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In Which I Tell the Story of My Firstborn Son

Stephen and baby Percy Gashler

Stephen and baby Percy GashlerIt’s that time again, the time in which I blog about the birth of my newest child … because someone’s got to do it. (It seems that keeping a good journal is the true mark of vitality. The thought of a hundred pushups seems so much easier than the mental exertion required by this nearly forsaken hobby of mine. Yet, as I lamented in my last post, too many of the precious stories of my life are slipping  into the oblivion of my past, so it’s time to buck up!)

Though our previous experiences at hospitals were all fun and games for me — delightful excursions from everyday life — there were some major downsides. First, in the case of my oldest daughter, Ariah, Teresa and I believe that an impersonal, lackadaisical system of rotating obstetricians led to a failure to realize that the giant bulge on Teresa’s left side wasn’t the baby’s posterior but her head.  When the problem was finally realized while Teresa was in labor, we were forced into an emergency C-section.

And boy did we pay for it.

With our second daughter, Aspen, notwithstanding the comforts provided by the hospital staff, we experienced the full havoc of our nation’s capitalistic birthing machine (in a franchise known for being among the most affordable in the nation). First, at thirty-seven weeks (now thirty-nine weeks is considered full term), the doctor insisted on stripping Teresa’s membranes (separating the water bag from the uterine wall) to get the show on the road. The next morning, Teresa’s water broke, and we checked in to the hospital.

She was immediately hooked up to an IV, an epidural, and monitors. Hours went by, and Teresa failed to go into labor. To stimulate labor, the nurses tried get her to take Pitocin. Teresa resisted this, because she knew that Pitocin significantly increased the chances of uterine rupture for VBACs (Vaginal Birth After Caesarean). More hours went by, and notwithstanding all the monitors, the hardly attentive nurses failed to realize that Teresa had developed a fever and an infection (from having had her water broken for so long without going into labor). The nurses, however, did succeed in ganging up with the doctor to pressure a crying Teresa into taking Pitocin.

When labor finally began, Teresa could feel absolutely nothing, because she was so drugged up. Together with an episiotomy, tongs, and a vacuum, the doctor extracted our cone-headed baby, gave us a brief moment for pictures, then sent the baby down to intensive care. As caused by Teresa’s infection, baby Aspen had developed something called Chorioamnionitis. Thus she had to stay in intensive care for five days, soaking in light from a bilirubin lamp. Teresa stayed with her.

And boy did we pay for it.

Now we didn’t hold anything against any particular doctor or nurse. We’d only worked with outstanding people. But especially as number three found his way into the oven, we couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a better way than this sterile, dehumanizing, danger-inducing, bankrupting hospital system. Frankly Teresa was terrified of going through it all again … so much that she put off finding a provider, which got the ward council and family members breathing down our neck, threatening to do something terrible like financially assist us.

To be fair to our would-be benefactors, we were also as poor as dirt at the time, though I can honestly say that this fact was never our leading consideration for the path we eventually chose, which was to go with a birthing center. We’d heard a lot of good things about midwives, though we also weren’t exempt from the mainstream American attitude that hospitals were the way,  and anything less fell into the realm of “alternative medicine” with hippie practitioners, snake oil salesmen, and an overall regression into the middle ages.

Still, we did our homework. Teresa especially. Particularly influential was the documentary The Business of Being Born. While it’s not within the scope of this article to compare the benefits and risks of hospital births to midwife-assisted home births or birthing center births, we learned for ourselves that, in a nutshell, the American hospital-based birthing industry is, indeed, in many ways, unnatural, dangerous, and sometimes downright sinister. Despite all our technology, our perinatal death rates are actually higher than that of developed European nations that rely predominantly on midwives. I had never before considered this possibility.

So, to the disapproval of some well-intending people in our lives, we signed on with a birthing center, and finally Teresa found the personalized care she was looking for. Our biggest fear was still the possibility of a uterine rupture, especially if Teresa wasn’t going to be in a hospital. We scraped the Internet for every statistic we could find about VBAC uterine ruptures and tried hard to calculate whether or not we were putting Teresa and the baby in increased or decreased risk. Though the numbers seemed to be in favor of the birthing center, sometimes there’s just too many factors to predict a meaningful bottom line. The midwives we worked with had both witnessed uterine ruptures in hospitals (not surprisingly, caused by a reckless use of Pitocin) but never at non-hospital births (including VBACS). Especially considering all the hospital-induced complications and the associated risks we knew we were avoiding, we can honestly say that we believe we chose the safest route by sticking with the birthing center.

