerily similar to those that plagued me eight weeks ago to the day. But, this time, Dr. Trey is with me from the start.

As the anesthesiologist, who has politely introduced himself as Dr. Arnold, numbs my back, Dr. Trey smooths my shoulders over into the correct c-shaped arch and grabs both of my hands. “I’m with you,” she reminds me. “It’s going to be different this time. We’re at Faith. We will have the pediatric cardiology team in the delivery room. We have the NICU right here. You are in the best possible place that you can be. She is in the best possible place that she can be.”

The room is swarming with people: at least six pediatricians, two obstetricians, two anesthesiologists, and four nurses. Oh yeah, Bill and I are here as well. The room buzzes with medical jargon and anticipation. I feel some tugging and pulling, but no pain. I can feel the shaking starting in the feeling half of my body. Closing my eyes, I take deep, slow breaths. All I want, all I could wish for in the world at this moment, is to hear her cry, a bellowing wail would be preferable.

“Okay, Liz, you’re going to feel some pressure, then we’re going to meet your baby girl,” Dr. Trey warns.

“Okay, baby. Okay. One more time for mama,” I pray.

“And, here she…is,” announces Dr. Trey. I wait. Nothing. I hear a sucking noise, liquid moving through a tube. I wait. The seconds sluggishly tick by.

Then, finally, a scream pierces the air. The unmistakable sound of a newborn’s first breath forcefully breaks, expelled from her lungs. It’s beautiful. Before I can truly revel in the joy, she is swept away to the bassinet. A throng gathers around her, backs block my view.

“Go! Go to her,” I order Bill. “Dr. Trey, is everything okay?”

“She certainly didn’t seem bothered. That was quite the scream. We’re going to get you sewn up here and into recovery. We want to get you to your little one as soon as possible,” she says.

It’s official: everyone in the room, besides me of course, has seen my little wonder. As quickly as she entered the room, baby girl exits to the NICU. And, after a bit more doctoring, Mommy exits to recovery.

While Bill stays in the NICU with baby girl, I work desperately to move my legs and feet, knowing that the sooner I am able to leave recovery, the sooner I will be able to get to my baby. “Mom, poke my toe,” I request.

“Lizzie, it’s not going to wear off any more quickly if I poke your toe.”

“Ma, I know. I’m just hoping that I’ll be able to feel it.”

“Why don’t you read one of these Living magazines. It’ll keep your mind off things. That Martha Stewart has some lovely ideas for entertaining,” she helpfully suggests. Her bravado cannot hide the wink of a tear slipping from her eye.

“No thanks, Ma,” I continue to focus on wiggling my pinkie toe in order to distract myself from the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. What’s happening to my baby?

“Mrs. Ciravola?” the nurse inquires. “If you’re ready, we can wheel you into the NICU to meet your daughter.”

“Yes, yes. Definitely. How is she?”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of information. But, we want to get you down there as quickly as possible.”

The NICU is a disorienting maze of beeping machinery, glowing blue lights, and the most fragile of miniature children. I travel slowly past an incubator that holds a baby the size of a kitten. His skin is transparent, his arms the size of green twigs. He squirms beneath the blue lights, appearing alien. My God, is this the struggle my baby faces? Or is it worse?

Around another corner, at the end of a dark hallway, I can see Bill sitting in a rocking chair, his head in his hands. My heart throbs. I shut my eyes tightly, attempting to control the panic. We continue to move.

Through the slits of my eyelids, I can see that we have arrived in the light.

“Lizzie,” Bill’s voice reaches out to me. “Open your eyes.”

There she is, the queen of the NICU. Her small body covered in monitoring discs, an IV placed in her tiny arm, she is sleeping soundly under the warming lights. I place the palm of my hand on her chest, feeling the heat of her skin as her chest rises and falls. The heart monitor beeps consistently, her heart rate bradycardic, but reliable. She’s pink and perfect, her soft breath falling from her mouth.

“Are you ready to feed her, Mama?” her nurse scoops her up, expertly navigating the tubes and wires sprouting from her little body.

I open my arms to embrace her, pulling her into the curve of my neck. I breathe in her smell, and instantly recognize her as my own. “My Pearl,” I smile. Gently, I move her into the crook of my arm, cradling her head in the palm of my hand. She opens her eyes, sensing that I’m near, recognizing my voice as it coos to her. I bring her to my breast, and, as she is nourished, my intuition begins to sing.


1 Vaginal birth after cesarean
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