I meet the midwife on shift, a friend of our midwife, who explains that Christina had rang ahead and ensured Alex was hustled off the ward and into the birthing suite as soon as possible. I thank her profusely for reducing our apart time, and reflect that, once again, in Austria, it’s all about who you know.
The midwife explains the current options, all of which boil down to different ways of waiting, and Alex goes with the most comfortable sounding: a bath. The suites are fitted with a private bathing room containing a circular tub the size of a spa. The midwife gets the water running, provides some towels and shows us the adjoining bathroom, and then leaves us to it.
Alex disrobes and eases into the water, her tight pregnant belly glistening, and it still doesn’t feel quite real, even here and now, that a baby is ready and waiting inside.
‘Do you want me to get in with you?’ I ask, winking.
‘I don’t know how the midwives would feel about that. They’re used to dealing with naked women, not men.’
I sigh. ‘All the perks go to the pregnant lady.’
We talk, conversation broken regularly every time Alex has to focus on another contraction and I get to practice my encouraging breathing instructions. She says that the warm water is helping, but it feels as if they’re getting stronger.
I bring out a bluetooth speaker and we listen to George Ezra strum his brand of upbeat pop, Alex soaking in the bath and me on the floor, one hand dangling in the water, waiting for our baby to arrive.
After an hour, the contractions step up a notch and the discussion and laughter starts to thin out. The pain has increased to the point that she cannot keep talking, cannot keep the thread of conversation. I default back to a string of reassurances but can see their effect lessening with each new spasm.
At a little before seven, Alex is towelling herself off when Christina arrives. We both soften a little with relief. The hero is here to make everything better. Which, of course, is an unfair expectation as a baby still has to pass through my wife’s genitals and there is little Christina can do to bypass this. Nevertheless, her presence and positivity is a comfort.
Half an hour later and that comfort is dissipating under the ceaseless strain each new contraction is demanding from Alex. She’s hunching now, all efforts directed towards taking long slow breaths through this latest wave of squeezing pain.
‘Any reason they’re coming so fast?’ I ask Christina.
She shakes her head. ‘The body is in charge, and every body is different.’
Christina suggests an examination to get a gauge of where we’re at. Alex lies down on the mattress, once again dressed in an oversized black t-shirt, and I sit at the head of the bed. I hold her hand and give a hopeful squeeze that all her efforts will result in good news. Alex squeezes back, but I think it’s more due to pain than optimism.
‘One centimetre,’ Christina says, and the announcement hits me like a splash of cold water.
I think of all that Alex has given already and multiply that by ten, the magic number before anything can start happening, and feel a heaviness in my gut. I catch her eye and force a bright smile.
‘Progress,’ I say. ‘Only nine more to go.’
She gives a weary grin but the expression is cut short by another contraction.
Once she is breathing normally again, Alex sits up. I’m watching her closely and see the colour drain from her face. She purses her lips and lets out a long stream of breath.
‘I don’t feel so good,’ she says.
‘Do you want to lie back down?’ I ask.
‘No. I want to go to the toilet.’
She stands but pain ripples through her middle and I grab her elbow for support. We shuffle out of the room together, Alex’s weight pulling more at my arm the further we go.
‘I really need to get to the bathroom,’ she says, a touch of panic in her voice.
‘Almost there.’ I pull open the heavy door and guide her past the round bath and towards the bathroom.
She shambles out of my grip and stumbles against the toilet door, banging it open and dropping to her knees. The sound of retching follows, deep and guttural, the type of heaving that seems determined to scrape away her insides. The contents of Alex’s stomach erupt out of her and continue to do so until she is rung out.
‘I missed the bowl,’ she says in a croaky voice.
I look over her shoulder from where I was rubbing her back and note that the bathroom contains a sink, a bin, and a toilet, and that she had managed to miss all three. I decide not to share this observation.
‘Why don’t you go sit down. I’ll clean this up.’
Alex gives an exhausted nod and pads back towards the bath. I find a cup and fill it with water from the sink and carry it to her, then get to work with some paper towels and disinfectant left on top of the cistern. By the time I’m done, a little colour has returned to my wife’s face, but pain lines have set up camp around her eyes and mouth.
‘Are you okay?’ A pointless question I can’t help but ask.
She shakes her head, the formation of words proving too much.
