In the early ‘90s, natural birth was all the rage. The Lamaze class made it seem as if giving birth was a piece of cake, a walk in the park, as easy as falling off a log.
“Just focus and breathe,” was the advice. “Your husband will be your coach, guiding you through the process, holding your hand, directing you to blow out, breathing, and panting through the contractions, massaging your back, whispering encouragement. Bring calming photos from home of things you love, things that make you feel peaceful, or music to listen to, something soothing, like the sound of the ocean. It’s so much better for the mother and baby to experience this natural process without the interference of any drugs. No epidural needed.”
On an Easter Sunday we brought photos of our dog, our house, of family and friends. We brought some soothing jazz, we brought a stuffed animal, and my favorite pillow. We brought hope and excitement and joy and more love than you could shake a stick at.
We also brought complete, blissful ignorance. Due to some sporadic contractions, we had already been to the hospital twice that day. Even though I missed the annual Easter hunt at my parent’s house, we were thrilled and excited that things were finally happening, after counting down every single day for what seemed an eternity, at last our very own son would be delivered into this world. But the contractions were mild and then faded out altogether. I felt just sort of flat, as if the air had gone out of a balloon. We were sent home. To encourage contractions, I was advised to walk. We walked around and around the block and even along the beach. By late afternoon I was worn out and just wanted my son, wanted him like a little girl longing for a special doll for Christmas. Returning yet again to the hospital, the early evening maternity staff agreed that because the baby was overdue, and things were slow in the ward they would go ahead and induce labor. It seemed a good idea at the time.
I had expected pain, pain that I could manage, that I could breathe through, pain that would come and go, rise and fall, peak and recede, but I had not been informed that the drug, Pitocin, that induced the contractions would cause constant, ceaseless pain. A pain so invasive and grabbing that I could only hold on to the sides of the bed with both hands and promise myself never to get into a situation like this again. I knew screaming would do no good, neither would music or pictures or stuffed animals or deep breaths. There was only God and she must have been busy elsewhere; it was after all, Easter, but couldn’t she have whispered, “Go for the epidural!”
In addition to the pain, there was nausea, which is a lousy combination. Strangely, the hospital gown I was wearing smelled like popcorn to me, which made me feel sick and I managed to rasp out between breaths, “No popcorn! No popcorn!” which no one understood, and I ended up just sounding like a crazy lady. Some of my dear friends, who had been celebrating at my parent’s house, came by to see me. Unfortunately, due to some exaggerated sense of smell I could detect the aroma of Easter chocolate and wine coming from them, and again, like a madwoman, I yelled, “Get away from me, you make me sick!” Then I threw up.
The night dragged on and on. I laid in different positions, I showered, I walked, and threw up some more. There were shift changes amongst the staff, new faces to scan for help they could not give. I noticed my coach had fallen asleep. I was in this thing alone.
On towards morning there was a change. I definitely felt the need to push. People gathered round, there was enthusiastic encouragement, my husband woke up. Someone would count from one to ten and I was supposed to deliver the baby. I tried and tried. Again, hours went by. I laid there in this most immodest of positions and nothing much was happening. No, I didn’t want to look in the mirror. Someone suggested I add vocalization to the pushing, so I began to make horrible loud, guttural moaning and grunting noises, like some wild animal, which I think scared my husband. One staff member had to come in and tactfully ask if maybe I could tone it down as I was disturbing the other patients on the ward.
Finally, after 16 hours of labor, I was handed my son, my small elf, my boy. We looked into each other’s eyes with a recognition, as if we were both amazed and delighted to find ourselves here together on this plane. Somehow, we had done it and the very air visibly vibrated throughout the room, like ectoplasm, as if something had slipped through from another realm.
That’s when I first met Riley Valiant Anapol. Six months later we moved to Topanga.
Last month, Riley graduated from Berkeley School of Law. As a lucky product of Linda Hinrich’s, wonderful Children’s Corner Pre-school and Topanga Elementary, where Riley was pleased to have Dr. Paul Astin as his teacher for both fifth and sixth grades, Topanga nurtured the early boy. He had friends, egg hunts, Christmas celebrations with a big fire in the Community House fireplace and hot apple cider, baseball, annual school plays, one white donkey, one black dog, Bonfires on Bonnell, the Theatricum, and Grandmother Oak. He grew up in the kinder, gentler time when you could still fire super soakers at passing floats in the Topanga Days parade and they’d shoot back and everyone would laugh and wave, and all was right with the world. He got a little sister to tease, played paint ball here in our hills and, once, when about seven years old, kissed classmate Rosie, and yelled out, “I had sex!”
When asked what he valued most about growing up in Topanga he said, “It was a wonderful place to have friends. It was great because it was a real mixed community. There were families who were very affluent and others who were not so well off, but it didn’t matter because when you went to their houses, big or small, you always felt comfortable. And there were old Topanga families, like the Sloans, and new arrivals. It was diverse and we all got along.”
For middle school, Riley was given a scholarship to Calmont school just down the road from us, which was a great opportunity. Unfortunately, when I picked him up that first day he was in tears because his class consisted of only five students and he feared the work might be too hard and he would have no place to hide. I could only assure him, in that Mommy voice, while patting him on the knee, “It will be alright. You can do it.” And so he did.
I think he first attended Pali High School, with his friend Sage, because they thought the girls were cuter there than at Calabasas, but he ended up transferring to Calabasas, which I hope casts no aspersions on the female students at Pali. At one point, I thought Riley might be an actor for he had gifts in that direction, but after appearing over the years, in various productions that I directed, especially something I called Jack and The Beanstalk from Mars, he eschewed an acting career. Alas.
Riley attended Tulane and San Francisco State with a semester of study abroad in Amsterdam, which he loved. One summer he interned at a law office and that was the beginning of his current career pursuit. He applied to Berkeley and was accepted. Although his father and I were perhaps late in realizing what an accomplishment that was, we are duly proud. May he do great things. Thank-you, Topanga.
“I spent the past three years at Berkeley Law focusing on public interest and social justice work, primarily indigent criminal defense,” Riley said. “I had the privilege to serve with Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic where I helped represent condemned inmates seeking to overturn their convictions. All of our clients were victims of poverty, predominantly people of color, lacking effective trial counsel, resulting in their wrongful death sentences. Having recently graduated, my next role will be a year-long fellowship with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, where I will continue doing the work I have become so passionate about by representing inmates on Louisiana’s death row.”
When I asked my son why he had chosen this field of law he answered, “It impresses girls I meet at bars.”