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An essay by Amy Amoroso

For Duncan

 

 

I made a pot of carrot lentil soup the day before going into labor. It was big enough for dinner that night, plus two nights during the week. But instead of easy meals for my final days of pregnancy, the soup came to the hospital with us, where it would sit in glass jars on a shelf in the Labor and Delivery refrigerator for days. We never ate the rest of it. And for some reason that lentil soup is one of the details I can’t ever forget.

            Duncan came four days early. He came without crying. He came without breath. And after all of our childbirth classes and birth plans, we couldn’t have been prepared for what happened during his birth.  On the short ride to the hospital, I thought of all the things I’d left undone. There were boxes of baby clothes that needed sorting, the sixty-year-old family bassinet that needed painting, and the cloth diapers that needed another round of washing and hanging in the sun. I assumed, since Seth and I are perpetually late, that our child would fall into line and that I’d have plenty of time to get these things done. I also imagined that after a healthy and hard labor, I would welcome my child immediately into my arms and onto my chest like I’d seen in the DVD’s we watched in class. It turns out that I was wrong, and maybe I should have taken my early broken water as a sign.

*

 Seth and I expected to spend most of the early labor at home, but since my water broke, our midwife thought we should meet her at the hospital. At first we were giddy and excited about meeting our baby, but as the hours went by, time became warped and we stopped exchanging words. Orange leaves dropped from a maple tree outside our hospital window and the sun was high in a blue sky, but I had no real sense of how long we’d been there. Yes, there was pain, but I can’t access it anymore. Not in a concrete sense. I remember breathing like the sound of waves, loud enough to push my thoughts away and deep enough to dampen the sharp edges of my contractions.

            Before I knew it, the sun was gone. An entire day had almost passed and I was still laboring. Most of the details are fuzzy, but I remember chicken salad, a red rose on the windowsill from my sister, and Van Morrison singing Astral Weeks. I wound my way inward to a place inside my body I’d never been before. Numbers, time, even food had left my consciousness. I moaned and moved according to the rhythm of my body. I floated in a Jacuzzi, squatted over a toilet seat.

When it was finally time to push, I was on the floor. Seth and our midwife were there too. Their faces weren’t in my view, but I could feel their hands and hear their words. With my knees bent and my head bowed, I felt like an animal. It didn’t matter that I was in a hospital on the corner of State and Spring streets in Portland, Maine. I could have been in the woods on a bed of pine needles or in the middle of the ocean.

*

Duncan’s head came while I was there on the floor, and I felt immediate relief. But the rest of him didn’t slide out like I’d seen in the birthing DVDs. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was stuck, and our midwife had started to panic. She tried moving me to different positions and then finally decided to help me up onto the bed.  I was reluctant to heave my pregnant body, complete with a newly born head poking out, back up onto the hospital bed. It was the one place I had decided early on that I did not want to give birth. When I was squatting on the ground, I could push every one away and focus. I could imagine I was an animal birthing in the woods the way we talked about in one of our childbirth classes. Up on the bed, plastic monitors flashed digital numbers, numbers I had no concept of at that point. People in scrubs swirled around the room. And the gray institutional doors and florescent lights brought consciousness back to me. All of it lifted me from my birthing trance and I suddenly became rationally aware of what was happening.

            When I was in graduate school for writing, a professor of mine would say, If the sun and moon should doubt, they would go out. He was talking about us as writers and the natural flow of a story. It’s only when we start to doubt what we’ve written, when we stop to break down the components of the story before it’s done, that the whole magical gift of storytelling goes out like a light. Giving birth is similar. You work yourself into a trance and you flow there until the job is done, until the pain of it is over, and you have the first draft of a beautiful life. But if you stop in the middle of it and think about what it is you are actually doing, you risk putting the breaks on the whole process.

            So there I was, surrounded by nurses, by Seth and my midwife, and by the reality that it had been 22 hours since my water broke and at 24 hours it wouldn’t be as safe for the baby to be inside me anymore.  I wasn’t sure what kinds of interventions they would try, but I saw in their faces that it was time to push the baby out. Except that now I was suddenly conscious of how much time it’d been since I last slept and how utterly exhausted I was. They were all cheering me on as if I were twelve years old again and swimming in a race. That’s the one, Amy. That’s the push. I wished they would stop. I wished I was back in the middle of the ocean by myself, birthing my child. I told the midwife I couldn’t do it anymore. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t giving in to anything yet, but for some reason I had to say the words and see what kind of power they had.

