The day was November 2nd.
I'll always remember how ordinary that day had started. I woke up feeling uncomfortable – but that had become normal by that point. I was a balloon with a round face and fat ankles. Peeta would still say that I was beautiful, but I've come to believe since then that I could be a wrinkly old woman and he would still call me that. I waddled through the day, spending most of it in bed or on the couch while my mother kept a watchful eye on me. I had been experiencing practice contractions on and off since I lost my mucous plug, but none of them lasted for more than a few seconds at a time and were far apart. I spent time in the nursery that day, rocking in the chair by the window, my hands on my belly, trying to feel inward, to find out when the baby would come. My mother kept saying "any day now," judging by how low the baby had dropped. All I knew was that I was ready for it to be out. Everything about me hurt – my back, my hips, my feet. I kept running into everything with my belly, and I could barely pull myself to standing without help. I was sick of being helpless and cranky. I was short with everyone and kept bursting into tears at the most random of things. In short, I was sick of it. But in the end, I almost didn't want the baby to be born. It was safe inside of me. Once born, it would never be safe again.
I tried to explain this to Peeta, but I don't think he fully understood my trepidation. "This is the safest place it could be, Katniss," he'd said. "The danger's passed." But a glance at my mother and I knew that she, at least, agreed that he was wrong. My mother knew the fear. She understood the terror of losing the safety net of the womb. She'd done it twice. How, I don't think I'll ever know.
The night came. I remember that I was dreaming of my father, of the night Prim fell ill with the sweating fever. How he'd held me when we thought we'd lose her, when the world had seemed so small…
I woke with a start, feeling the sudden urge to go the bathroom. I crawled out of bed and waddled down the hall, and as I sat on the toilet and relieved myself, I nearly fell asleep again. That's when I realized that it was taking too long. I frowned and sat there, wondering, and then it came to me.
My water had broken.
My first instinct was to panic. But what was the point? I asked myself. There was no stopping anything now. I wondered why I hadn't felt any contractions, and as if to answer my question, my gut contracts and I let out a muffled groan. I'm surprised by how sharp it feels, how deep and wrenching it is. This was no practice contraction. Steeling myself, I clean myself up and stand, and then waddle back to the bedroom. I turn on the light, and Peeta groans in his sleep.
"Peeta," I call, shuffling over to the bed. "Peeta, wake up."
Ever the heavy sleeper, he simply groans and rolls over, pulling the blankets with him. I grab them and yank them away, making him loudly protest.
One eye opens, almost in a glare. He grunts.
"Peeta, the baby's coming."
It takes him a moment to recognize what I've said, and when it comes together in his head it's as if lightning has struck him. He shoots out of bed, shoving his glasses on over his wide eyes, and he turns to me, grabbing my forearms and squeezing. "What? You're sure?" He touches my belly, as if he can make a contraction happen to prove it. It's almost comical, and I try not to laugh.
"My water broke in the bathroom," I tell him, feeling oddly calm. "Go downstairs and get Mom."
He nods rapidly and rushes out of the room, but not before kissing me full on the mouth. I giggle but its cut off by another contraction, this one a little more intense than the last, and I sit down on the edge of the bed, inhaling sharply through my nose. A few moments later, Peeta and my mother come into the room. My mother is smiling, sleep still covering her face, but Peeta is the exact opposite. He buzzes like a bee, anxiety and excitement pouring off of him in waves. My mother comes over to me and presses her hands to my belly, feeling around and smiling.
"When was your last contraction?" she asks. I lean back, letting her feel around.
"Just before you walked in. Before that… ten minutes ago?"
She nods, her eyes far away, as if she can see inside of me. "Peeta," she says without turning to him, "get dressed and fetch Dr. Bryke. She'll know what to bring."
Peeta nods and begins to throw on his clothes, putting on his shirt backwards and tripping over his shoes. I do everything I can not to laugh, but his anxiety is funny, and I smile at him before he kisses me and bolts from the room. When he's gone, my mother sighs, as if in relief.
