The Birth Story I Never Told You
Who wants to know that on the day of their birth, their mother was thinking about death?
You had both eyes wide open when you came into the world.
Your father tells it this way: Suspended between two worlds, halfway in and halfway out, you turned and looked him full in the face. He positioned his hands the way the midwife instructed, palms open, fingers spread wide, ready to catch you when you slipped from my body. Your dark, round eyes looking straight into his weren’t what he had planned for.
I remember that moment from a different viewpoint. I can feel my feet grinding into the sheets, my teeth clenched, and my eyes squeezed shut. I had a faint awareness of a scuffle happening, of someone strapping an oxygen mask to my face. I put so much effort into those final pushes that I had forgotten to save any breath for myself.
You’ve already heard these stories. The story you do not know is what happened two weeks before you arrived, when your entire universe was still my womb.
Since month six of pregnancy, I had been drawing up a careful blueprint for the day of your arrival. The birth books recommended mothers create a “Birth Plan” to present to medical professionals that guarantees the childbirth experience she wants.
I made my plan very clear. I wanted to eat, bathe, and walk around while in labor. I didn’t want any pain medication, not even Tylenol, and I definitely didn’t want an episiotomy (a last-minute surgical widening of the vaginal opening). I would rather be torn naturally than have to heal from a scalpel wound.
I’m sure she had approved hundreds of birth plans, but for some reason, on the day she saw mine, Beth exhaled long and slow.
I’m not sure what I expected from Beth, the midwife, when I delivered my birth plan to her in all of its large, 14-point font glory (because when things teeter off course, you want to make sure you’re seen). Beth was a well-known and highly referred midwife in our area and I wanted to impress her. If I’m honest, I hoped she would see the effort I put into my birth plan as a good indicator that I was worthy of being a mother. Even a high-five would have been nice.
I’m sure she had approved hundreds of birth plans but for some reason, on the day she saw mine, Beth exhaled long and slow.
“Here’s the thing,” she said. “I know you want all of this to go a certain way. I hope it will go that way, too. But listen.” She leaned her face close to mine. Her cheeks were swollen and puffy. She had the kind of dark, deep eyes that seemed able to look right inside of you.
“There are a lot of things you don’t get to be in control of.” Beth placed the paper back in my lap, hardly looking at it. “And this right here. This is one of them.” She patted my leg and left the room.
I decided to let that slight go. Maybe Beth was just having a bad day. I didn’t give much thought to her admonition until two weeks later, at my next appointment, when I learned that shortly after I had showed her my birth plan, Beth had died of ovarian cancer.
All through my pregnancy, I had known that Beth was sick. She moved slowly and painfully between the mothers in her office, both her ankles wrapped and settled into thick-padded shoes. She was only 36 when she died, the same age I am as I write this. I suppose, at the time, my focus had been so concentrated on plans for your arrival, on the new life growing inside me, that I hadn’t even noticed that a life outside me was gently dimming.
There was no time to process the news of Beth’s passing; in that same appointment, the staff at the office introduced me to my new midwife, Nancy, who ran an ultrasound wand over my abdomen. “Call your husband,” she told me. “This baby is coming today.”
Some things, like unexpected beginnings, are not easily held in our hands. We can only spread our fingers, hold our hands so, and watch whatever falls into them.
Some things, like sudden endings, will wiggle free no matter how tightly we cling to them and no matter how atrophied our fingers become. We can plan, conspire, and imagine all the outcomes all we want. But in the end, they will happen the way they will happen.
Sometimes, what we hadn’t planned for is a disaster. And sometimes, when we allow nature to take its course, the rough edges of the wound fold into place on their own.
Beth will never know that when I labored for 28 hours, I barely made a sound. She will never know that on the day you were born, her final words to me became my birth non-plan.
I wish Beth knew that on the day you were born, I too learned how to breathe through the pain.
She didn’t get to see that as I labored without pain medication, I focused on my breath and tuned everything else out. As Pitocin coursed through my veins, intensifying the contractions, I birthed the way women had birthed for centuries before me — gritted teeth, clenched hands, and silence. Instead of micromanaging the results, I thought of thick-padded shoes in the hallway, soft hands on my abdomen, and the kind of ache that cannot be wrestled down and captured, only endured.
I wish Beth knew that on the day you were born, I, too, learned how to breathe through the pain.
You’re 12 years old now and I’ve never told you this story. I suppose it’s because I’ve wanted to save you from sadness. Who wants to know that on the day they were born, their mother was thinking about death?
Instead, throughout your life, I’ve said this:
“Sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why.”
“Sometimes people leave us and we don’t know why.”
“Sometimes we aren’t given answers.”
“Sometimes we can’t even form the question.”
“Sometimes we let go of trying to make it make sense, and that’s the end of the story.”
But, sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes light pours in when we give up trying to close a jammed window. Sometimes, we get to see things we would have missed entirely, had we not been so focused on the story we were trying to tell.
In the story of your birth, I see this: The woman meant to usher you into the world — who died of a cancer that ate away at her own life-giving organs and kept her from having children of her own — never stopped making life. She poured herself into what she could do with her hands. 48 hours before lapsing into a fatal coma, Beth delivered someone else’s baby.
I see now, for the first time as I write this, that your name, Lydah, and Beth’s name are both derived from the same root name: Elizabeth, meaning “a promise from God.”
And I see, when I look into those very same eyes that unsettled your father on the day of your birth, something familiar. You, too, have the kind of eyes that are so dark and deep, they seem able to look right inside me.
Maybe I don’t need to tell you this story, after all. Maybe it’s already in your bones.