I like stories about shifting impressions. In Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog,” Gurov returns home after a quickie affair at a resort, and everything is beautiful:
He returned to Moscow on a fine frosty day, and when he put on his fur-lined overcoat and thick gloves, and sauntered down Petrovka Street, and when, on Saturday evening, he heard the church bells ringing, his recent journey and the places he had visited lost their charm for him. He became gradually immersed in Moscow life, reading with avidity three newspapers a day, while declaring he never read Moscow newspapers on principle. Once more he was caught up in a whirl of restaurants, clubs, banquets, and celebrations, once more glowed with the flattering consciousness that well-known lawyers and actors came to his house, that he played cards in the Medical Club opposite a professor. He could once again eat a whole serving of Moscow Fish Stew in a pan.
I don’t even like chowder, but that fish stew served in a pan makes me crazy with hunger. Contrast that scene with Gurov’s impression of the very same place and people, just three paragraphs later. His rage is comic:
What savage manners, what people! What wasted evenings, what tedious, empty days! Frantic card-playing, gluttony, drunkenness, perpetual talk always about the same thing. The greater part of one’s time and energy went on business that was no use to anyone, and on discussing the same thing over and over again, and there was nothing to show for it all but a stunted wingless existence and a round of trivialities, and there was nowhere to escape to, you might as well be in a madhouse or a convict settlement.
Chekhov writes the prose equivalent of Monet’s paintings. After a while, you begin to see that variations of mood and tone—not haystacks or water lilies or card players or fish stew—are the real subject.
Mrs. Churm fell twice when she was pregnant with Starbuck, from a combination of inner-ear disturbance, shifting center of balance, and “ligament laxity,” a loosening of the joints caused by new hormonal levels. The first time, she slipped on our front stairs, and we rushed to the hospital to see the midwife on duty.
Davie was a thin, low-talking Englishman with a ginger ponytail and a closely cropped beard. He was married and had his own kids, whom he took cycling and rock- climbing, and he volunteered at a shelter for at-risk pregnant teens. The only male midwife at our hospital, he wore a button on his scrubs that read, “Listen to the woman.” He knew all about women’s bodies and what would happen to them, while all I knew was enough to get us to this point. There was a group of former patients called “Davie’s Girls,” who gushed over him as if they were in junior high and he was the resident hottie.
Davie sent us for an ultrasound, checked Mrs. Churm inside and out, stripped off his gloves, washed up, and sat on a rolling stool directly in front of her. Speaking so softly that I had to strain to be included, he explained to her how a fall could shear the placenta from the uterine wall and starve the baby of food and oxygen. “But really,” he assured my wife, “you seem to be fine. Anyway, it’s so early in the pregnancy, it’s not like we could take heroic measures.”
Because I’m deeply in touch with my feelings, I can tell you that I was above all terrified for my wife and unborn child. I was also grateful to the point of tears for Davie’s care and honesty. And when he said so matter-of-factly that my son wasn’t viable I felt some evil crocodile part of my being sink lower in the swamp of my brain, so only its snaky eyes were visible above the gray matter. It thought: You’ll pay for that comment, you ponytailed son of a bitch.
It’s been a damp, drizzly semester in my soul. The young men are in love with violence. (One said in class that he was getting aroused just thinking about actress Jennifer Garner punching him in the face.) A young woman lectured us that no one had ever given birth alone; she knew this because her mom was an ob-gyn. My impressions of students began their slide back around the holidays, even as I rationalized that they had their own competencies, were athletes and future chemical engineers and captains of finance. I began to worry that this was all like a date that had gone on too long.
There are some professors—one in a departmental generation, maybe—who ripen and become happier and more generous the longer they’re around the institution. They seem to have the good luck not to drop dead of virulent cancers the year after they retire, and you see them in the hallways, busy but engaged with others’ research, families, and lives. One I know reminds me of a black-and-white photo I have of poet-doctor William Carlos Williams in old age, laughing joyously under a dogwood in full blossom. I wanna become that guy.
The second time my wife fell, she did a full-on belly flop on the tile floor at her water-aerobics class. She was about a week shy of being full-term. I was horrified at what that kind of overpressure might do to the baby. But at the hospital they hooked her up to a belly band and a fetal monitor, and everything seemed fine.
