Welcoming Juniper Maya with the Hand of God

2014-03-25 01.42.32I keep my phone plugged in to an outlet near the floor so that its light does not interrupt my sleep. But also, because it brings me to my knees first thing in the morning – prayer becomes non-negotiable.

It is 1 a.m. and I am on my knees. I have only turned off the lights two hours ago.

“Is it time?” I ask, seeing it is Clover.

“It’s time,” she says,  her voice both dreamy and reassuring. “Take your time.”

We have plenty of it. Nearly 17 hours until Juniper Maya is born. Clover is her mother. And I am Clover’s doula – Greek for servant or birth support.

I brush my teeth and pop in a fresh pair of contact lenses. Pull on a pair of grey skinny corduroys, a purple and white checked blouse and the sweater I can’t bear to give away. The blue merino wool one with the tear under the armpit, and that is separating from its collar.

I pack a bag with berries, yogurt and cereal. Baby carrots. Apples. Sweet potato. Clover and Andy have been cooking and freezing for weeks in preparation for the birth and the days and weeks after. But I pack this, along with a journal and a book – just in case – and jump in my car, leaving the bag with my glasses and toothbrush by the door.

It is quiet out and beginning to snow. I circle the block twice and find a spot nearby. Before getting out of the car, I pray. “Please join us in this sacred moment. May this be a safe and joyous birth for mom and baby.” Or something like that. I am surprised. I didn’t plan to pray. It just sort of spilled out of me, as my prayers often do.

Andy buzzes me in. There is a handmade sign on the door – birth in process. We greet one another in the hallway in whispers.

Inside, it is dimly lit. There are candles. Music is looping from a play list created just for this moment. It is all part of Clover’s birth plan. She greets me sleepily in a short, cotton nightgown. Soon she will be wearing nothing at all and it will seem like nothing could be more natural.

********************

Clover and Andy demonstrate the routine they have established. With each contraction they grasp one another’s upper arm. Andy leans back and they count through it – together. One.   Two.  Three.  Four.  Up into double digits, until it is over.

I trade places with Andy and begin counting and leaning and holding on. This will be our foundation for the next 17 hours. The ritual we return to.

It is warm inside. Clover gives me one of her t-shirts. It is grey and oversized with butterflies on it. My friend Julie’s mother Carole (now deceased) often visits both her and I as a butterfly. I know she is with us now.

********************

2014-03-25 01.49.41We eat. We walk. We count.

Clover bounces on the birthing ball. She does cat and camel poses on her hands and knees while I stand behind her, pressing her hips together to midline. Relief.

We doze in bed. Clover and Andy lying next to one another. Me lying perpendicular to them at the foot of the bed. Later I will lie between them, placing my fist in Clover’s low back, gently pushing her sacrum toward her feet. My arm stretched over her body. Her hand clenching mine, until I think my tarsal bones might break.

Clover reminds us of the images that ground her. A sparkly oak tree. The river that runs behind it. A nearby staircase made of fluffy, white feathers. Her spirit guide, Strident.

Andy takes apart the dining room table to make room for the tub. Inflates it and fills it with warm water. Clover climbs in and smiles. The water is holding her and everything she has been carrying.

Morning comes through the pulled shades. Andy calls the midwives around 7:30. Clover has been laboring for 12 hours now. Hilary, the midwife, tells her to keep her voice low, in her abdomen, as opposed to in her throat – which feels more natural. This will help move the baby lower into her pelvis.

Her grunts and noises sound remarkably sexual when she does this. It seems fitting the noises would be the same both conceiving a child and delivering it.

Clover and I are walking. Her hands on my arms. Mine upon hers. She looks directly into my eyes. Hers are big, round, open. Is it fear? Trust? Amazement? Fatigue? I’m not sure. I meet her gaze, as she has asked me to. And I tear up. I am trying to be solid but I feel like I will fall apart at any moment.

No one has ever trusted me this much. Trusted my heart. My body. My psyche. I am overwhelmed.

 ********************

 2014-03-25 02.28.27The first midwife assistant, Sarah, arrives around 8:30 a.m. She is extraordinarily perky. She has slept. We have not.

She watches Clover and I move through a contraction.

We have a new pattern. She squats and I squat with her. I tell her to see the oak tree. To see Strident in the oak tree. She softens and collapses into me and I hold her naked body against my clothed one. We will repeat this again and again.

Sarah puts a fetal heart-rate monitor on Clover’s belly. She will do this following each contraction to make certain everything is as it should be.

I leave Clover with Sarah and walk into the kitchen. I look at Andy, who is making me yet another cup of instant coffee. I tell him this is perhaps the most important thing I have ever done. “Me too,” he says.

