Sunday, November 20, 2011

You're the Top

I drifted off to sleep last night still humming the title song from Anything Goes.

You may not know this about me, but I'm no fan of musicals. I'm actually not a fan of live theatre in general: for a variety of reasons it makes me anxious, and if given the option, I will usually choose to avoid things I'm pretty sure will give me a stomach ache. For better or worse, though, I was blessed with a daughter who has been finding herself on stages with impressive frequency the last decade or so, and nothing suggests that will change anytime soon. And she's my daughter, and she is my favorite person, which means fuck stomach aches and fuck my personal tastes: I show the fuck up.

For years I've been telling anyone who comments on what a great relationship I have with my daughter that, in all honesty, she makes it easy. But this wasn't always the case: for the first few months of her life she was worse than Hitler. Cuter, but still worse. It was like she was born with the impulse to punish me. Do you want to sleep? Do you want to eat? Do you want me to pick you up? Do you want me to put a bullet in my head? Just tell me what you want -- tell me by not crying for ten consecutive seconds -- and I will do it, and you and the rest of the world can just move on. Seriously, I would have done anything to get this screaming maniac to just cut the shit. I once sat on the end of a bed with her, gently bouncing, trying to get her to just go the fuck to sleep. After a little while I started counting the bounces in my head, offhandedly at first, but as I approached five-hundred bounces and still no sign of her settling down, I started to take it seriously: I ticked off each bounce with a fierce solemnity. At that point I'd been around for about twenty-six years and was still naive enough to believe there were things I knew better than a lot of other people, newborns included -- no, especially newborns. Silly, stupid man. But I was Certain, and in my Certainty I kept counting, and bouncing. As I breezed past two-thousand bounces, I realized at some point I'd started humming sort of tunelessly -- like I was slowly losing my mind. At twenty-five-hundred, I realized I was licked: the kid had beaten me. I stood, passed her to her mother, and went outside to flatten my forehead against an oak tree.

In the months preceding her birth, and in fact at the very moment she arrived, there were strong indicators that this nascent creature intended to have things her way. I don't remember exactly how many times we went in for ultrasounds, but there were several -- meaning several opportunities to discover whether we were having a boy-spawn or a girl-spawn. We weren't determined to find out the sex, but we were willing to know (even though I was Certain from conception she'd be a girl because I'm prescient like that). I still remember the first visit, to a clinic in Scarborough, and as we pulled into the parking lot Michele felt a solid kick. "Whoa," she said. "Guess who's awake." I figured that was a good sign. Twenty minutes later, though, the fetus had other ideas. "Hmm," the OB/GYN mumbled. "Can't seem to make out the genitals." There was a long pause during which I considered asking, "So does that mean there aren't any?" I held my tongue, assuming it would occur to even a first-year resident to mention an abnormality like that. "Sorry," the doc said, "but we'll probably be able to tell next time." Uh-uh. Not the next time or the next or any time. When we went in for what proved to be the final ultrasound, a week before go-time, the kid was actually doing jumping jacks in her mother's uterus while we walked through the parking lot, rode up in the elevator, sat in the waiting room. Then the doctor ushered us in, laid Michele out, slathered on the jelly, and the kid tucked and went to sleep. And listen, it's not easy to hide your genitals from an ultrasound. Picture yourself in a pair of spandex running shorts with your knees tucked up to your chest: even if I have a bad angle where I'm standing right now, I can improve my view by shifting a mere matter of degrees and, bingo, there's your junk. This kid was a fucking pro, and we all should have been absolutely terrified.

Due dates are a crapshoot to say the least, and Michele has always grumbled about the date the doctor assigned to this particular birth: May 31. "I know my body, I know what's going on," Michele insisted. I was tempted to point out to her that -- and not to give too much away here, but it's relevant -- we were doing it every chance we got for like three weeks because we genuinely intended to have a baby. I wanted to ask her if she'd somehow been able to tell the instant my microscopic Michael Phelps took the gold medal (because perhaps she's prescient like that), but as stupid as I can be and as many times as I did manage to say the wrong thing those days, by that time in our pregnancy I understood my best course of action was to say something like, "Yeah. Stupid doctors. Who do they think they are, trying to tell us when we had sex? They don't know." In the glare of hindsight, though, knowing what I know about this kid . . . I kind of have to side with the doctors on this one: this kid was coming out in her own sweet time, and damn the torpedoes. Still, Michele was displeased when, two weeks past her alleged due date, the doctor said, "Come on in, we're going to induce you."

