While I was still asleep at 4:44am this morning our third child, Miriam, turned one year-old. But a couple days ago, children ran around, fueled by lavishly colored cupcakes, helping celebrate at her birthday party on Saturday. Friends from Chowan University, from divinity school, from the community, and from Church came to enjoy the time with our family, as we enjoyed our baby girl.
As she sat in her high chair, not knowing how to attack the halloween-colored “smash cake” that was larger than her advanced-sized head, Miriam began to cry. I realized again that not every moment is cause for a smiling face on camera, even though our social media profiles would have us believe otherwise. Miriam was 80% smiles, especially while opening presents and crawling/tumbling around the room — just not while eating her cake. And that’s fine.
Today, as we consider the previous year, our thoughts return to that day, after her due date, when Miriam first graced the outside world with her presence. Sometime in the previous year, Elizabeth and I came up with her “birth narrative.” Join us in remembering that exciting day!
The short story of her birth…
For each of our three children, a different version of the same question hounded our minds. “When will they actually be here?” It was such a simple and obvious question, but it seemed like the whole world to us, in the moment, because of the events that were both right in front of us and coming closer on our calendar.
Miriam was due on All Saints’ Day, November 01st, and I had agreed to do a funeral for a WWII veteran who was recovered from the Pearl Harbor wreckage and recently identified, having agreed to do so because the funeral was on the 3rd of November. Both of our boys were slightly early — three and five days respectively. I knew how to draw patterns. Miriam would probably be here a week early.
November 1st came and went, and on the 3rd, my parents had come to visit. They were standing by to help out in any way, assuming that Elizabeth would go into labor sometime soon. When I left to lead the funeral service, wearing Elizabeth’s clerical collar, not having a black one of my own, Elizabeth said, “Seeing you in that collar might just send me into labor.”
We went to sleep at around 10:00pm that night, after having watched part of a movie in our room, lying on the bed. Within an hour, Elizabeth awoke, feeling some contractions. She told me as much. And I told her, “Well, I’m going to keep sleeping, in case this is it…So I’ll at least be a little bit rested to drive to the hospital.” It was probably as much the exhaustion talking as it was my sincerity. “Ok,” she responded, “These are not very close together, but they are really strong.”
When she got off the phone with the on-call midwife Carolyn, she informed me that we were asked to get our stuff together and, “come-on in to the hospital.” There are very few times in my life that I have achieved levitation, and I’m pretty sure they all have to do with family. This was one of them. In an instant, I saw myself flying out of bed, putting my shoes on, not quite sure my eyes had even been opened during my hover to them.
Before leaving the house, we told my parents, who were there, about the probable labor. After a short prayer, we hopped in the van and drove towards Greenville. Philip stayed at the house with the parents. Worth had been with Mumsie, Elizabeth’s mom, at the Outer Banks, and when mother and daughter texted on the drive over there, it was a cute back-and-forth, with Mumsie wishing us well and Elizabeth promising to keep her informed. It was so different than the first two boys, as far as our parents are concerned. Neither of our sets of parents were rushing to the hospital. My parents had seen us out the door, and Elizabeth’s mom was on an island with a four year-old, knowing that she couldn’t leave until morning. Pops, my father-in-law, is the type who appreciates a call, as soon as baby is born, and then he gladly makes the trek to come and meet the new addition.
The car ride would have made a good sitcom episode. I was trying hard to do everything Elizabeth said, but like an immature actor, I came close to overdoing everything. During contractions she wanted the AC going, so I would blast it on like a refrigerator turning going into action. Then, I’d gradually turn the heat on, because after all, it was still November. After having played music initially, I turned it off, because she wanted silence, except for our conversation. I knew I was a little bit tired and decided not to speed, except for a customary five or so over… Until she said, “I have a slight urge to push.” At that point I involuntarily stood up on the gas pedal, and the van rocketed forward. “You don’t have to speed, it’s not serious, yet.” Her words were tough to listen to, because I could hear the pain in her voice, but at the same time, it was invigorating.
When we got to the hospital it was 1am, the second 1am. Daylight savings time didn’t really mess with us in the moment, but it did make it funny to look back at text messages shared with people, the time stamps looking like a time traveler had used the phone. We connected with the last vacant spot in front of the Women and Children’s hospital at Vidant and walked in the front door. The lady who checked us in had just received a hot Dominoes Pizza, and she was lambasting the delivery boy because there was garlic on it. While Elizabeth silently writhed in pain, in her seat, answering questions that connected her with a file in the computer, my selfish mind was fighting back hunger signals being sent to it from the digestive system. I was trying not to say that I would gladly eat the errant pizza which would otherwise be wasted.
