Thursday, October 6, 2016

The music of that morning

Midwives Marilyn Milestone (left) and Pamela Truzinski
We  had been seeing naturopathic professionals in preparation for the birth of our second son, because as yet we had no medical insurance, and this is what we could afford. As I remember the overall cost was about six hundred dollars. That was in 1983 dollars, of course, but I had at last struck it rich—I had landed a job that paid me seven dollars an hour to start, after having worked previously for no more than about half that much, first as a technician in a plastic container factory in Illinois, then as a lead man in a traditional furniture factory in Portland, Oregon. In the latter position, I didn’t arrive at that three dollar something an hour wage until after working four years.

So we had decided on midwives to help us deliver our second child. I don’t think we knew its sex, because we had both boy’s and girl’s names picked out. Our first-born, Jacob, was born nine years prior in a hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, because, though we were literally dirt poor—I was earning perhaps two dollars an hour—the province had good medical coverage. Out of pocket charges amounted to literally just a few dollars, if they cost us at all. Besides, after Jacob was born, we received a monthly family allowance check of sixteen dollars to help offset the costs of raising a child. That’s what they paid in those days for an infant, up to a maximum of sixty-four dollars a month for older kids.

When Jacob was barely two years old we returned to the States, lured by the prospect of ‘free land’ and a homestead in a hippie commune in Oregon. The commune was, of course, ‘spiritual,’ but it wasn’t quite what we expected when we visited it. We opted out, unwilling to entrust ourselves to the ‘commune’ of Ahimsa, where anything was permitted, as long as it was ‘spiritual,’ even at the price of losing that ‘free land.’ But that is another story.

Andrew in his baptismal suit
My wife’s pregnancy was going well, nothing abnormal was detected, but we awaited the due date with some trepidation. When you’ve given birth to a child and then waited about nine years, the body parts have gone back almost to their condition before the previous birth. After the birth of our second child, two more followed in the course of five years, and these later births were relatively easy, even though our third son, Johnny, weighing in at eleven pounds fourteen ounces, was the largest infant ever delivered at the Providence Hospital up to that time. We were afraid that giving birth to this next child might be difficult, and as a matter of fact, it was.

It was a frosty October that year, the clear night sky speckled amply with stars. We retired to bed fairly early, darkness falling by eight o’clock, knowing that this might be the day. October the sixth, thirty-one years ago from today as I write this. Our little house was getting chilly as we went to sleep. We had to give up using our furnace for central heating, because it burned oil, and the price of oil was too costly. We used a Fisher wood stove, burning tree prunings and mill ends from the furniture factory when we couldn’t afford to buy a cord of partially split oak or alder for firewood. This year, we were better off. I had landed that seven dollar an hour job and we now could afford to buy real firewood. We even had a car again, after being unwheeled for a year or two when I was still making only half as much.

Andrew (3 mos) and Jacob (9 yrs)
‘Wake up! Norman, wake up! Call the midwives, and then go and start a fire in the woodstove!’ It truly was a wake up call. The house was freezing. Though we always banked the coals in the wood stove, after midnight they emitted barely any heat, and in the morning I usually had to start the fire from scratch. It must have been somewhere between one and two in the morning. I went downstairs—we lived in a small two storey farmhouse on a quarter acre corner lot at the edge of town—and phoned the midwives, Marilyn Milestone, and Pamela Truzinski (memory eternal). They gave me some instructions, and said they would be on their way.

Next, to start a fire. Well, easier said than done, especially when you have only a little bit of split wood in the house. We needed the stove to be good and hot, hotter than usual, and the upstairs bedroom which was going to be someone’s place of birth would only be heated by gravity, the hot air rising and ascending the stairwell and coming up through a grate in the floor. I got my clothes on, and went out to the wood shed to split wood and start a fire. Though I don’t exactly remember when Jacob, up to that night our only son, joined me, whether it was when I was chopping wood and starting a fire in the stove, or later, he was intimately involved in the events of that early pre-dawn, and the sunrise birth.

Going out to the shed, I looked up. The sky was blue black and emblazoned above the house and shed was the constellation Orion, the one that looks like a large ‘X’ or a cross of St Andrew. It may have been that stellar sign that leaned us, when the child came, in the direction of the name he was called. Yes, it was a boy.