"Now that he's out from under our feet…"
I finally let myself laugh, and she smiles at me, then sets about gathering up the blankets.
"We'll want a stripped bed. I'm going to go downstairs and put water on to boil. Will you be all right for a few minutes?"
I nod. "I'll change into a nightgown?" She nods back and leaves the room, and I pull off my shirt and sleep pants and change into an old ratty nightgown. Another contraction comes on, and I hold my breath as my gut squeezes tight, counting the seconds until it passes. It leaves me a little breathless, and I move to sit on the edge of the bed, and the baby inside of me squirms at the tightness it's encapsulated in.
"Soon," I murmur. Terror overtakes me for a moment. It's too soon, I think, I'm not ready. But I know it's too late to stop it. This is it. It's finally time.
My mother comes back into the room with a stack of towels and a pitcher of water. She sees the look on my face and comes over to me.
I grip her hand, knowing I'll never get it out if Peeta is here. "I'm scared, Mom."
She pats my hand. "Everything will be all right."
"It's gonna hurt, isn't it?" Even after all of my experiences, I still have an aversion to any sort of pain.
"Of course. But it's nothing my strong girl can't handle."
I take a deep breath and grip her hand tight.
"Don't leave, okay?"
"Never again," she whispers, and she kisses my temple. We sit there until another contraction hits, and I cringe.
"Don't push just yet, dear," she says, then has me lie back on the bed. She fetches a pair of rubber examination gloves from the bag she brought with her and comes back to the bed. "Now, I'm going to check how far you've dilated…" She spreads my legs and examines me. I shift at the intrusion but let her do her work, knowing that there's more of this to come, and that a few fingers inside of me will be nothing compared to a whole baby. When she's finished, she smiles and takes off the gloves.
"You're at four centimeters," she says. "We won't have you push till you're at ten, understand?" She's reverted to her nursing attitude, but it's laced with affection. "Until then, we'll just try and keep you comfortable. Would you like a glass of water?"
I nod, unable to speak because another contraction has come on. I groan a little, and my mother turns back to me.
"Breathe through it, Katniss. That's it. Just breathe."
I do as she instructs, but the pain is sharp, and I don't unclench my fists until it's passed. The worst part is that I know it will only get worse as time passes. The thought makes me blanch, but I swallow the fear and steel myself for the pain. I will NOT be one of the screaming women that my mother used to deliver back in the Seam. I will NOT be one of the women that cries and bemoans her condition. I will be strong. And I will not cry out, even though I know no one will hold it against me or judge me for it. I am a two-time winner of the most brutal Games in the history of our world. I have regrown my ribs. I will not let something as trivial as childbirth get the best of me.
My mother fetches a glass of water for me, and I sip at it. "How long is this going to take?" I ask her eventually, after another contraction passes. She smiles at me ruefully. "You're moving along rather nicely," she says. "And the baby could be here quickly enough. But it will be hours, dear. At least a few more." She sees my lips purse, and she smiles again.
"Be brave, Katniss. I know you can do it."
Reassuring words. But I hope I don't begin to doubt myself too soon.
The hours seemed to pass excruciatingly slow and fly by all at once. Peeta returned within the hour that he left, towing a disheveled Dr. Bryke behind him. He must have run the whole way there. My doctor is calm and collected, if tired looking, and she pulls my mother aside and speaks in hushed tones while Peeta rushes to my side.
"How are you feeling? Are you okay?" He takes my hand and kisses the back of it. "I came back as fast as I could. Can I get you anything?"
It's hard not to laugh. I am uncomfortable, as if I can't get in the right position, but there's nothing he can do about that. "No, I'm fine," I tell him. He deflates a little, almost as if he was hoping for something to help with, for a way to be useful. I squeeze his hand.
"Some tea would be nice," I say, and he nods and darts out of the room. My mother and Dr. Bryke smile as he leaves.
"Good idea. He'll need to be kept busy," says Dr. Bryke. "Nothing worse than a fretting husband hovering around."
