In Praise of Painted Toenails

I went to a celebration last night, an acclamation of an event so unique and yet so common as to defy -almost- the need to single it out and frame it in the usual infinite regress of hyperbole it inevitably invokes: a birth.

I have to admit that I enjoy birth, although as an obstetrician my perspective is necessarily more technical, adjunctive, facilitative. The less I have to do, the better the result, and as a consequence, the more peripheral I become. It’s an interesting role -and a humbling one- in which success is measured by anonymity. The goal is not being noticed, and after the usual thanks proffered by the overwhelmed parents, retreating quietly to the background to join the other shadows flitting silently around the room.

Birth is a special occasion; it is in turns both intimate and private and yet inclusive and universal. To finally meet the person with whom you’ve shared your body, your thoughts and your dreams after all those months, to finally know and greet the intimate stranger living in your house defies all words; it floods the mind. It is a happy, giddy moment; it is a confusing moment as reality crashes over you like an ocean wave. It is a moment that, as a man -and more distant still, as an accoucheur- I can merely acknowledge from the distance of an acquaintance, a guide hired for the trip. The joy, the wonder, the amazement is vicarious; it is victory by proxy. And yet is deeply satisfying and not at all disappointing to be suddenly in the background.  It is enough to know that journey was successfully concluded, and the destination is all that was promised so long ago.

It is what we sign up for as obstetricians: of necessity, we are creatures of the Gestalt. We are umbral-beings, content with whispering advice, treading carefully on territory we do not possess. We are the Guardians, in a way, of the chosen unborn, the yet-to-speak minority that lives so silently among us. It is an interesting career to aspire -in part at least- to relegation to milieu… To be noticed au moment critique only when there is a critical moment… And to rest content with only that.

But I suspect there is more to it. An absence of obstetrical complications has to result in more than a mere abyssal assignation and a consequential banishment to the margins. If that were the end of it, there would be little reward for the months of coaching, the commiseration, the common concern… Money is not enough of an inducement; it is never enough.  There is an infectious commonality to pregnancy: a shared joy of anticipation, an as yet unrequited expectation, a primal appreciation of ontogeny. There is magic in the hidden life, the unintroduced guest.

And yet I sometimes hope for more, but never ask: inclusion in the party. Recognition, somehow, of an important place in the process, while conceding all the while that it would and could proceed without me. It is no doubt a Sartrean hope, or worse, doomed like Sisyphus to repeat again and again, resolution receding forever backwards as the role requires.

But last night, for the briefest of instants, it changed: I became a part of the Wheel: Samsara. For a moment, I was included. I was Family. Sitting sleepily in the middle of a particularly dark and busy night in the artificial brightness of a numbered room in the Delivery Suite, my eyes happened upon some toes. Not just any toes, of course -they are rarely displayed as such in winter here. They were parturient toes, and decked out as if for Hawaii, or some closer summer sand. Rich reds, and tiny stars, with little flecks of yellow and blue -very festive. Very cheerful. I commented on them, naturally; it seemed an essential break from my repetitive admonitions to aid -no, speed– the progress of her delivery.

And between the contractions, between her pain and obvious exhaustion, she giggled. “I did them for you, doctor,” she said, before another contraction seized the words and buried them in her mouth. She could manage no more until the baby arrived, screaming and worming its way into the bright fresh new world. Then, after the congratulations and the shaking of various and sundry hands, she grabbed hold of mine. “I really did, you know,” she said, tenderly caressing her long-awaited baby on her abdomen with her other hand and tearing her eyes from it for a hurried second to look at me. “You once told me that a delivery was always special for you…” She squeezed my hand to make sure I was hearing her in the noise that surrounds a new baby. “…And I wanted to make sure it stayed special. Thank you so much!”

It was… It will always be special.

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