The woman in the next bed kept calling to her husband, “Fred! Oh, Fred!”
And Fred said, “Okay, honey. Try to breathe now. Short breaths. Like this. Remember?” He pursed his lips and demonstrated.
I looked at my wife, she looked at me. She and Fred’s wife were in the on-deck circle, in one of the labor rooms at Beaumont Hospital, just down the hall from the delivery room. Fred’s wife was approaching the ninth inning, dealing with some major contractions.
It was all quite a surprise.
We were having our first baby. No one had told me there would be another couple in the room with us. I’d seen birthing dramas on television, which usually involved a lot of screaming, and two or three professional people gathered around the bed encouraging the mother, and an ashen-faced, freaked-out dad, the potted plant in the room. We had done the Lamaze class a few months before, graduating with honors. One of the ideas in the Lamaze approach was: the father gets involved. And now, this was it. I expected to feel my wife’s fingernails sinking into my palm soon, when I started to coach her on her breathing.
I’d been asked, countless times, what did I want, a boy or a girl. And I had answered, every time, that it didn’t matter. A healthy baby. Recalling what my father always said when a new baby arrived: Ten fingers, ten toes. That’s what we wanted.
That night we’d come to the hospital around midnight with light contractions, with unbroken water, and after a dilation check (“cold spray,” the resident said), some long strolls in the hallway, and then another dilation check (“cold spray,” the resident said), we had been unceremoniously sent home at 2:00 a.m. Feeling every bump in the road. Angry at the doctor, who had been less than gentle and reassuring, who had been, in a word: dismissive. Back home we went to bed, waiting. There was no going to sleep. An hour later, when harder contractions started, coming a little closer together, we got dressed and bumped back up the road to Beaumont, where we were shown, finally, to the labor room.
By the time Mr. and Mrs. Fred were rolled out of the room, our contractions were coming on strong. In labor, I discovered, my wife disappeared into herself. She didn’t say much. She closed her eyes and let the contractions come. They weren’t our contractions. They were hers. I certainly felt something–terror, mainly. Once or twice during a contraction, when I lifted her hand and told her breathe, she pulled away. She held up that hand, shook her head, and closed her eyes. So I took a seat. It was just me and the beeping fetal monitor.
“We’re going to break her water,” a nurse said. “See if that will move her along.”
They broke her water.
“We going to put her on petocin,” a nurse said. “See if that will move her along.”
They started an IV.
With each contraction, up went the baby’s heart rate, down went the baby’s heart rate.
More dilation checks (“cold spray,” the doctor said). I could show you now what 10 centimeters looks like, seeing the doctor and nurse hold up thumb and forefinger, measuring the distance, as we waited through contractions for my wife’s cervix to dilate, watching the baby’s fluctuating heart beat tracking across the monitor.
This went on for four, five, six hours.
At one point the OB-GYN looked on gravely and said, “The cord might be wrapped.”
Me: “And that means?”
“Might be,” he said. “We’ll wait a little longer.”
It was a long wait.
The cord was wrapped. In the delivery room the baby’s little head popped out, they snipped the cord, and the rest of her quickly followed.
“It’s a girl,” they said.
A girl, I thought. Is that what it is? What am I going to do with a girl? Most of my life, I had lived with one woman, first my mother, then my wife. They weren’t girls. They were women. I had a brother. No sisters. So, a girl. I was astonished at my reaction, the surprise. I was happy, but doubly flummoxed. Not just a baby. But a baby girl.
Mostly I was relieved. Ten fingers, ten toes. Once my wife was taken to a room, I was led to the special section of the nursery, the warming room, and there she was, lying on a platter under a light to keep her warm. A baby girl. Her eyes were open. She blinked a few times. She was looking around. So this is life.
So, a girl.