From The New York Times, I’m Dan Jones.
Today’s essay comes to us from writer Kadine Christie. And this essay actually made me gasp when I got to the end.
And I don’t gasp very often.
It’s a fabulous story that feels like fiction and feels like fantasy, but it’s real.
My birth story, which is also my love story, began nearly 40 years ago in the mountain town of Spalding, Jamaica. It has been told to me time and again by the two women who were there that April day: my mother, Lorna, and a stranger, Lurline, who was giving birth in the same open ward. My mother and Lurline lived in different towns, far from each other, and had traveled separately to the hospital in Spalding. At the time, men had no place in the maternity ward. So my father, Vivian, a farm worker, and Lurline’s husband, Jeral, a pastor, were not there for the deliveries.
Lorna and Lurline were expected to handle labor alone, with the help of nurses and doctors.
These young women were the first generation even to have the option of giving birth in a hospital. They both had been born at home in crude conditions. Percy Junor Hospital in Spalding boasted no modern amenities. Patients had to bring their own food or have it brought, preferably in thermoses if they wanted it to be hot. Expecting mothers also had to bring their own gowns, bed sheets, even cloth diapers for their newborns. There was no privacy. Lorna and Lurline lay nervously in their adjacent beds. While curtains separated them, they were connected by their fear of childbirth.
And it was that fear that led them to start talking. My mother was the first to go into labor, which began with the piercing pain that only intensified. As Lurline tells it, my mother began to moan and groan and quickly escalated to her mouthing unintelligible words in agony.
Lurline was overdue and believed that she should have been the one to be in labor. Shifting in her bed, she maneuvered her swollen and wobbly feet to the floor, and cradling her protruding abdomen, waddled to Lorna’s bedside.
With her pastor husband, Lurline was a religious woman, a praying woman. She and Jeral led a small church in Cascade, so she prayed for my mother at her bedside.
She later told me that witnessing my mother’s agony was akin to watching a body being split in two. My mother moaned and thrashed as if possessed. Lurline was seeing childbirth for the first time. And it truly terrified her. She not only prayed for her new friend, but also for herself, for what she would soon have to endure, as she held my mother’s hand through each contraction and breathed with her in unison.
These women had grown up in a time when subjects like sexuality and childbirth were not discussed, not even between mothers and daughters. The nurses did not take pity on first-time mothers and offered no comfort. The nurses failed to realize, however, that my mother was in grave danger. She was hemorrhaging and growing lethargic, her legs shaking. Lurline told me that the brown of my mother’s irises even rolled over to reveal pure white, and her mind seemed to ebb and flow from awareness to oblivion.
When my mother’s body went still, the nurses, finally aware of the danger, busied themselves around her as night fell. It would be many hours before my mother would hear her baby’s cry — my cry — for the first time.
On Monday, April 13, 1981, my mother awoke to the sight of me being placed in her arms. My safe arrival was enough to calm the fear that had brought her to the brink. But she was desperately weak. The nurses decided she would need to remain in the hospital an extra four nights for observation, but my mother’s happiness knew no bounds.
Now it was Lurline’s turn. And the weight of her pregnancy was starting to drain her. She had thought she was emotionally prepared to deliver her baby, but seeing what my mother endured made her reel at the thought of pushing life from her own body. Then, the doctor came with bad news. Her baby was breeched and would need to be surgically extracted. Lurline hadn’t anticipated this, but the doctor explained that her life and the baby’s life were in danger. She might even have to choose between them. The words “your life or your baby’s” terrorized her.
Lurline wrestled with this choice as the doctor’s warning rattled through her mind.
She thought of the tumultuous, yet tender days of her marriage, a life blossoming within her, and the moment she expected that she finally would hold the physical manifestation of her and Jeral’s love. Would that still happen now?
As her mind veered between visions of life and death, she turned to her only source of solace — prayer. She came to a decision. The baby’s life had to be saved.
Lurline suffered alone with the gravity of this decision. Despite her husband’s absence at the hospital, they managed a life together and had started building a home for the family they were creating. They maintained a farm and a church. Jeral had made the long journey to the hospital when it was time for his wife to deliver their child, but he was not allowed to stay, so he had returned home. As Lurline lay in bed, she worried about how Jeral would react if he were to come to take his family home and learned that only his child had survived. She pictured his face, perplexed by the doctor’s words. She saw his hands reaching for her in desperation and denial, only to confirm that his wife was, in fact, absent from her body.
Lurline inhaled the present: her church, her husband and the life inside her. Then she exhaled, as if letting go of all that might have been: a long marriage, parenthood, their rightful future.
Placing her hand on her Bible, she glimpsed her wedding ring. She had not removed it since Jeral had slid it on to her finger years before. But she decided to remove it now. It took great effort, as her fingers had swollen. Once it was off, she whimpered at the sight of her Bible and wedding ring. In life, they were her identity, but in death, they would be a memory.
If she were to die, Lurline needed Jeral to know what had happened during her last moments. As she approached my mother, holding her Bible and wedding ring, she felt guilty encroaching on such happiness, but she had no other choice. She didn’t want to cry, but upon seeing my mother holding me, Lurline’s eyes filled with tears. She put the ring and Bible in my mother’s hands with the request that Jeral receive them if she did not make it out of surgery alive. These symbols of love and commitment felt like cement in my mother’s hands. She took a deep breath and nodded yes.
