A strange sensation in my back stirred me awake; the red digital clock read 2 am. My husband’s strong and rhythmic breathing led me to believe he was in the depths of slumber, so I stared at the crack in the ceiling above us, longing for exhaustion to take me. As my hands smoothed over the firm swell of my tummy, I wondered when I would see my toes again. Toss. Turn. Flip. Turn. Finally, I shimmied my legs over the side of the bed and breathed slowly into the darkness. Twenty minutes passed when I whispered, “Bob, you awake?” His immediate, bolt-upright movement shocked a small scream from me. “Ah… oh, I thought you were asleep,” I said.

“No, I’m good. You okay? Need anything? Should I grab the bag,” he asked in the tone of an anxious expectant father.

“It was the last bath I’d have as a non-parent.”

“I feel weird. I need to walk around or something,” I sighed. There was no real room to walk in the one-bedroom house on the lazy corner of Grand and 10th Street, so we grabbed jackets from behind the front door, and headed into the chilly fall night. It was October 20th in Laramie, Wyoming and the crunch of leaves under my feet was cathartic. The breeze, typically a wind, was gentle and cooling to my overwrought system. I just needed to walk because nothing else comforted me. Not the tea Bob made, not the stifling hot, egg crate-topped bed I tried to sleep in, and not the new rocker in the corner awaiting its use. Nothing felt right.

After we circled the block a few times in silence, we headed home. “Should I call the hospital?” asked Bob.

“No, I don’t want it to be a false alarm like last time.” How embarrassing, the cramps were just Braxton Hicks and I swore labor was happening. Humorous to even compare the Braxton hiccups to real labor.

“Okay, I’ll fill a tub for you and it will help,” Bob suggested, and I flopped myself onto the green futon we proudly purchased several months ago. Not as comfortable as I remembered. The rush of running water lulled me into false sleep.

“Honey, the tub is ready,” Bob whispered as he lovingly nudged my shoulder.

There was a glow that emanated from under the bathroom door as I wobbled forth. Every candle we owned welcomed me as I carefully slid myself into the hot and bubbly lavender water. Led Zeppelin played quietly in the background and my smile met Bob’s eyes in gratitude. I can’t remember a better soak in my life. It was the last bath I’d have as a non-parent.

Afterward, I was able to catch a few winks before the chaos of the day was underway. My first trip to the bathroom that morning began with an extra, extra long urination. Longer than a large, beer-drinking man’s morning release. When I stood up, I knew something was awry because I was still going. I hollered to Bob to call the hospital. It was GO time!

Ivinson Memorial Hospital was all of five minutes from our tiny rental. Two nurses were waiting for me at the door with a wheelchair at the ready. We entered the elevator and were asked by a hurried voice in the distance to hold the door.

“Hey Shelly,” said my nurse to the woman rushing toward the door. “Good morning, Mr. Ramino,” she smiled at the old man in the wheelchair Shelly pushed in. We were facing each other, Mr. Ramino and I. He didn’t smile at me; instead, his watery eyes admired my swollen belly. In my heart, I knew Mr. Ramino didn’t have much more time in this world. A strange reminder of the never-ending circle of life.

The opening of the elevator doors triggered the little one inside of me to retaliate. I took the Lamaze classes, practiced my breathing techniques, and created an elaborate birth plan that did not include medication or an epidural. But nothing, nothing could prepare me for the onslaught of pain that pillaged my body for the next 11 hours.

I writhed with each contraction and pleaded with my husband to press harder on my lower back. It was a team effort each time the waves of pain accosted me. Every hour that passed, I was no closer to being fully dilated for giving birth. I was beginning to weaken.

“Do you want the epidural now, you think?” my husband cautiously asked me.

“No, I can’t. I won’t… I had a plan,” I growled through my teeth waiting for the last contraction to subside. This same exchange went on for another five hours; I vaguely remember tearing out the monitoring tubes attached to my arms, yelling something like, “Get these fu%^king things off of me!”

Ten hours in, I screamed a scream that echoed off the cold hospital walls, punched the sky and reverberated back into the room. I saw every mother who has ever given birth look up at me—then nod slowly in consent. In the clearest, most decisive moment of my life, I commanded, “Call the epidural nurse.”

She came to me in between contractions that were increasing in intensity and frequency. Her bedside manner was that of a farmer injecting an injured heifer as she rolled me to my side and dryly stated, “I’m inserting the needle now.” The cool that spread through my back felt like cloud cover on a bright, hundred-degree day. I closed my eyes and licked the salty tears that dripped from my nose.

The next eight hours were spent watching (instead of experiencing) the enormous contractions I was having on a monitor. “Wow, that’s a big one!” I’d say with a wry smile. Bob and I played Rummy 500, watched classic episodes of Columbo, and waited (somewhat) patiently for our first child to want to exit my womb.

Epidural or no epidural, when a baby is ready to enter this world, there is no holding back; it was time to meet the child we’d been speaking to for months.

It was time to push.

And push. And push. An hour of exertion led to employing a suction device, similar to a plunger, to assist with a speedier exit.

“Push, Sandy, push!” I heard around me. The primal instinct of a mother kicked in. I bared down and roared a final roar with a push to end all pushes.

“Good job! That-a girl! Here’s the head!” I heard from a faraway planet. All the pressure flooded away and I slumped in completion. But something was wrong.

The mood of the room shifted. There was a quiet scurry about.

Nurses and doctors spoke in hushed, emphatic tones. We couldn’t see anything due to the paper wall that was created for delivery. I waited for the crying red baby to appear from behind the screen.

She never came.

Instead, baby was whisked off to emergency care because the umbilical cord that connected our lives was wrapped around her neck, strangling her first breaths. That, and her lungs were filled with meconium, baby poop, from inside the embryonic sac. There was not a second to waste.

Bob and I looked helplessly at each other and wept with worry and fatigue.

“Is she okay? Is our baby alive?” Bob asked through frenzied tears.

“We’re taking care of her and will report back as soon as we know more,” said the nurse.

I was exhausted. Bob was spent. We could do nothing more than sleep. In the wee hours of the morning, just as the sun peeped through the blinds, the nurse quietly woke us with a smile. She asked that we follow her to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, NICU. There, behind a large glass wall, wrapped in a blanket like a tight pink burrito, slept our little chickadee, Cassidy Raye Hoban. Unable to hold her, my hands went inside the bulky rubber gloves that reached her itty-bitty body. I smoothed her blanket and barely grazed her bright pink face before the deluge of tears streamed my face. She was alive and breathing. We were alive and breathing. Life was to truly begin.