Ebook normally $4.99; discounted to $0.99 from 10/15-11/1 on all ebook formats.
Publisher Koehler Books
Published in Literature & Fiction
Ebook normally $4.99; discounted to $0.99 from 10/15-11/1 on all ebook formats.
When Hannah first witnesses a baby tumble into the world, her secure, conventional life is upended by a fierce desire to deliver babies. But to practice midwifery she risks jail time, her community's respect, her career, and overwhelming fear. The key to unlocking her fear rests in one birth---her own.
Hannah, Delivered tells the story of how inexplicable passion, buried strength, and professional skill delivers one woman from fear into a rich and risk-filled life.
Have you ever noticed that a midwife’s quickest route to fame is screwing up?
I’m a lucky exception—my screwiest birth was a success, and that’s what rattled the authorities. A soft-faced mother, a glowing father, a filmy newborn flopping into my hands… But birth done quietly, naturally, in the bowels of the night, can make medical institutions go ballistic and upend our country’s laws.
You asked about my night in jail and how I felt the next morning when I found my name headlined on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. You and everyone else! If you want to be my apprentice you need to understand that the sensational births are insignificant compared with the thousand ordinary moments that come before, private moments when we choose life over death and allow ourselves to be imperceptibly changed. These are what make a midwife.
So yes, I’ll tell you the story.
It begins with a mother, as all midwives’ stories do: My beautiful mother, her silvery blond hair clipped back, hands clasped, the wedding ring a bit loose on her finger, her cheeks more heavily blushed than she would have liked, her mouth relaxed. Against white satin her practical wool skirt and chunky shoes seemed dowdy. Before the doors opened for the viewing I hesitated over her, shocked, regretful, trying to trace my origins back into her elegant body. She seemed so self-contained! I wanted desperately to touch her hands, but didn’t.
She’d been collating the church newsletter, walking around a Sunday school table piled with multicolored pages with her Elsie Circle friends, stacking one sheet of mundane church happenings beneath the next and smacking them with the stapler, just as she’d done on the fifteenth of every month for as long as I could remember. Those women had worn a path into the Berber carpet over the years. She collapsed—an aneurism. She was sixty-one. After the funeral, her friend Maggie placed one frail hand on my shoulder and handed me a stack of pastel pages. “Her body hit the floor first, dear,” she said. “Then these floated down. Just like angels’ wings. You should have them.”
I’d taken the unstapled pages and passed them to Leif. Later, when he slid them to me across the kitchen table, we couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity, but in that moment after the service, I was numb, robotic, shaking hands with the parade of Chester Prairie folk in their gravest summer church clothes, nodding at condolences I heard but couldn’t comprehend. I kept glancing sideways at Dad, who despite wearing a suit and tie seemed naked without his clergy robes. The narthex closed in on me. I’d known this same strangle-hold I’d felt as a teenager, only now, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Dad, I felt strangely complicit.
Once again here I was, the pastor’s daughter, object of sad, sympathetic smiles. Mom, I kept reminding myself, was not down in the kitchen filling warming pans with ham and mashed potatoes. Mom would not dote on Leif over dinner, nor would she fold my hand around a paper bag of soup containers, left-over roasted chicken and fresh-baked cookies when we headed home. Leif hovered respectfully behind my right shoulder; I was glad for his company, I couldn’t wait to collapse into his arms, and yet I wanted Mom more.
Mom had adored Leif, and now she wouldn’t be at our wedding. Leif’s quiet Danish demeanor made up for what I had worried would be three serious counts against him—that he sweat for a living, preferred to go birding on Sunday mornings, and cohabited with me. But Leif grew up two towns west of Chester Prairie. He had straw-blond hair and limbs like a yoga instructor. We’d bonded in Community College English class when we discovered we were both recovering Lutherans. Leif had been my passport to freedom; after graduation we rented a studio apartment in St. Paul and consoled one another in the early, overwhelming days of job hunting and city driving. I scored a job in a big city hospital, Leif began trimming trees for St. Paul, and we toasted our liberation with cheap champagne.
I loved seeing Leif tethered to high elm limbs, swinging from branch to branch with his chain-saw. When he came home after work he smelled of gasoline and sap. I picked woodchips from his hair. Sometimes he brought me abandoned bird nests. When we visited the parsonage, Mom poured him black coffee in her best china and warmly inquired about his parents. Dad glowed as though Leif were the son he’d always wanted. With Leif I knew the rare satisfaction of having done something right.
Down in the church basement I ate pickles for lunch while Mom’s friends relayed fond anecdotes (“She was a dear, bringing over hot dishes when Toby was sick”) and Dad worked the room with his shoulders strangely hunched. Once the crowd thinned I couldn’t bring myself to return to the parsonage where Leif would pat me and Dad would stoically wander from room to room, touching Mom’s knick-knacks as though for the first time. I told them I needed to be alone and drove out to Little Long Lake.
