Everything I Knew About Claudia Brown
Sunday, September 8, 2013
I first heard of Claudia Brown when I was about 8 weeks pregnant and nauseated by the smell of oxygen. I had already had one extremely disappointing visit with an Ob-Gyn out in Waimea (grimy carpets, dead-eyed nurses, and a dismissive and distractingly attractive male gynecologist). I was taking my toddler for a walk along our little gravel road to see the horses (don’t breathe: horse-sweat, hay, grass, animal hair, poop) and feed them papayas (don’t breathe: too pungent, too fleshy, with an overripe kerosene off-gas). We ran into our neighbor and her leaping and spinning three year old, who was tanned to mahogany and naked except for a tutu. The little girl pointed at her mom’s watermelon-sized belly. “HIS NAME IS POPCORN!”
We chatted about birth and doctors and midwives, I told her how much I had loved the midwife-run birth center on the Big Island and how unimpressive my visit to the Ob-Gyn had been. She said, “Oh, you’ll love Claudia,” and dashed home for a brochure.
It was a glossy little thing with a series of pictures of red squalling babies being held by a striking looking woman with streaks of white hair in a long black mane.
I had one last disappointing visit to the Ob-Gyn, where I waited for two hours in the waiting room, only to overhear the nurses giggling about the fact that nobody new where the doctor was. That made up my mind. I needed something different. I called Home Birth Kauai and made an appointment to drive the 50 minutes from Koloa to Wailua.
I followed the odd, typical for Kauai directions (turn right into the split driveway right before the one-way bridge and we’re the second driveway on the right with the pillars) and drove slowly along a long winding driveway through a green corridor of giant ti and ginger, which then opened out into an enormous open field of tangerine, orange, mountain apple, ulu, and coconut trees. To the left was a round-about fronting a sprawling wooden house, with long wooden slatted porches wrapped all the way around, and a cascade of tiny white dogs pouring out of the open front door.
Right behind the dogs that came yapping out to circle my car came Claudia, step-stepping down the steps with a pronounced limp, gesticulating at the dogs. “Is it Becca? Come in, come in!” I followed her up the steps, past the tall open front doors, affording me a glimpse of an elegant front room with broad couches and walls covered with art from around the world—Maori carvings and ornate pen and ink botanicals caught my eye—and past a giant sleek kitchen with several young moms inside, chatting and snacking with nursing babies slung in their elbows. We passed hammocks and soft benches (and more dogs) and finally went into a separate little building. This was two bright rooms with tall windows and a wall of framed art of Hawaiian mothers and babies and a wall floor to ceiling bookshelves. Through that room was Claudia’s bedroom: heavy velvet drapes on the sliding glass windows, a carved four-poster bed scattered with ornate satin quilts and pillows. Her bedroom doubled as the birthing suite, with a Jacuzzi in the bathroom off to one side, and a shower larger than my kitchen, with 6 or 8 spigots on flexible stainless steel hoses, and tile murals of sea creatures crafted into the walls. The tiny dogs ran underfoot—Claudia shoved open the heavy drapes and rolled the glass doors open to let the panting little creatures out onto the lawn outside.
Claudia showed me the high-tech birthing equipment, tucked out of sight into a high-ceilinged walk-in closet. A crash cart, monitors, dopplers, an ultrasound machine, and an IV stand, tucked in next to her brightly colored little tanktop dresses—all floral and simple cotton.
She told me about her history as a midwife—that she had helped deliver over 10,000 babies in her years at Wilcox and at a big hospital in—I think it was Florida. “It was just catching babies all day,” she said—high pressure, high stress, low-income and high-need moms, one after another. The stress burned her out after a while, so she had stepped away from midwifery and done other projects—she waved her hand in the air vaguely at “projects”—later I would fill in the gaps a little with hints about women’s shelters and orphanages in Africa, and stints in New Zealand and Europe.
We chatted, and I filled out her intake forms. She asked if I was able to pay. I said yes, and she eyed me and said, “Are you sure? Completely sure? It’s a sliding scale… Just let me know if you can’t pay.” Later I learned that she helped many poor young moms for free—often bringing them to live with her so they don’t have to squat on the beach while they’re waiting for their babies.
I told her about my good experience with the midwives on the Big Island. I told her I was comforted by the fact that the birthing center on the Big Island had been attached to the hospital, and that I was nervous about her distance—20 minutes up a mountain road—from the nearest ER.
