Spoiler alert: I’m writing this with half-day old, 6 pound, nine ounce newborn and Patton Oswalt look=alike Baby N curled in my left arm, typing one-handed with a precariously balanced MacBook on my crotch (the radiation thus insuring she’ll have no brothers or sisters) breathing betadine fumes and wondering whether the roar blasting through my heart is love, sleeplessness, or backed-up hospital waffles.
Don’t let the idyllic lead full you. The night behind us has been so Game of Thrones-y that even now the blood squishes underfoot, the floor is littered with cast-off scarlet rags, stained plastic gloves. And the sound of wailing is never far off or faraway. In fact, let’s rewind, since the screaming’s still in my ears.
About twenty hours and a few spinning worlds ago, in a delivery room down the hall from where I’m writing this, E writhed at the center of a hive of medical pros, screaming as though cleaved down the middle. Which eventually she was. (25 stitches—thanks for asking!) The reason we’re still here—fun fact—is that Texas requires newborns to spend two days in the hospital before they’re released. They also execute a boatload of grownups every year, so it evens out.
Anyway, hours before the Main Event, after being jarred from a half-sleep—where I was dreaming, weirdly, of Karl Rove in bonnet and Mampers—I lay for minute, meditating on the event at hand. The birth of a child. There are probably a thousand profound things to say. Observations on mortality, the cycle of life, birth, death… The ghosts of the Holocaust swirling over the hospital, abuzz at the prospect of a Juden merged with a woman who might have been on the cover of Master Race Monthly. (Hot shiksa action!) But I’m not that deep. What I’m thinking about is the way this rollaway mattress bites into my knee, as I try to steal a last thirty-nine winks before the curtains part.
When E’s contractions reach epic proportion, and Stadol can no longer stay her, Shareesa, the nurse we’d met what seemed like years ago—actually twelve hours earlier, at the end of her shift—powers in, re-measures mommy-to-be’s cervix and, studying E’s gasping, doubled-over frame like a connoisseur of maternal suffering, utters the magic word: epidural.
“Now?” E protests, sitting upright with a grimace. “But I was supposed to see the doctor at six tomorrow, and induce.”
Big laugh from Shareesa, who’s already picked up the phone. “Induce? Honey, only one thing we gotta induce, we gotta induce this gee-dee pain to go away, so you can save your strength for when you need it.”
“You mean—?” E looks up at me, wide-eyed.
“Uh-huh,” says Shareesa. “I mean this baby’s comin’, honey. The ol’-fashioned way. And you gonna have to push.”
Before she can expound further, whoever she’s holding for on the other end of the line picks up, and Shareesa explains the situation. While she talks, I just kind of hang alongside E, trying to keep my own bubbling panic in check now that the fear is finally showing on her face.
“Daddy’s feelin’ it, huh?” says Shareesa. (Ready or not, fellas, your presence at the hotbed of birth is license for complete strangers, starting with RNs and hospital floor-waxers, to address you as “Daddy.” But not in a nasty Ride me, Daddy, right me right out of town! way. I once had a girlfriend who actually said that. She now makes macramé in Cleveland.)
Just to deepen the spookhouse vibe in the delivery room, a white flash cracks the sky, showing the fingery outline of trees tapping the hospital windows, before another massive clap of thunder. It’s the kind of night where you half expect a raven to crash into the glass and turn into Dracula—or a newborn baby, as the case may be.
Despite the special effects, Shareesa hangs up and announces matter of factly that the anesthesiologist is on the way. “And he’s a real hottie.”
While we wait for the (apparently smoking) professional pain killer to show up, E careens between torso-searing contractions and hushed, excited chitchat. “I can’t believe this is happening.” And—looking down at herself—“I keep thinking, how can her head fit through there?”
I hold her hand, wipe her brow, whisper whatever I can to help get her though. And generally find a half dozen different ways to be semi-useless, as only a father in a delivery room can be.
The contractions come on hard and fast, now that her cervix has expanded north of seven centimeters. In charges the anesthesiologist, the first male to enter the proceedings in a while. He’s a buff young fellow, kind of astronautish, like all the Lone Star medicos I’ve met so far. He introduces himself as Tim—Tim? Are anesthesiologists not MDs?—who doesn’t look a minute over seventeen. Then again, one of the treats of being an OG Dad is that everyone looks about seventeen. Which is fine. I wouldn’t mind if he tore in on a skateboard with a Dr. Seuss hat, as long as he knew what he’s doing.
In this case, for the occasion, the knockout artist is decked out in snug scrubs that—no other way to put this—seem designed to show off his butt. He proceeds to explain that he’s going to “go in through the back” with a tube of fentanyl, then numb the area with Lidocaine.
