ARRESTED (as told by Eliza’s father)
All four of our children were born at home. This was J’s well considered decision, and I for myself did not think – 12 years ago, when our first child was born,- that I had a lot to say about the matter, since it was J who was giving birth, so it was her choice. And today, after all these years, I don’t regret this in the least. What’s more, I can say that the thought that it could have happened differently, in a hospital, fills me a little bit with fear.
Eliza was born on a Monday evening in May, although she was only due in June. Let’s face it, I was taken off guard: fully submerged in filing taxes – in the Hungarian tax system, no less – with a friend, and I was not excepting to have as strange an evening and night as it turned out to be. The contractions came very suddenly, then labour, but no, this isn’t labour after all, this is already pushing the baby out, giving birth! Phone calls, birth supplies all gathered in the little red tub, Hungarian words: lepedő, vatta, dekubitusz… I don’t even remember what else, all these things that J had had ready for weeks now, a pot of water onto the stove (what for, anyway?), my mother, the kids, move them from the first floor to the ground floor, I go back upstairs, electric heater, pillow, massage oil, did I miss something? No, one only needs to wait, to be there along the path, offer massage, encouragement, then quickly, very quickly Eliza, the head, shoulders, the entire body, legs, feet, then stop, it goes no further, the cord is too short, sound of footsteps, Ági, the midwife. Eliza is fine, Eliza is breathing, Eilza is pink. The cord is incredibly short, maybe 20 cm. Needs to be cut. J wants to look at her baby, hold her in her arms, touch her, nurse her, hug her. It’s cut.
The cord is cut, Eliza passes out. Everything happens very suddenly, it’s as if I have been watching the events through some kind of fog, making it very difficult to accurately describe what happened. Outcries, tears, oxygen from the tank, phone number, run downstairs to the kids, stop them from coming upstairs, say a few words ‘Stay in the room…’ Eliza is pink again, reacts well to the oxygen she’s getting into her nose from the tank, J tries to feed her, but the baby slowly relapses, no muscle tone, oxygen, more oxygen! ‘Breathe, please, at any cost, and live, live whatever it takes!’ Another phone call, still nothing, no one… Eliza is doing better again, she’s regain good colour, but is too weak to nurse. I remember how a newborn behaves, three boys, I know that, but this one is a girl, I have no idea. She can’t breathe right. In my arms. Doorbell. Sound of footsteps.
Four paramedics, two men, two women. Eliza on her back, two women lean over her, tubes, respiratory balloon. Papers? Social security card, maternity booklet. Questions. Eliza is put to sleep. What? Yes. I should bring a towel for J, she hasn’t given birth to the placenta yet. Waiting. My head is spinning, this is probably when one goes into shock, I feel helpless, I don’t understand anything, everything is happening so quickly.
J is gone! No. Only went over to the bathroom with Ági to push out the placenta. Eliza was taken away. Three more paramedics. Why are they here? They want J. To take her to a hospital. No, they don’t want to see the placenta. They only want J. Rude, harsh, attacking words. J is resisting, doesn’t want to go. They claim that she’s non compos mentis, she’s just given birth, they have the right to take her against her will. Then I should decide for her, I will be responsible for her, not them. The placenta is perfect. There is no other reason to hospitalize her. The paramedics do not take a look at the placenta, they couldn’t care less, they only want J, that’s all.
The kids come upstairs, they witness the insulting, offensive, abusive exchange. J is almost intimidated and almost follows them, but changes her mind: ‘Leave my house, nobody called you here, get out, now!’ Threats, swearing, the police will come and they will certainly take J away.
The three red suited paramedics leave the premises. There’s no time to get upset, to feel down, quickly, go after Eliza to the ICU. J stays home, I go with Ági. Not to worry, the kids… ‘Everything will be alright, go to sleep, Mom’s here, Grandma is here. Lock the door and don’t open it under any circumstances!’
We arrive at the hospital. What time is it? Eleven? Midnight? No idea. We have to get in, somehow. Finally the guard lets us in, Ági’s a doctor, he lets her in, and I follow. One of the Cerny ambulance guys is there. So Eliza is inside. We stop at the door of the NICU. We rang the bell, I think. Eliza is inside, they are working on her, sit down and wait, that’s all we can do. We can’t do anything for her now.
