Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Snowy Sky

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"Deceleration," a nurse shouted, opening the door with a thwack and running toward Caroline. "Get on your side."

In the hospital bed, Caroline tried to shift to her side but couldn't. Her belly had started heaving from inside her. Her lungs contracted, so she struggled to breathe.

Doctors and nurses entered in a rush. One strapped an oxygen mask on her—yanking straps behind her ears—one gripped her shoulders, and another her feet, and they rocked her side to side. The bedrail swung through her vision, a dark blue line, with the snowy sky of the window outside. On her belly, the heart rate monitor thumped. Dr. Blake—the main obstetrician, a woman in her late forties with a tensed expression and a shirt plastered with blue and pink bears—leaned over and said, "Maybe it's finding your heart rate, not his."

Caroline asked, "It isn't good, is it?"

"Don't worry, honey," Dr. Blake said, fiddling with the monitor, and Caroline knew that don't worry was code for terrible, and she shut her eyes and sent the baby a message, told him to imagine he was on a ship rushing past an iceberg, and once he cleared, he'd sail away.

"His heart rate's back up," Dr. Blake said and told the others to move away. Her words sounded like life itself. Caroline asked if they would give her more Pitocin.

"We won't add any more drugs," Dr. Blake said. "It's too dangerous. We'll just wait."

Caroline nodded, relieved but upset that the baby was still inside her, that the baby was too sensitive to be forced out.

"You all right?" Allen said, leaning forward in his chair by the snow-filled window.

"I don't know, okay?"

 

As she stood, gripping her hands around the bedrail, she started feeling a deep, slow pain, as if she were a mountain, caving in.

 

Caroline pulled herself up from her side—she was too heavy now, heavier than she'd ever been, and the IV hookup constrained her.

"Do you want ice chips?" a nurse asked, swinging the door open.

"I don't," Caroline said and stood. "I don't need anything."

"Some food?" Allen said.

"I can't have food," she said and wondered why he hadn't remembered.

"Looks like the drug is working," the nurse said, with a check of the monitor.

"I hope."

As she stood, gripping her hands around the bedrail, she started feeling a deep, slow pain, as if she were a mountain, caving in.

"We're going to check how open you are," the nurse said. "Hold on, and lie down."

"Do you want me to go?" Allen said. The nurse nodded, and he left.

"Flat as a fly," the nurse said and put her hand out to show what she meant. Caroline lay flat and spread her legs, becoming suddenly nauseated, as a jolt of pain shot up inside.

"Not far, only two," the nurse said, shaking her head. "Only two out of ten."

"Not even halfway," Caroline said and wanted to slap herself for not opening as she should. But that wouldn't do anything. "So what then?"

"Hold on a minute," Dr. Blake said, and whispered to the nurse beside her. "We'll give you an hour. We'll let your body see what it can do. After that, we'll have to do a C-section."

"Surgery?" Caroline asked, and sat up.

"Yes. But you have one hour to see. You never know."

The nurse bent down and gave her foot a shake, as if willing Caroline to sit up. She did. Then the nurse and Dr. Blake left, and Caroline stared at the monitor's green humps and willed them to sharpen. Allen knocked, and she told him to come in. Outside, the sky had whitened. Caroline imagined her mother's face, hidden inside that sky, staring in.

She gripped the handrails, wishing she could press herself up, go out into the streets and smell the wood chips and subway dirt and buy some flowers and tie knots in her hair. She wished she could forget about this birth—forget Allen, and the baby's kicks—and go back to being completely, undeniably herself. She wished she could call her mother and tell her to come back to life, only for a single day, and help her flush this baby out. But her mother wouldn't, couldn't, come.

 

Dr. Blake walked in and sat beside them, crossing her arms over her bear-plastered shirt. Her look lay somewhere between exhaustion and pity, mixed with hope.

 

The air had grown still, and the window gleamed. She wished she was flying onto a bank of ice, wished that baby would appear and scream with hunger, and she'd hold him close and sing him a simple song.

But no: she was stuck in this hospital room, with the storm outside closing in, and the storm in this room shutting down. Between the room's four walls, as she sat, the pain in her body stopped. Beside her, Allen watched the green-screen monitors and shook his head. Feeling nothing wasn't good. Feeling nothing meant the drug wasn't working. What would happen if the baby never left? Maybe she'd wait forever, and he'd only grow bigger, so big he'd fill her womb completely, and obliterate her other organs, heart and throat, and leave her with no way to breathe. But so what? She'd give her body over to the baby. She'd let the baby fully inhabit her, ruin her even, fill up all the space of her organs, until he was finished with her.

