Maile kneels in the large tub, sitting back on her ankles, her knees spread apart. The water is still. She leans forward against the side of the tub, facing the corner of the room. She doesn’t make a sound, at least not until the next contraction comes. Then her voice starts in a quiet hum, growing louder and only slightly higher as the contraction peaks.
She takes a deep breath and exhales, and the world has come back. For a moment there was nothing but the contraction, nothing but finding a path to the other side of that growing pain. But she is through. For now.
I kneel beside the tub and wait, my knees on a foam mat, my head in my hands. Waiting is like prayer. Kneeling there in the dim light, a summer thunderstorm gathering outside, my wife in the tub humming through each contraction, I have this revelation: it’s no wonder older traditions worshiped the female form, this vessel of beauty and power that brought forth life, seemingly on its own.
It’s no wonder older traditions worshiped the goddess. But perhaps those ancient goddesses needed priests in order to hide their humanity. Because we are, all of us, human.
“I remember this,” she says. “I remember this point where you suddenly think, ‘I have decided I don’t actually want to do this anymore.'” She looks up at me with her big blue eyes. “I’m at that point.”
“You can do it,” I say, because what else is a husband supposed to say at that point?
She nods and bites her lip in pain, then the breathing.
* * * * *
Earlier that same day, about ten hours earlier, Maile woke me up. She stood at the foot of the bed, a visiting angel.
Do not be afraid.
“I’m having contractions,” she said, smiling. “They’re about ten minutes apart.”
I was suddenly awake.
“And I think we have to change the baby’s name,” she blurted out, cringing. “It just doesn’t feel right. I don’t think I can do it.”
What’s a husband supposed to say at that point? She’s having my baby, she’s having contractions, and she wants to change the name. Of course. You can do whatever you want. You can buy whatever you want. You can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
So we had to come up with another name. And he was on the way.
* * * * *
“You’re doing great,” the midwife says to Maile after four and a half hours.
“But I’m not,” Maile whimpers. “I want to push but I don’t think it’s time yet.”
“Would you like me to check you?” the midwife asks.
Maile nods, and the midwife pushes her fingers up inside, up into the source of life, the center of the pain. How often that is the case, that the center of our pain will also become the source of life. Maile grimaces, then groans, then cries out.
“Okay,” the midwife says, adjusting her reach, feeling around. “You still have two small pieces of your uterus covering baby’s head. If you push, that might start to get inflamed and then you won’t dilate fully. Can you breathe through the contractions for just a little while, give that uterus a chance to fully dilate?”
Maile nods, then closes her eyes.
“Here comes another one,” she whispers.
* * * * *
There is life in all of us, things that need to be birthed. Dreams. Desires. There is something that has been forming over time, something crucial to us, and it wants to come into being. It cannot stay hidden forever.
But let me tell you – I’ve seen babies being born, and I’ve tried to live out a dream, and none of them come into being without labor. There are contractions, and there is what seems an impossibility, and there is blood. Just when the birth is closest, the fear is greatest. Just when you think it will never happen, the midwife says those words.
“Okay, you can go ahead and push.”
* * * * *
But we hadn’t reached that point yet.
“Ask her to check me again,” Maile whispered, now on all fours, now on her side, now clinging to the headboard of the bed. Now back on her side again.
The midwife checked.
“The uterus is still in the way. If you want me to, and only if you want me to, I can reach in during your next contraction and try to slip it out of the way.”
Maile nods. Anything. She grits her teeth.
“Here’s another one.”
The midwife reaches in while Maile contracts. Maile makes a sound that’s somewhere between a shriek and a shout. The contraction seems to last forever, and the midwife works her hand around. The contraction ends. Maile gasps for breath, while the midwife examines her.
“There’s just one more small part of your uterus on baby’s head,” she says. Her voice is so calm, like still water. “After that, you’ll be good to push. Just breathe through this next contraction. One more. You can do it.”
