Having a Baby on Christmas Eve Isn't All Tidings of Comfort and Joy
I watch too much television. Actually I used to watch too much TV. Now that I have a kid I don't even have time to look at the weather forecast in the morning anymore, as anyone who has seen me wearing a peacoat on a 70-degree day can tell you. When I was a kid, though, I watched way too much TV.
At about age 6, I realized that the folks on television were cooler, funnier, and happier than the people who lived in my world, especially during the holidays. Not like that was hard to accomplish, what with my world consisting of seven people sharing a one-bedroom apartment in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in midtown Manhattan. We had few holiday special-worthy moments. It wasn't awful, but I dreamed of a world where, no matter how crappy a holiday you were having, a few well-placed quips would somehow make it the "bestest Christmas ever" by the end of the episode.
Flash-forward 16 years and I finally got to feel like I lived on TV, and just like a wish granted by an awful Twilight Zone-style be-careful-what-you-wish-for genie, the day my daughter was born felt as clichéd and schmaltzy as a 1980s sitcom holiday special.
It was Dec. 24, 2002, and my nine-months-pregnant girlfriend, Nicole, and I were celebrating our first Christmas in Baltimore. Nicole's family lives in Oakland and my family lives in New York, and a five-hour holiday-traffic drive to my mom's place was out of the question, so we decided to spend Christmas day with a mutual friend in Owings Mills. We had it all mapped out: We would get the Christmas turkey, our friend would get everything else, and in the morning we'd go to Owings Mills and spend the day talking, laughing, cooking, and watching the A Christmas Story marathon.
Walking through the Rotunda Giant on Christmas Eve morning the faux holiday cheer was in full swing. The cereal mascots were all wearing Christmas sweaters, all the cookies came with green and white sprinkles, menorah candles were on sale, and "Jingle Bell" muzak filled the air. I muttered something about how lame and corporate the holiday season is when I noticed that Nicole had frozen in her tracks at the end of the aisle.
I jetted up to her. "You OK?" I asked. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said. "I'm just having really bad cramps." I could see what was about to take place because I'd watched it happen on a dozen TV shows: young couple can't make it to see family on Christmas, snow in the forecast, woman in labor in supermarket. I quickly scanned my brain for emergency birthing info. As I took inventory I realized that, thanks to '80s TV, I was ready to help deliver the baby in a cab stuck in traffic, a broken elevator, and a bank vault but not a supermarket. Crap. We had to get the hell out of there.
Nicole was in total denial by the time we got home, saying she would just "lay down and sleep it off." Meanwhile, I was on my hands and knees sanitizing the apartment like my parents had gone away for the weekend and I threw a party and they would be back any minute. By the time I was done, Nicole could no longer deny her contractions, so we headed to the hospital.
It was a little after 8:30 p.m. and the day's heavy snow was building into a pretty nasty blizzard. I carefully shuffled Nicole outside and into the car. The road was slick and I could barely see three cars ahead of me, but that didn't stop me from peeling out. Nicole hyperventilated in the passenger seat while I tried to wrap my head around how we got from "I think these are just really bad cramps" to "the baby is coming tonight, like right now" in less than 20 minutes.
What do they do on television at a time like this? Lamaze! Despite never attending a single Lamaze class, I went for it. "Uh, breathe, baby, breathe. We're almost there," I pleaded, to which Nicole replied, "Watch the road! Where are you going? Pull over and get out, I'm driving!" I just kept repeating "breathe" over and over like a hapless idiot while squinting through the windshield. I'm not sure, but I think at some point I caught a "shut up" from her. Blasting the LaFace Records Christmas album probably didn't help anyone's mood either.
We finally got to the hospital, and I say "finally" because every moment of a snowy slippery car ride with a woman in labor feels like an hour. I parked somewhere near the front of the hospital, took Nicole inside, plopped her down in the nearest wheel chair, and was promptly told to move my car. Apparently, even in an emergency, you're not allowed to slide toward the front entrance and block in three other cars with the diagonal parking space you've just created that includes leaving 40 percent of your car on the curb.
