The young woman leans against the partition, starting to cry. It is February 6, 1989 and we are three feet apart in a tiny changing room at Wake Medical. She is a teenager and a stranger, slight except for her large, pregnant belly under an oversized pink sweatshirt. She wears dirty bedroom slippers, and her ankles and feet are swollen, the skin on her calves mottled and ashy. There are dark circles around her deep brown eyes. Her hair sticks out in bunches from a careless ponytail. She is not sobbing, but instead cries in small moans, punctuated by sharp intakes of breath. I am 32-years-old, a lawyer by trade, and I, too, am wearing a sweatshirt, size XXL with the sleeves rolled up so that I can use my hands.
I am in this room because my water has broken. The nurses directed me here to change into a hospital gown after we arrived in the ER. Mine is a high-risk pregnancy because I am expecting twins and the doctors have said they will deliver me in the operating room instead of the cozy birthing rooms decorated with dinosaurs and teddy bears that we toured in childbirth classes. My pains have begun, but at this point, they are only a distraction, like a loud noise in the room.
I shuffle to this tiny surprisingly grim room, lit by a high window close to the ceiling. My husband has untied the shoes I can no longer reach so that I can kick them off. He holds my handbag, kisses my forehead. I have not seen my feet in many weeks. Before I became pregnant, I was a runner. Now I cannot even walk 100 feet without sitting down. Other complaints—I have trouble sleeping, enduring each night a long wrestling match with pillows propped here and there, able to lie on only one side, and always too warm, even in February, my feet and hands swelling like those of the other young woman, a girl really, in this small room.
The pains come again while I try to undress. I am supposed to be brave and strong. My husband and I have worked hard to get here as we have worked on so many other things, successfully for the most part. We feel entitled to achieve this goal too, having suffered a miscarriage and now years of working at getting pregnant, our sex lives tied to a calendar and thermometer. We have been tested and prodded and we have tried so very hard. And now there are two babies on the way. I have spent months on bed-rest, doctor’s orders. Now I cannot seem to take a deep breath because there is no space in my ribcage, but there are kicks to remind me that although weeks early for delivery, I am still okay, they are still okay, we are still okay.
The young woman is probably 11 years younger. I wonder why she is crying so openly around me, a stranger. I put it down to her youth, cultural differences, but in a moment when the most recent contraction eases, I put on my best polite stranger talk. We are on the same path, after all, seeking to take off large sweatshirts and pants and dress again in identical light blue paper robes and slippers.
“You hanging in there over there?” I manage.
She says nothing, but I hear the sounds of her clothes falling to the floor, the rustle of the plastic wrapping for her gown. I am not blind to the differences between us. She is young, black, dressed haphazardly, tired and sick looking. Despite her belly, she seems frail, breakable. I feel capable of little help, my own pain and fear beginning to register in a way that scares me, causes me to wonder how strong I really am. It seems to me in that moment, that in spite of our differences in age, background, race, size, we are united in this, sisters on a path to new life. She is young, true, and I wonder if her baby will be welcome.
My mother, who had given birth to five children, once described childbirth like a train you get on. Once you’re on it, there is no getting off—you ride it until you reach the station. It seemed easy in the childbirth classes my husband and I attended together and we were sure we could pass this test, too, as we had passed others. My family members are big advocates for natural childbirth and I want to be brave and win that gold star, as I have tried to win so many stars before.
“Are you in much pain yet?” I say, in my best Methodist voice. The woman says nothing. For a moment, I wonder if she is just being rude, speaks a different language, or just wants to be alone. I decide to fix this with the small amount of chatter I can manage, although the noise of my pain begins to drown out most other things.
“Yeah” she says finally, in a surprisingly low voice. “It hurts real bad.” And then she moans again, bends forward with her head down, and hands on her knees. Then straightening with her hands on her lower back, she rolls her head back, too, her words now a flood, “I can’t take it, I can’t. It’s too much.”
This frightens me. I think of my strong husband out there, our parents and siblings who are standing by the phone. My co-workers who have been alerted that we are in the hospital, waiting to the gender code to decorate our house with balloons: pink and blue, blue and blue or pink and pink.
