Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Norwegian Birth Story

Today's assignment for birthing class is to write our anticipated story of birth. I'm not sure what the purpose of this is, since the one thing I'm fairly certain is true about birth is that it doesn't go according to predictions.

Still, the assignment is putting me in mind of some of my favorite literary birth stories. Particularly this one, from Mama's Bank Account. The setting is a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco in the early twentieth century; this scene closes the book with the birth of Mama's first grandchild.

I was at school teaching the day they took Christine to the hospital, and when the telephone call came, I got another teacher to take my class and hurried over there.

Mama was waiting for me in the hall.

"They will not let me see her," she said simply.

And her eyes were as stark as they had been on the long-ago day when Dagmar had been wheeled down a hospital corridor away from her--as the time Papa had been so ill.

We waited together outside Christine's door until Nels and Frank came out.

"How is she?" Mama asked anxiously.

Nels shook his head and Frank took hold of both of Mama's hands, as if for comfort.

"But what is wrong?"

"Christine believes," Nels said hopelessly, "that she is going to die."

"But--is she?"

Frank looked down at Mama's hands for a long time.

When he looked up, his young face was gaunt. "She is. Unless she gives us some help. Nothing we say--She's not having an easy time. Now she's given up completely."

Mama took her hands out of Frank's and straightened her hat.

"I go in," she said.

"I'm afraid it wouldn't do any good, Mama," Nels said. "It might even be bad for her. One look at your face--"

"Then I will change my face. Like this. See?" Mama smiled valiantly.

Nels put his arm around Mama's shoulder. "No."

"But I'm her Mama."

"And I'm her brother and Frank is her husband. We love Christine, too. Believe me, we're doing everything we can. We're doctors."

"Yes," Mama said mildly, "But have you ever had a baby?"

And with that, she marched directly into Christine's room, beckoning me to follow.

Christine's face was white and still against the pillow.


"Yes, Christine."

"Oh, Mama, will you take my baby--afterwards?" Christine's voice seemed caught in her throat. "We children were so happy, so safe. Mama, will you?"

Mama walked over to the window and raised the shade.

"And what," she wanted to know, "will you be doing while I'm raising your baby?"

"Tears coursed down Christine's cheeks. "Didn't they tell you? Don't you know? I-I won't be here."

"And I always thought," Mama said quietly, "that Katrin was the dramatic one."

"Mama! What do you mean?"

"I remember now, Christine, that you are the stubborn one."

Christine buried her face in the pillow. "Oh, you still don't understand. I'm going to die!"

Mama's voice was even. "I had five children. And with every one, I too was certain I was going to die."

"But I know. I'm a nurse."

Mama walked over to the bed and looked down at Christine.

"Perhaps," she suggested, "It will be better if you stop being a nurse and start becoming a mother."

Christine closed her eyes and sighed wearily.

A student nurse tiptoed in with a tray. "Though I don't suppose," she whispered compassionately, "that she'll be able to eat a thing."

Christine moaned softly and Mama said, "Please leave the tray, anyhow."

After the nurse had gone, Mama took the silver covers off the dishes and poured tea from the pitcher. I saw how her hands trembled, and I stepped back against the wall so that Christine could not see the tears in my eyes.

"Will you eat, my Christine? There is chicken here. And mashed potatoes."

Christine moaned again.

"I will feed you if you like. Perhaps you will try to drink a little of the hot tea?"

Christine shook her head, but did not open her eyes.

Mama said, "Is a shame to waste good food."

And Mama sat down by the tray and slowly, methodically, she began to eat Christine's lunch.

Christine's eyes flew open. "Mama! What are you doing?"

"Eating your lunch."

"But--but--" Christine sat up in bed. "How can you sit there and eat when I'm-- Mama, aren't you worried about me at all?"

Mama shook her head stoically. "You are doing fine. You are just like me. I never could eat, either."

Then Christine began to laugh to herself. She laughed between the spasms of pain, while Mama helped her walk back and forth across the room, and she was still smiling when they wheeled her into the operating room, where she was safely delivered of a seven-pound baby boy.

When Nels came out and said that Christine was fine and that there was nothing more to worry about, Mama's hands stopped trembling.

She leaned on my arm, though, as we walked down the hall to the glass-paned nursery.

A nurse held up a tiny blanketed figure and Mama peered at the wrinkled, yawning little face.

"I think," she said, "he has Papa's nose. And--yes, he has Christine's mouth."

"Oh, Mama! As if you could tell! He looks like a little boiled lobster."

"Why Katrin--he is a beautiful baby. As you were. All my children were beautiful babies."

My thoughts were back in Christine's hospital room.

"Five times," I said wonderingly. "Five times. And all you went through raising us--"

"It was good," Mama said.

"How can you say that? Why, I can remember times, Mama--"

"It was good," Mama repeated firmly. "All of it."

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