“In My Mother’s Bed”
The great American poet, Robert Lee Frost, was once asked, “What is the most significant event, the most important thing that ever happened to you?” I’m sure the interviewer thought Frost’s response would have something to do one of the following: with Frost’s recitation of his poem “The Outright Gift” at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1963, the first time ever that a poet had the honor of reading at a presidential inauguration; or being selected to be the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1953 to 1959; or receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry four times, in the years 1924, 1931, 1937 and 1943; or receiving Yale’s Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1963; or his marriage to his high school sweetheart and co-valedictorian, Elinor White on December 19, 1895; or the births of any of his six children. Robert Frost’s answer, however, had nothing to do with any of these important events and dates in his life; rather, his answer – “a road less traveled,” if you will - had to do with Frost’s own birth in San Francisco on March 26, 1874: “I was born in my mother’s bed.”
Now I’m not sure how I came to know this odd fact. My best guess is that I heard it via a recorded interview with Frost that was broadcast on early public - as in University of Pennsylvania - radio in the 70s, a decade or so after his death. Regardless, it was an indelible tidbit etched on my hard drive that I never forgot and which helped to inform my getting on board with Marcia’s decision to pursue a homebirth when she became pregnant in July of 1980. Our first child was born on March 27, 1981, like Frost, in its mother’s bed, in particular at 542 South Pearl Street in Denver one hundred and seven years, plus three hours, after Frost was born. This is the story of that birth and the fortunate happenstance of the five women, the midwives who assisted.
Marcia and I were not exactly trying to conceive a child when we did. As with many of the important moments together in our lives, a wedding played a part in Marcia’s impregnation. Indeed, our history as a couple is wedding rich: Marcia and I met as blind dates at a wedding and we both have spent decades working as wedding professionals, Marcia as a photographer and I as a celebrant. Our own wedding in 1979 was so over the top personal that those in attendance still speak of the poems burned, the mushrooms distributed, the fact I wore no shirt, the motley tent made of sown together drapes that shaded her family and my friends from the July noontime sun in our South Pearl Street backyard, the severe frown on my father-in-law-to-be’s face. And much of what I know of spirituality and ritual has been engendered by what I’ve experienced at weddings.
Now the particular wedding connected to our first child’s conception was the wedding of my boss at the time, Tommy Larkin. He managed the Boston Half Shell where I waited tables. Thus it was an Irish/restaurant-worker wedding with more than its fair share of fine food and drink; and I do believe the alcohol offered and imbibed that day in Aspen Colorado played a significant role in Marcia’s miscalculation of her ovulation cycle as we made love the night of Tommy’s marriage. Nonetheless, when, a month or so later, it became apparent that something was missing in Marcia’s life, the regular monthly punctuation signaling all is as it has been, that she might be pregnant, we both were ecstatic with joy at the prospect of parenthood and we embraced the pink color of the test strip and the confirmation of her pregnancy with an almost rabid fervor. It would seem that something I wrote in a poem after attending Tony Scibella’s daughter’s wedding in 1979 – “At weddings, a woman, sometimes two, will get pregnant” - had been prophetic.
And soon, Marcia and I were off in search of a midwife, not an easy thing to do in 1980 as midwifery was generally frowned upon by most practitioners of modern medicine and not the usual choice of young married couples, even though humans have been born without hospitals, doctors and drugs for over two hundred thousand years. Many of the people in our lives at the time thought us a bit crazy, if not irresponsible, to pursue homebirth, including Marcia’s parents who would never be on the same page, culturally and spiritually, with their daughter and son-in-law. Marcia and I took to searching the postings of community bulletin boards in the Bohemian establishments we frequented: coffee houses and bookstores and what were then known as natural food stores. Although practically everyone we knew characterized our search as foolish, dangerous, and hippie-dippy, we thought it to be wise, natural and empowering, if you will, “the road less traveled.” And the midwife we soon hooked up with proved to be wise, natural and empowering as well. Rare would be the woman who could say she had walked in her shoes. Her name was Gina and to this day I consider us lucky to have found her because her underground network of fellow practitioners of black-market midwifery was so large that a curandera, i.e., a woman healer in Texas, her wisdom, was largely responsible for solving a difficulty that presented itself during the birth of our first child, and the elderly healer never even knew of us.
