In New York, maternity wards, like so much else, are an anomaly compared to the way the rest of the world operates. Have a baby in the poorest, rural West Virginia town you can think of and, presuming you have some kind of health insurance, you'll get a recovery room to yourself.
Here in spatially-challenged NYC, a room of one's own is a premium and you'll have to pay upwards of $300 a night for the "luxury" of trying to bond with your newborn and care for your beat-up body in privacy -- no matter how great your insurance plan. The best you can hope for is that when the dividing curtain closes, you'll be on the side nearest the john. Yup, gotta share that too. However, if you get lucky enough to be near the bathroom that usually means you're not beside the window. So no view for you unless your "roommate" deigns to let you invade her space occasionally to look outside.
Of course, after giving birth, you're pretty out of it and not so concerned with privacy and whether or not your neighbor hears you desperately trying to relieve post-partum constipation. But I digress.
What's special about this arrangement however is the intimacy with a stranger that is foisted upon you, like it or not. In my case, I both enjoyed and despised it -- as I'm sure many New York women do. But my situation was a little unique I think -- and to this day, six years later, the experience still comes at me from time to time like a strange, recurring dream, filling me with a little sadness, a little poignancy and something bordering on disturbing.
My roommate was atypical if you will. She was a foreigner and a single mom. She spoke very little English, and came here under not the best circumstances. From what I gathered via limited conversations with her and from overhearing her mother (who spoke English and lived in New York), she'd basically escaped a bad relationship in Russia and was having her child here, without the father, because the father was no good. This was hard for me to relate to when, every night, my husband came directly after work to eat bad hospital food with me in bed, hold our baby, and help my aching body out of the bed and into the bathroom. Though the curtain was pulled, I couldn't help thinking about her over there, alone with her child, hearing our little happy family together. When my husband left, I'd peek over and say hello and ask how she was feeling -- guilty almost that she may have been sad hearing us.
Our conversations were very limited; both because of her rough English but also because of her aloofness -- not one borne of snobbery, but out of what seemed like sadness to me, or a kind of reclusiveness that I sensed she had to maintain for her own self-preservation.
One night though, just a day or two after we'd both given birth, I woke up in terrible pain. My C-section had been a nasty one. I'd had a uterine hemorrhage and barely made it out alive. The drugs they'd given me before bed had worn off in a serious way. I pressed my nurse button but she didn't arrive immediately with my pain meds. I whimpered in the darkness and tried to elevate myself with the automatic bed control. My roomie, whose name I don't even remember, called out to me. "Are you OK?" came her soft but serious voice. "No, I'm so sore. I can't get up and I need more pain medication." "Did you call for the nurse?" she asked. 'Yes, yes," I told her. "I'm waiting."
If she would have spoken English, she'd probably have said, "OK, hang in there," or some other platitude. But instead she was silent. The nurse finally arrived to readjust me and give me more meds. After she left, I called out tentatively, "thank you," to my roommate. There was silence, but I felt that something profound had passed between us -- a hard-to-define moment of the loneliness and insecurity at becoming a mother for the first time, no matter where you were from or who you had with you. We were both quite simply two terrified new mothers, in a lot of physical pain.
In the days following, she had a hard time breastfeeding -- and often had nurses with interpreters in the room trying to help her. Though I wanted to breastfeed, my complicated birth caused Nina to be confined to the NICU for a few days. That, coupled with my severely painful C-section, pretty much put a halt to my nursing plans quickly. So as much as I tried to understand when she would get up at all hours and pace her side of the room trying to feed, or ask to have the room temperature turned up because it was too cold for her, my patience waned. Finally, when I could take the high 70s room temperature no longer, I complained to the nurse. When the interpreter explained to my roommate that the room was too warm, she began to weep, asking in broken English how she could feed her baby if it was so cold. Finally, a compromise was made, but she did most of her feeding in a special room reserved for just that on the maternity ward. I felt badly that I'd contributed to her crying, but I was soaking my bedsheets in sweat.
She was even more despondent after that; in the afternoons while my mom or friends or my husband would come to visit and coo over Nina, my roommate would be alone, cuddling her baby and looking out her window at the tumultuous East River. Occasionally, her mother would come, and one day a priest showed up with an interpreter -- and spent almost an hour with her -- during which time she cried. I don't know why he came, but I got the sense that it had to do with her complicated situation back home and the fact that there was no father of the baby there.
That night, while Nina was taken back to the maternity ward to have her breathing monitored, I listened to my roommate hum "Rockabye Baby" quietly to her little girl. It was the only lullaby she ever sang. I've always thought it a rather melancholy one; and the words are actually kind of frightening. But as the plaintive tune left her lips, I felt the uncanny bonding between us once more. This time it was me who called out in the dark. "Are you OK?" I asked her, even though there was no reason to think she wasn't. "Yes," she replied. "I am sorry I keep you awake?" she posed as a question. "No, no, it's fine," I hurriedly answered. "I just..." I didn't finish my sentence, feeling suddenly foolish for calling out to her in the first place.
If I could finish that sentence today, though, here's what I'd say: "I just wanted to make sure you're doing well, that your baby's healthy, that someone's there to help you, that whatever bad things happened to you before are better now. When I sing 'Rockabye Baby' to Nina, I still hear your voice quivering in the dark and I remember those handful of nights when all there was was a room with a curtain -- and someone on the other side who felt as vulnerable and scared as I did."