Portrait of a Tree, Taking Root
by Emily Zebel
Oct 18, 2011
I have never been known for my patience, and yet here I am, in waiting, in unbearable anticipation. It is the height of summer, late July, and it is early—I watch the horizon, watch the sun wobble towards the gate of the still-closed day and wait to see what sizzling pomp it will bring of another heat wave. My body aches, coupled with the weight of my moon belly and the umpteenth restless night spent on the futon in an attempt to find a comfortable sleeping position.
Our first baby is now five days late.
And so, of all the old wives’ tales on inducing labor naturally, today I set my heart and hopes on hiking. Considering my active pregnancy—half marathon at Month 7, regular runs through Month 8, along with eight mile commutes to work on my single speed bicycle—I can only assume that my little one just needs a bit of movement to inspire her own. I pack some essentials—water, camera, journal—and head out the door towards nearby Pinchot State Park. “Keep your cell phone close!” I say to my husband, Colby, before I go. He smiles, grinding the morning coffee, and puts faith in my optimism.
Before I’m down the stairs, a tiny cramp bundles low in my back. I pause. I am new at this, and naïve as they come, but something tells me to go back and grab my stopwatch. I snatch a piece of scrap paper too, and jot down the time before my feet hit the hot sidewalk.
In the car, en route to the park, the thick air moving across my skin and the day as ordinary as all of those that came before, the tiny cramp comes again. I jot down the time, again. Five minutes.
In the park, I pull the car into a shaded corner and step onto the trail. My movements are slow, and though I would normally push myself, I feel at ease letting my legs move with a heavy fluid motion. I keep the scrap paper tucked in my back pocket and continue to track the little fist that gathers in me, still at steady five-minute intervals. I spend the morning stepping carefully and bending down awkwardly for photos of mushrooms, roots and all sorts of other entirely unnoticed, beautiful things. The knots continue to gather in my back and I ease into the rhythm like a long distance run. Five minutes.
I head home. Unpack the camera. I pull up the raw files on my laptop and notice now a luminous quality to the collection. Everything radiates. Everything is buoyant as birds looping over pines, as if emerging into light and wind for the first time.
And, as if something hears me. Something. Knocks.
I look up from my laptop, cursor hovering over the “send” button on an email to Colby of some photos. The fan whirs. The sweat on my water glass drips. The bamboo wind chime outside stirs, clapping a handful of clean tones into the air.
And with a rush of fluid, I realize instantly, unequivocally, what those cramps have been mining all day.
I place a frantic call to Colby, and try to contain the tremors in my voice as I blurt, hey, baby’s on the way. Our apartment is tiny but somehow I feel lost within a labyrinth—where are my bags? Did I pack bags? Frantically, I tear through my stack of pregnancy books, not sure exactly what I’m looking for. Comfort? Relief, perhaps? Haven’t hundreds of millions of women for millennia gone through this very thing? Why am I suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that I’m the most ill equipped among them to do this, like my preparation has been reduced to a plan sketched on a napkin, obscured by damp glassware? The floors and ceiling shake loose.
At some point the body finds a way to cope, and at some point the mind must find a way to follow. Simply—because at various points it is important to test the range of the human ability to exceed its own self-imposed boundaries. And simply—because there is no other option. Pain held in this way never reaches a point where it becomes unbearable, because the un is never permitted to enter the equation. I remind myself of this as I breathe through another contraction and remember my pact to deliver our baby sans-pain medication. I grab from my dresser the poem my twin sister had penned on her recent backpacking trip to Wyoming. I stop. I read each line slowly, and wrap my mind around the images. My breathing slows. A contraction comes and I’m not inside the discomfort now but out on a ridge of the Gros Ventre wilderness, rolling through endless wind and dusty sage, drinking the tonic that accompanies apocalypse, that accompanies sprawling, sudden change. The image casts just enough light to make the ground underfoot visible and firm again.
I circle the house while I wait for Colby to get home, one hand on my belly, one hand on my back, as if to slow down the pace. When he arrives, he’s beaming. We toss our overnight bags into the car. We both are attended by the vague knowledge that the next time we come home our lives will be irrevocably different. He squeezes my hand before he puts the car in drive. We’re at the horizon line. We’re ready.
What comes next at the hospital is not linear to me. Time removes itself and I feel a sense of peace and rhythm so deep that I extend out into the blackness that I had feared and feel, instead of pain, the fullness of life with no hint of terror. The world grows into a steady, blind quiet. The world goes blank except for my hand gripping Colby’s and the quaking of our baby working her way to meet us. At some point light leaves the city, the sun tracking down the long spine of the river to the mouth of the sea. Below, traffic moves along arteries of highway surrounding the hospital. And just as easily as someone might open a door, enter a room or say hello, suddenly I know that it is time—that my body has to enlist every shred of its vim and vigor for the last leg of our hours-long epic. I shout at Colby to get the nurse. What modesty I thought I had abandons me entirely to an animal state, and I do not understate this when I say: I roar. And roar. The midwife swoops in, sits down at my legs and calmly urges me to push. And push. And breathe. Keep breathing. And when the heat surpasses its early pliant form so far that I’m not sure any longer if I am a body or a cable threaded taut across a deep canyon, she grabs my right hand and pulls it down. “This is your baby’s head, feel it? You’re almost there.” She smiles.
At 10:28 p.m., our baby Willow arrives. I do not hear her wail first, although I’m told she does. Or feel that last great push that flings her into our world. It is her eyes—that is the first and only thing I am aware of. They are big as saucers. And deep and absorbent and expansive as her father’s. I know I cry. I know Colby cuts the umbilical cord. I know the nurse gives our baby to me and she latches onto my breast immediately, her eyes rolling back in delight. Eventually the nurse eases me into a wheelchair and takes us to the postpartum floor. Eventually the deliberate swinging of doors and questions from other hospital staff—how are you feeling? Do you have to pee?—withdraw into the tiny blue hours of the following morning. Eventually I think I’ll drift to the freeloading sea of sleep.
But I do not.
The nurse wheels little Willow to my bedside and says goodnight. She is swaddled tightly and wears a tiny, crocheted yellow hat. Her eyes are closed, her small round face angled towards me. Her chest pulses like spring water. She is utterly beautiful. Hours pass towards eventual daybreak, and even in my complete exhaustion, not once can I let my eyes close, sleep hovering nearby like a tired man with undone cuffs. I am wholly entranced by the sudden realness of her, by the bright shore of this new continent. And only now do I finally understand a mother’s love, finally identify with the phrase I’d had taped to my office desk for months leading up to the delivery: they say when you have a baby, your heart lives outside of you. To see her, to finally meet her, to wrap my arms around such a small and living body and to feel the breath that came from the same forest where I had also learned how to breathe. It restores a former clarity, something I had maybe known once when I was myself small but had since forgotten, something in the truth of simple things like rocks and wind and love. The three of us have just embarked on the greatest adventure of our lives. In the words of adventurer and writer Mark Jenkins, I just have to trust that I have the strength and courage and grit and love to live up to it.
Emily Zebel graduated summa cum laude from York College of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a degree in Professional Writing. She now spends her time fumbling through the unfamiliar territory of motherhood, attempting to reclaim the ancient art of domesticity, and writing about the subsequent lessons that precipitate from that centrifuge. She lives in Central Pennsylvania with her beautiful infant daughter and her loving (and patient) husband. Samples of her writing can be found at www.wix.com/enzebel/endeardorff.