The Birthing Room
By Jennifer Hutchison
Published in XXVII N. 1
My husband, Bruce, and I stand in the elevator at Women’s College Hospital, watching the numbers go up. I pat my belly, an instinctive, practiced move for the last six months. Painted footprints lead into the nurses’ station at the maternity ward, where a woman with a fleshy, round face and blonde curls offers us a generous smile. She scans the sheet that I hand her. Babies’ cries pour down the hallway. When she looks up, her brows lean into one another and thin lines emerge between them.
“They sent you here?” she asks. She doesn’t wait for a response but whispers to a thin, balding man next to her. His eyes roam a computer screen as he listens. The man wears a teddy bear smock. “I know it doesn’t make sense,” he says as he clicks his mouse, “but it’s the way it works, I’m afraid. I’ll take them.” He pulls back his chair.
The woman turns to us, her lips bunched downward. “Tom will show you where to go.” I feel her eyes penetrate our backs as we follow Tom down a corridor past the open doors, past the balloons and flowers, past the uncles, aunts, grandmas and grandpas, and past the tired moms and tired babies who feed from swollen breasts.
The birthing room looks like any other of its time: metallic and prisonlike. Flanked by guardrails, the narrow bed floats in the middle of the space. A chair sits against a corner wall. A tear rips through the green plastic cushion like a fork of lightning. A bassinet stands next to the bed. I stare at the threadbare pink blanket that stretches over the tiny mattress. Bruce follows my gaze. So does Tom.
“Well, this is where you need to be,” Tom says with a thin, dimpled smile. He strides to a cupboard, pulls out a hospital gown, and hands it to me. “So if you could just put this on, that would be great. It ties up at the back.”
I nod and accept it.
“Thanks,” I say.
Bruce saunters over to the window. The sun drifts in through the partially closed blinds. He looks down at College Street.
“No problem,” Tom says. “If you need anything at all, just pull on that cord at the back of the bed. I’m going off my shift soon, so Debbie will take care of you.” He brushes off a piece of lint from his pants. “She’s the one who greeted you when you came in. Dr. Dagmar should be here,” he glances at his watch, “in about twenty minutes. He’s running a little late.” He moves, then doubles back. “Would you guys like me to get you some magazines from up front?”
“No, I’m good, thanks.”
Bruce turns. “No thanks.”
As Tom leaves, the teddy bears on his smock grin back at us.
“Do you want a coffee or juice?” Bruce asks. He perches on the bed beside me. We’ve stopped trying to have a conversation and are reduced to pleasantries.
Bruce looks at his watch for the fifth time. “The doctor should be here soon. It’s been close to twenty-five minutes now.”
Out the window, I see only the exterior walls of the maternity wing. Narrow, rectangular openings carve themselves into the yellow brick every few feet. Each window is the same as the next, with brown frames and cream-coloured blinds. I wonder about the mothers and babies behind each one.
“I’ll just go to the nurses’ station and see what’s going on,” he says.
Just after Bruce leaves, a doctor strides in. He wears hospital greens and clutches a Starbucks cup. He is tall, thin-boned, and olive-skinned. “Hi there. I’m John Dagmar.” He releases a smile then pulls it back. He sets down his coffee and grabs the clipboard attached to the end of the bed. As he reads it, he says, “Now this is a sad day for you. I’m sorry.” He doesn’t look up.
“Thanks,” is the only thing I can think of to say.
He strolls to the sink to wash his hands. He turns when Bruce arrives. “Hi,” he says, shaking off the water. “John Dagmar. I’m sorry about what you have to go through today, but we should get it started.” He dries his hands with a strip of paper towel.
Bruce nods at him and then pulls the chair over next to me.
Just then, Debbie the nurse rustles in. She now wears a smock that matches Tom’s. She carries a plastic container with a vial, some cotton pads, and a needle. She hands them to Dr. Dagmar, who takes them over to the counter by the sink. Debbie places a warm, gloved hand on mine. “How are you doing?” she asks.
“Fine. I just want this to be over.”
“Yes, I can well imagine. And it will be over before you know it.”
Dr. Dagmar gestures Debbie aside. He holds the needle. “This is to induce the labour.”
“So, the pains will come on fast? Will they be stronger than normal?” I ask.
“Yes, I’m afraid so, but it’s the only way to get the baby out.”
Bruce rubs the back of my neck. “So, when does she get the anesthetic?” he asks.
The doctor wipes my arm with alcohol. “Oh, we won’t bother with that.” He stabs in the needle.