A few hours later a second assistant arrives. And around noon, Hilary – the midwife – shows up.

They are all very matter-of-fact. Except about moving. When Clover moves, the baby moves, they explain. And so we keep her moving. In the tub. Out of the tub. In the bed. Out of the bed. Over the toilet. On all fours. On her side. Squatting.

I hold. I squat. I invoke the oak free and Strident until the images no longer produce the desired effect. “No more oak tree,” she says.

Clover’s temperature rises and falls. She steps out of the tub and we wrap her in towels. Moments later she throws them off.  She is like James Brown, hobbling off stage with a cape draped over him, then tossing it off and jumping into the splits. All except for the splits.

We laugh. All except Clover. She is somewhere else. Focused.

Not once does she say “I can’t.” Only, “this is taking so long.”

********************

clover and mayaIt is late afternoon and she begins to push. The midwives continue to keep her moving. Reminding her to keep her voice low in her body. She is in the tub. I am taking photographs, as she has asked me to do. The camera hides my tearing eyes.

I do not know if they are happy or sad tears. Perhaps both.

I put the camera down and kneel on the side of the tub so that Clover can grasp my hands as she has so many times now. She does, and then lets go, grabbing on to the handles on the side of the tub. It is her and her God alone in the tub. We are her chorus, surrounding her.

And the miracle emerges – all head and a shock of dark hair. Her tiny body tethered by the umbilical cord. Hilary shouts, “Catch your baby! Catch your baby!” And she does.

The pool is red. Clover is radiant. Energized.

Hilary pulls a cap on to Juniper Maya’s tiny head and wraps a towel around her. She lies on Clover’s chest. Andy cuts the umbilical cord.

 ********************

I feel the tears rise up inside of me. I want to leave.

I am sleep deprived. My body is full with food I wouldn’t normally eat. Spoonfuls of crunchy peanut butter. A chocolate energy bar. Chicken stew. A cold sweet potato. And yet I still feel hungry.

I am acutely aware that my long-distance love, Mr. 700 Miles – the one who slipped away without a word several weeks ago – is shockingly, frighteningly present.  That he has been for the last 17 hours, during which time I have told him, again and again – quietly, internally – “You gotta go.”  He is never gone for long.

I feel sad that I cannot, will not, be able to share this experience with him.

I feel sad that he will never meet Clover, Andy and Juniper Maya.

I feel sad because I recently had the thought, “I would have a baby with this man.” A thought I had never had before.  Not even with my ex-husband.

I begin cleaning. Picking up towels strewn across the floor, determining which can be laundered and which go in the trash. Emptying trash bins and putting in fresh bags. Scrubbing the slow cooker. Loading the dishwasher.

I watch Sarah drain the tub with a hose – siphoning the water mixed with blood and other fluids into the toilet.

I gather my things and greet the family in the bedroom.

Hilary is stitching Clover. Juniper Maya is nursing. I help Andy send a text to waiting friends and family.

Clover tells me the small box with ribbon is for me.

We hug. We kiss. We exchange words of gratitude. None of them quite capturing what we have shared.

I tell her I love her and that we will talk about it – all of it – later.

********************

2014-04-06 22.16.11I am barely out the door and I begin sobbing – heaving, convulsing, cannot catch my breath tears.

I arrive home and see my bag at the door. The one with my toothbrush and eyeglasses. I scramble some egg whites and pick up the phone, calling Sarah, Lynn, and Chase. I call Anne. And Kristina. Anyone but Mr. 700 Miles. I leave messages for each of them. And one by one, each calls me back.

I open the box from Clover. Inside is a delicate gold chain with the smallest hamsa (palm-shaped amulet) I have ever seen.

I fall into bed.

Tomorrow Clover will tell me the hamsa is the hand of God. That my hand was the hand of God.

I will recall telling Andy this is perhaps the most important thing I have ever done.

And I will be certain of it.

(Not An) Artist Date 67: Mundanely Juicier

I woke up Monday morning to an email from my friend Clover, sent to her intimate circle.  A report on her day, her condition, her life in Chicago as she is about to bring new life into Chicago.

Juicy Mama-To-Be, Clover.
Juicy Mama-To-Be, Clover.

“It’s a beautiful Monday morning– 40 degrees and sunny…I am feeling good and I’m on my way to work…I am taking it very slow and easy…I feel ready to burst. She is rolling around in there this morning – hanging out on my bladder. No signs of labor yet.”

My heart swells and my head feels clear.  I am reminded of what is important in the world.

Tuesday.

“The snow is almost fully melted and it’s really starting to feel like Spring…I began to have some abdominal cramps. Not sure if these are the Braxton-Hicks contractions everyone speaks of, but I am feeling closer to labor everyday…

I am so tired, taking it slow and breathing lots. My body is doing such hard work!

