"Life and Death and a Penis"
Another of the angry pains rose up through her hips and into her abdomen as she squatted in the bed gripping the bar in front of her. She heard – felt a bursting release of pressure, like the sensation of biting a cherry tomato. Then she looked down between her trembling thighs and saw the liquid trickling at first then pouring like a small waterfall onto the white sheets. This was "the water" that her friends had described in such revolting and lengthy detail, the water that strange women in the line at the post office mentioned casually as their birth stories poured from them like so many confessions and tales of war, the water that all of the books with baby in the title referenced as the impetus for the birth experience, the water that all of the women on the cable T.V. birth stories talked about with mythic anticipation. And it was not mythic.
"I need to check you, Mercedes," Doctor Anna said after looking down at the water. Anna was her midwife. She chose her because it felt right and because she had good hands and her voice was warm and smooth like cognac.
"Did you hear me, Mercedes, I need to check you."
"Please, not now," she panted, gripping the bar.
"I'll wait until it passes."
Doctor Anna was merciful. The pains came one after the other now that her water had broken. All of her studying had taught her that labor would accelerate now, but nothing could have prepared Mercedes for this agony.
As she breathed and panted through the next mountainous wave of hurt, she thought about running, just making a break for the door. But she could not run. The baby was wedged into her pelvis now, forcing her legs open, and making walking difficult and running impossible. She could not even squat and hold on to the birthing bar anymore.
"It's ok, mija. You don't have to hold the bar anymore," said Graciela, her friend, who was more like a sister than a friend. "We can try whatever position is comfortable right now."
"Nothing is comfortable!"
"Ay, Mercedes," Graciela rubbed the sweat from her friend's brow with her fingertips.
Mercedes remembered all of her classes and books and tantric meditation. It was all so silly to her now – pointless – craziness that was betraying her.
"But this is not how it was supposed to be, Graci," Mercedes said through tears. "My body is not doing what it is supposed to do. My legs…they're shaking now. I just can't do it!" She plopped back onto the bed sobbing, exhausted.
Doctor Anna and Graciela looked at each other.
"I know. You just rest. It won't be long now." Doctor Anna patted Mercedes' knee and began to massage her legs until her breathing slowed. No sooner than she had closed her eyes did the raging wave begin to build and rise from the lowest part of her abdomen, up through her pelvis, and back down into her knees.
"I have to walk now," Mercedes rolled to her side and used the bed and the pillows to push up to a sitting position. This had been her method for months. The others helped her stand, and she hobbled and breathed and leaned on them through the wave.
She had wanted this baby so badly, but now, the want was waning. The pain was forcing her to ask herself questions she dared not ask a year ago, questions that she had pushed in the far reaches of her mind, filed somewhere between "immortality" and "Armageddon" – Questions like, Why the hell was she doing this without drugs? Who did she think she was, deciding to have a baby alone? Why did she really want a baby, anyway? After all, a baby was just one big ball of human need. What did she even know about babies? Was raising dogs like raising kids? What was she doing! That's it, she thought, she had made a terrible mistake. She was going to stop this whole thing right now.
Just then, another wave of pain brought her to her knees. But, calling them "pains" or even "labor" was insufficient. These were assaults – bone splitting, flesh cracking, exquisite reminders of the infinitesimal line between life and death.
She could no longer just breathe through the contractions. The breathing turned into long groans that rose up from her pain.
Please God, she thought. If this is death, let me die soon, or just let me pass out. In the movies, when people were in pain, they just lost consciousness. Oh, how wonderful that would be, she thought. Slipping…drifting…fields of lavender and poppy…They had been her childhood playground. She would play until she collapsed in them and fell asleep... Her Abuela would find her curled up like a much smaller child than she was. Her Abuela and her elegant hands, how long and poetic they used to look as she would stuff her thumbs into the toes of small anklet socks with lace trim, preparing them for her and her sister's pudgy little feet on Sunday mornings. Or how they danced like a violinist's bow when she performed the music of the over lock stitch that mended holes in work shirts or school uniforms. Or how romantic her Abuela's hands could make a cigarillo seem. How she had longed for hands like those. They nurtured and soothed and made music all at once.
