As the months passed, Claire’s belly kept growing. It was really an amazing thing to see. Of course every mother’s belly grows, but it was indescribable when Claire – the person whose size and curves and figure I’ve known relatively unchanged for the last 9 years – started radically changing. She handled the pregnancy so well – she never complained, and until the last trimester, we were still cycling together to work. Even when she abandoned the bike for the safer (and much slower) method of walking to the road-side and hitching to town, she still managed the situation with astonishing patience and grace. Sometimes when in the house, she would have her back facing me, and it would catch me by surprise when she would turn and her belly would show in full profile. “Oh yea, we are gonna have a baby!”.
It was always the plan to have the baby in Kasama. This is our home, we never felt the need to go anywhere else. At first, we were hoping for a home birth. Due to lack of investigation on our part, we learned in the fifth month of pregnancy that, due to a myomectomy that Claire underwent late last year, her pregnancy was considered “high-risk”, and home birth was not an option. Serendipitously, around the same time that we learned this, a well-respected Doctor found us. Dr. Chishimba is the only OB/GYN in Kasama and also happens to be the superintendent of Kasama General Hospital. An easy-going man with a happy, rotund face quick to light-up with a broad smile, he impressed us immediately – both with his knowledge in his field and his open-mindedness about our ‘alternative’ birthing requests.
When we first arrived, about 8 weeks before Claire’s due date, Dr. Chishimba let us know that, like nearly all other doctors in his field, he would be requiring Claire to have a Cesarean because of her past surgery. Claire fervently expressed her desire for a natural birth, but the Doctor was persistent. Claire was crushed – her dream has always been to give birth naturally. The next few days were difficult as Claire adjusted her expectations and began to accept (after extensive research) that a scheduled Cesarean two-weeks before the due date was the medically accepted approach for the grand majority of those who have previously undergone a myomectomy.
When we returned to the Doctor a few weeks later, he checked Claire’s lab-work and scan, and assured us that everything was normal. He then began discussing with us the possibility of trying a natural birth, making a casual plan of ‘letting the baby show us’ how it wanted to enter the world. Claire tried to hold back tears as the whirlwind of emotions swept her up again – she had finally accepted that a scheduled c-section was necessary, and now the possibility of a natural birth opened up again. There was so much uncertainty!
We resolved to wait and see what the baby would show us. We returned 3 weeks from the due date, and the doctor let us know that the baby was very low, and in good position, and wanted to engage soon. He said he would be surprised if the baby waited until the due date (July 9th), to make his/her appearance. He let us know that the risks of the baby being born naturally after its due date were too high, and so if the baby had not come by the morning of July 9th, then he would perform an elective C-section. We agreed, grateful that this experienced doctor was willing to allow Claire to have a chance for a natural birth.
When Claire’s mom, Sue, heard the news that the baby might come early, she quickly re-arranged her travel plans and jetted to Zambia. We had a wonderful reunion, full of tears and love, and the happiness and relief was clear on Claire’s face – nice to have mom here in time! Sue was also full of excitement to be part of the birth of her first grandchild.
Now there was only one piece of the puzzle missing – our dear friend JoAn, who was one of Claire’s best friends during our Peace Corps service. JoAn, a beautiful woman with a strong spirit, wonderful heart, and a contagious laugh, has stayed in touch and is a wonderful friend, and she recently became a Doula. Given her new profession, our friendship, and her love for Zambia, JoAn was a perfect fit to be present at the birth, and was so full of love and support that she was even willing to fly to Kasama to help us! JoAn arrived two days after Sue, on the 3rd of July, and now the birthing team was complete, in combination with our dear friend Steph (Claire’s best friend, and the only ‘musungu’ we know who has given birth in Kasama General Hospital).
