Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

Stonework Journal Home

Letters to the Editor

Stonework Staff

Submission Guidelines

Editorial Philosophy

Our Favorite Links

E-mail Stonework:

  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Friday, May 05, 2006

Broken Water

Alison Gresik

When I came home from swimming lessons my mother was in labour. I found her in the basement, pacing, beads of sweat like blisters on her upper lip. She wore her lightest dress, a layered yellow cotton that gaped under the arms, and you could see through the thin cotton, especially where it billowed over her belly, showing the dark spot of her navel standing out like the swollen valve of an inner tube.

My mother paced and blew and wiped sweaty hair off her forehead. The temperature was very high that day even for August. We stayed in the basement. I still had on my bathing suit, under my shorts and t-shirt—between my legs it pinched and my bottom was damp and prickly. I don’t change after swimming lessons, not since I was eleven. I don’t like the floor of the change room, wet and slimy.

I shouldn’t have gone to swimming lessons. My mother’s water broke just when I was diving into the deep end of the pool. No one was home to help her.

I timed her contractions with my watch. After swimming lessons my little brother biked away with his friends, toward the school yard. He didn’t want to be around in case my mother made strange noises or lost her head. My father was at work, we didn’t call him home. Hours could pass yet before she went to the hospital.

But she needed to be watched, like an animal in heat. I felt she ought to be watched. And timed. From the beginning of a contraction to the end. And the time in between. As she panted, red-faced, catching her breath. I wished I had a stopwatch—our swimming instructor had one to time our rescues.

I learn first aid at swimming lessons, but not about women in labour, just how to treat shock and bleeding wounds and blocked airways.

In the laundry room I found a stack of fresh towels on the dryer. I held a washcloth under the tap and wrung it out. My mother hardly noticed when I patted her forehead, mottled with heat. She kneeled in front of the couch, head resting on the cushions. I didn’t like her face being hidden. The bottoms of her feet were blotched and red, the blood not circulating.

An important part of lifesaving is talking to the victim. Not conversation, but to keep them awake. When I’m rescuing I yell, Are you okay? What’s your name? Who are you here with? Do you know how to swim? How many brothers and sisters do you have? You’re going to be okay, alright? The answers to these questions come back garbled, through water-filled mouths. Between gasps for breath. Then I explain, I’m going to throw this flutterboard to you. Can you catch it? Good. Hold on tight and I’m going to pull you in. Just keep your head above the water.

I found the puddle of my mother’s broken water, on the kitchen floor. She had been clearing the dishes. I soaked up the thick pool with old towels from the rag bag, and went over the floor with a mop and some vinegar.

Later that day we would go next door to the neighbours, my brother and I. After the baby was born, Mrs. Lewis would drive us to the hospital to see my mother, to see that everything was alright, and to see the baby. I had my camera ready, loaded with film and new batteries in the flash.

There’s a trick with your wrist when you’re throwing a flutterboard. You hold the corner, with your forefinger extended up the edge for balance. Then you flick your wrist and send the board spinning, not flat like a dinner plate but edge up, until it lands with a smack on the water.

My aim isn’t very good. The water around my victim is littered with flutterboards that missed the target. Sometimes they drift within reach of someone else’s victim and save them by accident.

I thought of the baby, floating, breathing water, and then pulled into the air, resuscitated.

When you get the victim to the side of the pool, getting them out isn’t easy. I’m too small to do lifts, mostly my victims just climb out the ladder themselves. But I get lifted all the time, heaved out of the water, someone’s arms locked under my armpits. My breasts are crushed and the skin of my back scraped against the concrete edge of the pool.

I pushed my mother’s wheelchair from her room to the car, the day she came home from the hospital. My father carried the baby. Neither of them moved much—the baby waved its fist and my mother tipped her head back to lay against the headrest. She wouldn’t let my father turn on the air conditioning. She hugged her sweater and shivered. I would have taken the baby’s blanket and given it to my mother.

I keep talking while I treat the victims for shock, laying them on the concrete, elevating their feet. I cover them with their towel if I can find it—not mine, I wouldn’t want it to get wet. At our outdoor pool, the mornings are cold during lessons and the victims shiver for real. Don’t worry, the ambulance is on its way. Is there someone we can call to come get you?

We put them both to bed when we got home. My mother was changed into a cotton night-gown, and I put a new diaper on the baby. The blackened end of the umbilical cord stuck out of its navel. The skin around the baby’s nose looked hot and red, and the white pores stood out like needle pricks.

My mother slept until noon, sleeping while the baby was awake in the morning. At first I put the baby in the bassinet in my mother’s room while I went to swimming lessons, I thought she would hear if it cried, but I wasn’t sure. So I wrapped the baby up and brought it to the pool in the stroller. The lifeguards who weren’t teaching and the mothers who had brought their children to lessons leaned over the stroller and watched the baby most of the time while I was swimming. Before and after my lesson I had to tell them over and over again the baby’s name and when it was born and how much it weighed. They all wanted to know. If the baby cried one of them would pick it up.

In a few days a nurse came by to check on the baby and my mother. She showed me how to clean the baby’s cord with a cotton-tipped swab and some alcohol while we bathed it in a plastic tub on the change table. My mother was too tired to get up. The nurse made sure she was breast-feeding properly and checked her pulse and blood pressure. I asked the nurse how much longer my mother would stay in bed, and she said maybe a few more days. Giving birth takes a lot out of you, she said. I wanted to ask her also why my mother didn’t want to eat or talk to me, but she was a nurse. She wouldn’t know the answer to questions like that. She was more concerned with making sure the baby wasn’t jaundiced.

Only once we practised mouth-to-mouth using the baby as our casualty. Artificial respiration is different with infants, you must cover the entire nose and mouth when breathing in. And blow gently with frequent breaths to avoid damaging the lungs. We put the baby on a picnic table in the recovery position and took turns checking the breathing, taking a pulse on the inner arm and opening the airway. Baby! Baby! Can you hear me? we shouted. When my turn came, I opened my mouth wide and pressed it wet against the baby’s face. This was nothing like a kiss. I could have been blowing up an inner tube.

Every day that goes by my mother sinks further into her bed. Her eyes are closed most of the time, even when she’s awake. Tears leak out from behind her eyelids, I see the damp patches on the pillow. Her lips are pale, the same colour as her skin. I try to keep them moist with Vaseline. Her stomach has collapsed.

At swimming lessons I learned first to swim. To save myself. But that wasn’t enough. I had to learn how to rescue, how to resuscitate. I had to keep other people from drowning. And once I learned to rescue, I had a responsibility. I couldn’t walk past a drowning person without trying to help, because I knew how.

The baby squalls, waking up hungry. My mother is huddled in the sheets and she doesn’t move when I pull the curtains open. I want to shake her. I want to ask her questions. What’s your name? How did you get here? What did that baby pull out of you when it came, and how can I put it back? The ambulance is on its way, and what should I tell them is wrong with you?