Room at the Inn
Now, less than six hours later, I was officially in labor with my first child. Murky rivulets of water trickled down my thighs and made a puddle on the carpeted floor. “Scott, I think it's starting” I yelled. “What should I do? There's amniotic fluid everywhere.”
Scott entered the room, looking puzzled. “Amniotic fluid?” he asked. “That's where Nolan has been living, right? I think you'd better call the midwife.” I continued to stare at the floor, stunned by the amount of fluid that had already seeped out of my vagina. I tried not to imagine the dismay that my son was experiencing while his once-cozy home became increasingly dry and barren. It was important for me to stay calm and avoid movements that might upset him further.
I toddled slowly to the phone and dialed the midwife's number. I figured that he most likely wouldn't be home, since it was Christmas. On the other hand, he might actually be there, and would resent the intrusion into his festive family activities. My friends thought it funny that I had secured the services of a male midwife, but I found it charming. Dr. Palmer wasn't the most nurturing midwife in Seattle, but he exuded an air of professional competency. This was important to me because I lived on an island that was accessible to the mainland only by ferry. The island didn't have a hospital, and the ferries quit running after midnight. If I went into hard labor at two in the morning, I would have to wait four hours before I could catch a boat off the island. My midwife had promised to give me advice and support if such a thing happened, and had emphasized that I could call him any time, for any reason.
Dr. Palmer answered on the second ring. “Hello?” he said cautiously. Most likely, he already knew what was coming.
“Hey, it's Leah” I said. “I got out of bed just now, and my water broke. I figured that I'd better let you know.” My voice sounded deceptively casual, as if I was accustomed to calling midwives on Christmas to inform them that a baby was preparing to emerge from my womb.
There was a brief, troubling silence. Finally, Dr. Palmer asked, “Have you taken your temperature? You should do so now, if you haven't already.”
I shook my head, then remembered that he couldn't see me. “No,” I said dejectedly, “I don't own a thermometer. The nearest store is six miles away, and I'm sure it's closed.”
“You NEED a thermometer” Dr. Palmer said firmly. “You have neighbors there on the island, right? Go borrow a thermometer, and call me right back.” He hung up.
I carefully pondered my options. I lived on a rocky beach, surrounded by summer homes that were usually empty during the winter months. In June, the houses suddenly swelled with wealthy families, who owned rosy-cheeked children, sailboats, and large, well-fed dogs. After Labor Day weekend was over, the houses became eerily quiet. Usually, this was a relief, but not when I needed to borrow an essential item from a helpful neighbor.
I shambled uncertainly along the beach, gazing anxiously at the facades of the houses. All of them appeared blank and unwelcoming. I detected a bit of movement within one of the buildings, and rapped on the door, but no one answered. Perhaps I had only imagined the movement, or maybe the inhabitants had caught a glimpse of my pregnant silhouette and decided that I was too much trouble. I wondered why I had never bothered to purchase a thermometer, and I racked my brain, trying to remember whether Dr. Palmer had even suggested it. I was never fully prepared for major life transitions, and there was no reason why childbirth should be any different.
Finally, in a grove of trees, I spotted a tiny shack. Dark smoke curled from the chimney, and a couple of cats slumbered on the moss-covered porch, enjoying the winter sunlight. They stirred fitfully and looked at me with irritation as I ascended the steps. The porch was dotted with empty bottles of various sizes and colors, dusty shells, a ventriloquist's dummy, and two broken rocking chairs. I carefully picked my way through the clutter, and rapped on the door.
There was a rustling noise, as though the inhabitant was trying to make her way through mosquito netting, and finally the door flew open. A frightened-looking young woman peered at me. She was dressed entirely in black, and her face appeared stark-white in comparison to her clothing. I'd seen her a few times, walking on the shared driveway that led from the beach houses to the main highway-a tricky hike that never took less than twenty minutes. My ancient Dodge van had rear wheel drive, and the road was too steep for my vehicle to navigate uphill from the driveway. I parked the van in a grove of trees beside the highway and hiked up and down the road to my home. This helped to keep me in shape through my last trimester of pregnancy.
The woman recognized me, and her face relaxed into a smile. “I wondered whether I could borrow a thermometer” I said politely. “I'm in labor right now, and the midwife wants me to take my temperature.”
“Oh, my goodness” she replied, clearly flustered. She opened the door and motioned for me to step inside. “I do have one, but I'm not certain where it is. Wait here in the living room, and I'll look around.”
