The Magic Slate Poena Magna II:6
"Women, for countless ages, have sought the relief from the pangs of labor."
Frank appraisal of natural childbirth training reveals that it accomplishes no measurable diminution in the actual intensity of labor pains, nor is it the "drugless method": glorified in lay publications.
In patients who were unusually tense and anxious, both nullipara and multiparas, the infusions were started sooner than in the better poised woman.
In a review of 1,000 consecutive cases by the Yale group, no less than 73.3% of nulliparas experiencing spontaneous deliveries required "not over 125 mg. of Demerol, or one dose of another agent." In less than 20% of even these uncomplicated labors was no analgesic used.
Jeffcoate employed the continuous intravenous drip of meperidine and scopolamine in abnormal uterine action, and both he and Theobald are very enthusiastic about its beneficial action.
Saddle block spinal anesthesia, most widely applicable of current regional block techniques for obstetric use, lends itself best to the practice of the average physician when employed only for terminal labor, delivery, and repair.
Pudendal block and local infiltration are even more limited in scope. It becomes obvious, therefore, that, even if one were to incorporate into what might be considered a balanced or rational plan of obstetric analgesia the natural childbirth methods for the discomforts of the early first stage of labor, and minimal dosage low spinal (or pudendal block) anesthesia for the episiotomy and delivery, the problem of definitive analgesia for the phase of active cervical dilation still exists.
Scopolamine is only a weak vagal depressor; it combats respiratory depression and produces both psychic sedation and amnesia. It has the disadvantage of being somewhat irregular in its action and may at times produce excitement and delirium.
Gershon lays the papers he had been reading on the floor beside his chair, pages photocopied from a dozen medical journals. This stuff's hopelessly dated, he says, turning to Yudit, who has been waiting by the window. Unbelievable--picking the stack up, shuffling through the magazines. Look at this. Thirties. Forties. Nineteen fifty-five! Holds them out for Yudit to see. Why scopolamine? You sure that's what it was?
--Does it matter?
--Matter! It's malpractice is what it is! Neanderthal medicine. Complete throwback.
--Is that what I am? she says, returning to the sofa, pulling her feet up. A throw back? Like a fish?
Guessing the cause of Gershon's ill-suppressed glare, she unlaces and removes her shoes‑‑the same boy's oxfords she had worn that day in Rittenhouse Square. Her heels, the tops of her toes, the sides of her feet are stained brown from the leather. She tucks her feet under her, as though to hide them. Holding the shoes together, she leans over the arm of the sofa, lets them fall noiselessly to the floor.
--Scopolamine ... with methadone? The Nazis used this stuff. Dämerschlaf, they called it. Twilight sleep.
--For having babies?
--On political prisoners. Torture a man on this stuff and he wouldn't remember a thing. If you make a man suffer, then wipe away all memory of pain‑‑have you wronged him?
The doctor--in my mind he his very old. Ancient. Like someone come back from the dead. But how can I tell? He is only a shadow standing in the door, the room where I go to find all that remains of my other life. And between my legs with bloody hands. I told him that something must be wrong. He was hurting me, but he did not believe me. It's all right, he said, you won't remember a thing.
--It's used now in South America... Columbia. The high Andes. To seduce women... Burundanga. A kind of nightshade. To rob tourists, wealthy business men. They forget everything. Never know what happened to them.
--They robbed me too of memory... a throwback. Is that what you call it?
--A throwback... Good God, I should say so. Not you--this goddamned drug. How long ago was this? How old were you?
--I don't know. How old do you think I am now? Gershon, earnest to the core, applies his scrutiny.
--Forty-one, he announces.
--You think I am that old? Forty-one? Could it be that long ago? Do I look forty-one?
--No. You don't. You're young, for your age.
--Then why do you say I am this old?
