Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Water Baby

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I look for a poolside chair that's reasonably dry, finally wiping one down with tissues from my handbag. I sit down on it, in my street clothes, glancing around me, then shake off my embarrassment, as middle-aged women do when they realize they've spent half their lives worrying what other people think of them.

But who is here to notice anything I might do? Clusters of kids, a few swimming instructors putting them through their motions. A group of elderly Russian ladies, some fat, some thin, all of them unselfconscious in their swimwear, enjoying the public Israeli pool just as they must once have enjoyed their native Soviet facilities. It pops into my head as I observe them: A small twist of fate, and one of you could have been my mother.

In any case, I'm resigned to an hour's clamminess in this chlorine-tinged swamp, where even sound is a liquid thing. I pull my phone out of my handbag, peck at it desultorily before letting it drop into my lap. The glinting water beckons, as does my daughter's tiny figure slicing through it, with the aid of a long tube float. The farther she recedes, the harder she is to discern, and the more intently my gaze is drawn to her.

Her swimming lesson over, she returns to frolic at the shallow end of the pool (which, standing, she barely clears). I'm suddenly struck by the way that tan-and-green bathing cap I dug out of a drawer and those yellowish goggles make her look alien, Martian or, alternatively, like some sort of cartoon Earth amphibian. She will have to get her fashion sense from someone other than me. That nose-scrunching thing she does to keep the snot at bay has been exacerbated by the full-on contact between face and water, to which she is not yet accustomed. The scrunching is like a code, a sign system: she is always in communication, I am always there to read her.

She's twirling and flipping in the water but with one hand firmly clasped to the pool's edge. It's a conceit I indulge, that she already knows how to swim and has undertaken this series of lessons merely to improve her form. She is seven, looks five: her smallness a daily reproach.

~

When I was in the hospital with her, waiting in slow motion for the crisis to unfold that would deliver us both, there was a nurse in the high-risk pregnancy unit who looked like my mother. Not my mother as I last remembered her, but as she was for a brief period in my early childhood, memorialized in a few photographs with a late-sixties pixie crop.

Her doppelganger with the spiky hair and Slavic cheekbones is smiling at me now over the blood pressure cuff. How am I feeling today?

Out of the corner of my eye I see the sad scattering of disposable cups and day-old newspapers that cover my metal bedside cabinet, which contains the clothes I entered here with, a bar of chocolate to stimulate fetal movement when required, and little else. Realizing that I was here for the long haul, I let my husband take my handbag and its contents (wallet, keys) back to the house, leaving only my phone. Money could be stolen, and what would I buy here? For that matter, even the phone seems superfluous. The minutiae of my life in this place are beyond communication to anyone elsewhere.

The cabinet seems now to contain everything I have ever owned.

My personal effects have dwindled to nearly nothing; yet, I have inflated.

 

Eklampsis, a lightning etymology I reject. The flashing lights are certainly flashy, and send hospital staff scrambling; but what I really hear is "clamp."

 

Drowning, I tell the nurse, whom I have secretly dubbed "The Russian" even though half of the nurses in this Jerusalem hospital seem to be FSU immigrants. I like her, would like her to think well of me, but can't seem to suppress my grumbling in her presence. Drowning in my own fluid.

She takes the bait: Two weeks after the birth, you won't remember the swelling.

She suggests we initiate a daily weigh-in, to track the water gain. Since we both know there's little medical point to this — I am way past such low-tech monitoring efforts — I understand the offer as a distraction tactic.

Come, she smiles, tapping my shoulder gently. The blood pressure reading was no worse than it's been for some days now. I haul myself off the bed, maneuvering over its metallic excrescences, and waddle after her like an imprinted duckling. My hospital pajama flaps around me, a blessedly comfortable garment. It feels good to be in uniform – or should I say costume?

I try to imagine what this subtle standout among nurses wears offstage, seeking a clue in the extra stud she sports in one ear. At least it's not in her nose. She's probably the age my mother was when her own hair was spiky like this, but the style had different meanings then, or maybe the meanings vary with the people. I picture her in slim but not overtight slacks; supple shoes in a playful but not overloud color. No creature of fashion, knows what's good for her, takes charge, but quietly. The drama is in what she doesn't say.

She directs me to the scale, glancing at me as she places the large counterweight at 80 kg. Of course, any final outcome below that number will come as a relief; still it's distressingly close. I am not quite seven months along, look twenty, have never been this big. Where will it end? But then it can't go on much longer, can it?

Your other pregnancies weren't like this, she offers, and I oblige with a brief rundown of my obstetric history.