That irks me just a little, because I want Peeta to be here for all of it – I need him to be here – but I have a feeling I will agree with her in time.
Dr. Bryke comes over and does an examination on me, doing all the same things my mother did earlier. When she pulls her hand away, she smiles.
"Lovely. You're coming along nicely."
I sigh and then clench up as a contraction seizes me. I suck in my breath and blow it out through my mouth, using the technique my mother taught me. Dr. Bryke nods.
"Good, breathe through it," she encourages.
I nod and breathe in through my nose again and out through my mouth till it passes. My body sags into the mattress when it's done. I'm starting to feel tired already, and there's still hours to go. That thought makes me pale.
"Katniss?" My mother comes over to the bed, but I wave her away.
"I'm fine, that one was just stronger than the last."
Dr. Bryke asks, "Rate it one to ten, ten being the most painful?"
I think back to all of the injuries I've sustained, the burns, the breaks, the gashes, and the healing process of all of them, and I know that right now these contractions are nothing compared to the feeling of regrowing half the skin on my body.
"Five," I say. She and my mother exchange a glance.
"Be honest, Katniss," my mother says. "There's no need to be brave. We need to know how it really feels."
I reconsider for a moment. "Alright, six."
They grin at me, and Dr. Bryke pats my hand. "Now it's time for the waiting game."
I understand quickly enough what Dr. Bryke means about the waiting game. As the contractions begin to lengthen and gain in intensity, I began to rethink my definitions of pain. A low-sitting pressure burns in my pelvis, and the hurt radiates through my body. Peeta sits on the bed beside me, letting me crush his hand when a contraction squeezes my gut, wiping my brow with a cool washrag when I begin to sweat, holding the bowl for me when I become sick. He stuffs pillows behind my back to prop me up, moves them away when I thrash about and want to lie flat. My mother and Dr. Bryke periodically check me for how much I've dilated, my blood pressure, my pulse. Everything is normal. After two hours of lying in bed, suffering through ever-intensifying contractions, I simply cannot take it anymore.
"I can't lay here anymore," I snap, pushing my husband away from me.
"Let's walk then," my mother offers, and I nod in relief. They help me off the bed and we begin to pace around the room. It seems to help, and when the next contraction comes, I double over and groan with the pain. Peeta seems to shake as I breathe through it, and it slowly hits me: he could be on the verge of an episode. I grasp his hands and murmur, "Stay with me." He takes a deep breath and nods, mumbling "always". It must be hard for him, seeing me in so much pain and being unable to do anything about it. Knowing that this I the only means to the end we both want. Childbirth equals pain. But seeing me in pain has always put him on edge, and after his last attack… he'd never forgive himself if he lost control now.
"Peeta," I say, straightening when the contraction is over, "I would really love a cheese bun right now."
He stares at me in shock. "Right now?"
I glance at my mother and Dr. Bryke, who give me perfectly blank looks, and I turn back to my husband.
"Please?" I squeeze his hand for good measure. He hesitates, not wanting to leave my side. I press further.
"Please, Peeta? Just one. For me?"
We share a meaningful look, and he finally sighs. He kisses my lips and then my forehead before relinquishing his hold on me and heading downstairs. I watch him leave, then look to my mother.
"Get Haymitch. Tell him he needs to watch Peeta for me."
Without so much as blinking in reproach, my mother nods and leaves the room. Dr. Bryke comes to my side and we resume pacing.
The world seems to shrink down to just my body in the course of the rest of the night. By the early sunlight of dawn I can no longer stand, and I return to the bed. I am unable to keep the keening noises, the groans and whimpers of pain from escaping my throat now. Dr. Bryke says that she has medicine from the Capitol that will make the pain less intense, but I refuse it. I can do this. I've been through much worse. But as I alternate between walking and lying on the bed, propped up on pillows and sucking on ice chips that Peeta has brought from the freezer (cheese buns completely forgotten after I got sick again and cried for him to return to my side), I begin to wonder if I really can do this. I had learned to live beyond self-reliance years ago, and now here I am, faced with a task that only I can complete. No assistance. No sponsors. No shiny little silver parachutes. It is now me and my body and my baby.