            It was then that I saw Seth’s eyes. I mean, actually saw them. Blue, blood shot, determined. He moved his head into my line of vision and somehow lifted me from the hospital room, the bed, the day that had slipped away from us, and said, “Aim, we need to get this baby out now.” He wasn’t mad or scared, just matter-of-fact, like he always is, pulling me back to the work that needs to be done. Somewhere between consciousness and dream, I pushed, and the others in the room chanted, I pushed, they chanted. It went on forever it seemed. But finally, with a nurse shoving my legs back toward my ears and the midwife pressing hard on my belly, Duncan was born.

 *

He came into the world silent and blue. Before I could catch my breath, Duncan’s cord was cut and his slippery soul was whisked away to a plastic cart beside my bed. A nurse pressed on his tiny chest and blew air into him. For seven minutes we waited, suspended between life and death.

            Flashes of what I knew about babies in the womb came to me like tiny dreams, messages from the gods. “Go to him,” I told Seth. “Let him hear your voice.”

            My knees were heavy. My arms numb from pushing the bed, the floor, the tiles in the shower. But I held each limb with such intensity that I was almost hovering above that hospital bed.

            Our midwife yelled to call anesthesia, to get the baby intubated, but the nurse refused. She was calm. She’d been here before. “He’ll breath on his own,” she said, quietly. “He can do it.” Two fingers pumping, lips blowing. Nothing.

            Seth moved from my side to the cart. He took Duncan’s tiny fingers in his own.

            This couldn’t be happening, I thought. After all of that, he had to be okay.

            If the sun and moon should doubt… There was a space just above the light of the warmer, a space full of air and breath and the energy of all the women who’d given birth before me in that room, a space where the sun and the moon had shone, where everything merged together. It was that force, like water coming together at the mouth of a river, that I focused on during those minutes of limbo. I held it with my whole being, that God of the moment, and begged it to give me my child. To make him cry. To fill the room with the missing sound I ached in the center of my chest for. It was worse than what I imagine being starved of water or food would be like, my own flesh and blood nurtured and loved for 40 weeks, tucked safely under my heart, now limp on a plastic hospital cart that seemed miles away.

            The room was painfully quiet as Seth leaned down close to Duncan’s body. “Hey, little guy,” he whispered.

           And then I could see a foot move. Fingers curling. Then, full of the gusto of life and fight, Duncan parted his lips and screamed. He screamed a blood curdling beautiful song. And we all took a long, slow breath, as if we too were tasting air for the very first time. Even though it seemed the whole world had been in suspension a moment before, we now didn’t have time to doubt the animal instinct inherent in all of us: to simply fill our chest cavities with air and breathe.

            Hey, little guy. I still hear those words like a prayer in my mind.  

*

 

Duncan screamed for almost an hour. We cried, too, and laughed, and held him so that his little lips were pressed against our skin. Feeling the warmth of his breath was like feeling sun on my body. When it was over and we were sure he was okay, I walked down the hall to the hospital refrigerator. I was starving. There on the middle shelf in two glass jars was the lentil soup we’d brought from home. It was just as orange as it was the day before. And it reminded me of all the undone things I had on my to-do list. It reminded me of the bassinet, and the piles of clothes, our dirty bathroom and all the things that didn’t really matter. Everything had changed since I last ate that soup. I’d been out to the middle of the ocean, to the woods, to a place only the animal brain can understand. I’d hovered in limbo for what seemed like hours, waiting for my baby to come to life. And I wasn’t the same person. I would never be who I was when I made that soup again. It seemed like the soup was 100 years old as I stood there in my slippers, with my uterus shrinking. 

            That night, Seth told me he felt something different in his heart now. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “It’s like waves pulsing in my chest.” He put his hand on his heart and his eyes filled with water. Perhaps he’d been to the woods and the ocean and back, too. We didn’t eat our lentil soup that night. Instead, my sister brought us sushi and champagne.

Amy Amoroso is a writer and mother of two. After leaving medical school, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing and went on to teach writing at George Mason University and the University of Southern Maine. She currently works as a ghostwriter in Portland, Maine and helps women write about their birthing experiences. Amy is working on a novel and several nonfiction essays. Her fiction is published in Alligator Juniper and Upstreet.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to “Hundred-Year-Old Soup”


  • Amy, I just read Hundred Year Old Soup and as usual your prose and the way you tell a story is so incredibly beautiful, my eyes tear up imagining what it must have been like being there in that moment. You are truly gifted. All the Best to you and your family. I look forward to reading more.

  • Good job, writing. And Good Job, Mom.

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