A photo of me shortly after my own homebirth, with my mother and older brother

This story was originally published in the spring 29/30 edition of Forklift: Ohio

I was sixteen years old watching Seinfeld and eating ice cream with my parents, waiting for them to go to sleep so I could get high. My mother, nine—months pregnant and forty-four years old, had hardly eaten anything, complaining that she felt nauseous. There seemed to be a rare seriousness in my parents’ whispering talk, but words like “water breaking” “midwife” and “car keys” slipped right past me. Around 8:00, she turned to my father and said, “Bob, I think something’s happening.”

They got up and went into the playroom, which had been converted into a birthing center and nursery. I turned off the TV.

I’d bought the weed that morning and had been waiting all day to smoke in the privacy of my room. I went upstairs and carefully opened the window. It was a typical fall night in the Puget Sound. A soft mist was coming down. I cradled the pipe, protecting it from the rain and holding it so all the smoke drifted outside. I was careful not to hit it so hard I would cough. Under the dank of marijuana smoke, I smelled wet leaves and soggy grass. The gutters around the house gurgled peacefully. I finished the bowl and sat looking out at the skeletal shapes of the leafless fruit trees in our yard. A car glided past, yellow beams cutting through the rain, windshield wipers swooshing. I watched the car until it disappeared past the neighbor’s hedge, on its way to some house out in the country, maybe, or even far up into the Cascade Mountains just beyond the edge of our rural town.

I closed the window, wiped the water from my hands, and turned on an episode of Futurama. Soon I felt a familiar warm tingling rise up from my lungs into my head. After a while I turned off the TV, put on some music. Listening, I became aware of my parents’ voices getting louder downstairs. I heard the front door open and close. Unfamiliar voices joined in. I turned Rage Against the Machine up louder.

I sat on my bed and thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten high.” But it occurred to me that my parents wouldn’t want me at the birth anyway. We’d never talked about the details, except that the birth would be at home and delivered by midwives. There’d been no mention of me being there. I sure as hell didn’t want to be.

Now I could hear moans, and my father’s baritone voice raised in concern

“Should we call the doctor?” A female voice, not my mother’s: “We already called him, he’ll be in here in five minutes if we need him.”

A guttural scream rang out. I couldn’t believe it was my mother. “What the fuck is going on?” I said out loud. I paced my room. I turned the music up louder.

More screams. Should I go downstairs? Didn’t my older brother watch my birth? But he’d been a little boy, only four years old. I’m sure he wasn’t there for the main event. It is your little sister, though. That’s kinda important, right? But you really don’t want to see Mom like that. I recalled walking into the living room a few months earlier with a bowl of ramen to find my mother watching birthing videos. She saw my face, laughed, and said, “What, you don’t want to watch these and eat your lunch?”

After a while it quieted down. I wondered what had happened. Was it already over? Didn’t births take hours, days even? I turned the music down, shook my head, rubbed my eyes. I sat up on my bed, listening, sipping water from the huge plastic tumbler I’d brought up from the kitchen. Suddenly there were heavy rapid steps on the stairs, three loud knocks on my door.

My father’s face was serious, sweat glistened in his thick beard. His eyes were glazed and hollow in a way I’d never seen before.

“Come meet your sister,” he said.

“OK,” I croaked.

I followed him downstairs. The playroom was hot and stuffy, a tang of blood and sweat lingering in the air. Two midwives bent over the bed at the back of the room. My mother lay there, wearing a hospital gown, a heavy blanket pulled up to her chest. One of the midwives wiped sweat from her forehead, while the other checked her blood pressure. A third midwife stood to one side, holding a bundle. She saw my father, smiled, and came over, handing him my little sister. She was asleep, swaddled in white cloth, her tiny face wrinkled and pink. It looked like the face of an old man who’d just come out of a sauna, still squinting from the steam.

My father showed me how to hold her. As I took her into my shaky hands, her blue eyes opened for a moment. She seemed to notice my presence, but couldn’t focus on my face. “Hi, Cammie,” I whispered. She closed her eyes again. I gave her back to my dad, who carried her over to my mother. I took a step forward.

My dad waved me away. “You’re gonna want to wait,” he said. “Your mom’s very tired.”

I looked at my mom. Her eyes were closed, sweat was beaded on her forehead. Her red curls were wet and matted, her cheeks ruddy. When she reached up to hold my sister, she strained even sitting up. She tried to smile, winced. But there was a look of pride and relief in her face, hidden just behind the exhaustion.

One of the midwives leaned down to help my mom start nursing, and I turned away, dazed and lightheaded. I sat down next to my father on the loveseat in the corner. I noticed red stains on the bottom of his white T-shirt. “Dad,” I said, “you got blood on your shirt.”

“I know,” he said.