So It Begins
My sweet little girl, I suppose the beginning is as good a place as any to begin, and what a beginning you had. Hollywood did me no favors in imagining your birth. I suspected the hour car ride to our rural hospital in Iowa would be spent with your mother screaming beside me, fluids pouring from her body, and my father’s admonition ringing in my ears to ensure that I brought a shoelace to tie off the umbilical cord in case you were born in the back seat, on the side of the highway, in the middle of an Iowa winter. His motto was hope for the best, prepare for the worst, but it so pervaded my childhood that it left me anxious, paranoid, and insecure. Three traits that swelled in my mind as you grew in the womb.
Your arrival was quite different from what I imagined. It wasn’t your mother’s body that told us to go to the hospital, but rather her doctor. She was gentle but firm when she said you were overdue, that your mother had excess amniotic fluid, and that your ultrasound was concerning. She told us it was time for your mother to be induced, and I knew that word would bring tears. When I opened the car door for her in the parking lot, I saw that her face was reddened and glistening as the hot tears she’d repressed finally came out. She had spent nine months preparing her body for a natural birth, and now, she knew, the statistics said she would not get it. Instead, she suspected, one intervention would lead to another, and she would likely deliver you by Caesarian section.
By this stage of our lives, I had learned that my role wasn’t to fix emotion, but to share it. I turned on Christmas music in our car, put my hand on her knee, and we drove home hardly saying a word. Although we were instructed to go to the hospital quickly, your mother was not one to be flustered, bullied, or rushed. We packed our bags and loaded the car, and then, after the doctor had stolen control from your mother’s birth plan, she stole it back and heated up a pair of egg, sausage, and cheese kolaches, doused them with Maple syrup, and curled up with me on our couch. We watched an episode of The Office as the winter sun set on a gloomy day. It was our final moment in our house as two, and we could hardly imagine what it would be like with three.
Induction, too, proved my inexperience. I thought you would be born that very night even if the car ride to the hospital was a quiet one without the screaming, without the fluids, and without the aid of the shoelace, towels, and headlamp I stowed in my bag. You were not born that very night. Instead, I kissed your mother goodnight, turned off the lights, and crawled into the hideaway bed at the foot of her hospital bed. I discovered those hideaway beds were not made so a father could sleep, but so that when he was exhausted from worrying vertically, he could lay down and fret horizontally. I did not sleep at all, and neither did your mother. Instead, we both lay silently awake in a room dimly lit by the LED lights of medical equipment. We listened to the recurring blips of your heart beat, and next door we heard a baby scream as it entered a new world.
The next day, more interventions ensued. Contractions began, and as they escalated, I watched your mother’s jaw set and face harden as she bore the pain through intentional breaths. I wished it would go faster, and then to my terror, it did. Your heart rate dropped. A nurse rushed in. She felt the cord between your head and your mother’s cervix before she firmly told me to push a red button labeled assistance.
I pushed it, and as it depressed, I naively thought, this seems serious. I was swept out of the way by the mass of nurses who immediately burst through our door. They yelled at each other, yelled out the hall, and yelled for a doctor as they turned your mother over, their hands pushing you back up into the womb to prevent you from compressing your own umbilical cord and suffocating yourself.
When I emerged from my shock, I went to your mother, touched her hand, and was told by a nurse that I could not come with her to the operating room. Our hands slipped apart as she was rolled out of the room with two nurses riding on her hospital bed, their hands inside her, and their panicked voices attempting to reassure her.
Then the room was silent and I was alone. I felt sick. I prayed. In the operating room, your mother was asked her weight by the anesthetist, and she gave it with a clarification that it was her weight before her water broke. There are a thousand personality tests that suggest your mother is a perfectionist, but that moment proved it most clearly. The nurses thought they found your heart rate when they got a reading of 170 beats per minute, but then they realized it was your mother’s heart rate they were measuring. Silent tears poured down her cheeks, and in the midst of the chaos a nurse wiped them away with a damp cloth. The anesthetist told her she’d feel a burning in her arm. She did, and her last memory before your arrival was meeting the doctor’s eyes while he held a scalpel in his hand and waited for her to lose consciousness.
I was brought to the doorway of the operating room and heard the sounds of chaos as nurses rushed in and out. Then I heard a baby scream, and a nurse whisked me in to meet you for the first time. I didn’t look at you though. My eyes couldn’t help but go to your mother, or what I could see of her. Only her belly was exposed, but it was filleted open and vibrantly red under the fluorescent lights. I could feel the nurses cringe as they saw me look into the exposed body of my wife. The doctor sensed it too, and he idly looked up as he pulled a stitch through an organ and his eyes met mine. He sized me up, and even though his face was covered in a mask and glasses, I read it perfectly. He thought I would pass out, and I didn’t think he was wrong.
Amazingly, I didn’t. My eyes went from the carnage of the operating table to you. You were covered in the same startling red blood as your mother, and you were displeased with their decision to take you out of the womb. A thousand hands touched you, wiped you, sucked fluid from your mouth, percussed your back, and congratulated me. Two nurses stationed themselves between your mother and I in an attempt to block my view, and, if necessary, prevent me from damaging the equipment if I fainted.
You received shots, and I, the ultimate introvert, summoned my courage to touch my tiny daughter for the first time by thrusting a single index finger into your fresh palm. You gripped it tightly, and we winced together as the needles went in your legs and goop was applied to your eyes.
The only guidance your mother had given me for this inconceivable event was to do skin-to-skin contact with you if she could not. I removed my shirt and exposed my nearly translucent chest. I motioned for the nurse to put you in my arms with the adrenaline-stoked courage of a fighter urging his opponent to attack him.
Attack you did.
As soon as you were placed in my arms your mouth found my bicep, wondered if it could be a breast, and fiercely latched to it like a fangless rattlesnake clamping down on its prey. I was amazed, fascinated, and disbelieving. Above all, I endeavored to keep your voracious mouth away from my chest lest you accidentally find my worthless nipple, mistake it for a useful one, and shear it from my body.
Over and over I told you, “hang on, Mom is almost here.”
She arrived. Her hospital bed entered our room, and as it rounded the corner a head I knew so well raised itself a few inches to find her husband and new daughter. She cried, I cried, and you continued to suck my bicep—by turns disappointed, irritated, and worried. I carefully handed you to your mother, and a nurse said to me, “so it begins.” I knew her words were true, but I also knew she surely wasn’t aware that for us, this journey had begun long, long ago in a clinic far, far away.