I’ve been writing this account of Ruth’s birth up bit by bit for the last month. Mostly it has helped me remember. Helped me process. Helped me wonder. And so, if you wish to know something of how this has felt, at least from the perspective of this father, then read on. We begin 60 hours or so before the birth.
Friday evening. 9pm. After 3 nights which have consisted of son no. 2 giving me a maximum 3 hours at a time uninterrupted by a hacking cough and the need to get comfortable by nuzzling his head onto my neck the only place in which he will now sleep is upright on me sitting in a chair in our doorway, with the door wide open on a cold November night. By 10pm he consents to clinging upright on to me, while I sit on the sofa watching Yes Prime Minister, and by 10.30 I finally get into bed – with him next to me.
Sleep at last… No, because after 3 hours of being sat on by my son I have heartburn. When sleep overcomes me, around 11.30 I sleep solidly until 1.30 by which point he resumes the cough and climb manoeuver. It is impossible to be cross with him, though, because the cough is clearly so painful. At 5.30 he has decided the day is apparently ready to begin, and so I drag myself down the stairs and put Thomas online on once more, while I rub my eyes, make more coffee, and attempt to read God’s Word.
Surely life cannot get anymore chaotic. Surely. In between fits of coughing son no. 2 has developed a great new game. He climbs onto the sofa, waits for me to sit down underneath, lifts his hands and falls. He is completely relaxed as he does this. His trust that I will catch him is absolute. There is no way I could do what he does. I do not trust like he does. I remember the agony of trying to on a youth weekend. I like to be in control. To know what is coming up. The chaos of this life can be overwhelming and at 5.30 am I do not want it to be any more chaotic.
Saturday comes and goes. How I get through I do not know. I think Saturday night is slightly better. I think I get 4 hours somewhere in it. Although I can feel the cold getting its grip on me. Stuffed head, achy legs, and sometimes a temperature for me too. At 6am Sunday the chaos moves up a gear. Roz is 39 weeks pregnant, and after weeks of false starts her waters break. And then. Nothing. At 9 we are in Cheltenham Birth Centre to be checked out. Everything is fine, but the doctors at Gloucester want to check to make sure – the baby has disengaged, so shows no signs of wanting to come out, and there is the danger of infection, or of cord coming first if, so they want to make sure. We start to imagine that they will just want to induce straightaway.
We phone my parents and get them to come and hold the fort with the boys (looked after by our wonderful neighbour for Sunday am) as we drive to Gloucester. We sit and wait for the doctor. The midwives don’t really know what to do with us, so we just wait and wander the corridors – at one point I sit down in the chair, wishing I could just sleep. Eventually a midwife scans baby. All looks fine (if large – not sure Roz wanted that information at this point). Doctor is happy that all is OK, so after 30 minutes of monitoring Roz and baby we are discharged, and if nothing happens by 8.30am Monday we will phone Gloucester and come in for Roz to be induced.
We go back home. Mum and Dad go to pick up lunch for us, which we eat and go for a walk in the grey November chill. Mum and Dad’s roast chicken that they picked out of their oven (before it started cooking!) is cooked for dinner, and then begins the long night. Eldest does finally go to sleep, and youngest also settles in his bed. We watch All Creatures Great and Small – lovely soothing music, scenery from the Yorkshire Dales, and warm memories of childhood viewings. Sleep is attempted, but youngest wakes once more with a hacking cough. He is miserable, and I am up and down all night, sometimes he settles with us, but sometimes we sit downstairs as he coughs and cries.
Finally at 6am we give in to morning and prepare mentally for hospital. Resignedly Roz showers to start the day. I curl up with youngest and Thomas. Suddenly, while drifting off to sleep with youngest, I hear Roz’s voice. I pass youngest on to Mum as I realise things are getting going. We summon the midwives. Mum and youngest go downstairs to watch DVDs, and when eldest wakes I brief him on the situation, and he too goes down to watch the DVD. After what feels like an age the midwives arrive (still quicker than the trip to Gloucester would take us).
As with the other two children labour is fast and furious, and at 7.48 Roz holds our daughter Ruth Hannah (9lb 14 oz we discover later). All is good. Agapar scores 9 or 10/10. I go down to Mum and the boys and share the good news. She feeds, and Roz is attended to. I watch in a trance like state. Relived and joyful that baby is here, and aware too of my need for sleep. I am happy – yet exhausted, on point of just flopping down on the floor – and so I just want everything cleared up, baby dressed and breakfast.
