By Susan Yoder Ackerman
The blizzard howled as if it wanted to strip the tin roof from our log house.
“Here, Robby darling, take this aspirin,” I whispered, trying to hold my bathrobe closed across my pregnant belly. My husband turned to glare at me, his breath coming in short, rasping gasps. Let me wake up from this nightmare, I thought. This stranger is not my husband.
He rolled the pills around on his fingertips, then swallowed them and slipped back into fevered sleep. I crawled under the covers beside him, but there was no sleep for me.
All that day, as snow fell, I had felt the urge to prepare. I kept Ilse and Hans playing nearby while I cooked and baked. It was already dark before two pairs of headlights came slowly up the icy hill. I watched my neighbor undo the tow chain from our little French car and drive on through the storm.
Robby did not get out of the car for a long time. At last I saw him stumbling across the snowy footbridge and up to the house, briefcase in one hand, a tool for spackling the baby’s nursery in the other.
“I’m so tired,” he said as he came in, his face ashen. “I’m so thirsty.”
But when he tried to drink, he threw up. Dinner forgotten, I helped him upstairs to bed. Hans followed and spread his ragged, thumb-stroked security blanket over his father in an astonishing gesture of compassion.
Robby fell into an exhausted sleep. I tucked the worried children into bed. No use thinking about our final “Prepared Childbirth” class, scheduled for that evening. Having missed Robby sorely during the other births, I had his solemn promise that for this third child, he would be with me every inch of the way. This time we would bring our baby into the world together.
The past year had been a difficult one for me. Robby had long dreamed of ten acres with a creek and a south-facing hill on which to build a solar house. We had found the hill and the creek under the shadow of Little North Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley. The charm of goldfinches on thistles and wild columbine clinging to stone did not make up for the fact that the house had no plumbing except for one pipe that brought spring water to the kitchen sink. What it did have was a large population of rats, a legacy of rusting junk, and a self-composting toilet.
And now this sudden terrible illness, and the snow that held us prisoner together. I touched my husband for comfort; his skin was burning. The baby swam and dived in its firm, round house, reminding me that the well-being of all five of us rested on me alone. I felt paralyzed by fear and the stormy night.
A rooster’s shrill crowing split the silence. Then a snowplow droned and flashed its way past, and I was suddenly hopeful. I remembered, too, that the drive into town was downhill, not uphill. I could get Robby to the doctor now.
In the cold blue light of morning, I tugged him to a sitting position and knelt to pull on his socks. The children thought it was funny; their laughter gave me the courage to get everyone into coats and mittens, and through the snow to the frozen car.
At the doctor’s office, the nurses persuaded Robby to part with his coat but not his wool ski cap. He sat hunched on the table as they tried to take his blood pressure, then tried again, with him lying down this time.
“There’s hardly any blood pressure,” Dr. Perry said. “It’s pneumonia and dehydration, very serious. I know your baby is due, but we need to get him into the hospital right away.” Robby had double lobar pneumococcal pneumonia. In the x-rays, his lungs looked white, as if packed with snow.
The hospital staff hurried to get Robby settled in the isolation ward. There was nothing more I could do. I gathered the children out of the waiting room and headed back to our mountain. Robby was in good hands, but what about me and the baby? What about the children? The radio announcer had big news–another snowstorm would dump 12 inches.
When I got back to the cold and lonely house, I called my sister in nearby Harrisonburg. “Oh, Susan,” she said, hearing the tears in my voice. “Bring the children and come to my house. Now!”
I went upstairs for my hospital suitcase–just in case. I smoothed the soft yellow afghan and tiny undershirts. Would I ever hold the child? Would we ever be together, all five of us, watching goldfinches swoop over the sunny hillside? It seemed impossible.
Snowflakes began to pelt against the windshield as I drove. The children sang Christmas carols in the back seat. Our unborn baby drew itself up into a hard knot between me and the steering wheel, taking my breath away.
It snowed all night and all the next morning. Cars lay buried in drifts. I tried to relax in the warmth of Connie’s home, but an urgency grew within me: I had to get to the hospital. I wanted to be with Robby. In the afternoon, with the roads closed to normal traffic, a friend offered me a ride in his four-wheel-drive truck. He plowed through the icy streets to the main door of the hospital.
“I’ll come back for you at five,” he said, as I slipped awkwardly from the seat to the snowy ground.
“Oh, no, don’t. I’ll be fine.” I waved him on, surprising myself. How would I get home, if not with him?
Gowned and masked, I pushed open the door marked Isolation. Robby lay thin and pale, tubes of clear liquid running into his arm from a suspended bag. Was he alive? As I bent to touch him, he whispered, “Will you flush those chicken gizzards down the toilet?”
I hadn’t giggled in quite a while, and it was a relief to do so as I disposed of the meal. Somehow I knew that I had my husband back, even though it would take weeks to bring him to health.
I sat with Robby in the overheated room. My stomach kept drawing up into its hard, round shape. It was unsettling to find that every six minutes it happened again. This couldn’t be labor–it was a week until my due date, and both my other pregnancies had gone a week or two beyond that.
A nurse came in. As she waited for the temperature reading she said, “Looks like you could just stay here and have that baby!”
“I’m actually having mild contractions every six minutes,” I replied. Her eyes widened, and she scurried from the room. This was false labor, I told myself. There had been stress enough in this family. If I relaxed, so would the uterine muscles.
But the contractions never weakened, only changed to five minutes apart. No one disturbed us, except to bring a superfluous dinner tray. At Robby’s bedside, I could exist in a suspended state that demanded no decisions, no action.
But then it was 10 p.m. If I was going back to my sister’s, I would need to do it soon. On the other hand, if this rhythmic tightening was indeed labor, I was in the right place for the night.
I picked up the phone and looked at my sleeping husband. Once I put things into motion, I would be alone again. I dialed my doctor’s number. Upon hearing that he was away and that I was to call a doctor I had never seen before, I felt an even deeper abandonment. But there was no way to postpone this.
Dr. Nipe told me to go to the emergency room. I put the phone down and looked toward the bed for support, but Robby had none to give me.
“What if it’s a boy?” I asked. “We never did decide on a boy’s name.”
Robby managed a weak grin. “She’s a girl,” he whispered. “She’s Anje.” I squeezed his hand in love and exasperation and turned to leave.
I could have reached the emergency room by taking an elevator. But I put on my coat and walked down four flights of stairs and out the front door, along snowy sidewalks to the outside entrance, taking deep breaths of fresh, frosty night air for courage.
Going up to the desk alone to say I was having a baby seemed like a scene from a very mediocre movie. But the staff quickly put me at ease, word spreading that my husband was critically ill on another floor.
“I don’t know, though,” the nurse said after examining me. “You’re barely dilated at all, you have a slight fever, and your blood pressure is high.”
Well, whose wouldn’t be?, I wondered, thinking of the last two days. But her uncertainty scared me. Now that I had come this far, where else would I go?
They relented and took me up to the third floor in a wheelchair–I, who had just taken four flights of steps and a stretch of snowy sidewalk on my own two feet! The nurse’s cool hands were soothing as she settled me into room 301, right under the very room in which my husband lay. Well, he had promised to be with me this time, I thought, taking some small comfort from his unconscious nearness.
I lay there, torn between relief that I was going into labor in such a safe place and deep disappointment that not only was I alone, but that my husband, who needed me, was also alone. I worried about Hans and Ilse, who had been brave about their daddy going to the hospital; how would they feel when they found their mother missing too?
And was I ready to cope with the discomfort that, as contractions strengthened, I was beginning to remember from my previous birthings? I had no choice but to be strong. I began using panting breaths to soothe away each contraction. Through the open door, I kept my eye on the bright head of the lone nurse who sat writing at the nurse’s station.
By 5 a.m. the contractions were deeper, stronger, more frequent. Dr. Nipe’s face bent over me and I could feel his gentle concern. The nurse left her desk and stayed with me, talking, relaying the baby’s progress.
At 6:02 a still head appeared in the mirror, paused, and shifted its shoulders slightly, and suddenly a warm, slippery little girl lay across my stomach, gasping. There were cheers from the nurse and doctor. Anje had come to us.
Back in my room, in the slow wintry dawn, I held that warm new bundle close as I dialed Room 401 to hear Robby whisper, “Hello.” “Hello,” I said. “I’m holding your little girl.”
Then we were silent together, as Anje began wriggling and fussing in my arms. “I hear her,” he said softly.
We were silent again. There was too much to say. Someday I could tease him about the ridiculous lengths some people go to for their share of attention, or protest that taking Prepared Childbirth classes together didn’t include a plan for matching hospital rooms.
But for the moment it was enough that, together, we were hearing our daughter’s voice, and that one day, on a hillside now covere with snow, the columbine would burst into bloom.
Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer, teacher, and school principal. She lives with her husband and her cats in a farmhouse built by her grandfather in Newport News, Virginia. “After our third child’s birth in the snowy Virginia mountains,” she writes, “our family faced challenges in other places, including years in the savannas of the Congo and the fringes of the Sahara in Mauritania.”