“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ve done this before.”
I looked skeptically at her–this superhero, who had in her life done many brave things–where she stood very pregnant near the bottom of the stairs of our house, the keys and the phone in my hand, ready as the faithful sidekick.
“Really,” she went on, one arm cupping her rotund belly, “they just started.”
I followed her into the kitchen, where she poured herself a glass of water. “How long then?”
“A couple of hours at least.” Her answer did little to relax me, deep down or on the surface. “Listen,” she went on, “if it’ll make you happy, I’ll call my sister and let her know what’s happening so she can be prepared to come get Krista. Later, we’ll call the doctor.”
I nodded okay, after all she had done this before.
And honestly, I had too. But Krista’s birth was different. For starters, she had come in the middle of the night, where middle of the night was for sleeping, which meant driving to the hospital then, but especially all these years later in my memory, was like being in a dream. Ethereal. Illusive. Following that, the labor had lasted only four hours, which meant if my math was correct now, we were wasting precious time.
So we waited.
An hour later, Franca came outside where Krista and I were playing and sat down on the steps of the porch. I came over. “Everything okay?”
She looked at me. “I think we need to go.”
“But you said we had hours.”
She flashed a look at me: Don’t.
“All right,” I said. I nodded up the drive where Krista was merrily pedaling her tricycle around. “What about her?”
“How far apart are they?”
“What happened to four through nine? Never mind. How long before your brother-in-law gets here?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked up the drive. It was Sunday and a pretty Labor Day weekend. “Should we just take her with us?” With a comment reminiscent of her earlier false assurance, Franca said to give him a few more minutes.
The few minutes passed with no sign of Krista’s caretaker for the next several hours so I helped Franca to her feet and got her to the van and was on my way to reign the little one in when my brother-in-law showed up. I handed him Krista before he’d fully stepped out of the car. “We’ll call.“
We left the house and I called the doctor. “I’m not sure we’re going to make it,” I said. The hospital was across the county, a thirty minute drive in good traffic. On a Sunday afternoon in which every mall between here and there was hosting A Sale to End All Sales, it could take twice that long (naive me was still trying to do historical math). The doctor was very calm and nonchalant, like we were just friends lost on the way to their house for the holiday bar-b-que. “Just buzz me if you stop at one of the other hospitals and let me know which one.”
In the passenger seat, Franca was groaning, saying Oh, Oh, over and over again. I kept my eyes on the road. A minute later, hardly two miles from the house, I dialed 911. The 911 operator patched me through to a State Trooper. “Where are you now?” he asked after I explained the situation.
I told him.
“Which hospital?”I gave him the name and he said to me: “Well, sir, I don’t know what to tell you. I can’t give you permission to speed.”
I glanced at the speedometer. It read somewhere between 90 and a gazillion. “Listen,” I said as I pulled up to an intersection and using the turning lane inched up to the red light far enough to see in both directions, then pulled on through, “unless you know something about delivering a baby, I need somebody who does.”
The Trooper replied, “Hold on.”
The next voice I heard identified himself only by name, which I found out is not very reassuring in the midst of a looming crisis. “Is this a paramedic?”
“You’ve reached the rescue squad.”
“Where, which one?”
He gave me the location. Only another five or six miles further down the highway. “What do you want to do?” he asked. “Pullover on the side of the road?”
“No, I’ll meet you.” I thought about where. I wanted to get as close to them as possible without having to deliver the baby myself, or worse, Franca delivering while I was navigating holiday traffic in a miserable old mini-van traveling a hundred miles an hour. “Do you know the new Ruby Tuesdays?” I asked.
“The one just up the road?”
“I’ll meet you in the parking lot.” I hung up the phone and looked over at Franca. All the while I’d been keeping my eyes off her, afraid of what I might see. “Just a bit further,” I said.
A mile from the restaurant her water broke. I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? Hold on. Lay back. Be steady. All of these things sounded appropriate for a normal delivery, but for this, I don’t know. They sounded just beyond that. So I said what I learned in Lamaze class when she was carrying Krista. “Breathe. Okay. Breathe.”
We pulled into the Ruby Tuesdays and parked in an empty lot beneath a tree along the adjacent strip mall. I got out of the van. There was no ambulance in sight. I came around and opened Franca’s door. She looked at me and I looked at her.
It is moments like these, just two people struggling against odds they can’t even begin to imagine that make life so interesting.
“I think I should take off my shorts,” Franca said.
I looked down at the only thing of any substance between that baby and the rest of the world. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“It’s the only idea.”
I looked across the lot and down the road for the ambulance. Still nothing. I opened the sliding door, wondering even as I did how I’d move her from the front seat to the back without introducing gravity to the situation. Then I heard the siren. Franca had heard it too and fallen quiet either from relief that help was arriving or her acceptance of the fact that she was about to deliver a child right there, in the next few minutes, in a parking lot.
The ambulance pulled up and two men stepped out. One of them checked her out. “Okay,” he said. “We better hurry.” The other brought over a gurney and they lifted her out of the van and rolled her into the back of the ambulance. She looked up as they shut the door. Neither of us spoke.
Inside the ambulance was a scene like you hear others only joke about. For everyone’s sake I’ll spare the details but to say: when it was over, and it was over very quickly, I got to cut the umbilical cord. And afterwards there was Franca, fully reclined in the back of the ambulance, clutching our daughter to her chest, looking exhausted but at the same time calm and composed, like any veteran superhero.
Happy Birthday, Lia Rosa!
9.2.01, 6:51 pm, in the back of an ambulance