Into the Heart of Friendship: A Memoir with the Names Changed

by Muriel Dimen
Into the Heart of Friendship: A Memoir with the Names Changed
Muriel Dimen
Feminist Studies
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A Memoir with the Names Changed

My heartbeat accelerating slightly, I let the answering machine take the call, the call that I had begun to wait for, the call that came while I was seeing my last patient of the day and the week. As soon as the session ended, I listened to the message.

"Alison, Alison, the water broke! Call me!"

I dialed Pauline's number. "Oh, Alison, it happened right after I got home. I was drying myself after my bath when I noticed there was still something dripping down my legs. I leaked in the cab all the way to the doctor's office. But I didn't have any contractions at all. And if I don't have any by tomorrow afternoon, the doctor says she'll have to induce the labor. Oh, I'm so scared. Ginny's here now; she left work to meet me at the doctor's but she's on deadline. Will you stay with me tonight?'

"Of course." I managed to squeeze the words past my heart which had leapt right up into my mouth. "I thought of that the minute I heard your message."

I grabbed the tote bag I had packed in advance, ran to the super- market to buy some lollipops, and took a cab to Pauline's house.

Pauline, single and in her early forties (like me), had chosen to bear and rear a child on her own. "On her own" is, of course, rela- tive and approximate. Pauline had lots of friends, many acquain- tances, dozens of colleagues. Her social circle tolerated, in fact celebrated, experiments in sexual, personal, and family life. And even her parents, initially skeptical, in the end came round to be- ing thrilled and proud of her single motherhood.

Still, Pauline lived alone. As reliable and available as friends like Ginny were, there was going to be no one else sharing primary responsibility for her child. In other words, even though Pauline

Reprinted from &Then (1987):39-48. 107

had plenty of moral support, she not only was what you might call existentially alone (at least, as far as existence goes in what we call the twentieth-century, late-capitalist state). She was also without benefit of someone who could run out on a rainy day for an extra box of Pampers.

So when she asked me to be her birth coach, to take natural childbirth classes with her, and to see her through the hospital delivery, I was touched and moved by her vulnerability. I was also gratified, because I had been secretly hoping that she'd ask me. In- deed, I'd been very jealous when she'd mentioned that another friend had offered her services. At the same time, I was uneasy because, ambivalently childless, I thought my envy would be unbearable. Nevertheless, I didn't want anyone else by her side in a place that seemed to me mine by right. Pauline was, after all, my best friend.

It wasn't, as you can see, an easy decision. Still, I'm not aware of having made one. Indeed, if there was one to be made, it must have made itself. At first, I put Pauline off. Yet, when she called me ten days later for an answer, I was mildly startled that she didn't know that, in my own heart, I had already said "yes" to a sur- prising journey into friendship's heart, the fist surprise of which was that, without warning, we were setting off three weeks ahead of schedule.

Breathless from running up the three flights of stairs to Pauline's apartment, I found her sitting on her living room couch making telephone calls to cancel her appointments for the next day. As I look at the photographs of her at that moment -I began taking pic- tures immediately and have a nearly complete record of the birth, before, during, and after -I see in her clear eyes the level-headed intensity behind her success as a Legal Aid lawyer.

But an increasingly giddy scene emerges in the next series of photographs. Becky and Kathleen, Pauline's two neighbors and close friends, had joined us. As we washed and ironed underwear and nightgowns to pack in Pauline's suitcase, looked for and fial- ly found her childhood teddy bear to take along too, and decided which poster would be the best one to hang on the hospital wall opposite her bed so that she might focus on it in order to distract herself from her contractions, we talked and joked and giggled with mounting silliness. Our slumber party hysteria was only en- hanced by the bottle of vintage burgundy that Becky brought along.

Then we remembered that Pauline had to get some sleep. As NeLl, Pauline's obstetrician, had put it, delivering a baby is one of the most exhausting things you can do. You need all the rest you can get. So, at two A.M., Becky and Kathleen went home, and we lay down.

We knew that we had slept, not because we felt particularly rested- we hummed with excitement even in our sleep- but be- cause, six hours later, we woke up.

The first thing on my mind was contractions. I asked Pauline if she'd had any. "Nothing really. I'm not sure. I think I should call Nell." She reached only the answering service.

We made breakfast. Then I took photographs of Pauline, clothed and naked, straight-on and from the side, so we'd have a record of her final hours of pregnancy. Next, she made some phone calls. So did I.

