The Secret Chord

It is the eve of All Hallows’ Eve, and we’ve already escaped the clutches of doom. Standard Halloween scares don’t seem so spooky when you’ve seen your uncertain future dangling by its own umbilical cord. I think we’ll be weathering this one with our porch light off.

We checked into the Northeast Arkansas Baptist Memorial Hospital last Wednesday night. Gina’s protein levels were elevated past normal in her last screening and we’d been informed via telephone that she was in the early stages of preeclampsia. In retrospect, it must have been pre-preeclampsia, because the other hospital staff kept expressing disbelief that she actually had preeclampsia. I trust that our physician wasn’t being overly cautious and that the early delivery was warranted, but I also know nurses usually Question Everything. I saw this quirk save my father’s life back in 2008, but I also cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to listen to “well, the doctor” tirades.

The torture began shortly after Gina disrobed and climbed into her adjustable bed. It was hard and lumpy, designed with delivering babies in mind, not comfort. Everyone was kind and sympathetic as they performed their duties, which was appreciated because the onslaught of needle sticks and delivery of chemicals would have seemed like an assault otherwise. I’m not completely ignorant of modern medical practices, but the things we do to people every day, while miraculous, are simultaneously brutal in application. I always think back to Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy saving Chekov from 1986-style brain surgery in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Thirty years later, we aren’t so removed from the “Dark Ages” and “medievalism” that the 23rd century physician denigrated.

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Thursday morning got rolling early with a pitocin drip, which a nurse would come in and crank up periodically. Gina’s answer to the often-referenced 1-10 pain scale question crept up as the day wore on. Four. Five. Six or seven. Seven.

Our OB-GYN attempted to break Gina’s water at midday. I held her hand as he jabbed at her placenta with a dull plastic stick. She weathered this intrusion heroically, which even he noticed and pointed out after deciding the procedure wasn’t going to be effective. He upped the pitocin. I waited while she contracted. Seven or eight. Eight.

I became very aware that my position on this field was waterboy. Gina was the star quarterback and the doctor and nurses were coach and team. I held her hand and watched the monitors, I reminded her to breathe, when necessary, and I told her everything was going to be okay, whether I believed it or not. When the OB-GYN came back later, observed no progress, and asked if she wanted him to perform a cesarean section, she looked at me and said, “What do you think we should do?”

I told her that I couldn’t tell her that because she was the one doing it. “It’s your body,” I said. The OB-GYN said that was the correct answer. She opted for him to try piercing her again. He did.

I held her hand and stroked her forehead while he ripped through. He was simultaneously apologetic about the pain and impressed by her tolerance. We were elated that perhaps now we’d be on the road to a delivery after almost 24 hours of being told that her extreme duress “wasn’t really labor” simply because she wasn’t dilating. I was in awe of her. I always have been, but I felt I was witnessing something extraordinary, as if some caped person had flown down and lifted a bus.

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The contractions were hellish without the cushion of an unbroken amniotic sac. She rode it out for hours and I stood by her, hands squeezed until our knuckles turned white. I shifted my weight from foot to foot because I could not move from that spot. I thought of standing on the deck of the Tia Rose and staring at the horizon as the ship pitched in the sea. The monitors. The mountains. The chart. The waves.

Our RN that shift, a travel nurse whose name I unfortunately do not recall, checked Gina’s dilation again at our request. She was still barely three centimeters, which apparently wasn’t enough to get an epidural. The OB-GYN wanted her to be at least four before she was medicated. As I’ve spoken to people about this strategy over the past two days, I’ve received mixed replies. Some have said it’s necessary in order for labor to progress safely, and some were horrified at the barbarism of it all. Experiences vary from medical facility to medical facility, but in our case, the RN on duty intervened and said it was close enough. She called the anesthesiologist, who arrived a gut wrenching 45 minutes after she said they would. Nine.

Gina’s relief was delivered and I felt comfortable enough to take a break. I reclined on the couch and promptly lost consciousness. I was intermittently aware that people were coming and going but I was mostly out until I heard our new shift RN, Sara, say that dilation was five centimeters, and that she had a hand full of umbilical cord.

I put my glasses on. She was on the gurney, big eyed and wrist deep. “Cord,” she said. People started moving fast. She shouted towards the door for someone. I sat up slowly and put on my old, worn-out running shoes, and my heart was already hammering like I’d attempted a half marathon. Sara quickly explained to Gina that this meant she was going to have an emergency c-section. Game time.

I walked to the head of the bed. Gina was hyperventilating. “Breathe,” I said. “Everything is going to be okay.”

Yeah, that was a fucking lie. It is my job now, I thought, to be stoic and lie. I am the greatest liar. I tell wonderful lies.

Gina asked if I was going with her. I told her that she’d go down the hall and I’d be separated from her momentarily while they got her prepped, but then I’d be by her side. I could see the cord bulging like sausage casing in Sara’s hand. She said, “We need to get something wet. This doesn’t need to dry out.” Sara held Willie’s blue lifeline away from his head and through Gina’s cervix unbent and unbound. I stared at it, knowing that a kinked hose stops delivering its contents. I kept telling myself he was alive. She adjusted the sensor strap and repositioned Gina’s leg with her other hand. His heart rate kept dipping. Sixty-eight. Fifty-four.

Someone gave her a shot to help stop the contractions. Someone made her drink something bitter. I held Gina’s hand with my left hand and pulled my phone out of my pocket with my right. I SwiftKey swiped “labor umbilical cord” into Google with my thumb and hit the first link. Someone asked if they’d called the doctor. Someone said, “I hope he has his flashers on.”

I am a pessimist by nature, so part of me had expected this. They started to roll her out and I followed her down the hall thinking, “This is it. This is the thing that destroys me. This is the thing I will never get over.” Sara was riding on the bed, flying, holding everything in place like a jet pilot. She was a steely-eyed missile woman.

