Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter

NIGHT VIGIL

It was 3:30 in the morning. The night had grown cold. Derek had been reading, but now the cold distracted him, that and the crying from across the hall. The waiting room was small and close and poorly lit. Derek thought it smelled of Africa which meant, although he did not know it, that he felt far from home. He looked up from his book to find that the missionary sitting opposite him had stopped reading his Bible. They listened to a baby yowling across the hall.
“Life begins with a cry,” the missionary said.
In the early afternoon the missionary brought a Kamba woman to the hospital; she took the third place in the four-bed “labor ward” in which Derek and his wife spent most of the day. This birth would be the Kamba woman’s eighth. The missionary explained to Derek while they shared the waiting room that the woman was the wife of one of his catechists. Because the couple had so many children the husband did not come in from his catechizing safari.
Derek’s wife was having their first baby. She was at this moment in the delivery room at the end of the hall. Because Derek had heard his wife crying out in pain, the wailing of the babies unnerved him. He half-envied the absent catechist. And yet, even though he would not be allowed into the delivery room, he could not imagine being away from his wife at this time. Seeing that the missionary wanted to talk, Derek looked back at his book.
Derek’s profession – journalism – required him to be interested in all kinds of people. But just now he was not inclined to chat with a person he would never see again, especially not this missionary. The man possessed the happy blandness that afflicted, so Derek thought, one certain that Providence had chosen him, but not necessarily others.
“Life begins with pain,” the missionary said. “And often ends with it.”
“Cold tonight,” Derek said. He did not want to hear the missionary’s philosophizings about the beginning and end of life.
Suddenly the crying of the babies ceased; the last flutterings of breath muted into silence. The two men looked at one another, almost startled, and listened to the soundlessness. A half-smile appeared on the missionary’s mouth. But consciousness of the crying made Derek cold. He stood. He wondered what was happening at the end of the long corridor behind them.
“Not worried, are you?” asked the missionary. “Once the little ones arrive, women forget the pain.” He added, “And the child starts to feel it – when we put our fingerprints all over the poor kid.” He grinned, shrugged.
“I’m not worried,” Derek said. “I’m freezing.”
Derek checked the window that he closed an hour earlier, shortly after they heard the doctor, her heels clicking competently on the tiling, pass the waiting room, turn and proceed down the hall.
One of the babies started yowling again; others quickly joined in.
Derek left the waiting room. He stood in the hall he had walked with Dee again and again in the late afternoon and early evening. He peered down its length, through the tunnel of darkness to the brightly-lit white doors at its end. Dee was behind those doors.
He moved forward uncertainly, passing through that darkness. He entered into the labor ward, seeking the sweater left on the chair beside Dee’s bed. He heard the Kamba woman sleeping fitfully behind flower-patterned curtains in the bed beside his wife’s. Across the room stood the bed of a young Asian woman with whom Dee had made friends. They had paced together along the terrace while Derek was at dinner. The Asian’s woman’s husband was with her now, sitting in the darkness behind drawn curtains. Derek saw his feet below the bed and took Dee’s sweater.
In the hallway he put the sweater around his neck and shoulders as a muffler. He went to the white-lit end of the corridor and stood outside the door. “Relax your legs now,” he heard the doctor counsel. “Relax your legs.” Behind the door he heard his wife weeping against the pain, her voice like a cry to him. “Push now!” the doctor instructed. “Push!” Derek heard his wife’s voice whimpering in exertion, emitting a sound of hurt that he had never heard from her before.
The sound immobilized him. He stood, feeling powerless, irrelevant. He wished he could help her: bear her pain or share it. Suddenly his head swam. He felt faint; he recognized the beginnings of fear. In fact, his wife possessed a very low tolerance for pain. Now and then inadvertently he kicked or elbowed her and she would wince, sometimes even writhe, with discomfort. When these things happened, Derek was often impatient with her. Now he felt only sympathy. What could he do to make the pain go away?
But there was nothing he could do.
Earlier, around 1:00 a.m., when Dee was suffering with every contraction, the nurse told her not to push against them, not until the doctor arrived. Derek felt that something should be done. He spoke sharply to the nurse, a young Kikuyu woman who struck him as being busy, not doing her job, but playing a role: Miss East African Efficiency. He asked her, “Could you do something here? My wife’s getting ready to deliver.” The nurse took offense.
In fact, she complained to a supervisor, claiming that Dee was rude to her. This charge infuriated Derek. Dee was a saint. She was never rude. By contrast, he practically always was. Nursie should put the blame where it belonged.
He started to tell her: “Hey! We’ve never done this before. You do it every day. Give us some help here!” But he realized they needed the nurse as an ally. So he smiled at her in tacit apology and held his tongue.
Nurses came and went through the delivery room door. Derek wanted to ask if everything were all right, but the earlier exchange chastised him. Now he knew he must do nothing but express confidence in the hospital and its staff.
