All the way down Route 119, past Gandeeville, Snake Hollow, and Wolf Run, I’m thinking about the baby that died.
I wasn’t there, didn’t even know the family. It happened a few days ago, with another midwife, at a homebirth in Hardy County, on summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
Word on the informal West Virginia midwives’ hotline is that the baby’s shoulders got stuck, a grave emergency. The midwife, Jade, tried everything, all the maneuvers she’d studied in textbooks and the special tricks she’d learned from other practitioners, but nothing worked. They rushed, by ambulance, to the nearest hospital thirty miles away, with the baby’s blue head sticking out of the mother, but it was too late. Of course it was too late.
Homebirth midwives in West Virginia are legal, but just barely, and there’s no doubt the state coroner’s office will investigate. Jade is afraid.
We are all afraid.
We whip around another corner and I lose my supper out the side window. Who do I think I am taking on this kind of responsibility? Why am I risking my life to get to a homebirth of people I hardly know? What am I doing in this Ford station wagon being whipped back and forth as we careen through the night?
I awake sick with grief, my heart pounding. I’m lying on a pillow-padded king-size bed with floral sheets. A man I hardly recognize sleeps next to me. This is Tom, I remind myself: my husband of thirty-three years, a person whose body and mind are as familiar to me as my own. I prop myself up on an elbow, inspecting his broad shoulders, smooth face, straight nose and full lips, his short silver hair, in the silver moonlight. One hairy leg sticks out of the covers. One arm, with the wide hand and sensitive surgeon’s fingers, circles his pillow. It’s 3:45, summer solstice morning.
When I rise and pull on my long white terry robe, I stand for a moment, getting my bearings, then open the bedroom door that squeaks and pad across the carpeted living room. Outside the tall corner windows, the trees dance in the dark. Once I called myself Trillium Stone. That was my pen name when I lived in rural communes, wrote for our political rag, The Wild Currents
, taught the first natural-childbirth classes, and started doing homebirths.
Now I’m a nurse-midwife with short graying hair, who no longer delivers babies, living with an ob-gyn in this lakefront home, so far from where I ever thought I would live, so far from where I ever wanted
to live. I search the photographs on the piano of my three handsome sons, now men. Do I wake? Do I sleep?
OK, my life has been a wild ride, I’ll admit it, but the image of this hippie chick lurching through the night, on her way to a homebirth, with only a thick copy of Varney’s Midwifery
as a guide, disturbs me. What did she think she was doing? Where did she get the balls?
On the highest shelf in the back of our clothes closet, a stack of journals gathers dust. For seventeen years I carried them in a backpack from commune to commune. They’ve moved with me across the country three times, through midwifery school, Tom’s medical school and his ob-gyn residency. I can’t get the diaries out of my mind, a mute witness to my life . . .
I slip back through the bedroom. Tom snores on. By the dim closet light, I find a stepladder and struggle to bring down the shabby container. The journals have been closed for twenty-five years; pages stick together and smell faintly of mold.
I’m on a mission now, trying to understand, but I’m surprised to find that I started each entry with only the day and the month, no year. This is going to take a while. It seems I never expected anyone would want to reconstruct my life, not even me. I’m an archaeologist digging through my own past.
With narrowed eyes, I flip through notebook after notebook, daring that flower child to show her face. When the alarm goes off, Tom, dressed in blue scrubs for the OR, finds me asleep in the white canvas chair, with a red journal open, over my heart.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Arms Wide Open by Patricia Harman. Copyright © 2011 by Patricia Harman. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.