They pushed Gina through the operating room doors and a nurse began to hand me gown outfit pieces from a supply cart. I got my right shoe covered, but I couldn’t find the hole for my left slipper. “My hands don’t work,” I said. She said, “Here,” kindly, and did it for me. We got the other pieces on in a few more seconds and I sat on a plastic chair, ensconced in a wall depression between the two supply carts.

She stood back and looked at me. I was staring, silently. “Come here,” she said, and bent down to put her arms around me. My chest hitched a few times and I hugged her back. “I’m okay,” I said. “I’m fine. I just need a minute.” She nodded, and I dried that shit up fast because I knew I was in it now.

The hall cleared and I was sitting alone. I briefly considered prayer but decided against it. It felt hollow. I switched to singing, but the first thing that came to mind was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” because the last song I’d heard was the solidly mediocre Pentatonix cover. I was also annoyed at myself because it still felt like praying. Oh well. I opened my mouth and croaked. My voice shook as my vocal cords refused to cooperate. I gave up and exhaled. A moment later, our OB-GYN rounded the corner.

“Well, I guess we’re doing a c-section after all,” he said as he retrieved gloves from the supply cart. I sat and considered a response along the lines of “I believe in you,” or some other sappy shit, but I settled on a stern, staccato, “Good luck.” He paused mid-step, and it looked like he was going to reply, then he turned and strode into the OR. I didn’t blame him any more than I’d blame a coach for a fumble, but he’d definitely had a part in calling the plays.

A small dude in blue scrubs came to retrieve me. I entered the room and moved to my place at the head of the bed. I didn’t notice her at the time because she was under a sheet, but Sara was still on the gurney holding everything in place. Gina had her arms tied out at her sides, crucified, and she was shaking like a leaf. Her breaths were hitching, unproductive. I leaned down from above, took her face in my hands and put my forehead on hers. “Breathe,” I said. “It’s your job to breathe. Everything is fine. Everything is going to be okay.” Her oxygen mask fogged. I was still convinced that I was lying. It was my job to lie.

I peered over the sheet that had been lifted to block Gina’s innards from her view and watched the operation in progress. They were already getting out the big metal shoehorn they use to pry out a uterus full of baby. How long had it been since the Titanic had hit the iceberg? Fifteen, twenty minutes? Our OB-GYN worked away while handing out criticism to his assistants. “That should have been open when you handed it to me,” he said. “That should be within reach so you don’t have to let go of the bladder to get it.”

I was looking at Gina and spinning more sweet lies when they wrenched him out. “Happy birthday,” the OB-GYN said. Willie was already in the warmer when I heard him cry out for the first time, and I looked up again. It was 11:32 pm on October 27, 2016, and life, as it does, had found a way.

“It’s him,” I said. “Do you hear him? He’s okay.” The fates had forgiven my lies and made them retroactively true with swift hands and sharp blades.

“Yes,” she said. “I want to see him.”

I fetched him as soon as they would let me and put his face next to hers. He looked just like her, and I told her so. She kissed him over and over. “Hello Willie,” she said, “I love you.”

Things were routine after that. We experienced a flurry of texts, messages, calls, and visits. There were other petty frustrations that I will not mention in detail here because childbirth ain’t Disneyland, folks. We got out of the hospital with a living infant. I can handle some interpersonal conflict. A wonderful older RN, Kaye, matronly as all get out, spent the night giving us breastfeeding tips and finally got Willie to latch. Sara stopped in and checked on us a couple more times. We thanked her repeatedly. She was beaming.

Gina and I processed our ordeal deep into the night. She wondered if there were such a thing as divine influence. I told her I thought it was more like Captain Sullenberger landing his plane in the Hudson. He had specifically studied that situation previously and if he hadn’t been in the right place at the right time, all those people probably would have died. “That’s Sara,” I said. “She’s the Captain.”

I relayed some of these events to my good friend Scott, which prompted him to ask me what it feels like to be a dad. “Great joy and absolute terror,” I wrote. When he wondered if that was because of uncertainty about the future or financial woes and asked me to elucidate, I did, and he suggested I post it verbatim.

More like, “Will they die today and destroy me forever.” Yeah, what you said, to an extent, but to me it’s more like they are the external representation of your existence. It feels that way, as well, like there’s a piece of me outside my body. It’s wonderful to think that they’ll have their own lives and adventures, but it’s a double-edged sword. I recognize at this point that the key to immortality is mortality, living, making more people, and dying. Then, the big all-encompassing fear is that you outlive them.

There are countless contributions to humanity that have nothing to do with creating more people, and you can certainly “make people” without literally making people, but if you decide to do that, you’re entering a new dimension of pain. There’s nothing more wonderful to us raging narcissists than filling the world with little snippets of our DNA then wringing our hands about their survival. The worry is the human part, but when we obsess over our young instead of dumping a clutch of eggs and swimming away, we’re expressing the very thing that makes us superior.

Whether it’s all hormones, qualia, or je ne sais quoi, we’ve got that shit locked down. We’re homicidal techno-apes with the feels. Sometimes I think it might be better if we don’t get off this rock, but then, wow, kids. We gotta ravage those stars.

Worry is a hurdle, not a finish line. We’ve leaped this one, but as my girls proved by surviving a harrowing car wreck last July, it’s never over. It won’t be over until my heart explodes, which will probably be much sooner than I’d like, but them’s the breaks, kid. So it goes, as Vonnegut used to say.

We live, we love, and we seed the world with little folks and hope that someone gets there, wherever that is. Maybe we’re only there while we’re going there, but that’s okay too.

Come on, Willie. Let’s get going.

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