There had been severe weather warnings all day, each one predicting worse weather than the last, but Beth hadn’t worried about them. She was snug in her apartment. Her refrigerator was full. There was wood for the fireplace in case the electricity went out. She had fresh batteries for the flashlights. The weather forecast had called for snow, and lots of it. The meteorologists were using the word feet instead of inches when they interrupted the local radio broadcasts to announce, in dire tones, that the snow was on its way. Beth knew they were serious when they began mentioning other historically large storms. “This one is going to rival the Blizzard of ‘78!” said the WROR newscaster. Beth had heard about the Blizzard of ‘78 her whole life from her mother. Apparently, it had been “epic.” Beth smiled at a memory of her mother talking about how the mountains of plowed snow around all the light poles in the parking lot of the mall in Lincoln, Rhode Island, hadn’t completely melted until May. Maybe this storm would be big enough so that Beth would have a storm story to tell her little one some day.
Beth had checked in downstairs with Aunt Meg earlier and had waddled to the corner store and back, picking up bread, milk, and eggs for both of them. The baby was due in two weeks, but Beth had not slowed down. She had always been energetic and pregnancy hadn’t changed that. She was very active even into these last weeks, still doing her daily yoga, albeit with many modifications to the asanas because of her bulging belly. Beth had taught no yoga classes for months now, but still taught her meditation classes as well as running the business end of the small yoga studio in the townhouse’s basement in Cambridge, where she lived. She had hired a teacher to fill in for her until she could get back to teaching the classes herself again. She and Philip lived in the second-floor apartment and Philip’s Aunt Meg had the first floor.
The house belonged to Aunt Meg. She was really Philip’s great aunt, born in 1928. Now eighty years old, she had been a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital for forty years, until her retirement 15 years ago. She and Philip’s grandmother had inherited the house from their parents and then it went to Meg when Philip’s grandmother had died. Meg had never married and had had no children. She had treated Philip’s mother, her niece, as if she were her own child, and she treated Philip like a grandson.
As Beth put her groceries away, she chuckled at a memory of her sister as a small child asking their mother why people always wanted French toast when it snowed. Beth and her mother hadn’t understood where the question came from, but the child had explained, “Why do people always buy bread and milk and eggs? Why do they want French toast?” From then on, their mother had always made French toast when it snowed.
Oh, my, thought Beth, I’m in a nostalgic mood. It must be a late-stage pregnancy thing. Nesting or something.
Beth went downstairs and spent the snow day with Aunt Meg. The yoga studio was closed because of the storm. They made a big pot of minestrone soup and baked oatmeal raisin cookies. Aunt Meg taught Beth how to play cribbage and by the end of the day, Beth had even won a few games. After dinner, they watched It’s a Wonderful Life and Beth went upstairs to sleep.
Philip was on 24-hour call at the hospital and had texted her to say that he wouldn’t even try to make it home while it was still snowing. The snow was coming down fast, but the wind was doing odd things to it, blowing it around so that there were clear patches next to tall drifts. The T, the Boston area’s light rail service, was iffy at this point in the storm, Philip had texted. Some trains were running and others were not. Several patients and colleagues could not make it home and were back at the hospital. He had a bed in the intern’s lounge, so he could sleep if he needed to. But, the real problem was that his replacement on-call doctor hadn’t made it in yet, and hadn’t contacted the hospital.
Beth sent a message back, telling Philip that all was well here at the home. She and Aunt Meg were safe and warm and she’d see him tomorrow. Beth pressed the send button, plugged her phone in and climbed into bed. She could hear the wind howling and could see, through a gap in the draperies, the snow blowing crazily as she drifted off to sleep.
Beth awoke with a start, not immediately sure of what had awakened her. She didn’t hear the wind anymore, and looked out the window to see fat flakes of snow pelting toward the ground, so thick in the air that it was almost a curtain of white. This snow was not drifting down. They were big, heavy flakes racing toward the ground. She glanced toward the clock and it was dark. The electricity had gone out. Beth got out of bed to check on the snow’s accumulation and couldn’t believe her eyes. She could see nothing but white. Snow covered the cars so thoroughly they were simply white lumps by the side of the road. At regular intervals, street lamps poked up out of the snow, but they weren’t lit. The electricity was out in the entire city.
