I had thought about writing one of those pithy, erudite columns this week the kind we writers like to compose to mark significant milestones along the road of life but I decided to go a different way.
Instead, I will share a story about a document written by someone who, as far as I know, never aspired to be a writer.
The document is a letter, written by a young mother, which she sent to her sister.
It amazes me that this young woman had the presence of mind to not only record the events of two days in December in such rich detail, during such a chaotic time, but also that she had the foresight to ask her sister to send the letter back to her after she read it so the writer could keep it as a record of events.
The process she followed is an example of the historical nature of the document. Today, we have smart phones, computers, e-mail, and copiers, so it would likely be handled differently today.
The letter helps to illustrate the time in which the events occurred, and seeing it written in the woman’s own hand makes it intensely personal.
We must be careful not to judge this story by current standards, but by the standards of the time in which it happened. For example, there is a reference to smoking cigarettes in a hospital room, which sounds bizarre today, but times were different then.
The letter opens with a description of several varieties of cookies the young woman was baking one December morning. She also made bread, and prepared pasties for the family’s dinner.
In the afternoon, she walked to school with a friend to see the Christmas program, and later called the doctor to ask about leg cramps she had been having after he prescribed some medication.
After what seems to have been a very busy day for a pregnant woman (although it was no doubt typical for her) the young woman took a 15-minute nap, and that was when the trouble began.
She awoke to find she was bleeding. A lot. She called the doctor, who told her to get to the emergency room.
After making several calls to find a friend whose husband could drive her to the hospital, she went. Even then, she viewed the situation as a mere inconvenience, and expected the friend to wait, thinking she would be returning home soon. She also called her husband, who was at work.
Upon arriving at the hospital, the woman was taken directly to a delivery room on the sixth floor.
A procession of doctors and nurses examined the woman and asked her questions. Each staff member took a turn listening. The woman’s primary doctor went and got another doctor and asked him to confirm something. Then, after a more thorough examination, the second doctor asked the ominous question “Have you felt the baby move today?”
It was at that point she knew something was terribly wrong.
The primary doctor came back into the room with the woman’s husband, and there were tears in the young man’s eyes.
The woman wrote about how hard she tried not to cry, because she hated to cry in front of people, and she especially didn’t want to cry in front of her husband, knowing what he must be going through.
The doctors and nurses busied themselves with tubes and bottles, and the doctor said something about forcing labor, explaining it would be too much of a risk for her life to take the baby by caesarian section. He said it would take much longer, and be a more difficult labor, but nature’s way would be best.
“You probably know things aren’t going right with the baby, but we have to consider your health,” the doctor said. She knew.
The young woman described her understandable, if irrational, reaction to the news. She wrote about hanging on to herself and thinking, “Well, Barbara, it’s because you have been so mean and hateful lately. That’s why it’s happening to the baby.”
She also described the fear she was feeling, thinking the worst was yet to come.
Hours of waiting followed. The young man had called his mother, who lived in the lower half of the duplex in which the family lived. The young couple’s three young sons had been sent down to stay with her while their parents were at the hospital. Their grandmother broke down a bit when she heard the news about the baby, so the young man called a neighbor to go and sit with her.
At about 2:30 a.m., the young man had to drive home to put coal in the stoker, so the furnace wouldn’t go out. He also had to put gas in his car, after they were able to thaw the gas cap so they could remove it. These details provide some insight into what their lives were like in those days.
The young woman wrote that she didn’t know if someone had told her other children what had happened, or they had overheard it from telephone conversations, but they did know, and had told some of their friends.
The young man called the woman’s other sister the next morning. He also had to call the store where he worked and tell his friend what had happened. The woman noted how difficult that must have been for him.
The young man had had nothing but coffee since the ordeal began.
The woman wrote about the monotony of waiting during those long hours with nothing but a clock and a landscape print to look at. She also mentioned how a book she had recently read, “Childbirth Without Fear,” had helped her, because it explained the stages of labor and included a section about relaxing and breathing.
The woman cried quietly when a nurse brought in a bouquet of pink tea roses. It reminded her of the daughter she had dreamed of during her pregnancy, as she hoped for a girl after three boys.
During this time, the young couple had discussed funeral arrangements, and what they would name the child.
Despite the serious subject, there is humor in the piece. The woman wrote about her annoyance at “the damn bottles jangling” when they brought her to the delivery room, and then back again, because she wasn’t ready.
Things happened quickly then. The woman felt the baby’s head crowning, and called to the nurse, “The baby’s coming, the baby’s coming.” The RN flew in, yelling for someone to call the doctor. In the excitement, they missed the doorway, and crashed the gurney into the wall.
“‘Oh, God,’ I thought. ‘What a mess,’” the woman wrote.
They got her to a delivery room. A nurse had been dispatched to the doctors’ lounge to find the doctor.
The baby was delivered, and the doctor yelled at the nurse to get him to the nursery.
The doctor said, “that was your baby, did you hear him?”
She just stared at the doctor and said, “You told me he wasn’t going to cry.”
The young father, seeing the nurse tearing down the hall with a box on wheels, assumed the baby was dead, and they were just getting rid of it. “Then, the doctor came in with the strangest look on his face, and said, ‘the baby’s alive.’”
The doctor explained there was “just a hair” of the cord still connected to the baby, and it had been enough to keep him alive.
The woman cried. The husband cried. Even the doctor cried.
The doctors were still concerned, and continued to monitor the child. After 24 hours, they weighed the boy, and recorded his weight at 4 pounds, 9.5 ounces.
There were more tears, which the woman described as tears of joy and disbelief.
Then came the process of calling people to tell them the baby was alive after all.
There was also a procession of nurses stopping in to see the woman and ask about the baby. One of these was a student nurse who had been with the woman through much of the long ordeal. The student had asked early in the process if she could use the woman as her case study. “I kept wondering why,” the woman wrote, “because there wasn’t going to be any baby.”
As time passed, the doctors became more confident the baby would survive, and so he did. Half a century later, he is still among the living.
The young mother took the letter out and read it every year on the child’s birthday.
Although I had heard parts of the story before, I did not know the letter existed until my 21st birthday, when the woman, who was my mother, gave the letter to me, and explained it was the story of my birth.
Not only does it give me a special understanding of how I came into this world, it provides an invaluable window into the lives of my parents when they were young and just starting out. I can see their fear and insecurity. I see their vulnerability. I get a sense of what it must have been like for them as they struggled to make their way in the world.
My father died while I was in high school, and my mother died when I was in my 30s. They are both long gone, but every year on my birthday, when I take out the old envelope with those yellowed sheets of paper, and read the faded blue handwriting, I see their faces.
Because of this precious gift my mother gave me, I will always have my parents near me, and I will remember how it all began.