In the silence, Allen curled up on his chair and began to sleep. She waited for the pain to restart, but there was no pain. Finally, with a dim drop in her stomach, she closed her eyes.

After a while—an hour, two?—she woke. All the room's lights had been flipped on. Doctors and nurses entered—three, then four—pushing a cart filled with silver tools. Maybe she wouldn't meet the baby, she thought. Maybe his heart rate would only drop down.

Dr. Blake walked in and sat beside them, crossing her arms over her bear-plastered shirt. Her look lay somewhere between exhaustion and pity, mixed with hope.

"Listen, you have a few options," Dr. Blake said.

"What?" Caroline asked.

"We can try to add more medicine, to get the labor started again, but the risk is you'll have to be rushed to emergency surgery if his heart rate drops again. We've already put him through quite a lot, you know, and it's hard to know how much more he can take. He might not be happy with another dose of Pitocin. Or we can go ahead and do the operation now."

"Now?" Caroline asked. Allen watched her with a look of alarm, but didn't speak.

"It might be for the best," Dr. Blake said, with a glance at Allen. "Like I said, we're not sure how much more he can tolerate."

"How much can you tolerate?" Caroline asked the baby, under her breath, gripping her stomach. The baby barely shifted, and didn't make a sound. Her fuzzy socks felt funny on her feet. Nothing is certain, she told herself, and told the baby. Everything can be taken away. But until then—she'd have to try—

It was almost evening; she could see by the sky through the window and the roofs packed flat with snow. Allen sat beside her. Caroline asked what he'd do, if he had a baby who could only tolerate so much.

"Do you need me to decide for you?" he asked.

"No."

"You're sure?"

"I'm sure."

Caroline lay back, looking at the bears on the doctor's shirt, and reading her nametag—Mary Blake, in small perfect script, and her face made her look like a Mary—a round face, with her hair knotted now at the back of her head, and wrinkles between her eyes, and dark red lipstick. Something about that woman made her think of her mother. Caroline felt the light of the baby's eyes, turning. Already the baby was separate from her. His kicks were real kicks, separated from the world by only than a layer of skin. Their umbilical cord—blue-black, spiraled like a telephone cord—still pumped, but not for long.

"Should we talk it over?" Allen asked, eyebrows raised, the way he'd used to, when they'd gotten in arguments, and those never ended well.

"I don't need any time," Caroline said. A rush of wind rose in her, a rush she couldn't contain. Her voice vibrated in her chest, stronger than ever. She had a flash of her mother's face, cold and implacable, of her mother's voice, which reminded her of a little girl's. She pulled the white sheet, balled at the foot of the bed, over her legs. "Do it. Do the operation now."

"You don't want to think it over?" Dr. Blake said.

"No."

The baby couldn't take any more. My creature, she thought, suddenly. My creature of the delicate heart. Choose for me, he was saying. Choose now. And then she heard her own voice, calling through the silence, saying Choose for me, choose for me too.

"I want the operation now," she said.

"If you're sure," Dr. Blake said, with a slight nod. "It is the safest way."

"Yes," she said. She had never been more certain of anything.

With a surprising efficiency, Dr. Blake left, saying she"d come back in ten minutes.

"Do you want to come with me?" Caroline asked, and Allen nodded.

"You think you have the stomach for it?" she asked.

"I have the stomach for anything," he said.

Dr. Blake returned with two others, who wheeled her bed out into the hallway. Caroline lay back, watching the ceiling shift, as they headed into the operating room. Her arms lay flat at her sides, and she breathed in and out slowly, feeling blood sputter in her veins, feeling the shadow of her mother on her side. Her mother was calling to her, telling her to lie perfectly still, so that the baby could be brought out. Could be drawn into the world.

 

As Caroline lay still, waiting for the injection, she felt the baby kick, once, then again. Yes, there it was: the sting of the bee, entering her back, as if it had been wandering in a field, and had found her skin only belatedly. As the anesthesiologist edged away, brandishing a needle, a numbness set in at her back.

 

As she lay back, Dr. Blake busied herself at one side. Three other doctors appeared, one an anesthesiologist, circling Caroline as if her bed were the sun, and they were the spokes. A silent busyness grew up around her, as they hurried from one table to the next, clutching scalpels, pliers, and rolls of what looked like duct tape, and silver spools.

"Lie back and relax," the anesthesiologist said, and shifted Caroline to her side. "We're going to start with an injection—it will numb you. You should feel nothing but a little sting, like a bee sting. After that: don't worry if you can't feel your feet."

