It was hardly surprising when the chair broke beneath her, considering its burden and its provenance. A hand-me-down survivor of her childhood, it boasted bright russet teak legs and a scratchy seat of moody blue-grey wool, part of a psuedo-modern set that had looked outmoded even back in the 70s. Her mother gave her the chairs when they moved into the house, their first, which seemed too vast to be filled up by the meagre contents of their former apartment. There was no money leftover for new furniture, especially with the third baby coming any day now. The weakness in those teak legs was internal, invisible, gathering itself together in silent protest at having to bear the bruising weight of her swollen-to-bursting body as she futilely tried and tried again to shift into a more comfortable position. One minute she was cutting meat on the plate of her three-year-old and fielding her five-year-old’s excited questions about tomorrow’s field trip, and the next minute she was on the floor with the smug traitor chair kicked out behind her.
Later, during the ice cream social at the new elementary school, she shifted again on the grass where she had seated her vast bulk, chatting with new neighbors about the teachers, about moving, about being pregnant, about birth; inside her head she was telling herself not to worry about hitting the floor so hard. How is it possible to have gained more than sixty pounds and resemble a farm animal and yet still land on my tailbone? Who knew I even still had tailbone within the giant padded recesses of my ass? Her husband arrived from the train station on his bike. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead with a handkerchief as she told him about the chair and he asked her if they should call the midwife. She looked out on their girls, completely merged with the crowd of children who were strangers before tonight but with whom they would, if all went as planned, pass the rest of their childhoods. The humid June air went to her head and she grabbed her husband’s hand, pulling him down into the group seated on the ice-cream sticky grass.
That night when the girls were in bed they put on a DVD, a movie they had wanted to see for a long time but who has time for movies with a toddler and a preschooler? They poured glasses of wine and chuckled about the baby’s due date being tomorrow. Neither daughter had come on her due date, the free-spirited younger one arriving two full weeks afterwards (of course). They leaned on each other, tired from the heat, from the move, from the children; and there it was. The feeling at the back of her mind since the chair’s abdication heated up and poured into her lower back, spreading insistent hot tendrils into her abdomen. The heat came and went for the rest of the movie and her husband insisted they call the midwife. She lumbered to the phone, passing the wreckage of the teak chair in the corner of the nearly-empty living room. How far apart are they? the midwife asked. Pretty far. I don’t know. Drink a glass of wine and try to go to sleep. If you can’t sleep, I’ll be right there. She had her wine in bed, the ache and the heat in her lower back ebbing and flowing. Remembering the trial-and-error knowledge of their previous labors they made love, awkwardly, all things considered, laughing because it was one of those what-the-fuck, nothing-left-to-lose times on the threshold of leaving behind everything that used to be real. Afterwards, they both fell asleep.
Just past dawn she woke up moaning, lower back on fire and iron bands clenching and releasing in her core. Like an action-adventure movie, the telephone lit up and a control center was established: husband would take both oldest and youngest daughter on the much-anticipated, end-of-the-year field trip where his mother would meet them, freeing up husband to return to his wife. In the meanwhile, supermodel-friend and her nursing toddler would come stay with the laboring woman until the midwife came. The children came to kiss her goodbye. The three-year-old threw herself on her mother and clenched her fiercely, burying her sweet round face in the woman’s aching breasts as if laying claim to them for the last time. The five-year-old hung back shyly, feeling her mother’s discomfort but not understanding her place in it. When she kissed her, the woman saw the worry in the child’s almond eyes and cried for the first time since the pain began. Then they were gone, husband promising a swift return, and the woman was alone with the dog in the bright, hot, morning light. The sunlight was the type that burns into your memory, clear and bright and perfect like truth. The woman lay on the sun-drenched bed and gave in to the pain, feeling sorry for herself on this path she had chosen. Lying across her feet, the dog held her and reproached her with silent eyes.
