Light and Dark
There was water everywhere, and, as far as we could tell, it might never stop raining. Normally these things aren’t much of a worry, but recently the sky was slate day and night. The intensity of these storms would grow and shrink every few hours, but in the winds of an unpredictable, cold spring, water was the one thing we could count on. That morning, I was upstairs, hunched over in a closet, rummaging past old t-shirts and my wife’s running shoes for a suit jacket and trying to decide between the blue shirt with a hole or the white shirt that fit in the neck and nowhere else. I called over to the next room where my wife was putting on makeup.
“What time does the service start?”
Lately, both of us were stressed, but Becky masked it for my sake. “10:00, I think.”
We were late. “Shit. Alright.” The white shirt would have to do. That was alright. I’d become used to fate making decisions for me. I used to go fishing with my uncles and cousins. When the fish bit the line, one of us would pull it out of the water and let it fall to the bottom of our rusty boat. I would watch it gasp wildly for air, hopping and doing everything in its power to move to a place where breathing no longer hurt. Years later, I could empathize. Move blindly, keep your head down, and hope for the best. I kenneled up the dogs before we piled into the car and made our way to the church.
Outside little black dots were shuffling through the rain into the church’s annex, and Becky, nine months pregnant in the passenger seat, grabbed my hand and asked, “Are you ready?” I nodded yes.
The day before my daughter was born, I was at a funeral.
Up until May we’d been hopeful but cautious, and just when it was looking like the light at the end of the tunnel was beginning to show itself, I got the phone call that my cousin was gone. Matt, 21 years old, passed away in his sleep. Family converged on Minot the second they heard. Great aunts and uncles, distant cousins, and close cousins who may as well have been siblings. We made our way into the sanctuary, cried through the service, and dodged puddles as we made our way to the plot and watched his body get lowered into the ground. While my uncle, aunt, and Matt’s two brothers made funeral arrangements, we scheduled a C-section.
The day we first saw what we were up against, Becky and I met at the hospital after a long day of school, giddy and nervous about what we might find out. Dr. Madland, my wife’s gynecologist, introduced himself and made small talk about politics and teaching. He was unbelievably kind and comforting. Becky changed into a gown and got up on the table. When the nurse brought in the ultrasound machine, he turned off the lights and grinned the whole time. We were about to meet our baby.
He used the ultrasound wand to search for the embryo, but after a while it was clear to everyone but me that something was wrong. My eyes were plastered to the small TV screen, and since this was the first time I’d ever seen an ultrasound machine or the snowy inside of a uterus, I was floored. Becky, though, the middle child in a good Catholic family and privy to many of these appointments, knew immediately that things were about to get very bad, and if her intuition hadn’t told her this, the look she saw Madland give his nurse would have spelled it out plain as day. Eventually, the little white peanut appeared on the screen, and the nervous smiles on everyone’s face were all but an affirmation, to me, that things couldn’t have gone better.
After that first appointment, we went out for a celebratory dinner and tried to discuss what had just happened. I couldn’t believe I’d just seen our baby.
“Did you not listen to anything he just told us?” my wife asked.
“What are you talking about?”
She looked distressed. “I have a huge tumor. He stayed calm, but you didn’t see the look he gave his nurse.”
I turned the car off and huffed back in my seat. “What are you saying? That we should not be excited because something could happen? This is our baby! It may not exist tomorrow, but it exists today. How can we not celebrate that?”
Black tears began to dot her shirt. “Because I know if I’m attached to this baby and something happens, I will never be the same.” She delicately wiped her hand along her cheek. “The baby could die. I could die.”
We sat in silence and watched through the window as families and couples ate their dinner.
My wife had a fibroid tumor attached to her uterus. These tumors can run the gamut from harmless to fatal. The problem with fibroids is that, as the uterus grows to accommodate the fetus, the tumor grows along with it, reaching anywhere from double to triple its original size. Because a fibroid is technically part of your muscle, and actually a growth embedded within the muscle walls, removing a fibroid is extremely risky and only done in rare situations.
From then on, we tried to celebrate each small miracle: first the baby’s lungs were fully formed, then its brain, then its eyes, ears, and so on, until we reached the point where our baby would be able to not just survive but lead a normal life outside the womb. The tumor was growing, though, and because of the its location we were under constant surveillance to make sure it didn’t cause preterm labor, miscarriage, or worse. The clear never really came; the spectre of death only grew less visible. As the due date approached we still had to wrestle with a number of problems.
