The birth of my daughter took place in a provincial hospital in Japan in April 2004. It was the birth from hell, the worst experience of my entire life, bar none.
My wife went to hospital on a Thursday. On arrival, she was examined and was told that she was not actually in labor but could stay in hospital if she wanted to, as labor would probably begin very shortly. She opted to stay in hospital, the reason being that my mother-in-law's driving is problematical, and my wife did not fancy chancing an emergency rush to hospital in the small hours of the morning.
I was at home in Yokohama on that Thursday, and received instructions by telephone when my wife phoned me from the hospital. My orders were that I should phone my wife's mother after finishing work on Friday. If the baby had been delivered, I should travel to Gunma on the Saturday and visit my wife in hospital. However, if my wife was still in labor, I should come up on the Friday evening and make my way to the hospital.
I fully expected the baby to be born on the Friday. That day, I worked through until 8 p.m. then phoned my mother-in-law from a subway station in the center of Tokyo. My first question was whether the baby was a boy or a girl (we had opted not to be told). The answer, much to my surprise, was that the child had not yet been born.
I proceeded to Asakusa train station in the north of Tokyo and got on an express train bound for Gunma Prefecture. On arrival at the little city of Inakabashi, I got a taxi from the train station to the hospital. Since I'd already toured the hospital in earlier weeks, I knew my way around, and already knew which entrance would be open after hours.
I was a little surprised that there seemed to be absolutely nothing in the way of security operating at that late hour of night. I think there was a guard sitting in some kind of booth off to one side of the entrance, but nobody challenged me or asked for ID as I entered the hospital. Without needing to ask anyone for directions, I took the elevator up to the maternity ward and went to the nurses' station, which was temporarily empty.
A nurse emerged from a side room, looked a little surprised to see me standing there, then obviously clicked, and figured out who I was. There was undoubtedly only one Japanese woman on the maternity ward who was anticipating the arrival of a foreign husband. The nurse took me to my wife.
So far, so good.
It was Friday, and my wife was in labor, but I had gotten to the hospital in time, and was going to be there for the birth. After that, however, things went steadily downhill.
My wife was definitely in labor on the Friday, and, by rights, the child should have been born on the Saturday, by cesarean section if necessary. However, the hospital was understaffed on the weekend.
We were institutionally inconvenient, and so were pretty much ignored, to the point where the experience became like giving birth in an abandoned railway station.
Saturday was a really long day. At meal times, I took the elevator up to the top floor, where there was a cheap restaurant open to the public. And, when my mother-in-law came to visit, I went down to the basement level and used the coin laundry there -- the laundromat -- to wash and dry some clothes. Apart from that, I was at my wife's side the whole time.
By Sunday morning, my wife had been parked for some hours in a cold delivery suite, a place of bright lights and metal, sinister with the equipment of dissection. She was hanging in there bravely, she was being heart-breakingly brave, but she was undergoing a grueling physical ordeal, and was pushing hard up against her biological limits.
According to an optimistically cheerful Western textbook which I had read in preparation for the birth, in the modern world a woman is never going to be in labor for seventy-two hours because medical intervention would take place long before that.
Well, I don't know exactly how many hours my wife was in labor, but I can say for certain that it was too many hours. The process was definitely underway when I showed up at the hospital on the Friday night, but the initial stages (dilation, bleeding) had gotten underway on the Thursday.
Anyway, on Sunday morning, the doctor who was temporarily in charge (I say temporarily because we'd never seen him before) decided to try intervention in the form of drugs designed to stimulate contractions.
The doctor waved a Japanese-language informed consent form under my nose. I didn't bother trying to read it, as that would have taken me a week -- and I would have needed the help of a bunch of dictionaries into the bargain. Instead, I signed it (we want this child out, right?) and the drugs did what they could for my wife. Which wasn't much. A few contractions, too weak to do much to assist with the birth, particularly since there wasn't a single staff member to help us, since the moaning woman giving birth in the other half of the delivery suite, just a curtain away from us, had monopolized everyone's attention with her own crisis.
So there I am, helpless in that coldly complicated sinister room, my wife still limitlessly brave but exhausted, darkness oozing blood, and I find myself reduced to a state of helplessness, of shocked despair. Given my wife's fragile and depleted condition, I can't even begin to imagine any do-it-yourself options. Improvising the equivalent of a home birth in the middle of the hospital is not practical.
And then what happens is that some kind of heart monitoring equipment indicates that the baby is in trouble. The whole situation is disintegrating into a medical crisis, and suddenly there's a big rush of medical people who come flooding in from nowhere to stage a life-and-death medical drama.
Starting with the most horrifically disgusting thing I've seen in my entire life, a piece of brutality which nothing had prepared me for. It wasn't in the birth video I once saw and it certainly wasn't in the textbook I read, either. You know the phrase "I couldn't believe me eyes"? Well, up until then, that expression had just been a set phrase, a fragment of fixed language. But then it became a reality. For a couple of moments I really could not believe what I was seeing.
What happened, what shocked me rigid, what was so appalling that it overthrew my ability to believe what I was seeing, was that a nurse used all her force and her full bodyweight to thrust at my wife's swollen belly, trying to compel the baby out by the application of raw physical force.
And now, after hours of near-complete abandonment, there were one, two, three, four, five people working simultaneously on my wife, pushing, pulling, vacuum cleaning, and, ultimately, doing some enlargement work with razor-sharp surgical steel. Five people. Where were all these people before?
Meantime, a sixth person was at work off to one side, putting together some sinister equipment which, at a guess, was for a projected emergency cesarean section.
Suddenly, without warning, there was a sound like wet and heavy fabric being wrenched apart, a ripping open of the universe accompanied by a monstrously energetic "Gersplot!"
And there was a bloody torpedo in the air, a naked missile lubricated by blood, an energy capsule detonating into the world, and that bionic missile was my daughter.
I didn't hallucinate this. My wife also saw and heard the birth of the flying baby, and it made such an impression on her that, many weeks later, recollecting the event in tranquility, she sat down and wrote a poem about it.
So there we are. The child has already been parked under bright lights, it's a girl, and my wife is asking if it's alive, and I'm saying, yes, yes, it's alive, but my wife, who is in a state of shuddering exhaustion, doesn't believe me, because after all that has happened it is impossible for the child to be alive.
But she is. Alive and breathing.
And my wife, too.
And then the Japanese doctor who is (temporarily) in charge, cheerful with success, has a little chat with me in Japanese. The baby is going to be in an incubator for a bit, but is basically okay. Oh, and by the way: how old are you? Forty-seven. And how old is your wife?
How old is my wife?! Even after all that has happened, that question comes as a huge shock. He's the man on the spot, the boss doctor, the guy in charge, and he doesn't know even the first thing about us. I tell him, for the record, that my wife is forty years of age.
So. The baby went into the incubator, my wife went into a hospital ward, and I had to get on a train and head back to the big city. Where I spent the next few days in a state of shock, trying to emotionally process what had happened.
That's how my daughter was born. And, even a year later, looking back on the experience, I found I still had some emotional processing to do.