In the weeks following my daughter’s birth, I find a snapshot on my phone: a zip-lock clear plastic bag with our maternity ward room number on it, room nine. I can’t remember what the bag contained. There are ephemera like this, I suppose, left over from this event and now obscure in purpose. There are memories and mental snapshots I have that are the same, drifting and unknowable now, splinters from a timeline, shattered by the intensity of the event.
Some notes in a notebook, times (8.42 — 8.57) connected with arrows. (I have the notebook still, in a kitchen drawer, and I have a photograph of the page in the notebook.) These were our early attempts, during labour, to time the contractions. We were looking for a certain frequency, a certain number of contractions lasting a certain time, so many times in an hour. But now, I puzzle over the scribblings, the arrows, the patterns of numbers. At the time it meant so much.
I remember the dinginess of the lounge at home. I think we purposefully kept the lighting low, can’t remember why. Nevertheless, the TV was on. (Was it?) Z’s low moaning. Bending over the sofa, hands on the cushions. The page in the notebook suggests we didn’t get far timing the contractions. They seemed to ramp up in frequency pretty quickly. I was alarmed at the pain Z was in. The drive to the hospital, over Sydenham Hill, down Lordship Lane, dark and quiet. It seemed very late at night, although it was only around 9.00 pm. Me driving as cautiously as possible; Z would groan in agony every time we went over a bump in the road.
More fragments. A series of rooms we were made to wait in, ante-chambers. A reception corridor with a disinterested receptionist. An examination room with a pleasant but harried nurse who drifted away at one point and didn’t return for almost an hour. Z had been given gas and air for pain relief and this combined with the searing contractions carried her off into a semi-catatonic state, barely aware of me or anything else.
I remember I went in search of the nurse. The ward was strangely deserted. Then, down the far end of a corridor, a huddle of midwives and nurses looking agitated. One of them was in tears. I returned to the room. After a while the nurse returned, looking rattled, and apologised for the delay. There had been, she said, an emergency. No more was said about it.
Another room, a bit more comfortable, but still an interregnum before the main event. Shared with another mother in labour who seemed to be having a much easier time of it. Z was still in a spaced-out funk, struggling, sucking in gas and air from the grey tube that looked like a washing machine outlet pipe and may as well have been for the good it was doing. At this point, I felt particularly helpless, of no use. Z is struggling so much, and there’s nothing I can do. Hours pass, long periods of moaning, coming up in waves, growing louder and more desperate as the contraction tightens, then tapering off as it eases. The other woman in the room is walking around, chatting with nurses and her partner, apparently unfazed. She is further along in her labour, but unbothered by pain. Z, on the other hand, is in another universe of pain and desperation, and I can’t reach her.
Eventually, we are moved to another room, the final room, room nine. Z takes epidural pain relief, and things calm right down. So much so that, bizarrely, boredom sets in. The early hours of the morning blur into dawn, noon passes by, and, in a haze of exhaustion, evening arrives. The baby is in no hurry to be born. Another photograph on my phone: a roll of paper curling out of a machine showing heart rate, blood pressure, all scratched out in endless line graphs. There is an effort to stimulate the contractions, a minor procedure which goes badly. The baby’s heart rate drops, which clearly scares the hell out of the medical staff, and, in turn, out of us. Out of the chaos, a surgeon appears and utters the words: emergency caesarian section.
We had about an hour to prepare. I remember concentrating intently on holding Z’s hand and comforting her while being determined not to let my own fear or shock show. My god, that was a rough one hour, plastered over roughly with what I thought must surely be a pretty flimsy attempt at a cheerful, brave face. I remember pacing and fidgeting, then telling myself to stop, then a minute later I was doing it again. I had to put on a set of blue surgical scrubs to accompany Z into theatre. We made light of it, took some pics of me looking awkward in the outfit. I am briefed on what I need to do, which is to hold Z’s hand and comfort her, no more. That’s my entire job, yet it’s still completely terrifying.
I am alongside the gurney, Z looking up at me. We weave down corridors and quite quickly come into the theatre. They are still clearing up from the last c-section, resetting the instruments, laying down dozens of metres of cloth and paper towel from immense rolls, all of it that cobalt blue they seem to like so much. An anaesthetist appears alongside us. He is friendly and chatty, and while setting up talks us through the procedure. He takes on the task of providing a running commentary and keeping us calm, even though that can’t be his job. Other people pop over. Our midwife, the surgeon. Everyone is amazingly calm, professional. There’s an incredible feeling that we’re in safe hands, and I’m so grateful for that. The curtain goes up. I’m installed on a stool next to the table, holding Z’s hand. The fear at this point is difficult to describe. It’s there, it’s making me light-headed, but at the same time, I must be pumped full of some special kind of adrenaline, as I’m able to cruise through it in a haze without falling to bits or panicking. And this must surely be the most extraordinary part of the whole thing, this build-up to our daughter’s first appearance, but really it passes so quickly. Partly because it is quick — around fifteen minutes or so — but also because of the floating unreality of it all.
And then, there she is. Some hands are holding her above the curtain, the umbilical cord dangling. I remember her being so clean. None of the gore of a natural birth. And she has not been squashed through the cervix, her colour is good, she is pink and perfect. She’s not yet making any noise, just wriggling, like a specimen. There is something token about the display, a concession to the parents who are at this point largely redundant; but at the same time it is one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
I think back to that moment often. We’re all aware of points of extreme significance in our lives. Or, to be more accurate, moments which logic or convention suggest should be significant: watershed moments, life-changing moments, moments of shock, awe, tragedy, wonder. This snapshot of the arrival of new life contrasts sharply with the snapshot I have in my mind of my mother telling me about my father’s death. But they are similar in that I’m never quite sure if I’m layering on the significance in retrospect. For years I think I was in shock after my father’s death, and to some degree guilty that I didn’t react strongly when told the news. I was numbed by it. I was compelled to go back and look for clues to how I felt, as if examining that one moment could unlock all the mystery and sorrow of loss. Likewise, in this snapshot of new life, this incredible moment — am I expecting it to mean too much? To some degree, yes, I’m asking too much: it’s not one moment but a collection of moments that mean something, it’s everything taken together. I’ve always struggled under pressure from family and peers to make symbolic meaning from occasions, anniversaries, gestures, talismans, broad strokes. I sometimes feel guilt over it, but I shouldn’t. It’s not really in me, to do these things. At the same time, there are ways I can’t avoid the emotional pull and resonances in these milestones, the connections between them, and the contrasts. Death, life. Pain, joy. An end, a beginning. Here, then, is the first life to arrive in decades, for me, for my family, since that appalling, senseless, premature death.
They clean her up and bring her over to me, and I hold her for the first time. I am floating. Z is wheeled off to post-op and for a few moments we’re standing there alone in the middle of the theatre, just me and the baby. How strange. I have only ever held other people’s babies before, and with other people’s babies you’re always about to hand them back. But this is my daughter and I must hold her forever. Perhaps this should terrify me, but it doesn’t.