--The shape of your hips, he says, clinically, tapping his pipe against the ash tray, leaning to his left in the leather reading chair, the more easily to reach the serving tray where he has arranged his smoking gear, his instruments of pleasure: humidor, pipe cleaners, a little bristle brush he uses to ream the bowl of the pipe. Childbirth changes a woman... (pauses, pipe and brush in hand--eyes her stained feet, beginning to peep out from under her legs where she has tucked them) ...in ways you'd never think of.
--I don't understand.
--You can see it in the eyes. A woman who's had a child‑‑the most profound sexual experience. Bound to effect a change.
--It is sex--to have a child? she asks.
--Of course it's sex! What do you think--it's virgin birth! You know there's a story Freud told. Same notion. What does this have to do with having a baby?
--Sex and birth. (Gershon shifts in his chair, faces the kitchen, Yudit out of view) A physician, no less. An example of the kind--of the sort of resistance he encountered, even from learned men. Men who ought to have known better‑‑as if knowing better has anything to do with it. As I said, it was, in fact, a physician, who approached the good Doktor. Gershon puts his pipe in his mouth. Looks at Yudit, pauses, like a professor about to begin a lecture. Above the drone of the air conditioner, a siren sounds on the street.
--You keep it very cold in here, she says. Can't take the heat, he explains. Motions to the cardigan beside her on the sofa. She picks it up, this sweater, worn thin at shoulder and elbow, eyes it with apparent wonder.
--It was a physician, Gershon takes up the theme again, opening a fresh tin of Balkan‑Sabroni, fills the humidor, the bowl of the pipe, tamps it down, carefully measuring the spring of the compressed tobacco before applying the match.
She listens. Picks a hair from the sweater, holds it between finger and thumb, finger and thumb; pulling right hand and left slowly apart in measurement; until, at the width of a mother's hips, she loses the thread.
--And what, pray tell, this learned physician blurts out, does pregnancy have to do with sex!
A single hair suspended from right finger and thumb, drifts on the currents stirred by the air conditioner, in and out of visibility. She cocks her head, looks quizzically at Gershon.
--You have an older visitor? she asks?
--What's that? Gershon, between puffs of ignition.
--It is white. Milk white. She is dark Surely, she is not so old as to have gone snowy white?
--The woman who visits you. The darkest hair turns white. One by one. I have seen some women, even very young, dark haired women. How the white hairs begin to show. She does not mind, this one? Does not color it dark again?
--This one who wears your sweater when she is cold like me? This, she says, carefully folding the sweater and laying it on the arm of the sofa, just as she found it. This is hers for when she comes to you?
Gershon draws on his pipe, presses the nail of his thumb against the flesh of his index finger, hard, as if it were numb and he were testing for feeling.
--I am not wrong am I? A good detective do you think?
--You can wear it if you want... if you're cold.
--That's not what I meant. It's all right, she says. I'm beginning to get used to it now. Though she is, in fact, hugging herself with both arms, shivering slightly.
Gershon, pipe in mouth, rises from his chair, takes the sweater, unfolds it, and places it gently on her shoulders.
--I'll make you some hot tea. With lemon and honey and a splash of brandy. That will warm you up. My mother's remedy for heat or cold, for either one. Hot tea, she'd say: tea, hot and sweet..
--I think I am ready now. To tell my story like you asked. Yudit speaks in a whisper, almost too soft to be heard. She cradles the tea cup in her two hands.
--You were saying--you had a child.
--Yes, but we must not ... not now. Not yet. If I so much as spoke her name... my tongue would turn to ashes. Names--to let a name fall from your lips, it is not like asking for cigarette. My name, my own name--as though I found it in a book. As though I heard someone calling in the park... Yudit! Yudit, where are you? When I heard the sound, I turned to see who called, and because it was at just that moment that I turned, this is the word that became my name.
--Imagine something, Mr. Fische. Imagine that you are downstairs in your store, and you pick a book from the shelf and read there a story, and the stranger in the book--someone tells you: you are that stranger.
--I'm sorry, I'm not following you.
--What is that?