Madland once told us that Becky would deliver the baby naturally because, with a fibroid, C-sections were “a bloodbath.” Now, though, with the location and size of the tumor, there were no other options. The tumor was preventing the baby from flipping head down. It was breach. He reassured us that nothing serious would happen during the operation because blood bags would be on hand to combat Becky bleeding out on the operating table, and we reluctantly accepted the news. What else could we do?
Our procedure was one the day after the funeral, and while we were still mourning Matt’s death, we secretly packed up our belongings and dashed through that persistent spittle on our way to the car. Even though family was in town for the funeral, nobody but us knew when the baby was coming. We were dealing with infertility, death of our only child, death of my child and my wife, raising the child by myself… the last thing we wanted was a bunch of in-laws at the hospital during our mourning period. As I closed the door to our house, I glanced around the living room one last time. This, I thought to myself, will hopefully be the last time for a long time that only two people will live in this house.
The admitting nurse checked us in and we made our way up to the maternity ward. From there, we recieved name bracelets and a briefing about the maternity floor’s security procedures before the nurse tried in struggled to find a vein in Becky’s arm. Once she left, the two of us paged through the channels and tried not to think about how every single aspect of our lives was about to change. After a little while, a different nurse, loud and confident where the previous one was shy but kind, came to take Becky downstairs.
“Give your honey a kiss!”
We turned to one another and kissed, smiling nervously the whole time. “No matter what happens this afternoon,” Becky whispered, “our lives are forever changed.” Once they’d left, I was all alone in the dim hospital room, watching the rain hit the window and trying hard to think of nothing but the exploding raindrops as commercials begged for my attention.
The shy nurse reappeared a few moments later with some scrubs for me. “Put these on and someone will come to take you down.” I slipped them over my clothes and their cardboard quality made my teeth hurt. I turned to the mirror and saw my gaunt reflection, the scrubs dripping off me, and I resembled an old staged black and white picture of a child hobo. “I look like a clown,” I exclaimed to the toilet. And then, I waited.
And then, Becky rolled back into the room. Our doctor was called into emergency surgery. We’d have to wait for forever just a little while longer. We watched MTV and joked with each other to pass the time, but nothing was working. Becky stretched out on the hospital bed and felt our daughter stretch out and get comfortable herself. “She’s lounging right now. I can feel her head up here and her feet down here… This poor kid has no clue what’s about to happen,” she said. That made three of us.
Suddenly the loud nurse came up and said that this was for real, and they wheeled Becky down a second time. This time we didn’t kiss. Again, I was alone, and again, I couldn’t help but think that this loneliness might be permanent. After some time I was greeted by two nurses, both young and friendly, but all business. “It’s time,” they said. If this were a cartoon you would have seen a large GULP above my head. If this were a movie, an epically melodramatic song would have begun playing. The big moments, those of life, death, love, and despair, are always within clearly demarcated borders after the fact. When you’re actually in the thick of it, though, you just keep marching.
The nurses lead me through some very official looking doors and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was breaking the rules. I’d dreamed about becoming a doctor when I was a kid right up until I discovered the sight of blood revolted me. Here, in scrubs rushing through innocuous looking security doors with bright red HOSPITAL PERSONNEL ONLY signs all over them, I felt adrenaline starting its way through my veins and my heart rate was blazing. We stopped at a nurse’s station between the filthy real world and sanitary surgical ward. Like normal delivery, the husband is able to stand in the room while the C-section is taking place, but once we arrived at the nurse’s station there was one more thing I needed to do: wait. “Have a seat here,” the shorter of the two nurses said. “Once your wife is prepped, we’ll come out and get you. You’ll stand up next to her head and won’t see any of the surgery. Sound good?”
It actually sounded awful, but I nodded yes and forced a smile.
They handed me a surgical mask and disappeared, and once again I was lonely except for the lead nurse doing her job on the other side of the glass. Hospitals have this incredibly strange glow to them. Like, in an attempt to emulate natural light the architects constructed the entire building to reside in the center of the sun, as if closeness to the source will make things clearer, somehow dark and light all at once. I bit my thumbnail and positioned myself next to a large cardboard box of surgical masks, and saw stacks of unopened boxes of latex gloves, hairnets, flimsy paper shoe covers, and a stack of filthy, half-drank Starbucks cups piled outside of the sanitary window. Oh, I thought. That makes sense.