Bruce lowers his eyes and flexes his jaw muscles. His face reddens. “Come on—”
I intercept. “Why? If the pains come on stronger, won’t I need it?”
“We only use it for live births.”
The dust particles swirl in a band of sunlight. Debbie’s eyes meet mine from where she stands in the background. She offers a measured smile and looks down at the floor. Her headshake is almost imperceptible.
“That’s not right,” Bruce says. “If anything, she deserves more of the stuff.”
Dr. Dagmar glances over at Bruce. “Sorry,” he says. “The anesthetic will prolong things and I’m sure you don’t want that.” He looks at me. “I’ll be back in half an hour or so to check in on you. I have to tend to another patient who is about to deliver.” He glances at his watch, picks up his Starbucks, and hurries out the door for his live birth.
The pain unleashes itself in hues of yellow, black, and crimson. The breaks between contractions are ephemeral. Bruce clenches my hand tighter with each animal sound I make. Debbie stands close. She wipes me with cold clothes and puffs up my pillow. She and Bruce encourage me and tell me that it will be over soon. I don’t believe them.
“Fuck,” I spit. “This is hell.”
Bruce tries to prop himself next to me, but I shake him off. I bunch myself up, I twist around, I bite into a towel, I hiss, I cry, I sweat, and I shiver. Then I puke.
Debbie and Bruce lock eyes. She leans over and mumbles something.
“Yes, definitely,” Bruce says. And where the hell is the doctor?”
Debbie leaves and another nurse comes in. She introduces herself as Han. A thin, Asian woman, she moves with efficiency. She slips fresh pads underneath me, squishes a compress behind my neck, and shoves a pillow under my lower back.
“I want this baby to be alive,” I cry through the contractions.
Creases dart across the nurse’s forehead. She looks at me for a second before placing a hand on my side. “I know you do, honey. So do I, so does your husband, but your baby’s gone. It doesn’t feel any pain. And yours will be over soon too, okay?” She pats me and lifts her eyes to the heart monitor.
Debbie rushes in with an anesthetist. He busies himself next to me. He’s in his mid-thirties. He has dark hair, dark skin, and dark eyes with long lashes. He is beautiful. He is my savior. Another doctor soon follows. She is thin and petite, with a hint of an Indian accent. With a glance at Debbie, she tells us that she will be taking over for Dr. Dagmar. Bruce points out that Dr. Dagmar hasn’t been here so she’s not really taking over for anyone.
“Voilà,” says the anesthetist. He points to the plastic bag above me. “This is a gorgeous cocktail…guaranteed to please.”
“Thank you, dear Christ,” I say.
“Ah, such a lofty title for such a simple man.” He smiles and hooks me up. Two minutes later, he’s gone, and the storm abates.
Bruce throws himself back in the chair and looks at Debbie, who fusses with the drip. “Thanks,” he says.
“No problem.” She smiles at me. “She needed it.”
“Will you get in trouble?” Bruce asks.
I drift off.
Two hours later, I push and I push. I use all of my flagging resources. “Your baby’s here,” the doctor announces from my feet. “Yes, the baby’s here.” She glances down but doesn’t move for a second. “It’s a girl.” She lifts her in one hand and lays her on a towel. Bruce looks away. I can’t. I’m still hopeful.
Debbie takes her from the doctor, who fusses with the mess inside me. She puts her in my arms. She’s warm and tiny and not moving. Bruce leans over me. One of the baby’s eyes is half open. A single blonde hair pokes through her moist scalp. It’s surprisingly long. Her lips curl up and look too big for her face. Her nose is flat. Her fingers are like the veins of a leaf. She’s beautiful and she’s ours and she’s not alive. I can’t stop the tears and I don’t care. Tears mix with the sweat and blood.
Debbie takes the baby back. “Take your time. Just relax. Let it out. Han and I are going to clean her up.”
Bruce draws me closer and leans his head on my chest.
The doctor finishes, tells me that everything looks good and I don’t need stitches. She mumbles something about how sorry she is, that these things happen, that it will take a while, but we will both be okay. She leaves. Debbie asks if we’d like a priest to administer last rites. I thought they only did that in the movies, I say, but ask her to please call the minister of the church we go to from time to time. I tell her that I want to hold my baby again.
Debbie lowers our daughter back into my arms. She is clean and dressed in a minuscule white nightie three sizes too big. We name her Rosie.
looking forward to writing many more. She lives in downtown Toronto with her
husband, four children, and giant Goldendoodle.
The artwork featured in The Birthing Room is “White Wolf” by Tiffany Adair.