--I said, I'm sorry, but I'm not following you. Distracted, you know. Wait just a moment, I'll be right back. Gershon leaves the room. When he returns, he holds out a pair of gray wool socks, neatly folded, as though they had never been worn. She smiles--does not reach out to take them.
--Mr. Fische. Please don't think badly of me. But I don't want your socks.
--I thought, if you were cold...
--No you didn't, Mr. Fische.
--You can tell me the truth. It does not hurt me, the truth.
--Truth? What truth?
--You don't like my dirty feet. On your sofa. To see them.
Gershon flushes pink.
--I think you like better watching over your nice kitchen, which I see that you keep very clean. I wish my kitchen were half so clean as yours. I think if my kitchen looked so nice I would sit and watch it too. Or Mr. Fische, another idea!
Fische stands foolishly dangling the pair of socks. A vein on his left temple pulses visibly.
--You could lie down on this sofa and I could sit in your chair and you could look up at the ceiling (Yudit tries... but can't resist the urge to giggle) ... and I could ask you questions!
Gershon drops the socks. Eases himself into his chair. Stares at Yudit, who is playing with her toes. Suddenly, he bursts into rolling laughter. Laughs till tears trickle down his flushed cheeks.
--How do you do it! He gasps, trying to regain control. You make me feel like such a pompous ass! I don't understand‑‑I love it! Never! I swear, dear lady, never, never! He leans over the arm of the chair toward Yudit, coughing into his fist... working hard to recapture his accustomed demeanor. And no one, he says, emphatically, no one else would get away with this you know.
--Maybe it is only no one has told you the truth before.
He takes a deep breath. Tries to find his voice and fails. Okay, he says, at last, sheepish, docile, tamed...
--It is not easy for me, this story.
--Please. You have my undivided attention. I promise.
Yudit took a long slow sip of tea. The door, the hidden door to her little room which had begun to open before she was interrupted--rudely closed with this diversion--began to open once again, a crack, enough for the voices from the other side to drift through‑‑like smoke. With the cup still to her lips, she looked Gershon full in the eye. His gaze was steady. He did not turn away.
--Trust me, he said once more, and Yudit, with a little smile, placed a pillow over her feet, and began again her tale.
* * *
--They read to me the story of my life, she said. Because they thought they knew it. But they didn't. How could they? We all must tell our own story. For ourselves. From the inside. If someone else gives you your story it is a package that you cannot open. All wrapping and ribbons and good wishes, but inside, there is only a stranger. It is like listening outside the door to voices in a strange house. Who are they talking about? you ask yourself, this stranger with a name that sounds almost like my own? If you fall into the story of another, another person's life, it will be like this. You must wait behind the scenes for your name--invisible as air, as though you did not exist at all... and then comes the chapter, the little part in the play, and in just that time and just that place where you walk into their life story, you will hear your name and you will exist in their eyes. And when you walk out? ... you will vanish.
Gershon leans forward in his chair, as though to rise.
--Perhaps you are wondering, What ever is she talking about? She is leading up to something--what can it be? You must be patient. I will explain everything in time. Because it is my story, I must tell it in my own way.
--I told you that I had a child. She is in my story. But her story, ah... that is another book, not mine. And because I do not want to summon her to my stage, only to have her vanish yet again...
Yudit shifts on the sofa, pulls her feet under her, looks above and past Gershon, fixes her eye on a point in space.
--The very beginning‑‑that I can succeed to tell you. Of my daughter's life, do you understand, the beginning is all that I have. In that moment, we were born, my daughter and I, and in that moment, I died. What came before--it is no different than if I had made it all up. What can there be, Mr. Fische, what can exist before the beginning?
