Born in an Ambulance

“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?”

Franca groaned.

“How far apart are they?”

“Three minutes.”

“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

Words Without Envy

The way the year ended was pretty much the way that it started with a trip to the children’s wing of the hospital. Only this time our purpose there was not to admit Lia for what would become a very long and arduous twelve months discovering and treating diabetes, but to visit the children who now, like herself one year ago, were suffering through the holidays confined to a hospital room.

For some time we’d been scratching our heads as to how we could mark the anniversary date of her diagnosis and our thinking at first to be honest — or mine anyway at least — mostly veered in the tempting and frankly much warranted direction of we-can-do-anything in making amends for last year’s depressing celebration. Diabetes could not and would not keep us down. We all having weathered it together deserved something big, something memorable. But like many things in life often the best place to mark such a passage is not carried away with intentional bliss but closing the loop in the very same place where it started. So we shelved all ideas of a personal family statement and made plans to visit the hospital bearing notebooks and pens for the children.

In Walden Thoreau writes of his wood-pile and how during the coldness of winter and the howling windy nights he endeavored to keep a bright fire in his house and also in his breast. Writing too sustained him, as it has me too over these past many mind-numbing, inescapable months. This story-journal has been my wood-pile, my writing the axe, and just as Thoreau could look out through a window and admire his work by the volume of splintered wood chips, I look back over the words that I’ve written and the words of the friends fireside and I find admiration as well. There has been sorrow, yes, and worry and much frustration, but the moments of pleasure and pure wonderment of the grace and the courage of Lia, my family, and everyone touched by disease resonates warmly and endlessly throughout my heart.

There is much to be thankful for. For John and Krista, who have suffered from the lack of attention or too much of the wrong kind of attention and in who I love and would trust wholeheartedly would something tragic ever happen. For my parents and siblings, who have appeared here only occasionally but have shaped my beliefs and actions more perhaps than anyone. For our friends, there are no better companions. You know who are, we love you. For those strangers we’ve met on the way who promised us open arms, not once did you disappoint. Thank you for your attention, your comments and your compassion.

And, of course, there is Lia. There is nothing I could write that would adequately express my love, my pain, and my hope for her. I have tried to be honest in writing about all that has happened this year, the ups and downs, the many new things we’ve learned about each other and ourselves. The truth that’s been steady throughout is this one conflicting opinion: There is no better nor no worse person in the world this could have happened to. She has truly been like an angel.

Especially, I’m thankful for Franca. This year has been trying for both of us, in ways only parents could understand. For most of the day and night we’ve had to shift our focus on where it was needed and that has been costly in terms of being a couple. It would be a lie to say there have not been moments I did not wish to return to the lustful, love or be-damned carefree days of our past. But she more than anyone else has shown me that living without envy is not only possible, but the only way to live life. They say that marriage isn’t a word it’s a sentence. We are, this journey and she have taught me, the better story.

Like everything, there is much that changes in a year. We grow, we discover, we make our own history. We learn what we are made of, and also who we are not. Every day is an opportunity.

As we left the children’s hospital and walked across the street bridge to the parking deck, Lia was feeling especially happy. For her, our visit wasn’t about marking this date of one year with diabetes. It wasn’t even about her. It was about giving back. As she skipped along in the cool sunlight, squeezing my hand, she spoke up and said, “That was nice. Can we do this again next year?”

Little princess, you betcha.

Pajama Walks

The Things We Have Now

It was a cold, beautiful night with fresh snow on the ground and because it was cold and had snowed we stayed in our day clothes after dinner and put on our boots and heavy winter jackets and slipped on our gloves and knit caps and looked like a party of arctic adventurers headed out on nighttime maneuvers as we followed the dog out the door, turned up the drive, and started down the snow-covered street. It was very cold and the girls and I held hands. The lights were on in the neighbor’s houses and we alone were outside and the street was quiet and still and the blanket of snow on the ground cast a glow on the still silent night and made our way easy to follow. There were no cars coming or going and the dog ran freely up ahead. The three of us kept to the roadside where the snowpack was softer and deeper and the feel of the whiteness beneath our boots indeed gave us the sense of something special.