Without needing to answer any more questions, we waited for a few, short minutes in the lobby, surrounded by artificial sea creatures above and expensive aquariums with exotic oceanic fish in them below. The domesticated fish were the most awakened tenants of the hospital, greeting all of us expectant parents who would come in, at any hour. The nurse escorted us back to a triage room, where Elizabeth would be examined.
Somehow, the excitement of every trip to the hospital makes me forget how slowly everything seems to move. The minutes tick past like hours, waiting for the team to come in. After a few minutes, someone puts name bracelets on us, asking the mother to de-robe and put on a hospital gown. Shortly after that, someone hooks up the monitors — heartbeat and mom’s contractions. The dormant screens buzz to life with these vitals that get recorded on an ever-moving printer which keeps shooting out paper — a nightmare for the penny-pinching office worker.
Each of the screens tells their story, and then like a Star Trek character repeating the computer, one of the hospital staff, usually a nurse, repeats everything they say, and moves to take a test of her own. The most important test — the one that will most likely tell us if we are staying the night — the dilation test. We found out that Elizabeth was seven centimeters dilated and a good percentage effaced. In other words — you ain’t going home tonight. This baby is coming!
Quickly, I began text messaging people, making sure everything was lined up. The standby preacher, Mari Wiles who had helped officiate our wedding, would be present to preach for me. My parents messaged back, excited at our coming baby. We had told everyone it would be a girl but not her name. We were waiting for Miriam, Elizabeth waiting in active labor.
From there, things went by, simultaneously with quickness and slowly at the same time. It was one of those, “hurry up and wait,” sort of moments. The adrenaline — thinking of how much had transpired since we unknowingly put our heads on the pillow — made it feel like time was flying by. And then a lull would come, the time between professionals coming to ogle, push, and prod. Time would slow down again.
We were moved to the delivery room. Two wings exist in Labor and Delivery at Vidant Greenville. We were not eligible for the fancy rooms, in which you could labor and also have postpartum, because Elizabeth was a VBAC candidate and therefore needed to be closer to the NICU (see how much jargon I’ve learned!). She began laboring, contractions getting a little stronger, slightly more people coming into the rooms, seeing the midwife Carolyn, whom she had talked to on the phone.
It’s weird how some of the big details slip the mind, but smaller details are crystal clear. For me, I can remember the small dinosaur I had put up for a focal point, sitting in the room, opposite Elizabeth. She hadn’t asked for it, but it was my attempt to convince myself that I had control over some part of the whole thing. I can remember the look on the new nurse’s face as she input data on the computer, and I can remember the pecking order of the nurses, CNAs, Nurse I and Nurse II, all looking up to the midwife. I can’t seem to remember things like, “when did I text message my siblings?” or “what did Elizabeth say to me, at each step?”
While I may not remember the dialogue we shared, I do remember her eyes, those perfect blue eyes that had looked into my soul from previous pregnancies and deliveries. I remember her looking at me with longing in pain, not wanting to make a big fuss. I remember watching her talk to the midwife and nurses, advocating for herself and her birth plan, but I don’t remember the words themselves. I remember someone who felt stronger and more capable of deep love than I had previously realized.
I later found out that Elizabeth had signed paperwork to have her tubes removed, in the event of a C-section. We had talked about that, but I did not know she had already taken care of it as a possibility. There were so many things I did not know about her communication, so many things I did not give her credit for, which she had well in hand. Even though I saw the surface of her communication, I could not know in the moment, even as a third time father, just how much work my wife had done below the literal and figurative surface.
Elizabeth received an intravenous opiate, which immediately made her loopy and to feel like she was “on cloud nine.” She needed a little help with pain relief.
Sometime after 3 o’clock in the morning the Anesthesiologist, Dr. Biggerstaff, came in to do Elizabeth’s epidural. Whenever he mentioned out loud, “you are short,” Elizabeth and I looked at each other, questioning internally whether that meant he would give her a lower dosage. If I was in apt husband, I would have spoken up, saying that she has a strong resistance to anesthesia. “She carries the redhead gene,” I could have said.
As it turns out, the same pattern of events began to unfold as it happened the previous year with Philip. Dr. Biggerstaff left with a good epidural, but before too long she began to feel pain. Her left leg was numb, but not her right. Whereas with Philip, she was able to get a lidocaine injection, there was very little time here, we would later find out.
They broke her water when she was 9-10 centimeters, and it was 3:42 in the morning. We waited, and the amount of people slowly began to grow, like a diligent colony of ants, each knowing their own duty. Midwife Caroline told Elizabeth that it would not be long before she could start pushing. Nothing seemed to be happening the first time Elizabeth, “labored down,” as they say.