Derek prayed earlier in the day. Now as he moved back along the hall through the tunnel of darkness, past the roses and carnations and chrysanthemums that the old Kikuyu women took each evening from the rooms of the new mothers, he prayed again. He invited God not to forget them. Once again he heard a nurse leave the room where Dee was. He turned. He saw into the delivery room, heard the doctor encouraging with distant crispness, “That’s it. Now harder!” Then the delivery room door closed and he heard only the crying of the newborns.
He went back to the waiting room. The missionary was standing, doing deep knee-bends. He stopped when Derek appeared. “Any news?” he asked.
Derek shook his head. Then supposing he should say something, he heard words he hardly recognized emerging from his mouth. “My mother claims,” he said, “that if men and women both had babies, the men would insist the women go first. Masculine politeness. And no family would have more than three kids.”
The missionary nodded. “The night our first one was born,” he observed, “I spent a long time wondering why in human life pain has to accompany birth.”
“Yeah?”
“I decided that only in this way could nature purify human love. It takes selflessness to raise a kid.”
Derek nodded.
“Maybe to a journalist that sounds namby-pamby.”
Derek shrugged. He acknowledged to himself that this notion might be true although there were plenty of bad parents. But it was not the sort of thing he would ever admit to another person, not even to Dee.
“I guess you see the worst of the world,” the missionary said. “Even go looking for it.”
“I’m just looking to keep warm right now,” Derek said. “Guess I’ll walk.”
He paced to the farthest end of the hospital corridor. He stood looking out the window seeing nothing, thinking of how the day started: in darkness, strange sounds penetrating his sleep. Waking he stumbled into the bathroom. There he found Dee emitting mystified squeals. She gave him a look that was full of joy – and apprehension. “My water broke,” she said. They stared at one another, knowing they were now crossing into territory where neither one of them had ever been.
Derek wondered how the day would end. Returning to the hospital after midnight he saw something that he had never seen before in Nairobi: army trucks in the streets. What were they doing? Was a coup about to be sprung? Out of superstition, out of fear of spreading alarm, he told no one about the trucks. Except God. The trucks were one of the reasons he prayed.
The wife of a friend of Derek’s went to the hospital to have her first baby the afternoon the Luo politician Tom Mboya was assassinated. There had been riots in Nairobi and she called her husband, instructing him, “Bring the dogs and get me home.” That baby waited another full week to arrive. But that could not happen to Dee; her water had already broken.
After a while Derek left the window. He returned the way he came, past the closed pharmacy, through the darkened lobby, past the waiting room where the missionary was reading his Bible again. Derek walked until he could see the white doors. They were still closed.
He wondered if his wife wanted her mother. Probably. But he was glad his parents-in-law were not with them. They spent years overseas in the Foreign Service. Because of that his mother-in-law held strong views about the importance of birth control. Even now, if Dee were with them, her mother might be holding forth on the subject. Derek sometimes thought that the influence of those strong views had forced him to bring his wife thousands of miles from home in order for her to conceive.
In any case, if her mother were with them, this process of starting a family would have turned into an affair strictly for women, just as their wedding had. Early in their marriage while they were still living in the States whenever Dee visited her parents, she returned to Derek as a kind of child. “Infantilized by her parents” was how he expressed the idea – but only to himself. He did not express it to anyone else. Usually several weeks had to pass before Dee was restored to him as a woman.
Returning through the hospital Derek wandered out under the covered walkway leading to the nurses’ quarters. The sky was overcast, the air cold and smelling of rain. Faintly he heard a vehicle slowing for the roundabout at the corner. He listened. Was it a car or an army truck?
There had been rain on and off all day. Derek and Dee watched it as they waited in the labor ward, wondering if the baby were merely teasing them or truly intended to come. All afternoon they studied clouds, monitored birds hunting insects on the fragrant, new-mown lawn, observed black and white heavy-bodied kites soaring from the tops of flame trees that blossomed orange-red. At nightfall a pair of aardvarks came to graze with their long, extensible tongues and the rain fell on with steady timelessness. Derek had dinner at an Indian place where he and Dee often went. He returned home at 9:30 and made a bed on the living room couch, only an arm’s reach from the telephone. Dee called at midnight.
Now Derek started back into the building, walking slowly. He wondered if it rained the day he was born. What kind of sky stretched over his grandparents’ apartment on Mariposa Avenue in Los Angeles? He wondered if his father gazed at that sky, uncertain then – as he was now – of what was happening and what the outcome would be.
What kind of smells wafted through that apartment? It was the day before Thanksgiving. Was someone making cranberry sauce or stuffing in the kitchen? He wondered what his parents were like then. He felt close to them in a way he never previously had. A whole set of indistinctions about them began to clothe themselves in definition.
Derek thought of his father. Certainly his first encounter with childbirth had come as a surprise. He went to church the morning following the event and at an appropriate time in the service stood to tell the entire congregation that he had received early that Thanksgiving morning the blessing of twin sons. Derek smiled at a mental picture of his father, more than ten years younger than Derek himself was now, standing in that church service. And receiving congratulations afterward as Derek, the unexpected second to arrive, slept soundly in a laundry basket hastily converted into a bassinet.
