July 22. I went into work like any normal summer day. But I had a nervous pit in my stomach, like some crop of restless insects were twittering inside, eager to break through the cavernous prison that held them bound.
I had a craving for Chinese food.
At any moment the phone was going to ring. It would be my wife, announcing that the hospital was ready for us. That her turn in the inducement line had come around. That it was time for our family of 5 to become a family of 7. And so I waited out the day. I sent pointless text messages and made fruitless, redundant phone calls always asking the same question; “did they call?” And the answer was always, obviously, “no.” The day crept along. Slowly, nervously.
I was regretting the Chinese food.
Evening started to interrupt the waning afternoon. The shadows grew long and our patience grew short. We went for pizza. As we ate we resigned ourselves to having to wait just one more day. Just one more awkward, uncomfortable night. For her. Just one more night of token concern and questions for me.
“Hang in there.”
What else could I do?
We finished our pizza. We were browsing the dessert menu and discussing the absurdities of some news headline or the other. I don’t really remember. My 5 year old son Harry wants to play baseball in the yard when we get home. “Sure thing Harry” I promise. He beams with anticipation.
Her cell phone rings.
Thirty minutes later we are in a Labor and Delivery room at the hospital. The pitocin is starting to flow, which means it is time for the epidural. A massive needle injected into the spine, spewing wonderful, magical, pain numbing fluid into my wife’s body. I get a little queasy looking at the thin metal dangling from her back as the doctor fiddles with his gloves.
“One in…oh, about 100 will get a nasty headache from this. Only about 1 in 15 or 20 thousand will suffer paralysis. So you will be just fine.”
I think that there is a large difference between 15 and 20 thousand. 5 thousand in fact. I think of abnormally high batting averages. Or abnormally low home run totals. Everything always regresses to the mean. The average will fall, the home runs will rise. Somewhere, at some time that one in 15 thousand will happen.
But not here, not tonight. I breathe a little easier as the portable numbing cart is wheeled out of the room.
All is quiet.
I have exhausted my magazines. Read all the blogs and websites I can on my phone. I pace around the room. I find myself watching the monitor next to the generic and sterile hospital bed. Those narrow, adjustable, uncomfortable, clinical, horrible hospital beds. The monitor displays both babies heart rates. 155, 165. Good training zones for me. Average, normal, and healthy for unborn children. Underneath the heart rate numbers is a graph. It looks nearly identical to the elevation profile for the upcoming stage of the Tour de France. Rolling flats, followed by massive climbs. Rinse and repeat.
“What is this measuring?”
The epidural and the pitocin are working. The profiles go from category 3s to hors categorie in a matter of a few minutes. A cervical Alp D’huez. From time to time the nurse checks in on her. Us. I flip through the late night talk shows.
“Hey this guy named his kid Political Inspektor. We could use that.”
The joke is mildly appreciated. But it is nearly time to push. Time for the children to arrive. Time for blood and placentas and anxious life and death moments. Just another day at the office for these doctors and nurses. The nervous pit returns to my abdomen as I dress in scrubs and follow my wife into the operating room.
Just being in an operating room, when normally we’d be in the pseudo home like labor room is nerve wracking. There are instruments of all manner and description laid out neatly on a table next to my wife. Scissors of many shapes and lengths. Knives. Tongs and other things I don’t recognize and don’t want to be able to recognize. I hope silently that none of them are needed.
On hand are multiple nurses, a couple anesthesia guys (one of them the same who applied the earlier epidural) a midwife, and of course the doctor himself. He sits down and takes a look at the babies with an ultra sound machine. I stand quietly to the right of my wife. My only instruction is to brace her right leg when she pushes. I look around at the eyes of everyone in the room. There is a calming professionalism to them. But I wonder it they are feeling, as I am feeling, that this could all go horribly wrong. It’s a delicate balance, this business of being born. As I trust my wife and two unborn children’s lives into the hands of these strangers I realize that I am a totally unnecessary accessory to what is about to occur. That if anything did start to go wrong, I’d most likely be brushed aside in the panic and intensity of the moment. I start to mutter a prayer, or a plea or something.
“Come on, come on, come on…everything work!”
And then suddenly there is a scalp, a head, a face. A person.
He dangles up side down, the doctor holding him by his slimy ankles with one hand and suctioning goop and blood and fluid from nose and mouth and lungs with the other. In one fluent and familiar motion the baby is handed off to the respiratory nurses. They rub and wrap and suction and then…
For what seems like a lifetime there is no sound. I clench my wife’s hand tightly. I hear her ask nobody and everybody if he is alright. More silence. I can see his pink skin turning white on the warmed bed.
“Come on, come on, come on…”
And then the most welcome, sweetest, most heart wrenching sound a father can ever hear.
A squawk really. And then another. Followed by a full bawl. His skin is pink again. His arms are flailing, his skinny chicken legs kicking. The nurses smile and coo.
I feel a rush of relief. My iron grip recedes a little. The blood flows back into my wife’s hand. Success!
Except. There is another. Still in the womb.
And the whole process is repeated. Rinse and repeat. Literally.
The same horrifying silence, the same musical squawk. The same blessed relief.
My wife has her eyes closed. She is exhausted and elated. I bring her Asher, now tightly wrapped in a warm blanket. His large, watery, curious eyes blink in the bright light of the sterile room. Underneath my hospital mask I am grinning. A tired, elated, toothy grin. Asher is little, but alert. A hairless, pink, wrinkled, slimy, befuddled spitting image of his father. I look at his bony legs and wonder about all the places they will take him. The things he will see. The man he will become.
And then there is Norah. A perfect girl. She looks identical, not to her twin, but to her older sister. She’s wrapped regally in her blankets, a look of mild disdain on her round face. It is as if she is expressing her disgust at having her life be interrupted. Intruded upon. All for the unpleasant, albeit necessary experience of being born.
Later, much later. So much later that it is now the next day, I find myself holding both babies in my arms. I look down at them in wonder and awe. “How on earth…” One of them begins to fuss and the other soon follows. I wrap a hand around each head, just being able to reach the passifiers with my finger tips. I gently hold them in place.
I feel a tug at my elbow. It is Harry.
“When can we go play baseball?”