A few minutes later we see two plain clothed people approaching us. Strange, because theoretically the children’s clinic is closed at night, visitation is forbidden. It is clear as daylight that these two are here to see us. Surname, family name, birth information, mother’s maiden name, citizenship…? They are plain clothed detectives, or I should say cops. No introduction. Well, yes, but one-sided, compulsory, forced. I tell them what I know about T, and about J. Ági answers as well, but cannot show her papers, they were left in the car. The cat and mouse game begins. Or rather it’s nearing the end: they caught the mouse, on the corridor in front of the NICU. These two did not come because of me, they came because of Ági. And they are extremely happy that they almost caught her red handed.
Because Ági is a criminal in Hungary. That’s because she’s continually defying the system by attending home births, working in her profession, and doing it well. Money, power, stuffed envelopes slipped on the sly… In Hungary birth is closed hunting ground, good business for obstetricians, who can always depend on their stuffed envelope, for ‘delivering’, for mutilating, ‘but you surely know it was inevitable’, it was necessary to cut, to pry open, to slice, to push on.
Ági doesn’t fit in. Does not mutilate, never gets (or asks for) the infamous envelope. Ági assists, accommodates, suggests, but never leads and takes over. Does not dictate. A few years ago she was banned from practising as a doctor. That’s life. So she got trained as a midwife. To conform to the law. The only problem is that she’s still stubbornly independent. She cannot be broken. She believes women have a right to be listened to, to have their birth assisted, because birth is not an illness, only a state.
The police ring the doorbell. The door is opened, one of them is even let in, presumably for the sake of the investigation. The situation is more than absurd: Eliza has just been born, I do not even know if she’s alive or not and we are on the verge of being arrested.
The head of department arrives. This case is far too complicated, he has to be called in. He walks past us, maybe he said hello, he seems nice, he knows Ági well.
My memories are vague, I am not sure about the order of the events. Sharp images, feelings, words, more words, harsh words of brutality and rudeness that remain. Before the head of department arrived, maybe before the police arrived, the physician in attendance came up to us, we were sitting in the corridor. ‘Do you know why your baby was taken in?’ I don’t see his point, I’m trying to work out his ulterior motives. He certainly wants to hear ‘Sure, ‘cause she was born at home’. I don’t understand. Being embarrassed by a question I can’t grasp, I broke into a faint smile. Not to be cynical, nor hostile, nor taunting, just embarrassed. ‘No, I answered, I don’t know. You tell me.’
That’s right, Eliza was born without any complication. Although at a quick pace, without any problem. Things got worse right after we cut her cord. He’s talking about anoxhemia or anoxia, I don’t know, I’m not a doctor. She went without oxygen, he says, for several minutes before the ambulance arrived. It’s not true. Eliza did get oxygen. There must be some other problem here. He doesn’t know. Not yet. Anyway, she was born at home, for him it’s therefore normal that she’s anoxic. It’s always the same story, the same assumptions. It doesn’t matter.
What? Her name. I don’t know, we haven’t decided yet. Eliza doesn’t have a name. I have to name her. Now. Alone. Bendi got his name ten days after his birth. It’s difficult to find a name that sounds good in both French and Hungarian. I’ve always liked Sára. But I know that J. has gone off it of late. I remember us considering Elza or something. Can we change it later? Yes, certainly, we just need a name for now.
He goes in with ‘Elza’. I call J. Oh no, the neighbour at mum’s place is also Elza. Shit. Our tragedy is nearly grotesque now. An ‘i’ is inserted, Eliza, that’s nice as well.
