I 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.
We 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.
The 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.”
It 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.
I 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.