I grew up knowing only one of my grandfathers. My father’s father worked in the laundry business—hot work with vapors rising even on a cold winter day, let alone on those perilous days of July when the sun bakes the wet heat into you. I loved walking with him among the large washers and rows of commercial clothes pressers. The sounds, smells, and steam of the laundry were like a locomotive pulling away from a small station along the tracks of rural America. My mother’s dad died just after I took my first breath. A mere set of months before his life of toil ended at the age of 44. This tradition of death at an early age prevailed in my family history speaking to the challenges in the country in the early 1900s. Stories draw a crisp picture of a stiff man who worked hard as a farmer and a trucker carrying most anything from the field to towns in the Carolinas.
My grandmothers worked hard as the backbone of the families. Their bearing birth to eight children between them brought all I know into possibility. Lillian and Omega were the creators of the family. It was in their bodies that they formed the legacy of family. They were as different as a pea is to a cantaloupe but the same in bringing forth through bodily effort. They were each hard workers, in what was a much harder life than most of us can imagine these days. Omega was an urban worker pushing phone calls back and forth on a switchboard. Lillian was a countrywoman pulling nourishment out of the land and bringing it to the harvest table. Slowly over the course of my youth they taught me the lessons of work and showed me the fruits of labor building tendencies in me that have held me upright in my life. Their toil was as Epsom salt working into the muscles over time, loosening the hard cramps of physical labor. They created a different path ahead for me if I chose. They brought crying babies into a world where things were hard but simple.
Yet it was in an old farmhouse up the road from Lake Winnipesauke where my understanding of life and toil took on a different type of meaning. The understanding is still something I reckon with, but there is no doubt that witnessing the labor of my wife giving birth to our son was a deep-driven spike into my limited experience. With such intense, focused energy she brought life into existence.
Mothers of course can tell the story of birth far better than I ever could from my scant role in the birth of my son. But as an observer, as a lover of the woman in labor, it etched images that have lasted. A gentle woman was prepared and able to move through the rhythms, which brought her no relief for quite sometime. She had done all that she could to prepare. She took long walks, reluctantly giving up her bicycle a week before delivery and swimming until just hours before the birth. Such was her intention to bring a child into the world.
Intention seems to be a significant base by which people find the gumption to do the tasks that sustain them and nourish their dreams. Of course it is not ideal. It can be hard. It is full of sweat, full of challenges beyond measure.
As a young man of 25 I thought I was very prepared for the time of labor. Our son was late by medical calculations and our plans of moving were being pushed into an undesired margin. There was a subtle urgency forming. I do remember the Lamaze teacher saying to us coaches, especially to the partners among the group, that we may very well meet a different women in the hours between the water breaking and the birth of our child. Oh, how right she was. She had the wisdom of experience to understand what we were just about to discover. If there was wisdom for me and Kate, it was lying somewhere deep within her muscular memory passed on from one generation of mothers to another.
It seems almost humorous now to look back to those hours, to remember the ways that the Lamaze teacher’s words came true. To recall from this distant vantage the transformation that took place as my wife and lover became a mother of a suckling child.
When her water broke after weeks of waiting, it felt surreal to believe that the birth was actually going to happen. The understanding would come later. Things moved rather quickly from that point on. Things moved so fast that when our doctor stopped by our house to check on Kate’s progress he brought his two young daughters along. He was thinking that he would stop by and then go for a swim, and sometime later that night come to do the home birth delivery. When he picked up our phone and called his wife to see if she could come and pick up their daughters, it was not meant to be. They too would be in the house where a baby was going to be born. And the baby was going to be born through might and will.
During the time of labor I was focused on being the dutiful husband meeting the needs of my wife. There were ice chips to be delivered, cool wash clothes to wipe her forehead, and encouraging words to offer. All was in place, just as we had practiced in Lamaze class and in our dreaming talks each night as we reviewed our readiness. In the privacy of my writing study I would ask myself if I was ready each evening as I imagined the future. Often the truest answers are in the grayness, I was ready and still I had no idea that I would see my wife display intensity and strength I had rarely seen to that point in my life. She was a worker bringing home the most precious.
In class we had discussed the importance of a focal point to concentrate on during labor. We had decided that a vase with a single flower sitting on the bureau across from the end of the bed would be the perfect item for Kate to be able to see. As I watched my wife breathe through the first contraction holding off the urge to push, I had little reference point to understand the contortions in her face. What can I do to help her in the struggle? I wondered. It actually seemed that any effort I made just worsened her plight and irritated her. If I held her hand, I shouldn’t, if I didn’t I should. Back and forth it went. I would continually encourage her to stay focused on the flower and her eyes would look at me with the fierceness I had only seen across the line of scrimmage as a football player. My wife had become a middle linebacker in a championship game. Intense, focused, and fearsome she was. As I moved during one contraction to get her some ice she grimaced, and starting in a soft voice roaring to fullness she said, “Please! Don’t move again! The image on your shirt is my focal point!” I froze and did not move again. The gentle woman I loved had forged me into a statute, strong on love and support and helpless to do anything other than watch her work through the arrival of birth.
When it was over, the doctor and his daughters gone, we lay in bed and I looked at the reflection in the mirror on the bureau. I could see both the front and back view of the simple daisy in the vase and beyond I could see my wife resting, her eyes softly held and a slight smile on her face. I could see the back of my son lying on my chest and my eyes looking forward. In the edges of the mirror now I see all those who had come forward at the times of birth to put forth the moment that was at hand. It was a warm evening and the sweat of her labor and theirs was one.