--It was what they gave me, just as you read in the pages that your friend brought to you. The Scopolamine. The others who took it before me. These other women, waiting to be mothers like me. And the scopolamine, when they were on it, how they would grow very frightened so nothing anyone could say would bring them comfort or ease their pain. I know. I know them as from the life that fled from me, as from a life that has become a dream. They would scream out in anger and in fear they would call out, and in pain. And they would curse! They would curse all the men in their lives: their fathers, their brothers, their lovers, their husbands, terrible curses, the doctors, strangers they had seen on the street. They would curse, yes, even their unborn sons! How many terrible things do you think came into the world through those curses? But afterward, all was calm, all was right. It was to embrace the husband and to thank the doctor and hold the little boy child to the breast, and they would stand around the bed and always when I think how it was for them, I remember on a shelf on the wall in the room where I was in labor, winter, a Catholic hospital, the family with the animals... how is it called?
--Yes. a crèche. Their holy family around the place where the animals come, and the mother is there and over them and through the room silent as the night, a thousand curses would ring and no one would be left to remember.
--Who knows? Was it meant to be, their kind of forgetting? If only we can forget, then we have made heaven of earth, no? And who will be there to remember the pain? And who to remember the curses? But what happened to them--it did not happen that way for me. How it was for those mothers--for me, it was not so.
--Everything they have forgotten, I remember, and what they remembered, I have lost. All that I have is the night of curses that everyone else has waken up from like a dream and forgotten. Was I chosen to remember the curses, and to make room for them (there are so many)? Was I called to cross over the line of forgetting, like walking through a wall at the edge of the world? Was it then a kind trade? The letter em for the letter tee?
--So their little forgetting became my great forgetting, and the great memory, which is like a cabinet of a thousand chambers, the house of a thousand rooms, the holy city on the hill that is our soul‑‑they took away from me. Here, they said, we need that! This cabinet of a thousand chambers, the place we go to find the pieces when it is time to patch together a life. And for the great cabinet, they gave a tiny room, a single room, the room where I lay in labor for eighteen hours, the room with that family, standing there, with no more memory than the donkeys and horses and sheep who had nothing to do with my life or where I had come from, and outside the room, no holy city--but only a blank and empty sky. This is what I remember, the whole of it, all of it there is, those eighteen hours.
--But every word that was spoken in the room, every moment, every tick of the clock‑‑I remember... and nothing else. Those are the pieces I pulled from the cabinet in that room before they took it from me, or that sprang out at me from the time before the beginning; whatever came to me there in the night room‑‑all that I remembered of my other life while I was there, that I have ...and nothing more.
--I see a stretch of sand, turquoise waters, waves breaking like rolled up carpets, the smell of almonds. I am looking out over the street and I see my mother's face reflected in the window before me. There is a hill with grave stones, olive trees. I see a school yard with a fountain in the center. The other children are making fun of a boy. I am crying because I cannot stop them. What does it mean? I cannot tell you because the picture fades, washes away like a drawing in the sand.
--I see my mother cooking. I am at her feet, sitting on the floor. Behind me, my father, his shadow. There is a boy and we are alone in the dark, we are on the ground under a tree, and the ground is rough and I feel stones pressing into my flesh. We are trying to make love. My blouse is open and he is rubbing my breasts with the open palm of his hand, round and round, as though he were trying to polish them, like maybe he thinks I am an apple. If I am an apple, I wanted to tell him, if I am an apple, oh‑‑I want him to kiss me, want to feel his lips on my breasts, but he is bashful. He takes my hand to himself‑‑I feel him and am startled and want to pull away and run home and lock myself away in my room and never look at his face again and I want to take him in both of my hands and hold him against me and touch him with my mouth and feel him inside me ...
--Did we make love? I do not know. I do not know his name. Or where we were. My mother? My father? My sisters? Pieces, like bits of a kaleidoscope, they turn and turn and the patterns change and the picture is never whole and it will never be whole forever.
--At first I wanted to hear everything. Everything! I wanted to learn who I was, who I had been. This is the natural thing, yes? Over and over I would ask. I would ask my husband‑‑how did we meet?
--Please, you must tell me, I would say to him. Tell me about the first time! When did I first see you? First look on you and feel in my heart in my body what a woman feels for a man? And before? Tell me what it was like before I knew you?
