“I didn’t expect it to hurt so much,” I said in a little girl whine. My husband Vic sat next to the hospital bed where he’d been all night. “Oh no, here comes another one.”
“Pant, E. Pant.”
I panted. Although I was twenty-five, I felt like a child overwhelmed by a midnight storm. My job was to get out of the way and surrender. It had seemed possible in the childbirth classes, but I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Lamaze Painfree Childbirth? Were they kidding?
“Here comes another one,” Vic said. He had one hand cupped on my belly and a stop watch in the other.
“Put that damned watch down,” I growled after I had huffed and puffed through the contraction. “What good does it do?”
“The class said it helps to time contractions.”
“OK. I’ll estimate.”
“No, stop counting. Don’t count. Here it comes.”
I panted and tried to let go. He rubbed my back when the contraction subsided. Then he wiped the sweat off my forehead with a cool damp towel.
“This is hard, Vic. I’m tired.”
“I know, E. You didn’t sleep all night, but you’ll be OK.” He hadn’t slept either. He spoke in the voice he would later use to soothe a fussy child.
Then another contraction. A hard one. I whimpered rather than yelled. I wanted a natural childbirth, but the nurses tried to change my mind. “You don’t have to be a martyr,” they said as they offered sedatives and blocks. In 1970, the local hospitals weren’t interested in undrugged births.
I wasn’t a martyr. I was a determined warrior. I imagined myself climbing a steep mountain. I couldn’t see the top, but I kept going. One more contraction. Then another.
“I wish I could do it for you, E. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere,” Vic said. I dozed between contractions. I felt safe because he was there.
I remembered those words when he was dying. “I wish I could do it for you.” While he labored for breath, I didn’t sleep. I stayed and witnessed just as he had for me.
Did he feel safe because I held him, whispered love in his ear, read him poems, and oiled his feet? He worked hard, deep inhalations with long periods of quiet. Reverse contractions. I timed the quiet between the breaths. Thirty seconds, forty-five seconds. Is he gone? A long inhalation.
“He’s taking in lots of oxygen in those breaths,” the nurse told me. “It may be a while longer.” We waited. I counted silently. Our younger son Anthony rushed to get there in time.
It felt like a birth, although I wouldn’t be there to catch him on the other side.
When Anthony arrived, Vic opened his eyes for the first time in two days and blessed his son with a penetrating gaze. Then he stopped gasping and surrendered. Was he being birthed into another realm? Was it like labor? I felt the same holy presence I felt in childbirth. But where was he going? Who would midwife him there?
As he moved toward that final transition, I could only witness and love and pray. I hope staying was enough. It had been for me.
What was it like for you to be with someone while they were dying? Or to give birth yourself or attend a birth? Do you think there are similarities? I hope you enjoy this post about deciding to have a baby in 1969: A Call in the Redwoods: My Hippie Intuition. Or this one about our marriage: Language of Love.