Each of the first four times Nell called back, she would say, "Okay, if you haven't had any contractions, call me in an hour." Fif- teen minutes after each of the first four calls and approximately every fifteen minutes thereafter until the next call, I would ask Pauline, "Have you had any contractions yet?'

Pauline would answer in a limited variety of ways. At first, she said, "I don't know. What are they supposed to feel like?' After an hour, she said, "Well, I feel something like a menstrual cramp, a very mild one." After another hour, she said, "Well, it feels sticky, like a stronger menstrual cramp, you know?'

Each time, I would pore over the booklets that our natural child- birth teacher had given us, hoping for a sign that these sensations were real contractions and that labor had begun in earnest.

It sounds boring. It wasn't, because, on Friday night, Pauline and I had entered an altered state of consciousness. The breaking of the water inaugurated a period of time, a place, a culture, that was defined only by itself. Pauline had become the center of the universe. And, in identifying with her, so had I. Whatever was happening to us was the most interesting and most important thing that had ever happened. All standards shifted. We, who read newspapers every day of the year, forgot the rest of the world. During the eternity from the water breaking to Samantha's birth, the only news fit to print was whether or not Pauline was having contractions, how much her cervix had dilated or effaced, when the next contraction was coming, how she was feeling, and what I could do to help her out.

LABOR When, at one o'clock, Nell called back for the fifth time, she said, "Okay, check into the hospital. If contractions haven't started by five o'clock, we'll have to induce you." The water bag, she ex- plained, shields the fetus from the outer world. Once it breaks, bacteria can enter the womb; the risk of infection increases substantially after twenty-four hours. And the water bag had broken shortly after five P.M. on Friday. Becky, keeping her promise to drive us to the hospital, inter- rupted her library research, picked us up, and got us there by one- thirty. We went straight to the labor and childbirth unit, where Pauline was stolen from me for preparation. Suddenly, I was stricken. My purpose in life was gone. Pauline had been my purpose. Without her to help, I felt utter helpless- ness. It was as if my heart had been taken from me. I didn't know then that I'd see her again in only half an hour. All I knew was that I was beside myself. I was prepared neither for this hollow longing nor for the enormous relief and happiness that I felt when I was allowed to join Pauline in the labor room. Now I know that, when the water breaks, it carries you away on a primal tidal wave. But at that time I was caught unawares by these primi- tive passions. You might argue that I am being hyperbolic. You would be right, were it not for the fact that Pauline and I lead lives in which there is little place for primitive passion (except, when we're lucky, in bed). This is not to say that we are never happy or joyful, uncertain or anxious, that nothing ever goes right or wrong. When one of us falls in love, when Pauline wins a particularly difficult case or I get a book contract, we celebrate. When we are dis- couraged by our work or by the world, when one of us is between lovers or breaking up with one, when we fight with parents or friends or each other, we worry. But, rain or shine, sun or snow,

we can never make a date without pulling out our datebooks plan- ning at least two weeks in advance. We are two very busy people living highly managed lives.

But childbirth is essentially unmanageable. Many reproductive technologies, like amniocentesis, fetal monitors, and anesthesia, exist. But they do not alter the fundamental unpredictability of birth. Like Pauline, you can, if you are over tw-five and there- fore "high-risk," have an amniocentesis and find out in advance about your baby's health and sex. Yet none of us, not even Nell, could have known beforehand that Pauline would be delivering on June 1, not, as predicted, on June 21 (and that we'd therefore get to attend only three of our four childbirth classes). If, as in Pauline's case, your labor doesn't begin spontaneously, your doctor can induce it by intravenously administering pitocin, the artificial form of the contraction-triggering hormone, oxytocin. But even though Nell opined, once the IV was in place, that we had a long time to wait, she could no more have predicted that the labor would last six hours and fifty-eight minutes than she could have foretold that it would have had to be induced at all.

Childbirth, like any life-crisis situation, is an emergency, to be coped with on its own terms. Once we were settled in the labor room, my emergency gear kicked in, as it always does in a crisis, whether a car accident or the death of someone I love. As soon as I gave myself over to it, as soon as I accepted that, for however long it lasted, the crisis was my only reality, my anxiety and fear disap- peared, replaced by calm, competence, and reliability.