…A new life on its way, the prospect of motherhood, the challenge of labor…”

The challenge of labor.  I am Clover’s doula.  (Greek for “servant.”) Her and Andy’s support and advocate during birth.

I have done this just once before, for my girlfriend Julie.  It was a gift.  A labor of love.  Something I never considered doing again.  Until a few months ago when the words tumbled out of my mouth and Clover and I embraced over a marble table at Julius Meinl, “sealing the deal.”

I pull out my pre-natal materials and make a stack of them on the floor, next to my bed.  Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn.  Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy.  A binder of handouts and lesson plans.  I too am getting ready.

“It is Wednesday and nearly everything here is covered in a fine dusting of snow…the trees look majestic. I love this little morning surprise beauty of winter…

Andy and I started the new remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which made me feel such awe and wonder at our world and our infinitesimal place in it. I feel asleep after 30 minutes, as I do these days…

I decided to stay home from work today and relax..I am hoping that the strong sense of waiting with subside, though I somehow doubt it will. At least I am waiting along with all of you.”

This morning, out Clover's window.
This morning, out Clover’s window.

I phone Clover and ask if she would like to wait together.  I had planned on writing.  Or an Artist Date.  Number 67.  But being alone with my friend for perhaps the last time for a while seems mundanely juicier.

I remember my last day with Julie before she birthed her son, Jaron.

We went to the gym where Julie mentioned she sometimes sees my junior high-school crush.  I felt excited and hopeful.  She told me I shouldn’t be.  That he never wiped his sweat off of the equipment.

After, we ate breakfast at Giorgio’s.  Julie was excited to have French Toast, but had no room for it.  Just 5’2” and carrying high, there was hardly any space between her ribcage and her baby.  We laughed at the injustice of it.

Back at her house I rubbed acupuncture points on her hands and feet – “downward elevators” in Chinese medicine – to stimulate labor.

She delivered her baby the next afternoon.

We reminisce about this seemingly mundane day regularly.  I recall the joy I felt being able to touch my friend.  To see her so radiant.  To be useful.

I feel the same way about Clover.  I see her at the top of the stairs and I tear up, even though I saw her just five days ago.

She makes me a cup of tea and I pull one of her feet into my lap.  I sink my fingers into her swollen flesh, searching for bone.  The baby is moving about.

She tells me about a dream her husband had several years ago about their daughter, and calling her by name.  They had been on the fence about having children.  Andy’s disclosure became an opening in their willingness.

Clover is having a girl.  She has not told me her name.  I hear Annabelle in my head.  I do not tell her.  Like me, Clover has no poker face.

Waiting together...
Waiting together…

She asks me if I ever wanted to have children.

I tell her I never really knew.  That, for a long time, I never considered it.  Probably because I somehow knew I couldn’t stay sober for nine months.  Although I never acknowledged that to myself until many years had passed without my having a drink.

I tell her about J, who regularly told me he would marry me.  That we would have daughters.  That he held an image of me and our girls lighting Shabbat candles – which amused me as neither of us were particularly religious.

Kind of like Andy’s dream.  Except it didn’t happen.

She says at times, I have felt like a mother to her.  That I showed her how to mother herself.  I am humbled.

We talk about sex and love and fear.  We eat carrots and hummus standing over the sink because her ass has gone numb from sitting.  She hands me her hands and I rub them, pressing into the downward elevators.  We cry.

The next time I see her she will likely be in labor.  I will perhaps be holding her leg, telling her, “You can and you are,” my mantra during Julie’s labor.

And then we will welcome her daughter.

Doing It Again. Confessions of a Reluctant Doula.

I vowed I would never do this again.

And yet, the words tumbled out of my mouth.  At the same time both jumbled and awkward, certain and clear.  Clover reflected them back to me.

With Clover, on one of our many gelato/sorbet dates this summer.
With Clover, on one of our many gelato/sorbet dates.

“Are you saying you want to be my doula?”

“Um…yes.  I guess.”

Pause.  Smile.  Squint.  Think.  Nod.  Nod again, excitedly.

“Yes.  Yes, I do.  If you will have me.”

She stood up from her chair — her pregnant belly announcing itself to all those around us – and threw her arms around me.   Both our eyes wet with tears.

Just a few months earlier, she had told me she was pregnant.

Sitting on the marble wall outside of the Sulzer Library.  It was summer and we had just polished off our cups from Paciugo – sorbet for her, gelato for me.  I was talking about boys.  None of it new or terribly important.

And when I stopped, she was talking about babies.  Specifically, her baby.

