Birth: Part two.


Continuing from part one, Lara has disappeared into an operating bay for her C-section for almost an hour, and I am finally taken to join her.

I am shuffled into an operating bay about 50 feet from the holding room. I see my wife’s feet and immediately think, “Oh Christ, they’ve brought me in on the wrong side.” My head snaps forward and tunnel vision kicks in. I only see the nurse in front of me and the path she is taking to the back of the room. It’s not until after the delivery that I notice that the blankets that are hung and the  bodies of the surgical crew would have completely blocked the main event from my field of view.

The nurse leads me to the far side of the blanket partition, next to an array of gas canisters. Lara’s head and arms extrude from the blanket, which cuts off all view of her from the armpits down. Her arms shoot out perpendicular from her body and are strapped down to prevent movement. She wears a hairnet that matches my own. She is staring at the ceiling, her mouth slightly ajar. Her porcelain skin has been drained of all its remaining color, and she is shivering, almost vibrating, as if in a state of shock.

Which, of course, she is. It is a visceral reminder that what they are doing to her body just inches away from me would unquestionably kill her if not for the tender mercies of the anesthesiologist. Of all I have experienced in my life, nothing has unnerved me as much as this sight of Lara violently trembling before me, her breath shooting out in staccato bursts.

“Hey,” I almost whisper as I take the seat next to her and bring my face near hers.

“H-h-hey,” she replies, turning her head slightly to see me.

“Are you okay?” I ask, wincing internally at the stupidity of the question.

“Y-y-yea-yeah,” she says. “I’m f-ff-ine.” Her lip quivers on the last word, her teeth chattering uncontrollably.

The minutes pass. We try to make small talk, pretending not to think of the unimaginable gore that must be just beyond the blue fabric separating us from the medical team. The anesthesiologist chirps a few encouraging words every now and then, telling us how great Lara is doing. But she is soon distracted by a colleague that has decided that now is the perfect time for a chat. He wanders in besides us, gives us a brief “hello” before launching into a story about some item he needs and the fact that it is in a room or locker or somewhere that can be opened by one of our anesthesiologist’s keys. The conversation is casual and jocular, but nonetheless, the anesthesiologist feels the need to address the issue immediately.

“I’ll be right back,” she says, introducing her colleague to us as a first-rate guy who will fill in for her while she’s gone. I give them both a friendly smile, arch my eyebrows, nod my head, and silently repeat to myself that lecturing the anesthesiologist about professionalism in the middle of my wife’s C-section is probably not the best idea.

The lead surgeon, the chair of the department who we had met in triage, occasionally narrates his progress. He tells us which layer of fat or muscle he’s currently cutting through as if he were Jacques Cousteau remarking on the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. I can’t decide whether keeping us up to date is helpful or annoying, but it does give us plenty of warning for Baby A’s debut.

“Here comes number one!” the department chair announces. There is a pause, then a sharp, high-pitched cry is heard. Lara and I glance at each other and then look expectantly to the right side of the blanket wall where the sound seems loudest. In a flash, the attending pediatrician breezes by us towards a nearby doorway, stopping for approximately one second to show our son to us.

“Here’s Baby A!” the pediatrician says, his tone and quick presentational style more reminiscent of a magic trick than a birth. What I am able to take in that brief moment is blurred. But my impression is that of a miniature, wrinkled albino who is yelling at me for staring. Then he is gone, whisked off into the back room.

“And number two!” calls out the department chair. The pediatrician shows us another Morlock child for a moment and then disappears. Lara and I barely have time to look at each other before I am being hailed.

“Come on, Dad!” cries an over exuberant nurse from the back doorway. “Come meet your son and daughter!” She is waving for me to follow her.

The last thing I want to do is leave Lara’s side, but it appears I already have a fatherly duty to perform. Lara nods at me, signaling that it’s okay to go, and I quickly cross to the doorway. The room beyond is taken up almost entirely by two incubator pads, where daughter and son now lay side-by-side, squalling. There is a narrow corridor between the incubators and the opposite walls; it leads to another room beyond. The corridor is already filled with two nurses taking care of the infants. Why they’d want me squeezing into the last available space is puzzling.

As one nurse is weighing the pair and taking their vitals, another has already placed a sizable set of shears around my son’s umbilical cord.

“Want to cut it?” she asks, extending the handles out to me.

“No, thanks,” I say. I follow up with a joke—”It’s probably better left to the professionals”—but the nurse has already snipped the cord and turned back to her work. I look back through the doorway to my shivering wife, alone in what must be a profoundly anti-climactic moment.

It’s not that I’m not interested in my newly arrived children. It’s just that they both seem alive and in good health, with plenty of people looking to their welfare. Lara is bound to a table and surrounded by strangers who work to repair the gaping hole they’ve torn in her belly. I can see where I’m needed most. I wait in the incubator room just long enough to not be thought an uncaring father, then I return to Lara’s side.

I tell Lara about what I’ve seen, lingering especially on the condition of our son, Baby A, whose questionable status had led us here. To my eyes, he looks fine. Tiny, but fine. As if to reiterate the point, one of the nurses brings him back to the operating bay, so that Lara has a chance to see him a little better. The nurse puts him next to Lara’s face so that she is able to give him a kiss. He is then taken to the neonatal ICU, the first stop for all premature babies.

We wait for our daughter, Baby B, to come in for a similar visit, but she never appears. Slowly, word spreads around the operating bay that Baby B has already been taken to the NICU through the back passage I had seen in the incubator room. Upon hearing the news, the department chair’s voice tightens. He gestures to one of the nurses.