Anyway, it makes no difference right now. There are more and more of us, another two policemen arrive, these ones are in uniform now; a small, stubby, bald-headed one, and a young shy one who is acquiring the skills of his profession here and now, being bullied all the time by his more powerful, experienced and loudmouthed superior. With him there, the volume cranks up quickly. He tells me to follow him, your wife doesn’t answer the door. Is she at home? The cat-and-mouse play starts again. I don’t know. What do I mean you don’t know?! I look at Ági, not knowing what to say. But her future depends on my answer. Yes, my wife is at home. But if she doesn’t answer the door, she must have a good reason for it. I’ve been with my baby daughter so far, I won’t leave her alone here now. He doesn’t give a shit, I have to follow him to our place, to open our door, let them in, and let them take my wife to the hospital without her consent but in her best interests, of course. No. ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying here. I refuse to follow you.’ The small one suddenly gets upset, my wife is bleeding to death and I’m not willing to follow them, he shouts. He knows for sure. He was there. He might have even been the one who caught Eliza, who checked through the placenta carefully to be sure no piece is missing. He knows it, he’s a policeman. The situation is going from bad to worse. Ági is within their reach, but we resist, we form a block together, they feel it. Thus they arrest us. ‘You can’t go anywhere, understood?!’ It’s absurd now… Ági and I look at each other, and we smile. ‘Okay, we don’t want to leave anyway.’
Time is passing. I slip my hands under my thigh to stop the trembling that is overwhelming me. Cold? Fear? No. I just feel nervous: I’ve been tormented, attacked verbally for an hour now and I have to endure it without fighting back. What happens is absolutely normal. I am a criminal. An outlaw. But all that means nothing. What means everything to me is behind the door, the only thing that matters I can’t see now… this little being, whom I don’t know yet, whom I may never get to know. To prepare for death. To close my heart, wrapping it in some reasonable explanation. Right now? So soon? No, no. That would be too simple. I must hope, hope, even if it hurts, even if I have to suffer. Not to give up, to fight, to have faith, to give her wings…
Speakerphones in the entrance hall, at the end of the corridor, always blasting, the sound reverberating off the white walls. Ági. What do they have to do to detain her legally? The small one is on edge, he feels he’s losing his prey, he has to let a criminal escape, a woman who breaks babies’ neck. He knows, it was reported in newspapers, and the papers never lie. Life is going by. For how much longer?
For long, yes, calm down, be hopeful, don’t get discouraged. The youngest policeman is standing a few steps away from us. He was ordered to stay and keep his eyes on us. Absolutely unnecessary attention: who would want to run away or escape? He’s inexperienced, too embarrassed to look at us. What might he think about all of this? Who am I to him? And Ági? In some years his eyes might become colder, he will be able to shout, to judge, to condemn. Maybe.
The others come back. They are dissatisfied, powerless before the law. They have to let us go, but before leaving, Ági has to show her papers, and she is accompanied to her car.
One of the detectives is sitting where Ági was, staying with me. He’s interrogating me in a kind, ingratiating manner. I’m alone. He is here to get his own truth out of me. No! I don’t want to, I object and insist on speaking only in the presence of my solicitor, you don’t have the right to cross-examine me. Now he loses patience: ‘I’ll tell you your rights: you’ll be in big trouble if you keep on screening for her!’ ‘Is that a threat? A warning? I’ve never heard this expression – ‘screen for somebody’ in this sense – but I immediately understand from his eyes, tone and gestures. ’Screen for someone’, hide, protect somebody with a wall. The expression is so apt that I spontaneously associate it with ‘wall up’, ‘lock up’ someone: to protect oneself from the other person.
Yes, this society is trying to wall up Ági because she represents a threat, the alternative to the common way of thinking. It is a must to wall her up, since thinking differently is bad and dangerous, it tries to set itself apart, to put too much value on freedom – and freedom is frightening. Walling up, suppressing, forgetting even the existence of it is an easier and safer way. And above all, never questioning the things they’re so certain about, never risking their confidence, just following the mainstream, walking on the beaten path, above all everyone should do things in the same way. Walling up. Walling up. The sooner the better.
I’m shocked, downhearted and empty. A birth of a child. Happiness… Threatened. Attacked. Accused. I cannot make a logical comparison. I don’t understand anything. I’ve even lost the reality of the situation. Ági returns, the detective goes out. Silence falls on the corridor again, the tranquillity of the night returns, while Eliza is struggling for her life at the other side of the door.