Then Roz looks down worried. I look across – something is wrong. Roz calls to the midwives. Our daughter has gone grey and floppy. Ruth has stopped breathing. Time stands still. Midwives abandon Roz and begin cardiac massage and oxygen. I am told to call 999. The paramedics are on their way. Through tears of panic and horror I tell Mum what I know. The paramedic car arrives swiftly, followed by 2 ambulances. Drama for the neighbours to watch. Our daughter cries – a welcome noise, and is taken off in one ambulance, my wife in another and I follow by car.
It is the worst 30 minutes of my life. All sorts of horrible scenarios flash through my head. I pray desperately, and hope too that the ambulance carrying my wife, which I am right behind will not suddenly put its lights on. I don’t want to panic. I don’t know what is going on. I don’t know why this happened. Everything is out of control.
30 minutes later we all sit in a room in Gloucester hospital. Ruth is warming up under a heater, and is transferred to neonatal intensive care – I follow, and see where she is put – in an incubator, being kept warm, fed through a tube, and monitored closely. I go back to Roz. We phone family and update them. We are given toast – the first food of the day. Neonatal return and brief us – all looks good. They are checking for infection, and giving antibiotics in case. We can go and see her, and then they will see about transferring Roz to maternity.
We see our daughter, touching her through the incubator, and holding her briefly. Then we go back to delivery and I go down to the canteen to get us some lunch. We eat, knowing it will do us good, rather than any desire for food. Roz is moved up to maternity, to a room of her own, and settles down to get some sleep.
I head back to Mum, back to the boys, and tell them that it all looks like it will be OK. After dinner I head back to Roz, who is now with our daughter, now allowed to feed her and will be transferred down to transitional care for the night to be with our daughter, and begin the delayed bonding. Somehow I make it back to home, back to sleeping boys – and I manage at least to get some sleep – not even noticing youngest joining me at some point.
The next couple of days last forever, in and out of hospital car parks. My cold gives way to new aches from total exhaustion. How I manage to drive home on the evenings I do not know. Thankfully wonderful grandparents are on hand to take care of the boys. Wednesday morning’s drive in becomes almost overwhelming, and when I arrive at the hospital I slump down exhausted, revived only by the grapes I have brought for Roz.
Finally on Wednesday afternoon we get to bring our daughter home. It still feels odd. There is a new fragility felt about life, and sleep becomes a massive exercise in trust. I know that it seems likely it was simply the shock of labour happening so fast that meant our daughter stopped breathing, yet in the back of my mind is the logic: it happened once, it can happen again. But I cannot do anything about this. I cannot watch every minute. I have to sleep. I have to relinquish control. And unlike no. 2 son I do not like it.
In church the Sunday before Christmas, 4 weeks later I am ready to lead the intercessions, but am almost undone by a poem the rector reads about Joseph. It’s not a great poem, but the lines which undo me are those about the birth. They reflect the messy reality of labour, followed by birth, and I panic, and I am filled with an intense desire to check that our peacefully sleeping daughter is still breathing. Only a few minutes later do I realise that the poem has brought back all the memories to the front of my mind.
We are singing “The splendour of the King. Robed in majesty. The lion and the lamb. How great is our God, sing with me, how great is our God”. The wonder of the incarnation grips me afresh. The song is right in its praise, but we need the wonder of the incarnation to see how right. We need to see the wonder of the manger, as the majestic King embraces the chaos of our fragile lives.
He who is robed in majesty arrives naked, screaming and cold. Covered in blood and mess. Helpless. He who wraps himself in light was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger – “lo within the manger lies, he who built the starry skies”. He chose, not just the cross, but the manger. No hospital, no ambulance, no neo-natal intensive care options to fall back on for Mary. He chose not just an earthly ministry but an earthly life. He gets it. He knows our sorrows. He feels our pain. He knows how long a night can get (Rich Mullins song in my head). He knows how fragile life is.
And yet at the same time he holds our fragile life in His. I do not know why he allowed Ruth to stop breathing in those moments. I do not think any of our theologies understand why such things happen. But I do know that God is good. He is King. Life hurts. God does not in the Bible explain the mystery – but examples of living in the mystery abound, and assurance that the mystery is part of a bigger story, a story which in the end, ends with joy – a world where such chaos and confusion lie behind us.
No guarantee is given over what comes next for now. Joys and sorrows await. I know now I have a beautiful daughter. I see her mother’s features given new form. I look at old family photos and see that resemblance from mother to daughter in previous generations. I trust now that the line continues. That the moments of panic were just that – moments. Nights with Ruth are similar to those with son no. 2 – I’ve already reached half way through West Wing season IV. And so, as Ruth feeds, cries, occasionally sleeps, and now and then stares into my eyes with a fixed gaze, I delight and love and dare to hope of what is to come.