‘Babe, wake up. My water’s broke.’
It’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m disorientated, lifting my head off the pillow and looking around with squinting eyes as a bedside lamp blazes to life. I find my heavily-pregnant wife lying beside me, looking down at herself with a faint expression of disgust, then at me, eyes wide and expectant.
For a second I wonder what she wants, then the fog slips away, the pieces of this jigsaw slide into place, and her words come into focus. I react with the best my sleep-addled brain can manage in the moment.
‘Oh wow, that’s exciting.’
Not my most inspired effort.
‘Are you okay? Do you feel okay?’ I ask.
‘I think so.’ Her voice is shaky. ‘I don’t know.’
‘This is really happening.’ I give her an enthusiastic grin that she tries to match, but the expression is a little watery, fear butting up against excitement. ‘Do you want to get out of bed?’
‘I think it’s still leaking out.’
‘It’s all over the bedsheets.’
‘That’s also okay. We can clean it up.’
She nods. ‘Alright.’
Alex eases back the doona and places her feet on the ground while I trot around the bed to help her stand. She grips my arm as she levers herself upright and doesn’t let go as she straightens, each of us looking at the other, her dressed in a long black t-shirt and me in nothing but my own skin, and then to the puddle collected on the mattress.
‘It’s running down my leg. God, that feels gross.’
I’m struck with a bolt of inspiration. ‘Towels!’ I say, relieved I can make myself useful. ‘Are you good?’
She nods and I let go of her arm and step into the hallway, grabbing a few of the second-best towels before rejoining my wife. I drop a faded, rainbow-striped towel on the floor between her legs and we watch as more liquid trickles from her ankle and into the material. Her limbs are trembling, muscles overloaded with flood-levels of adrenaline.
‘Do you want to call Christina?’ I ask.
‘Yeah. Good idea.’ She takes small careful steps, edging around the sticky mess on the floor, and plucks her phone off the bedside table and rings our midwife.
I hover around while they talk, wired from the unreality of the moment but unsure where to direct my energy. I decide that getting dressed is a good use of my time and put on some clothes.
Alex hangs up. ‘She said it all sounds normal. She’s not at the hospital at the moment but starts her shift at seven, so that works out well.’
‘Who knows, maybe the baby will beat her there.’ I wink.
She rolls her eyes. ‘That would be the dream.’
‘So we’re heading in?’
She chews her lip and looks at me. ‘I think I want to shower.’
I laugh. ‘That is allowed.’
I pass her another towel that she wedges between her legs and then she waddles to the bathroom to feel more like a human again and less like a leaky pot. As the gentle roar of the shower starts, I consider the bed, figuring clean sheets will be desired when we next return to this room, exhausted from the marathon to come. And with a baby on the outside of a body instead of within.
It hits me then, that the countdown has really begun, and in a collection of hours our little family will have a new member. There’s a bubbling in my chest that’s just on this side of uncomfortable and I grin. The concept that’s been housing in my wife’s uterus will soon become a very real reality. I get to changing the sheets.
Alex emerges from the shower looking better, with colour in her cheeks and more steady on her feet. She looks beautiful, healthy and ripe with pregnancy. I hug her and feel my emotions spike for the fourth time in the past twenty minutes.
She dresses and adds the final items to her pre-packed bag and suddenly it’s time to leave.
‘Ready?’ I ask.
She gives a big smile. ‘I hope so. A photo first and then we can go.’
We stand together and immortalise the last moment before we become parents.
The city is dim and quiet as we wind through it, skimming along the edges of its heart under the glow of street lamps. The radio plays softly under the burble of our conversation.
‘That’s another one,’ Alex says, hand going to her midriff and pressing before eventually letting out a big breath.
I take note of the time. ‘How regular are they meant to be at this point?’
‘They say roughly twenty minutes apart this soon after your water breaks.’
I frown. ‘That was only around six minutes.’
She shrugs. ‘Lucky me.’
We pass nightclubs still thumping with the bass of dance music and I have never felt more removed from that lifestyle. The roads are all but empty and before long I am pulling into the hospital underground carpark. My heart is thudding in my ears as we get out of the car and I pause to photograph the bay number, sure this information will fall out of my head by the time I return to the car. I sling the overnight bag onto my shoulder and put my arm around my wife and we slowly make our way up to the hospital entrance.
