The midnight room was dark, lit only by the flickering of a pair of beeswax candles and the trusty woodstove, and scented only by the crackling aroma of well-seasoned cherry and white oak.
Two dogs lay curled on the floor, one indifferently snoring, the other energetically chomping on a rawhide bone. Two experienced women attended to Alison, with another on call just in case.
I have witnessed childbirth enough times to realize my place. That place is like that of the squirrely media guy sitting on set with a panel of Hall of Famers. The women around me have been through those agonizing moments firsthand. They have the battle scars and trophies to prove it. Meanwhile I am Skip Bayless. My role in the whole process – conception – amounts to something like a teeball bloop single. It’s nothing like Alison up there swatting all those late-inning October home runs.
So I try not to be too loud. I fetch water, give support, rub a back or foot when called upon. Say little silent prayers, express love, offer little smiles. I keep wood on the stove. But not much talking. No coaching.
We all waited there and watched. It all seemed so imminent. With any one of these contractions now the baby would come chugging right out. There is something magical about that first look at your own newborn baby. A handheld slice of divinity. A perfect vessel yet untainted by the corrosive influence of microwave dinners, reality television, and big box retail. And those knowing eyes. You can learn a lot from those baby eyes.
But for reasons we may never know, after two full nights of excruciating and sporadic labor our baby did not want to come “down the bubble gum chute” as the kids say. Something was holding her back. Eventually we all decided that this one would not be a home birth after all.
When morning broke we loaded up the car and pointed toward the hospital. When it was suggested we change our clothes and freshen up I produced a flannel work shirt and lined Carhartt vest. Our midwife was not impressed. “I would go with something that projects a little better.”
So I peeled off the tractor gear, washed up real nice, and reemerged donning brown leather loafers, crisp jeans, a British gingham check sport shirt, and a blue cashmere sweater. I swapped the “Plowing with Pigs” book in my overnight bag for a couple back issues of the Wall Street Journal and an Ivy League university alumni magazine.
And good thing I did. Any other place in America, you walk in for the 9th time and they roll out the red carpet. At the jiffy lube they address you by name and slide you a coupon for a free oil change. At the burrito place they punch your card and tell you the next one is on the house. On Delta they upgrade you to first class.
But when you walk into a hospital with your pregnant wife for the 9th time, they treat you like you just tumbled off the back of the moonshine cart. Like you just married your first cousin. Like you never finished junior high. Like you are a sociopath. But inbred sociopaths don’t wear cashmere or Cole Haan. It afforded me a modicum of respect. The midwife advice was solid.
Over the next three hours three different people logged into the same computer with three different passwords and proceeded to ask the exact same set of questions three separate times. It produces an uneasy feeling, like that of a double date with another couple with clear communication issues, to be surrounded by all these knowledgeable people, the very same ones entrusted with your life and vitality, that never even bother to talk to each other. That uneasiness was magnified in Alison’s 40th hour of labor. The endless redundancy in processing gave the feeling of being prepared to be fed through an exceedingly complex and exceedingly expensive machine.
The brands on the equipment in our little examination room alone read literally like a stock ticker: Stryker (NYSE: SYK), Traulsen (NYSE: ITW), Inner Space (NYSE: SWK), Philips (NYSE: PHG), MediChoice (NYSE: OMI). You wonder how the premiums skyrocket every year even when the doctors and nurses keep taking home less. But you forget about the CEOs, lobbyists, tax specialists, communications directors, government administrators, compliance managers, attorneys, management consultants and hotshot salespeople that need to make a bonus. Behind every one of those $10,000 beds and styrofoam cups of Sysco (NYSE: SYY) cranberry juice is an extensive network of Cabo beachhouses, Gulfstream jets, country club memberships, and candy-apple red sports cars.
I can’t complain because hours later, on the back end of that machine, our prayers were answered and a sparkling new member of our family emerged, as energetic and bright-eyed as we had all hoped. Mysteriously reluctant, but utterly gorgeous.
Alison took her into her bosom and offered up the first meal of her young earthly life. Now freed from my labor-imposed silence, the urge to resume coaching was too great. I leaned over to ask Alison about the quality of what appeared to be a very good latch, offered a suggestion for gentle repositioning, and issued a reminder about the importance of air drying.
“A most unlikely lactation consultant,” Alison called me through exhausted lips. You keep coming back to that same place nine times, you do get to know your way around.
Then I took baby into my arms. Little riding cap. Impromptu baby gurgles. Milky lips. Clear and knowing eyes. Every single daddy molecule melted into great, big puddles on the linoleum floor.
She stared back at me intently, as if she were trying to tell me something, as if she were trying to help me remember something. She had the look of an angel on a heavenly errand. Complete with my button nose.
A couple days later she arrived home. Brothers and sisters all anxiously gathered around to meet her for the first time. Though someone suggested, by the look in those eyes, it was all but certain we had met before.