The lake had been my refuge ever since I’d been old enough to walk a mile on my own. In a town where kids avoided me because I was the pastor’s daughter, where I monitored my every decision for fear of reflecting poorly on my father, the lake was a wide, expansive breath. It dissolved me. Upheld by glacial melt, anything was possible.
I parked at the public boat launch. Our bags were still in the trunk; I pulled out my suit and changed in the port-a-potty at the edge of the lot.
The south and west ends of Little Long are swampy, bordering the sparse woodlands of a county park; to the north and east are houses, their lawns that day littered with boats, picnic tables, and half-inflated inner tubes. Given the heat the beach was strangely silent, but it was early September, a weekday, and kids were in school. A few maple leaves floated at the lake’s edge. Geese had left their slimy mess and webbed prints all over the sand. I strode into the shallows, grateful for the sharp cold.
With a gasp and push I was under, madly paddling and kicking until I could breathe again. Then I stopped, my arms and legs splayed, all of me suspended. Air was a warm bubble in my chest. Where was Mom now? Released back into creation, surely, part of the water’s chill, the comforting sun, the enormous darkness holding me. I hadn’t connected with her dead body but now I imagined a cord spiraling like lakeweed from my center downward through tannin-stained sunlight into muck, into her. The cord swayed in the lake’s currents. Quiet pressed my eardrums. Here, finally, I knew her. I accepted the silence, the water’s embrace, and the sustenance seeping up, up.
Not two weeks after Mom’s memorial service there was a rush on the maternity ward. Birth always comes this way, coupled in a twisted dance with death. You won’t learn that in medical school. I was a health unit secretary, thirty-two years old, and I had admitted five women since my eight p.m. coffee. I kept misplacing things—files, messages, my keys. The phone’s perpetual buzz and nurses’ requests, usually so stimulating, now grated on my nerves. I couldn’t wait to get home to Leif for our Friday night ritual. He would warm Chinese take-out in a 200-degree oven. We’d crawl into bed, eat egg rolls, and have sex while ignoring a movie. I trusted Leif not to mention Mom.
You have to understand: Back then I navigated the world in a tiny bubble of competence. Now I see that Leif was a safe bet and what I’d thought was an adventurous job—Spanish and Hmong spoken in the hallways, doctors passing me orders, new babies wailing from the nursery—was dead-end and secretarial. In school I’d chosen a business degree and done an accounting certificate because, unlike the looser liberal arts subjects, success had measurable outcomes. I could organize a ledger or file drawer; I could manage orders and schedules. As it turns out, being capable gets results but isn’t exactly an inspiring life goal.
I’ll grant myself one thing, though: I had heeded a barely discernable nudge when I sought out hospital work. I wanted to care for people. I did it the best way I knew how, with my subtle, savvy pushing of paperwork.
That night I was still clumsy with grief. Nearly every room on the ward had a laboring woman—we were grossly understaffed. Maryann, the midwife on duty, steamed down the hall, muttering darkly and shooting nasty looks into the full rooms. She rested her huge elbows on the counter and pointed at the calendar. “Give me that.”
I spun my chair and lifted the pharmaceutical wall calendar from its hook.
Maryann was the first nurse midwife to work at St. Luke’s Presbyterian. Whenever she leaned her fierce face into mine, I suspected she saw through my city-savvy demeanor to my small-town self, the kid who put herself through college by ringing up broccoli and baking soda at the Red Owl—or, that night, the girl who just wanted her mama back. There was little Maryann didn’t notice.
She removed her reading glasses from her hair, perched them on her nose, and found the date. “Knew it!” she mumbled and harrumphed back to the nurses’ station.
A small black circle marked the day. At our last staff meeting, Maryann had argued for increasing the number of doctors on call during full moons, but two of the younger OBs had made a stink, saying she was superstitious and that was no way to determine a schedule. I was surprised; we’d always made adjustments for the full moon when I worked down in ER. I suspected the docs were wet behind the ears. Maryann had muttered, “Lazy schmucks.”
The elevator opened and another patient came in, this time off the street—no insurance, no pre-natal care. I took her information and rang for a nurse.
An hour later, as I moved my magnet from the IN to the OUT box and slipped into my jacket, Maryann and the single doc on call were frantically crisscrossing the hallway. “You!” Maryann shouted, mid-stride. “I need another pair of hands.”
I froze. In seven years of hospital work, I’d never set foot in a room with a laboring patient.
I rehung my jacket and locked the cupboard. Raised voices from 146B reached the front desk.