Like most times before, we walked slowly and talked about our day and the days ahead. We stopped often to play in the snow or admire the twinkling holiday decorations or stand daringly under the hunched-over shapes of the white-capped evergreens which drooped and stood sentinel like tired old men and the tenderness of the snow shaken loose of the branch brushed the skin like a mother’s soft kiss in the night.

Here on foot on the empty road the conversation comes easy. We discover ourselves suddenly free and especially absent of all other burden of occupation. There is walking and there is talk, nothing else. Time and the seasons slow so that plans can be made, arguments settled. There is singing and laughter, and always there are stories to tell. Very rarely, in over fifteen years of stepping outside after dinner, have our walks been interrupted by neighbors, which is both good and sad. It is only later in life that I find myself leaning more toward the latter. Mostly though I’m quite happy when it is just us.

At the big house with the lights synchronized to holiday music, the girls and I stopped and listened. We stood there for not a long while — it is small moments like that which are best to remember — before one of the girls threw a snowball and nearly knocked my cap off. We all laughed and turned and I called to the dog to follow and we headed back down the street toward home humming the Christmas carol.

One a.m.

The Things We Have Now

The chirping alarm clock wakes her. Promptly the comforter stirs, legs skimming across the mattress. A shadow lifts out of the gloom as she pulls herself from the bed. She passes like a spirit through the room and stoops outside the door. Seconds later blue-white light fills the hall as she stands upright holding the flashlight that sits plugged into the wall socket. She points the beam ahead of her and enters the other room, where there lies a tiny figure asleep in the bed, bundled deep beneath the covers.

She stands over the child and listens for breath, watches for the shoulders to rise and fall. She sits at the edge of the bed. At this hour the house is quiet and still, there’s no sound save that of the weary resting. Some nights you feel you could sit there forever, just you and the dark and all that unparalleled quiet, if not for this darling small child.

On the beside table lies the slim black kit where she placed it the evening before. She reaches for it and pulls on the zipper and spreads the contents open on her lap: the meter, the test strip and lancet. When she is ready she reaches for the child’s hand, but the air in the room is chilly, the covers warm and snug. The arm extends only after some struggle. Then she arranges the fingers before her, holding them steady while adjusting the light and in the washed out, colorlessness of it all, the blood, when she draws it looks black. It forms a dark bead on the surface. Carefully she aims the tip of the strip at the tiny droplet and an instant later the meter beeps. Seconds pass. The beep sounds once more and she reads the number on the display.

She packs up the kit and zips it closed. She rises and turns to look back at the child. The arm has already withdrawn, tucked safely beneath the covers. She brushes the hair away from the small round face, tucks the sheets firmly about her shoulders and kisses her softly on the cheek.

The beam of light precedes her into the hall and she secures it to the  charger on the wall and moves as a shadow once more through the doorway.

The comforter lifts. The legs slip over the mattress. The stillness returns.

It’s one a.m and all’s well.

Phone Privileges

The Things We Have Now

She calls at ten a.m.

I want to talk about school. How she’s doing, what she’s learning.

She entertains my wishes only momentarily, then gives me her meter reading.

I say the number back to her and write it down.

She asks about her snack.

I tell her what it is.

She asks, What did you pack for three o’clock?

I tell her that too.

Can I switch them? she asks.

Of course, I say, you can switch them.

We talk again at noon. I ask is she having a good day.

She says that she is and gives me her number.

I write it down. She wants to get back to lunch and her friends, I can tell. I figure her dose and tell it to her and let her go.

At three she calls once more. How are you feeling? I ask.

Good, she says merrily and I believe her.

How was your day?

Good. Daddy? she says before I can say anything more.

Yes dear? I answer.

Tomorrow can you pack beef jerky?