She vanished abruptly into the bathroom, and I heard the creaking of the medicine cabinet door, followed by the sound of items hitting the sink. I stared around the house in wonderment. The pale sun shone through the window glass, bathing the contents of the house in greenish-brown light. It was a remarkable place, filled with books, several additional ventriloquist's dummies, rows of herbs in window jars, and antique doll heads. All of the objects appeared comfortable in their spots, as if they had always been there.
“Found it!” the woman hollered. She emerged triumphantly from the bathroom, thermometer in hand. “Thanks” I said. “I'll be sure to bring it back when I'm done with it.” My benefactor looked mildly horrified. “Oh, heavens no,” she said, “You don't need to return it. Are you okay to go home by yourself?”
It was sweet of her to offer assistance, but there wasn't much she could do. She didn't own a car, and she had to rely on the island's sparse bus schedule for her own transport. “I'll be all right,” I assured her. The woman raised her eyebrows, shrugged and looked away. “Have a good holiday!” I said. I stepped outside and closed the door firmly, then picked my way across the slippery rocks to my own abode.
Once inside, I took my temperature several times. It remained at a perfect 98.6, unaffected by the fact that my body was in a state of major upheaval. I dutifully called Dr. Palmer, who told me to monitor any contractions that I might be experiencing. By then, the contractions had already begun in earnest, and they rocked my body at increasingly frequent intervals. I gripped the kitchen counter and swayed with the force of the undulations. My son wanted out of my womb; he was ready to leave his soft aquatic home and take his chances with the outer world and its sharp edges. I wasn't sure if I was the right person to help him, but I had been chosen for the task anyway. Perhaps the job would get easier as I went along, though I was inclined to doubt this.
After several hours, I called Dr. Palmer again. “The contractions are closer together now” I said calmly. “Well, I think you had better come in” he replied. “Call me when you get to the mainland, and I'll head over to the birth center.”
After I hung up, I remembered that I would need to drive the van to the ferry. Scott was left-handed, and had never learned to operate a stick shift. An old boyfriend had given us the van as a pregnancy gift several months earlier. I handled the ungainly vehicle as if it was a sports car, effortlessly shifting gears while maneuvering through island traffic. Scott always rode in the passenger seat, earnestly promising that he would learn to drive the van before Nolan arrived. However, he had failed to do so, and now it was too late.
“Are you sure that you can drive now?” Scott asked as we slowly made our way up the driveway towards the van. “No problem,” I assured him. “If Nolan peeks his head out of my vagina, I'll pull over to the side of the road.” Scott stole a quick look at me, surprised by my unfailing ability to make light of a complex, troubling situation. “You know, I have a feeling that he won't be here until tomorrow” I said. “Meanwhile, I'll just breathe my way through the contractions, like I did in Lamaze class.”
My sense of calm was enhanced by the knowledge that I only had to drive as far as the ferry dock. We would park the car in the public lot, walk onto the boat, and sail into West Seattle. Once there, we'd climb into our second car, which had an automatic transmission. It was a decrepit station wagon that we always kept on the mainland. We had learned this trick from veteran islanders. The walk-on fare was much cheaper than a car and driver ticket, and the savings paid for the cost of a second automobile in less than a year.
Suddenly, a contraction swelled within me, and I leaned against a pine tree until it subsided. Scott watched me, a look of concern on his face. “It's okay” I assured him. I resumed walking, and he fell into step beside me, gripping my elbow tightly. The two of us ascended the driveway's steep grade, and finally spotted our van, parked neatly in the grove of trees. A couple of nearby houses had recently illuminated their holiday lights, and they twinkled warmly on the wet road.
Scott and I unlocked the door and clambered into the van. I inserted the key into the lock and fired up the engine, then shifted the vehicle into reverse. As the van shot backward, I watched our progress in the rear-view mirror. Scott smiled and shook his head in disbelief. “You're quite a woman,” he said admiringly.
I smiled back at him, undaunted. I hadn't been joking when I told Scott that I knew it would be a while before Nolan emerged from my body. I could feel both my own hesitancy and my son's resolve, and I felt certain that he would eventually make it to his destination. At the same time, I wasn't at all worried about Nolan's sense of timing. I had carried him this far, and I would be able to carry him until we made it safely to the birth center. As I shifted the van into second gear, I leaned back in the cushioned seat and switched on the radio. The three of us continued our long trek toward the ferry dock, secure in the knowledge that a warm, safe place awaited us on the other side of the water.