I wake to a bloom the color of a wet rose on the sheet. I thought I’d dreamt it but, no, there I am, running to the bathroom, grabbing my belly, big with the daughter I’ve been growing six months now. I’m breaking open. Blood pours down my legs, nearly black in its redness. I grab at napkins, towels. It makes no difference because there is more blood than paper and it’s flowing fast, whole currents of it.
I’ve been missing water, its steady beat and flow, the rush of Lake Michigan waves frothing against themselves. A year in Germany and I still wake with the damp smell of driftwood and dune grass on my tongue. In sleep I see lakes and rivers, the blue of home, and as I stare at the blood pooling on the floor I think of lake water in hollows of sand.
In the minutes before the ambulance finds our small street, while my son sleeps in the dark of the next room, I stare, shaking, at my husband. “What have I done?” I ask. I know I did this. I rode my bicycle too fast. I stayed up too late cooking for friends. I didn’t take naps when I had a cold and the doctor told me to rest easy. “Nothing,” he says. “Nothing.” Our words crash on the shore.
In the ambulance, the young men are efficient. “How much blood?” they ask, in German. “A lot. Too much.” “How much is ‘a lot’?” they demand. I struggle to explain. Assigning a quantity seems impossible. “It was running down my legs.” They don’t relax until I tell them I can feel the baby move. They say, “That’s good.” Then, in English, I mutter, “How can this actually turn out well?” One of them hears and understands. “It can,” he says. “It does.” Our blue lights scream through empty streets. I let the siren wash over me. I swallow it whole.
They are wheeling me past pictures of babies. Entire walls full. Babies born at the right time. Babies alive. Then a small doctor with eyes blue as water reaches inside me with her shining metal tools. Women groan in labor beyond the walls.
They need to know if my water has broken, and they can’t know until the blood is gone. The baby knows nothing either. She kicks and punches, spinning defiantly in my womb as I lie flat on my back, forbidden even from getting up to open the window until the blood stops.
Everything is stable. The baby’s heartbeat is strong. There is enough amniotic fluid. My pulse is fine. Blood pressure fine. What’s wrong? The doctor probes more, pries me open, runs more ultrasounds. She finds the placenta sitting “very deep” in my uterus. This just happens sometimes, she says. No reason. It likely tore. “You are probably worried that you caused this,” she says kindly, reading my eyes. “But it is not your fault. These things sometimes just happen.” I feel tears pricking but push them back because her eyes are so kind and her German so gentle and she has told me what I can’t bring myself to believe.
I roll onto my side for a cortisone shot to strengthen the baby’s lungs in case she needs to be born now. As the midwife makes a little triangle with her fingers, marks a spot, and slips the needle in, spreading numbness like a fist closing around my hipbone, I realize that this might actually happen—the baby might really come now, weighing two pounds, fighting to breathe. I thought this only happened to other people.
Yet I’m stable, they say. So as the sky begins to lighten with the promise of morning and birds sing, they wheel me away from the labor wing, and the baby pictures, and the groaning, and into a darkened room where a roommate sleeps.
I didn’t want a roommate. I wanted to curl into my own mind and nest there, closed up tight. I wanted to lie there alone, quiet as a baby’s thumb. But morning breaks and the lights go on and nurses bring breakfast and my roommate rustles up to sit against her pillows and smiles at me and says her name is Anja.
Anja also cannot believe she is here. Seven months of a healthy pregnancy, and then one day her head beats like a drum and she sees double and her doctor says, “Hospital.” Her blood pressure is so high that now when the doctors visit they talk about emergency C-sections, premature births. “In one night, everything can change,” she says. “Suddenly I find myself in this new world—a world of sickness. It’s strange.” We joke about some things—the food is great because we don’t have to cook or clean up. Anja models the white tights we have to wear on bedrest to keep our legs from swelling, holding her jutted hip with one hand as the other lifts her baggy hospital gown to her thigh. “Sexy!” she says. But worry tinges our laughter.
I’m so brave, my friends back home say, their voices crackling across an ocean and a time change into the cell phone I’m not supposed to be using. Having a baby in another country. And how scary, they sympathize, to be in the hospital, speaking another language with doctors, trying to understand. But these inconveniences seem, to me, quite small in light of a deeper fear that I am sure would feel the same anywhere. The world has shrunk; my greatest task is to live in my body, to keep the baby inside. And if I can’t do that… The fear waiting at the end of these trailed-off thoughts gnaws away any sense of place or time. I used to think my homesickness was some great pain. Now I know how little that matters, how much I would rather hold this girl, alive and safe, than ever go home again.