With the exception of two moments. The fist occurred at five P.M., just after Bridget, our first nurse, had inserted the IV. I had gone out to get some dinner with Pauline's sister, Ophelia, who had been sitting in the waiting room and had suggested that I'd better eat now while I still had time. As soon as we hit the street, I almost fainted. I was, I realized, utterly terrified and wildly anxious.

Fortunately, Ophelia likes to talk. And so, while I speechlessly downed my wine and scarfed my steak, she told me all about the births of her two children. I can't recollect any particular thing she said. But, soothed by food, wine, and words, I recaptured the poise I'd had before we left the hospital.

It was to remain mine from six-thirty, when I returned to the labor room, until eleven o'clock, when I lost it for the second and last time. My memory of those four and one-half hours is vague and episodic. I do remember Pauline saying of her contractions, "Now I understand why everyone says you can't describe what this feels like." I recall her telling me later on, "I didn't know I would be so tired." I know that I played some new-age music on the tape recorder for a while; Pauline found it initially soothing, then irritating. I remember that she liked having her forehead wiped with a cool washcloth. Her mouth predictably dry from panting, she preferred ice chips, which I would get from the dis- penser down the hall, to the lollipops I had brought.

Mostly I remember a crescendo of feelings and events; my slight impatience during the slow, quiet beginniig of the contractions, my quickening excitement as they accelerated sharply in pain and frequency; my anguish as Pauline flipped around the bed like a tortured baby seal; my annoyance at Bridget's frequent, well- meant, but somewhat pushy suggestions that Pauline have a pain- killer to quell the contractions that kept dislodging the fetal monitor from her beachball belly; my admiration of Pauline, who, wary of the harmful effects of drugs on infants and already uneasy about the pitocin, vehemently refused and then miraculously held herself still for the rest of the contractions; and my dismay, when Nell told us, after four hours of labor and the penultimate internal examination, that, since Pauline's cervix was still only halfway dilated, we probably had at least four more hours to go.

And then, suddenly, the climax: about five minutes later, Pauline's cervix just popped all the way open. Scarred by an operation, it had been inelastic but brittle, like an old rubber band. So instead of yielding gradually, it held fast until, prodded by Nell's gloved, pointed nails poking into the scar tissue during each inter- nal examination, it abruptly gave way.

Now, rather anticlimactically, came the hard part. No one, neither Nell nor our birth-class teacher nor the booklets, had dis- cussed the sort of effort required to push your baby out. You draw your legs up into your chest and your nurse and your birth coach support your bent knees and your head. You hold your breath and push while they count to ten; your face turns red and purple; you rest; then you do this all over again. Exhausted, you work and work with no immediate reward, no physical sensation to tell you that it's worth the effort. You push, nothing happens, they tell you to push again. The only thing that keeps you going is the idea of your baby, and that doesn't always suffice.

It was enough to best even Pauline. About twenty minutes into the pushing, she said to me, "I can't, I can't do it."

Shocked and alarmed-Pauline never says she can't-I exclaimed, "Of course you can." Dumbstruck, I grabbed the first words that passed by my mind, hoping that they weren't as lame as they sounded. ''Just think, when this is all over, you're going to have the wonderful little girl you've wanted for so long."

"And then what?" Coming from a woman who had been plan- ning for this moment for three years, Pauline's reply had all the markings of gallows humor. Except that she wasn't kidding.

I think it was shortly after this interchange, almost halfway through the pushing, that I decided Icouldn't make it the rest of the way. My arms and legs shaking from the effort of holding Pauline up, I felt a wave of doubt and anxiety roll through me. As soon as I became aware of it, another came along. I was having contractions of my own, but there was no one to hold me up. Once again, I thought I was going to faint. Suddenly, I was ravenous.

I couldn't think about Pauline anymore. I didn't want to think about her. I was interested only in myself. Aware that I ought to be feeling guilt but feeling only the clearest of consciences, I left Bridget to continue helping Pauline. I took a bran muffin from my tote bag and walked across the room to the window.

"Where are you going?' wailed Pauline. Later she explained that, at that juncture, the ten feet between us might as well have been ten miles.

"I'll be right back, I just need a bite to eat," I said. Munching on my muffin, I looked down onto the street and then tried to peer into the park across the way. As I gazed into the darkness barely penetrated by street lamps, I gave myself the last pep talk I would need that evening. You can make it, I said to myself, you have to, you just need a second wind.