Intellectually I can understand that, to a lot of women, just the thought of any intervention in the process of getting a baby from inside you to outside is anathema. I get that it happens, that some women feel at least a faint sense of having failed. I mean, you've just carried this parasitic monster around for the better part of a year, getting huge and feeling like shit most of the time, you're uncomfortable sitting like this, it's worse sitting like that, and fuck trying to get a good night's sleep. You weathered all that, and goddamn it, you've earned the right to pop this kid out on your own. By the same token, though, couldn't that litany of ills also translate into, "Get this thing out of me, I don't care if you have to split me in two with an ax." Right? (I didn't say any of that, by the way, although I did remind her that we'd been waiting to meet this purported bundle of joy for a while, and now we finally would, which was a good thing, right? "Asshole," she didn't say, but I know she was thinking it.)

We spent all of June 14 wandering around the hospital, doing laps while the coaxing balm worked its magic up in her lady zone. I'm not going to lie to you, I was on my toes the entire time, fully expecting to see her out of the corner of my eye give a little hitch and mutter, "Whoops," at the same moment I would feel six gallons of "water" flowing around my feet. It didn't happen that way, of course. What actually happened was that we spent that day and well into the night waiting and waiting and waiting. Finally around midnight the nurse who had been looking in on us all evening suggested we try to get some sleep. I kissed Michele on the forehead and settled into the chair-bed. I was just starting to dream -- and it was a good, far from all this craziness, life is calm and easy sort of dream -- when my eyes popped open at an unexpected sound that might well have been the word, "Whoops."

"What?" I managed to ask.

"I think my water just broke," Michele said.

Auto-pilot is a wonderful thing. I threw back my flimsy blanket, stood, took two strides toward the door, threw it open and said to the two expectant faces floating behind the countertop of the nurses' station directly across from us, "Bah-zabbah-zeebah."

They raised their eyebrows in unison but didn't move, and so, once more, I said, "Bah-zabbah-zeebah."

That time they got it.

It was right around two-thirty in the morning at this point, and although it would still be some time before the kid decided to join us, my recollection of those next several hours is that things happened very quickly -- in my defense, there was not one thing I was trying to push through a small opening in my body, be that thing oversized or otherwise. In other words, my sense of relativity was, well, relative. What seems to me like moments later, but which in fact was about five and a half hours in "real" time, we were in a delivery room with not one but two residents, a nurse's aide, and an actual, full-blooded, bona fide nurse named Kim.

One thing you need to know is that Michele's actual doctor during the course of the pregnancy was a certified nurse midwife, which basically means she does it old-world stylie like a midwife do, but she can work in a hospital and play it by the book if necessary. Michele and I dug this doctor quite a lot, particularly when Michele somewhat shyly asked if it would be possible, when the blessed day arrived, if she might maybe use a birthing stool. Birthing stool: it is more or less what you think it is, but, honestly, less. Picture one of those portable camp toilets, a steel-tube frame with a toilet seat on it, under which one places a bucket. The height of elegance under any conditions. Yes, a birthing stool is just a fancy camp toilet, except the seat itself is appropriately more accommodating to the birthing process, and there's no bucket. The doctor assured us that a birthing stool would be available, and that if she didn't happen to be present for the birth and whatever resident happened to be in attendance tried to talk her out of it (because none of them start out learning that old-world technique, and let's face it, if you're catching this game, you'd much rather be sitting on a raised stool at the end of a bed than squatting on the floor), Michele should stand her ground. No problemo.

Problemo. When Michele finally went into labor, it really did seem like things were happening fast: right the fuck now fast. She started out in a bed in the delivery room because, pre-labor, that's where they'd planted her so they could examine her, attach a fetal monitor to the baby's head (are you fucking kidding me? I found that to be no bueno) and, I don't know, whatever else they needed to do. And then she was in labor, and tall guy resident was in the catcher's position, and short lady resident was peering over his shoulder and nodding (grimly, I thought, but I couldn't tell if it was because she thought  something wasn't quite right with this birth, or it was birth in general that made her frown), and in her mild, undemanding way, Michele asked for the birthing stool.

Both residents' heads shot up instantly, and I was pretty sure whatever came out of their mouths was going to mean I'd have to beat one of them up, immediately. But tall guy resident was good. He smiled and sort of -- and I still don't know how I feel about this, but I think it was right because it worked in the moment -- he sort of purred, "Well, Michele, I think this baby is coming right now, and we could have a problem if we try to move you."

Cocksucking smooth competent motherfucker -- I was helpless. I was supposed to be her rock, back her up, and here this charming sonofabitch had just fucked me, hard. I slipped the bullet between my teeth and bit down.

"Look, pal," I started to say, but just then a ferocious spasm rocked Michele and she squeezed the knuckles of my right hand into a fine, powdery dust and shrieked, "Shut up! Just shut up! I don't care!"

A few seconds later the contraction passed and, its memory apparently quickly fading, Michele lay back and smiled at me as though she didn't think I was the most useless asshole in the universe, and she said, "This is fine. It'll be fine." And she smiled again.

