A Vigil for Berend

Soren T. Johnson

The psalm for the day of your birth: Let all the earth cry out to God with joy (66:1).

8:00 AM, Wednesday, April 25

The contractions have kept sleep at bay for yet another night. Ever and I time them at four minutes and decide to repack the bags for our third trip to the hospital in the past month. Berend is due on Monday, but already tops nine pounds. When he decides to drop, he will fall fast. Ever is calm, gracious.

“Mommy, now how is new baby doing?” Ever Thérèse checks in, wearing a purple play dress. “Is he hurting you?”

“Yes,” Ever sighs, one hand massaging her lower back.

“That’s OK, kicking is fun!” she consoles.

I study Ever’s face and posture like a map of Berend’s arrival: He seems to be a right-lane driver, drawn to small towns and farm stands. The big city can wait. For now.

I make a pot of coffee, vacuum, do the dishes. Birth always brings such transparency. Ever Thérèse offers to dust. Suddenly static blasts from the radio in the living room. Owen has turned it on full volume and is standing in shock. His eyes well with tears, which begin to fall as I lift him. On our bed, he sprawls motionless on my chest, his chubby arms hugging my neck. He seems to sense a certain terminus; I too mark the passing. I rub his back and close my eyes. Owen soon returns to maneuvering his cars on the bench in the front hall, a patient traffic cop. He murmurs as he clears accident scenes—primarily trains derailing after hitting stalled sedans at railroad crossings. He reports the casualties in a resigned voice: “Oh fall down—aha ha.” I turn to see that Ever Thérèse has set the table in the living room with a blanket and three plates; she has resurrected last night’s curry chicken take-out and is inviting Owen to brunch. Opening the refrigerator and food in the living room both merit “time out,” but I compliment her arrangement. Each of us is working through lists.

Today is the Feast of Saint Mark, the iconographical lion. I wonder if the courageous bear—from which Berend’s name derives—will arrive today as well. The epistle for today: Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you… The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ Jesus will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little (I Pt. 5:7,10).

After you have suffered a little—a motto for today, I think, with a prayer that Ever’s suffering be no more than a little.

Auntie Rosemary arrives near noon to watch the children. Ever Thérèse hugs and kisses us knowingly goodbye. Owen cries at the front window, pressing his runny nose to the pane. Pollen has coated the front porch with mustard yellow. The day has settled pleasantly into the mid-70s. I may hold our Berend by dusk.

After checking in to labor and delivery at nearby Providence Hospital in northeast Washington, we are shown to a pastel room overlooking our neighborhood’s edge, where pre-war brick bungalows straddle unadorned yards. Decades of scratches mute the view from the room’s bank of windows, which strike me as Soviet—early Brezhnev. The realization warms this Russophile to the view. The large wall clock is still: I plug it in only to find that the second hand scrapes audibly on its ascent. Ever and I decide we can bear it.

Nurses and doctors begin to cycle in with questions, cordial, repetitive. Ever’s favorite: “How do you learn best?”

“It depends—what are you trying to teach me?” Ever counters with a laugh.

I am unsettled, cagey in the room after the momentum of the morning. I try the window latches to let in the birdsong and breeze, but they are all screwed shut. As in Russia. Ever has always been more fond and appreciative than I of our local Catholic hospital. Fatigued and in need of more coffee, I try not to conclude that the entire hospital is decrepit.

Ever notices a cross with the risen Christ hanging near the bed, his tin arms raised. “We need a suffering Christ in here,” she says. I should have packed a screwdriver, a clock, and a crucifix, I think. I remember that with our previous births, we had the TV on to the motionless live feed of the hospital chapel’s tabernacle. I flip through the chatter and soaps, find the chapel, and push the armchair up against the bed to hold Ever’s hand.

Our sage-like Dr. M—, who has ably delivered all of our children, prescribes six hours of “let’s watch and see” to be followed by Pitocin. Ever’s suffering for now is but a little, and we settle in to our inaugural Sunny Spring Afternoon with Great Southern Novelists, first hesitantly, then with abandon: Ever with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, I with Walker Percy’s Thanatos Syndrome. We began them earlier in the week, and proceed to spend the afternoon together in Louisiana. I look up to ask Ever occasional questions—“What is hominy?” In wonder at my ignorance, my Texan shakes her head and describes how her family’s chain of cafeterias used to prepare it.

The hours—attended by the beep of the heart monitor and the wall clock’s audible duress—pass with little change. Contractions rise and fall, so many hills sketched on the paper snaking from the printer. At sunset I reach “Father Smith’s Confession,” where Percy’s psychiatrist narrator asks a recovering alcoholic priest why he chose the life of the cloth.

“What else?” answers Fr. Smith, “In the end one must choose—given the chance.”