Maile’s eyes are closed and it looks like she’s fallen asleep. Completely still. Then her eyes press tight and she bites her lip. It’s coming. She cries out again as the midwife works, more urgently this time. The contraction fades and Maile closes her eyes. The midwife smiles.
“You’re all clear. You can push. Go ahead and give us a push.”
Maile’s tank is empty, but there is a goddess in her still, and she bears down. I stand beside the bed and hold her leg up so that she can push on her side. This is it. This is the moment. She pushes and I can see the baby’s crown coming into the light. Then the baby’s hair, lots of it, and the head is nearly clear. The midwife reaches down and without a word gently pulls out the cord and unwraps it from around the baby’s neck. We have five children, and that is always the strangest moment of all, the time before the last push, when baby’s head is there, eyes open, waiting.
“Give us another good push,” she says, and I wonder where that calm voice is coming from – another world, perhaps. Another universe. Maile responds, and out slips a bundle of bones and displaced joints and skin and then it’s coming together into the form of a child. The cord is purple and red and the consistency of rubber. They are attached, the mother and the baby. They always will be.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
He lay there for a moment, the boy without a name, and he didn’t even cry. He just stared up at me, his dark eyes wide open. It was as if he was saying, Go ahead, have a good look. I’m here. It was surreal, that moment, when he should have been crying but he wasn’t, when he looked at me as if he knew me, as if he was a new part of me being born into existence for the first time.
I wondered what I saw when I was first born, what my eyes took in, what my skin felt, so fresh to the world.
The goddess lay on the bed, bleeding, smiling as if nothing had happened. The naked baby boy was on her naked body, already rooting around for food, and all was right with the world.
* * * * *
We asked everyone to leave the room and we talked about the name in hushed tones. All of our children have been named after characters in books, but this boy would be named after two authors.
Leo. As in Tolstoy.
Henri. As in Nouwen.
No pressure, buddy.
I’ve always seen Henri Nouwen as a fellow pilgrim. More than almost any other person, his words have shaped my view of a God who loves. I always remember his words about birthdays:
(Birthdays) remind us that what is important is not what we do or accomplish, not what we have or who we know, but that we are, here and now. On birthdays let us be grateful for the gift of life.
* * * * *
The boy lay there and Maile was smiling and I was overwhelmed. I had my phone out and was texting family and friends and then I was on Facebook and oh the ache I felt when I remembered my dear friend Alise and how she recently lost a baby at birth, her little Elliott. I opened up the picture she had sent me of her little boy just after he was born. He was so beautiful, even though he was already gone. I showed the picture to Maile as she sat there holding Leo.
Maile asked me a question with tears in her eyes, a question that I don’t have an answer for.
“Why do some mommies get to go home with their babies while others do not?”
There is life, and there is death, and the two are so entangled here, so interwoven and twisted together that sometimes you can’t see the end for the beginning. I sent Alise a message, telling her that Leo and Elliott will always be connected in my mind. She wrote me a kind, honest message in return.
I thought also of another friend, whose rejection post I am going to share later this week about getting married, wanting to have children, but not yet being able to conceive. Her words are beautiful and deep and wise. She was among the first to congratulate me on the arrival of Leo, and she is always among the first to “like” photos we share of him.
This is life. What can we do but laugh with one another? What can we do but weep each other’s tears? Sometimes both at once?
The day after Leo was born, Elliott’s mother Alise wrote this beautiful letter to Leo, and she quoted Frederick Buechner:
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
* * * * *
I woke up this morning with this boy on my chest. This little lion. His arms reach down each side of me, as if he is trying to hug the world. His breath is so gentle it is barely visible, the way a falling leaf stirs the air around it. I try to count the hairs on his head. I note the tiny formations that make up his lips, his earlobes, and they are a swirl of cells that will grow and change for as long as he is alive.
We are all waiting for the birth.
We are all being named.
We are all finding our courage.