When JoAn arrived, it was wonderful to catch up on old times, and have a chance for Sue and JoAn to get to know one another. Quickly, everyone was laughing and getting along wonderfully. The mood became more serious as we approached the due-date; we all became very focused on the birth of a new life. It was an incredibly spiritual time, in the company of such powerful, focused women. It was a rare and special time as a man to participate and glimpse women’s profound power of creation.
The power of the feminine encompassed the farm, and every night, in the meditation circling crafted by Kapembwa in the middle of our garden, we circled Claire in meditation under the naked light of the growing moon, with the garden furrow’s soft sound of water meandering through our prayers. Each meditation ended with our hands on Claire’s belly, praying and inviting the baby to come. With each meditation our energies became more aligned, and even the days shifted their focus to Claire’s belly, and the life we prayed would soon join us. Kapembwa was present as always, keeping the farm in good order and beating his metaphorical drum to keep the rhythm of our farm life, but he mostly kept to himself during this time – within his culture men don’t often mix within feminine energies.
It was interesting as a man between cultures, trying to balance myself within this femininity. I feel blessed to have been welcomed, and was happy to take a back seat as JoAn used her variety of crystals and stones to bless Claire, and Sue called on the power of our collective ancestors to help bring this baby from their world to ours. I too felt the strong presence of my deceased father, and my mother, who was geographically distance but spiritually present with us. On July 7th, in the evening, we prayed longer than usual – sensing our time was wearing thin as our window for a natural birth was closing. Claire assured us that the baby was coming on the full moon, the night of July 8th. She had been asserting this same thing since the day in December that she had calculated the baby’s due date. Claire was also born on a full moon, and had a strong premonition that her firstborn would follow suit.
Claire once told her mother, when asked why she wanted to get a Master’s Degree, that she needed it so that ‘Justin and I can move back to Zambia and run an NGO while living in a small, round house on a river’. What that had to do with a Master’s Degree was foggy, but the lesson of trusting Claire’s premonitions was crystal clear.
On the morning of July 8th, Claire had her “show”. We waited eagerly and trustingly that day, celebrating with delicious food while dancing and laughing into the afternoon around Claire’s round tummy. Steph arrived to complete the birthing team in the afternoon, and we fully circled Claire in meditation, loving energy on every side. After our evening meditation, basking in the full moon’s glory, Claire began to feel what she thought might be contractions. Steph and Sue -the mothers in the circle – glanced knowingly at one another. Just wait, Claire, when it starts you won’t wonder if they are contractions…
We lit a fire, drummed, sang, and danced. The energy was building. After a short time, Claire had her first contraction – she was sure this time. We waited and continued in our merriment, knowing there would be lots of time. After about an hour, we hopped in the car and drove the 45 minutes to the hospital. Claire’s contractions were really consistent – one every few minutes. I continued asking questions – seeing if she could be distracted. She came out of one particularly long contraction and stared at my shaggy sweatpants – ‘are you going to wear those pants during the birth?’ she asked exasperatedly. We both laughed. ‘I love you’ was my affirmative response.
Upon entering the quiet hospital, we were greeted with empty halls and the strong smell of bleach and methylated spirits, which – despite their pungency – cannot quite rid the place of the suffering experienced there. Thankfully, we had reserved a ‘high cost’ room for $40 per night. The nurses immediately began telling us how it wasn’t possible for us to deliver in that room – that Claire would have to be in the delivery ward. I pulled the nurses aside, trying to keep Claire from hearing (and thus imagining the mob of people and unwanted attention that would follow a ‘musungu’ giving birth in the public ward). A quick call to Doctor Chishimba sorted out the misunderstanding. He arrived, assuring us that we could be free in our room, and verifying that Claire was in fact in labor, though she had only dilated to 1 cm. He told us he would return at 6 AM – it was then about 11 PM.
