My night table hums to me. I throw the warm comforter off of my body and pull myself out of bed to find the source of this humming. The search is short—dancing on the edge of my table is my phone, it was my mom calling.
– Haloo chōrī! Good morning!
– Hello mommy! Sorry, I just woke up. Why are you calling so early?
– Early? Riva, it is 12 o’clock. Timī kina ajhai sutirahēkā chau? It’s Sunday. You said you would call me at 9 o’clock this morning to have our talk.
– It’s 12? It’s Sunday? Ah, sorry, I totally forgot! This three-day weekend really threw me off. Hold on, let me wash up really quickly and then I’ll be ready.
– Ēkaichina, ēkaichina! Uncle and aunty are here! Nirmal, Riva phōnamā cha! Here, talk to them.
My mother isn’t very athletic; but, when it comes to passing the phone, she possesses the speed of Usain Bolt. Not two blinks later, my uncle’s face engulfs my phone screen.
– Namastē Riva! Anī school kastō cha?
Before I have a chance to answer, my aunt’s face squeezes itself into the screen.
– Riva! Namastē! Kahilē ā’unuhuncha?
– Namastē Uncle! Namastē Aunty! School ṭhīka cha. Anī I’ll probably be coming to visit over Thanksgiving. If not, definitely over Winter Break! How’s Isha and Safal?
As they describe how my baby cousins are doing, I’m reminded that they’re no longer babies. At the ages of four and seven, Isha is in preschool and Safal is in second grade. Sometimes, I forget that time keeps going even when you’re not there.
– Uncle, Aunty, I have to go! It’s getting late and I should wash up. Can you tell mommy that I’ll call her back in 20 minutes?
– La! Column lāgī?
– Yes, for the column! This week’s theme is labor, so tell her to start thinking about what that could mean.
This was something that I needed to start thinking about as well. Initially, when I heard that the theme of the week was labor, I thought of Merriam-Webster’s first definition of labor: work. But now, my mind is traveling down to its second definition: the process of childbirth. I’ve never heard my mom talk about what it was like to be pregnant and give birth. In fact, I think I’ve seen a total of one picture from when she was pregnant—and she’s been pregnant twice, once with my sister and then again with me. It’s possible that those photos got lost during one of our many moves. But maybe it’s possible that some of them can be found again with words—if a photo is worth a thousand words, maybe a thousand words can be worth a photo.
I reach for my phone and make the call.
– Haloo chōrī! Kē timī uṭhyau?
– Yes, I’m awake! Are you ready?
– La, suru garaum̐.
– Okay, so today we’re going to be talking about labor. Not work labor, but actual labor.
– Actual labor? Riva, what do you mean?
– Like the process of childbirth! I’ve never heard you talk about it, and I want to know what it was like.
– Oh god, there’s a reason you’ve never heard me talk about it. Who talks about things like this?
– We will! Today! I know it might feel weird and silly, but just walk me through it. Describe the day you went into labor with Susan.
Underneath the gleam of her glasses, I can see her eyes closing. Her body rises and settles as she releases a deep sigh.
– Is that one of the breathing exercises they taught you while you were in labor?
Her nose scrunches up like the top of a pulled, drawstring backpack.
– Do you want me to tell you the story or not? Give me a minute to think. Ēka minēṭa. I don’t know if I can remember everything, but I will do my best.
Another sigh leaves her body.
– Hmm…It was the summertime. We had planned it that way. Otherwise, it would have been too difficult to balance everything. We were living in one of the Slocum Heights Apartments at the time, it was a married student housing complex. I was on the final year of my Master’s Program while your dad was on the final year of his PhD. On labor day—June 26, 1991, not labor day like Labor Day—I woke up and immediately went to the bathroom, this was also how most of my other pregnancy days began…
As she continues her story, I let her voice envelop my mind. Her words piece together to form a stream of photos so vivid, so life-like that as she starts to describe her morning, I too can smell the eggs cooking in the background. I can feel myself being weighed down by the desire to keep sleeping and also by the heaviness of a pregnant body. There are slippers near the side of the bed, calling out to my feet. I answer their call and head to the bathroom.
My left hand reaches for and circles the space on the wall where I know the light switch is bound to be. I flick it upwards and the room goes bright—too bright. Have these walls always been this white? I turn the bathroom faucet on to wash my hands and face. As I look at myself in the mirror, I pause. The only thing familiar were the eyes. They look back at me with such remembrance that I’m brought back to who I once was—a small, skinny girl with long, silky hair; excited to continue her studies in America. As my mind moves back, I move forward bringing my face closer to the mirror. I examine the person across from me. My face looks like the aftermath of a severe allergic reaction. My cheeks had grown to such heights that one could be convinced that they had gotten into a fight with my eyes and decided to get as far away as they possibly could.
I can’t recognize myself. Years separated this person from the woman in my mind. Moving even closer to the mirror, I try to reintroduce the two. Remember the day you called your mother to tell her you were pregnant? She was so excited, you were so excited. You’d been married for ten years and she had been worried something was wrong—even though you had told her a hundred times that you were just waiting until you were close to finishing your studies. It was a long-distance call to Jhapa, so you really shouldn’t have been on the phone as long as you ended up staying on; but these were your last moments of being just a daughter. You told her your fears about becoming a mother and she told you not to worry. She calmed your nerves, like a mother does. Like you will end up having to do.