On the night of Tuesday, the fifteenth of July in the two-thousandth and fourteenth year of our Lord, Teresa and I were staying up late watching Lady in the Water (not the most moving picture but a brilliant idea with a fantastic score), hoping that the contractions she was feeling were the real deal. They were. So we threw our pre-packed bags, plenty of goodies, and our children into the car, then set out for the fun. While Grandma watched the kids, we checked in to a cozy bedroom in the birthing center. When the midwives first checked Teresa’s progress, her cervix was at six centimeters.

We weren’t able to finish the movie, but we did bring a book (The Scarlet Pimpernel … which is every bit as good as the plays and movies). Teresa, however, was soon unable to pay attention as the contractions got stronger. What followed was a long, arduous ordeal (for her, of course, but myself a little bit too). For an unknown reason, she had painful cramps in her lower back the whole time, and she asked me to massage her … for hour after hour. It was long, hard work!

Finally, it was close to five AM, and I was still massaging her as she paced around the room. Between contractions, she said, “I don’t think I can take anymore of this. I want to go to a hospital.” We’d both known she was going to say this. From the books we’d read together, we’d learned that every woman would say this at least once. Still, I told the head midwife that Teresa was at her endurance threshold, and the midwife nodded knowingly.

In what seemed like only seconds later, the baby was coming out. And out he came! While Teresa squatted, it was just a few pushes before the baby was in our hands. He actually started crying while still passing through the birth canal. He was one tiny, little hombre, though perfectly healthy.

And then there was no more pain (relatively speaking). Teresa held a little man in her hands, and she’d done so completely unmedicated, without any tools or interventions, with full control of her body, and without anything to come between her and the spiritual high that follows a natural birth. Unlike in the movies (or real documentaries we’d seen), Teresa never screamed, cursed, or even groaned. She may have moaned a little, but it really was just a little. She’d born it all with the dignity of a saint.

The midwife later told me that in just about every case, when the woman hits that point of hopelessness is precisely when the ordeal shifts downhill and the baby comes out. It think there’s something profound about that. Only in one’s darkest moment is the way out revealed. JUust when one has given everything, the second wind kicks in (in other words: deus ex machina).

A few hours later, one of the midwives came to us with a birth certificate. “Do you have his name picked out?” she asked. Teresa and I held a brief counsel. With The Scarlet Pimpernel on our minds, we discussed the name Percival. I having played this role in a musical, and both of us having been fans of the A&E film, we adored the character of Sir Percival Blakeny and liked the idea of passing on this romantic ideal to our son.

Though there was more to it than that. While I was performing in this play (and Teresa was performing in another play), the two of us were facing many personal obstacles in our lives and marriage (in some ways analogous to the trials faced by Percy and Margeruite). About the time that that Teresa conceived was when we really overcome these obstacles together.

But there was more to it than even that. The character of Sir Percival Knibble-Knobben from my novel and musical The Bent Sword, as conceived and role-played, back in high school, by my good friend Patrick and later performed by my good friend Will, represented some of our favorite people. Like Sir Percival Blakeny (whom I hadn’t yet discovered when The Bent Sword came together), Sir Percival Knibble-Knobben/Flowermander is a lighthearted, friendly, yet manly knight … who isn’t afraid to express his feminine side :-).

Some objections we’ve heard to the name Percival is that it sounds silly in our modern world. Teresa and I have no objection to this. We like silly. A further objection is that Percy, as he’ll usually be called, sounds weak and effeminate, that he’ll inevitably be made fun of for it. This is probably true. Though I don’t think that’s any reason not to go forward with the name. What good do we do for the world in catering to the idiocy of elementary school bullies (not that we’ll ever subject our kids to the horror of public school)? The cultured, on the other hand, know that Percy is a name that entails one who’s courageous, swashbuckling, unbreakable, selfless, cunning, brilliant, good-humored, yet mysterious and unreadable to all but to those who know the depths of his soul.

Still, if we really loved our son, would we give him more of an unassuming and mainstream name, something that’s clearly masculine and fits right into the crowd? Well, there’s the “boy named Sue” principle. While the rank and file Tom, Dick, and Harry’s of this world will be overlooked, the Percy’s, out of necessity, will be required to become extra manly. In fact, perhaps it’s the Percy’s who are most likely to be become the bullies. Of course, I can’t say whether or not Percy Gashler will resent the choice of his parents or not (if so, he can always change his name), but if he’s going to turn out anything like me, he’ll enjoy dropping jaws by overturning the first impressions that will proceed him as one who’s less than manly with the sheer majesty of his character. If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good paradox … infinitely more fun than meeting a Butch who acts just like a Butch.

Most importantly, it’s Sir Percival who wields the glorious bent sword in the sky (AKA The Big Dipper), the symbol of all that’s potentially glorious but whacked out of shape. Percy, my son, may you join me in my quest to find the humor and celebration in this silly world of mortality as we help liberate the captives and journey together … on to the stars.

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