1977. What a crazy year it had been: Elvis died in August, kids went nuts over Star Wars, Jimmy Carter scared everyone talking about the energy crisis, and there was a drought in California. Here it was December and it hadn’t rained in months. And ten days before my due date, we moved from Albany to San Jose–an hour’s drive away from the hospital in San Francisco where I was planning to have my baby.
We worked fast to get the nursery ready: we put the crib together and placed all the brand new baby clothes in the dresser. I’d hung up some gauzy white curtains that were edged with a sunny yellow. We’d painted the room the color of a robin’s egg. We put a mirror on the wall alongside the crib, and hung a musical mobile, right where the baby would see, that played “You Are My Sunshine.” The rocking chair and cradle were standing by for rock-a-bye-baby. All we needed was the baby.
|Ten days to go. Yes, that’s a Vega.
Two days before my due date, we’d gone shopping for an infant seat and a stroller–something we should’ve done much sooner. A woman in the store had looked at me and said, “You’d better hurry!”
The next night, I awoke just before midnight and felt a sharp pain. I nudged my husband and said, “I think something just happened.” He’s a sound sleeper and didn’t budge from his deep slumber. I nudged him again, and then poked him–hard.
“What?” he said.
“I think I might be in labor. I think…”
“No, no, go back to sleep,” he said. “It’s OK.”
I waited a minute, five minutes. He’d drifted back to sleep– I could tell by his breathing. Then, another contraction. I got up, and wobbled a bit. Five more minutes, and again: a rising tightness over my belly. I flipped on the bedroom light and started pulling on my clothes. “We’d better get going. I mean it,” I said loudly, suddenly full of adrenaline. He rolled over and stared at me.
“So this is it?” he said.
I looked him in the eyes and told him, “Yes, and you have to drive, OK?” And then I realized, well, of course he would have to drive. Wide awake at last, he threw on a red and blue striped t-shirt and a pair of jeans. He splashed cold water on his face, grabbed the suitcase and his keys, and said, “Let’s go have a baby!”
With no traffic to slow us down, we made good time getting to San Francisco. We hadn’t done a practice run to the hospital, and hadn’t really planned out the parking situation. He offered to drop me off and park, but I explained to him that there was no way in hell I would walk into the hospital alone. We parked and walked together, stopping along the way so I could lean on him and breathe. We found the emergency entrance and checked in.
The hours ticked by. My nurse told me I could walk. Walking would help “move things along.” I wasn’t ready yet, keep walking. So we walked, up and down the fluorescent bright corridors. I wore two cotton gowns, one backward and one over it like a robe and hospital socks with rubbery lines on the soles. Walking around and around the halls, I could hear what was going on in the rooms: women crying out, a baby using its lungs for the first time.
“I’m getting a little scared,” I said, and stopped to lean against the wall and breathe. Please, I prayed silently. Let’s go. And soon my prayers were answered. We had a daughter! We were parents.
Hours later, I learned that our new baby had failed her first test, the APGAR test. APGAR stands for Activity, Pulse, Grimace, Appearance and Respiration. They check these signs one minute after birth, and then five minutes after. She received a zero on her skin color. Instead of a healthy pink, her skin, lips, and fingernails were a dusky blue-gray. The doctor told us the problem could be her heart or it could be her lungs. She couldn’t say for sure. She wanted to send our baby across town to the intensive care nursery. An ambulance would take her. The doctor looked at my husband. “You can go with her,” she said.
It started to rain.
In the days that followed, I learned to draw a diagram of my daughter’s heart on a cafeteria napkin. A very tall doctor–a skilled surgeon with the hands of a basketball player– would operate on her walnut-sized heart, as soon as she grew a little bigger and stronger. They promised us that after the corrective surgery, she would turn pink–fingernails, skin, lips–all pink.
|Yes, sir, that’s my baby!
She had to stay in the hospital for one week. We went home without her.
When we finally brought her home and placed her in the cradle, we tried not to think about the inevitable trip back to the hospital for her surgery. We practiced being a family and I loved being able to rock her in the rocking chair and play the mobile for her.
But by the middle of January, she struggled to breathe, and we knew it was time to make that drive back to San Francisco. We could not have known what a long journey was ahead for her– or for us.
And on a clear, windy day in April, we brought our daughter home again – to the blue room with the white and yellow curtains and the rocking chair and the cradle and the “You are my Sunshine” mobile. And when she was big enough to pull herself up by holding on to the edges of her crib, she planted juicy kisses on the baby in the mirror with her perfectly pink lips.
…this is the sun’s birthday;
this is the birthday of life and
of love and wings; and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
[…] born into a medical maelstrom, needing immediate intervention. (She writes about that experience here.) A few years later, with the premature birth of my twins, I would share that experience too. I […]