That said, he arranges his instruments and pharmaceuticals in a tray on the counter, then fills a long needle, attaches it to a tube and, with a flourish, steps to the bed and opens E’s gown. Exposing her back to reveal, much to his surprise, a giant tattoo of a galloping horse, done trompe de l’oeil fashion. Which I may as well add, was more than a tad alarming the first time I found myself facing it. You try performing with War Horse charging toward you over your girlfriend’s ass crack. (Obviously, I managed. Or we wouldn’t be in this pickle.)
E moans some more. Then, clearing his throat and dramatically cracking his knuckles, the pert-buttocked anesthesiologist recovers, douses the horse’s head with alcohol and daintily inserts the needle and tube right in its eye. While I wonder at what kind of wanton savagery must have been inflicted on women in the old days, before technology and insurance companies. (And before insurance savagery.) As if reading my mind, Shareesa pipes up, “In olden times they used to just tie’em down and gag’em with a pair of lady drawers.”
Wow, is all I can reply. But, drug delivery system in place, the adolescent anesthesoid explains that he’s going to insert a catheter, “since mommy’s going to be completely numb downstairs.” Then he shows her how she can control the amount of fentanyl she gets in the IV by just pressing her thumb on the button. The deal is, she can feel the pressure but she won’t feel the pain. All in all, not a bad way to go through life.
Soon, E’s torture is neutralized. Well, more than neutralized. She’s feeling good. And the night resumes apace, a non-stop whoosh of thunder, nurses, and bouts of brink-of-the-abyss hysterical laughter. Sort of like being on a lifeboat on stormy seas, except that we’re on dry land, and not going anywhere. But who has time for half-baked metaphors? Finally, around five a.m., E goes pie-eyed, and sits up fast. “Oh… Oh fuck! I think she’s coming.”
The nurse rings the doctor who, as it happens, is not on call until six in the morning. And it’s five now. “That figures,” the nurse says with a little eye-roll. “She’s famous.”
“For what?” E and I both blurt at the same time.
“What do you think? For stripping membranes on days when she’s not on call. You want her to pull out your little dumpling, you’re gonna have to squeeze and keep her in there. I know how to deliver, only if I do, there’s gonna be a lot of paperwork. ”
“But I feel like I have to push!”
“I know, sweetie. Just pretend you’re on an airplane and you need to Number Two, but all the restrooms are occupied. What do you do? You sque-e-e-e-eze that l’il old prairie dog back.”
This goes on and on until finally, at five to six in the morning, the nurse gets Dr. Tiny on the phone. Claps her hands when she hangs up. “No pushing! The cavalry’s on the way.”
The staff has given me damp cloth duty, and I feel, as Norman Mailer once described being a screenwriter in Hollywood, like the towelboy in a whorehouse. Given some kind of ersatz task just cause I’m there and I’m also incompetent. If I weren’t doing something I’d be eating my arms up the elbows and spinning in circles.
A few more hours till blast-off. But—mind-exploding as that fact may be, there’s something else tugging at my psyche. Namely—be still my heart!—the perky male anesthesiologist has excused himself, and left the drug tray sitting on the counter three feet from me. No big deal, of course. For a normal person. But listen: I’m sitting here staring at a fucking narco-candy store: ampules of fentanyl, wrapped syringes, jars labeled Norco,
Percoset, and even—God help us, ampules of E’s new best friend, Oxytocin. This may not mean anything to you. But if you’re me, a guy who used to open strangers medicine cabinets even if I had to crawl through their laundry room window and down the hall when they were sleeping to get to them… well, hey, it counts for something. Last time I found myself in the delivery room, I’d laid in Mexican tar and geezed five minutes before I cut my first daughter’s umbilical. Fast forward two decades and change, and I’m back in the baby factory, staring at a veritable opiate smorgasbord, with a love hormone and lidocaine garnish. And I don’t go near any of it. (Well, that’s not true, I kind of eyeball the stuff.)
Mind you, I’m not looking for a medal here. I haven’t shot dope since Bill introduced Monica to cigar-play, but still… I’m fried, it’s five in the morning, I’ve been here since around 8 in the evening. This could, under different circumstances, pack all the ingredients of a spectacular relapse. “Well, see, I was waiting for my child to be born, and it’s like the Lord just said “Son, you’ve been such a good boy, you deserve a couple pops of fentanyl…” Because dope, make no mistake, will talk to you. Which you either understand or you don’t. (And if you don’t, God bless and drive safely.) The trick is knowing when to listen and when to shut the voices down. And, thank you Yahweh, it was more a weird mental side trip, a non-narcotic narcotic meditation, if you will, than an actual thing. I skipped the party tray. But the one second vacillation, I won’t lie, left me a little quivery.