She picked up her cell phone from the bedside table and saw that it was 3AM. She checked to see if Philip had sent any response to her text or any updates on the weather or his plans. He hadn’t received her text. It hadn’t gone through. She pressed the send button. Nothing happened. Her phone had no bars showing. Cell service was out.
She got out of bed, put on warm slippers and her winter robe against the cold apartment. Maybe it would be a good idea to light a fire to warm up the apartment. She decided to phone Philip from the house phone. Yes, it was the middle of the night, but she suddenly felt uneasy. She needed to hear his voice.
The full moon shone off the accumulating snow, giving enough light to the apartment to walk around without having to use a flashlight. Beth was glad of this, since she had not brought a flashlight to bed with her.
She walked to the living room where the house phone sat on an end table next to the couch. They never used the phone anymore. Most people had given up keeping a house phone, but they had kept theirs for reasons they couldn’t explain. She was glad of that now as she picked up the receiver. There was no dial tone. It was dead. Phone service was down. Here in this old neighborhood, the telephone lines still ran on poles. A big storm could easily knock out phone service.
Now Beth felt panic stir in her. The panic paced quietly in anticipation, like a jungle cat in the pit of her stomach.
Stop it, she told herself. Everything is fine. You need to drink a glass of water and go back to bed.
As she made her way to the kitchen, a cramping in her abdomen began pulling and tightening her muscles. It was not a bad cramp, probably just some Braxton-Hicks contractions. The doctor had told her she might start having those now that her due date was getting close. Aunt Meg had also said that she might have some practice contractions now that the baby was settling down deep in her pelvis. Aunt Meg had claimed to know this, that the baby was fully engaged, because Beth had started waddling when she walked and she had gotten her appetite back. The baby had “gotten out of the way” of Beth’s stomach and she felt hungry again, Aunt Meg had said. Beth agreed with Meg about this, as she had been eating her way through everything in the house for the last few days. Beth thought about going downstairs and waking Aunt Meg, but she would feel silly waking her for one contraction. Besides, Meg was an early riser. She’d be up by 5 o’clock and Meg could go down there then if she wasn’t fast asleep in her bed by that time.
Beth drank a glass of water, refilled the glass, took it with her to the bedroom, and placed it on the nightstand. She had decided not to start a fire, but simply to add another blanket to the bed. She got one down from the shelf in the bedroom closet and put it, folded, on the end of the bed. As she did so, another contraction grabbed her, hard and fast this time, and shocked her to her core. She leaned over and put her hands out on the bed as she rode the pain, trying to breathe in and out slowly and consistently. But the intensity of it had taken her by surprise. She thought that labor was supposed to start slowly and built up. If this was the beginning, what was the end going to be like? How was she going to do it?
Stop it, she told herself. Breathe. You know how to breathe, you’re a yoga teacher. Conscious breathing, here we go.
She stared at the carved pine cones on the posts at the foot of the bed, using them as a focal point, and concentrated on breathing until it was over. She whooshed out a cleansing breath and decided that, yes, she would go downstairs to Aunt Meg’s apartment, after all. Meg would wake up if Beth knocked hard enough. It reinforced the wisdom of this decision when her water broke on the landing outside her apartment door.
“Ooooooh,” she moaned. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken the time to finish packing her hospital bag before going downstairs. She had thought that if they called an ambulance—if the phones started working again—then she’d need the bag. Now here she was, at the top of the stairs with a suitcase, standing in a puddle of amniotic fluid.
Maybe I should go down the stairs on my butt in case I get another contraction, she thought, and started down the steps, sitting down on the top step and then lowering herself, step by step, as she plopped the suitcase down, step by step, with her. She was halfway down when Aunt Meg’s door opened and she stepped out into the hall.
“What’s that noise? What are you doing?” asked the woman, in concern.
“Having a baby,” said Beth, “I think.”
Aunt Meg rushed up the stairs, grabbed the suitcase in one hand, and hefted Beth up with the other arm. “You can walk,” said Meg. “Come on, I’ve got you.” Beth stood up and hobbled down the stairs, thanking heaven that Aunt Meg was still so spry and strong.
Meg got Beth into the apartment, cleaned her up and sat her in the armchair by the fireplace, stopping twice to hold Beth’s hands through contractions. A fire was roaring in the grate. Meg had been awake for a while.