Later that night, we danced in the street to a band from West Africa.  And when she was tired I walked her home, suddenly terribly protective.  I called her Lil Mama – what a boy from South Carolina used to affectionately call me – and told her I would support her in any way I could.

So it shouldn’t have surprised either of us when I offered to be her doula.

Except that I am not certified as a doula.  Greek for “a woman who serves.”

I am a pre-natal massage therapist and instructor.  A friend.  Terribly interested in the miracles our bodies engender.

And I’ve done this once before.  A little more than six years ago, for my oldest and dearest friend Julie.

My then-husband and I were preparing to move from California for his medical residency.  In the two months leading up to our departure, we would travel to Chicago to look for a home, and to Oklahoma for my ex-boyfriend’s wedding.

Julie asked that I consider a third trip – to Detroit, for the birth of her son.  She wanted me to be her doula.

I was in an underground parking lot when I received her call.

Every fiber in my being wanted to say no.  It wasn’t practical.  It was expensive.  I felt overwhelmed.

The words that flew out of my mouth were, “Of course.”

Before the birth, with Julie.
Before the birth, with Julie.

I arrived a few weeks later – three days before her due date, and departing four days after.  It was spring.  No one thought my schedule and the baby’s would sync.  We gave it to the universe.

We spent our days on long walks.  Visiting her mother.  Talking – about everything and nothing.  Like we always do.

I massaged her legs while she sat on the exam table in a flowered gown, waiting for the obstetrician.  And pressed acupressure points on her hands and feet – “downward elevators” in Chinese medicine.

We ate a late breakfast following a trip to the gym – her last before becoming a mother.  Julie wanted to use the elliptical machine.  (She swears this is what started her labor.)  She ate little of her French toast.   Her stomach pushed so far up into her ribs, it left little room for food.

Around 11 p.m. that night I got the call.  It was time.

I met Julie at the hospital door.  Steve parked the car.

We walked the hospital floors for an hour, until she was dilated enough to be admitted.

Once in her room, we talked and laughed and napped over the next many hours.  Somewhere there are photographs of me wrapped up in blankets, looking like a woman from the old country.

Her husband fed me crackers and peanut butter.  I watched Julie instinctively comfort herself.  She labored many hours, insisting on a vaginal birth – even though the doctor on call wanted to perform a C-section.

Thankfully, the labor nurses supported her choice.

At their urging, I held up one her legs and counted her contractions out loud until hoarse.  Jaron’s head emerged.  Then his shoulder.  And then the rest of him – slipping out quickly like a fish.

I saw him first and looked at Julie with wet eyes, nodding.  I didn’t have any words.

Jaron was placed under a heat lamp, like a Big Mac, while the doctor tended to Julie, and the nurse made notes.   He looked wise, terribly nonplussed by this abrupt move from his inner world out.

“You’ve done this before,” I said.

Right after the birth.  My first time as a doula.
Right after the birth. With Jaron.

They say babies don’t smile right away, but I am certain he did, as he reached into the air.  “Playing with the angels,” Julie said, referring to the idea in mystic Judaism that babies are born so pure they can see angels.  A lovely idea.

I returned to the hospital the next day.  Julie was eating a cold grilled cheese and French fries – seemingly already accustomed to the realities of motherhood.

She told me I should do this work professionally.  “Never,” I replied.

A few years later her niece asked me to come to New York to be her doula.  I was flattered, but politely declined.

I didn’t want to be on call.  Couldn’t imagine putting a price to the work.  Wasn’t willing to sleep on a fold-out chair for just anyone.  Just her.

I was grateful for the experience.  To be invited so intimately into my friend’s life.  But I had no desire to repeat it.

Until I did.

Clover had just gone public with her pregnancy on Facebook.

As we ate perhaps our last gelato and sorbet of the season, I intuitively knew that I would be there.  Sleeping on a fold-out chair, eating crackers and peanut butter, a blanket wrapped around my head like a babushka.  Serving the miracle.

BoyFish

jaron

The air is cool

Waiting for your work.

I wrap myself in

A white hospital blanket

Cocooned

Pulling it over my head

In reverence

A chador.

Your husband snaps

A photograph and feeds me

Crackers and peanut butter

In small, cellophane packages.

I rest,

Waiting, like the cool air

For you,

For Jaron.

Holding your leg, strong

Open

Counting your contractions until

Hoarse, until

Life spills from you

Slipping out like

a fish.

Boyfish.

He is six today.

He wears glasses and reads

Chapter books.

We retell the story

Of the cool air

Of his arrival, once

Again.

One day he will

Say “Mom,”

“Enough.”

Yes, Boyfish, You are

Right.

To be invited into

Life, is

Enough.