Except, of course, it wasn't entirely fine, because this was no ordinary baby we were trying to disgorge. There were many more fierce spasms. There was some yelling, some cursing. At some point I reverted to my baseball playing days and started doing a version of the patter I'd learned long ago, standing at shortstop waiting for the pitch to be delivered: "Hey, no battah, no battah, no battah." I think I was probably saying, over and over and over again in a faintly melodic monotone, "You're doing great," but I can't be Certain. Michele was in the very midst of one of those panting, gasping, body-racking contractions when she sat up, stock-still, and in a voice reminiscent of Linda Blair from The Exorcist, turned to me and informed me, in the most frightening staccato I've ever heard, "You. Only. Have. To. Say. It. Once." After that, I said it nonce. Maybe thronce.

And then . . . everything stopped. Everything. I mean, there were still two strong heartbeats going on in that bed, but neither party seemed enthusiastic about continuing with birthday zero. The rest of us -- me, two residents, an aide and a nurse named Kim -- silently held our positions for several minutes, half-holding our collective breath, avoiding eye contact. Finally I had a thought -- and I can't tell you if it was me being a good, supportive partner, or if the awkward silence was simply killing me -- but I spoke up.

"So, since it appears this isn't happening 'right now,' what say we give the lady what she wants and put her on a birthing stool."

I could tell instantly by the look that crossed tall guy resident's face that he'd spent the last few seconds dreading the possibility that one of us might say that, and also that I'd won. Take that, you handsome, six-figure earning crumb. Michele squeezed my hand, gently, lovingly this time, and for a few seconds I felt like the best guy ever.

They wheeled the birthing stool in, and we hoisted the expectant mama onto it and resumed our positions -- for ten entirely uneventful minutes. Just so you know, when you're in a delivery room and have witnessed the sheer madness of back-to-back-to-back contractions, and then things get suddenly quiet . . . it's eerie as shit, man. No kidding. I imagine it's not unlike the experience of being dug in in the Ardennes when the Germans were exercising their typically German capriciousness: there's a small part of you that sort of hopes for a direct hit so you don't have to keep doing this shit. Finally it proved too much for tall guy resident, who made a show of peering at his watch and then said, "I have to go check on Mrs. Smith, but buzz me if anything changes." Check. No problem, we were down one resident but still one resident to the good. Until, three minutes later, she left the room to go check on a Mrs. Jones. I'd been standing behind Michele with my hands on her shoulders the entire time, and as little as I could say for Certain with just my hands touching her shoulders, it seemed to me like there was nothing going on. Yet. Again, remember: this was no ordinary baby.

I don't know how much time had passed between when the last resident left and the instant I felt in the palms of my hands every muscle in Michele's body tighten, heard her mutter through clenched teeth, "This is it." It might have been no more than a few seconds. But then -- then -- I can tell you, everything happened very fucking fast.

The nurse's aide stood somewhere off to the side, near the door. The nurse named Kim stood to our right, arranging and rearranging implements on a tray. At the sound of Michele's voice, the nurse whose name is Kim did the first and only convincing double-take I've ever seen and, in the flash it took her to drop to her knees in front of Michele she managed to say to the aide, twice, "Hit the call button."

I'm guessing the aide did hit the call button, because at some point the two residents flew through the door like two-thirds of the Three Stooges falling out of a closet, but that was entirely after the fact. A million years before they stepped back into that delivery room, here is what I saw, from the best seat in the house, standing behind my daughter's mother: a nurse whose name is Kim disappeared seemingly into the floor, and as I saw the top of her head reappear, less than one-one-millionth of a second later, instead of her pale, sweet, bespectacled face, I was greeted by the bright, rosebud-lipped, oddly relieved looking face of my little girl.

There's a lot more I could say about the hours, weeks and months that followed that moment. What you need to know is that I adored her, without exception, from the very first moment she was plopped on her mother's shoulder inches from my face. And as you have now been told, she did everything in her remarkably (for an infant) considerable power to crush my spirit for a solid year after that moment. Perhaps it was as simple as her immediate awareness that I was madly, deeply in love with her and, being the kind of person she is, she wanted me to cool my jets until she'd actually done something to earn my affection. I wouldn't have put it past her, even when she was a month old.

I hope she feels like she's more than earned it by now -- she's done some great things, and she delights and surprises me on a regular basis. Last night it was Cole Porter, and with that in mind, I have three things to say:

For not letting my daughter land on her head on day one, You're the top, Nurse Named Kim, you're the Coliseum.

You're the top, Michele, you're the Tower of Pisa.

And Braden, You are most definitely the top -- you are and always will be the smile on the Mona Lisa.

I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top.

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