I’m pretty sure my wife gave me my 40th birthday present while I was sitting on the toilet.
My sister had called earlier that morning to say she was going into labor with her first child. At the time, my wife worked for American Airlines, so she pulled a ticket to Denver for me while I showered and threw some clothes in a bag. I was making one last pee stop before racing out the door when she handed me a Kindle hastily wrapped in a plastic grocery bag and kissed me on the top of my head. “Aren’t you so glad your nephew and you will share the same birthday?” she gushed. My biggest worry was trying to figure out how to download the first season of The Killing before I got in the car.
Ever since my friend Jen gave birth at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas two weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about that moment. I didn’t have to think twice about getting on an airplane, and my sister didn’t think have to think twice about having me there. In fact, nothing about that experience would be the same today.
When I arrived at the hospital, nurses ushered me back to my sister’s room. Her water had broken on its own, precipitating the trip to the hospital, but her labor was progressing slowly. We did some laps together through the hallways, with me at her elbow while she rolled the I.V. stand, setting a very different pace than she did when we hiked in the nearby mountains.
She told me that the doctors said they might need to give her Pitocin to speed things up. She was nervous and frustrated. We both have issues with drugs and hospitals, having encountered them too often as children. Even as adults, we had all too recently spent time as unwilling visitors to the ICU. Five years prior, my mother, an art teacher like my sister, had been hospitalized after catching something that looked like the flu before it turned into pneumonia and then sepsis, eventually leading to a respirator and a stroke. She died before my sister’s wedding and certainly before this, the birth of her first grandchild.
Unable to have our mother in the delivery room, my sister decided to ban the rest of us, too. Her husband’s parents were divorced, and she figured that the only way to avoid any unintended slights was to keep everyone but her husband out during the actual birth. I wouldn’t find out until later, holding my perfect nephew, that things had momentarily reached a dangerous precipice.
Over the next couple of days, I freely came in and out of the hospital, bringing my sister pans of Ghirardelli brownies, sandwiches from her favorite shop, and anything else she fancied. I greedily took the baby every minute I could, and I held him in my arms as I thoughtlessly blew out the candles on a birthday cake that my sister’s mother-in-law brought for us to share, my breath caressing his face.
Back at my sister’s house, I fed the beagles and made pans of lasagna to freeze. And when my nephew came home, I held him for hours, inhaling the scent of his neck as I watched movies on my Kindle so his parents could get the last sleep they would see for the next two-plus years. When his eyes would open, I would put my face close to his and we would study each other, endlessly fascinated.
It was a gift, but none of it struck me as a particularly unusual one until my friend Jen gave birth.
I couldn’t figure out why, for the past month, my wife had refused to leave the house at all. She wouldn’t even to go to Bonton Farms for our weekly curbside pickup of groceries. Then I realized that Jen could only have one person in the hospital room with her. She had been told that if her wife showed up with a temperature or a cough, she wouldn’t be allowed in. Jen had asked my wife to be her proxy, and my wife wasn’t going to take any chances.
The planned inducement started on a Wednesday and ended on a Friday. Jen and her wife were required to wear masks anytime the perpetually masked hospital staff came in the room, which was pretty much constantly.
But Jen didn’t realize quite how much they limited communication until she suddenly puked over the side of the bed and onto the floor in between the 3-minute contractions she’d been having for two days. When the nurse said, “Thanks for that,” it was hard to tell whether or not she was being sarcastic. There was no visible smile or grimace as a guide. The nurse had to explain that she was in fact thankful that Jen hadn’t soiled herself and all the sheets, making clean-up a little easier.
Jen’s wife wasn’t eating in solidarity with Jen, who was limited to ice chips and Gatorade for the duration. If it tells you anything, Jen was a Division 1 college soccer player who used to drill holes in her toenails to release the blood. Her wife runs half-marathons as a warm-up and goes ice fishing for fun. So they aren’t real complainers. Eventually, a nurse had to bring Jen’s wife food, because there were no friends or family there to make her eat. Jen’s mom, who might have brought kalbi and rice, was stuck in Hawaii; her sister, who might have snuck in a flask of bourbon, was in Houston; and her mother-in-law, who would have certainly come with cheese kurds and a kringle, was in Wisconsin. They were on an island of their own.
Which might have made the last-minute swerve to a C-section panic-inducing, except by the time that decision had to be made both moms were too exhausted to put up a fight even if they had wanted to. At that point, they just wanted to meet the baby they had worked so hard to bring into this uncertain world.
Maybe the masks and the new quarantine procedures were to blame for the confusion of a new duty nurse, who commented as she ushered Jen’s wife to the operating room, “Well, you’re not the father but I guess you can come along.” And maybe they were to blame for Jen confusedly offering the compliment “I love your new highlights!” to an entirely silver-haired nurse she had never actually seen before.
But when all 7.5 pounds of Ashton Nohealani was finally pulled from her mother, Jen was able to at last pull her mask down to her chin, so her daughter could see her face for the first time.
Since we couldn’t rush to the hospital, my wife and I got to work baking chocolate chip cookies and preparing trays of lasagna and enchiladas to deliver to the new moms. When they made it home a few days later, we donned our own masks and tucked containers of disinfectant wipes under our arms. We sat on the floor near the doorway, as far across the room from Ashton as we could get, and we talked to her with muffled voices, wondering what her future will hold.
Someday soon we hope she’ll be able to see our faces, and we’ll be able to bury our noses in her sweet-smelling neck. We’ll kiss the top of her head, and we’ll rub each and every toe. We’ll tell her the story of her quarantine birth, and about how strong her moms were on their island. We’ll tell her how brave the doctors and nurses were to even show up and do their jobs. And we’ll open our arms wide to show her just how much love we radiated from more than 6 feet away.