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Ten Days—Ten Years
The only light in the room came from a single kerosene lamp. I ran my hand along the wall beside the wide-plank door, found a switch, and flicked it on. A copper lamp with a fringed shade made a circle of light on the small wooden table next to the bed. I stood in the center of the room and felt a sense of excitement growing in me. Although I had dreamed of this moment for years, envisioned this place many times before, I hadn’t ever truly believed it would happen. Looking around now, anything felt possible, as if something new was coming alive in me, a sense without form, poised to take shape.
The idea of a retreat had been planted in my heart in the first months after Hannah’s death. Holding her lifeless body in my arms, part of me had released itself; something in me had irreparably changed. I had known then that I would have to get away, to immerse myself in a silence that was only mine, if I were to ever understand fully what had happened, if I were ever to know what I was supposed to do next.
The Hermitage, the center where I was now staying, had been established years ago by an elderly Mennonite couple who had converted a huge barn into several floors of small bedrooms, libraries, and a kitchen–dining room. For a modest fee, guests were given their own rooms and bath and encouraged to spend their days quietly on their own, reading, painting, writing, or walking in the fields and surrounding woods. All meals, except for breakfast, were prepared by Mary and served to guests around the farm table in silence. It seemed the perfect space for my retreat.
Now, gazing around the room, I felt as if I had been transported into another, timeless place, far from any life I had ever known. The walls were paneled with knotted pine boards that climbed horizontally to the beamed ceiling. Two screened windows on wide hinges were open to the warm summer evening, their white lace curtains catching the breeze. A well-worn plank floor was partially covered by a brown braid rug, and along one wall, facing the largest window, was a double bed with a carved, wooden headboard and muted patchwork quilt. A small teddy bear with button eyes and suede paws leaned against the pillow.
I laid my suitcase on the bed and began to unpack. I stacked my folded clothes in the drawers of the simple bureau, placed my new journal alongside a silver pen on the small desk that sat beneath the window across from the bed, and slid several photographs of my husband, Claude, and our four children, Will, ten; Hannah, who would have been seven; Margaret, three; and Madelaine, two, under the edges of the window frame above. In the drawers of the desk I put pages of drawing paper, a few pencils, and a deck of cards.
Beneath the second window, next to the dresser, was a small kneeling bench with a wooden shelf nailed to the wall above it. Here I placed a votive candle and the gold cross I wore around my neck during the last year of Hannah’s life. When I had finished, I slid my suitcase under the bed and sat down in the large, upholstered reading chair in the corner. From my vantage point, I could see fireflies blinking in the dark outside the windows. I sat quietly, not moving, feeling myself breathe. Mary, the caretaker, had told me when I checked in that one other guest was scheduled to arrive in a day or two; other than that, I would be on my own. Having shared a room with two younger sisters until I was eighteen, and never having lived on my own, the idea of so much solitude and silence seemed too good to be true. And, as a wife and mother, I had become so acclimated to constant interruptions that I couldn’t help thinking now that this peaceful feeling couldn’t possibly last.
Sitting in the light of the flickering lamp, I heard a rustling noise, just outside the window, and felt a shiver up my spine, suddenly frightened of being alone. Quickly I stood up and, with a running start, leaped across the floor onto the bed, just as I had as a little girl, afraid of monsters that lurked in dark corners. Undressing beneath the covers, I dropped my clothes onto the floor and burrowed beneath the soft sheets and thick quilt. Closing my eyes against the dark and silence, I fell almost immediately into a deep sleep.
Slip, sliding away
My body was not my own; every pore was yawning open. Even the air particles felt charged with anticipation, poised for what was about to happen. The nurse, standing on one side of the bed, was anchoring my foot in the stirrup. Claude, his eyes wild with excitement, held one of my outstretched hands in his.
The whole of my life, twenty-five years, I had known this moment was coming with the same sense of certainty in which we draw our next breath. What I did not know was whether this baby, my first child, was going to be a boy or a girl. Claude and I had chosen to be surprised at the moment of our baby’s birth. I felt grateful, in this breath between contractions, for the sense of excitement I felt, already loving this little person so wholly and completely without knowing for certain whether this baby was a Hannah or a Will.
