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This Great Society


"Birth Story” by Brian Rush


When our nurse finally locates the pulse, the large machine next to Shannon’s bed amplifies what sounds like someone rhythmically puffing or scratching on a microphone. It’s our baby’s heartbeat, and it will be the soundtrack to the next twenty-four hours of our lives.

It has a strange effect on me hearing that heartbeat on the outside. It is like being inside a womb ourselves, waiting for contractions to push us into a new world.

As we wait and talk and read, that heartbeat is always pumping. I consistently return to the sound of it, trying to describe it in my mind.


We have just surpassed the average labour duration of 12-14 hours for a first child, and the little girl we have been so eagerly waiting to meet is nowhere near ready to come out. While the contractions have gotten more painful, they are still irregular enough to let us hope for an afternoon nap. Tightly wrapped in the fetal position, I begin to doze when: there's that pulse again. It sounds a little different from this side of the room. I try to place it: horse hooves on a castle drawbridge? The gentle drum beats of some quiet ritual? I doze.

Minutes later I wake to the quiet moan that means Shannon is having a contraction. I remind her to "breathe deeply and relax, let the contraction do its work." Over 30 hours are riddled with this sort of entreaty.

Since we have chosen to have a drug-free, intervention-free, natural childbirth, Shannon's ability to cope with extreme pain and discomfort will depend largely on my ability to help her relax.

We have been practicing for months the techniques, exercises and visualizations that are to be our alternative to the usual pain medication or epidural.

Shannon moans.

"When you inhale deeply I want you to imagine a warm golden energy filling you and flowing all the way to your toes…"

"And when you exhale, that energy is going to ooze out your pores carrying away any tension from your muscles…"

"You're doing a really great job, love."


Nearing hour 24, with no end in sight, the words start sounding hollow. The encouraging phrases long ago passed the benign ignorability of cliché and have now become meaningless irritations. I stroke her disheveled hair to soothe her but that too has gotten irritating; she pushes my hand away.


Shannon is naked now. Pain has crowded out modesty and embarrassment. After wincing through a contraction on the toilet we quickly readjust to a standing position, Shannon's full weight and forehead pressing on my shoulder like preparing for a plane crash.

I have stopped reciting our relaxation scripts. The room is dark and still and all I can hear is Shannon's breathing and that ever-present crrmp crrmp of our child's heartbeat. That’s when I realize where I know that sound from.


We unleash the dogs, who chase each other into the deepening twilight, and we begin our walk, back and forth along the quarter mile stretch of gravel beach. At first we talk. Mostly about, "When is this baby gonna come?"—our topic of conversation and commiseration for almost two weeks now. But as dusk quietly, imperceptibly settles into night, we too settle into silence. The yellow lights on the hill across the water silently multiply on the glassy black lake top.

With the dogs out of earshot, the only sound aside from a passing car now and then is our footfall. Step, step, step, step, step, step. Sometimes the gentle crunches of gravel sound in unison. Sometimes our steps fall out of rhythm, but they don’t stop.

It is soothing and hypnotic like the dance and crackle of campfire flame but there is no heat tonight, only the February air and the footsteps of my lover. Crrmp, crrmp, crrmp, crrmp. It wouldn't matter if we walked into the frigid depths of the lake right now. There is nothing to say. Not because all has been said but because right now the silent togetherness is what needs saying.

Eventually we will break the silence and swim back to the shallows of mundane conversation. But that’s okay. The darkness and silence have had their way with me and I know that this crrmp, crrmp… continues even when our feet are still and I forget to listen.


I am listening now. Our child, this mysterious manifestation of our love for one another, the yet unknown fruit of our intimacy, beats out the tempo of our togetherness.

Shannon is not having these poetic thoughts. Shannon is doing her best to not scream or hyperventilate. And neither are the thoughts quite so well formed for me in that moment. It is more like a feeling, an intuited revelation. It is an assurance of our abiding bond. A gift that will sustain us on the next leg of our journey.


The operating room is surprisingly cluttered, filled with carts and strange apparatuses I wend my way through. I turn a corner and see Shannon: nearly unconscious, eyes mostly closed and oxygen tubes in her nostrils. The doctors are talking but I don't understand anything they're saying. I sit on a stool at Shannon’s head and hold her hand. She opens her eyes a little and is shaking violently. We've decided with our doctor, much to our disappointment, that a caesarean section is now the most prudent course of action.

When you first fall in love with someone and imagine your future together, you don’t picture this. But this moment, this whole experience for me, has, more than any other up until this point, fomented my love for my wife.

And that love is about to grow even larger and encompass a new being. I look from Shannon’s listless face to her bulging, orange, antibiotic-smeared belly surrounded by gloved hands. My fear, excitement, nausea and love don’t have time to sort themselves out. Shannon, who cannot feel or see her body, struggles to stay awake to at least listen to the birth of this tiny person that has been inside her for nine months. I struggle to see through the huddle of surgical team but catch only glimpses as the surgeon’s commands intensify.

The doctor exclaims, “She’s got a full head of hair!”

And I see it! It looks like road-kill in the rain but I see it and that’s my baby and she’s coming out now!

I feel and see nothing but hands and my baby—Shannon's trembling hand holding mine, and the gloved hands that are working my baby into this world. The doctor starts singing, "Happy birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you…" but I'm barely aware of that either.

The only sound that exists is the positive wail that erupts from baby's tiny fluid-filled lungs. I look down at Shannon. She's awake and tears are welling in her eyes. That's her baby.


We are back in our old room, together again after Shannon’s post-op.

We take deep breaths and marvel at the tiny person we made. Bathed and swaddled, she no longer looks like the bloody monster that came screaming out of Shannon’s torso, but more like a cherub-faced burrito.

She is sleeping and she is adorable, but she is so much more than hallmark cute. Inside that tiny body is an intricate little skeleton and pulsing blood vessels and synapses shooting tiny fireworks, creating the millions of connections that will make her who she will become.

I could go on. I could easily tell you about every little squeak or stretch Magnolia has done, is doing, and will ever do, but this story must end somewhere.

I wrote earlier that our labour room felt like a womb and that we were waiting to be born.

Well, here we are. Newborn parents with a whole life ahead of us.

Crrmp crrmp crrmp crrmp crrmp crrmp crrmp crrmp crrmp…


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