Derek realized that he had not thought about his own birth since his childhood. Musing about it gave him a warm sense of linkage with his own family so far away. Especially with his father. For the first time, Derek realized, he would be related to his father, not only as a son, but as one father to another.
In the waiting room the missionary was asleep. Derek did not go into it, but waited outside. He remembered that when he was small, he had frequent dreams about fleeing from something across a dark, barren plain. Those dreams made him cry. He would wake up in bed. His father would tiptoe into the room, hold and comfort him and chase the dream away.
He remembered, too, that at one point his Dad had a daughter in boarding school and two sons away at college. His father, who was an excellent ballroom dancer, paid tuition bills with the same grace he brought to a waltz. When he was in college, Derek supposed that one act was as effortless as the other. He was not much of a dancer, but he hoped his children would think the same thing.
Derek thought now of his brother, his identical twin, his best friend, the first-born who was given his father’s name. Derek and his brother wrote long letters to one another two or three times a month. The brother had opinions about everything and he would have had one about what the baby should be named. “Just don’t name him Scott! It’s too trendy.” That was the advice this brother gave their sister – without knowing that she had already chosen that name for her son.
Derek and Dee agreed that she would name the baby if it were a girl; he would name it if it were a boy. If the naming fell to him, he would give the child the name of his father and his brother.
At the end of the corridor the white doors of the delivery room opened. A Kikuyu nurse hurried along the hall, grinning. “You have a son,” she announced. Very soon the nurse Derek had offended came along, walking efficiently from the delivery room. She was carrying his son lightly on her arm. She and Derek exchanged a smile. The baby wore a plastic identity bracelet on his ankle and his head was sticking out of coarse white swaddling. His eyes were open. He looked at his father and Derek found him to be clear-eyed, finely formed, and alert.
The nurse warned Derek not to follow her and disappeared through a door. She flicked on the light in the nursery and left Derek trying to peek through a window and around the edge of the drawn curtain. Finally she placed the baby, wrapped and very small, in a waist-high crib. She pulled back the curtain and wheeled the crib beside the window.
Derek and his son regarded one another, making their introductions. The baby was small and sober, uncrying and coolly observant of the world. He was not at all wrinkled, not at all red or prune-faced. He gazed at Derek with dark blue-gray eyes and a detached seriousness, and Derek thought of old snapshots he had seen of his father, a sober little boy in Redlands, California. Although Derek would not acknowledge what he felt to any of his colleagues – he would soon be swapping stories about how the baby yowled at night – he perceived his son as terribly, terribly sweet.
Gazing at him, Derek understood that the child was not, as the missionary claimed, a blank page on which his parents would leave their fingerprints. This child was complete, already himself, already aware of his identity. In his time he would show himself to Derek; he would make visible to his parents the identity that existed within him even now. Derek, of course, would never breathe any of this to his colleagues.
He heard the doctor’s footsteps coming along the corridor. When he turned to her, she smiled at him. “Thanks for all you’ve done,” he said. “How is she?”
“Fine. She worked hard, you know. She was splendid.”
“Can I see her?”
“Of course.”
As the doctor started down the hall, Derek called after her, “Be careful, Doctor.” She turned and looked at him quizzically. “There are army trucks in the streets,” he warned her. “I don’t know why.” He shrugged, aware that his apprehensions showed. “Will they be all right if there’s trouble?”
“It’s Madaraka Day,” the doctor said. “Did you forget?”
“I don’t even know what that is.”
“A national holiday. There’s a military parade. She’ll be all right.” The doctor smiled reassuringly and continued down the hall.
Derek gazed back at his son. Am I turning into a worrier? he asked the child without speaking. Or just a family man? The child was examining the side of his crib. Derek smiled at his intentness. He stepped back from the window, parted from his son for the first time and hurried down the hall to see his wife.
In the delivery room he bent to embrace her as best he could. “He’s beautiful,” Derek said. He leaned down and gave his wife a kiss.
“What does he look like?” she asked. “I hardly saw him.”
“He’s perfect,” he told his wife. “And terrific. And so are you.”
Derek did not go directly home. He drove past the main post office and the Parliament Building and out toward the President’s Mansion just to satisfy himself that the army trucks really had left their motor pools for a parade.
At home Derek stood at the living room window in the first light of dawn. He thought about becoming a father. He and his journalist colleagues sometimes jokingly referred to themselves as The World Press. They reported, dissected, and analyzed the events of a continent. That gave those events significance, bestowed importance on them.
Now Derek knew a secret. Those events meant nothing compared to the birth of his son.

1 Comment

  1. Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen

    October 10, 2019 at 7:04 pm

    This essay on becoming a father for the first time made me cry. Spoiler alert, despite its ominous tone, it turns out alright! Beautifully crafted.

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