Our second wind took the form of Catina. At eleven-thuty P.M., Bridget, pleasant but new at her job, went off shift. When Catina, an unknown quantity, took her place, I was, initially, afraid. Although she spoke warmly enough to Bridget, she had no smile for us, at least not then. Misreading her reserve, I took toughness for cruelty, not knowing that what I saw was the face of experience.

"After a while," said Catina to Bridget as they changed shifts, "you'll feel comfortable about applying pressure to the perineum." With that, she told Pauline to draw her legs up once more, and

then, inserting her fingers into the bottom of Pauline's vagina, tugged once, firmly and sharply.

The surprise of her maneuver, the leak of blood from the vaginal cavity, and Pauline's yelp of pain took my breath away. But, as Catina told Pauline to resume pushing and began counting to ten in her soft, creamy voice, I was as reassured as when Nell, always imperturbably in command, would glide into the room. Even though the next twenty minutes consisted of increasingly unen- durable pain for Pauline, it was clear that Catina, our Earth Mother for the evening, knew exactly what she was doing.

I remember the crowning as if fie sirens were whining and police lights were flashing. Nell told Pauline to stop pushing, and then rushed off to join Catina in the delivery room. Someone threw a scrub suit at me and told me to get into it. Pauline started yelling, "Hurry, hurry," As two orderlies wheeled her bed down the hall to the delivery room, I grabbed my camera and ran after them. This was it.

I didn't have much to do for the next three minutes except wield my camera. And it's here that the photographic record, interrupted by the contractions, resumes. We see Pauline moaning as she waits for Nell and Catina, who, at five minutes to midnight by the wall clock, are preparing their medications and instruments. We see Nell anesthetize, then snip the perineum. We see her reach in- to the vagina. As she tells Pauline to bear down once more, we see the baby emerge headfirst into her hand. As Pauline pushes once again and the baby starts to slide all the way out, we see Catina, finally smiling, support Pauline's head so that she, too, may look down the length of her body at Samantha whom Nell, smiling herself, first holds up for display, then places on Pauline's breast.

A small gap in the record appears here, because, at that mo- ment, Nell asked me if I wanted to cut the umbilical cord.

Startled, delighted, laughing and crying, disbelieving, I took the scissors that she offered me and cut through the disconcertingly muscular cord.

It was all over but the cleaning up. Nell tied the umbilical cord, removed the heart-shaped placenta, sewed up the perineum, and transferred Pauline, now shivering from the trauma her body had just suffered, to a fresh bed. Catina medicated, measured, washed, and dried the baby, covered her head with a woolen cap, swaddled her body in a blanket, and nestled the sweet bundle in Pauline's arms. Then the three of us wheeled the two of them to the recovery room.

Her shivers gone, Pauline sat up and put Samantha to her breast. We laughed and joked and ate chocolates. Finally, at three A.M., when, because Pauline's bleeding had ended and contractions were no longer required, the IV could be removed, a nurse took Samantha to the maternity floor. We followed soon after. The nurse checked Pauline in and helped her into bed. I took one last picture of her, happy, exhausted, and soft.

And so I left my Pauline behind with her Samantha. As I went out into the dark New York dawn, the desolation that had invaded me at the beginning of our hospital stay returned.

But this time I really was bereft. Pauline still had my heart. But hers now belonged to someone else. And I had to take mine back. Indeed, I see now, as I am finishing this story, that it has taken me the better part of nine months to reclaim it.

I have tried to understand the waves of passion that I rode dur- ing the birth, the exaltation and terror I felt. You could say that Pauline and I had fused. I had taken my own needs and set them outside the labor room, as if on the windowsill, as if on the street (where, perhaps, I was looking for them as I ate my muffin), and replaced them with Pauline's. Joined at the heart by her needs, we had become one.

If you think of us as fused, then it is no surprise that I couldn't leave the hospital on the Sunday afternoon after the birth the night before. The baby admired, the photographs taken, the presents given, the champagne drunk, the friends and relatives gone home, I could not bear the parting ache and therefore remained until the nurses kicked me out at ten P.M.

And yet, for all our merging, for all my anxiety in Pauline's absence, I was always sentient to my own interests, my own life, my separateness. From the time I agreed to help her out, I knew that, when it was all over, I would have to live with the results of the asymmetrical bargain I had made. I was going to help Pauline give birth. After she did, she would have her baby. I wouldn't. Nor would I have her in the way I used to. We would still be intimate friends, but, from my perspective, her love for me would be divided, diminished, while mine for her would remain as full as ever.