Her friend called out cheerfully as she first knocked loudly on the front door, then let herself in. The dog didn’t bark, didn’t move from the woman’s bed. She had to laugh when her friend came in the sunlit room and helped her to her feet: they made quite a pair, she and this willowy woman whose model-perfect looks stood in farcical contrast to the grotesque phenomenon of labor. The midwife arrived in time, cool placid eyes and competent hands and that midwife’s patient air. When the sun shifted from white to yellow the woman settled on the plush green couch, burying her head in the deep cushions that smelled of spilled milk and dog and children and her life, riding the waves of pain that crept up slowly from the center of her back where the chair had dropped her and spread insistently around the sides of her rock-hard belly to reach into her center, burning and pulling-open and squeezing at the same time until they finally relented and the woman slept. She awoke in between waves to look into the brown eyes of her friend holding her hand, sometimes speaking words of encouragement, sometimes watching her with a placid toddler at her breast; other times it was the midwife and she had to drag herself out of the couch-pain-ocean to answer gentle but firm questions or be checked; finally it was her husband, and when she opened her eyes that time his gaze met hers so deeply that they both laughed until the wave dragged her down again.
The midwife made her husband take her for a walk, as the baby’s posterior position was making her cervix dilate more slowly and the baby move less purposefully into the birth canal. They walked out the front door of their new home and down the sidewalk, negotiating the whole time about how far they would go. In the end, it was decided to head for the Japanese maple three houses down but they never made it that far; one house down she clutched his arm and told him they had to go home. Back in the living room she paced around like an animal, lower back on fire. The midwife told her it was time to push and she was afraid, remembering the futility of straining while holding back and not knowing, being afraid to know how. Model friend had an arm under her shoulders, supporting her, You have to do this. I’d do it for you but no one can do it but you. The midwife bustled around laying out towels, absorbent pads, flannel blankets, and a tiny hat. The dog lay in the corner of the living room in shadow, partially hidden beneath one half of the broken chair. No one saw her but the woman felt her yellow eyes as she bent over to push against the midwife’s cool hands on her lower back.
Of course her water didn’t break as much as slowly leak out with every push. It never broke the other two times either (movies featuring a pregnant character whose amniotic sac suddenly pops like a water balloon and launches a full-blown labor made her mad). The midwife had her squat for the contractions and her husband helped her into a standing position in between them. This made her feel more engaged and she marveled that this time, this birth she could actually feel the incredible pressure of the baby deliberately pressing its way through her. The house was silent and seemed dark despite the late afternoon sunlight, the air charged with palpable electricity as the particles rearranged themselves to accommodate the presence that was moving into being. Then there was the push that seemed to go on forever and she rose off her feet at the incredible burning of stretching open as the baby’s head crowned but she didn’t give up, in fact laughed somewhere inside because this was it, this was life as real as it gets and she would never be more present, more alive, more herself.
The air swirled and crackled in that moment between the head emerging and the baby coming into the world altogether. She was aware of the gentle voices of the women and the firm pressure of her husband’s arms under her shoulders, though of course she could not see the small, slender midwife crouched on the floor beneath her. One last easy push and there was that sound she remembered, the comically slimy, rippling whisper of a baby sliding forth from her body. As the midwife handed her the ghostly thing covered with white wax delicately shot through with blood her eyes snapped into tunnel vision, the whole world shrinking efficiently so that there was only this child whom she knew so intimately and not at all, this new girl (she noticed this time, hadn’t thought to look for several minutes after the last birth) with a face so like her oldest sister and yet her own. She was a big baby, just under nine pounds, but of course the head and limbs unaccustomed to freedom needed to be carefully gathered together like a bundle of fragile branches. She took the child into her arms, cradled against her chest, her husband reaching around to stroke the new head. For a moment the quiet, outraged wailing ceased against the warmth of skin and she let the child’s face be baptized by her tears. This one is the last, she thought, guiding her nipple into her daughter’s tiny mouth, even if each time is the first.