Rhubarb Baby

by Carolyn Fitz

It has been almost 43 years since you were born. Time plays tricks on memory, like a sheer curtain in a breeze, shifting so only a single layer hides the view, then a double thickness and occasionally an edge lifts and more light passes through. Sometimes, most unexpectedly, an invisible hand may pull the curtain back for a brief, clear glimpse. So it is as I look back on your birth.

Your life, like all lives, is a mystery. I remember the moment of your conception, a consensual moment. A moment on an October, Sunday afternoon, while your older brother napped. I knew then what I had done. I had invited you into this world with your father’s help.

You were with me all those months, a comfortable truce between our two bodies. I was certain from early on that you were a boy. You stretched in my womb, until it was like a taut drum and thumped your knees and elbows, hands and feet against me with such exuberance. I just knew you were a strong boy and you must be a brave soul to choose your father and me as your parents. Though you were there all those nine months, there was yet an unknowing and much speculation about who you were. We were anxious for your arrival and expectant and hopeful in your coming.

Those July days around your birth were cloudless, a bright blue sky in early morning swelling into a white haze. By early afternoon, the gauzy, humid air roiled at about 90 degrees. On the Sunday before your birth I felt the relief of your dropping. Your head had begun its journey into the birth canal. There was some releasing of the pressure on my ribs and the jabs of your appendages. Now my swollen belly hung low, awaiting your descent. After an exhausting visit to the Corn Hill Arts Festival, we had returned home, limp and soiled from the heat, longing for a glass of cool water and a rest. As I stood in our music room, a certain feeling crept over me, a deep primordial pressing down at the base of my spine, followed by a strangely warm rising of energy up through my womb to a sweet spot somewhere in the center of my being. An internal switch had been flipped and your passage was beginning. Everything had changed.

At that moment I remembered the rhubarb plants—large, leafy, green tops bowing to the earth, begging to be picked. I must pick the rhubarb and prepare it for the freezer. The late afternoon light slanted through the hemlocks. There was a hush in the air, a stillness, a sign. The air had cooled. I pulled the rhubarb stalks, feeling the giving of the flanged tips as they tore loose from their roots. The fresh red stalks with their torn tips, a foreboding of your coming, your unmooring. As I staggered toward the back porch, arms full of rhubarb stalks, a terrible fatigue crept over me and I dropped them to the ground.

I do not recall how the night passed, but in early morning labor had begun. I recovered the rhubarb from the ground outside the house. I struggled to wash, drain, and chop two-inch pieces, placing them into plastic freezer containers. As I chopped, my belly was seized by the rubber-hard clinching of the uterus, thrusting your head down into the birth canal. The squeezing of the tender nerve endings in the narrow passageway caused a pain, at first dull, then hotter and sharper. At first the discomfort was intermittent, seizing, pushing down and then slowly softening. I called Dr. Dischinger and he advised us to come to the hospital when the peaks of the contractions were five minutes apart. Well, they were five minutes apart. I continued to chop rhubarb. I must finish the rhubarb. Now the contractions were stronger and painful enough that I was stopped dead in my tracks, scarcely able to breathe. I clenched the kitchen counter edge, struggling to stay upright. My bag was packed, I was ready to go, it was just the rhubarb. Rein was there trying to complete the job. He was anxious to leave.

As we approached the hospital, a transition took hold, the discomfort much greater. It was hard to sit upright in the car seat. Dischinger was frantic as I was rushed to my labor room, changed into a hospital gown and pushed flat on my back. I struggled to right myself, the nurse pushing me back down. I could not manage the pain lying flat. I was losing control of the birth. I was trained in the Lamaze technique of natural childbirth, so I bravely announced that I would take no pain medication, as I wanted to be fully present at the birth.

My bag of waters had not ruptured, so Dischinger took his scalpel and slashed the membranes. My perineum was numb from its tautness. No feeling. My legs splayed open, the warm saline sea of my womb flowed over my undercarriage and up my back. Ah.

And “Bam.” The starting gate was opened and the race to the end had begun. The raring steed was released. Contractions, measurably stronger now, came closer and closer together. There seemed no space between them, as though a giant hand had picked up the ball of Mother Earth and shaken her back and forth so the tides just continued to roll in, one on top of the other. I became my pain, no space for breath. Rein slapped a brown lunch bag over my nose and mouth and commanded me to stop gasping, to breathe shallowly. My lips were parched and there was the taste of stomach bile in the back of my throat.

In this heated panic, a slight, hesitant young female intern from India entered the room and touched me right at the peak of a contraction with her icy cold, bony hands. I recoiled and again she touched me with no empathy. I insisted Dischinger come to my side, only his healing hands, fleshy, warm, and gentle should touch me. And yet again she moved her dreaded hands toward me. I could almost smell my dislike for her, a putrid, yellow-green stench. I loathed her. I set my eyes on her. “No way.” As she neared my side, I bent my elbow and savagely poked her in the ribs. She flew across the room, picked herself up and fled. Dischinger rushed in to the rescue.