--Do you understand? More than anything, I had to know how my life had been so I could know how love had changed me.
--Here was a man, you see--who I was supposed to love. But I could not imagine‑‑I, who have since imagined my whole life into being, I could not imagine what love would mean if there were no before, if there was nothing to compare it to. This was me before love came, and this is after. You see, how could I stand even to look at him, if before he took notice of me I did not exist? Did I come into being only in the glance of another? Did I spring from his mind, was I a thought that he had suddenly made flesh‑‑like Eve in the Garden?
--It still feels like that sometimes. When I meet someone new, I have been made new. So how do I save myself, you want to ask? When someone looks at me, how do I keep from changing into whatever they want me to be? I will tell you. I save myself by imagining only what comes after the beginning, after the life I that have lost. I save myself, like Eve in the garden: through imagination and curses.
--And so I went from wanting to hear everything, to where I could not bear to hear another word. The more I heard, the more I knew they could not do it. What they were trying to do for me and what I had been asking for, it was not possible. I began to understand that the only memory anyone can give away is their own. I give you a little piece, a broken shell, a feather, a tattered rag, and you give me a river covered with ice, a boatman on the frozen shore, and I put your river in my cabinet and you put my little piece of mica and my tattered rag in yours. But what happens if I have nothing to give, and nothing in the cabinet that is my own and what if I have no thousand chambered cabinet but only a room with a woman giving birth and no place to put what you have brought me, so it piles up on the floor with the curses; and what you gave me yesterday is tangled with what someone else has brought me today, and it piles up so I can not tell before from after, and the room is so small! They kept bringing and bringing, like leaves gathered on the forest floor, until I could not see my feet and then my knees disappeared and then I could not see to see. I thought I would choke and drown with all of the memories that would never be mine. And I could not. I could not. Oh, Mr. Gershon Fische... I could not do it.
--My poor husband. He was so kind‑‑and I couldn't stand for him to touch me. He tried to understand. He tried and tried, but that was what was wrong. If only he had stopped trying, because how could he? How could he know? If only he would have stopped maybe I would say: look! There is room for me here! But his eyes, oh, his eyes‑‑they would fill the room, my little room, my only room, fill it until I could not breath. Do you know what I wanted? Do you know what I began to dream? That I was a sailor, and I would go aboard a ship and turn and watch the gangplank roll back, and the narrow strip of green harbor water, watch it grow wide between the ship and the land, wide as an ocean.
She falls silent, and her thoughts sail across the silence to Gershon, pleading in silence for him to pull her to a nearer shore.
--And you did, he says.
--And she‑‑yes, she says, yes. I left them. All of them. They are there, and now I do not have to see what I cannot remember.
There is only the clock ticking in the other room. But there is another, she says, softly, after a long pause. One who did not belong to that other life, my life before.
--Yes. Do you understand? Do you understand why I have come to you? You sit there, and your pipe has gone out and you hold it... and yes, I think you do. Please, Mr. Fische... do not tell me I am wrong?
* * *
Gershon has not stirred, feigns no emotion, has watched the whole time in silence. Now he stands‑‑gazes for a moment at Yudit, walks into the kitchen. A few moments later he returns with a lacquered tray. A white porcelain teapot, a clean cup and saucer, sugar bowl with two handles, a tiny silver spoon. He fills the cup with tea, holds up the spoon, a question. She nods. He adds three spoons of sugar, stirs, hands her the cup on the saucer.
--You see? she says, blowing on the surface of the tea, making little ripples. I knew. Gershon fills a second pipe. The match strikes, a nebula of smoke curls out into space. I was right, wasn't I? You too, Mr. Gershon Fische. You too, have left a life behind. You too have become a sailor?
Somewhere in the room, over her head, out of the smoke, perhaps‑‑if Gershon were able to hear such things...
--What is it? She says, but Gershon does not answer. He stands, walks to his desk, takes the Waterman out of the drawer and writes on a sheet of notepaper.