The story of the ensuing night is beyond any description that I might muster. I had no idea how strong Claire is – how strong all women are. After participating (albeit passively) in the labor process, I could never agree that men are stronger than women. The physical, emotional, and spiritual energy required to withstand the onslaught of pain, I cannot imagine. With each contraction, for hours on end, one of the team attended to Claire. During the time we shared together, I joined in her focused breathing – trying to bring myself closer to her experience, wishing I could take some of her pain that she might feel it less.
We spent the night without sleep, present at Claire’s side. We burned incense and Palo Santo, played meditative music, and made the room home – it became our spiritual sanctuary from the grim reality in the hospital surrounding us. We even managed to give Claire a bath by heating water in two electric kettles, hour after hour, and pouring the water painstakingly into the bath-tub whose drain was plugged with a beer bottle. Bathing Claire, sitting with her by candle-light, I have never been so in love. What a strong, courageous woman. I prayed more than I’ve ever prayed, that she would be safe, and that we would have a healthy, strong baby. I was grateful for the strong spiritual presence of JoAn, who helped bathe Claire in the early hours of the morning, for the wise presence of Sue, who’s strength helped Claire in the toughest moments, for Steph whose calm demeanor and experience lead the way and showed us what was possible – a birth at Kasama General.
The experience was surreal. Claire’s eyes glowed a blue so pure I couldn’t believe they were of this world. In between contractions, she was so present, so vivid, so connected. With each contraction, it was as if she was approaching the spirit world – as if with each concentrated breath and each pained exhale she was thinning the line between our physical reality, and the reality from whence this new life was coming. And in a very physiological sense, that line was thinning. By 6 AM when Dr. Chishimba returned, Claire’s cervix was dilated to 6 CM.
We began the morning with hope and progress. The baby would be coming today, one way or another. Claire was exhausted but found energy to keep breathing through her contractions. Steph dipped out for a minute, and returned with food and coffee. The sustenance provided much-needed energy, and I wondered to myself how Claire was managing. I had been so exhausted the night before, both physically (from using my body to apply pressure to Claire in different areas during her contractions), and emotionally, and constantly reminded myself that however tired I felt, it must be nothing compared to how Claire felt. If she kept going, how could I rest?
After about 3 more hours, Dr. Chishimba returned. He let us know, matter-of-factly, that Claire was still at 6 CM. She was not progressing, and he could not give her medicine to help her dilate because of the danger of rupture (due to her past surgery). He would have to take Claire in for a C-section.
Claire’s face showed a mixture of disappointment and relief. She had labored for more than 16 hours. She was a warrior and she wanted to have the baby naturally. She was also ready for the baby to come, and she was exhausted. The Doctor gave us one more chance, he would break the “waters” and wait one more hour. After joining us a couple of hours later, it was clear that the baby had decided how it would be born. The Doctor had prepared us for this – if there were any delays or complications, in order to safeguard Claire and the baby, a C-section would be required. Upon learning this news, Claire seemed to relax a bit . Though she was disappointed, the end was in sight. We had no idea what was yet to come, and how difficult the ensuing hours would be.
Claire breathed her way through 4 or 5 more contractions as the surgical team prepared itself. These contractions were more difficult – she knew now that these trials were not bringing her closer to the goal. After about an hour, Sue, JoAn and I accompanied Claire, lying on a stretcher, into the operating room (where the Doctor assured us there was no problem if we watched). We found Dr. Chishimba in the ‘Theatre’ (which is what Brits, and thus Zambians, call the operating room), dressed in gumboots, a plastic apron slick, and a full-length blue gown. I remember thinking he looked like a butcher…
They gave Claire a spinal injection for the surgery, as she insisted that she wanted to be conscious for the birth of the baby. She wanted the baby to be placed upon her chest immediately after birth…
After about 10 minutes, the Doctor began the surgery. Claire couldn’t feel when they cut her open, and so everything seemed to be going fine. The Doc showed incredibly confidence – it was clear he had done this before. Still, once he opened Claire up, things seemed to move in slow motion. Claire began to moan and cry in distress. She could feel them moving her organs, could feel them reaching in to pull the baby out. The anesthesiologist assured her she could only feel pressure, and it was normal, but Claire was clearly suffering. I asked if we couldn’t give her more medicine, but he refused.
It took the doctor a long time of prodding and pulling (10 minutes to be exact) to finally pull out the baby. He asked for a stool, and he and his assistant were pulling so violently. It was so far from the spiritual entry we had envisioned! All the while, at every push and prod, Claire suffered. It took me by surprise when our baby finally emerged, pulled into this world by skillful hands. I remember wondering why he wasn’t crying, but then I was also so concerned about Claire that the baby had become, somehow, a second priority. As he showed himself fully, I saw that our baby had testicles – its a boy! Then, I wondered if I was mistaken, since his testicles seemed to be massive as compared to his body – maybe I was confused, somehow. I also had the thought that the baby was so blue he didn’t look white. Where did this baby come from? He looked like a smurf, and he certainly didn’t get those huge balls from me!
The delivery team grabbed the baby and took him to the incubator. After about 30 seconds he began to cry, and I have never heard such a beautiful sound. I left Claire’s side just for a minute, and looked at our baby. He looked so alien, so small and so foreign, and yet there was a feeling of familiarity so strong it overwhelmed me. I was filled with so much emotion it started pouring out of me. I was just trying to hold back tears, and focus my attention again on Claire. The Doctor was busy stitching up her uterus, and then he had to jostle her to get the organs back in place. She was crying and suffering, and I could tell that the ordeal was really traumatic for Sue. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, they had everything back in place and began stitching up her skin.
Claire was in so much pain she wasn’t ready to see the baby. She looked more exhausted then I’ve ever seen her. We all wished they had just put her under. They took the baby back to our room, but Sue and I stayed with Claire until the surgery was completed. I dipped back to the room quickly to grab a receptacle to save the placenta, and had a chance there to hold my son for the first time. I looked at him, so small and vulnerable and beautiful. I held him and wept – from joy, from relief, from exhaustion, from gratitude. He was okay!
The moment was short-lived, as I was eager to make sure my love was also okay. I found her groggy and not herself – the 15 minutes of agony had left her distorted somehow. We wheeled her back to the room, as she was slowly returning to this reality. When she got into the room, she was finally ready to hold her baby boy. He immediately latched onto her nipple and started feeding, and she was relieved that at least one thing had happened easily that day!
The Doc came in later and confirmed that everyone was healthy. He said that it was the most difficult C-section he had ever performed – that the last doctor who had performed the myomectomy had done a poor job, and that was the cause of Claire’s inability to dilate properly. It was also the cause of the incredibly long operation (he said it usually took about 3-5 minutes). He assured us that everything was fine, baby was healthy, and Claire was sewn up properly.
In the shock of such a traumatic, spiritual, exhausting event, the silence was surreal when Claire and I were alone with our baby boy. While it wasn’t the storybook ending we had dreamed, it didn’t matter. We were together again, and now with our baby boy. We were all healthy and whole. I was grateful for Dr. Chishimba and ‘modern medicine’, without which I shudder to think what could have happened. For the first time, we were a family. I have never been so thankful.
The coming days were filled with joy and relief, and a profound sense of responsibility. We had succeeded, and our baby was with us. Now came the realization of how completely helpless, and dependent this little guy is. This is the most important responsibility either of us will ever have, and it is sure to come with many lessons, trials, and tribulations. This little boy, a mirror of ourselves, whose perception and understanding of this reality will be shaped so significantly by us, his parents.
I pray every day that we will be living examples of happiness, compassion, and love. Every time I hold him I feel profoundly the presence of Spirit. I am falling in love with Claire all over again when I see how she feeds and cares for this little being. I feel confident that he was brought to us so that we can teach each other, our souls intertwined in the dance of life. Welcome to this world, Bodhi Malama Hostetter! We love you!