The first rays of sunshine creep under the closed curtains. My stomach jabs me with an angry growl. I dig through my purse for loose change but come up empty-handed. Filling a tiny paper cup at the sink, I down a few cups, my stomach somewhat placated.
A contraction washes over Ruth and she moans loudly. In the early morning hours her labor has progressed to the final stage. I feel helpless. Andrew gave me ice chips and a cool, wet washcloth when I was in labor. I do the same for Ruth.
“It’s time to push,” Kim says, squatting between Ruth’s legs.
“C’mon Ruth, you can do it!” I exclaim, holding her clammy hand. A two-person cheering squad, Kim and I encourage her. “I know it hurts but it’ll be over soon!” The situation is simultaneously hilarious and sad. I am witnessing one of her most intense, personal experiences, but I am a complete stranger.
I wet a washcloth with cool water and dab her sweaty forehead. When I push hair away from her eyes, my finger catches in a tangle from her night of restless sleep. I wince and whisper, “I’m so sorry!” but she doesn’t notice.
The contractions surge, her uterus feeling like it’s going to be ripped out. “Aaaahhhhh!” she shouts, “I want my husband!”
Her cry punches me in the stomach. The reality of Ruth’s situation hits me: She is completely alone. Her physical pain must be nothing compared to her emotional pain, and nothing I do will help. Her future is completely uncertain. Gut-wrenching sadness and guilt flows through me because I’m standing in her husband’s place.
“I know you do, Honey, I know,” I say, my voice cracking. I take the washcloth from her forehead and turn to the sink, taking deep breaths. I blink away tears, telling myself to pull it together.
Kim and I urge Ruth to continue pushing but after four hours she has given up. Her eyes are dull and she is ghostly white. I understand her exhaustion having pushed for four hours with Eli.
“Ruth, you need to push!” orders Kim.
“I am,” Ruth protests weakly.
Kim stands and gestures for me to follow her into the hallway. “She isn’t pushing anymore. We’ll have to do a C-section if she doesn’t keep trying.” She pauses and her eyes probe mine. “Is there anything about Ruth’s pregnancy that I should know…?” Her voice trails off.
“I don’t really know her.” I stumble, trying to succinctly explain something complicated. Kim nods as I finish and then marches back into the birthing room.
At Ruth’s side, she says firmly, “Ruth, is there anything we need to know about your pregnancy? You need to be honest; there might be something wrong with your baby!”
Ruth takes a deep breath and says meekly, “I did meth. Once. When my husband went to prison and I was really upset.” Dead silence follows and then Ruth cries, “Are you going to take my baby? Please don’t take my baby!” Her eyes are wrought with fear and she chokes on a sob.
“No one is going to take your baby,” Kim reassures her. She leaves the room, a sad smile tugging at her lips as if she knows how this will all play out.
I stare at Ruth’s pale, gaunt face. She no longer tries to hide her rotten teeth. Small scabs litter her naked belly.
Once?! You’re full of shit!