"Won't feel my…"

"Your feet," she said. "Didn't anyone explain that?"

"No."

"You must not have been listening." The anesthesiologist tapped the table beside her, sending a shock up her spine. "The medicine will numb your whole lower half, starting at your feet. The injection shouldn't be painful."

"All right."

As Caroline lay still, waiting for the injection, she felt the baby kick, once, then again. Yes, there it was: the sting of the bee, entering her back, as if it had been wandering in a field, and had found her skin only belatedly. As the anesthesiologist edged away, brandishing a needle, a numbness set in at her back.

"Didn't hurt, did it?"

"No," Caroline said.

Dr. Blake disappeared behind the screen. For a moment, Caroline looked around for Allen but couldn't see him. The room was as cold and echoing as any space she'd ever been in. Every bit of her wanted not to be numb, but she had to be.

After a moment, she felt the strangest sort of tension: a pressure building up in her lungs, stretching down to her hips. Her feet started to tingle. She was being dropped into a freezing pool. Pins and needles jittered in her toes. And then she couldn't feel her feet. She tried to wiggle her toes. She tried to bend up, but they'd strapped her down. She struggled to hold herself tight, to control her body: but she couldn't, couldn't feel any inch of her lower body, or the way her feet moved in space. She couldn't feel her feet and couldn't see them. She couldn't walk away, couldn't escape. Her breath stopped in her lungs, and pressure started up inside her ears.

Then she breathed in, so deep her lungs bellowed, and lay back. For a moment, as she stared at the ceiling, she felt the most stubborn lightness, as if a flower was opening up in her. There was the baby wanting to leave, she thought. Until now, she was the only one who'd known him, the one who'd given him safe harbor. She'd sensed him from inside out. But he was getting ready to cross over. He needed her to cross over with him.

"Can you let Allen in?" she asked.

"Sure, he's standing outside," Dr. Blake said. "One minute."

As Caroline lay back, Dr. Blake and the others stood beside her, holding a long white board—long as a surfboard, but flat—three doctors, six hands—and one told her to give herself a hug. She crossed one hand over, onto the other shoulder, and the other to the other side, and fit herself into a tiny package. They lifted her on the board and shifted her onto a bed in the center of the room, then pulled the board away. She startled at being carried, and then dropped; at being moved like a dead body, or a paralyzed one. Small black dots burst in her vision. Then Dr. Blake drew a blue sheet up over her torso, over the clear screen. That sheet was raised up on a pole, hiding the lower half of her body, so she was separated from her feet. As she looked forward, inspecting the sea of blue, Caroline wondered what lay behind that sheet. She knew and yet she didn't know. She thought of how small her body was, and how infinite.

After a few moments, Allen walked in, wearing a blue plastic cap that looked like he'd just finished showering. He looked humble all of a sudden, and sad.

"What's the matter?" Caroline asked.

"I didn't think things would end like this," he said.

"It's not ending, don't worry."

He only shook his head and reached out to touch her forehead. His touch was freezing, and his hand trembled. She sensed he was right. There was a new distance between them.

"Tell me the story of your favorite day," she said. "Back from when you were a child."

Allen shifted to see the sheet separating her from her feet, then turned away.

"I can't feel my feet," she said, feeling embarrassed to state the obvious.

"I know."

Still holding her hand, he started talking, slowly at first, as if trying to feel into the story, then with an increasing rush. His voice sounded gravelly and grave.

As Allen spoke, he paused often, as if the memory was coming to him in dribbles. Caroline didn't pay attention to the words. She stared up at the blue surgical curtain, the one keeping her from the operation, from her body's lower half. It was the color of a lake with shimmering minnows, with a clear film at the back. Was anyone watching through that sheet? Was the baby? She lay back, listening. Allen was telling a story of when his mother was still alive, and the two of them sat at the edge of the ocean off Fire Island in New York, listening to the waves one day around sunset, where groups of teenagers limped along and drew fireworks out of their bags. His mother wore a bright purple headscarf, a fabric that shone.

Back then, he was ten years old, and didn't realize it was the Fourth of July until the moment they were out at the beach. It was so hot that his breath stung his mouth, and so dark it was hard to see. Sitting at the beach in her flying headscarf, his mother handed him a jar full of crystals, and said, "These are for a special night." He opened the jar and felt a whizzing against his palm. He let the fireflies go, and let the air fill with calm, fluid light. After a while, his mother turned to him and started crying, her hand on his back, and said she hadn"t made enough time. That there was never enough. What do you mean? he'd asked. By now the fireworks were shooting up, pulses and crashes against the skyline, against the shore, against his chest. And his mother took her headscarf off, the one she'd been wearing for weeks, and lay down against the sand. He saw that she'd lost all her hair, that she looked like a round awful moon—and he was shocked by her sickness, but even more, by how graceful she seemed.

