February 26. Not a day I’ve ever associated with anything significant. It’s my niece’s birthday and it’s the day that Thriller first hit number one on the charts, but that’s all.
February 26 this year seems no different from all the others. I wake up, scroll listlessly through Twitter, check my mails and think about what to wear to work. My husband brings me breakfast, Greek Sour Cherries in yoghurt. (I’ve been eating a lot of cherries lately, to bring my uric acid levels down after a preeclampsia scare that saw me hospitalised for a week earlier in the month.)
My cellphone rings. The first three digits are vaguely familiar. “Hello Sarah!” It takes me a moment to register the soft-spoken voice, one I usually hear in person: my OB/GYN. He tells me about Tuesday’s blood test results, which are bad. I need to be checked again this morning, he says. He doesn’t want to delay it and increase the risk that I’ll be an emergency case in the middle of the night when another doctor is on call. “We might need to take the baby out today,” he says.
And with those words, the bottom drops out of my world.
I phone my husband. Fortunately he hasn’t left for the office yet. He cancels his meetings and I check the suitcase I’d packed earlier this week. (Wouldn’t need it for another two months, I thought, but better to get it done.) Underwear, check. Mesh sponge, check. Toothbrush, check. Chargers for phone, laptop, mifi, check. Just because you’re in hospital doesn’t mean you can’t be connected.
I click through the hangers in my cupboard, settling on making a point of choosing the same clothing I wore the last time I was admitted two weeks before. I escaped having the baby early then, so maybe they will help again.
In the maternity ward, the nurse asks me to provide a urine sample in a one-litre jug. She apologises; they have no cups. I straddle the jug, cursing my sudden waterwise tendencies after a night of leaping up to use the loo. A lab technician arrives with a needle, several vials and an apology for the pain. “You’re a genius,” I tell her, truthfully. “I hardly felt a thing.”
At 11am, my doctor appears with the lab results. 0,42 is the figure for the uric acid. It was 0,4 on Tuesday and 0,37 before that, which means that there’s a definite trend in the wrong direction. Long story short, they are all bad — liver function, platelets, the lot — significantly worse than Tuesday’s. I’m heading for renal failure at this rate, possible placental abruption. Delaying any longer means unacceptable risks.
So that’s it, then. Our baby, official due date April 29, first prize due date April 27 (public holiday), will instead be introduced to the world on February 26.
I am very calm about this, all things considered. I had my meltdown two weeks earlier and, since there’s no putting this off, it seems pointless to have another. Only when I am on the phone to my mother do I lose it. “I feel like such a total fucking failure,” I sob. “I can’t even get this right.”
Eyes dry, I tackle the paperwork. Permission for Vitamin K to be given to the baby. (Relationship: mother). Anaesthetist consent form with medical history and details of who is responsible for the account.
Hlengiwe, my nurse, arrives to shave me. Alas, the shaver’s battery has run down so she resorts to an old-fashioned blade, which she scrapes across my bikini line, lips pursed in concentration while my husband watches.
Then it’s time to be wheeled to theatre. Ceiling panels pass overhead, glimpses of people and chairs and botanical prints on the wall slip by. My husband dons scrubs, a hairnet, mask and covers for his feet. He exchanges banter with the nurses.
The anaesthetist is a young black woman. Hey! #blackexcellence I think, and wonder how best to tell Twitter, which would surely approve. She likes music in the operating theatre she says; do I have any preferences? I think of asking for Formation, but in the end settle for whatever she has on her playlist: smooth jazz of the kind that would help you pass the time sipping Johnny Black at Katzy’s.
First up, the spinal block. This involves sitting on the bed hugging a pillow while she finds a space to put the needle. Then she’s happy and it’s all pins and needles, hot and cold as my legs become rubbery and slack like a giant KFC chicken. My abdomen is swabbed in preparation. My legs are grabbed and flexed, something happens between them. A catheter? There is giggling about Brazilians (what do they see down there, here in Caesar’s Palace in Sandton?). A blue canvas screen is raised and I clutch my husband’s hand, trying to ignore the pushing and pulling going on down below. It’s as if a group of people are rummaging in a sock drawer, only that sock drawer is me and they’re hunting for a stray matching spleen.
The jazz morphs into something more vocal. Norah Jones? I can’t tell. I will notnotnot look up, into the lights, where the cutting and slicing is reflected in the cool metal.
Push, pull, push, pull. I glance up at the wall, trying not to think about what that pressure means when translated into actual physical interaction involving bits of me. “Are you sure about her name?” I ask my husband. His dark eyes are intense above the blue face mask. This is it, I should be thinking. (I’m not sure if I am thinking right now.) This is it, this is it.
Is this really it?
This is me here on the operating table but not-me. I’ve been critical to this process up until now, but from now on I am incidental. She was mine, all mine inside me and I shared her very selectively, but now she is about to be out in the world.
Then there are voices and small surge of excitement and one smaller, distinctive cry and there she is. Or at least people say that’s where she is. I can’t see anything. She is whipped away for her Apgar scores and wrapped in a receiving blanket.
“She’s skinny!” someone says. 1.23kg, I’ll find out later.
My husband places an impossibly small bundle on my chest. I peer awkwardly, a frown forming a fleshy donga between my eyes while I try to make sense of this. She who was inside me, kicking and elbowing, is now out. She looks pissed off as hell, and I don’t blame her. Nobody asked her whether she wanted this.
“Feisty” says the paediatrician, Dr Pillay.
Hello Baby I breathe. Hello Baby. I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t think of anything else to say to her. I can’t touch her. I have no idea what she feels like. My husband reminds me not to breathe directly on her. She is whisked away to the incubator, and that is the last I will see of her for the day. My doctor sews me up. He makes small talk with the surgical assistant. His son wants to go to boarding school; he’s fine with it but the boy’s mother isn’t.
So this is birth. This is motherhood. Mechanical, medical and, for all the good wishes and kind people around me, impersonal. You had her inside you and you couldn’t keep her, so someone else is getting a chance. I lie there, trying to work out what to feel for this tiny alien being who felt so familiar until a few moments ago. A part of me who has quite literally been ripped from within.
26 February 2016. The day I became a mother.