It’s a summer’s day in Oslo, and my first caesarean section
We pull the puff-eyed infant – yet to cry, see or know – into the white light of existence
‘Witnessing the birth revealed not just the wonder of a new life, but it was a tear in the curtain.’
It’s a midsummer’s morning in Oslo. In an operating suite on the delivery ward in the University Hospital I am, for the first time, assisting on a caesarean section. The obstetrician has just cut a line in the expectant mother’s lower abdomen. Through the wound, the taut white orb of the uterus is now emerging like a crescent moon.
I place my hands on its surface and feel two small ears and the curve of a skull inside. The wall of the uterus is so tense that a small snip from the scalpel causes a clear fluid to gush forth. As the top of a thinly haired head emerges, we reach in and begin to lift. The child comes suddenly in a whoosh of amniotic fluid. As he writhes in my arms I feel something inside me illuminate, as if a door has been opened through which a clear white light is streaming.
That evening after work, my son and I drive to our cabin on an island south of Oslo. We follow the road out of the city along the fjord, through the rolling fields dotted with red barns and horses throwing their heads. The warm air is heavy with the scent of grass, blossom and grill smoke. As I drive, I can see my son in the rearview mirror in shorts and a Spiderman t-shirt, the window rolled down and the wind messing his blonde hair.
The sea hoves into view as we peak a hill, the surface more sunlight than water. I park the car, take our bags and we clamber in to the small fibreglass boat. The engine starts with a yank. As we motor slowly from shore, the scent of pine gives way to the ocean’s tang of brine and bladderwrack.
The sky widens as we leave the bay and enter the open sea. In the north towards Oslo, the sun is painting a cathedral of cumulus in crimson, ochre and orange. In the south, towards Denmark, a blinking lighthouse is suspended and floating in the unbroken dark blue of sea and sky.
My experience of the caesarean section earlier has left a strange residue on the day. The vista of the fjord, the pink rock and dark blue water, the steepling sky awash with colour appears artificial and temporary, the painted scenery of some opera, its arias composed of seabird song. I feel I can reach out and push through it with my fingers to what lies beneath.
We will drop the crab nets before motoring on to the cabin, but first the boy wants to visit the lighthouse on Garnholmen island, We tie the boat up at the broken wooden jetty by a beach made of white shells. The island is alive with herring gulls, cormorant, arctic geese, and mallards. In one of the hollows where the undulating svalbard rocks meet the boy has found something. He shouts “Papa, Papa”, pointing at the ground. It’s a seagull’s nest, eggs the size of his fist.
I stand over him as we examine them, my hand resting gently on his chest to make sure he doesn’t disturb them. Some of the chicks are freshly hatched, blind, covered in albumin and already squeaking openmouthed for food. Under my palm I feel the tide of my son’s breath and the soft riverine thrum of his heartbeat.
We clamber back in the boat and as we move off, the boy points to our portside. From the tip of his finger a cormorant emerges, keeping speed with the boat, flying low to the water. The bird’s wings beat and beat, until it is free and rises, faster than the boat now, its breast an oil slick glinting. It arcs itself to the sky, turning above us and then disappears into the light.
As we reach the tip of the island, I cut the engine and the boat drifts gently on the current. I consider again what I experienced this morning in the operating room as the infant emerged from the womb. Wonder? Yes. But also something else I can’t yet quite describe.
The boy has taken an oar from its holding and placed it in the oarlock. I put him on my lap and begin to row, turning the nose of the boat around in the silken water. He giggles as his body is pulled and pushed forward by the action of the oar, but soon he enters the rhythm of the movement. His eyes fix on the eddys of the pooling oar and he is momentarily mesmerised.
He reminds me then of other oarsmen I have recently read about, those the Czech poet Rainier Maria Rilke described seeing on a boat trip he took in Philae in Greece. “Looking up quickly,” he wrote, “one could catch one of them deep in thought, meditating on the strange disguised phenomenon facing him and on possible situations which might disclose its nature.” Rilke’s rowers had fallen in to an absent contemplation of what they saw, a type of open meditation, where the oddness of existence was briefly revealed to them, and then as quickly disappeared.
And its then I realise what I experienced in the operating theatre earlier in the day, pulling the puff-eyed infant, coiled in the womb, under its shroud, yet to cry, yet to see, yet to know, into the white light of existence. Witnessing the birth revealed not just the wonder of a new life, but it was a tear in the curtain, a possible situation where Being momentarily exposed its nature. The experience has left a ripple on the water, a diminishing echo throughout the day, and lent this short boat trip with my son a type of transcendent depth.
The boy takes a flounder from the blue bucket in the bottom of the boat. It was caught this morning and its body is rigid with death. He pretends to kiss its lips, and rocks back with laughter. I open the crab pot and he throws it in. Together we lift the net, and drop it in to the water, belaying out the guide rope hand over hand. The net vanishes into the murk, the bubbles rising to the surface until the attached buoy bobs tight on the rope. We watch it drift away from us, 10 then 50 yards. But it is a trick of the eye. The buoy is stationary, and it is we who are drifting away.
Samuel McManus works as a doctor in a clinic for newly arrived refugees in Oslo. He is originally from Dublin. Read his previous piece for Irish Times Abroad: As emigrants, we have different ways of creating ‘home’