In the operating room, Allen inhaled sharply and started crying, deep sobs. Caroline shook, feeling those waves at the beach, and the shadows behind the waves—and felt his mother's strength, and his mother's gratitude. But she wasn't his mother, and they weren't at the beach. Here, she was frozen, and footless, and the air smelled of instruments, of stainless steel.

"That's the image that's stayed with me," Allen said, gripping her hand, as the doctors worked around him. "That's the sort of strength I see in you."

"This isn't strength," Caroline said, blinking. "I can't feel anything."

"No, it's that same look," he said, and stared into her face. "The strength to shine out against pain. That look when my mother took off her headscarf. That's what I mean."

She stared up at the surgical curtain, which was bluer than ever, a cold, steel blue. It's not strength that I have, she thought. At this very moment, her organs were getting taken out and replaced. The baby was getting worked out of her belly. She was numb halfway up to her shoulder. She would have thought she'd be screaming, but she simply repeated three times, four, in a small, high voice, "I can't feel my feet."

From behind the sheet, Dr. Blake laughed and said, "That's a good thing."

 

Allen tightened his grip, but his hand felt grimy. Her own pulse sped up inside her.

 

As the doctors kept working, Caroline kept a strong hold on Allen's right hand. That grip at least was good. After a moment, he opened his left hand. He was holding her Star of David pendant, the one her sister had given her for protection as a child. As he bent over, he looped the necklace over her neck and let the pendant hang down, cold and sharp between her breasts. Deep inside her body, she felt a tugging. They were doing their best to pull her baby out.

Allen shifted in his chair and grew silent. A veil was dropping over her face. A sheen started inside her breastbone, a sort of glossiness, and drew up to the veins in her arms. It was as if water were being mixed with light inside her and spun out to each organ: kidneys, throat, blood vessels, lungs. Each and every body part was being moved. Her skull was drifting, adrift. There were pockets of air where the sinuses were. There were spots on her jaw with clenches of tension, and other spots where she felt none. No matter the century, the specific year: she was nothing more than a body, a tethering.

As the doctors continued, hardly talking, she stared at the sheet, feeling her features becoming angular. She wondered if anyone else was watching. If her own mother was. That sheet, ridiculously bright, separated her baby from her. It gleamed like the horizon a pilgrim would have seen, or a traveler first crossing the ocean. She couldn't see her child, that was the problem.

Allen tightened his grip, but his hand felt grimy. Her own pulse sped up inside her.

For a moment, she watched that blue sheet. She didn't know how many women it had covered in the past, and how many in the future. How many women had sensed the vastness of the space between their elbows and wrists, between their torsos and feet? How many women had been numbed to their feet?

With a flood of heat, she released her hand from Allen's. There was, like a click in her body, a release. She was passing from one self into the other. Passing from two selves into one. She gripped the bed's sides, which were firmer than she'd remembered, and stared again at the surgical sheet. In a clear, fine voice, she asked Dr. Blake to take that sheet down.

Allen told the doctors she didn't mean it. Who would ask to see her own surgery? he was probably thinking. To see her own blood and guts? Normally, she couldn't even bear to have blood drawn, to see the tubes, blushing red, labeled with her name. Dr. Blake raised her head and laughed and said, "Don't worry, that's just the pain meds. She's loopy. Nobody actually wants to see."

But Caroline raised her head up, and said she did want to see.

"Please," she asked, "could you take the sheet down?"

The doctors all stopped for a minute, and the air in the room grew still.

"You really want to see?" Dr. Blake asked.

"Yes, I really do."

"Caroline—" Allen started.

"I'm serious. I need to."

"Well, will you do it then?" Caroline asked.

"All right, if you want," Dr. Blake said, and walked to her side, and bent down and whispered in her ear. Hold on, she said, and Caroline whispered back that she would. She could feel her face lightening, as if from underneath. Dr. Blake strode to the sheet and gripped it for a moment. Then, carefully, with two hands, she unpinned the sheet from where it draped over Caroline's stomach and replaced it with a clear one, with two silver pins at the top.

"Close your eyes," Dr. Blake said to Allen, as she worked. "If you're squeamish."

For a second, Caroline leaned forward, peering, hardly looking at Allen.

"You can't touch anything," Dr. Blake said. "But at least you can see."

"Fine with me," Caroline said and laughed, a bright peal of laughter that startled her.

For a second, she stared forward, trying to keep herself as still as possible, the way a swimmer tries to keep herself still before a race: holding tight, clenching her upper body, trying not to breathe. She wanted only to look, to witness: to clear off all the air around her, the doctors' chatter, the silver instruments. She looked because she had to. Because she couldn't help it. Because she was tired of all the times she'd looked away.

And that was the moment she actually saw her body—saw the inside of her body, how all of her organs were connected, spleen and stomach, uterus, intestines, saw how they were each pipes and tubes for each other, how each of them flooded into, funneled into the next, and how each of them was moving, more quickly or slowly, but absolutely moving, in clear motion, sea to sea—each of them was functioning—

and then Dr. Blake said, "We're ready," in a low, easy voice, and Caroline said out loud, "The baby," and she whispered my creature to herself, and the whole landscape outside, she imagined, had grown stormy, with a winter wind, and a snow you could no longer walk through, but inside they were, all of them, safe and cool—and a music started up in Caroline's head, Rachmaninoff, a heavy bass, but that music was interrupted by a cry—

and then a big mass of tissue was being lifted out of her, red and gleaming. That mass lay writhing, for a moment, in Dr. Blake's gloved hands, and that mass was the baby, yes, their baby, being lifted out—and her baby strained its whole face up and out, red, chalky, covered with mucus, and screamed. That scream took over his whole face, that tiny human—even his eyebrows, the bridge of his nose, were caught up—and the sound rang in her eardrums, unearthly, as if he were being torn from underground—as if the whole visible world were transparent, a glassy palace he'd heard about, but was seeing for the first time only now.

And Caroline saw at that moment—her eyes wide open, as if in a vision—the baby's organs and her own superimposed—one laid on the other, with glowing links in between, bright green flashing from one body to the next—and her bones were shrinking into the child's—and the child was growing bigger, becoming giant, ballooning in one single minute to his adult size, and rising up and shouting in his adult voice, and planting a garden, and camellias around him were flourishing, rising up, fresh and green—and 70 years later, which she saw right then, in a flash, the child was becoming an old man, and flaring out one hand the way he did now, and screaming exactly the same way he was screaming now—screaming furiously, even close to death—so loud his lungs nearly broke, and his body jarred with the suddenness—

and there he was, her creature—screaming, squalling—she could hear him but not see him—and they lifted him up, and he was coated with white, in a mess of what looked like flour and water, but what she knew must be the messy stuff of birth—and her body became an emptied tomb, and he was wailing, and she cried out, then let out the biggest breath she'd ever breathedshe was laughing (laughing? yes, a heavy, bronze laugh) as the child left her body, and as her body became empty once more.

"Not bad, huh?" Caroline said, straining up, watching the spectacle through the clear sheet. Caroline was watching her own body too, watching as Dr. Blake started stitching her up again. Allen looked away, but she stared at the gaping incision, at the silver tools, at the doctor's bent head. She held still and witnessed. There was the child, her child, screaming without stopping at the side of the room. The doctors were putting him on a scale, wrapping him in a blanket—and he flailed his arms and legs so loud that her eardrums tickled, and her ears rang.

Then, all of a sudden, he was here on Caroline's chest. She grew silent, calmer, with a quiet warmth, and turned her head to him, to the side. Her body ached to feel him, to feel him gone. She was a monster, but a good one, lit up, with living organs. She was a monster who'd pushed through every strain, out to the silence on the other side.

"Thank you," she said, although she didn't know who she was thanking: the doctors, or her mother, or Allen, or the baby, who after all, was only doing what babies did. She shifted his torso onto her chest, onto the space where her heart must be beating. He bent his tiny head toward her. He was not squished as she assumed babies to be, but roundish, and gleaming. His feet were flecked with little hollows. For a moment, he started sucking on her cheek, loud suctioning noises—trying to drink, to feed—thinking her cheek could hold milk—and she held her face up to his, so their skin touched, and swept her hand over his face, and let her hand linger, and brushed the sheen of mucus clear away.


Rebecca Rolland is the winner of the 2011 Dana Award in Short Fiction, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Witness, Kenyon Review, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Review, Georgia Review, Many Mountains Moving, Versal, American Letters & Commentary, and Meridian. Her first book won the 2011 May Sarton New Hampshire First Book Prize.


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