“Holy hell, what’s this?” I say to Dr. Blum, who doesn’t seem to notice the beat-up black DeSoto with a table tied to the top that’s pulled over on the side of the road. A young man, wearing a wool plaid jacket, stands on the berm, waving his hat. “Help. Stop!”
The newspapers warn us about highwaymen out to do no good, robbers who pose as distressed travelers in these hard times, lure do-gooders to help them, and then at gunpoint take all their money and valuables. Slowing, I see a woman in the front seat, her feet on the dashboard and her face wild with pain. It’s only that face that compels me to stop.
“Oh, for god’s sake, that doesn’t look fake, does it?” I ask the doctor, backing up to see what’s happening. My passenger doesn’t answer, but then he never does. “Here goes nothing.” I put my leather pocketbook in the doctor’s limp hands and cover it with his coat. “If the man is a thief, unless he puts a gun to your head, don’t give this up. It’s all we have,” I command, jumping out of the Pontiac. Blum doesn’t blink.
“What’s the problem?” I yell to the stranger. “Your lady okay? I’m a registered nurse.”
“Oh, thank god, ma’am. I’m Alvin Norton. . . . It’s my wife, Bernice. She’s having a baby. What should I do? It’s another forty miles to Torrington.”
“She’s having the baby right now?”
I remember the first baby I ever saw born, a premature infant too little to breathe, with a double cleft lip that ran up to his nose. It was a precipitous delivery in the emergency ward and the mother was hysterical. Still in training, I’d been left to labor-sit while the other nurses went on break, and ever since then, I’ve approached childbirth with dread.
I push those images away and run for the passenger side of the auto, where I find a blonde of about twenty, vomiting out the window.
“It’s coming!” she says, her green eyes wide.
“What should I do? What should I do?” Alvin asks again.
“Well, the first thing is . . . get her bloomers off.”
The man blushes, sets his hat on the hood, and pulls off the woman’s wringing-wet pants while I throw off my worn wool coat. It’s old but it’s the only one I have.
“Can you roll on your side, Bernice? Put your head up by the steering wheel and open your legs? My name is Nurse Becky.” The woman squirms around and props one leg up on my shoulder.
“Sir, if the baby is truly coming, I’ll need a blanket or something to wrap it in. If it’s not time yet, maybe you can make it back to Butler Mills. There might be a doctor there.” I sound so calm and confident, but my whole insides are shaking.
“Yes. Yes!” The father is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
“In the suitcase!” the woman yells. “Blanket in the suitcase! Ughhhhhh!” A hairy orb about the size of an apple is already showing. The infant peeks out and then retreats, not ready to enter this hard world, I imagine. I try to act as if I do this all the time, but cold fear grips my stomach.
As a registered nurse, I’ve assisted physicians at scores of deliveries, but the rawness of emotion and the blood and the goo have never appealed to me, and then there is still the vision, deep in my psyche, of that first deformed child. . . . I’d rather set a broken arm, assist with a hysterectomy, or clean a ragged wound.
I have even been present when a midwife delivered the baby of a homeless woman in a tent, pitched under a stone bridge, and the outcome was healthy, but I still didn’t like it. What was it the midwife said to her frightened patient?
“Push a little,” I say, trying to imitate her soothing voice, as cold sweat drips down the side of my face. “Push a little . . . Blow a little . . . Push a little . . . Blow a little. Your baby is almost here, Bernice.” The father comes back, holding a crocheted white baby blanket. I hate to get it bloody, but it’s apparently all he could find.
“We’re on our way to her mother’s in Torrington,” he explains between contractions. “Where we were going to stay until her confinement, but the baby’s not due for two weeks. Will it be okay?”
“Ughhhhh!” growls the woman again and I ignore the nervous father, all my attention on his wife. I have no idea what I’m doing, so I just put my hands around the baby’s head and hold on, trying to keep the mother from tearing.
What a strange way to come into this world, I reflect, one human being squeezed out of another.
“Push a little. Blow . . .” The head is out.
“Oh my God!” the father exclaims, holding himself up on the open car door.
“No pushing now, Bernice! Blow. Let me check for a cord around the neck.”
“Urghhhh!” the mother growls again and the whole baby swivels and comes out on the seat.
“It’s a boy,” Alvin announces before I have time to look. “Oh, Nurse! Oh, my sweet Bernice.” He runs around to the driver’s side and strokes his wife’s sweaty yellow hair. She is smiling; her leg still perched on my shoulder.
“Is it okay?” Bernice asks.
I give the lustily crying baby a once-over, looking, as I always do, for any anomalies, and quickly wrap it in the beautiful blanket, cord still attached.
“Just fine. A healthy male infant.” Now where to put the child while I attend to the afterbirth?
“Do you have something soft? Another blanket?” The new father comes up with a worn chenille bathrobe to make a temporary bed for the infant on the floor.
“I have to push again!” the mother groans.
“Mother of God! Is there another one?” That’s the dad.
“No, it’s the placenta, the organ that gives nutrition and oxygen to the infant. You wouldn’t have a bowl would you?” The father holds out his nice felt fedora and I plunk the whole slimy afterbirth into it.
Then Bernice squirms around and sits up. I hand her the crying, beet-red boy, still attached to the mess in the hat, and she begins to sing to him. “Sleep, baby, sleep. Your father tends the sheep. . . .”
Alvin sits down on the running board, his face very white. “I don’t know how to thank you, ma’am. Will they be okay, until we get to her mother’s?”
“Yes, but take them to a doctor or nurse right away, someone who can cut the cord properly. I don’t have a pair of sterile scissors. This is important. Don’t do it yourself. It has to be sterile, and then a special dressing goes over the stump.”