Anja teaches me to play backgammon, and I win the first game in minutes. We laugh. “Beginner’s luck,” she says. She likes the game because it’s “a good mix of skill and luck. At first you use some strategy,” she says. “But by the end it’s all up to fate.” Then suddenly we are sober again, realizing how little everything we did mattered—the vitamins and prenatal yoga DVDs and vegetables from the farmers’ markets—none of it calms the blood raging inside her or spilling out of me.
The blue machine with its baffling knobs and wraps struts to Anja’s bedside and she clenches in fear—“it raises my blood pressure just to see it,” she says. I limp to the bathroom and will myself not to see the streaks of rust. Why won’t any of it stop? What have we done?
Outside, the weather seems incomprehensible. A valley lined with oak trees glimmers in gray rain on Friday, then breaks to sunshine all weekend long. We stare at it with maddening desire. One day the nurses tell Anja she can take a walk outside, and she and her boyfriend leave the room, hand in hand. “You poor thing,” she says to me on her way out.
* * *
My husband and son visit every day. The door cracks open and I see first the stroller wheel, then my son’s coy smile, then my husband’s tired one. I know this is hard for him. He tore his ACL two weeks before and, still a week away from the scheduled surgery, flashes of pain mark his steps. We don’t have a car, and I know what it means for him to push the bulky stroller on and off city trains and up the steep hill to the hospital, an hour and a half each way. But he brings baskets of fresh May strawberries and bars of chocolate. My son pushes every button in the room. The lights go on and off, the radio and TV off and on. He calls the nurses four times. The fourth time they say, “Maybe you could move the telephone so he can’t reach it.” He hides in the closet, plays peek-a-boo with Anja, dances around the room while my husband and I clap and sing. He throws his soccer ball against the wall, then crawls under the bed to find it. We sing Twinkle Twinkle and songs from Sesame Street and Mother Goose. He kisses my belly. He doesn’t understand why I can’t stand up and carry him. He brings so much life in the room; Anja and I stare in wonder. When he beckons for me to follow him out the door, I want to cry. He leaves strawberry and chocolate stains on the bedsheets.
Three times a day they measure my baby’s heartbeat. She loves to move, and the machine wants her to stay still. She kicks and rolls into hiding and the heartbeat goes, then nurses laugh and rub more jelly on the probes and on my belly and push and prod, looking for that beat. “I’m just alive,” she seems to say. “Your numbers can’t read me.” The machine spits out graph paper etched with the tracks a bird might make if it stepped in ink and began to dance.
“It’s funny, what you start looking forward to in the hospital,” Anja says.
“Like shots,” I offer.
“Or blood pressure readings.”
“And fetal scans.”
“I’m going to clean these windows today,” Anja declares, wiping a smudge of dust with her thumb. She’s allowed a lot more movement than I am, and thinking about cleaning windows feels indulgent. Whenever I go to the bathroom, the only time I’m allowed to get out of bed, I’ve started wiping the sink down with paper towels.
“We’ve been here too long,” I say. “Looking for things to clean.”
Anja bows at the waist and whisks my breakfast tray away. “Can I get anything else for you today, ma’am?” she asks as she waltzes out the door.
I’m trying to sleep on the third day, pretending really, but a wasp growls relentlessly. It flutters about two inches to the right of one of Anja’s wide-open windows. He hurls himself against the glass, buzzing like a lawnmower. I hear a clipped knock as his body meets glass, then he hovers and crumples to the sill, whining. Knock, flutter, crumple, buzz. Over and over. I pull the blanket over my head even though it is already so hot outside I’m sweating through my pajama pants and try not to picture his legs, like strands of hair, scrambling pointlessly against glass. I couldn’t muster the kindness to shoo him out the window.
* * *
We wait. Tap tap. Those knocks at the door mean something will happen. Some machine will roll in and attach itself to our bodies. What it says will make us send one another “thumbs up” gestures or sigh back against the pillows and stare out the window.