Embarrassing to admit it now, but I’d always blocked out the screams and groans behind the ward’s closed doors and imagined instead TV births, the woman laboring on her back, demurely covered with a paper sheet, the husband sweating and holding her hand. Maybe not violins in the background but at least a routine of pain and arrival. Instead I saw an older Hmong woman and two teenagers chatting cross-legged on the bed, another woman wringing out a washcloth in the open bathroom, and, on the far side of the bed where there was barely enough floor space, Maryann crouched beside a naked woman. The mother was on hands and knees on the linoleum; her brows were contorted, her eyes strained, but otherwise she seemed under as much duress as with a bowel movement. Maryann’s left hand was spread across the woman’s tiny back. Her right hand hovered between the woman’s spread legs. Yellow liquid pooled on the floor.
My muscles went slack.
“Get me some chux pads and close that door,” Maryann ordered.
The nurses must not have resupplied the room. Adrenaline surged and my limbs swung into action. From the hall supply closet I pulled a stack of pads and raced back. “Here,” I said even though Maryann’s hands were full with a wet, black-haired head. The mother gasped.
“One down-side and one up. Gloves!”
Avoiding the sight of the woman’s naked body, I found a box of latex gloves and took an inordinate time fumbling them on. The cotton chux pads were lined on one side with blue plastic; I opened two and side-stepped between the bed and birth huddle to get to the puddle of urine. “You’re doing great,” Maryann cooed to the mother. “Okay, push now.” The sister translated, unnecessarily. Shaking, I reached around the woman’s legs and Maryann’s big arms to lay down a pad. I didn’t know how to get it under her knees, so I placed it and the second on top of her calves just as she grunted, jerked her body back, and the baby somersaulted out in a burst of blood.
One human being emerged from another! There he was, glistening, brown, a breathing creature cupped in Maryann’s palms. He thrashed his arms and, finding no uterine walls to push against, snapped open his eyes. They were black pools rimmed with long, sticky lashes.
He looked at me first.
Maryann ordered me to hand her the bulb syringe, and I groped my way into awareness. The baby began to wail. His grief at the harsh air could have come from me, it felt so close. Finally a nurse arrived, chiding, “Hannah! Why are you here?” Maryann snapped, “Doing your job,” and I was shooed out.
On the winter street, tears freezing on my face, I reached into my jacket pocket for my bus pass and finally noticed the latex gloves on my hands, blood-splattered, like an extra layer of skin. I peeled them into a trash can. The baby, that stunningly aware, miniscule body, had erased everything—my mortification at the woman’s nakedness, my aversion to blood and urine, the awkwardness of squatting so close. My fear of Maryann. The strangeness of being the only white woman in the room. The unbearable reality of being motherless.
Suddenly I knew that baby had emerged from the same place my mother had gone. I didn’t believe in heaven but how else could I explain that profound sense of continuity? He filled a hollow place in me, forcefully, irrevocably. I yearned for more.
Later, Maryann said I had caught the birth bug. Her story’s not so different from mine, only she was stuck in a traffic jam outside of Chicago. As she tells it, the combination of a Cubs game and a tractor-trailer accident had the freeway stalled for fifteen miles. The July heat was relentless. Most cars had their air conditioners blasting. Maryann’s station wagon was a clunker; her kids hung out the windows “panting like dogs.” Her husband had turned off the ignition. The next lane over, “within spitting distance,” another car with open windows held a couple in obvious distress.
“The lady moaned like a ghoul,” Maryann told me, “and her husband kept saying, ‘No! Don’t!’” When she realized what was happening, Maryann jumped out and offered her help despite having no medical training. Knowing Maryann, I imagine she just took over, setting the woman up in the back of their station wagon and sending her kids running down the line of cars looking for a doctor. “When that sweetpea popped her little head out,” Maryann said, “I got high. Been a birth junkie ever since.”
Maryann called it an addiction. For me it was more like I’d been living in murky darkness, the basement of my life, and then a match was struck. Birth flared my world with light. My father would probably call the synchronicity God’s grace—a death followed by a birth, releasing me from all I’d known. Grace may be the right word, although there’s no way I’ll concede the grace to God. It was falling in love, irrevocable, fearsome, and blazing.
Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.
Just enter your email address and password below to get started:
Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew writes, loves, teaches, and urban homesteads in Minneapolis. When she’s not chasing her gregarious daughter around the neighborhood or dancing with her partner, she’s doing her best to support the spiritual life of writers. Her books are Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Spiritual Memoir (Skinner House Books), Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir (Skinner House Books), On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood, and Holiness (Westview Press), and the novel, Hannah, Delivered (Koehler Books). You can connect with Elizabeth at www.spiritualmemoir.com and www.elizabethjarrettandrew.com.