Tuesday, August 3, 2010

18 days to Bar Mitzvah: happy birthday

Exactly thirteen years ago at this moment, I was a mess, with no control over my future happiness. The entire thing was TBD, thanks to a guy I'd known for less than six hours. Stop me if you've already heard this.

August 3, 1997 was a Sunday, ridiculously warm, the beginning of a heat wave that would bring triple-digit temperatures to Seattle for the better part of three weeks. Sandra Bullock and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment in a small, five-unit brick building built in the 1920s. Though today it abuts a giant condominium complex, in 1997 it sat next to an empty lot. From our kitchen, you could look out at the intersection of Broadway and Roy Street. One more block down Roy was the DAR House, where we'd gotten married almost five years before.

Unfortunately, the bricks and the open lot meant maximum sun absorption. Early on that Sunday, our apartment was already sweltering. Two weeks later, I would awake in a heat-generated daze at 7 a.m., stumble two blocks to Safeway and buy two donuts, a Coke and a bottle of Excedrine Migraine Strength, so bad was the headache I had from the heat. I'd weave back to our apartment and lie on the living room floor, silently repeating -- "Please, just let it go away enough that I can get through the bris."

But that was still two weeks away. On Sunday, August 3, I was thinking more about Sandra Bullock, and why the child inside her was waiting so long to get out. He wasn't so late -- his due date was August 1 -- but we'd spent the past month dodging phantom labor pains. Two weeks prior, I'd coached at the annual Blanchet High School girls volleyball camp with a now-prehistoric-seeming beeper attached to my gym shorts, but no call came.

A week later, hoping to speed along the process, my young wife responded to contractions by frantically ironing a pile of clothes. She'd hoped the activity would encourage labor. It didn't.

On this day, she awoke early (sleeping had become a luxury reserved only for the non-pregnant). Wracked with pain but unconvinced of its sincerity, she took a shower and ate breakfast. Then, at around nine, she came into our bedroom and shook me awake. "I think we should go to the hospital," she said, simply.

I'd imagined that when the day came it would resemble a scene from "The Dick Van Dyke Show." I'd leap up, throw a narrow-shouldered suit jacket over my pajamas, run around the room like a lunatic, trip over an ottoman, maybe run out the door without my wife... but it was nothing like that. It was more like our Sunday trip to get coffee, except we were in the car instead of walking, and when we reached the coffee place, we kept going for another half-mile until we reached the Swedish Medical Center.

This would not be the last time my preconceived notions turned out to be wrong.

We were prepared. Oh, were we prepared. We'd completed Lamaze class, breast-feeding class (I was the only guy there without a ponytail, and probably the only one who'd admit he'd rather be at the Mariners game), had written out our birthing plan, had an overnight bag and a backpack full of relaxing Van Morrison CDs to play during the birth.

We'd imagined it would take hours. In the weeks leading up to August 3, I'd pictured us walking the halls of the hospital at 3 a.m., shouting at people in the delivery room, collapsing, completely exhausted after hours of labor, our new child lovingly sprawled out across a hospital-gowned Sandra Bullock.

Instead, we arrived at the hospital and were quickly moved to an examination room. There was another couple there. Unfortunately for my competitively efficient wife, though the other couple was moved onto the actual delivery center, we were sent away. "Maybe walk around for awhile to help induce labor," they advised. So we went out into the heat to take a few laps around the campus of Seattle University, located across the street from the hospital, where I'd just finished a since-tarnished-from-lack-of-use Masters in Teaching the year before.

Now lets get something out in the open right now: I was relieved when we got sent away. I can admit it, 13 years later. Right up until the moment that child came storming out of his mother's womb, I was in complete and utter denial. Yes, I had participated in the whole run-up, the trip to buy the crib, the stroller, the multiple baby showers. I wore the beeper and I kept my mouth shut.

But on that day, as we trudged up the sweltering streets of Seattle's Capitol Hill, I waited for each contraction to end and then said silently, "Thank God, it's not going to happen."

But, you know, you talk the good talk. So when we passed one of the places that was on our list of potential daycare centers, I stopped and looked inside. And I held my wife's hand as she waddled down the street. Even if I had no idea what do to about the eventual result of her condition, I already knew that I'd married one of those women who glowed during pregnancy. She'll tell you now that she was fat and uncomfortable, but I will still today go to the mat versus anyone who insists she was anything but radiant.