Even if my mother didn’t quite realize the extent of Lurline’s trouble, she knew how deeply she had come to appreciate their newfound friendship. Lurline had one more request from my mother, which was to have her read her favorite scripture, Psalm 35. As the anesthesia traveled through Lurline’s body, my mother’s words filtered through Lurline’s consciousness —
“Plead my cause, Oh, Lord —”
On Wednesday, April 15, two days after my mother had given birth to me, a new life safely emerged by cesarean section, a boy named Antonio.
At 13 pounds, Antonio was the talk of the ward. No one had ever seen a baby of such great weight. Sewn up with stitches, aching from her surgery and unable to sit up or move about, Lurline rested beside her new friend, Lorna. Lurline’s delivery had been so traumatic and physically taxing that she would need time to heal. And so it happened that the nurse took Antonio from his mother and handed him to mine. My mother rocked, cuddled and sang to us both — me, Kadine, and Lurline’s baby boy.
In time, although we lived hours apart, that baby boy would become my occasional childhood playmate, then teenage lover, and now husband of 15 years.
Together, Antonio and I entered this world.
And together, four decades later, and with three children of our own, we continue to revel in its mysteries and miracles.
Kadine Christie lives in Fairhope, Alabama with her family. Her husband is an artist and a minister.
Kadine shares more of her story in her memoir, “I Am at Home Within Myself.”
After the break, a Tiny Love Story about another baby and another unexpected coincidence.
I only have my little boys, so we’ll see how they do.
I’m Sarah Reynolds Westin, and I live in Anchorage, Alaska. And I wrote the Tiny Love Story, “An Unexpected Sign.”
“I was 30 and knew I couldn’t have a baby. Accompanying my pregnant friend shopping one day, I pined over a striped onesie with a crab sewn on the back side. I told her if I ever had a son, I would want him to wear it.
Eight days later, I went to church and saw an infant snuggled in his grandmother’s arms. He was wearing the same onesie.
At the end of that day’s service, the Reverend announced that the baby was in need of an immediate home. Two days later, he moved in to mine. Now he’s eight and my son.”
Was it painful for you to go shopping for baby clothes with your friend who was pregnant, knowing that you couldn’t have biological children?
It was painful in some ways. She was my best friend, and she found out she was pregnant right around the time that I found out I couldn’t have children. And I think I tried to comfort myself by supporting her through her pregnancy. I threw her baby shower. I actually made all of the bedding for her child.
So she has a quilt and a little ruffle for the crib, some curtains.
Yes, we had, so I had to go through a series of fertility tests. And I had reason to believe that I couldn’t have children. That was just hard to digest and sit with. I fell into a pretty deep depression. My husband has had his good qualities, but there were a lot of traumas. And I don’t think he responded very supportively.
And so it was a really painful sort of time for me for a lot of different reasons.
So during this time, were you thinking of adopting?
I was. I had not relinquished the idea of being able to have a child, to bring a child into the home. And my husband had not firmly said no, but he did not really want to go through the adoption process. And so I think we were a little bit at odds about it. So when I was in the store and I saw the outfit, I had these maternal feelings, these maternal desires.
But it just caught my eye.
Yes, the fateful onesie. What did it look like, and could you just describe it a little bit?
It was — is gray and white striped. It buttoned up the front. It had red ribbing around the front buttons. And right where the baby’s bottom is, there’s a little red crab that is smiling kind of goofily. And it’s just, like, this little red smiling crab is just, like, pop right over there.
It just seemed cute.
And then, essentially, a week later, eight days later, you’re in church, and you spot the onesie again.
What happened next?
Yes, so at the end of the service, the reverend would come up and give these announcements. And he was standing there. And the woman came up and joined him. And they said, what you might not know is this baby needs a home, and he needs it by Thursday. And so if there’s anyone here who is interested in fostering him to adopt, please let us know. And of course, that’s incredibly unconventional. But the family had not wanted to go through the standard process if they could avoid it, because they didn’t want the child to have to bounce around between foster care homes. And they were having a hard time, just, how do you go around town and find someone to take a baby? And I’m not a crier. But tears began to pour down my cheeks.
And I had all kinds of rushes of feelings and emotions and thoughts instantly. And I didn’t think my husband would go for it. And I felt a hand on my lap, and I looked over. And he whispered, are you thinking what I’m thinking? And I was flabbergasted.
So they wrapped up the service. And we kind of hung back for a minute. And we slowly made our way to the front of the crowd. And they took our name and phone number. It happened really quickly. I mean, in the best way possible, but my world turned upside down in a matter of, like, two days.
I can’t make sense of it.
But what I do know, I really believe is that we were all meant to be together, that we were linked, and that it’s the greatest honor to be able to be his mom and try to help him navigate from a very young age the complexities of love and family and loss and success.
He has more energy than anyone I’ve ever met ever.
He is tall and skinny, like his birth mom. He is going to tower over me in a matter of years. He tries everything.
I mean, if he is outside and can move and jump over it or climb it, that is what he’s doing.
Amazing. Well, thank you so much.
I appreciate it.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero with help from Hans Buetow, Daniel Guillemette and Elyssa Dudley. This week’s show was edited by Sarah Sarasohn. Our executive producer is Wendy Dorr. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel. And this week’s essay was written by Kadine Christie and read by Shayna Small.
Special thanks to Kadine Christie and Lorna Howell and also to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick, Lisa Tobin, Choire Sicha and Ryan Wegner at Audm.