I think I would rather face a pack of muttations than go through with this.
The sun is coming in through the windows before long. Contractions rip through me, one after another, and I curl into myself on the mattress, groaning. At one point Peeta tries to rub my back to ease the pain, but I shove him away.
"Peeta, I love you," I say through clenched teeth, "but please don't touch me right now."
He doesn't seem hurt by it, thankfully, and continues to feed me ice chips, which are the only things that seem to help me cope with the pain. After a while though, his anxiety begins to aggravate me, and I rather rudely order him to go away and "sit with Haymitch or something." This does seem to put him out, but my mother lays a reassuring hand on his shoulder and escorts him out.
Another hour passes before the first tears start leaking from my eyes. My mother comes over to me and brushes the hair from my face and asks what's wrong. I open my eyes and whisper, "I can't do this anymore, Mom."
She smiles softly at me and continues running her fingers through my hair. It's soothing, something she used to do when I was young. "Oh Katniss, it's almost over."
I shake my head, my throat closing up. "I can't, Mom, it hurts too much –"
"And it will get worse," she finishes. "But you can do it. Just imagine being able to finally hold your baby. That will get you through."
I nod and try to imagine it, and it takes my mind away, if only briefly. I moan out that I want Peeta back, and when my mother calls to him I can hear him run up the stairs. He bursts into the room and is immediately at my side. Haymitch follows him in shortly after, looking like he's halfway through a bottle. I don't blame him. In his time, plenty of women died in our District from childbirth. Plenty of women still do. Maybe that's why he's drinking now. He's afraid I'll die, too.
"Well ain't you a sight," he grumbles in my direction. I give him my middle finger. He chuckles.
"Get the show on the road already," he says. "Your couch is shit and I ain't gettin' any younger." With that, he exits the room. Peeta shakes his head and then asks after a moment, "Am I allowed to touch you now?"
I nod and he squeezes onto the bed beside me, wrapping an arm around my shoulder and kissing my temple.
"You're so brave," he whispers in my ear. "I can't even imagine—" He pauses as I clench his hand because of a contraction, one that makes me cry out.
"That one sounded good," Dr. Bryke chirps, and she comes over to the bed and asks me to open my legs for another examination. She seems pleased with the results.
"Well," she says, "You're completely dilated. We can start pushing now."
Here it is, the big moment. My heart pounds in my chest and I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself down. My mother and Dr. Bryke instruct Peeta to hold one of my knees back against my chest while Dr. Bryke holds the other. This shift in position suddenly seems to make the pressure all the more urgent, and I feel like crying from all of the anxiety that has suddenly sprung up in my mind. Will she be healthy? Will there be anything wrong with her? Will it be a boy instead of a girl? We haven't even picked a name out—
"Katniss!" I snap out of it to look down at my mother, who is kneeling on the bed between my open legs. "I need you to focus," she says. "On the next contraction I want you to bear down into your bottom and push, okay?" I nod rapidly and suck in a breath, and then another. The next contraction comes on, and I take the deepest breath I can and then hold it and push. I don't know how I know what to do. My body just knows, as if it's the most primal of knowledge stored within me. Letting my body take over, I bear down into it like my mother said. It is like knives stabbing me. My mother counts to ten out loud and then I release my breath, panting. I glance up at Peeta and he looks slightly green. I clutch at his hand and grunt, "Stay with me, dammit." He looks down at me and grimaces, but nods.
"I'm not going anywhere," he says.
My mother snaps her head up and smiles in encouragement. "That was good, Katniss. Do it again."
And I do. Push after push, I somehow manage to throw my remaining strength into each one. I am moaning and crying and embarrassing myself with how weak I sound, but all I know right now is the pain and the pressure and the overwhelming need to push. When I release my breath from the seventh or eighth push, I let out a weak whimper. My body is taut like a bowstring, ready to snap, ready to be released. I bite my lip and press on.