Mercedes could not remember how Doctor Anna and Graciela got her to the bed, but somehow she was there. She was painfully aware of Doctor Anna's counting and twisting fingers around her cervix. Her good hands had betrayed Mercedes.
"You're at 10, Mercedes. This is it." The cognac in her voice was gone too.
Doctor Anna grabbed one of Mercedes' legs and Graciela grabbed the other. There was a moment when the baby's head was crowning that Mercedes thought sure that she had crossed the line and left the land of the living, that she was sacrificing her life for another, a baby she had decided, just a few moments earlier, was a mistake. Yet, if she was dying, she thought, she had to tell the others to save the baby.
"Mercedes, look at me," Doctor Anna said.
"I'm going to die!" Mercedes writhed.
"You are not going to die."
"Yes I am! You must save the baby!"
Doctor Anna was inches from her face now, locking eyes with her. "Mercedes, I want you to take a deep diaphragm breath, and when you let it out, push from deep down in your pelvic floor."
"What? I can't. I don't remember. ¿Quáles pelvic floor?"
"Mercedes – ¡Mira! You do remember, and you can do this. Millions of women all over the world have been doing this since the beginning of time, and you're going to do it too."
Months ago, this would have brought a tear to her eye, but it now made her angry. She did not want to hear this sentimental bullshit. She was dying a painful death. But somehow she pulled the calisthenics of this maneuver together and managed one push. While she gasped for air before the next contraction, Mercedes began to think of all of the "well-meaning" women she had met during her pregnancy. Whenever she had asked them the question: Just how bad is it? Every one of them had lied. Oh it's the most beautiful thing in the world. You really don't remember the pain. She could picture their faces now. The lady at the deli in the farmer's market had noticed her growing belly on one of her many visits to pick up copious quantities of tomatoes and feta cheese. The lady had volunteered unsolicited advice on childbirth as everyone seemed to do when she walked into a room. Unprovoked and with a smile, she had assured Mercedes that the whole thing would be a breeze. Another friend had looked her squarely in the eyes and told the same lies. Even Doctor Anna had been a part of this deception. Had they all conspired to delude her? She hated the liars – each one.
"You lied to me!" Mercedes screamed.
"What? What are you talking about?" Little beads of sweat had pooled above Doctor Anna's brow.
"This is not beautiful! You said it would be, and I hate you for that cruel lie."
"You will forget the pain and only remember the beauty, Mercedes. But we have to get the baby here first."
"No," Mercedes pleaded, "I changed my mind! ¡No puedo hacerlo! I can't do it!"
"Yes, you can! You are going to push this baby into the world."
"Yes! You know why?"
"Because it's the only way to stop the pain. Now PUSH!"
And with that, Mercedes resigned herself to push with all of her might and newfound rage. And, when it was over, if she had survived, she had planned to slap all of the liars in the face. Three pushes later and there were four people in the room instead of three. Mercedes fell back on the bed exhausted and relieved and no longer angry. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she sobbed and cursed and laughed and sobbed some more. She did want this baby. She wanted this baby more than anything, and memories of her earlier misgivings had all but faded.
Doctor Anna and Graciela went to work clearing the baby's airways. Mercedes leaned forward just as they were cutting the chord, and that's when she saw it.
"She has a penis," said Mercedes.
The three women looked down at the tiny penis for what seemed like an eternity.
"Loca, you have a son," said Graciela, still staring at the baby's penis.
"My baby has a penis. What am I supposed to do with a penis!" said Mercedes.
Doctor Anna finished sponging off the chubby baby. Then she swaddled him and placed him on the naked breast of his mother.
Mercedes looked down into her son's face, seeing him for the first time. She did not create him alone, but she had nurtured and cultivated him alone. All of his little parts, his little fingers and toes, his heart and his penis had all grown inside of her. And as he stared back at her as if he had been reacquainted with an old friend, she marveled with great clarity that just a few moments earlier she had been more than willing to die so that he might live. And in some way, maybe the old her had died so that he might live. She smiled and rocked the new life in her arms.
By Sonya McCoy Wilson
Tidal Basin Review (fall/winter 2010)