“I know.” I say finally. “It’s getting bad for me, too.” She manages a nod then and I feel newly bonded and hope she does, too. Our starting places were different, but our destinations on the birth train are the same. Finally I manage to pull off my pants and put on the blue gown.
Suddenly I am tearful with pain, too. In that moment, I think, we are more connected than I am to my husband and the nurses, others beyond the door. She reaches for her big black duffel bag behind her bearing the logo of an NFL team and falls short. My own brightly colored quilted bag is with my husband outside.
“Can you get it, you think? Can I help? ” I ask, knowing I cannot.
“Ain’t nobody to help,” she says then. I hear her but don’t quite believe her. Maybe she was further along than me. But I’m having twins, I think, ever the competitor, wasn’t that more to worry about? Hadn’t they told us all the risks from the beginning, the danger of intertwined cords and worse? She was not rallying between pains, though. Was this normal?
“Is there someone out there I can call, or a nurse even? Maybe get you something or help with your bag?” I ask her.
She looks at me then, shakes her head. That was my last effort to soothe, I decide after another pain moves through me. This girl was not taking kindly to my chat or help. I prepare myself to walk back out toward the nurses, my waiting husband.
“Nobody here,” she says as I start to leave. Turning back briefly, I ask her something like, “will there be somebody to help you with the baby?” Maybe I can alert the nurses, a social worker, I think, but don’t say.
“Baby’s dead,” she said. “But I gotta go through all this mess anyway. I wanted them to cut it outta me but they won’t.”
I don’t remember what I said then. It’s possible I was struck dumb by what she had said, the hard fact of her difficult journey to an unimaginable place. Even now, I hope I managed to say that I was so very sorry. What I do remember is that the immensity of what she faced, alone, had finally penetrated my own pain and terror.
My own babies came quickly after that, too quickly for anesthesia. My daughter was born breach and it was a difficult time. The babies, tow-headed and pink, were small but healthy, though, and the congratulations and good wishes poured in.
On the first night home, I was wracked with chills from a high fever and the babies and I went back into the hospital. I learned that I had what they used to call childbed fever, but with the advent of antibiotics, it was no longer life threatening. Still, I was sentenced to a hospital stay with IV antibiotics for more than a week. Because my babies were nursing or trying their best to, they had to stay in portable cribs in the hospital room with me. My husband and family tried to rally help for us all.
I stayed mostly in my hospital room during that time, weeping a lot, dreading in the first days the return of chills, and later, repeated episodes of my failures at feeding or caring for the infants I had tried so hard to bring into the world. I had steady care from nurses, my husband and family, and yet there were many personal floods: milk, sweat, urine, blood, tears, and hormones I could not see. A haze of days followed and although I tried to be brave, I felt alone, surrounded by people more competent than I was to care for my own infants. I resorted to childishness, too. One night when my husband took a short, much-needed break to have dinner away with his family, I railed, and wept bitter tears. I had been abandoned, I convinced myself at the time.
And yet late one night, facing the still awkward, milky union with these strange new loves, all of us and an IV tangled in a narrow hospital bed, I thought of the young woman. She was mother only to heartache, no one waiting at the station at the end of her journey. She was home by now, I hoped, but alone in a way that, even in my childishness, I knew I would never be.
Eventually, we figured out nursing and other necessary things. We went back home and began to live our new lives. Those twin children, now 26, have brought me my most wonderful moments, the clearest and most certain love. The years, as they do, have brought occasional loss and loneliness for me, too—the death of parents, the end of a marriage, the illness of a child, professional challenges and the tightrope of single parenthood, struggling to find the right way to raise two humans with the right combination of hope and caution.
On February 6 every year, children kindly endure again my telling the story of their birth. That happens mostly on the phone now as they are both now off in the world. Most years, too, on the anniversary of that day, I think of the woman in the changing room. I wonder if she marks that same day, too, as a turning point of a very different sort, just I still mark the day of my miscarriage. I wonder how she has managed her dose of years, if there were other children, other chances at peace and connection that February day did not bring her.
We are no longer young, and I would not know her if I saw her, but I think of her always, the two of us briefly travelling on the same train to different places, my sister in blue.