The tides accelerating, cervix fully dilated and head presenting, I was pushed upright and transferred onto a gurney to make my rush to the delivery room. Covering the gurney was a stark white sheet of paper, some 30 degrees colder than the skin on my back. As I lowered myself down onto that hospital paper, chills jolted up the tender skin of my lower back, creating yet another agony. My mind was empty. I was all pain.

Then without warning, a hot, unearthly urge to push arose from the very core of my being, engulfing me. It was orgasmic in feel and unremitting. It was not of my conscious making. It was built into my genes. I grunted and groaned like a stuck pig and pushed with all my might. This was the hardest work I had ever done. Labor. Pain faded in the face of this urge to push. When a contraction ended, I was ordered not to push, but the urge did not stop. It took all of my will and physical strength to deny my body's command. Dischinger slipped forward and deftly made a midline incision of my perineum with his scalpel. With the next tide of overlapping waves, I bore down ferociously. There was a cool, slippery feeling and whoosh, you flew out into Dischinger's hands, a long skinny baby boy.

Dischinger held you upside down by your ankles. Your head was elongated with dark strands of wet hair; you were blue and caked with a white waxy coating and streaks of blood. He slapped you on your back. No sound. Another whack and you gave a husky, muted cry. You were never a crier. You began to pink up. You were suctioned, weighed, and measured. I eagerly asked for your vital statistics and your Apgar score. During these procedures, I was pushed back into a reclining position and with a slight tug, the placenta was pulled out from my womb, our final semblance of oneness, broken. You were now a viable, independent entity. Nine months of synchronized heartbeat, shared blood supply over. “Now we have to stitch you up.” A topical painkiller was applied to my lacerated perineum. I heard the needle break through the skin, a slight pause as it pushed through soft tissue, then a faint nick as it rose out of the epithelium on the other side and then again and again until the sutures were drawn tight and bound. “We will make it nice and tight.”

Lying there in a pool of salty, viscous, bloody fluids, I realized I was shaking uncontrollably. In a state of physical exhaustion and shock, they handed you to me. I tried to hold you, my arms and hands trembling violently. I was afraid I would drop you. I handed you to your father and lay there twitching, convulsing. I felt frayed but grateful that our struggle was over. My parched lips and the acrid taste of bile were behind me.

A new father stood before me, holding you delicately in the crook of his arm. He looked tenderly at you. As I watched, a look of sheer joy and love crept over his face, so beautiful, like the sweetest spring blossom, pink and tender and luscious. The two of you seemed to levitate above the floor from your special resonance. You were bonded, body and soul.

I lay there depleted, feeling hollowed out. My expectation of a tender union with you denied. I did not feel the unconditional love that you and your father shared. Then I realized that I was all alone. Your father had gone off to the nursery with you and the staff had left, their work done. Exhausted and forlorn, I lay trembling, knowing that I was invisible, the intimacy of our pregnancy shattered by your release from my womb.

Later, when my trembling stopped, I took your tender mass into my arms, expecting a rush of love. Instead a wave of dissonance hit me like a hard whack on the sternum. Our closeness, our synchronicity for all of our nine months together had vanished. Our personal frequencies were discordant, like John Cage and Beethoven playing a duet. Who were you? It was my challenge to acknowledge that we were not one person. I gave you passage into this world, but you were a unique being, worthy of my compassion, my love, my care. In looking back, I see that we have been life teachers to each other.

This despair was countered by your ease in taking my breast and gingerly gripping my teat with your gums. My fears faded as you nursed. In fact, our nursing moments in your early months are among my most tender lifelong memories. Your warm, soft, sweet-smelling body nestled in my arms, your eyes shut, focusing on your work, suckling. I felt filled up on the inside. A sense of ease rose up from my belly into my heart. Then you would raise your head and tilt it back, open your eyes, look up at me and smile contentedly. Your smile came very early. You have always enjoyed eating! For you, being fed was an essential expression of love.

Back then the hospital maternity stay was three days. During these three days, you ate well and slept well and I healed. But, your father and I could not agree on your first name. It must be Estonian to honor your father’s heritage. On the third day, Rein appeared in the doorway of the hospital room, holding you, tightly swaddled, in his arms. He looked at me and said, “This is Tarmo.” I paused, smiled, and replied, “Ye-e-e-s, this is Tarmo.” And so you became Tarmo. In the Estonian culture, Tarmo is an epic hero, known as the “strong and brave one.” As you grew into a sturdy, lively lad, your Estonian grandmother would look at you fondly and say, “That is a Tarmo.”

I used to say that you were my Bicentennial baby, because you were born in July of 1976. And yes you were, but you were also my rhubarb baby, born on a clear warm sunny day, with blueberries ripening and small green tomatoes soaking up the sun’s rays. A day when our rhubarb crop was chopped and stored in our freezer for future compotes and pies and preserves.

The giant beeches and hemlocks welcomed you home. There was a paved circle for little boys to ride their bikes around and around, on that day when a strong and brave little boy, Tarmo, came to join his older brother, Vello, the valorous one. Your arrival made our home a new place, with a new resonance among our complexity of frequencies. You were a quiet boy who seldom cried, and smiled so happily after a good meal, our Rhubarb Baby.

Carolyn Fitz is a retired high school chemistry teacher. Since moving to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2017 she has especially enjoyed hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains.