La venganza—that’s what stomach distress is called in Mexico. Moctezuma’s revenge on Mexico’s invaders.
La venganza set in for me the Saturday before Christmas. We’d been at a party until our toddler broke Baby Jesus out of the nativity scene and my husband and I implemented our evacuation plan.
Walking home beneath that big December moon we were still a little giddy, though. In spite of poor Jesus's decapitation, it had been a marvelous party. We’d met a lot of people, and I’d enjoyed chatting by the bar—sniffing all the tequila that my kicking pregnant belly kept me from tasting for myself. As we left, the hostess had handed us a container of surplus black bean chile, which I ate promptly upon arriving home, sitting in my cold kitchen, while my husband wrangled our over-stimulated son into pajamas. It was the last thing I ate until Tuesday, and it didn’t stay down long.
My husband doesn’t think I’m very tough, but he’s wrong. Admittedly I turn up the heat when I’m cold (and when we live somewhere that has heat), and I like a bubble bath now and then, but when it counts, I’ve got grit.
Or this is what I told my hideous reflection in the bathroom mirror sometime that night. I was holding the stone counter with two hands, leaning forward, swaying, breathing. In under a month, I would deliver a baby, I chastised myself. What was I going to do if my labor tactics couldn’t even me through a little stomachache?
When my first son was born, after eight hours of textbook labor spent gazing out at a full moon, I had been tough. When the nurses and midwives asked how much pain I felt—on a scale from one to ten—I never answered above six, or maybe seven. I was in the worst pain of my life, but I knew things could and probably would get worse.
If someone had asked me that Saturday night, I might have ranked my pain eight, not because it was more intense than labor—it wasn’t—but it never let up. My stomach, already full of baby, felt rigid, with acute pain high on my left side. And there was nothing I could do but breathe and sway: all of the usual solutions, from Alka-Seltzer to Pepto-Bismol, are off-limits to pregnant people.
On Sunday, I stayed in bed until evening when I pulled myself together for a scheduled Skype call with my parents before they flew to Europe in the morning for a Christmas visit to my brother.
During the call, my son showed his grandparents his Mexican Christmas paraphernalia: a giant silver-and-white star-shaped piñata substituting anything tree-like, nochebuenas (poinsettias), and little straw wreathes strung from the ceiling.
I tried to pretend I felt festive, but I wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Looks like you’re ready to have that baby,” my mom said wryly.
She’s in the party of pregnancy prognosticators who believe you have to look like death before you’re done gestating. I’d heard the same theory at Saturday’s party. Only then I looked too good, too light on my feet: “You’ve got lots of time left,” one lady had assured me.
“It’s just la venganza,” I told my mom. “Or too much bean chile.”
“Well, just in case you need any advice, let me put you in touch with Dolores.”
Dolores, a midwife, is an old friend of my parents. I know her mostly by reputation and third-hand stories of her family's far-flung travels. The story that inevitably popped into my head that night was of Dolores passing through Damascus in the ’70s with a toddler in tow, a baby imminent, and an appendix in need of removal.
Appendicitis, I wondered. Where was my appendix with all of this baby in the way?
When dawn came on Monday, I felt better not because the pain was relenting, but because there was an end in sight: I had a five o’clock appointment scheduled with my obstetrician. Dr. O, I knew, would make me feel better, if only by shaking his head and remarking about Mexican food as he had done when he gave my husband pills for his venganza a few weeks earlier (the first time, my husband remarked afterward, that he’d been treated by a gynecologist).
Even before the sitter had come for my son, I had sunk myself—except my bubble of a belly—in a hot bath. Heat and buoyancy helped. After a lunch I couldn’t eat, I drew a second bath. This time, when I settled into the hot water, I set my alarm clock on the edge of the tub.
Were those real-deal contractions? Or just a response to the cramping?
I wasn’t really wondering. I knew the difference between labor contractions and those pesky Braxton-Hicks contractions that had been set off by every speed bump and pothole since we’d arrived in Mexico. But why not time them just the same? It might at least distract me.
Eight minutes. Ten. Six. Fifteen.
All the same, when I heard my husband come upstairs, I asked him to toss my pajamas in the wash. The next time I heard him, I asked if the camera battery was charged. When I asked if he’d put the sack of newborn diapers in my suitcase while I was thinking of it, my husband marched into the bathroom and accused me of withholding information.
“Whatever,” I replied. “At most it’s venganza-inspired false labor.”
I looked at my alarm clock. A few more hours and it would be five o’clock.
At precisely five, I was sitting in the backseat of a taxi parked in front of my house. The sitter was running up the street and my husband was scrabbling with loose ends but I was calm.
Half an hour later, in his consultorio across town, I was giving the doctor a detailed albeit poorly conjugated account of my stomachache.
Dr. O. heard me out and then sent me into the exam room to change. A quick ultrasound confirmed that the baby was well and in position, and then Dr. O. checked me out himself.
“Molly,” he said in English (he said Molly more like Moe-Lee). “You are having your baby tonight.”
Fifteen minutes after that, I was checking into the hospital next door. My venganza wasn’t venganza, or appendicitis either, but my trabajo de parto was well underway.
Half an hour and one IV bag of glucose later, I felt much better, and I was beginning to have real, regular contractions. Outside my hospital window, a full moon was shining down over a bullring—a good sign, I thought, regardless of the coming eclipse, and inside I was joking with the nurses who were filling out forms about my marital status.
“If my husband doesn’t get back here soon,” I told them, “then I might not be married tomorrow!”
Of course, my husband had run home to pack our son off to his babysitter’s for the night and to grab the suitcase, which we would need because Mexican hospitals don’t provide baby clothes and blankets and such. Even in absentia, he didn’t deserve the ribbing: faster than I would have thought possible, he was back. Dr. O. arrived from his office about the same time, wearing a suit I noticed for the first time. I wondered what plans he’d canceled that evening on my account, but I didn’t ask.
“Let’s speed things along,” Dr. O. suggested as he glanced over the report streaming out of a fetal monitor.
I didn’t ask what he had seen on that strip of paper; I just grinned. Since Saturday night, all I’d done was suffer, even if I’d mistaken the root cause: Moctezuma has it out for Cortés’s invaders, but God has it out for Eve’s daughters. I was all for speeding things up. At least until Dr. O. pierced the membrane and loosed the water.
Pepto-Bismol can quell one sort of deluge, but for this one Dr. O. announced he wanted an epidural so he could speed things along even more. I hadn’t planned on a needle in my back, but the water was murky with meconium, and there was something off about the heartbeats. While I’ve got grit for pain, I don’t have any gumption for going against a worried doctor.
Minutes later, I was on a stretcher, but God’s vengeance circumvented Dr. O.’s plans. I entered transition labor in the elevator and arrived in the delivery room humming hard.
Things were chaotic then.
I remember a nurse named Cristina.
I remember someone asking if I was there for surgery.
I remember shouting in English for my husband.
“Relax. I’m right here,” my husband said. I looked up at the figure in blue scrubs—he looked just like everyone else.
“I’m pushing,” I answered, in Spanish, but softly, just to him.
He repeated my words for Dr. O., who had also just come in dressed in blue. The doctor took a quick peek and stood up suddenly.
“Molly, this contraction, do not push!” Dr. O. ordered in his thick English, then he turned towards the nurses.
“Ya está aquí—” he said, and a lot more that I didn’t understand beyond its urgency and, strikingly, its command. I had known Dr. O. for six months, but now I was seeing him in his element, his dominion. He was confident and in control of that room and the situation, come what may, and the way the nurses responded, I could tell that I wasn’t the only one who respected him just then.
“Okay Molly. Now push. Push hard,” Dr. O. said calmly when the next contraction came.
I did, and there he was, indeed. Half standing, his hands flying, Dr. O. unwound the umbilical cord from his neck and suctioned the murky water from his nose and mouth, and then I saw him, tiny, slimy, bluish-purple, and needing more than his mother’s attention just then.
A moment later, my Mexican son squalled with a vengeance.