She was brusquely reassuring. “They know me at Wilcox.” She explained that she had been a lead midwife there for years and that she was well respected and could easily make a call and get anybody in for emergencies. “And anyway,” she explained, “it’s a 30 minute prep for an emergency C-section whether you start the 30 minute wait up here or in the hospital. You’ll be fine.”
More than my reproductive history, she was interested in my travels around the world and said, “Oh! Next time you go to Paris, you have to stay in our apartment next to Notre Dame!” I tried to recall the name of shops on the l’Isle, and she talked about the neighborhoods of Paris with casual familiarity. She came to life talking about New Zealand and Spain and Washington DC and the Galapagos… she spoke about those places as if they were right around the corner, as if they belonged to her.
I felt like an intimate friend right away—our shared childhood in D.C., and our travels, and an obsessive passion for books. She loaded me down with books to read and dismissed my protests that I would probably lose them. “So what?” she said. “Just take them, and bring them back.” I left with armfuls of books about midwives, about pornographic Japanese woodblocks, and historical romance bodice rippers and a completely blasphemous retelling of the New Testament. I returned them.
I trusted her to be completely competent and capable. But I didn’t exactly feel SAFE with her, in a warm-fuzzy sense. She wasn’t exactly a safe-feeling woman. She didn’t tell me that I had nothing to worry about with my pregnancy and delivery. She didn’t say that it would be easy and lovely. She wasn’t reassuring. She said it would be GOOD. She said that I was strong. She said I would be fine.
During our bi-weekly checkups, with the dogs and my daughter chewing on blocks on the floor, she would do a perfunctory check-up—pressing hard fingers into my sore belly to feel the baby. Weigh-ins were optional. Her standard answer to any of my boring common pregnancy concerns was a dull, “that’s perfectly normal.” Ah well, boring questions deserved boring answers. But when we chatted about recent births, her eyes would light up and she’d reenact elaborate and exciting stories. “I’m tired today,” she said one visit, lying down on the bed as we chatted. “I was up all night with a crazy birth.” Then the story—she sat up to gleefully gesture—the worried mom popping in and out of one tub, then another tub, then another, trying to escape, with the midwives chasing her around the house, inside and outside over the lawn, until she finally jumped into the salt-water swimming pool. Claudia said, “Oh SHIT, we can’t have another mom give birth in the swimming pool. It’s such a pain to clean out. My husband would kill me. Well… ex-husband.”
She often dropped oblique hints about her personal life—she’d share, openly, vivid little details of a greater tapestry of stories, without ever laying out the whole timeline. At one visit when I asked how she’d been lately she said, “well, great. My divorce is final. Of course he still lives here, but. ” I made sympathetic noises and she waved them away. “No, no, it’s not like that.” I didn’t know what it was like, then. Another day it was, “My boyfriend finally left, and I realized that I can stop drinking.” And another day it was, “the lawyer should be able to clear all charges from ------‘s file.” And once it was, “once the deposit from the trust fund comes through, I’ll just pay off ------‘s credit cards from their trip through Europe.”
I didn’t want to pry, or stop the flow of the narrative to fill in all of the clearly vital details that I was so obviously missing. She seemed to be carrying on a long and intimate conversation that I had missed most of, and I felt privileged that she trusted me enough with those enticing little tidbits.
So she always seemed like both a close friend and an enigma, as if her life was a dark room, and she had briefly flicked a flashlight on and shone it into one ornate corner or another. I wondered if I hung around enough, if the flashes of light would start to connect into a coherent view of the room. But the more time I spent with her, the more obvious it became that her life was not just one room—it was the Louvre—many disparate hallways, outbuildings, a sprawling complex of life experience. And I had no hope of mapping it entirely just from these little flickers. I settled back to just enjoy what I was allowed to see.
One day I came over for a visit and she was sitting on a couch outside with several little dogs, with a stack of just opened UPS boxes in front of her.
“Matzoh?” she offered. “It’s a bit stale—it got lost in transport.”
She had mail-ordered 40 pounds of Matzoh?
“I’ve got to have my Matzoh. ” She shrugged.