So now you have a little midlife surprise. She smiles, a serene and, I could almost swear, an appreciative smile. She has accounted rationally for my presence and my predicament, and I am grateful.

Eklampsis, a lightning etymology I reject. The flashing lights are certainly flashy, and send hospital staff scrambling; but what I really hear is "clamp." A surging, suppressed. In my perception, the preeclamptic swelling was a less acute but more ominous successor to the early-pregnancy nausea. A phrase that lay buried in my mind for decades, from a story I read in college: Nausea of the Blood, Nausea of the Bone. The phrase resurfaced at the start of each pregnancy, as I lay prostrate like a beached creature whose only hope of salvation is to disgorge the sea that roils within and ride back out on its waves.

You get nausea at the end of a pregnancy, too, if you don't mute or cloak the experience with drugs. I've got to hand it to the epidural — it's one thing to vanquish the pain of contractions, but to overcome the sheer unwellness and loss of agency — the loss of self — that characterize the transition stage of labor, that is quite a feat.

Like the instant evaporation of a roiling sea. Where does it all go?

In the meantime, here I am, in that place of valves and receptacles, pipes, and drains. It's the bathroom I share with my hospital roommate; it's also a long-familiar dreamscape where waters rush and overflow, or conversely are blocked by malfunctioning faucets. Like a weatherperson I observe the rising level of my mandated daily "collection." I stop the fetid odor with the lid, replace the container on the windowsill, next to my roommate's. Is there a message in the bottle?

~

Even the bathing suit was a bad fashion choice, I see. What was I thinking when I bought it for her? I'm always looking for bargains, but this is one I could have skipped.

The problem is that I have no hand-me-downs for the girl, who arrived many years after her next-youngest sibling. Nothing was left, and anyway the children before her were all boys and my friends had given their kids' stuff away already.

There was a disruption, a discontinuity, a broken link in the hand-me-down chain. Like an oral tradition that dies out because there's no one to pass it on: can it be revived later? She often asks me for family stories, old ones, but the ones I tell her, even when true, feel invented and made up from whole cloth.

Still, nothing can justify this pale pink shmatta; there's a reason why it was still on the rack late last summer, marked down to a fraction of its original price. I figured it would be good for the following year, and indeed it fits her, but is too flesh-colored; when she emerges from the water she looks like something that was born too early — hairless, vulnerable, a sightless wriggling mouse.

In the water, though, you get quite a different impression. She is tiny but vital, swimming for short distances now without a float. Each lesson the teacher throws the sponge balls a little farther out, moves the targets farther away with that ridiculous pole. She meets the challenges, occasionally turning back to complain as she grasps the pool divider rope, but more often forging right ahead with her proto-breast stroke. The teacher tells me she's a natural.

~

In the end, when the flashing lights came, she wasn't there, my Russian.

I press the emergency button, a form of communication that gets results, of a sort. The nurse who appears is one I haven't seen too much of as yet, one who hasn't figured in any of the denouement scenarios that have played out in my head over the past week. She's German; I've been told that she volunteers here, in this Jerusalem hospital, as part of a Holocaust-atonement project. A nun, perhaps? Her face, though not noticeably lined, is faded-looking; she could be anywhere from 35 to 60. Old enough to be "fair" rather than "blonde."

In a way, it's a relief to get the understudy rather than the star, it takes the pressure off. I don't have to worry about what this competent, gentle, uncharismatic staffer makes of me. Her Hebrew is fluent, her accent neutral and mild, like her manner. She tells me my blood pressure, informs me calmly that the doctor will be called, that the time has likely come for the magnesium sulfate.

It's nothing I haven't googled, and I knew it would be happening sooner rather than later, but I'm trembling all over like I did the day I arrived at the hospital, with symptoms alarming but not yet critical. Before I entered wait mode, the preeclamptic drôle de guerre. The trembling is another form of communication, from myself to myself, a staccato vibration that needs no decoding.

In fact, things have started to heat up and more than one doctor has appeared. Nurses are scurrying and I get sidelong glances from some of them. Focusing on "the Nun" steadies me, at least for now. The trembling subsides. Luckily, it's nighttime, perhaps eleven o'clock; the lights are dimmed, the talk is hushed, it's almost cosy in here. I can almost imagine I'm doing a home birth. Even the burning sensation when the mag kicks in doesn't faze me. If that's the worst of it, I think, then it's really not all that bad. I don't bother calling my husband; there seems to be a consensus that the C-section can wait till the morning, so why bother him? I manage to sleep some myself.