We get back to the birthing suite and fill Christina in on what she missed, and she suggests we try walking around the ward to ease some of Alex’s discomfort. Alex concedes with a worn-out nod. The three of us venture into the large open space between rooms, Christina on one side and me on the other, with Alex hunched over between us.
We don’t get far before Alex stops, fingers tight around our arms, trying to breathe through the iron grip of her uterine muscles. Christina and I garland her with praise and encouragement, and try to coax her further, but progress is slow and it’s not long before she is waving us off, silently pleading for a rest while she hunches against a work desk, arms crossed against the smooth surface and head hanging in between.
The contractions come back-to-back without any respite to allow Alex to catch her breath and detense. I squat beside her, trying to look up into her face.
‘You are doing great, babe. That’s perfect. Long breath in and long breath out.’
I enact my instructions, breathing with her, and she follows along, face scrunching up and cheeks ballooning as she exhales. She opens her eyes and looks so very tired. She has become increasingly non-verbal and it’s making me nervous. My brain feels like a bird flapping up against a cage, wanting to shout out that something is wrong, that my wife is in pain, but everyone is behaving as if it’s normal so I have to believe that it is. I attempt to quiet the manic bird and smile and rub Alex’s back and prompt her to take a step.
We manage to cross the length of the ward, a weird shambling six-legged creature letting out a jarring combination of painful moans and upbeat assertions. Alex is wrecked by the end of this journey. She leans into a sink mounted on the wall and I ask if she is going to be sick again. She only shrugs and sags lower.
Christina spots a physician and excuses herself. We are alone in the hallway and I want to do something to make the situation better but my options have shrunk to cheerleader and backrubber. I have never felt more useless to my wife. She is bearing this physical burden for us and I am repeating the same sentiment I’ve been saying for the past hour. I’m amazed she hasn’t asked me to shut up yet.
Christina returns. ‘The doctor said he’s been watching you and believes you’re ready for an epidural.’
I feel a flush of satisfaction that Alex’s painstaking parade has been good for something.
‘Is that something you’re still wanting?’ Christina asks.
Alex looks up with dark hollows under her eyes and breathes out, ‘Please.’
We start-and-stop our way back to our suite, moving with the tide of her contractions, until Alex finally collapses onto the edge of the bed. I expect to see relief in her face, but sitting hasn’t eased the waves of pain squeezing her body. Her entire focus is committed to enduring.
‘Just a little longer, beautiful, and then they’ll numb you right up. You won’t even know you have a uterus by the time they’re done.’
She gives a fluttering smile at my weak attempt at humour then returns to her ordeal.
It takes another forty-five minutes of deep breathing and moans trickling from pursed lips before the anaesthesiologist and his resident arrive. I am given blunt instructions to leave the room; COVID restrictions separating us again. My caveman side wants to thump my chest and tell him ‘Make me,’ but I concede after giving Alex one more pep-talk and a kiss to the forehead.
The door slides closed and I stare at the white surface for a while, picturing my wife exposing her back for the needle, before turning to the open ward.
I stay within a five metre radius of the room, wandering out to my self-imposed limit and then snapping back. I lean against the wall beside the door, and then the door itself, and then stride out again, restless. From my nursing experience, I know the procedure should take around twenty minutes, providing all goes well. At the forty minute mark I feel like a shaken up bottle of soft drink with the lid on tight. I bite back the urge to hammer on the door and demand they let me in. I pace my small circle and wait.
Five minutes later the door slides open and the anaesthesiologist and his resident step out, glancing at me before striding away. I rush the room and find Alex sitting up in bed with her latest accessory — IV pole, pump, and tubing snaking under her shirt — erect beside her. She smiles at me and I breathe again.
‘How are you doing?’ I ask, sitting on the edge of the mattress.
‘Better,’ she says.
‘They tell me they’re still there, but I wouldn’t know it.’
Tension is draining from her features and her shoulders have relaxed. It’s good to hear her voice again.
‘Took them long enough,’ I say.
‘I don’t think the resident knew what she was doing.’
‘Just what you want when someone is shoving a needle into your spine.’
She leans forwards until our foreheads touch and we each exhale. The respite feels well deserved.
With the pain under control, we find ourselves unsure what to do next. The morning has been swallowed in a haze of agony for Alex and a fog of anxiety for me.
‘So, what do you feel like doing?’ I ask.
‘I could eat.’
I laugh and know I have my wife back.
(To be continued…)