Half-way through my pregnancy, Claudia needed to do a pretty standard diabetes check. She had recently purchased a new piece of equipment that would allow her to check my insulin levels or reactions without having to send me for a workup at the hospital. She and Terry unwrapped the new tools and started mumbling through the directions together. They got the gist of it, and Claudia said, “lemme try,” and *snap* pinched the needly end of the tool into her own finger with a hiss of breath. Then she grabbed Terry’s hand—snap! “Got it!” Then they squeezed their own drops of blood onto the little reader window. “Nope, more blood!” Snap, snap, snap! Pretty soon everyone’s fingers were punched and bleeding. That one little biting needle and all that blood and isn’t there something from health class about sharing needles? She got the punch, squeeze, press action down to a satisfactory level and then grabbed my finger for my test. Ow! No, nothing gentle. But thorough, focused, brilliant.
Sometimes I’d come to visit and Claudia would be out walking the dogs—she walked for hours and hours, with big braces on her legs. Her gait rolled and looked like hard work. “It looks awful!” she said, “People think I’ve got Polio or something terrible!” Later she mentioned something about a terrible and near-fatal motorcycle accident. She shooed away her own weakness. She berated herself for “eating crap,” and proudly lost enough weight to wear very small black jeans, and shushed my compliments.
One hot day, I was driving into town when I saw her unmistakable gait charging down the sizzling asphalt between the airport and Walmart—it’s a long, shadeless stretch, striped with silver mirages above the road. I pulled up next to her and cranked the AC invitingly. “Claudia! Do you want a ride??”
“Who me? No way! It’s just another mile! I’m getting a little exercise after dropping so and so at the airport! I’m fine!” What’s a little forced march in scorching heat at noon in the tropical sun? She shooed me away and charged ahead on her own.
There were always people at her house—long term visitors, guests, patients, strays, family members. The divisions between “work space” and “private space” seemed to be permeable. When I told Claudia that our house didn’t have consistent hot water, she invited me several times to PLEASE, come and live with her! Or at least, come wash clothes and take showers here. She hired a young family to be her gardeners for a while, and at another time she had private healthy-food live-in chefs. She had a young woman there to teach swim lessons to babies in her cool salt swimming pool, and there were Yoga classes and birth classes. She treated everyone as if we were all in her inner circle, as if we all knew each other. Claudia invited everyone in equally—everyone was welcome to the fridge, to the pool, to the beds. Come and stay, for as long as you want.
But her expansive generosity was tempered by the phalanx of loyal assistants and her adult children. The people closest to her stood around her, as if to protect her from her own giving nature. If I came to the birth center unannounced, her assistant would insist that Claudia is much too busy, I need an appointment, call back later. But if Claudia saw me, she’d wave me in over her watchdog’s head. She gave so much—maybe more than they felt she should. They loved and guarded her fiercely. They were loyal to her.
She established a standing open invitation for all the hoards of people who wanted to come visit. Every Thursday she had a pool party – sometimes she was there, swimming easily through the water in her little dress, or chatting on the side with the snacks, or just waving hello in passing as she saw to patients. But everyone who went felt welcomed, felt like we belonged there. If, though, you arrived a little before the appointed time, you may find her swimming as naked as a fish. She would climb out and greet you unabashedly, wringing the water out of her hair, pendulous breasts out in the air.
One of my favorite conversations with Claudia was when I was about 7 months pregnant. She was waiting for me with Terry, the other midwife and her second at the time. I came in, and looked at the two of them, and said, “So. Am I going to die in childbirth?” And laughed at myself. But it was a real question. I was scared.
Claudia calmly said, “well, the only moms I’ve ever had die in childbirth,” (and here the number ?/10,000 ran through my mental ticker tape) “were extremely malnourished, very ill, lacked any prenatal care, and were addicted to hard drugs. So no, there is an extremely slim chance—about 1 in 200,000-- that you’ll die. You are very very probably going to be just fine.” The part of my mind that takes comfort in ratios and probabilities heaved a nice little sigh of relief.
Then Terry took my hand. Her touch was electric—she is a powerfully intuitive woman—and she said, “There are angels with you. They are going to be with you and your baby. They promise to take care of you and keep you safe.” And that cut right through my skepticism and reassured me deeply, into the marrow of my bones. I loved both of them so fiercely.
I brought a pregnant friend to meet Claudia months later, and said I had a story that perfectly illustrated why I loved Kauai Home Birth—both the practicality of Claudia midwifery, and the magic of Terry midwifery. Claudia laughed and laughed to re-hear it, and since then told it to so many other people that I began to hear it from other moms.