When I awaken, I'm in transition. How did I get here without contractions, without buildup? Is it mag side effects, late-stage preeclampsia symptoms, or are these things superimposed on a labor progressing naturally against all odds? Whatever is happening, it's more intense than anything I've ever experienced; I'm sicker and more unhinged than at the hardest moments of any previous delivery. I see now what "transition" really means. It means that I am stuck in transit. I've reached a critical stage in the journey where I'm so far from the point of origin that I can no longer turn back, yet unable to see the way forward. I'm stalled, but it's not a passive state, it's a purgatory.

I've been wheeled out to L&D, we're waiting for word that I can be taken down to the operating room, the whole process seems to be stalled, just as I am stalled. There is a congestion, a blockage somewhere along the line. I'm trapped. Will I make it out alive? If I do make it out, where will I be? Who will I be? I don't want to be making this journey, I want to go back to my state of dormancy. I don't want to be exposed, to this or any other pain, I don't want to be.

My husband is saying Tehillim in a corner. My OB/GYN, who by Israeli custom is under no obligation to be here, has made time for this; he exchanges determinedly pleasant banter with the L&D nurse. The nurse, for her part, is bustling about, trying to minimize my discomfort during this unbelievably long wait for my emergency surgery.

Yes, they've been telling us "right away" for quite a while now, haven't they? She observes with false jollity as my nausea roils and swells.

Catching sight of my husband I remember my religion, cast around for a Biblical verse to repeat as a mantra. That helped a bit in some of the other deliveries, but I am so overwhelmed that I can hardly remember anything I've ever read, on any topic, in any language. In these last weeks of crisis I have become passive, a victim: I have not prepared, which is another way of saying that I have lacked faith. Finally, like a random piece of flotsam, a verse presents itself for me to grasp before I am taken entirely under:

That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple every morning.

In all the High Holiday seasons that I have dutifully recited Psalm 27, I have never wondered how one can "visit" a place where one "dwells;" surely there are answers to this, but they are not accessible to me now. As I ponder the conundrum, an activity that indeed re-assembles some fragments of awareness and self-hood, I am finally wheeled down to the O.R.

Here, I'm in the hands of a master, keeper of the portal of consciousness, obliterator of pain: he doesn't put me under but immediately I sense release, reprieve from the mag as I enter a manufactured homeostasis. I can literally feel my blood pressure plummet. I glance at the anesthesiologist, a burly Russian.

I've just taken you back 30 years, he tells me with a smirk.

I don't remember the moment they took her out, what I remember is hearing her cry, a sound whose normality I was entirely unprepared for, banal as a telephone greeting. The next 24 hours are a blur; back on mag, I drifted between consciousness and unconsciousness, hallucination and nightmare.

 

There has been a disruption, a discontinuity. Some crucial link is missing in the sequence of containment, eruption, and separation, as though a figurine from a set of — yes, Russian nesting dolls had been lost.

 

Released from that at last, I'm wheeled over to the NICU to meet my child. I feel decades older, elderly, an ailing matriarch brought in for a view of a distant descendant, one whose bodily connection to me is at several removes. At 31 weeks, she is too small to nurse. I, for my part, have ceased to feel the milk let-downs that over the last 10 weeks of the pregnancy were disturbing harbingers of premature delivery. There is no engorgement; nothing left to disgorge. My body simply doesn't feel as though it gave birth to a live baby.

There has been a disruption, a discontinuity. Some crucial link is missing in the sequence of containment, eruption, and separation, as though a figurine from a set of — yes, Russian nesting dolls had been lost. Still, somehow, I pull myself together, assemble pumping accouterments, gradually coax, over many days, a milk supply from my recalcitrant body. Invent it out of whole cloth.

~

The summer is nearly over. We've made it to the final lesson of the season. My daughter is now a swimmer, plying her way independently from one end of the pool to the other.

I think of all the ends-of-summers I've been through since I entered the parenting business. That poignancy when you realize that the intensive time together with your children is about to end. A week from now they will be in another place, and you wonder what they will take with them to it, what will remain to them of their time with you.

The swimming teacher and I congratulate each other on my daughter's success. I observe her tiny competence in this pool, a known environment, and I'm suddenly put in mind of all the other bodies of water in which, God willing, she will someday swim, transferring the skills she learned here to places that will be both familiar and unfamiliar: other pools, streams, lakes, oceans, etc. They will all be the same and yet not the same, and she will manage in all of them, both dweller and visitor in the world of water.


Julie Rosenzweig is a translator and librarian raising four children in Jerusalem, Israel. She blogs about good urbanism and her essays on this topic have been featured at the Times of Israel, Urban Design and Planning, and Jewish Women of Words.


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