Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Not Yet

writing 6 min read

I have a son now.

That’s a strange thing to write, even though it was always the logical conclusion of all this. Maybe the dissonance is because what I really have is a baby, who happens to be male. I feel like the son part comes later, when he becomes more of a distinct person, rather than this functioning, information-absorbing blank being in miniature.

In any case, he’s perched on my chest as I write this, wrapped in a sling. My iPad is on my lap, and my wife is upstairs with the dog, having a much-needed nap. I’m taking this opportunity to write to you while I wait for the tumble dryer to finish what has become it’s once– or twice–daily cycle. Our lives have become smaller, and both regimented in content but also enormously variable in schedule.

She was in labour for thirty-six hours. We went to the hospital twice; the first time for pain relief and the second time for the main event, about twelve hours apart. After admission, it was still more than fourteen hours until the baby arrived. Throughout, we were treated wonderfully by the staff, with our own delivery room and dedicated midwives who were with us — and only us — the whole time. I think we were alone for perhaps five minutes during our entire stay in the labour ward.

They made it clear that everything was our own choice, and that there were always options. They followed our birth plan whenever practical, and they kept us informed as things moved forward.

Even so, we ran into some difficulties.

After what seemed like days (even to me), we got to the point where it would soon be time to start pushing, but then the baby’s heart rate started to dip and then rise back up again. I could see the note of concern on the midwives’ faces, and I knew that calling in the senior midwife wasn’t a positive sign. It was decided that we’d start pushing earlier than previously agreed. We were only a few minutes into that process when alarms started triggering on the multitude of monitoring devices, and then things happened quickly.

The extra side section of the room’s door was opened and pinned back, to allow the bed to be taken out. More people appeared in our delivery room, and there was increased movement outside. And one of the midwives who’d accompanied us since the shift change five hours earlier took me aside. We had to go to the operating theatre right now, she said.

When we’d arrived in the labour ward the night before, I sensibly told myself that I wouldn’t examine the various computer readouts. I didn’t want to know what they meant, or what they were tracking; it would only be a source of stress. But spending the night in a chair beside a bed isn’t conducive to rest, and my own personality isn’t conducive to even merciful ignorance. By the time morning had arrived — hours before things started to go wrong — I understood every display. I knew the purpose, and units, and desirable ranges. I asked various people to teach me during the night, and they gladly did. So I could see that my son’s heart rate had dropped to a dangerously low level, far beyond what caused the initial concern. I could see it even before the midwife quietly spoke the words that have stayed with me ever since.

The baby is giving out.

Then my wife was taken away from me, and I was led to a small room and told to change into scrubs. I left my phone in there in my jeans, I think. I did get both back later. I believe I was there for less than a minute, and then it was straight into the operating theatre.

My wife was in an odd, zen sort of state. I’d chalk it up to the spinal block and the gas and air, but I’ve read about it as a phenomenon during childbirth. Her expression was beatific. She really didn’t say anything at all. I was on a chair right beside her head, out of the way of what must have been twenty medical staff. The procedure began with what seemed like a performance, theatrical in the dramatic sense, where each of two factions confirmed their agreement on who the patient was, what was being done, and what the desired outcome was. My wife had tags on both of her wrists. Machines formed both a middle ring and an outer perimeter of sentinels around the table beneath the lights. My personality — my curse — only allowed one interpretation of the scene I found myself inhabiting.

My wife and child are going to die in this room, I thought.

First one doctor was working, and then another. I feel like the bulk of it happened within the space of fewer than six or so contractions. And then there was a newly born baby, which to my eye is a frightful thing; purple and unblinking, shocked and helpless, its head wounded by forceps and necessary haste. But it did cry, and everyone knows that in those moments, that’s a good sign.

I cut the umbilical cord myself with surgical scissors, and it was like slicing through a morsel of squid — albeit one that bled as red as we humans all do. They were almost eager for me to do it, there with the blade under the lights within the standing stones that beeped and flashed, and the whole thing had the unmistakeable air of ritual.

My son was wiped down, wrapped in a blanket, shown to my wife for all of two seconds, and then given straight to me. No-one spoke to me after that, as all attention was focused on the remaining work needing done on my wife. I hovered around the edge of the operating theatre, alone and unsupervised, rocking a baby only a minute or two old and trying to realign the gears of my mind. They felt like they were slipping. I’m pretty sure I told my son that we had a cool car, and he’d get to ride in it soon.

After that, I sort of faded out for a while.

I had my son in my arms the whole time, but I don’t know just how much time that was. I don’t remember how long we remained in the operating theatre. I don’t remember my wife being taken out again. I don’t remember carrying my son as I was led to the recovery room. It’s just a big void in my memory.

The next thing I recall is having just arrived in the recovery room, and my wife being there, and my son being taken from me to be weighed and have his birth registration card filled in. The midwives were now suddenly talking about much more mundane things. My son was given a woollen hat. We named him, and it was recorded. I think I drank some water.

After another while, I was taken to the little room again, and I put my scrubs into a bin and put my own clothes back on. Then I rode in a lift alongside my wife in her hospital bed, and we came to the postnatal ward. I was never back in our delivery room again. All our stuff was waiting for us in the new place.

It was a little after 2pm, but it could have been any other time at all.

Due to the pandemic, I had to leave after a few hours because partners aren’t allowed to stay after the baby is born. I could be there from 1pm until 8pm each day, and then I had to go home — which I did for three successive days. We’d sent Whisky to his beloved dog-sitter on the morning that labour began, so the house was utterly quiet and empty each night. I didn’t dare to even consume any alcohol, in case I had to make the twenty-minute drive back to the hospital at short notice. I left a light on in the upstairs hall because the house was an echo of the fear I’d had in the operating theatre, and I slept the sleep of the dead.

Eventually, I brought them both home. It’s been more than three months since then as I write this, and I think that Lauren and I are getting a handle on managing to sleep and conduct our very home-focused lives whilst taking care of this new person. Feeding, changing, and hefting him around have become second nature incredibly quickly, because you have no other choice.

As for any finer reflections on all of this, I honestly don’t think I’m ready. I’ll certainly be processing those whiplash final hours of labour for quite some time.

My wife is fine, and so is my son. She’s a warrior, and has bounced back eerily well. Oxytocin is a wonderful thing. He, of course, just doesn’t know any better. He has some ongoing health concerns that have necessitated a number of non-urgent hospital visits for various scans, but we take those as they come, and we hope.

As for myself, I’m… well, I’m continuing. I think that’s the best description. There are nights, and there are days, and there are many different tasks to perform at various points. I’ve found it’s best to keep an extremely local and present perspective. It’s bearable that way.

Every medical staff member we met along the way has asked my wife how she’s doing, not just once but on every occasion they’ve crossed paths with her. She’s spent a lot of time telling them she’s fine. None of them ever did get around to asking me the same question.

I am being OK; I want to make that clear. I think that, by now, I’m getting it down pat. But am I OK?

Not yet.