And impatient. "I can't believe those people got to go in," she muttered as we climbed Jefferson Street. "Lets go back. I think I'm ready."

Still dialated at four centimeters, they moved us anyway into a very luxurious "birthing suite" in the new birthing center, introduced us to a twelve-year-old who insisted he would be assisting our doctor with the birth, and told us to settle in for the long haul. "Why not start running a bath?" the nurse suggested.

We were nervous, but mostly because we knew that our regular doctor, the soothing and calm Dr. Ann Bridges, who'd shepherded us through the entire pregnancy, was not available. The week before, during our final scheduled visit to her office, she advised us that she would be gone for a few days. She introduced us to her office partner, who would be doing the honors, should we deliver that weekend.

In walks this very soft-spoken, very tall guy with Michael Landon's hair and a pair of tasteful gold stud earrings. But that description is inadequate. There was something else, something a bit off about his appearance, something more than just being a guy wearing Michael Landon's hair. "I'm Dr. Mark Bowers," he said.

Today you may know him as Dr. Marcie Bowers, the stylish blonde woman who has become a world-renown gender-reassignment expert and the star of the reality show "Transgender Hospital." I read in the paper last week that Dr. Marcie Bowers is now moving to San Francisco, after several years practicing in Colorado.

But again, this is all in the future. On August 3, she was still a he we didn't know who was about to spend the next few hours pulling a child out of my wife, assisted by Doogie Howser, who turned out to be the other Jew living in Seattle, and looking for a few synagogue recommendations. "Can't help you," I said, "but if you know a good mohel, we may be needing one in a week or so."

All was calm. The bath water was running. I was about to cue up Van Morrison then walk out to the car to get our birthing plan, when the nurse suddenly lost her cool.

"We're at TEN CENTIMETERS AND CROWNING!" she said. Doogie ran from the room. The bath water was still running. "Uh, should we think about drugs?" I asked, stupidly.


Into the room strolled Dr. Mark/Marcie Bowers, cool, calm and reassuring beneath his head of Michael Landon Hair. With the wide-eyed assistance of the Jewish Doogie Howser, he extracted my son from my radiant bride in 46 minutes. At no time during that 46 minutes did Sandra Bullock call me names, swear at me or shout random obscenities, not even when I lamely tried to imitate the guy from the lamaze video and say, "You're doing great! Good job!"

"Just grab her leg!" shouted the nurse. So I spent the first few seconds of the Jawa's life cranking on his mother's leg until it was up around her eyeballs.

At 3:06, it was over. My child, whom I'd assumed would arrive looking like the missing link, had a perfectly-formed little head of brown hair and was not covered with goop; which may be the reason why, at that moment, someone reached into the amplifier of my life and turned it up to 11. Never before or since have I so completely changed my worldview in such a short period of time. A total lifechange, one summed up very succinctly a year later by my friend and classmate Joe Mele who, upon his first son's christening, told the assembled crowd "The great thing about having a kid is that by the time I realized there was a hole in my life it was already filled."

Even with all that, though, there was no way I was cutting that embilical cord. Let one of the ponytail guys do it. I could have skipped Doogie and Dr. Mark/Marcie Bowers staring thoughtfully into the aft end of my wife following the delivery, too. We appreciate your patience with young interns, Doc, but a little sensitivity here?

If it had ended there, it would have been fine. Had I never seen the inside of the fetal intensive care unit, had Sandra Bullock and I been kicked out of the hospital that night, clueless yobbos with 12 hours of parenting experience forced to finally grow up all at once, no one would have complained. We would have laid wide-eyed on our bed, put our tiny infant to sleep in the crib we'd set up in the corner of our one and only bedroom and just stood there and stared at him for a week, until it was time for his bris.

But it didn't work out that way.

Instead, it worked out like an episode of "ER," at the height of its popularity in 1997. Two hours after the Jawa's abrupt arrival, as we were showing him off to Sandra Bullock's parents, the nurse came back into the room. She looked at these monitors they had the Jawa hooked up to and frowned. "I don't like this," she said.

"What?" I asked.

"It's probably nothing." If, at the end of her life, this nurse suddenly finds herself alive but three words short, she has only herself to blame. "It's probably nothing" were three completely wasted words.

"I'm a little concerned about his respitory rate. It should have come down by now."