The sky is lit with the dark illumination of light pollution and the hospital rears in front of this ghostly backdrop, foyer bright despite the hour. Two guards, one man and one woman, stand just inside the glass front, enforcing the COVID visitor regulations around the clock.
Alex totters through the automatic doors, belly leading, and explains she is in labour and would appreciate a room in which to continue this activity. The male guard responds with the most absurd question I can imagine given the circumstances.
‘Do you have an appointment?’
Alex and I look at each other and then she turns back to the guard and explains that, no, she doesn’t have an appointment for three o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, but hopes she can still give birth here despite that.
The guard briefly discusses this with his colleague, then again on the phone to a hospital staff member, while we wait, Alex taking long breaths through another contraction.
‘Okay,’ the male guard says, nodding at Alex, ‘you can go up. But you,’ he turns to me, ‘have to wait here.’
I feel a hiss of protective anger at being separated from my wife and the irrational urge to push past this uniformed poser and charge the hospital, but this is the caveman in me and the more civilised part of my subconscious reminds me that this situation was not unexpected.
During prenatal check-ups, all of which Alex attended solo as my presence was again forbidden thanks to the global pandemic, we were informed that no visitors would be permitted to accompany the patient until she was taken to the birthing suites.
‘Okay then,’ she says, smiling through her anxiety.
‘I’ll be sitting right here until they let me up.’
She nods and we hug, and kiss, and then I watch my wife wander into the vast expanse of the hospital, alone.
There are a few tired looking chairs dotted around the glass walls of the foyer and I settle into one while the guards take their own seats at a desk by the entrance. I pull out my phone but am too stimulated to focus on anything and tuck it away again. I take stock of my situation, an Australian sitting in front of a Viennese hospital at three in the morning while somewhere inside my child is stirring inside my wife’s womb. I feel simultaneously connected and disconnected.
I decide the best use of my time would be to try and nap, to conserve resources for the day to come, and so lean my head back against the glass and close my eyes. An hour passes this way, my facsimile of rest broken with periodic checks of my phone in case Alex messaged and I missed it despite the phone being clutched between my hands.
I eventually get an update saying that the cardiotocography has been done and our little foetus’ heartbeat is strong and steady. My own feels three times too fast. I return to waiting, each second protracted with the knowledge that important things are happening and I am sitting out the front of a hospital with my eyes closed, feigning sleep.
At four-thirty in the morning, the male security guard saunters over and I sit up, ready to defend my right to be here.
‘Yeah, that’s me.’
‘You can go up.’
Relief washes through me and I’m standing without realising it. I babble out a thanks while he gives cursory instructions, most of which go past me as I hurry inside, confident I will be drawn to my wife and unborn child like iron to a magnet.
This presumption turns out to be premature. I gain this insight while choosing from three different banks of elevators, finding lift doors opening on identical-looking floors, trotting down long empty hallways then retracing my steps to the elevator, convinced I should have turned right, not left, when leaving the lift, only be become unsure once wandering deeper into the maze of Austria’s largest hospital.
Finally, while walking down a dimly lit corridor that shows no sign of human activity and convinced I’ve made another wrong turn, I spot the sign for the birthing suites. I press the buzzer and bounce impatiently while I wait for the response. I give my name and my justification for being there, soon-to-be dad, and the glass doors slide blessedly open.
The ward is mostly quiet at this time in the morning and the midwife at the reception desk points me towards a birthing suite door. I step inside and see my wife and feel the stone in my chest that had been growing steadily larger for the past two hours fall away. She smiles and everything is better.
‘I got lost,’ I confess.
‘But you made it.’ She kisses me.
‘Are you okay?’
She raises her brows. ‘The contractions are coming a lot faster than I expected, but otherwise, all good.’
‘How far apart are they?’
‘About every three minutes.’
‘What? What happened to a slow build up?’
‘Apparently my uterus is in a rush.’
‘Are they bad?’
‘They’re not fun, but they’re okay.’
I shake my head. ‘What a stupid way to make humans. We should follow the kangaroo’s lead and just have them come out when they’re the size of a grub.’
‘Yeah, but then I’d need a pouch.’
I step back and consider her. ‘You could pull off a pouch.’
Alex laughs and runs me through the tests that were done and the action I missed, showing me around the suite, complete with a configurable bed to make any birthing position possible. Outside the window, the city and the sun are waking up, pre-dawn spilling across the sky to herald a new day. A day in which we will have a baby.
(To be continued…)