An oversized red wagon was positioned beneath the counter. The plastic was worn, it’s skin punctured and scuffed. The bed was filled with sheets and pillows, and directly up the right hand side I followed a pristine silver pole up to two hooks. A moment of curiosity was followed by an overwhelming sense of misery. This was the bed they used to cart children to and from surgery. I was no longer energized. I was suddenly deeply afraid. The minutes went by at a glacial pace, and dread began creeping up and down my back and arms until I couldn’t feel anything besides a burning emptiness in my stomach.
What the hell was going on? I looked through the nurse’s window to search for any explanation, but nothing jumped out at me. The taller of the two nurses suddenly came through the door. The surgical mask covered her mouth, and her voice sounded perky as ever, but her eyes were distant and betrayed her fear. She was either very new to this or very bad at poker. “Mr. Thomas? The epidural wouldn’t take. Dr. Madland put your wife under anesthesia, so you won’t be able to go in with her.”
I faltered. “Ok…”
“Don’t worry, this happens sometimes. We’ll still have you wait out here to walk up with the baby, alright?” This time I didn’t speak. I just shook my head and kept staring at the wagon, reminding myself that things can always get worse and hoping that they never would.
After another small eternity, the short nurse and the tall nurse came rolling through the sanitary doors with a huge metal contraption cradling a small, purple blob with a jet black mess of hair on top. “Congratulations, Mr. Thomas! You have a beautiful little girl! They’ll wrap up surgery and let you know when your wife gets back upstairs. We’ll head to the nursery and get this little lady cleaned up.” I don’t know if I ever said anything in reply or if I just blindly followed them to the elevator. The baby in the bassinet (now my baby, weirdly enough) would shift from side to side and occasionally yawn.
“Oh good,” I said to nobody. “She doesn’t have my nose.”
The nurses laughed. “What’s her name?”
“Ada. Her name is Ada Dawn.”
The next few hours were a whirlwind of needles, inkpads, signatures, bottles, and first baths, all of them culminating with me, surrounded by babies in a nursery, rocking my daughter for hours, somehow overjoyed and still deeply afraid. It had been two hours or so since we left the operating area and I still hadn’t heard any news of my wife. I kept telling myself that no news is good news, but platitudes like that can only get you so far. Eventually Dr. Madland came into the nursery and shook my hand, congratulating me on a beautiful baby girl. Then, he hesitated before pulling out his phone.
“So,” he began, “we ran into something during the surgery and I had the nurse use my phone to document in case something went wrong.”
‘In case’ something went wrong? I thought. That means nothing went wrong, right?
He continued. “It turned out the tumor was actually on the outside of Becky’s uterus. Pretty fascinating, actually: It was shaped like a horseshoe and attached to her uterus on the ends. It was also necrotic.”
My face contorted.
“Oh, it was dead. Probably why it hurt so much.”
“Once the uterus began shrinking down, her intestines would have been caught in the loop and, basically, it would have killed her instantly. I acted without her consent, which I only do if I believe a life is in danger. Which is why I took pictures. Everything went smoothly.”
The big fears throughout the pregnancy were that a) Becky would die, or b) Becky would become infertile. I didn’t want to ask, but I also couldn’t take not knowing anymore. “So… what does this mean? For the future?”
He smiled and put the phone away. “She’ll run faster and further than she ever could before, and I’ll deliver as many of your babies as you want.”
Behind me a newborn started crying, and he seemed to be screaming loud enough for the both of us, so I stayed silent.
After a few days of recovery, visitors, and learning about our new life as parents, Becky was cleared to go home. We packed up all of our stuff, put Ada in her carseat, and piled back into the car. Visitors came and went at our house as well. Becky and Ada were laying on a couch in our once empty living room surrounded by all of the gifts and diapers and paraphernalia that non-parents know exist but can’t really even begin to comprehend. They sat in the darkened living room cooing over the baby and I continued to bring stuff in and tried to visualize how all of these things could somehow fit in our tiny house. It was a nice problem to have.
I stood in the door on my way to grab the last load of stuff and glimpsed Becky beaming in a way that only I have ever seen as she and Ada nestled together on the chair in our house, with our dogs, and our books and television and curtains and photos and clock surrounding her. It was sacred. Mine forever, maybe. I smiled as I walked through the cool breeze to the open car door, and after a few feet I collapsed to the ground, my fingers and knees clenching the rocks and dirt for comfort, and though the rain had stopped, the ground beneath me grew wet.