My water broke at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Until that moment, I had pictured myself in one of Bangkok’s many malls (it was hot season in Southeast Asia, and I spent most of my ninth month wandering air-conditioned malls and going to movies), my water breaking with a massive splash over the white marble floor and me suddenly doing a cartoon slide toward the nearest exit.
Instead, it was just this tiny warm trickle as I lay in bed.
Several hundred miles northwest of my water breaking, a very different water story was forming in the Irrawaddy River Delta. Earlier that evening, we’d watched the first reports of Cyclone Nargis filter onto the BBC. As transplants to Southeast Asia, we were tuned in to such events, but as a journalist, my instinct was always to wonder how I would cover such a thing—the logistics of getting in and out, who might be interested in running a story, whom I would liaise with to coordinate a trip. But I was nine months and eight days pregnant, and I did not think of how I’d cover the event. Instead, I thought back to the Asian tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, which happened on my birthday, and to a single body I saw pulled from the wreckage in Indonesia. At the time, I knew it would capture the hearts of readers, but it barely penetrated my own heart.
It had been the body of a very pregnant woman.
After my water broke, the first person I thought of was my prenatal teacher and her labor chart (Stage 1, the smiley face; Stage 2, stoic; Stage 3, frowny face; Stage 4, unexploded ordnance). I am, I told myself, solidly in the smiley zone. I didn’t wake my husband, Paul. I followed the teacher’s advice exactly: time the contractions, turn the lights down low, relax, sleep if you can, fix yourself something to eat. So far, it was a breeze. I wandered into the kitchen of our serviced apartment and made sure we’d gotten all the hospital snacks for my bag. We’d been told to bring sweets or popsicles to suck on. At the Gourmet Market in Bangkok’s Emporium Mall, I could find only red bean-paste popsicles, which I didn’t think would be very thirst-quenching during labor, so I’d stocked up on Fox and Jolly Rancher hard candies, gum and lollipops and a chocolate bar, maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal, hot chocolate, several types of breakfast bars, and two kinds of sour candies. Based solely on my arsenal of snacks, you might assume I’d be in labor for the better part of a month.
I woke Paul at 5 a.m., and he made me some toast. We waited. We put towels under me on the bed. At 11 a.m., we took a taxi to the hospital. The white-gloved men offered me a wheelchair, but I declined. No problem; I was a Stage 1 smiley patient. Since I’d technically been in labor for nine hours already, I thought this might actually be far easier than I’d imagined. The chart had said labor lasts 12-16 hours on average, so I was already more than halfway there. I’d heard an NPR piece that recounted how the U.S. Army had done a study that found that while men were physically stronger than women, women had more endurance and a much higher tolerance for pain. I decided this was me. Endurance. Pain tolerance. I was even cracking jokes. At the hospital, we walked past the Au Bon Pain diners, and I found myself wanting to announce, “I’m in LABOR!” with the same voice I might use to holler from the summit of a roller coaster: gleeful and with a touch of prideful hysteria masking my fear.
But by 9 p.m., my jokes ceased. Stage 2: stoic. By 11 p.m., I was a definitive Stage 3 frowny and quickly approaching unexploded ordnance. (Or so I thought. In fact, I was only 1 centimeter dilated, with another 9 to go.) I’d been in labor for 21 hours by the time it occurred to me that the greatest gift I could give the women of my prenatal classes would be to rip up the damn stages-of-labor chart. By midnight, I was off the chart completely, in my own particular screaming-bloody-murder stage. My doctor came in and told me I wasn’t dilating farther. He said I’d developed a fever and an infection and that he couldn’t give me an epidural until I’d completed two hours of intravenous antibiotics, after which I’d get an epidural followed by an emergency C-section. Let me say that again: two hours of hard labor before the epidural. Two hours of not pushing. Two hours, and I’d still be exactly where I was right then.
I may have started making deals around this time, zeroing in on those two treacherous hours. I said things like: “Can I just have two IVs in each hand for an hour? … Include my feet and I’ll take four for 30 minutes?” I even promised not to get any more infections. My contractions were a minute apart and lasted for a minute each. I asked for a bucket so I could vomit. After what felt like a decent amount of time, I asked my husband how long I’d been on the IV.
“Six minutes,” he said.
I waited as long as I could before I asked again, sure that I was nearly done, that an epidural was at hand, and that my baby and I—like it or not—were soon to join the ranks of the epidural-heads.
“Nine minutes,” he said.
I decided not to ask again.
Until I couldn’t possibly help myself.
It actually crossed my mind that his watch was broken.
But here’s the thing I learned: Men are not at all superfluous in birth. They think they are, of course, because they are so used to taking care of things in physical ways. They lift things, they move things, they fix things. Labor is none of that for them. In labor, the traditional roles are reversed; it’s all physical for women, all emotional for men. I couldn’t help but marvel at the women stoic enough to go through this alone. I felt grateful to a god I couldn’t name that Paul was there, holding my hand. He was the single most powerful force getting me through it, the sole element of comfort available to me. He reminded me to breathe. You might wonder how a person can forget such a thing, and I can’t explain, except to say that you never even think much about breathing most of the time, but when you’re in labor, you somehow need reminding. It made me think of a window blind that keeps rolling up into itself. My husband was the guy pulling it down over and over, keeping me from going blind in the darkness.
