Small Size, Big Entrance
Steven J. Moss
“You’re going to have your baby today,” our heavily tattooed and pierced waiter said, as he placed a platter of vegetarian huevos rancheros in front of Debbie. We were at Just for You, then on 18th Street, our favorite neighborhood diner. The restaurant was so small that the grill was one step away from our table, and within two strides of the entrance.
“Why do you say that?” Debbie asked.
“Well, look at you,” he cried, gesturing towards Debbie’s bulging middle, which outcompeted her flowing red hair for attention. “And our Huevos always triggers birth. Something about the spices.” He pivoted away to take another customer’s order.
“You can’t have the baby today,” I said, glancing at the departing waiter; had he added another nose piercing? “We have tickets to the theater tonight. Plus we gotta pick up the car.” Debbie smiled like the Mona Lisa, and tucked into her eggs.
It was a beautiful San Francisco day. Warm enough for short sleeves; crisp enough to see Mount Diablo from the City. As we drove across the Bay Bridge to a Volvo dealership in Oakland, where we’d arranged to lease a car, Debbie started to squirm in her seat.
“Something’s not right,” she said, through clenched teeth.
“Maybe it’s the eggs,” I said.
“No,” she grimaced. “Contractions.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes,” she breathed out, the contraction having passed. “I’m fine.”
At the dealership a buttoned-down, baby-faced salesperson showed us our car, enthusiastically explaining its features. As we signed the paperwork, Debbie suddenly clutched her stomach.
“I think I’m going into labor!” she exclaimed.
The salesperson and I looked at one another, eyes round.
“We gotta go,” I said, nervously. “Let’s get to the hospital.”
I ushered Debbie out of the showroom into my convertible Saab. The salesperson followed behind, wringing his hands, assuring us that he’d arrange to have the car delivered to us. Debbie got in. She writhed in her seat, arching her back, pushing herself up from the chair. I put the top down; no need to waste a rare sunshiny day.
The Bay Bridge was packed with day-tripping tourists, drawn to San Francisco’s non-foggy pleasures. Cars from multiple directions funneled into the toll plaza, creating a bottleneck that overflowed back towards Berkeley and Oakland. Debbie’s moans were getting sharper; more frequent. To my right I saw that the bus-only lane was empty. I pulled into it, and started to accelerate. Behind me, a Highway Patrol officer turned on his siren, indicating that I should pull over.
“You’re driving in a designated bus lane,” said the officer through the driver’s side window. His uniform was so crisp it looked like it could have walked off on its own. “Driver’s license and insurance, please.”
“My wife’s in labor,” I said, without reaching for my wallet. “We need to get to the hospital.”
Next to me, Debbie squirmed in pain.
“If your wife is really in labor she should be in an ambulance,” he responded, stone faced.
“I don’t want an ambulance! I just wanna get to the hospital. I don’t want an ambulance,” Debbie cried.
“You either sit in traffic, in the correct lane, or I’m calling an ambulance,” he turned on his heels, and strode back to his patrol car.
I scanned the traffic clogged around us. I looked at Debbie, who was arching her back, pushing up on the seat, in pain. “Screw this,” I said, and pulled away into the bus lane. The cop didn’t follow.
Once we got past the toll gates, traffic lightened. At the hospital Debbie was whisked into a delivery room. A 20-something resident with thick black hair and a shiny smile came by to check her progress. He took Debbie’s pulse, and measured her round stomach with his hands.
“Everything looks good,” he grinned. “I’d say you’re having a seven pounder.”
We waited. Debbie shifted on the crinkly blue hospital paper covering the bed, regularly wincing. I tried to be useful, and failed. We listened to the whirl of hospital sounds outside our room—the beeping of heart machines; the rubbery clop of nurses’ shoes; patients being ushered to areas behind thin curtains.
As the tempo of Debbie’s pain worsened—complete with excruciating back spasms—a nurse wheeled in what looked like a saline solution stand to give her an epidural.
“Bring it on!” Debbie grimaced. “Enough of this natural child birth.”
Just a few hours later, Sara decided she was ready to come out. As she slid into the world, the nurses’ and doctors’ smiles turned into frowns. She was alarmingly small for a full-term baby: four pounds, 11 ounces. Seeing the expressions on the medical personnel’s faces, Debbie and I looked at one another with concern.
“Is something wrong?” she mouthed to me.
A code was called, and the room became crowded with medical personnel, jostling me to the back of the small space. A nurse placed Sara in a mobile incubator, and wheeled her off to the intensive pediatric care unit. Debbie waved at me to follow. As I trailed after the nurse pushing Sara away I glanced back at Debbie. She was frowning slightly, tears at the edges of her eyes, looking like she’d lost something.
It took us less than a minute to get to the ICU, where the nurse parked Sara’s incubator, locked the wheels, and strode away, leaving me alone with my daughter. The room was like an aquarium, with dimmed lights and plastic bubbles holding what looked like outsized versions of sea monkeys. I sat next to Sara. She was small and wrinkly, lying on her back and waving her arms around like seaweed slow-dancing underwater. She looked perfect to me. I glanced at the incubator across the narrow hall, where a much smaller baby was hooked up to multiple tiny tubes. I prayed.
Two years before Sara appeared, when Debbie was five months into a pregnancy, we lost what would have been our first son. Debbie had just finished giving a lecture at a local university when her water broke. She drove herself to the hospital, was rushed into the emergency room, and hooked up to an ultra-sound. She saw the fetus wriggling in distress. Then he died.
I arrived shortly afterwards. For the next several hours Debbie labored to give birth to a still-born. He came out tiny and shriveled, clearly on his way to becoming a fully functioning person, but not there yet. Debbie held him and kissed him goodbye. I couldn’t do either.
Despite that loss I was certain that Sara was going to be fine. Not because I knew anything about her condition, or why she was born so small. While I was middle-aged, I was still pushed along by the hubris of youth, when—even though experience had taught me otherwise—bad things happened to other people. The prayer I said to myself wasn’t so much desperate, as if I thought Sara faced serious issues. It was more akin to the whispered assurances a teenage boy would tell himself just before he jumped from a high boulder into a cold mountain stream.
It felt much longer, but within an hour Sara was released from ICU. A nurse wheeled her back to Debbie, who quickly reached for her, cradling the tiny, mewling, body in her relieved arms for the first time. The doctor asked us to stay at the hospital for an additional night or two for observation.
“What’s wrong with Sara?” my mother demanded, her brow furrowed, when she visited. “They don’t keep babies longer than they have to unless there’s something wrong.”
“She’s just small.” I said. “She’s fine.”
The doctors guessed that Sara had suffered from intrauterine growth restriction, most likely because the umbilical cord connecting her to nourishment from Debbie was too narrow. She hadn’t gotten enough to eat. Though small, she was otherwise healthy. Her growth would need to be monitored, but, they said, she’d likely catch up over time.
• Bad things will happen; it’s how you deal with them that matters.
• Prayer may or may not work, but it’s a lot quieter than cursing, less harmful than smoking, and the people around you will respect it. It’s a good strategy when you need some alone time from hovering relatives.
• Size doesn’t matter: small babies cry just as loudly as big ones.
• You will obsess about the ways your baby might die on your watch – she could choke, fall off the changing table, drown in the bathtub. During Sara’s first year, I checked every few minutes to see whether she was still breathing while she slept. New parents do that. Fortunately, Sara survived my near-smothering attention.
This is an excerpt from The Daddy Handbook, a book by View editor Steven Moss, sections from which will appear in the paper throughout 2014. He’s looking for a publisher for this work; fellow parents are encouraged to write in with their experiences: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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