things I couldn't stand to forget (1)

That morning was foggy. Dreary. Raining, slightly, in that irritating misty way that doesn't quite call for an umbrella. I rolled out of my bed at 5:30 or so; my father's car was going to be downstairs in ten minutes; I was supposed to be in the hospital between 7 and 7:30, in time to fill out the paperwork, to have my blood taken, to have the IV placed, to complete all the necessary preliminaries before my surgery was performed at 10 o'clock.

At 10 o'clock, I was going to become a mother. It would be comical to say that I "rolled out of bed" due to my 39-weeks-pregnant rotundity, but I did not so much roll as heave, strain and lever myself off my sunken half of the mattress. It had been almost 6 hours since my last drink of water, and I was already thirsty, with hours to go before the IV began pumping me with fluids. I brushed my teeth, permitting myself an extra generous mouthful to rinse with, sucking the excess off my cheeks after I'd spat.

I put on my black maternity skirt, a stretchy black tank top, a flowing black mesh coverup thing. I looked like boho Fiddler on the Roof. I scraped my hair into a bunched tail, and didn't bother with makeup. I considered being scared, and opted for my customary choice of merely exhausted.

The ride to Lennox Hill with my parents and my husband was ... well ... pregnant with expectation. Predictably. I was at that stage of sleep deprivation that usually crosses over into giddiness (I hadn't fallen asleep until sometime past 2 am), but that crossover is hard to achieve when one hasn't felt physically well in several months. As we drove over the bridge, I looked at the Manhattan skyline, veiled in early morning light and fog, and thought that the next time I saw the outside world, I would be somebody's mother. My parents chattered happily, running over the story of the day I was born - a story that gets repeated every year on my birthday, and one that I, self-centered attention whore that I am, never tire of hearing. I observed this to myself and considered that self-centered attention whores are maybe not the ideal candidates for motherhood.

The baby stretched inside me, distending my stomach in a way that I'd gotten rather used to, and I patted his little head, wodged just south of my ribcage, which was the whole reason we were going to the hospital to get me cut open; he was in full breech presentation, and had stubbornly refused to turn around. Whenever I told anyone I was going to have a C section, their face changed; their mouth drooped sympathetically, and their eyebrows bent upward at the center; they almost always counseled various crazy-sounding solutions to get the baby to turn upside down (which is right side up, for the unborn). I tried the downward facing dog thing a few times, but secretly, I was slightly delighted to be having unnatural childbirth. The whole idea of waiting and waiting and suddenly, in the middle of doing something, being doubled over by pain, and then continuing to suffer that pain until I finally got to the hospital and got an epidural - that whole idea was not attractive to me. Getting cut open sounded a little brutal, sure, but at least there was something controlled about the idea, something fundamentally opposite to the idea of getting my cunt ripped open. (My literal cunt. Literally ripped open.)

We coasted up to the hospital, and there was a small amount of hullabaloo about my mother hopping out and waiting for me with an open umbrella, so that I could take the three steps between the car and the awning without getting wet. This was comical, which was good, because it distracted me from the fact that it was now over seven hours since I had last eaten or drunk anything. I surreptitiously stuck my tongue out for a few rain drops.

I waddled into the hospital lobby, which smelled nothing like a hospital and was quite nice and comfortable, but the psychic vibes hit you like nobody's business. Same as the inside of a courthouse, but more so - this, your body realizes even before your mind does, is where life comes to get interrupted. My pulse sped up, my awareness of everything pricked, my heartbeat migrated upward like a started butterfly. My baby kicked (elbowed?) me in the bladder.

I did what I always do in times of stress and fear; I go all efficient and smiley, like a flight attendant. I ushered my mother and husband into a row of seats and bustled toward the receptionist, my belly cradled in front of me like a status symbol. The second and third trimester, by the way, were literally the ONLY time in my life when I stopped hiding my stomach. This was going to be my last day of that. I was almost going to miss it.

I went through the paperwork, and then I ran to the restroom. On my way back, I stopped at a water fountain for a cubic millimeter of water, which I tried to spread all over my increasingly sticky mouth. By this point, I was seriously tempted to drink a whole glass of water and tell everyone fuck it, we'll have to try this another time. I remembered how difficult has been to lift myself off the toilet, and reconsidered.

