Casey’s eyes are bright as she flips the pages of the guidebook to photographs of Angkor Wat. She presses the leaves open so, together, we can look at temples, lichened stone gateways carved with blank eyes and broad lips, and pillars bound by sinuous, elephant-leg-thick vines. My daughter is planning a four-month trip. She says she needs to throw her life up in the air and see what comes down, and I get it – I felt that way when I turned fifty. I understand the lure of a mysterious, ancient place such as this, but I wish her life-tossing could happen close by, at least someplace closer than Asia.
As she talks about visas and inoculations, elephant orphanages and tiger cub snuggling opportunities, I want to hold her close and keep her here. Well, no, I’m not being honest. For her, this is the time for such a trip and I want all that it promises for her. I just want her to be safe.
But it has been a long time since I had any control over her safety. Actually, given the circumstances of her birth, I never had control over that.
Twenty-eight years ago I stood on a stone bridge with my friends Chris and Wendy, telling stories we’d heard about embarrassing places to break one's waters: the release of amniotic fluids that signals the onset of labor. Not the usual topic in some circles, but I was seven and a half months pregnant, and we all had toddlers, so talk was often about bodily functions, diaper rash, stool consistency and runny noses. While we chatted, we watched our kids, Tucker, Molly Beth and Nikki, playing in the yard of the school where we all lived and worked.
Suddenly, I felt a trickle down my leg. I was chagrined, but not surprised - unwanted and unexpected physical sensations had become commonplace over recent months. I excused myself and walked the short distance to our apartment, thinking “Just a little “mistake.” Except I couldn’t stop the flow. I had to laugh. We’d just been talking about broken waters and apparently that’s what this was. From my reading, I assumed birth was imminent. It was early, yes, but it was 1983, and I was not concerned about the baby’s safety. I was in good shape, Tucker’s birth had been smooth, and I’d taken Lamaze classes to refresh my breathing techniques.
Within a half hour, I’d spoken with the Cones, friends who would be caring for Tucker and our dog for the few days I imagined this would take. Tucker stood tearfully by the bed, still zipped in his brown corduroy jacket. “Don’t worry sweetie,” I told him, “I’ll be back in a few days with the baby.” I was confident and Tucker was comforted.
But I was wrong.
The baby did not budge. According to Dr. Hoffman, my obstetrician, that was a good thing: the longer the child had to mature in utero, the better. But the sterile protection of the placenta had been breached, so the doctor had me admitted to the hospital to stay until labor commenced. No germs there, right?
Despite my robust health, I was quarantined in the maternity ward in order to keep me as germ-free as possible. Other than my husband, Dave, I was not allowed to have guests. Apparently, only my friends were potential contaminants because I was encouraged to exercise and I was permitted to walk the halls and mingle with other people’s guests as they ogled the newborns. Maybe the germs found me as I stood among those strangers admiring their infants.
Or maybe they found me while my room was cleaned by The Crazy Lady.
She’d earned that less than complimentary title because of her dour manner, wild gray hair, and blank stare. She always wore a pale pink shirt-waist uniform and rarely spoke. I hadn’t seen her in a few days, but she appeared one morning and true to form, grunted to my greeting as she shoved my bed out of her way. She set down her bucket, dipped the mop, and swabbed the floor, sniffling and coughing a lot, but saying nothing.
Out in the hall, a nurse passed the door to my room and spotted her. “Hey! You’re back,” she said. “Feeling better?’
“Nah,” the Crazy Lady replied. “But I need the money.”
Ah, hospitals. While a blessing in many ways, they can be tricky. Never have I been as sick as during that stay. Natural childbirth purist that I was, I’d avoided even Tylenol throughout my pregnancy, yet, after a few weeks of bed rest, I was red-nosed and congested and taking a regimen of some of the biggest pills I’d ever seen. I would have refused them if I could, but I needed to breathe deeply, easily and energetically, once labor began.
When would that be? I’d begun to despair.
Three weeks passed and still not a twinge. Who would have thought I’d clamor for contractions, but so it was. Dave had brought in my sewing machine, scissors and a supply of gingham and calico fabrics to help pass the time. I cut out squares of blue, yellow and green, arranged pleasing patterns on my bed, and made bumpers for the baby carriage and a full-sized patchwork quilt for Tucker.
Tucker. I was frantic to go home to my boy. He fell under the prohibition against guests and was allowed only an occasional, bewildering visit. Why was I in my nightgown during the day? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I hold him? Why couldn’t I go home? From what I heard, his confusion at my prolonged absence was resulting in tantrums, tears and battles for control. His two grandmothers were taking shifts caring for him while Dave worked, so he was in loving hands, but he needed me… and I needed him. I’d had it with the hospital. If the doctor refused to induce me soon, I planned to slip into my street clothes and sneak out.
When Dr. Hoffman stopped in for our daily visit, I pled my case: during my stay, I’d seen many healthy babies born three to four weeks early, and I was but two weeks from my due date. I painted a dire picture of Tucker’s yearning. I described the sick crazy lady swabbing my floor. I was revving up for another salvo when the doctor said, “Sure.”
What? Oh. That went better than I’d expected. He scheduled a pitocin drip for 8:00 a.m. the next morning.
For me, labor was a glorious battle with a baby as the prize. I was well-armed with my breathing techniques, lollipops and ice chips for dry mouth, and tennis balls to counter back pain. Dave, my valiant cheerleader, was at my side. A joyous picture of Tucker was prominently displayed as my focal point. I was ready.
Dave’s eyes were filled with loving respect as he held my hand while contractions sent wiggling lines soaring on the monitors, but I remember only the good, hard work of helping the baby make her way out to my arms. I remember the strain of pushing and my faith that Dr. Hoffman would not let me hurt myself, so I was free to bear down, bear down, bear down when it was time. In my mental movie of the birth, shot from an angle that allowed me to see my red face, eyes squeezed shut, mouth pursed and blowing, I bellowed as Casey surfed into the doctor’s hands.
“It’s a little girl,” he announced, “and she’s so sweet.”
Now that sweet little one is off to Asia. She mentions destinations like Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, names that to me, still conjure guerrilla warfare and napalm devastation. While I am excited about her adventure, I am anxious. She says, “Mom, I don’t want to be raped or kidnapped any more than you want me to be. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” But, I want the trip to be over, with Casey home again, telling me of the wonder, learning and challenges of her adventure, complete with pictures, wide eyes and shrieks of laughter.
I love this brave, beautiful girl who has been out on her own for years now, living in New York City, and I have to admit, that was scary for me too. I think back to the frustration of my long wait for her birth in the hospital, and the years – such a short time it seems - when she was safe in her car seat, safe in her bed, safe in our care, and still, it is hard to let go.