By Lauren Ravalico
My husband told me the Greeks believed that a newborn’s first breath was a sign of lifelong vitality. He told me they would have thrown our son to the sea.
When I was pregnant, I read a book by a famous midwife who explains that although contractions feel like great damage is being done to the body, actually they are beautiful and good. Her advice to surrender to the pain comforted me as I awaited the looming marathon of birth.
But the midwife’s words are not always true. Sometimes contractions are harbingers of death. I have had both kinds. They feel exactly the same.
My newborn son was laid upon my chest. He was a little dolphin, slippery and fascinating and gray. And then, as quickly as he was there, he was on a table, surrounded by women trying to revive him.
I watched him there, unmoving and quiet as stone. Time began to accumulate. I wondered if he was dead.
It was a reasonable thought given the circumstances, yet it hung in the air somewhere far away, like the news of a shooting. An untimely death suddenly fathomed. I didn’t know that dolphin on the table. I didn’t love him.
They took the baby to another room, and we were alone, my husband, my mother and me. The room was noiseless and stale. The baby’s absence was obscene.
A nurse came in to take my blood pressure.
Someone took my placenta away to be analyzed.
A custodian cleaned the bathroom.
Sweep up the popcorn. Get ready for the next show.
A neonatologist entered the room. At last. She took a seat and informed us that our son was not dead. With alarming sadness in her voice and a look of pity I will never forget, this young doctor introduced us to his diagnosis, “hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy.” HIE: a traumatic birth event in which the baby suffers from asphyxiation and a stroke that damage the brain.
And so before we ever met our son, we began a relationship with his catastrophe. Rather than wrap our arms around a newborn, we were forced to wrap our minds around a new life of illness and probable disability: intubation, acidosis, hypotonia, seizures, paralysis, cerebral palsy.
Why this happened to our son was not clear. He had the cord wrapped around his neck at birth, but it was easily unspooled. It is likely, though inconclusive, that something was going wrong with him while he lived inside of me. This dark suspicion quickly inhabited the vacated residence in my belly, and there it lingers, keeping me forever pregnant with an irremediable sort of heartburn.
Five hours after giving birth I stood alone in the delivery room, awkwardly trying to dress myself before discharging my empty elephant body from East Cooper Hospital. My husband returned from putting our toddler daughter to bed, and we drove wordlessly downtown to MUSC where our son had been transferred to the Level III NICU.
It was a beautiful summer evening and we drove with the windows down.
We entered the NICU for the first time trailing behind a woman so newly delivered of her child that she dripped blood on the floor beneath her hospital gown. I recognized myself in her leakiness.
The first time we went there to meet our son, I walked right past his bed. I thought he would be in an incubator, like all the preemies around him. But there he was, in plain sight, “Ravalico, Baby Boy.” Underneath his non-name was his first failing grade, a 0 APGAR score. His eyes were squeezed shut and his tiny body was crunched up tight within a “cooling blanket,” an icy device keeping him in a state of hypothermia for 72 hours to protect his brain from further cell death.
That frozen blanket embraced my baby in her perverse clutch for days before I finally could. She was his first mother. I was the lady with afterbirth contractions watching from the sidelines.
Nonetheless, I tried to give him something of the non-machine maternal. I stroked his arm until my own became indented blue from reaching over the plastic wall of his puny hospital bed. A vomitous surge of bottomless responsibility engulfed me. Love. My son, prostrate on an “isolette,” but not alone.
My husband and I went home to the hollow place that looked like our old life. I stayed up all night offering my first milk to the open mouths of plastic pumping bottles in a fog of grief and dizzy with dread.
On my son’s third night of life and in his final hours of hypothermic cooling, my daughter, not even 2 years old, chose “On the Night You Were Born” for her bedtime story: “On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, ‘Life will never be the same.’” The words were unbearable. My little girl surrendered her body to my embrace as I cried in her hair.
When we arrived in the NICU the following morning, our son had been re-warmed. His nurse was upbeat because he didn’t have any seizures during this risky process. He looked like a sweet, sick baby instead of a science experiment. I got to hold him for the first time. Oh God, it felt so luxurious to bear his weight.
Hanging out in the NICU later in the day, I read an email from a close friend of mine who had become a minister. She wrote to me that she was praying for surrender.
This initially puzzled me. I already felt defeated into surrender by our misfortune and had ceded all control to medical professionals and machines. But I don’t think it is exactly that kind of surrender for which my friend was praying.
The surrender that is worth praying for is crying into my daughter’s hair or holding my son’s body for the first time.
I cling to those moments, even now, years later, because they were the most powerful experiences of pure emotion and deep connection to the unfolding present I have ever known. I surrendered to parental love, and with it, the profound contingency of being. In its terror and pain, it was beautiful and good.
When we brought our son home from the NICU, I was stuck in an obsessive mindset of blame and sadness about my body’s suspicious role in his birth injury. I tried so hard to surrender to the present with him—to enjoy the simple stuff of normal newborn life—but I felt like the moment I let my guard down HIE would creep in and seek vendetta for our good fortune.
The hypervigilance has abated over the past three-and-a-half years of my son’s blessedly ordinary development. Sometimes I even have to will myself to give my attention to him and his sister, to surrender to their immaturity. But mostly, the light of both my children has, little by little, helped to warm the dank mineshafts of my guilt-streaked soul.
I still think of the Greek mothers who surrendered their slippery little dolphins to the sea. Antonio almost slipped away, but he rallied instead to give me the gift of being his mom.
Lauren Ravalico is a professor of French studies and a faculty affiliate in Women’s and Gender Studies at College of Charleston. She has a 5-year-old daughter, Noemi, and a 3-year-old son, Antonio. She wrote the first draft of this essay while pumping milk for Antonio during his first year of life and has rewritten it many times since. Antonio lost an adrenal gland to a hemorrhage at birth, but otherwise, at least so far, shows no other signs of his birth trauma.