There was some waiting and dawdling and marinating in my own anxiety - again, the anxiety wasn't so much in my mind as in my body. My mind was perfectly serene in its faith in modern medicine, the excellent reputation of the hospital-where-Beyonce-gave-birth, the expertise of my ob-gyn, and my own healthy body. My mind was idly observing the somewhat drab decor and irritably wondering if the whole ban on fluids for 10 damn hours prior to scheduled surgery was warranted. My body was preparing for something momentous; heart jumping, skin twitching. My body knew what was up.

The OR nurse greeted me with "Hi mommy!" and I freaked out. I didn't stop smiling, of course; I giggled and cooed and played my part. My well-developed Seven-Sisters reflex was to snarl that I still had the right to my own fucking name, but I had been a bridesmaid before and I knew how this rolled. They'll compliment your hair and stately walk and your idiotic dress, but you need to recognize the alpha in the room, and in this case, the alpha was punching me in the navel from behind it.

Things moved faster after that, but not fast enough to distract me from the thirst that had become almost torturous. I was starting to avoid certain sounds in my speech because they were coming out with those awful dry-mouth clicks that generally accompany pit-stains at podiums. The OR nurse helped me to change into a hospital gown with some kind of weird body stocking girdle thing underneath, and soft socks. She hooked me up to machines and tormented me briefly (and apologetically) before finally getting an IV needle into my hand. That hurt some, and she assured me it would be the worst it would get.

She asked me many questions about myself and my sexual history, and I briefly felt important. (Self-centered attention whore, yep.) She took my vitals and did an ultrasound. Apparently, I was having contractions, although I didn't feel anything. I like to think that the baby agreed with me that 39 weeks was plenty of gestation, and June 12 was a good birthday.

There was more waiting, this time on a gurney-bed, holding a kidney-shaped bowl with several vials of my own blood. My parents took turns hanging out in the room and going for cigarettes; my husband sat on a chair, looking at me with a nervous, little-lost-boy look in his suddenly enormous eyes. I wanted to hold him, and I wanted him to hold me, but he seemed too afraid to touch me in any but the briefest way.

Other people were in the room. The OR nurses chatted and joked with each other, and it felt like a slumber party, or at least a friendly Ricky's store. A couple of other patients arrived, and got prepped behind curtains. At one point, a man walked in, wearing scrubs, and holding a tiny baby. It was his third; a boy; they had been hoping for a girl. I've never before seen that particular mix of disappointment and exhilaration on someone's face. He held his tiny, sleeping son, and I craned my neck to see the newborn's face. I felt reassured to find him cute.

Things happened, people talked, I did my compulsive loud, jokey shtick and made my husband cringe; that temporarily restored our usual dynamic, and his eyes went back to normal for several minutes. And then, I was asked to get up and go somewhere, and of course, I needed to use the bathroom first, dragging my IV in with me. I felt the hard enormity of my stomach with my hands. I don't think I even knew where I was being taken; the nurse (Carmen, of the lovely face and subtle makeup and lovely silver jewelry), briskly walked me through some swinging doors and blurring faces, and I am pretty sure I thought I was going to be asked to sign some more paperwork.

The room was white, bright and very cold, and I was actually confused for one moment; I thought I was going to be examined before I realized that the table in the middle of the room was an operating table. I'd been in an operating room once before, getting my gallbladder removed at 16; but then, I'd been wheeled in supine on a gurney, and all I had a memory of were glaring lights and big masked chins. I'd never walked into an OR; honestly, the whole idea of walking into an OR was a little alien. They never showed anyone WALKING into an OR on Grey's Anatomy.

"Wait, this is it?" I actually said.

Carmen, maybe realizing that my mind was finally catching up to my body and beginning to feel afraid, said quietly and firmly, "This is it."

"I think I'm scared."

"That's normal."

"My heart is going really fast."

"That's what happens as soon as you walk in here."

And with that, I felt better. I don't know why. Maybe because I believed that my adrenaline spike was just a normal reaction and should be taken in stride. Maybe that was the moment I realized that I was surrounded by faces that were all smiling happily behind their masks, and this was not a bad thing. Maybe because there were so many of them in the room - at least 6 people, maybe more - and for the next hour or so, their only job was to focus on me. Maybe because I also saw that, apart from my ob-gyn, they were all women, just like me, and they were going to help me get through this. It was cold and vast and sterile and alien, but I felt the shadow of the birthing tent in that room. The hospital is where life goes to get interrupted, but this room, in this wing of the hospital, on that day - this was where life went to begin.

