With Child
Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor




Death and Life
Francine Bennion

[p.163]Three times my doctor declared me dead at the birth of my first baby.

My husband, Bob, and I were both in graduate school at Ohio State University, married for three months, when I became pregnant in December 1956. I had no nausea, felt good though sleepy at times, and found it easier than ever in my life to eat exactly as I should, because I was doing it for the baby.

When I was about six months along, I had some blood spotting, and at nearly seven months a little bright bleeding. My obstetrician told us that the placenta was over the opening of the uterus, and hemorrhaging was possible at any time.

Bob was working and training five days a week at the Veterans Administration hospital in Chillicothe, an hour away from our upstairs apartment in Columbus. Our widowed landlady, old and quite deaf, had neither a car nor any experience driving one. Downstairs in her dining room, the receiver, coated with fragrant layers of spittle because her false teeth fit badly, was the only phone in the house, and we had to ask her permission to use it. Our friends lived on narrow streets in other parts of town, and there was no close help for an emergency. We agreed that I should fly home to Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, where I could be with my parents.

My father met me at the nearest convenient airport, in Great Falls, Montana. He was alone. My mother had gone up to the small Ukrainian town in northern Alberta where my sister Rosemary lived with her physician husband and four young daughters. Rosemary was in the hospital. Days of hard ineffectual labor had ended in the birth of a purple girl weighing more than nine pounds who died within hours of [164] birth. She was given my name.

A week later Dad and I went to a movie. When we got home about 9:30 that evening, I felt some pressure and went into the bathroom. A sudden astonishing flood of warm bright blood fell out and kept coming. And coming. All over my legs, my clothes, all over the floor. How could there be any left? “Dad. Dad.”

I couldn’t walk right. Dad helped me to bed, and I worried that he would have to clean up the mess alone—all over the sheets and mattress, a stream, a red river.

My white-faced father went to the phone and called Dr. Fowler, a founder of the medical clinic my father managed, our family doctor all the years I was growing up, the doctor who gave me ether and sewed up the cut under my nose when I fell off a basketball on which I was trying to balance like a seal when I was five years old.

“What did he say?”

“He said he is just leaving to find his horse that’s lost on The Reservation.

He said to stay in bed and he’ll come and check you when he gets back.”

Dad sat on a chair by the bed. I bled steadily, though less copiously, and at times Dad would put another fresh Hudson Bay wool blanket under me to absorb the blood. I lay frozen, tense, afraid to move for fear of precipitating a catastrophe. After a while my legs began to tremble. I couldn’t get them to stop. “Dad. My legs won’t stop shaking. And it’s hard to talk because my jaw is shaking too. My teeth are chattering.” Dad phoned another doctor in the clinic, Dr. Poulsen, whose daughter was the friend with whom I used to roller skate, and hike in the river bottom to Six Mile Coulee. Dr. Poulsen came and gave me a shot that was supposed to stop the shaking and the contractions I was beginning to have. He stayed a while, then said to call the ambulance if things didn’t calm down within an hour or two, or if I began bleeding more heavily again. I was Dr. Fowler’s patient, and Dr. Fowler was expected back any minute. Dr. Poulsen would not interfere.

I continued trembling and contracting, and the bleeding accelerated, sometimes coming in warm surges. At midnight I was carried to the ambulance and put in a private room at the hospital. Saying it would be best if I tried to sleep, the night nurse sent Dad home. She would call him as soon as the doctor came.

[p.165] My memory of what followed is fuzzy, more in my body than in my head. Focusing now for the first time in years, I discover the memory of those long hours in my legs, my abdomen, my pelvis, my still arms and shoulders. I haven’t words for the long dark night, warm blood flowing, labor contractions, in the dark alone and afraid to move or turn over, weak, numb, legs still trembling. Can the baby live! I had thought of her as Susan. I had eaten for her, welcomed her kicks, waited for her.

At long intervals the nurse would come to change soaked pads under me and put a stethoscope on the swollen belly I would have thought hollow after all the bleeding.

“What can you hear!”

“There’s a heartbeat.”

The baby was alive at 2:00 a.m., and the doctor had not come.

“What can you hear!”

“There’s a heartbeat.”

The baby was alive at 4:00 a.m., and the doctor had not come.

“What can you hear?”

“I’m not sure.”

And again, later, “What can you hear!”

“I’m not sure.”

Now I cry, writing this. I didn’t then. Unspeakably tired, reason and emotion pale, hope for the baby faint, I lay on warm blood, letting happen what would.

At 6:30 a.m. Dr. Fowler came to the hospital, after retrieving his horse. He scrubbed, and I was taken to the delivery room too weak for anesthetic, too weak to give my baby birth, too much blood gone to survive surgery.

What I remember now, and what I experienced then, is dim, distant, muffled. Again, as I try to remember, I feel my body change.

I heard someone say there was no heartbeat for the baby. The nurses’ uncertainty had told me that, but I had still hoped.

I knew there was light, but I could no longer open my eyes. I could hear people murmuring and moving, but I could not tell what they were doing. I heard the doctor say, “She has no pulse, she has no breath,” heard him from a distance say, ‘‘I’ll go in and take it,” after a while felt the slightest pressure again on my wrist, heard him say, “She’s gone,” felt an agony of intrusion as he inserted forceps into my uterus [p.166]and pulled, then felt nothing. Again he said, “She’s gone,” this time his voice faint and moving away.

I wasn’t gone. I wanted to say so. I couldn’t speak or move but I was there, however distant and unseeing, and I could hear him. I thought of Bob, and how he would be if I did not return to him, what he would do if he knew I had gone home and died. I didn’t care where I was, I was so tired, so far and tired, but I could not leave Bob alone.