“Please call the NICU and tell them that Ms. Hightower needs to see her daughter,” he says calmly, but with steel underneath. “She needs to see her now.”

Time passes as the surgeons continue to stitch up Lara’s incision. As they begin to prepare her for transit back to the holding room, one of the nurses leans in and whispers to the department chair. He nods slightly and then turns to us.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice barely concealing his anger, “but they’ve already put your daughter on an IV and monitors, so they can’t bring her to you at the moment.” His eyes rest on Lara. “But you can visit her the instant you feel up to it.”

Lara nods and thanks him, but I can see in her eyes that she’s crushed.

We are returned once more to the holding room. Most of the overhead fluorescents are turned off, which casts over two-thirds of the room into darkness. Lara is still a bit out-of-it from the anesthesia. She begins crying over only being able to see our son for a moment and not being able to see our daughter at all. I comfort her as best I can. We then start calling our families to share the news.

As we are completing the final call, the department chair walks in followed by the pediatrician and one of the nurses from the operating bay’s incubator room. The tone and body language of all three clearly indicates that the department chair has read the other two the riot act about taking Baby B to the NICU before showing her to us. The pediatrician begins an apology that shifts all the blame on to the poor nurse standing beside him. After throwing his colleague (and, likely, subordinate) under the bus, he then morphs his speech into a non-apology, saying that while he’s sorry we didn’t get to see Baby B, they really needed to get her to the NICU, and besides he did actually show her to us as he took her to the incubator room. Just when I think I am going to punch this guy in the face, he activates his failsafe device:

“Do you want to see your babies?”

I don’t want to leave Lara, but, once again, she insists. And thank god for that because I am dying to see them. I am led back out to the maternity waiting room and through the doors on the right. The pediatrician swipes his security card against the lock outside the NICU and leads me to the back room where more incubators line the walls. He then excuses himself to attend to his other duties, perhaps detecting the thinly veiled contempt radiating from me.

Five incubators down the aisle on the right lies my son, Baby A. His head lolls from side to side, with his eyes opening and closing intermittently. His tongue rolls out of his mouth then retreats in an almost constant cycle. Monitor leads are attached to his chest and foot, with one toe strapped to a blinding red light. Breathing tubes are jammed up his nose and taped to his face. His right arm is almost entirely invisible due to a gauze covered splint that secures his IV. Compared to his tiny frame, the IV looks like a railroad spike driven deep into his vein.

I take out my cell phone and take several pictures of him and then take a video as I chit chat with the attending nurse. I gently pat my son’s head and talk to him while my phone records both him and the non-stop beeping and blaring of the machines all around. It resembles that cacophony of a casino, with the piercing bells of slot machines replaced by the odd honk of heart monitors.

To my dismay, I find that his sister, Baby B, is back towards the entrance. She was actually directly to my left as I walked in. I ask if there’s any way to get the two closer, but placement has to do with what equipment is available at each station.

She is trussed up similarly to her brother, though her monstrous IV and splint are on her left arm. She is also wearing a unisex, blue and pink hat that completely covers her forehead to the rear of her skull. Saliva bubbles from her mouth as she grasps on to my forefinger with her right hand. She seems more exhausted than her brother and a little less sure of her surroundings. I snap some pictures and video of her, grateful that I live in a time when we have devices that can document events like this at our fingertips.

I return to the holding room where Lara is resting and show her the babies on my phone. I’m not sure if they make her feel better or worse, but I think she appreciates being able to see them—especially Baby B—in some capacity.

We then have to wait another 45 minutes for a room in the maternity ward to be made ready. I’m not sure what would cause such a delay—is someone checking out from the hospital at 1 a.m.?—but an orderly eventually escorts us to Lara’s room. I point out the NICU as we pass by, though I immediately wish I hadn’t due to the sad look in Lara’s eyes. The windows are shuttered for privacy reasons, so she can’t even get a glimpse of her babies.

As we settle into the hospital room, I pull out the list that we had made in the triage that afternoon. We have nothing with us for an extended stay at the hospital, which we’re told will be at least three days for a C-section patient. Therefore, I need to run home and get all of the things we put on the list. I kiss Lara on the forehead and set out on the long trek to the hospital parking garage, backtracking through the hospital corridors I had walked 12 hours ago, which are now darkened to cut down on the utility bills.

After a 30 minute drive home through the empty, frozen streets of Chicago in winter, I arrive at our apartment. The babies had not been due for another two weeks at the earliest, so we have no bags packed and ready to go. When you live on the top floor of a three-flat and want to be considerate of your neighbors, trying to pack your entire house into a suitcase in the middle of the night can be a challenge. Especially when you keep forgetting things in the bedroom—the hardwood floors creaking like they are in a Vincent Price film—and keep dropping the heaviest items over and over again.

Just before I leave to lug our overburdened suitcase down to the car and return to the hospital, I open the door to our second bedroom. It is an oddly shaped space, a very long but thin rectangle. It has served many roles in the past: guest room, store room, craft room. Now it is the nursery. I look at the matching cribs and realize with a sense of wonder that there are now two people to fill them. As I pass through the rest of the apartment, it all looks different. Like the second bedroom, we’ve made many changes to our home over the years: new paint, new furniture, new layouts. Each one has brought a different sensibility to the room in which it is in. As I open the back door, I understand, truly understand for the first time, how the next two additions we bring into our home will change everything. This will be the last time I see this place as it has been. And I’m both scared and thrilled to see what it soon will be.

I take the suitcase out into the frigid air, close the back door, and lock it behind me.

Shannon - December 5, 2011 - 7:24 pm

This was a beautifully written story! You have some mad writing skills!

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