Someone helped me climb onto the table. There was a flurry all around. The anesthesiologist began to prepare me for the epidural; she directed me to slump on the resident in front of me, to relax completely and curve my spine "like a cat."

"Like a cat, like a cat," I muttered, "oh, this is like yoga, ha ha, I really should have taken prenatal yoga..."

"You're doing great! A little more, just stretch down and relax..."

"Like a cat ... like this? Am I doing this right?"

"That's fantastic," said the friendly voice behind me, "have you EVER seen such a good cat spine, EVER?" (I wondered if the over-the-top positive reinforcement meant I was acting really psycho.)

"That really is great, that's terrific" obediently said the unnervingly stunning resident into whose arms I was slumping. I hoped I wouldn't crush her. She held me in a full embrace, and she looked like an actress playing a beautiful young doctor on a Shondaland TV show. As I tried to relax into her, I realized two things: one, that I would never be as thin as her, ever, and two, that I was about to get stabbed in my fucking SPINE, and that it needed to get done perfectly so as to prevent me from feeling myself getting cut fucking OPEN.

"You are going to feel a coldness, and then a little pinch," said the anesthesiologist, whose voice was so youthful and sweet, I crazily wondered if this was her first solo gig. (I Googled her later, and Dr. Kimberly Gratenstein actually TEACHES anesthesiology. I was in damn good hands.) It felt very important to me to know exactly what to expect.

"A little pinch, what does that mean? Is it going to feel like a regular shot?"

"Exactly." I relaxed. "And then you'll feel some pressure." I unrelaxed, while attempting to keep my spine catlike and relaxed. I'd heard about this "pressure" on the blogs. It sounded terrifying, but it was all already happening - the coolness of an alcohol swab, the poke of a needle, and then, the pressure. I braced myself for awfulness, but it felt like a fist pushing into my spine - not lightly, exactly, but I've definitely dealt with worse on crowded subways.

"Is that it?" I said, and "that's it!" said Dr. Gratenstein, and then things moved fast. "Get her on the table quick" someone said, and I could feel my legs falling asleep even as someone scooped them up onto the table. I was positioned, quickly, on my back, my arms out to either side of me, the classic pose of Christian martyrdom. I could feel everything falling asleep now, going numb, and it felt crazy, because I could still feel SOMETHING in my legs and lower torso, but I could not move a muscle.

I could feel people hovering there, touching me, draping me, smoothing that surgical clingfilm stuff over my abdomen; but I could not move. I was assured this was normal - my kind of epidural does not cut off all sensation, it only eliminates pain - but it felt sci-fi and far-out, like a scene from one of those sleep-paralysis horror stories. I tried not to focus on that; a blue paper screen was hoisted, flapping, in front of me like a mainsail, and everything that was happening south of my sternum stopped being my problem. It was uncomfortable to lie on my back - I'd avoided the position for the last two months or so - and I kept feeling just a little short of breath or nauseous, but the divine Dr. Gratenstein stood by my head the whole time, and responded to every complaint I made by making mysterious adjustments that fixed everything within seconds. (I would like her to live with me and do that all the time.)

"Look who's here!" someone said, and I turned to see my husband looking foxy in a set of blue surgical scrubs, making Patrick Dempsey look like Brian Dennehy. I thought he should have been a doctor and told him so. He had the frightened, big-eyed look again, and he took a seat next to me and held my immobilized left hand. (My right hand was actually mostly available for movement, which was good, because my nose kept itching from the oxygen tubes.)

Things proceeded in an orderly, calm fashion. I can't say I've never been more comfortable in my life, but, with Dr. Gratenstein on one side of my head, and my husband on the other, I definitely felt OK. I was getting a perverse kick out of the fact that I was getting cut open, and could feel people rummaging inside me, and that it didn't hurt. It was like I was a vampire or zombie or something equally cool. This was also the only time in my life that I can remember that people laughed at all my idiotic nervous jokes and agreed with everything I said. (Once again. I would like Dr. Gratenstein to live with me for always, and laugh at all my jokes, and say sweet things, and make everything not hurt. Why can't I just have this one thing.)