Friends have told me that I was brave to have made this bargain. Or they have regarded me as altruistic. Neither is true. I was really quite greedy. Pauline got her baby. But I too got something with- out parallel. For a brief while, I had the privilege of transcending my self, of letting go any sense that I mattered because what was happening was more important than I, all the while knowing that I mattered totally. In the period bracketed by my anxiety at dinner with Ophelia and my self-doubts before Catina joined us, I was simultaneously one with Pauline and one with myself. During her greatest agony, I became part of her, not for my needs but for hers which had become my needs even as I remained a separate per- son. And, most remarkably of all, this transcendence, so rare and, in its way, selfish an experience, was a generous one as well.

Pauline has said that she cannot repay this precious gift. She's right. She can't. And I don't care. In this life, we are always having to protect our intimacies from the inequality that saturates every public moment and threatens every private one. We must work hard, with our loved ones, to give and receive equally, which often means identically. But this was Pauline's and my chance to give and receive according to our particular abilities and interests, in- stead of haggling tit for tat. We could share, as though the same, in an experience from which each derived a different treasure.

As might be expected, however, this sharing was not, and is not, entirely utopian. Altered states of consciousness, tidal waves of passion, the joining of hearts, transcendent moments- these extra- ordinary experiences have contractions and afterbirths of their own. Exactly one week after Samantha was born, she was in the hospital with jaundice, where Pauline spent three frightened days. Naturally, I went to them as soon as I could and spent as much time with them as I could bear.

But I couldn't bear much. I'd had it with fusion and transcen- dence and not getting my own needs taken care of by the one for whom I was caring. I was, to put it impolitely, pissed off, and escaped as soon as I could. I can understand now that I was in transit from altered state back down to ordinary life, on the way to reclaiming my own heart. But, at the time, I felt guilt and was all the more angry for it.

Nor was that the only dystopian moment. There was another about which I hesitate to speak for fear of even more embarrass- ment, but which is, after all, the moral of this whole story. It con- cerns the leg waxing. Yes, leg waxing. (I know. This is a vain, trivial, and self-indulgent -not to mention politically incorrect -subject. But that, as I'm trying to tell you, is the point.) You see, I'd made an appointment to have my legs waxed on Saturday morning. However, by the time the water broke, it was too late to satisfy the salon's twenty-four-hour cancellation rule.

Now, you would think that an appointment to have your legs waxed would flee from your mind when menaced by passionate tidal waves and such. Maybe from your politically correct mind. For all but those four and one-half transcendent hours, my mind was preoccupied with the fact that, because Samantha had decid- ed to join us three weeks early, I was going to have to pay for ser- vices not rendered (unless, that is, I wanted to stiff the salon and never go back there; I mean, were they going to send a bill collec- tor for thirty-one dollars and twenty cents?).

Now, really (you might very well ask), what's money compared to a baby? Everything, shouts the greedy and selfish part of my soul. Nothing, sniffs another part, perhaps the prig who has never felt the impulse to laugh at a funeral. Both, I say, both. The sublime and the ridiculous are natural partners. In fact, they're joined at the heart. My petty preoccupation -look, I even fantasized about persuading Nell to write a note to the salon proving that my absence was a matter of life and death-was, in the final analysis, my self making its last stand before it had to let itself go. And without that self, without a self-interested wish to share Pauline's supreme experience, there would have been no heart to merge with hers, no self to help her out at all.

BACK ON EARTH Last week, I took Pauline and Samantha to a friend's country house lent me for the weekend. We did all the usual country house things. We cooked, ate, drank, made fires, took walks in the setting sun. And we saw Samantha take her first step. As her tiny hands grasped our fingers, she stuck one little leg out to the side, then brought it forward but not forward enough. Wobbling as she tried again, she stretched her leg out once more and, this time, got it exactly right. I really had a terrible time. Not only was Samantha, normally sweet-tempered, yelling in frustration because she couldn't yet run

the marathon, but every time I looked around, all I could see was Pauline cooing at her instead of talking to me.

Yet even as ordinary life goes its ordinary, difficult way, two small monuments mark the joining and parting of our hearts: Samantha's middle name, a diminutive of mine, and the dedication of my new book: "For Samantha Alix."

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