Of course, I was still realistic. I asked them to shoot me like a wounded horse at least twice.
The first reports of Cyclone Nargis suggested deaths were in the hundreds. No one could get in or out, and only small aid packages were being organized. Burma was on my radar not just because of its proximity but because I’d had an assignment to go there just as I learned I was pregnant. I’d canceled the trip, disappointed at not having gotten to the one country in the region I hadn’t visited. In those early stages, the cyclone hardly seemed like a blip in the context of natural disasters. We would all learn, though, how profoundly wrong we’d been.
When the anesthetist finally came in to give me the epidural, I wept with relief. Those women who say they forget the pain after it’s over? Not me. I will never forget that pain. I actively try not to forget. But I’m also not fool enough to think I can ever describe it in words, except to say that you are carried away to a different plane of being.
My doctor came to the foot of my bed and told me it was time for my C-section. By then, the epidural had kicked in, and I was back to cracking jokes, heehawing my way to motherhood. I asked if I could have a tummy tuck while he was in there mucking around. (Thais do not get my sense of humor. But then neither does Paul most of the time.) He apologized for having to do a Caesarean; Samitivej prides itself on encouraging natural childbirth, and many women are wholly pissed off when they’re told their child’s birth will not match their earth-mother fantasy. But I was just so glad the pain was over that I didn’t care how she came out. I never even made it to the doorway of the hospital’s glowing birthing rooms or that warm tub.
Five minutes later, in the operating theater, one of the nurses said, “The head’s out.”
“Oh, good,” I said. “She has a head.”
No one laughed. (Later, I learned it was technically possible for a baby to be born without a head, so you can see why the medical team wasn’t amused.)
I heard her cry, once. Then a bluish, reddish blob flew past my head. My God, I thought, I really had been pregnant. For a split second, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, then tears just poured out of me. Here, I think, is what people mean when they say they forget the pain. The pain opens up this big wide gash in you that is instantly flooded with as much emotion as you’re capable of feeling. My body shook from the shock of it all. I heard her, somewhere behind me, being weighed, cleaned, studied, but I couldn’t see her. Paul confirmed the number of limbs, extremities, eyes, and whatnot. And that was the last I heard or saw of my daughter for the next five hours.
Later, in the recovery room, the doctor came in to see me and said they’d found a tumor on my uterus while they were doing the C-section. He’d gone ahead and taken it out. In my morphine haze, I nodded and went back to sleep. But afterward, in a more lucid state, I thought: “What the hell? A tumor?” Maybe I’d dreamed it.
“No, ma’ams,” the doctor confirmed. (He always used a plural—ma’ams—which made sense since he sees normal women morph into screaming lunatics during labor, so we must always appear as two opposing life forces to him: those we are normally and those he knows we’ll become.) “But nothing to worry about,” he said. “Nothing.”
A tumor the size of a golf ball. My mother had died of cancer when I was a small girl, and now here I was, three decades later, rescued by my own newborn daughter. How could I not love the little girl who, on her first day of life, saved a little something of her mommy? People say that women give life to their babies, but that’s not how I see it. I think my little girl gave life to me.
The first time they brought me my daughter, she was like an intense, long-term e-mail buddy with whom I’d gotten intimate but never actually met. Her face was such a surprise. Such a marvel. She had my eyes, my husband’s pale British skin. She had the curved pinkies of all the women in my family. She had more hair than I’ve ever seen on a child, more hair than most of my husband’s friends. We named her Eliana Jazz. Eliana because it meant “daughter of the sun,” and what is more beloved in the world than the sun? Jazz because she was as complex and as beautiful as anything I’d ever known.
The second time they brought her in, the BBC was on in our room, and Nargis was the big topic. News cameras had made it in by then, and the hundreds of estimated casualties had skyrocketed to thousands. I only half-listened. The nurse was showing me how to breast-feed, and I was still in a morphine haze. Jazz, though, got it immediately. Hooray for the epidural-heads!
As she nursed, I thought of the pregnant woman that I’d seen pulled from the tsunami rubble in Aceh. It began to dawn on me that the sadness didn’t lie in her death; it lay in the death of her child, and that if there is anything at all to be grateful for in that scenario, it is this: If you cannot protect your child from the world, it is better that you not be forced to live in it yourself.
On the television, the camera was trained on a young woman who’d given birth during Cyclone Nargis. Let me write it again. During. Cyclone Nargis. She, in a torrent of terror and pain, and me in a sterilized room with a team around me and a husband holding my hand, reminding me to breathe. I stared at that young woman. And stared. She, too, was breast-feeding her new baby. (The next time I am asked whom in the world I’d most like to meet, that woman will be my answer. Well, her and Johnny Depp.) And the longer she stayed on camera, the more it began to dawn on me why the question of love that I’d posed to the prenatal teacher had been so absurd, how it never really does happen that you don’t love your child. Because having Eliana Jazz did something for me that nothing else in the world—even the gravest natural disasters, the saddest of deaths, staring me right in the face—could ever do. It made me human.