Embrace the 10
By Rachael Graham
What’s your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? For men, 10 is passing a kidney stone. For women, 10 is labor and childbirth.
For my late husband, 10 was the avascular necrosis in his shoulders and his left hip and the foreign object pain from his ceramic hip on the right. For him, 10 was routine, and I had no idea what it meant to live for any amount of time with a 10, until I gave birth to our daughter.
The night before my labor was induced, I hobbled down a hospital hallway, grumbling about my sciatic pain, looking forward to when all of these weird pregnancy side effects would go away. My husband hobbled alongside me, telling me we were going in the wrong direction. When I realized that he was right, I headed for the elevator and grumbled at him again. I pushed the elevator button, sighed, and half-apologized: “I’m sorry. My hips just really hurt right now, and I don’t want to walk anymore.”
“Really?,” he said with a smile and started laughing.
It was so easy to forget that he was in constant pain. When he died of a heart attack at 27, people from all areas of his life told me, “I didn’t know he was in pain. He was always cheerful and joking when I saw him.” As his wife and best friend, I saw more sides of the pain: I saw the depression, the anger, the feelings of worthlessness, and the fear that he couldn’t keep going much longer. But even then, I had no idea what that level of pain could do to a person’s body and mind.
When we got to our room, I dressed into a gown and climbed onto the hospital bed. A nurse strapped the monitors onto me and started the medication to help me dilate. My husband tried to get comfortable on the bedside chair for partners. We watched TV, and I fell asleep. I don’t think he ever fell asleep.
The pitocin drip started at 9 AM, and within twenty minutes, I had my first full contractions. “Oh-okay.” I started my breathing exercises. “Wow.” I knew labor hurt, but I could never have anticipated that level of pain.
An hour later, I asked the nurse when it was a good time to ask for an epidural. “Just wait as long as you can,” she told me.
Thirty minutes later, my OB entered the room. “When is it a good time to ask for an epidural?” I asked again.
She gave me the same answer, “Just wait until you can’t handle it anymore.”
I was pretty sure I was already at that point, but I glanced over at my husband, sitting quietly on the bedside chair, adjusting his posture every few minutes, just barely sighing or groaning when he shifted his weight to a different hip. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll wait.”
I kept doing the breathing exercises, white-knuckling it through the extreme waves of pain. I had just finished a contraction, when my husband turned to me and said, “You know, the sound you make when you breathe like that is really annoying.” I looked at his face. He wanted me to believe he was joking, but I saw the pain and frustration behind his half-smile. My “annoying” breathing sounds were preventing him from taking his mind away from his own pain.
But I was in pain, too, and I was angry. I wasn’t going to let my husband get away with being the asshole birth partner in our birth story. I made a catapult with a plastic spoon and styrofoam cup and flicked a couple of ice chips at his face. For the next year, whenever anyone asked how the birth went, he proudly told them, “She threw ice at me!”
Another hour went by, the pain grew even more intense, and I was losing the strength to breathe through it. I doubted whether I could keep going if the pain stayed the same or got worse, especially when I knew that pain relief was a possibility. I asked a nurse to order the epidural.
Forty-five minutes later, the anesthesiologist arrived and deftly applied the epidural needle and drip. The wave of relief was instant. I smiled and looked at my husband. I thought he would be equally relieved that I was no longer in pain. But he looked away, and he wasn’t smiling.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. “I need to go back to the house and get something.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “What if I have to push, and you’re not here?”
“I’ll be back. I have to go. But I’ll be back.” He left.
I felt the urge to vomit. I pushed the button for the nurse station. No one responded. With the epidural, I couldn’t get out of the bed, and I was alone. I chugged the rest of my ice chips so I could vomit into the empty styrofoam cup. I called the nurse station again, and someone came to give me a container to keep vomiting into.
My husband returned minutes before I had to push. He was smiling again and ready to help. He helped me hold my legs back while I pushed, and he interpreted the nurse’s instructions.
“You need to push a little harder,” the nurse said. “Really press down low.”
“Am I doing it?” I asked.
He chuckled and translated: “She means push like you’re about to poop.”
“Oh, that I can do!” Four pushes later, our daughter was born.
I was holding her on my chest, when my husband sat down beside me, just the three of us in the room. “I’m sorry I left,” he said. “But I had to. I had to get my pain medication.”
“Why didn’t you already have it?” I asked.
“I don’t have much left for the month, and I thought I could do without it. But when I saw the look on your face when they started the epidural. I knew that look. The pain was finally gone.” He lowered his eyes. “And I was...jealous. I hated that I felt that way. I had to get my medication so I could be here and help you and not be jealous.”
If I hadn’t just experienced my first 10 on the pain scale, his words and his leaving would have hurt me. Instead, I felt sadder and happier and closer to him than ever. I had no idea what it was like to be in that much pain for hours. And he did it every day. For me, the worst pain was already a memory. For him, it was just going to start up again, as soon as the effects of his pain medication wore off, in just a few hours.
“You came back in time. It all worked out,” I assured him. “I’m glad you got it.”
He died thirteen months later, when I was three months pregnant with our second child. Six months and one day later, just like before, I was induced at 9:00 AM and experiencing full labor pains by 9:20 AM. Instead of my husband at my side, a doula sat with me and remarked, “You just look so peaceful.” I did the annoying breathing exercises, and the pain was as intense as ever, but the pain brought me closer to my husband, and I embraced the 10.
Rachael Graham - Rachael Graham is a writing instructor living in Springfield, Virginia. She is a PhD candidate in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University, writing a dissertation about the rhetoric of quantification in the context of chronic pain. Her poems appear in St. Peter’s B-List, Presence, escarp, and Scene and Heard, and a nonfiction story appears in xoJane and Human Parts.