My wife fell pregnant about a week after we got back from our honeymoon, and we decided that she should take some time off from teaching once the school year ended. This wasn’t meant to be permanent, but the way things worked out, she never made it back into the classroom.
I was on out one night working on a hit utility pole in the North Bronx when Sally called me hysterically to tell me that she was bleeding. I rushed home, thankful for once that my boss had been on the scene with me. I held my wife in my arms and wondered helplessly what I could do.
|Me and Sally as newlyweds in 2003.|
“God,” I prayed, “watch over us and give us strength. Help us keep this baby safe and get through these next few days as a family.”
I took Sally to the doctor the next day, and it turned out that everything was fine. She’d somehow gotten a pocket of blood lodged between her uterine wall and the baby’s placenta. Her bleeding was actually a good thing since it meant that a potential clot was clearing, but it had scared the living crap out of us for obvious reasons.
This brought up another issue, though. I could be on call at any time, and I was not always within easy driving distance of home. Meanwhile, Sally was going to go into labor sometime sooner or later, and I wasn’t at all certain that I’d be in a position to just drop everything and head home right when labor began. I also couldn’t easily change my work schedule, not when I didn’t know which days I might need to be free. As I’d told my mother the previous year, New York City needed me. My job kept people’s lights on. As I was coming to learn, electricity wasn’t some nice-to-have luxury, not in the City of New York. People actually depended on what I did. Not just Sally but lots of people, even if they didn’t know it.
Had we had friends or family close by, things might have been different. The reality, though, was that Sally and I could only really depend on each other. There was no one else. My friends and classmates were scattered across half the globe, most serving in uniform overseas. Joe wasn’t close enough to help in this particular situation, and anyway, his schedule was no easier to manage than mine was. My folks both lived in Tennessee, but to be honest, I’d not have counted on them even if they’d been living next door. Sally felt the same about her own family.
We were having a baby, but we were doing it all on our own.
We talked this over with Sally’s doctor and decided to induce labor on a day that I knew ahead of time I could be available. A glance at our calendar showed that Friday, September 26, 2003, would be exactly forty weeks. We set this as the birthdate for our daughter Hannah. I scheduled a day of vacation in advance, and we avoided any potential complications with traffic or overhead electrical emergencies. This made Sally more than a little nervous, but I felt blessed to have a doctor who would work with us and to live in a time and place in which the miracle of childbirth could be scheduled through Microsoft Outlook.
The day came, and we bundled Sally into the car for the drive up to Hackensack Hospital. She’d been walking daily and doing pregnancy yoga, and though she was definitely big with the baby, she was also the fittest mother-to-be I’d ever seen. She’d been preparing for childbirth as though it were an athletic event. By the time we got to the hospital, she was ready to compete.
The hospital staff got us settled and then broke Sally’s water, and when that didn’t trigger labor, they started a pitocin drip. We waited. Sally beat me in three straight games of Scrabble as her contractions gradually increased to a level that was visibly uncomfortable, dilating her cervix and preparing her body for childbirth.
After a while, this became a meta-game.
“I’m having a baby, and I’m beating you at Scrabble,” she gloated. “How smart did you say you were again? Tell me about that time you got into Harvard, Mr. Smart Guy. I’m not smart enough. I can’t remember all the details.”
In my defense, I’d never said that Sally was not smart, or that she was not as smart as me. She put herself through Boston University and earned a Master’s from Columbia. She had a superhuman facility with foreign languages, and yes, she was exceptionally good at Scrabble.
All of which was challenging but basically still just fun until Sally got to about six centimeters dilated. Then Hannah’s vitals took a sudden turn for the worse, and after a little dithering, the doctors decided to put in an internal fetal monitor to make sure that everything stayed okay. This only served to heighten our alarm, however, and by now, Sally’s contractions were coming hard and fast.
A nurse said, “You’re almost ready to push!”
Sally said, “I can feel it!”
But then the doctor said, “Wait! Don’t push!!!”
It was too late. Sally was ten centimeters dilated. She needed to push.
“We need to do an emergency C-section,” the doctor told me. His face was ashen and intense. Whatever was happening, he was seriously concerned about it.
“I can do this,” Sally protested weakly.
I looked into the doctor’s eyes and overrode her without hesitation. “Do it.”
The room burst into chaos. Nurses grabbed me and wrapped me in scrubs. The doctor himself wheeled Sally into another room, telling her not to push even as she continued to protest. In another moment, everyone had disappeared. I stood in hastily assembled scrubs in a quiet delivery room, wondering if my world was about to collapse in on itself.
Was I about to become a single father?
It seemed impossible in the year 2003, and yet there we were, no shit. There had been no mistaking the fear I’d seen on my wife’s doctor’s face. More than a quarter of an hour passed during which I stood alone in the dark in dumbfounded silence. I’d had everything I’d ever wanted, and now I was wondering if it was all about to fall away.
A nurse came to me at last, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me numbly into another room. There I saw a pan sitting beneath a warming light. Another nurse set baby Hannah—crying—into that pan like she was a store-bought pre-roasted chicken. I didn’t know where Sally was or how soon—or even if—she would be able to comfort our daughter. I remembered that babies sometimes heard the voices of family members in utero, though. I held my finger out to where my daughter could grasp it in her tiny hands, and I started talking to her. I tried to stay calm, to keep my panic for my wife from reaching my voice. This must have worked because Hannah calmed immediately.
“It’s going to be okay, Hannah” I said softly. “We’re going to figure this out.”
We sat like that for another twenty minutes or more.
The doctor appeared at last, looking like he’d just run the Bayonet Assault Course at the United States Military Academy. He was drenched with sweat but clearly satisfied with himself.
“She’s going to be alright?” I asked. I could see already that the answer was yes.
“She’s fine,” the doctor replied. “The baby turned her head at the last minute.” He shrugged. “I guess she wanted to see where she was going. But her head was too wide to fit through the cervix at that angle, and this put pressure on the arteries in her neck. It might even have snapped her spine if she’d come out vaginally. We had no choice. We had to do the C-section.”
“Thank you for saving them.”
“Thank you for letting me do my job.”
“How soon can I see Sally?”
“It might be awhile yet. Maybe another hour.”
“Okay. We can handle that.”
As long as Sally was safe, I figured that we could handle anything.
They wheeled Sally into a recovery room a long while later, by which time Hannah was starving. Lots of women have trouble breastfeeding, but thankfully Sally was not one of them. We later nicknamed Hannah “the Boobaloo” because… Well, we just did. Perhaps because of that first hungry hour she spent with only her father to comfort her, our daughter remained a healthy eater for her first several years or more. She could never seem to get enough.
I was satisfied with all of this, but the day’s events had traumatized my wife badly. Cesarean sections have become routine in the First World, but they remain major surgery. Sally felt bewildered by hers, and she had quite a lot of pain in its aftermath. She’d gone through ninety-five percent of the labor required to deliver a child naturally, including pretty much all of the most painful parts, and then she’d suddenly gone through a C-section, too. The intensity of that experience, the sudden and chaotic nature of its conclusion, and the physical pain and hormonal imbalances associated with its aftermath combined to make poor Sally feel like she’d failed at the task of having a baby, a task for which she had been training diligently for months and months.
This supposed failure sat poorly in her mind. Every ache from the surgery site forced its remembrance. I tried to talk to her, to remind her that the important thing was that she and the baby were both happy and healthy, but she couldn’t hear it. My words, whatever they were, only reminded her that induced labor had been my idea, that pushing the timeline had created a forced intensity to the birthing process because of pitocin drip we’d used to start her contractions.
In effect, what had happened had been my fault.
I made no effort to argue with this. West Point and the Army both teach leaders to take responsibility for events over which they have at best marginal control. In many ways, this is good practice for other aspects of life. If Sally wanted to blame me, if being angry with me helped ease her conscience and assuage whatever abnormal feelings of guilt gripped her in the weeks following her C-section, so be it. I could be what she needed me to be. My shoulders were broad enough to bear that burden. After the fear I’d felt in the moments after she’d been wheeled away, the fear of losing Sally and Hannah both, I was more than happy to be whatever Sally needed me to be. If that’s what it took for her—for us—to move forward, then I’d paid a tiny price indeed.