My baby was late. I was getting whiny and Claudia was rolling her eyes at me when I came up for a checkup, 4 days over due. She had no patience for mommy theatrics. Baby will come! That’s one thing you can guarantee. Baby WILL come out. Three days later and I finally came up to the birth center in real labor, and walked around the orchard and the pastures. I picked tangerines and mountain apples, and my toddler fed carrots (from Claudia’s fridge, kept for this purpose) to the big horses in the back pasture until it was dark. She settled me and my husband into a mattress in her bedroom and settled herself down with her computer on the outside couch with little dogs flanking her. At 2 am I woke up moaning (dreaming I was pushing a full Costco cart up a mountain) and she dashed in—“THAT sounds more like it!” She was lit—eyes wide, moving fast—ready and excited for the great drama of birth. I groaned and moaned my way out to the hot tub and watched the moon rise over the little mountain Sleeping Giant and felt the cool wind push and pull on the tall hibiscus bushes. During a hard contraction, the moon seemed to be brighter and I climbed out into the cool air, and in between, shaking and shivering, I sank back into the hot bubbling water. They called Terry and she came over, smiling at me. Claudia snapped pictures of me. She said I looked like a goddess out there, naked in the moonlight.
Suddenly I was done with the hot tub and made a break for it. I was trying to escape from the midwives and my husband and my sister and my cousin and daughter who had all woken up and driven up to be with us by 4 am—but they caught up with me in Claudia’s many-headed shower. Claudia, in only her light dress, jumped right into the shower with me, and pulled a heavy wooden birthing stool right into the stream of the water. With the water spraying on all of us, she put her face just inches away from mine and said, “look, you’ve been ready to push this baby out for half an hour. You need to pull yourself together, be a BIG GIRL, and just PUSH HER OUT.”
Two serious pushes later and it was done. They bundled us out of the shower and into Claudia’s enormous bed, covered in towels. She was exultant. She was having fun and it was contagious. She was with me—my mid-wife, my with-woman.
Claudia gave the baby a perfunctory check and zoned in on me. I realized that she’s not actually interested in the babies as much as the process of birthing them. She unceremoniously dumped the tiny creature onto a big scale, and handed her back to me to snuggle and wrap up. She left me with an admonition: DO NOT BE TOUGH. Relax. Recover.
She closed the drapes on us and left us alone with our new tiny baby in the big bed. We slept for a while, and then, although she invited us to stay as long as we wanted, we went home early that afternoon. It was easy and wonderful. She hugged me tightly and said, “it was a WONDERFUL birth.”
Claudia shared a birthday with my mom—January 20. I had a checkup on her birthday, and I couldn’t wish her happy birthday. I opened my mouth to try—and just cried. I tried to explain how alike they were—their wild energy, their talent, their brilliance, their curiosity. I knew that the connection that I felt with Claudia was just a pale shade of the electric kinship that my mom and Claudia would have had. Although they were exactly the same age, my mom died in 1997. Would have, would have. Never would. The injustice of having no mother as I became one sometimes rose up around me to strangle me. But I had Claudia.
One week Claudia said that she’d be out of town for a month. “I’m taking my kids to the Galapogos to see Whale Sharks.”
I mentally filed that away into the Clarify-Later file.
When I saw her next she performed her perfunctory exam and then plunked her laptop onto the bed and said, “you wanna see my pictures?” We sat together on her bed for an hour, transported via slideshow to the deep blue—to hurricanes of flickering silver fish, and enormous floating whale shark behemoths, and Claudia in full diving gear at the center of fishy vortices, and her attractive adult children on the white deck of their chartered diving boat. Ah, I realized. She really just wanted to see Whale Sharks. So she went and saw them.
That was what was so spectacular about her. She just did the things she wanted to do. Start a home birth center? Just start. Build a holistic health center? Just buy it and remodel it and there it is. Start a YWCA to care for the women of the island? There it is. Start an orphanage in Africa, buy a home in Spain—just do it. Just go. Build a studio for the homeless moms from beach? It’s built. Start a garden? It’s planted. Need a quality education? Start Island School.
And these are just the few things that I knew about—the tiny percentage of her manifested energy that I happened to witness or hear about. I’m sure that her family and close friends got a different view of the extent of her work. It was as if she felt no limits or constraints in what was possible. I’m sure she did though—I’m sure she felt pain and fear and doubt. But she was just daring. Just as she never said that birth is easy, but just that women are strong.
I don’t think her life was easy, but I know that she was strong.