“What are you puzzling about over there?” I asked Van, who sat across from his wife and brand new son with a faraway look in his eye.
“Ninety days,” he said. “We’ve known this little boy was coming for ninety days. I was just counting how long it was.” We marveled and laughed at the brevity of their knowledge for a moment, and then he continued: “I guess that’s just how we do things, though. Fast! We only dated for three months before we got married! We didn’t know we were pregnant except for the last ninety days of it so we had to get ready in a hurry, and then there’s tonight. Have we even been here four hours?” He looked around for a clock.
It had been almost exactly four hours since their arrival at the hospital, and his wife, Rachael, was already contentedly snuggling their son, Owen.
But there is so much more to this family’s story than their speed.
Married for nearly six years, they had believed for much of that time that they would never be able to have biological children. Just a few months before their son’s arrival, they had moved from North Carolina to Buffalo, Van’s hometown, to care for some of his family members with terminal illnesses. Other than those few family members, they had no relationships in Buffalo.
And then they discovered that Rachael was pregnant. New in town and not yet connected to a medical provider, they sought out a community pregnancy center to obtain an ultrasound. While there, they met Cyndi. Cyndi is incredibly gifted at loving people. She talked at length with Rachael and Van as they absorbed the initial shock of being not eleven weeks along like they suspected, but twenty-nine weeks. Cyndi immediately recognized their need for loving support and recommended that if they’re hoping to build community, they should look into joining a church. They were quickly drawn to Cyndi’s warmth and asked where she worships. She gave them the information and has helped them make many connections to support they need and other young families, since. It was thanks to Cyndi’s introduction that I met them.
Over the course of dinners, classes, and prenatal meetings, Rachael and Van received a crash course in pregnancy, birth, and parenting all at once. They slowly—well, quickly—became more and more comfortable with what would need to happen in order to bring their son into the world. Their shock and fear gave way to expectation, and then excitement. The new friends they’d met rallied to gather the baby items the couple would need, and the growing support network around them waited eagerly along with Rachael and Van for the big day that their baby would choose to come meet everyone.
The week that Owen was estimated to arrive, both of my daughters became sick. I anxiously prayed that Rachael wouldn’t go into labor until they were healthy, knowing I couldn’t ask my babysitter who also has a baby to care for my sick kids. Cyndi prayed the baby would avoid making his arrival on Thursday that week as she had a big event at work. Late Wednesday night, I turned off my light and pulled up my covers, and then my phone rang the ring that it does when a family I’m on-call for needs my attention. Oh no, I thought. This was almost the worst timing!
“I think my water broke,” Rachael told me on the phone. We talked for a few minutes about what had happened and what she wanted to do next, and as she hung up to call her doctor, I hung up to confer with my husband about what I should do.
“I can’t be late to work tomorrow,” he said. “I have a meeting first thing that I can not miss.” And I couldn’t take our girls to our usual sitter because of their germs. But the next day would be Thursday, which meant Cyndi also couldn’t come support her, and this first-time mom was bound to labor well into the day tomorrow, which would mean neither of us who she’d asked to be with her would be there. My husband and I decided I should at least go be with Rachael and Van while they go settled in the hospital and help them as long as I could. My plan was to be home by 6am so that I could at least nap for two hours before he had to head to work and I had to parent sick kids all day. PBJ sandwiches and hot tea in hand, I made my way to the hospital.
While en route, Cyndi called me. “I’m in the car,” she said. I was surprised and asked, “What about your event tomorrow?” She said she figured she’d come for a little while and then go home and go to bed.
When we both made it to Rachael’s hospital room, she was smiling and talking and didn’t look at all like she was in labor. I asked if she’d started contracting after her water broke, and she said, “Yeah I think so, but I don’t know how much.” Great, I thought. She’s not even really in labor and Cyndi and I are going to have to leave her before she even needs us!
But a few minutes later, I overheard a nurse comment to Rachael, “If your doctor wants, we might start Pitocin, but your contractions are regular enough that she might not even want to.” Wait a second, I thought. She’s having regular contractions?
Somewhere around one o’clock in the morning (two hours after arriving at the hospital), Rachael mentioned, “Man, these are really starting to hurt. This is not cool!” A change from the “hanging out and chatting” phase between her and her support team took place at that point. Now she needed us. We got her a heat pack and tried counterpressure on her hips and then her back, but nothing clicked for her at first.
When I went into the bathroom to check on her at one point and ask whether she needed support, she waved for me to come in and asked me to talk to her. “What’s your favorite beach?” she asked, saying if I just talked about something, anything, it would help take her mind off the pain. We talked about beaches and vacations for a few minutes, and then I asked her to close her eyes.
“Imagine yourself on that beach we were just talking about. You wade into the water and look out into the distance. Do you see the next set of waves coming toward you? When the next one reaches you, don’t fight to stay standing. It’ll knock you right over. Instead, gently lift your feet off the ground and let that wave carry you. Feel yourself floating on it, and you’ll be fine. Relax into it. Let it take you toward the shore, toward your baby.”
Rachael had remained visibly relaxed throughout that contraction, and she sighed deeply as it left her. We had finally found something that helped her cope with the sudden intensity of her labor! We kept this up for less than half-an-hour before she began to have some tell-tale signs of nearing the end. When she felt more pressure and began to bleed, I looked at her nurses in disbelief. Was it really possible that she was nearly ready to give birth to her baby after such a short time? She had only been dilated to 3cm a couple of hours earlier!
But it wasn’t just possible, it was happening. She was fully dilated and trying to hold off pushing until her doctor arrived. And when her doctor did arrive, it was in the best possible style of a doctor who was clearly awakened in the middle of the night and told to hurry. She was wearing leopard print pajamas and didn’t even blink about it. I liked her immediately and shared the visual with Rachael, whose eyes were closed.
Throughout the final descent of her son, Rachael depended on three things: washcloths that Cyndi repeatedly dipped into ice water and laid across her chest and face; Van’s voice at her side intensely coaching her to “go for it” and reminding her “you’ve got this”; and having her eyes covered by a washcloth to shut out the rest of the room and help her focus on birthing her baby.
When Owen was born and placed on Rachael’s chest, she gasped as she uncovered and opened her eyes. She was so focused on pushing that she hadn’t realized he had come out! Van’s teary-eyed pride as he beheld his wife and son meeting for the first time was a precious sight to see.
When an ocean wave rolls onto the shore, it meets another ocean wave that has already swept the sand and is on its way back out to sea. Where the two waves meet along the shoreline creates something called a maelstrom. The conflicting waters stir up all the sand, shells, creatures, pebbles, and debris along this line, and the jumble of everything swirling together is a maelstrom. When you stand at that point, it’s hard to balance, and it’s not comfortable. Your feet are pushed and pulled in opposing directions. All the sand and everything in it scratches at your ankles. Your feet sink into the sand as it is pulled right out from underneath you. And then the waves roll out again, you look down and your feet are buried in sand, the beach all around you is smooth, and nothing looks like it was even disturbed. The maelstrom came and went so quickly that it almost seems like it was never there.
This young family has been thrown directly into the maelstrom in the past three months. Yet despite the challenges they’ve faced, they have boldly looked out to sea and dived in. Rather than be tossed and scraped in the confusion of trying to stay safely ashore, they’ve ventured into the water where it’s deep enough to carry them along the waves. New friends who are already out to sea have assured them that it’s safe to trust the Maker of those waves, and with their faith and each other in hand, they’re on the adventure of a lifetime. I’m so grateful to have been invited along on this journey.