from Chapter One

Drive-Thru Window

No. Oh, no.

My fingers froze on the laptop keyboard. A strange sensation welled up in my pelvis like a giant bubble. Slowly the bubble rolled downward and burst, soaking my maternity jeans and the woven hospital blanket.

The air stilled. I sat motionless, understanding what this meant, but not believing. It was 3 p.m. on my fourteenth day of hospital bed rest. The obstetrician stood at the nurses’ station signing my discharge papers; my husband Reed waited at home for my call. I had just e-mailed friends to tell them I was on my way home. Home, where I’d lie on the couch for a month until it was safe for me to move again.

But as the amniotic fluid continued seeping out of me, I had to believe the truth. I wasn’t going home. I was having a baby—ten weeks early.

Hand shaking, I reached for the nurse’s call button. Within moments the room filled with the brisk energy of pending emergency. The resident performed a vaginal exam by speculum and flashlight, not daring to touch my cervix. She had me summon Reed by telephone. My bed, transformed into a gurney, was pushed down the hall to Labor and Delivery. Two nurses helped me roll from one bed to the next, then began attaching all the high-risk accessories: blood pressure cuff, IV line, fetal monitor, heart and lung monitors for me. I turned my head to watch the paper readout uncurl from the contraction monitor: a flat black line at first, then a slight upward curve that peaked and dipped.

“Are you feeling that?” one of the nurses asked.

Yes. I was.

* * *

7 p.m. Reed stood by the delivery bed, holding my hand while I leaked tears and sweat into the sheets. The contractions had intensified from squeezing to wrenching. My bladder swelled with IV fluids, but I couldn’t urinate when I tried. As the pressure mounted in my pelvis I writhed on the bed in raw panic.

The nurse put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I’d like some pain relief before she inserted a catheter. “The urethra gets swollen during labor,” she said. “It might be hard to get the tube in.”

Twenty minutes later I bent over my bulging abdomen to receive a spinal needle. As I sat upright my head spun and my vision blurred. The nurse strapped an oxygen mask to my face. By the time my blood pressure stabilized and my bladder had been drained, the contractions had stopped, leaving me six centimeters dilated—a point of no return. The nurse hooked a bag of Pitocin to the IV pole and started a drip. Reed and I looked at each other in disbelief. After two weeks of doing everything possible to keep the baby in, he would be forced out.

Our son. We’d chosen his name already: Thomas Reed. In the ultrasound photos his face emerged in wrinkles of light and darkness, the landscape of humanity. He was due December 23. A Christmas baby. But this was early October, not even Halloween.

After the nurse left, Reed slumped in the armchair. I curled on my side, facing him. The wall behind Reed had a sliding window—a drive-thru window, he had joked earlier—which led to the NICU. The last place we wanted to be. Two years before, our newborn son Sam had spent three weeks in a different hospital’s NICU, critically ill with lung failure, and I would never forget the grimness of that place. The doctors said Sam’s illness was a freak occurrence and that if we wanted another baby, we had every reason to expect a healthy birth. My prenatal exams and ultrasounds for this new pregnancy had all been normal.

But nothing was normal about giving birth at thirty weeks gestation. I knew the statistics. Chance of respiratory failure: one in three. Chance of brain hemorrhage: one in five. Chance of death: one in ten.

Reed and I were quiet. There was nothing to say. The only sound was the whoop whoop whoop of the baby’s heartbeat on the fetal monitor, a manic rhythm pushing all three of us into the future.

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