I thought the baby was a girl, but I couldn’t ask. I wanted to see eyes and fingernails and hair, wanted to know if there were the right number of fingers, but I couldn’t speak. I knew people were moving across the room, and I was afraid they were putting my baby in a paper bag with other garbage in a can, but I couldn’t protest. I could not move anything.

Then I was nowhere.

When I opened my eyes again, a tube was in my vein and Dad was there. I asked to see the baby. “They say it will be better if you don’t.” I was too tired to beg. I asked him not to let them throw her away but to find her and bury her in the cemetery. Later they did, in a white dress and a handkerchief for a diaper, in a grassy plot on which they put a small gravestone engraved “Baby Bennion.” My mother says it was a beautiful little girl with lots of dark hair.

Dad phoned Bob. He was at the VA hospital in Chillicothe as usual that day, playing baseball out on the lawn with other trainees and staff in honor of some special celebration. He was called in to answer the phone in the hall, but couldn’t hear very well because of the noise and confusion around him.
            “This is Fran.”
            Bob couldn’t hear. “Who?”
            “Fran. Francine’s Dad.”
            Bob thought he said, “Francine’s dead.”

            Early on I had asked Dad to put me in a ward instead of a private room, not telling him it was to save money. I went to sleep with blood [p.167]pumping into me, and woke up in an eight-bed ward, still hooked up to a bottle. That day I was given all the compatible blood the hospital had, five pints. In the week that followed, I was given four more pints.
            The women in all the other beds had babies. On schedule, their babies were wheeled in for the mothers to feed them, coo to them, love them. That was all right. I was glad for them.
            But then my milk came in. The doctor had prescribed pills to prevent it, but they didn’t work. I was swollen from my waist to my collarbone, not only my breasts but my whole chest rock hard, an agonizing unyielding mass of tissue with milk pushing to burst my skin. I begged for help. “We can pump it,” they said, “but that will only keep the milk coming and prolong your discomfort.” Discomfort.
            One night when the babies were brought in at 2:00 a.m., I lay sleepless, watching in pain, aching for a baby to drain me of that unbearable milk in softness and love, yearning for Bob to hug me. I waited till the feeding was over and babies taken away, lights turned off, hallways quiet, mothers sleeping. Then I awkwardly eased out of bed and in slow stiff agony walked the dark halls, turning back again and again to avoid the lighted nurse’s station, tears streaming my cheeks and my stone chest.
            Finally I dabbed my face with the sleeve of my printed cotton gown and made my way to the nurse at the desk. “My chest hurts,” I managed to say, quite politely. “Can you give me something for pain?” She consulted my chart. “Nothing is ordered.” Then she looked at my face. “I think it would be all right if I give you a couple of aspirin.”
            Gratefully I swallowed the pills and the water, walked back in the direction of the ward as though returning to bed, and lumbered in dark silence again. Later the nurse came to check on me, found me around a hall corner, and took me to bed.
            After some days my blood count became closer to normal, and though my chest still hurt, it was a little less tight because milk was leaking. With bands of washable cotton bound tightly around my breasts, I went home to my mother and father.
            The milk kept coming. I remember going to a bridal shower weeks later for Iris Kirk, who had become a pharmacist and had given me crystal goblets for my wedding. Though I was still white and tired, I wanted Iris to know I was her friend. I don’t remember much about the [p.168]shower except that when it was time to leave, I felt something wet and looked down to find the front of my tan linen dress soaked with milk.
            A well-meaning woman phoned to comfort me with promises that I would raise my baby in the next world. As she talked, I remembered riding to summer school at Brigham Young University years before. The man sitting next to me on the bus, a Mormon high priest from Raymond, had asked if I knew when the spirit enters a baby’s body. “No,” I said, and he told me the true answer with satisfaction, quoting a scripture from the Book of Mormon to prove he was right. I thought of a New Testament scripture that seemed to contradict his, but I really didn’t care and didn’t feel like arguing because it seemed fruitless. Now his question was perhaps more pertinent, but after thanking the caller and hanging up, I could not pretend to know any more than I had when I was younger, or to find argument from limited resources more fruitful. I was only human. Raising a “baby” in the next life did not make sense to me.
            My hemorrhage was real. My God was, and is, real. Speculative hopes were not my rock, my ground.
            I wrote a letter to the English department at Ohio State asking if they needed me to teach composition, logic, and literature fall term. I received a quick reply offering me a position.
            At the end of August I returned to Columbus and normal life, walking a couple of miles with Bob to campus, continuing graduate studies, cooking, making music at church, doing laundry in a portable machine in the bathtub in case the water leaked, watching Bob’s foot go through our living-room floor and the ceiling below one day as he walked toward the kitchen, teaching a cynical Korean veteran, fraternity and sorority pledges, farm girls, and a nonchalant from the slums of Cleveland, shopping for groceries and encountering chocolate-covered ants and canned rattlesnake meat in the gourmet section at Big Bear, where one of our impoverished student friends was in the habit of intercepting overripe bananas and browning lettuce headed for the garbage bins …
            When Bob finally learned that Dr. Fowler had gone to look for his horse while I lay bleeding, and Dr. Poulsen had feared Dr. Fowler more than my death, he raged at the men, and would have been after them with a crowbar. I thought them only human.
            [p.169]My long bloody night with death was past. It became a half-remembered dream, distant from fallen buckeyes, bright cardinals, quiet snow. I awoke Christmas morning liking the light slanting through our bedroom window, and wrote a card to Dr. Fowler thanking him for saving my life.
            The following year the first of our lively children was born.