Tap tap. A doctor comes in and we clamor for answers. But this one seems young, with impatience grown from insecurity. She sighs when I tell her I have one more question. She doesn’t know if I have placenta previa. She hasn’t received my doctor’s note about whether or not my cold was a bacterial infection. Anja’s blood test got lost in the lab. No answers today. She leaves, and Anja and I wrinkle our noses. “The one doctor’s visit of the day,” she says. “What a disappointment.”
At the end of the fourth day we get a new roommate. We thought we would stay alone, but the maternity ward filled up last night—“This always happens when the weather changes or during full moons,” one midwife says. A nurse explains that Anja can move into a more private two-bed room if she wants because her insurance allows it. But Anja doesn’t want to leave. “I feel comfortable with Sarah,” she says. “I don’t want to get to know someone new.”
I tell her she doesn’t have to stay, but I am relieved. Opening up to Anja has come naturally, our shared pain morphing into some kind of comfort. Without her, I’d have only my fear. Anja is patient with my imperfect German and plays ball with my son. We have listened to each other burst into tears and watched each other curl into the pillows, pressing our hands to our eyes. We don’t want to do it all over again with someone else.
Our new roommate smells like cigarettes and has spiked dyed red hair. She throws her suitcase on the bed and briskly hangs clothes in the closet. I am a little afraid of her. “My baby stopped growing two weeks ago,” she says. “Now I have to stay here until they do a C-section. It won’t be more than ten days.” With pursed lips, she tells me she has a nine year old and three year old at home. When her voice shakes I feel suddenly sad and want to welcome her. “All of my other pregnancies were fine,” she says. “They came in, they came out. Easy. But this one…”
Sometimes she talks to Anja and me, and smiles as though it might be dangerous, her teeth flashing, then disappearing as she clamps her lips down. Mostly she puts her earphones in and fumbles with the buttons of her pink iPod, or goes into the hallway for more coffee.
* * *
“Another day in paradise,” Anja says in English. Then she rolls her eyes. I ask her if there’s a similar expression in German and she thinks about it, then says no. “I only know this from Phil Collins,” she explains, and begins to sing, snapping her fingers.
“All these simple things,” I say to Anja, looking out the window. “Trees, sun, walks. They’re so wonderful. But we don’t know it.” “You’re right,” she says. “Quite the opposite, in fact. We go about our business thinking about the next thing we have to do, and we don’t see any of it at all.”
Tap tap. Anja is out in the hospital yard, sitting on a park bench, when the doctor comes to determine whether I walk home today or stay in the hospital for the rest of my pregnancy. After a week, the bleeding has slowed enough that they can run the test, and they tell me that as long as it’s negative, “normal,” I can go back to my life. The doctor brings out a cotton swab and a little vial of fluid. She smiles, but does not look me in the eye as it goes in. She sits on the end of my bed looking at her digital watch. When it beeps, she removes the swab and, with gloved fingers, slips some litmus paper into the vial. I hold my breath and pretend to look out the window; the doctor has closed the curtains, so I stare, forever, at cloth rippling against the promise of sunshine. Nobody looks at each other as the seconds move.
“Negative,” the doctor says. “Your water didn’t break. You can go home.” And when she says “home” I don’t even think of Michigan, or my homesickness, just of the bare apartment which suddenly seems like enough. I’m baffled by the doctor’s simple instructions to “just take it a little easier than you did before”; after lying on my back for a week, everything seems dangerous. But the bleeding stopped, they say. I must be fine.
When I tell Anja, she wraps her arms around me. But when I go to pack my backpack, my hands shaking as I stuff t-shirts into socks into discharge papers, she walks to her bed and pulls the covers so high I can barely see her dark hair on the pillow. Sun washes her body, comma-shaped and hidden under hard white sheets.
I write my phone number on a slip of paper on her bedside table, leave an almost-full bottle of juice a friend of mine smuggled in my second night here. I feel my own two feet are not enough to carry me. I feel I am made of paper, that I will rumple, rip, blow away.
And then suddenly I’m back in the world, shouldering a backpack, calling a taxi.
Tap tap. Now it’s the baby, knocking on my womb. I put my hands on my belly and leave them there the whole way home.
This essay first appeared in Stealing Time Magazine.
STORY PHOTO provided by author; image by Christina Sussman.