Davie was the midwife on duty when Mrs. Churm finally went into labor. It was a slow night in labor and delivery. We also had a midwifery resident, a battle-ax nurse, which I mean in the most grateful and admiring way, and a doula we’d hired, so there was plenty of attention. I walked Mrs. Churm up and down the halls, pushed against her spine to counter back labor, and helped her in and out of showers. But when she went into the stage called transition, the most intense part of labor, when women lose their minds and so do their husbands, she was in the birthing-suite toilet. Davie sat on the floor at her feet, slumped against the wall, twirling his ponytail with one finger.
“I’m dying!” cried Mrs. Churm. “Nooo, you’re not,” Davie said in a bored drone. “I am! I am! I am dying!” Mrs. Churm cried. “Ohhhh …” Her groans were more horrible than her cries.
I excused myself, saying I’d just step out and eat my breakfast in the next room, since we’d been up 24 hours, and I’d need my strength for the actual delivery. No one listened. I went out and bit into the gooey institutional muffin they’d brought on the breakfast tray. The crown stuck to the roof of my mouth in a big chocolate glob I couldn’t chew, and I sobbed on top of what was left.
Impressions change easily. Just when I was feeling most tired, and a bit fed up, my student Madeline came to office hours. Her roommate had tried to kill herself, and the university had utterly failed everyone involved, leaving Madeline to care for this girl she didn’t even know, whose mother wouldn’t help, either. Madeline had written a story that was miraculous in its ability to show the pain and confusion of recent weeks without self-pity or even anger at all those who’d let her down.
We had just finished conferencing when I heard the disorganized noises that indicate some violence, and a girl screamed, “Oh my god!” There were half a dozen TAs, instructors, and lecturers in my group office, and maybe 15 students.
As I jumped off my chair and rounded a tall bookcase, I expected to see two guys scuffling on the floor. Instead, a young woman was thrown backward in grand-mal seizure on a teacher’s desk. Her fellow students quickly lifted her feet off the floor and lay her flat, then formed a wall so she couldn’t fall off. Even as I called 911 on my cell, another student a few feet away was speaking calmly to a dispatcher, and the police told me to hang up.
The girl thrashed and thrashed, fighting the thing that had her, and tears ran into her hair. She was rigid, silent, and perfectly white. Then she turned blue, and bright blood trickled down her chin. It wasn’t like watching someone die; it was like looking at death. But the students didn’t back away. Two spoke loudly but reassuringly to her as others held her on the desk, and one young man—classmate, not boyfriend—stroked her hair. I asked them to turn her on her side, and she gasped loudly for a breath. Someone shouted, “She’s back!”
Her face turned cherry-red then from the buildup of carbon dioxide, and when her eyes opened they were totally pink from blown capillaries. She struggled to speak and rise but made no sense. I found myself saying loudly, “Stay down, sweetheart,” not even knowing where that came from; a second later I realized I’d been speaking as if to one of my little boys, and had to walk away. It was startling for me to acknowledge to myself that I’d begun to relate to my students as a father might. The paramedics were there by then, and in half an hour she was able to walk out with them. Her peers stayed with her the entire time. How had they become so strong and compassionate?
Starbuck was born healthy. After I cut the cord, they suctioned his airway, cleaned him, weighed him, and put him under the heater to pink up. Meanwhile, Mrs. Churm was bleeding much too heavily.
Even Davie seemed flustered. He had a tray of instruments that included a curved needle that looked like it belonged to a sailmaker, and he was going to use it as soon as they could get the placenta to deliver. He roughly, impatiently, kneaded my wife’s abdomen, and she cried out from sharp pains worse than anything that had come before. They gave her a shot that caused more contractions, and that was even more agonizing. When the placenta delivered, it came so fast that Davie didn’t have his basin ready. I caught a glimpse of something as organic as lungs, and there was a hard liquid slap on the floor.
“Oh! Muh shoes!” Davie cried, and I knew everything would be OK.
The details of what happened at Virginia Tech on Monday are still emerging, but what has stayed with me from the accounts so far is that professor Liviu Librescu, 76, held his classroom door shut long enough for a few students to jump from second-story windows to safety. I suspect that events happened so fast that his power to hold back Death as long as he did, before being killed, came from a deep and primitive feeling: These are my kids, you son of a bitch.
What a beautiful old crocodile.