“I couldn’t sleep in my drafty bedroom,” Meg explained. “Came out here and made a fire. I’ve been reading and snoozing by the fire since midnight. We’ll put you on the couch if things come to that. I’ll get you a fresh nightgown.” She walked away, leaving Beth sitting by the warmth and glow emanating from the fireplace.
Beth wrote a few texts to Philip, telling him what was happening and how she wasn’t sure, but she thought she was in real labor. She told him that when he got the messages, he should send an ambulance or try to call her back to get an update. She told him not to come home unless it was safe to do so. Beth realized that, although the messages couldn’t get through now, eventually, when the cell towers were back in business, her messages would get sent. She also sent a little “please, please, please” prayer out when she hit the send button.
Aunt Meg came back with a new nightgown, robe, and slippers and helped Beth into them. She settled her more comfortably in the armchair with pillows and a blanket. Meg brought hot tea and cold water to drink. She bustled about in the kitchen. Beth asked her how she could cook when the electricity was out.
Meg said, “I have a gas stove. I have to light the gas ring with a match because the pilot is electric, but we have use of the stove and the oven.”
They spent the next hour, between Beth’s contractions, talking about nothing at all, sharing stories of their lives. Beth told Meg about her baby sister and how it came to be that her mother always made French toast when it snowed. Meg told Beth the family story of how Meg’s mother didn’t know the exact date of her birth, but always said she was born “the night of the big wind.” When Meg’s grandfather went to register the birth, he couldn’t remember the exact date and told the person behind the counter “it was the night of the big wind” as a way of figuring out which day it had been.
“Maybe,” said Meg, “We’ll have another baby born the night of the big wind.”
Until that moment, Beth was trying very hard to deny the fact that she was in active labor and her baby was likely to be born right here. She had also been trying hard to not acknowledge how scared she was, but it all came tumbling out.
“Meg,” she said, “I don’t think I can do this.”
“What do you mean, dear?” Meg asked, “You’re doing beautifully. I’m quite impressed, actually.”
“But it’s only been a little more than an hour and I’m barely making it through the contractions as it is. I can’t imagine doing this for hours and hours as it gets harder and harder.”
Meg took Beth’s hand. “Sweetheart, there will not be hours and hours. You’re almost there now. Either you slept through the beginning of your labor, which can happen, or this baby is coming quickly, which is good. Fast deliveries are uncomplicated. In fact, I’m just waiting for the sign and then I’m going to go into the kitchen for the instruments I’ve sterilized.”
Beth opened her mouth to ask what sign Meg was waiting for, but a noise came out of her that was completely out of her control, as if the air was being forcefully pushed out of her lungs. Along with this came an animal moan.
“That’s the sign,” said Meg, standing up. “Let’s get you on the couch and I’ll go get the warm towels and other things.”
She settled Beth on the couch and hurried to the kitchen.
Beth yelled suddenly, “I need to push!”
Meg ran in from the kitchen, her arms full. She dropped all the items onto the blanket that was still draped across the armchair and then pulled the chair over closer to the couch.
“Okay,” she said, calmly, “Let’s take a look. Good, very good. You can push with the next contraction.”
It was a blur after that. Three pushes and the baby girl was in her mother’s arms. Meg took care of everything and had Beth and the baby washed and wrapped up together on the couch in no time.
Beth looked down at her newborn in awe. She looked up at Meg.
“What was your mother’s name?” she asked.
“Alice,” said Meg.
They heard the key in the lock, and the door opened. There stood Philip, soaking wet and shivering.
“I got a ride on a snowmobile!” he said, “My replacement doctor got a ride to the hospital from a neighbor and he brought me home. Is the baby here already? How are you, Beth? Aunt Meg, is everything okay?”
Meg ushered him in and shut the door.
“Go sit in the armchair by the fire,” she said, taking charge. “Everything is fine. You have a lovely baby. Beth did a great job.”
“Hi,” said Beth, “Meet your daughter. Her name is Alice. She was born the night of the big snow.”
“That she was,” said Meg, “I’ll go make the French toast.”
Philip looked puzzled as the apartment rang with Meg and Beth’s laughter.
© 2018 Liza Cameron Wasser