But what the fuck am I doing? There’s a baby coming. And, one thing about newborns, they’re the ultimate cure for self-obsession. As mine is proving even before she actually hits the landing strip. Right now, as a matter of fact, things are kicking into high gear. Much hustle & bustle as the pro baby staff swings into action. Much as I hate to sound all mid-career Andy Rooney, but these tubes remind me of the last time I took my ten year old Caddy husk in for smog test. And yet, for all the gear, I recently saw on a supermarket headline crawl that the US ranks 29th in infant mortality. Worse than Slovakia, but—big high five!—better than Bulgaria. And fuck those Slovakians anyway.
Happily, the woman of the hour, Dr. Tiny, scampers in before E lets go and shoots the fetus against the wall. Planted between the pair of massive, and massively competent ladies handing the proceeding thus far, our pint-sized OB/GYN looks like a little girl who’s wandered in wearing mommy’s grown-up clothes. If mommy wore scrubs and knew her way around a delivery room instrument table.
“So how do you feel?” chirps the doctor, laying a strip of plastic on the floor and tugging on a pair of tiny OR booties. For some reason, it’s the booties that terrify me.
E’s gasps come out pinched. “l… can’t… hold it… ”
“Perfect! Let’s get those stirrups on.” And, like that, out of nowhere, a pair of what look like leg braces—the kind the kids in my grade school with polio had to wear, but mounted horizontally—flank E’s bed like forbidding metal wings.
Now the doctor, an alarming grin on her face, plunges her hands between E’s raised and spread legs. Sweat beads on E’s forehead. I’m standing at my post mopping it when the doctor glances over at me and winks. “Oh yeah… This baby’s just hanging out… She’s saying, ‘I dig it in here. The food’s great… But damn, no free cable!’ Oh yeah… she’s close… ”
“It’s… It feels too big!” E cries.
“We talked about this,” the doctor says, her tone so calming I wonder if she’s on oxytocin, or if they teach that calm, 70s FM disc jockey intonation in Delivery School. “She’s not that big. And skin stretches. Especially the vagina. If we need to cut to get the baby out, we make a laceration at the point of the skin where you wipe your ass when you go to the bathroom.”
“Oh Jesus!” I hear myself groan, without knowing I was going to.
“Will I— ” E manages, swallowing hard, “will I need stitching?”
I catch the nurses sneaking glances at each other.
“Depends. First degree lacerations you don’t need to stitch. It’s like scraping your knee. Second degree, we may have to—”
E squeaks in anguish and the Dr. House session squeals to a halt.
“Okay, listen. What I want you to do is put your hands underneath your thighs, legs wide. All right?”
E’s legs are already up in the stirrups. (But not the stirrups she’s used to—the ones on the back of thoroughbreds. It’s going to be a while since she straddles anything more challenging than a toilet bowl.)
“Good,” the doctor continues, ever calmly. “Now fill your lungs to the top and, without making any noise, I want you to push as hard as you can, just like you’re making a bowel movement… Okay, Push!… Beautiful!
I’m at my post, by the head of the bed, mopping E’s brow with a weirdly scrapey washrag. The doctor glances up at me. “HERE SHE COMES! Come on Daddy, do you want to see?”
And without thinking, I leave the head of the bed and stagger to the foot, where, before I can blink, I see some kind of long black probe protruding from E’s savaged vagina. “Jesus fuck! What is that? An antenna!?”
E’s eyes blaze in my direction. But the doctor finds me hilarious. “That’s her hair, silly. She’s got a lot of hair. That’s just a big old curl. ”
She’s right! For one freakish minute I’m afraid we’re going to give birth to the Bob’s Big Boy logo. But quick as the spooky probe appeared, it recedes. After which, following a second “PUSH!” from the doctor and vein-popping effort from E, what looks like an avocado emerges, then it too disappears again.
The phrase turtlehead comes to mind, and I want to douse my brain with lighter fluid and strike a match as soon as I think it.
“Whoops!” the doctor chuckles. (Talk about grace under pressure! This woman is absolutely giddy with calm.) She smiles up at E, whose face by now is so red I’m afraid she’s going to burst and go flying around the room backwards. “We saw her little keppie in there, but she wants to chillax for a while, so just hang for a sec.”