“Choose what?” the psychiatrist probes.

“Life or death, what else?” says Fr. Smith.

What else. I’m thinking of the births. A lavender five AM dawn in Ever Thérèse’s snowy February: always our studious one, she is still the early riser. Owen’s cool, sunny March, his contractions sending us to an identical pastel room after soup and sandwiches at Barnes and Noble. He joined us four hours later. Owen is still our nonchalant, easy-going guy. Berend appears expansive, magnanimous, gifting us with a rare and quiet afternoon with literature. “Maybe he’ll be a great Southern writer,” Ever smiles.

8:00 PM

It is now dark. Nurses rotate, doctors seem scarce. “Multiple C-sections tonight,” we hear from our nurse, and wonder if we too will meet the knife. It is nine p.m. before Ever gets the Pitocin. Around 11, the contractions finally intensify. With considerable pain for the first time today, Ever calls for the epidural. The flurry soon subsides, though, as the painkillers have the desired effect. Ever and I return to the South. It is midnight when I finish Thanatos Syndrome, closing the cover on Percy’s landscape of Tanqueray, psychoses, and the “gentle golden light of Louisiana autumn, which is both sociable and sad…”

Dr. M— has gone home. A young and calming Dr. L— checks Ever around one a.m.: six centimeters dilated, only one more than 12 hours before. Berend’s head has not yet entered the pelvic opening. My son tarries high atop the waters. So much labor, and yet something has still to unfold—a tuck of the head, a drop forever into this world. “I know I can get him out,” Ever shakes her head as she tells Dr. L—, “if he would just decide to drop.”

“Fifty-fifty chance of a C-section,” Dr. L— says. Ever squeezes my hand. Her mother had multiple C-sections. There is medical consensus: the time has come for Berend to choose: drop, or arrive via surgery. I put my face to the womb and instruct: “Berend, this is your Daddy—you come down now, hear?” Ever reports a strong kick.

But Berend is still on the backroads. Ever’s hand goes limp in mine—at last she is dozing. I lay down on the narrow windowsill with a balled-up jacket for a pillow. There is a draft. The room’s only light comes from the TV tabernacle and the baby’s heart monitor. I listen to arriving ambulances and occasional cries from nearby rooms. I pray in sentence fragments: vaginal delivery, Lord… watch over doctors… Ever safe… I startle to see movement on the TV. A stooped man with a vacuum strapped to his back circles the altar and disappears.

4:00 AM, Thursday, April 26

I hear a garbage truck flipping dumpsters in the alley below. Ever and I near a precipice. She is awake again and her breathing is heavy. The epidural’s effect is waning, even as the contractions mount. I leave my chilled windowsill to check the contraction log, which now shows canyons with jagged peaks and cavernous dips. Berend has reached the outskirts. We call for the anesthesiologist to feed the epidural. The IV water sack has also gone empty and the machine beeps—five minutes, seven minutes. We are still alone. “My wife needs water, drugs,” I nearly shout as I set off into the hallway to find help.

6:00 AM

The water breaks with an audible gush. “It cascaded,” Ever later describes. Dr. L— appears and announces that Berend’s head is at minus one. The fear of C-section vanishes even as urgency and new faces enter: quick introductions, the first smiles in many hours, the arraying of instruments. The sky is now tinting slate. I again eye the screws, wishing to welcome Berend to robins and cardinals.

The room now readied for birth, it takes Ever just five pushes before Dr. L— is exclaiming, “You have really proved yourself!” She clamps Berend’s umbilical cord and eases him into Ever’s arms, his body a glistening canvas of purples, reds, whites, and yellows. In the end one must choose—given the chance. It is 6:56 a.m.

* * *

You hardly cry, and your dark blue eyes are already open. Your face is wondrously unscarred by the dawn passage. Tranquil. I hold you now, your moist warmth permeating my shirt. You are wrapped in paste and coats of exotic fragrance, oils. You have come from a far country, my son.

Let all the earth cry out to God with joy!

You take to the breast with poise. Your siblings took hours to master this, fussing. You study the room’s pastels, perhaps glimpsing our risen Christ. The bustle of the first fifteen minutes is already subsiding. Time is quickening, Berend. The nurse presses your feet to an inkpad for the official forms and then onto a souvenir piece of paper. She hands it to me: Baby Boy. Your hair is still moist, your eyes widening as the dawn softens to azure. I will teach you about the birds we cannot hear just now, hang with you in trees and lie with you on grass beneath many skies. I announce your name—Berend Thomas Johnson—for the first time, to no one and to everyone and to every living thing.

I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession (Ps. 2:7-8).

Soren T. Johnson is a writer and father of three. He directs the communications office for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington.