As Max collected the trash around the house last night, the eve of Fred’s birthday, it dawned on Fred that he would be turning 6 on the same day the garbage collectors make their weekly rounds.
“I am SO not lucky! My birthday is the same day as trash day!”
Now, how he’s inherited this superstition I have no idea…but we reassured him that, actually, trash day is a GREAT day, because it is the one day of the week that our garbage pails are empty, lined with fresh and pristine bags. Out with the old, in with the new. Think of your birthday as the day of cleansing and fresh starts, we told Fred on his last day of 5.
We’re indeed lucky. Six years ago this minute I had already been on my back for 7 hours, in labor for an additional 9. (Your math is correct; that is 16 hours and counting, and still no sign of Fred sliding down the birth canal.) I was hooked up to a fetal monitor in a high-tech hospital literally adjacent to rice fields in a town about 1.5 hours outside of Tokyo. Twelve hours into my non-progressing labor the nurse told me that the doctor wanted to do an ultrasound. I would understand soon that the umbilical cord is wrapped around Fred’s neck. That his heart rate is skyrocketing every time I have a contraction. That he is, in essence, being strangled every 90 seconds. They tell me that at the next sign of fetal distress they will deliver Fred via an emergency C-section. Can I please sign the papers? Talk to my husband. Get my husband, I tell them, sobbing. I don’t understand any of this, not just because it’s all in Japanese but because it is even happening at all.
Tomoko, the midwife who speaks English like a native, somehow finds out and dashes into the room and grabs my hand. She talks to me. She is not my assigned midwife but for the next 4 days she will check up on me and report to me regularly her shift schedule so that I’ll know when I can ask for her. Six years later, she is still my friend.
The nurses tell me the labor could last another 2 hours or another 72 and act like this is normal. I ask for an epidural. I try to read their faces to see if they approve and I think they are politely supportive. They are also calm. They let nature take its course; pitocin and induction are not part of the vocabulary here. The epidural takes noticeable effect and I calm down. Miraculously, they never end up wheeling me in for my C-section. The baby apparently stabilizes.
My labor lasts long enough for my regular obstetrician to return from his vacation. At 6 a.m. he greets me and I am thrilled. I did not think he would be able to deliver my baby, but here he is.
Things start moving at around lunch time. They kick Max out to prep me. The epidural’s wearing off and I feel like someone is literally pulling my pelvic bones apart. I tell the nurse I feel like throwing up. She practically throws me a large metal pan and without looking at me. This nurse is a bitch and she upsets me. The next one tells me “I can see the baby’s hair.” I’ve been in labor so long I have seen shifts of nurses and midwives come and go.
At 2:00 p.m. or so my dream team surrounds me: Dr. M. my ob; Dr. A., the head of anesthesiology who did his fellowship at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and who took the time to chat with me about good times in Boston; Max, my coach and 2nd translator. The moment has arrived. They cheer me on like it’s the Olympics, and for someone as non-athletic as me, this is my Olympics. With each push Dr. M. gives me the instructions in Japanese; Dr. A. translates the instructions into English; and Max repeats the translation for good measure.
At 2:37 p.m. I hear a gurgling sound as if someone had let the bottom out of an aquarium, and I see Dr. M. quickly bend to a high squat as if to catch a football he didn’t know someone had passed. And I hear the cries of a baby. Not loud or shrill like I had imagined but I hear them.
A team of doctors and nurses surrounds Fred and about 20 or so minutes later they wheel him away. I don’t know how he looks like or how he feels like. I wave at a blurred image half shrouded by white coats and then he is gone.
Fred is to spend the next three days in the NICU for observation. My inadequacies in Japanese prevent me from fully knowing what’s going on, but the doctors and nurses reassure me Fred is fine, that they just want to make sure he is okay. Later, when I stumble into the wrong room looking for Fred, a nurse tells me, no, my son is not in this room, because this is the room for “healthy babies.” Of course. Of course he’s not healthy. Otherwise he wouldn’t have to be lying inside a plastic box under bright lights and amid the whirring of machines. If he were healthy he wouldn’t need a tube attached to his body to feed him oxygen. If he were healthy he wouldn’t have to be separated from his mother on his first days in this new world. For some reason this was a revelation to me. I thought that “unhealthy” babies happened to “other” people but, no, the nurse was talking to me.
But Fred does become healthy. He has grown into a boy who relishes the outdoors and who blazes through high energy 15-hour days like a mini-Japanese salaryman (but with more optimism). He wakes with a smile and falls asleep with a smile and is a sippy cup half full kind of kid. He tackles his Legos and bike riding and math with a force that doesn’t know the meaning of “give up.” And I am not surprised. As his mother I wince with helplessness at the struggle Fred had endured to come into this world, but he has shown me time and again that he can hold his own.
Several years later when Tomoko visits us, she shares birth stories that she has experienced or seen. She tells me the story of one mother who lost her baby the week he was due. Her son had suffocated on his umbilical cord.
We are very lucky. Happy 6th Birthday, Fred.