"There he is," someone said, and I went quiet. "I can see his tushie!" someone else said, and I actually started trying to crane my neck as though a) this would allow me to see over the blue screen and b) it would have been any kind of good idea to look.

"You can see him?" I yelped. "You can see the baby?"

"Just his tushie for now."

"Well, is it a good tushie???"

"You're going to feel a lot of pressure now, a LOT of pressure," someone said from behind the screen. I braced myself mentally - but the truth was, the LOT OF PRESSURE was no worse than the weight of my ob-gyn leaning into my stomach. Once again, I've gotten worse on the subway.

In the next second or two, several things happened. I felt the pressure of a person leaning into my belly, and just as it was getting uncomfortable, there was the sudden relief of no longer having a fetus pressed against my lungs. Simultaneously, there was a prolonged scream, louder than anything I could have imagined, echoing through the OR, with a smoker-drinker's low rasp and an edge of righteous fury that would have been immediately recognized by every tech support person I have ever spoken to.

It was 10:56 am, and my son had just been born.

I was planning to be cool about the whole thing. I had rehearsed lines in my head; I'd contemplated misty mommy ("Look what we made!") versus grizzled barfly ("Well all right! Now, can I get a drink?") versus addled disbeliever ("Whoooa! That came outta ME?") I was NOT going to cry, and I was NOT going to act like one of those ridiculous women in the movies. Well, so much for that.

As soon as I heard him, I started tearing up. "My baby!" I blubbered in a voice I didn't recognize. "Give me my baby! I want to see him! My baby, my baby, why is he crying so hard, is that normal, can I see him, please, please let me see him, my baby, my baby, etc." My head and shoulders were jerking around, and I honestly think I was trying to hop off the table, scattering my innards all over the place, to get to the source of all that screaming. Which was unabating, by the way.

Carmen coolly rocked my world. I'd forgotten that I'd handed my DSLR off to her. This was not, after all, a birthing tent. In the middle of all that caterwauling - mine and the baby's - she calmly walked over to my side of the screen and handed me my Nikon. It was a few confused seconds before I understood what she meant and pressed the "Play" button - and there he was, hearty and real, nothing ephemeral about him, his face squinched in that scream, still smeared with blood here and there, and his knees somewhere around his armpits, his legs bent crazily up like a frog's. He was breech, facing my spine; he'd been in that exaggerated lotus pose for weeks, and he stayed in it after he was taken out.

My eyes had just focused on the screen; I was zooming into the image to get a better look at his face, trying to reconcile the contorted little stranger in the picture with the concept of "my baby," when the camera was whisked away, and then someone was coming toward me with a bundle of one of those striped hospital baby blankets. The bundle was making a lot of noise, and then, the nurse tilted it, and there was his face.

He looked unhappy and uncomfortable, but he was, in that moment, the only thing I ever wanted to look at. "Closer, please, closer," I begged, and the nurse brought him all the way down to my face on the left side, and I reached my right arm - the only one I could move - to touch him. I turned my head to nuzzle his angelic skin. His perfect rosebud mouth. The tiny cream-drop of his nose.

He was still crying. "We have to talk to him," I told my husband urgently, "he'll recognize our voices, he's been hearing them all along, he knows us." And we talked to him, both of us - "hi, baby," we said, and "welcome" and "we've been waiting for you" and "we love you." And he did stop crying. And so did I.

He snuffled, and sighed and relaxed, and he looked at me with bottomless charcoal gray eyes. He looked sentient and solemn and apprehensive and hopeful. He looked like he was as unsure about this whole thing as I was. He looked like he was willing to like me, maybe even love me, but I would have to give him a reason or two first. He looked like he was trying to figure out exactly who I was, and how the outside of me measured up to the inside. He looked like he could tell that I was trying to do this right, and he would give me a chance.

I am not sentimental (unless the right song is playing). I've read enough true accounts of motherhood that I did not expect a great, earth-shaking, soul-melting mind-alteration at the instant of birth. I suspected that, in that first moment, I would have the same reaction that I had to the photograph of him - cute, cuddly, yes, but a stranger. That isn't what happened - immediately, I wanted to touch him, to kiss him, but there was a tiny pause before I knew I really loved him.

He was a person. An individual. In his way, he was complete and formidable and charged with personhood and potential and personality. Right away. And in that brief instant before I knew I loved him, and that he was mine, I knew only that I respected him, and that he was his.

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