The next contraction gripped my body, and all my attention was sucked into the sensation as I felt the weight in my pelvis bear down. I imagined the muscles around my cervix expanding and lengthening, the head of the baby, our baby, being pushed through. Dr. Menon, a petite, Indian woman, smiled encouragingly from between my legs at the foot of the bed.
“You’re doing great,” she murmured softly. “Once this contraction subsides, I’ll hold the mirror up so you can see the baby’s head.”
I nodded briefly, consumed by the intensity of the crescendo running through my body as I tried to remember to breathe. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the grip of the contraction released and my attention returned to what was happening in the room. Everyone got busy in the pause. The nurse helped the doctor position the mirror between my legs. Claude asked, “Do you want some more ice chips, honey? Is there anything you need?”
“No, just keep holding my hand. I’m doing fine as long as I know you’re there.”
I had barely exhaled the last word when the next contraction began. It rose like a tsunami from the center of my body. Relentlessly, it rolled outward into the whole of my awareness, swallowing any separate sense of myself. I gave myself to it—opening, offering, and surrendering. Leaning forward, aware of nothing but sensation, I saw in the mirror my swollen, bulging vagina, impossibly stretched around a protruding, dark orb. Dr. Menon took my left hand and placed it gently on the wetness between my legs.
“That,” she whispered, “is your baby’s head.”
Some part of me, silently watching, suddenly woke up. As my fingers lightly caressed the slippery softness, the being who until now had been an inherent part of my self and my body became in this moment its own separate person, touching me with its own, slippery head!
I took a deep breath and bore down again, feeling the burn as my perineum tore. “Breathe,” the nurse reminded me in a loud voice. I pulled myself away from the center of my body just long enough to expand my lungs and inhale another breath. I screwed up my face and bore down again. “Relax your face!” The nurse spoke more loudly. I had never experienced such fullness in any moment; so many things were happening in my body and my awareness that it took everything I had to bring my attention to any single thing.
Then it happened. The intensely concentrated pressure pushing out from the center of my body shifted slightly and began to slide. As the outer lips of my vagina became an expanding ring of fire around the baby’s head, Dr. Menon leaned in, closer to my body, and the nurse lifted the mirror out of the way.
“One more push, Maria. Make it a strong, good one,” she said.
Claude gripped my hand more tightly and turned his gaze from my face toward what was happening between my legs. I opened my mouth, inhaled a huge breath, closed my lips around it, and bore down. I felt as if my body was being forced through my legs, outside of itself. In the moments before this one, when I had tried to imagine the moment of my baby’s birth, I always imagined my eyes closed as I concentrated on the last push. Instead, they remained fully open, allowing everything: the ring of fire, Claude’s anxious face, the sweeping second hand of the clock behind Dr. Menon’s head, the relentless pushing, sliding, straining pressure inside me, between my legs.
Suddenly, the intensity popped, and I felt the baby’s body, distinctly, sliding through me.
“The head is out. Pant without pushing just for a moment.” Dr. Menon and the nurse busied themselves with a blue bulbed syringe, clearing the baby’s mouth and throat. Claude started to cry. “I can see our baby’s face,” he said.
I could no longer contain the pressure building inside me. In a single rush, the rest of his body slid into the world.
“It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” Claude exclaimed, tears sliding down his cheeks. The two of us couldn’t take our eyes off our son’s slippery form. Everyone, even the busiest nurse, was smiling. Although Will’s umbilical cord was still attached to the unborn placenta inside my body, Dr. Menon laid him, cheek to breast, against my chest. As I held our son in my arms, he gazed at me quietly, not crying, awake. Claude leaned over and kissed the top of Will’s head, then turned to me. The two of us looked into each other, transparent and trembling as if we were each seeing the other for the first time.
Dr. Menon quietly interrupted our reverie by handing Claude a pair of scissors, instructing him where to make the cut in the umbilical cord. I stroked the top of Will’s head and brushed my lips across his cheek. Instinctively, his head turned toward my breast. I slipped my nipple between his lips and he began to suck. I felt a searing goodness being pulled from inside me. As he nursed, Will’s blue, deep-seeing eyes never left mine. For a single, timeless moment, the rest of the world vanished, and everything was my son and me.
From the Hardcover edition.