My due date is in a few days. After all this is over, maybe my face will go back. Or maybe this is who I am now. Maybe that was the face of a child and this is the face of a mother. I’m not sure if I’m ready to keep this face. Bhesh and I are alone here in America. My mom is in Jhapa with Chakra bhā’i and Bandhu and Ashok dā’i are in Ilam and Kathmandu. Why did I think it was a good idea to start a family here when our family is there?
I pull open the drawer and rummage through its contents until my fingertips feel the familiar curvature of my dark lipstick. In an action that I spent years perfecting, I smooth it over my lips and re-examine my face. Better.
In the kitchen, Bhesh is waiting for me with breakfast. His unwavering support reassures me that things will be fine; I have him and this baby will have us. The eggs feel different. They taste the same, but my stomach protests each bite. Does the baby not like eggs? Sipping the last of my mango juice, my bladder starts to overpower my stomach’s protests and my legs sprint to the bathroom.
I hear a weird pop and a trickle of liquid comes out. “Bhesh! Can you call Dr. Cruz?”
– Dr. Cruz was very nice, both of you were born with him.
He leads me to the passenger seat of our tan Ford Escort.
– We were students, it was the best car we could do.
– Why did you pick tan?
– In a sea of white, tan stands out.
Holding my hand with one hand and opening the door with the other, he carefully helps lower me in. Even with the seat pushed all the way back, I fill up the space like air filling up a balloon. He takes my purse from me and moves it to the back seat, as if the tiniest addition of space would help—he really is incredibly thoughtful. I look at him while we drive. I got lucky, he’s a handsome one. Even now, as drops of sweat are forming over his mustache, he’s glowing. Every two minutes, he asks me if I’m okay. He’s talking to me, but he doesn’t break eye contact with the road for even a split second. He knows that this is the most important drive of his life. It’s only 15 minutes, but it feels like 15 lifetimes. My mind jumps to memories that brought me here. Only a couple months ago, I felt the first kick. I was in class and the baby decided that this would be the perfect time to kick me. Was she trying to raise her hand to answer the question? If she was, she must be a smart one because I didn’t even know the answer. I watched my stomach ripple through the cotton dress I had chosen for the day and wondered if anyone else noticed. But as I looked around, it was clear that no one else did—it was our little secret and our first shared experience. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Today will be the day when our privacy evaporates. It’s scary, but I’m ready to start sharing her with the world.
Bhesh and I enter the delivery room together. In Nepal, husbands aren’t allowed in the delivery room because of some old wives’ tale. It is said that a husband’s presence makes labor pains worse.
– I’m not sure who thought of this, but it certainly wasn’t the wives.
I’m glad to have him here with me. Drawn on his usually smooth forehead were deep lines of worry and his honey beige canvas looked a few shades lighter—he was in need of some serious blush. I want to tell him that the only bump in the road we have left to drive over is the one on my stomach, but words are hard to get out.
The nurse keeps instructing me to push and breathe, push and breathe, push and breathe, push and breathe, push and breathe, push and breath until my pushing and breathing gets so loud that the only push and breathe I hear is from me in my own head screaming “PUSH!!!!! BREATHE!!!!!! YOU CAN DO THIS!!!!!!”
I feel like I am being torn apart, but I hold myself together with the knowledge that my baby is almost here.
– For Susan, I wanted to have a natural childbirth with no epidural. She was my first baby and I wanted to experience every moment of it. The second time, with you, epidural was the first thing I asked for.
I imagine what she’s going to sound like: her first cry, will she be loud like her mother? Or quiet like her father? My question gets answered as I hear a soft cry echo through the room.
An 8.4 pound baby with dark, thick hair and a face that also looks like the aftermath of a severe allergic reaction—she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
– She held that title until January 8, 1996. Then you guys became tied for most beautiful.
Bhesh delicately brushes his hand over her cheek and then her chin and then fingers and toes—marveling at this wonderful being we made together. His eyes meet mine and we know the other one feels it too—immense, indescribable feelings of love and joy. “Hāmrō chōrī.” Hāmrō chōrī.
– When you were born, it was the same. Such pure, intense feelings of love and joy. More intense than any of the pain that it took to get there and more intense than the emotional pain that comes afterward as one tries to raise a child. Everything was worth it for you two. I am so proud of you both and I know that if Bhesh were still here, he’d be proud too.
Suddenly, a chubby little dog runs into the view of the screen, breaking my stream of consciousness.
My mom picks Stella up and places her on her lap. Stella is our little, but not so little (she’s overweight), dog who has become a part of our family.
– Stella is my third child. I didn’t have to go into labor to have her, but I still labor over her every day. Look at her licking me, see?
I look over at Stella, who’s treating my mom like her very own human lollipop.
– She wants me to go take her on a walk now.
– I’m pretty sure she just wants food.
– No, she is telling me that she needs to go out. I would know, I’m also her mother. And a mother knows what her children need. Did you go and get your flu shot yet?
– Okay, let’s wrap this up now so you guys can get going on your walk. Bye, mommy! Love you!
– Love you too, chōrī!
She stares at me across the screen and tilts her head into the palm of her hands.
– I don’t want to stop seeing you. You’re still one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. Can you hit the end button for me?
– Haha yeah, of course. And same goes for you, you’re one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. And I’m sure that I’ve thought this from the moment I met you too.