"One more, Katniss, I can see the head—"
Peeta peeks over my leg and his mouth falls open. "Oh my god," he mumbles, and then he's kissing my crown and whispering in my ear, "You can do it, Katniss. She's right there. You can do it."
My mother reaches behind her for another blanket and spreads it beneath her legs. "One more, Katniss. One more and then it'll be here, I promise, just one more…"
My body feels pushed to its limits. I am shaking, and though Peeta grips my hand tight, I am terrified.
"I don't think I can—"
"Hush, yes you can."
"You can do it. One more –"
"I can see her, Katniss, just one more –"
This is it.
I take a breath and bear down, putting all I have left into it. A slow scream works its way out of my throat and I feel like every knife in the house is stabbing me, cutting me to pieces. And then all at once, like the rush of a wave, I feel her slip from me and my mother is grinning and Peeta is laughing and Dr. Bryke is rushing for another towel.
"Oh my god –"
"It's a girl!" my mother exclaims, and I break down into tears. There she is, a bloody, ugly, beautiful baby girl, squalling at the top of her little lungs, and I am in love. The force of it could have knocked me over. Peeta kisses me, his tears soaking my already wet face.
"I love you," he says, and then my mother lays the baby on my chest, shaking and screaming and still covered in blood and goo, and she is perfect. I laugh and cry at the same time.
"Hi," I murmur. "Hi."
My mother calls Peeta to her side to cut the umbilical cord, and Dr. Bryke comes over to collect the baby and clean her up. I don't want her to leave, but I know that she needs to be looked over. My mother continues working at me, bringing me back to my own body.
"Everything looks good," she says as she wraps up the afterbirth. "No excess bleeding. But you did tear so I'm going to stitch you up…" But everything she says and does goes over my head in the haze of exhaustion and disbelief. I watch as Peeta follows Dr. Bryke over to the dresser that has turned into a makeshift exam table. He has removed his glasses so that he can wipe the tears from his cheeks. The look on his face is sheer joy as he looks down at our new daughter, and I know then that this was all worth it. That I made the right decision.
While my mother stitches me up, Dr. Bryke brings my daughter back to me. Grinning, she lays the bundle on my chest, and my arms come up to cradle her. In that moment, I am reduced to nothing.
"Oh, Peeta," I whisper. "She's perfect."
A head full of dark hair tops her slightly misshapen skull (my mother says this is just from birth and that it will round out soon). She opens her eyes and they are the smoky grey-blue of all newborns. Her bottom lip sticks out in a pout, as if she's upset that she's out of the womb, and I grin, tears flowing freely down my face.
"Hello, little one," I say, and she blinks slowly at me, yawns, and closes her eyes. My heart melts in my chest. Is it always going to be this heartbreaking?
Peeta returns to my side and reaches out a finger to gently brush her cheek. It's almost as if he's afraid to touch her, as though she'll break. We stare in awe, and Peeta kisses me, mumbling over and over, "Thank you, thank you…"
My mother and Dr. Bryke leave the room quietly, knowing that we need time to ourselves. I hurt all over, but I no longer notice. I am exhausted beyond anything I've ever known, but I don't care. The man I love is beside me, wrapping his arms around the two of us, cradling me as I cradle her. Our heads are together as we watch this precious thing in my arms. This man, who has saved me more times than I can count, whom I love deeply – I have finally given him what he has wanted most. For the first time since that day outside the bakery, when he tossed me those burnt loaves of bread, I feel as though the debt has been repaid.
"What are we going to call her?" he asks, his voice raspy. He swallows, never taking his eyes from his daughter. "We never decided—"
I don't have to think. It is as if someone whispers it into my ear.
"Grace," I tell him. "We'll call her Grace."
I feel him smile, and he reaches out and nudges her little hand, her tiny fingers curling around his large one. "Our Grace," he murmurs, tears in his voice, and I lean down and brush a kiss against her soft crown.
The song comes to me easily now, whispered in my ear in the same voice that gave me her name.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey…"