I’m not by nature a fearful person.
In college, I was held up at gunpoint while studying abroad and I argued with the assailant and even tried to take away his gun, all the while sneaking the precious things in my bag into the waistband of my pants. I’ve hitch-hiked on motorcycles, cattle trucks, fruit carts and semi-trucks all over West Africa. I was on a plane that caught on fire and made an emergency landing in Iceland; until we touched land, we thought we were making a water landing, so I calmly zipped my ID into my pocket in case my body was discovered floating in the ocean somewhere.
This is not to brag about any kind of exceptional bravery – it is more a testament to my stupidity, actually – but to show that in some potentially frightening circumstances I am able to hold fear at bay. However, as I was wheeled into the operating room, the floodgates of terror ripped open.
I felt myself being consumed with terrible, shaking fear. As the nurses helped me sit up on the operating stage, I clenched my teeth to absorb the pain of intensifying contractions while simultaneously gripping Andy’s hands with iron fists. I could not stop my hands from quivering as fear seemed to eat up my body. For some inexplicable reason, the thought of an epidural shot has given me more nightmares since childhood than anything else related to giving birth. The looming reality of my spinal hatched a terror that continued to grow within me even as the anesthesiologist prepped my back. He told me to hold perfectly still despite the contractions that demanded I writhe in pain. I forced my body into statue-like obedience by cutting off the circulation in Andy’s hands with a grip of steel. I barely felt the spinal because of intensifying contractions.
I have reflected often about this fear. I was theoretically prepared for excruciating pain and joyous anticipation, but fear was not an emotion I expected to feel during labor. I wanted this baby. I could not wait to have him, meet him, hold him. I loved him already. So, why the terror? The truth is I don’t know. Perhaps it was the shock. Maybe I wasn’t emotionally ready to be thrust into labor just yet. Perhaps it was the anticipation of pain. Perhaps it was worry about the baby. Perhaps it was worry about myself. Perhaps it was the possibility that something could go horribly wrong, or already had. Perhaps I was worried I would not be a good mother. It was probably a combination of everything crashing my system and allowing fear to carry me on its dark waves.
Andy was the anchor that kept me from drowning. He let me squeeze the feeling out of his hands, and his reassurances helped me to maintain some semblance of calm. Soon, I was on my back, a curtain hanging over my neck to block my view of the operation. Dr. Mason tested the anesthetic and gradually I felt nothing. I heard her say, “Oh, that was a big contraction! Did you feel it?” I was amazed I felt nothing.
I stared up at the curtain, my right arm spread out to the side, my left arm clutching Andy’s hand close to my chest. Andy tells me that I never let go of his hand. I began to lose consciousness. I fought a desperate battle, unwilling to be unconscious when my son was born. I wanted to remember this. I felt so frustrated because I could barely stay awake. This was supposed to be a moment of the most supreme joy, but the world was a blur, voices were a blur, sleep was pulling me forcibly into darkness. I forced my eyes to open, to focus. Then the world blurred again. My eyes wanted to stay shut and sink into darkness. I wondered, is this what it feels like to die? My teeth chattered uncontrollably. I was so cold. So. Cold.
Had they started operating yet?
Keep fighting, Joanna. Don’t sleep. Do not sleep. What if you don’t wake up? A doctor asked me to squeeze his finger, first with my right hand, then with my left. If you can squeeze, he said, you are alright. I kept squeezing my hands into fists. Stay awake. Squeeze. My teeth chattered violently; I felt penetrating cold in my bones. It was so uncomfortable, so cold. Why am I so cold? Stay awake. Stay awake.
I glimpsed movement on the other side of the curtain. It looked like the doctor was pulling something upward, but it was stuck. Her arms went back down, then moved up in another pulling motion. Andy stood up to see. I heard Dr. Mason joke, “He doesn’t want to come out!” Was there a little laughter? It made me feel better. Wait, I thought. They already started? When did that happen? I didn’t even realize they were already operating. That means that on the other side of this curtain, I’m cut open and my organs and blood are all exposed. What was the pulling? Was that the baby? Don’t sleep. Don’t sleep. It won’t be long now. Squeeze.
Andy stood up then bent down to my ear and said excitedly, “He’s out! I’m going to go see him. They are cleaning him now. Are you okay if I go?” I vaguely remember mumbling that he should go check on the baby and that I wanted to see him too. Then, Andy was gone and I was staring back at the curtain. Sleep was pulling so insistently. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I faded in and out of consciousness. Stay awake, Joanna. You are about to meet your baby for the first time. Squeeze. I’m so painfully, penetratingly cold. I clenched my teeth in an attempt to stop the chattering. Don’t let the sleep take you. I was fighting, but I was fading. Don’t give up. Seconds dragged on.
Then suddenly there was movement to my left. I couldn’t turn my head, but I heard Andy’s voice. “Here he is, babe,” he said as his voice cracked, “he is so beautiful.” I could tell he was glowing with a smile that ate up his face. I strained my head to the left, but could barely move. Then, I saw a tiny bundle and two deep, dark pools searching my face before darting curiously all around the room. I saw a nose and protruding red lips. I tried to memorize every feature. Stay awake. Stay awake. Andy asked a nurse to take our picture and then they whisked the baby off to the Intermediate Care Nursery to continue his care. Andy whispered he loved me and made sure I was okay before following after the baby.
I felt alone even as doctors and nurses worked furiously on the other side of the curtain. I didn’t feel the rush of love and joy that I thought women felt after giving birth. I felt worried and disappointed. Was there something wrong with me? I didn’t get to hold the baby. I didn’t get to do skin-to-skin. But, the baby was healthy and safe. I tried to focus on squeezing my hands. I tried to stop my teeth from chattering. But, slowly, I slipped into unconsciousness and the world around me disappeared into darkness.