The midwives arrived. The house was toasty hot, even up in that second storey bedroom. Jacob was with us there, sitting by the wall next to the big four-poster bed where his pregnant mother lay. Labor was not easy, but not being the mother, I’ve forgotten how hard it was. We had been up all night. Soon pre-dawn purple was showing through the eastward facing windows.

‘Push! Push!’ we urged over and over again. Like every birth, there’s a point where the mother feels she must give up, it’s too hard, and then—he’s out! No, no, not exactly, not this time. A tiny head had appeared at the door of the womb and the midwives massaged it out, and now it hung there, limply, eyes closed. A very scary moment.

Andrew, about age 2 years
‘Push! Push! Push!’ but the body behind that tiny head did not want to come out. Time was ticking tensely. We could all hear our own heartbeats more loudly than the tiny one’s. Daylight was starting to filter into the room, but we didn’t notice. Our eyes were nailed to that tiny, lifeless head, and then someone had an idea. ‘Quickly! Let’s get her off the bed onto the floor, in a squat with her back against the box spring and mattress!’ Awkwardly, but as gently as four people can push a woman in her condition, we pivoted her to the edge of the bed and helped her down and into a squatting position. Four pairs of hands did their work in an automatic movement that was instinctively guided.

Sploosh! With no further coaxing, a final muscular spasm ejected the baby with measured ease, his head cradled and protected as if by angelic hands, as a flood of uterine fluids, clear and dark red, poured onto the floor. The body followed, falling into welcoming, open palms, and then—quickly now!—the team of four, midwives, father and son, divided, again instinctively, into two teams: one lifting the mother back to at least a little comfort on the bed, the other keeping the baby right behind her, anxiously looking for signs of life. The little body was complete, all fingers and toes counted, a perfectly formed male child, but unbreathing. Startled, one of the midwives drew back, while the other gently massaged the tiny chest and puffed air into the little face.

Andrew, Byzantine chanter,
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church
‘Hhhuhh!’ the baby gasped its first mouthful, lungsful of earthly air with a reflexive jerk, and then began crying. In what order I cannot remember, but I did the fatherly things as prompted by the midwives: clamp the umbilical cord, suction out the fluid from mouth and nostrils, to help breathing. Again, somewhat scary, I had to cut the umbilical cord. It didn’t seem to hurt the baby, but it would be hard to know, because first-born crying has only one dialect. As soon as I had enough wits about me, I looked up and noticed shafts of golden sunlight streaming in through the windows. I went to them, and there, the sun, already golden, was rising over the tree tops. I returned to join my wife and first-born son with their new son and brother. Had the afterbirth come yet? I cannot remember, but at some point, there it was. We gave it to one of the midwives, who wanted to plant it in her garden. Something to do with a tree, she said.

It was time now for the new mother to get up, with the assistance of the midwives, and go to the bath room and get properly cleaned and dressed. The newborn son was placed in my arms, and I quietly whistled like a flute the melody of a Provençal lullaby, as a first offering to welcome my son and give thanks to God for his safe birth and the health of my wife.

Flowers in the meadow softly sway
And all the little birds sing, merry May Day
Rabbits in the orchard sport and play
And all the little creatures smile and are gay

Showing Andrew his apricot tree
My little boy
Sing out your joy
I am near
My darling, do not fear
Love is all around you
With gentle lullabies
To make your heart sing

October the seventh, nineteen hundred eighty-three, sometime between seven and eight in the morning, closer to seven, our second-born son, Andrew, was born, humbly and dangerously, at home in the upstairs bedroom with the flowery wallpaper and the four-poster bed, assisted by the eyes, hearts and hands of his father and older brother, two mystical midwives, and of course, his musical mother.

And the music of that morning has never left him.

A sad postscript

The ‘musical mother’ of this remarkable son passed away (reposed, as we say in Orthodoxy) on July 8, 2016.
We are all still in that twilight time as we wait for our new lives without her to sort themselves out. ‘Memory eternal’ is deeper and more everlasting than we can imagine, but that now she lives where she can walk into all moments she ever lived, in the light that never wanes, and hear the music she always loved to hear, without end.

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