After almost an hour of that, they realize that Elizabeth had not gone to the bathroom in a while. They inserted a catheter and drained her bladder, and almost immediately Miriam‘s head engaged, and she began pushing her way into the birth canal. Things happened so quickly from there.
“Wait? Is this it? It can’t be time already,” is what I thought. Internally, I was getting ready for the same charade that had happened with Philip. I was assuming we still had at least a couple more hours. So, I had remained still, weak, and reserved, not wanting to be so emotionally outright that I began crying prematurely or anything. I was taken by surprise as soon as they told Elizabeth to start pushing.
At 4:40 AM Elizabeth started pushing. With Worth, she had pushed for a number of hours, before he had to come through emergency C-section. With Philip it was significantly less, but it took a little while. After only a couple of pushes, Elizabeth was in tremendous pain, because Miriam’s head was beginning to crown. “You don’t have to wait until the next contraction. You can go ahead and push if you want to,” the midwife said to Elizabeth.
With the completion of that last sentence given to Elizabeth, I looked down and saw the tip of a fuzzy head. I think I told her, “I can see her! Baby, you are almost there.” With or without me speaking, Elizabeth labored down and pushed Miriam quickly through the birth canal. In no time at all, her little head was free in this world, and Carolyn said to Elizabeth, “You can deliver your baby if you want to.”
I don’t even know if Caroline had finished the sentence, and Elizabeth reached down and pulled her baby onto her chest, immediately overcome with joy, love, and satisfaction. That sweet child, nearly floating on air but having enough body weight to weigh herself down in a mommy cuddle, was so beautiful as we first saw her. She had far more hair than either of her brothers did.
It was 4:44 AM, Elizabeth had pushed for approximately four minutes, after having been at the hospital for around four hours, on November 4th, which was in the 44th week of the year. We had a new child, fearfully and wonderfully made.
I tend to soak in events like a sponge, with most of what I observe being explained away or compartmentalized to understand later. Elizabeth has some of the greatest intuition of anybody I know, and as she saw a little Miriam laboring to breathe, she immediately knew something was wrong. She looked over at the medical staff, who allowed her to cuddle a couple of minutes longer, while they looked at the Apgar score, which was their way of registering how Miriam was fairing.
“We should probably get her down to the NICU. Her breathing is a little bit labored,” was what they said to us. As quickly as she had come into the world she was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit, for them to check on her breathing. They told us that she was probably going to be fine, but that she did not get to strain very much, and she needed a little help.
They told us that at best, she would be free to go after a couple of hours. I looked over at my wife, and she was so happy, but the happiness was immediately kept at bay. Even though we were told that she was probably fine, just the fact that our baby had to be immediately stripped away from us to be checked on and monitored was heart-wrenching.
Elizabeth told me, “She’s been part of me for forty weeks, and now she’s been taken away.” I wanted to stay with my wife, knowing that a team of qualified physicians was with our baby girl, but following her directive, I shortly went down to the NICU.
All over again, it was the waiting, the world passing by quickly and slowly at the same time. At 5 AM, Miriam was taken to the NICU. at around 7 AM Elizabeth was taken to her room, around the same time that Miriam was being discharged. I walked with the NICU nurse, or as I impatiently called her in my head “the young lady with the intolerably squeaky voice,” who intentionally spoke with bad grammar to newborn children. We all walked together to go find Elizabeth, the nurse saying to Miriam all the while, “Is you excited to see you Mummy whittle wun?” I was excited to tell Elizabeth about the short stay in the NICU, how they had made her a bow from the stock newborn hats, how they were so proud of her heavy weight, and how everyone was excited to see her come and excited that she could go.
The NICU stay, the story unfolding differently than I would have expected it, and all of the hair on my baby girl’s head reminded me how life never plays out the way we would have anticipated it. The time that I have spent sitting down to remember and record these thoughts reminds me that our memories are fleeting, and it takes work to capture them. I’m also reminded that our memories are only as good as our attention is in the present moment.
In the past month since baby girl has been born, I have made so many memories. But I have also forfeited many memories by being on my phone, jumping ahead in my mind to other events that are coming, and being absent-minded. I am challenged, as I think about the birth of the last child partially made in my image, to cherish every moment that we have left together. It is a holy and exciting moment, every time I get to see one of my children, but thinking of the impermanence is very somber. Elizabeth has quoted somebody saying to me, “you remember the first time you held them, but you never know when the last time will be.“ Every day is a blessing. Don’t take it for granted.