Everyone in the room stopped. We looked at the monitor. It read 121. For the next five minutes, we all sat there looking at the monitor, each of us silently trying to will the number down, but it didn't budge: 121.

Fifteen minutes later, we're ushering everyone out. And they're leaving without argument. Nobody wants to be part of this. We're like the couple that comes into the ER with a small problem, only one of them ends up dead by 9:45 and George Clooney has to go tell the other one what happened. And they all start with, "It's probably nothing."

"It's probably nothing, but we may want to take him upstairs to check him out a little more."

"It's probably nothing. You'll probably be able to take him home tonight."

"It's probably nothing, but we're going to move him up to the natal ICU for some tests."

Baby ICU sucks. It's up on its own floor and everyone who's in there is thinking the same thing: "It can't be as bad as it seems." They try to make the place cheery with balloons and little signs over every baby's bed with their name and birth weight written on them, which for a lot of the kids, only reminds their parents why they're in there in the first place: "RYAN, 1 lb. 3 oz."

It was grim. All of us were avoiding eye contact, desperately looking for signs. "The nurse smiled at me; maybe it's going to be okay." "The doctor told that couple to sit down. He didn't tell us to sit down. Is that a good sign or a bad sign?"

At three a.m., some doctor we'd never before met took us aside. We'd spent the past six hours going back and forth between our birthing suite (still with the bathtub half-full and Van Morrison sitting there, waiting, on the CD player) and baby ICU, washing our hands over and over, talking to nurses and doctors who all said the same thing: "It's probably nothing, but..."

We'd go into baby ICU sit there looking at the Jawa. He was twice as big as all the other kids in there, wide awake, looking all over the place, probably already thinking about robots and theme parks. Every so often his monitor would start beeping like mad and both of us would have nervous breakdowns until a nurse came by and explained that a sensor had come detached. I'd had to leave the room at midnight, when they stuck an IV into my hours-old child's head. If we got through this, I figured, the bris would be a snap.

So this doctor with a crooked smile takes us aside. He's on duty, it's three a.m. and someone has turned all of the flourescent lights up as high as they go. We're freaked out beyond lucidity. He starts explaining, "So it may be as simple as there being fluid in his lungs that wasn't expelled due to his fast delivery," he said, "or it could be some kind of infection. We're not sure."

"Okay," I said. "Just tell me this. Are we talking 'worst-case scenario is an extra week in the hospital?' or 'worst-case scenario is something much worse'?"

"Oh," he said, suddenly realizing that he was talking to two completely freaked out people facing a situation that nothing yet in their lives had prepared them for -- and who'd been awake at a fever pitch for going on 20 hours. "Worst-case is he's here for a week. But I think it's just fluid in his lungs. If you want, we can put him on antibiotics just in case it is an infection."

Four billion pounds removed itself from my back. It was still dark, very dark, but dawn was only a few hours away.

"One more thing," said Doctor 3 a.m. "There might be some nerve damage on one side of his face. All it means is he might grow up and have a crooked smile. Like me. I've got a crooked smile." He smiled crookedly. Turns out, 13 years later, that he was wrong about that one.

I went back to the birthing suite to sleep in a chair. Sandra Bullock came with me, then awoke a few hours later and went back to baby ICU by herself. The sun was just beginning to rise when she reached the Jawa, who was lying on his back, his eyes wide open. At birth, his eyes covered about half of his face. The rest was cheeks. And they were rosy, healthy looking.

The new mother reached into the crib, picked up her baby and sat back down in a rocking chair. When she held him in her lap, she noticed that it felt like something she'd already been doing for years. She was a natural, as it turned out.

They were sitting in front of a large window, so she looked past her new baby at the world outside. For the past day, it had seemed as if that world didn't exist.

The sun was almost all the way up. It was going to be another beautiful, sunny day. Mount Rainier, visible from downtown Seattle on only the most pristine days, looked gigantic outside, framed perfectly by the baby ICU window. They sat by the window, rocking. "He's fine," she said to herself.

She told people later that she knew, at that moment, that everything was going to be okay. They'd been right all along; it turned out to be nothing.

By the time he came home, three days later, we were ready.


Butter Goats said...

I still remember that IV in his head. Didn't seem to affect his future follicular development.

Butter Goats said...

P.S. 10.5 months later, Dr. Bowers had progressed to some very glossy lips and buffed nails. But still a he.