Marcia’s labor was exceedingly long, over thirty hours: morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night, all night, into another morning. Because Gina was an on-the-down-low teacher of midwifery as well as a practitioner, there were three other midwives assisting Gina during the first twenty-nine hours of Marcia’s labor, and a fourth arrived about twenty minutes before our child was born. Ramona, the last to arrive – in the nick of time you might say - had just returned to Denver after two months of study and training with an elderly and legendary indigenous midwife, shaman and teacher who had been present at and assisted with the births of some thousands of kids in rural Texas. Upon arrival, Ramona had telephoned Gina’s house after departing the Greyhound bus on Twentieth Street and had been told by Gina’s daughter that Gina was attending a birth on Pearl Street. Informed that the birth most likely was imminent, given that Gina had already been gone from home more than twenty-four hours, Ramona took another bus, the Number 5, from downtown Denver and arrived at my house with a backpack full of traveling clothes and a head full of wisdoms recently learned. Still, she was quiet and calm and deferred to the more experienced and older midwives in attendance as Marcia’s labor progressed, that is, until things got dangerously complicated.
When my child entered the birth canal, there was a problem. Gina told us the baby wasn’t breech, but its seemingly large head and shoulders were positioned in such a way that, were this birth taking place in a hospital, given the duration of Marcia’s labor, most attending physicians would call for a surgeon to perform a Caesarian. I had all the faith in the world of Marcia’s determination to see things through and immense confidence in the midwives present, but I must admit I was apprehensive. Worried I was about the extreme effort Marcia was putting into pushing, concerned about her understandable exhaustion, disturbed by the gritty and growling moans that accompanied each push, fearful of the fluctuating information of the fetal monitoring, anxious about the time my child was spending in the birth canal. And then when Gina said we might consider going to the hospital if the progress through the birth canal remained impeded much longer, the young apprentice, Ramona, offered a suggestion, something the elderly curandera had only spoken of, a technique Ramona had not actually observed or employed.
Marcia sat on our futon bed with her back to the wall. Gina, monitoring our child’s vitals, squatted between Marcia’s legs. With a midwife on either side of Marcia, Ramona, with the assistance of Fiona, Gina’s primary assistant, did a handstand aside Marcia, the kind of handstand where one’s feet are used to walk up a wall with one’s head facing the wall. Ramona then sidestepped with her hands until she was centered over Marcia, an arm on either side of Marcia’s outstretched legs. And then as Ramona’s legs walked further up the wall above Marcia’s head, the three midwives lifted Ramona up, with their hands under her upside down shoulders until Ramona could place her hands lightly and gingerly on Marcia’s stomach, at which point she was literally doing a handstand on Marcia’s fundus, although the accompanying midwives were totally supporting Ramona’s weight and there was no pressure on Marcia or our child within. After exploring the surface of Marcia’s stomach like a masseuse and finding what she was looking for - our child’s rump I guessed - Ramona directed the three who were holding her up to ever so slightly let her weight come to bear on Marcia’s stomach. And as the women began to let the force of Ramona’s upside down weight come into play, I heard the sweetest words I’ve ever heard above the howl of Marcia’s final moan: “It’s a boy.”
After the birth of my son, I began writing letters to my assorted governmental representatives advocating that midwifery be legalized in Colorado. I wrote letters for thirteen years. Only one politician ever wrote back, my state house representative, and he informed me I was dangerously insane. Every year for more than a decade he told me the same thing. He was dead set against midwifery. And then in 1993 he wrote to thank me for my persistence as he had changed his mind and had voted to make midwifery legal in the state of Colorado.
I guess I should have written to thank him, but I did not. I simply burned the thirteen letters wherein he informed me of my lunacy, as I am the kind of Irish who enjoys a shaman’s voodoo as much as holding a grudge. On the other hand, I have been writing Thank You’s in the form of poems, novels, plays and stories to Mr. Frost these last thirty-four years, thanking him indirectly for the wisdom of his answer to the question of significance “I was born in my mother’s bed,” words that have inspired me and others – Marcia, Gina, Ramona, and many others – to take the road less traveled. And this tale is one of those Thank-You-Mr-Frost letters that I wish Ramona and that Texas curandera might read one day.