I try not to stare, but Jesus! I mean—you don’t hear people talk about this, but come on!—it’s like suddenly I’ve got Jack Nicholson tickets, courtside at the open vagina playoffs, gawking directly between my girlfriend’s befouled and betadined inner thighs. Her, as they used to say in vintage erotica, “exposed womanhood.” And what’s amazing, I’m sorry, is how quickly this particular anatomical arena, which exists, under normal circumstances, as what our Australian brethren refer to ‘the temple of low men”—hot porno action central—how quickly it morphs into something else altogether… A kind of agony pita pocket, source of the love of your life’s pain. The act of birth, through some Blakean alchemy, transforms nasty-raw into primal-mysterious. H.P. Lovecraft meets The Marquis de Sade, by way of the Nature Channel. Still eye-scorchingly riveting—but for entirely different reasons. No longer the X-rated wide open for biz “show-me-the pink!” affair which throbs and glistens in most men’s heads…. But the—pardon my purple prose, I’m describing something purple—the wet palpitating heart of life itself.
“Easy, easy, girl…” The doctor, at this point, is like some kind of womb whisperer. Another push—we see dome—and another—dome and a forehead—then, after bit of internal maneuvering, the doctor stops, suddenly quiet, and announces—more to the nurses than either E or me—that when the baby comes out, E will not be able to hold it. There may be a problem.
And in that moment—in that moment, a jolt of panic nearly buckles my knees. I take E’s hand and listen as the doctor continues. “We’ve got a meconium situation.”
“A what?” I don’t know if it’s me talking or if it’s E.
“The baby’ pooped, and there’s a chance she might get some in her mouth on the way out.”
Because my reaction to every trauma in life is to make a joke out of it, my first thought is, “Perfect, not even a minute old, and already eating shit. She may have a future in Hollywood.” But before I can share this non-witticism, the doctor continues, turning my smart-ass remark to ashes in my mouth.
“This could be bad,” Dr. Tiny goes on. “We’ll try and suction it. But if some gets in her lungs, I need to take her to the ICU. There’s a chance—”
I don’t even hear the rest. The stricken look on E’s face has obliterated sound. I think of everything I would do to make this moment all right, to make whatever is about to happen happen in a way that leaves this creature—whom I have never met, whom I may, from the sound of things, never meet—alive and healthy and screaming and perfect. The phrase “rip my heart out” becomes literal possibility. A swooning panic soaks my clothes and I see the light in E’s eyes go on, through refracted tears.
What I want to do is grab the doctor, tell her “I will give you anything,” as though it would matter, make any difference at all. What I do instead is I take E’s face in my hands and tell her, with all the conviction I do not have, “Don’t worry baby, it’s going to be okay.”
With that, the doctor demands one final PUSH! And this time she screams through clenched teeth, through the pain of her ripping perineum, the now-gushing blood from her tearing vagina, and out comes this tiny black-haired wailing thing, arms flailing, feet kicking, coated in gore, waving her bloody prune-sized fists like she’ll kill anything that tries to get close to her.
And without even seeing what I’m doing I take the scissors when the doctor asks and I do my job. It takes a couple tries. But I cut it. And then the doctor takes her and I’m so scared, and so full of prayers I don’t even know how to utter, that when they rush her to the doctor’s table in the corner I don’t even scream the words now echoing in my head: Oh my god, she’s a fucking pinhead!
Because, you see, the top of her skull.. what can I say? It’s so pointy you could use it for the ring toss at a county fair. (Which, I’m afraid, is where she’s going to work, when she grows up, if they still have sideshows.) I hold my mud. But seconds later, when the beaming nurse looks at us and says, “We got it… We suctioned her out, she’s fine!” and brings this writhing monkey-girl back from the table and places it on E’s chest, I mumble to the doctor, in the meekest of voices, the voice you use when you ask a question to which you really do not want to hear the answer, “Um… her head… Is it, you know, going to be like that her whole life?”
And, before she replies, it hits me, for the thousandth time, you can’t bargain with the universe. I prayed the kid would be born healthy, and she apparently was. She just happens to have a skull shaped like a tiny bowling pin. Still, I tell myself, if we stick her in a beanie growing up, and she rocks some kind of beehive as a teen, who’s gonna know? Maybe by then they’ll have lady popes, and she can wear a pope’s hat. The doctor, thank Christ, interrupts my fervid cogitating.
“Trust me,” she laughs, before peeling off her scrubs and rushing off to attend another routine miracle, “it will go back to normal in three days. It’s just from squeezing through the birth canal. In case you’ve noticed, it’s not that big.”
At which point through her tears, and over the baby’s now epic wailing, E screams one final time. Only now she’s screaming at me, through laughter I can only describe as happily deranged. Delirious with relief. “You fucking idiot!”
Then they let me hold the baby. And I forget everything.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.