I reparked and when I got back inside I looked around the emergency room for Nicole. It wasn't a very merry sight. There were empty gift-wrapped boxes discarded on the floor and a tiny tree near the entrance. A boy in reindeer pajamas with a broken arm and busted lip cried as his dad, who was clearly regretting buying that motor scooter or whatever dangerous gift, gave a nurse details of the boy's allergies. His mother sat anxiously, tapping her foot, arms folded, wearing an "I-told-you-so" ice grill. All the poinsettia in town couldn't cheer this crowd up.
A nurse with candy cane earrings finally pointed me to where Nicole was being examined by a Doogie Howser, M.D. look-alike. He was taking Nicole's temperature, checking her heart rate, and generally poking at her and asking stupid questions while clumsily yanking a rubber glove over his trembling hand. What the hell is this? I thought. Where are the real doctors? They seemed to be off for Christmas, leaving my baby in the hands of the guy with the rubber glove on the wrong hand who looked about 12.
"Oh. OK, uh, well, your water just broke so," he said, the same way someone would say, "Oh, I see the problem. The battery is upside down in this remote control." It was part "eureka!" and part "duh," as if he really had to examine the puddle Nicole was sitting in to determine if her water broke.
"We Wish You a Merry Christmas" twinkled over the PA in the elevator on the way up to the birthing room. The room itself was actually quite cozy, with wood floors, homey furniture, and a rocking chair. It was more like my grandma's house than the rest of the cold sterile hospital. Once Doogie left, I started to relax. It didn't last long.
Everything was ready to go, but the doctor still hadn't arrived. "It's snowing really bad out there," the nurses explained. I feared the next words out of their mouths would be, "Sir, you're going to have to deliver this baby."
The nurses held down the fort while we waited for the doctor, but Nicole was so exhausted that she actually fell asleep between contractions, which didn't offer her much time to rest. The contractions were hitting hard, so the nurses offered her an epidural. Perfect, I thought to myself. This should really take the edge off, I'll have one, too, please. But Nicole had watched a report on the Discovery Channel a few days before about the slight chance of being paralyzed by an epidural, and she wasn't having it. Why couldn't she have just watched Frosty the Snowman like everyone else? After about an hour of labor, I pleaded with her to get the epidural, at the very least to give the bones in my hand, which she was crushing, a chance to settle.
An hour later the pain was so unbearable that she began to beg for the epidural, but it was too late. We were in the thick of it now, and the doctor finally rolled in with a why-are-you-people-calling-me-out-of-bed-on-Christmas-Eve-for-chrissakes drag in his step. The doctor was a large chubby man, and standing beside the three tiny nurses, one of whom was wearing white, red, and green-stripped socks, there was a sort of Santa and his elves thing going on, despite his lack of a big white beard or jolly disposition.
It wasn't the doctor's slight resemblance to St. Nick that calmed me, however, but his blasé "time to make the doughnuts" attitude. I marveled at the fact that, during one of the most stressful times in my life, he yawned as he checked to see how far the baby had descended.
Suddenly, I remembered all my training, I remembered what Tony Micelli did, and Jason Seaver and Dr Huxtable. I wasn't just nervously saying "breathe" anymore, I was a Lamaze champion. I was having my TV moment. I was the perfect TV dad!
Nicole and I held hands, and for the next few minutes we were a machine, her eyes locked on mine, we breathed together, we had one pulse. Unruffled, slow, and firm, it was "breathe, push, breathe, push, breathe, push." I had her in a trance. Who would have guessed that Lamaze really worked?
We were getting close, and Nicole said she couldn't do it anymore. Not even my expert breathing could save us now, and then I heard the doctor mumble to the nurse, "Wait, I lost the heartbeat." My stomach dropped. This wasn't how it happened on television. I wanted to scream and cry and puke all at the same time. I cursed and prayed and begged whoever could hear me to save my baby. The five minutes it took the doctor to calmly strap some apparatus onto Nicole's belly crawled by. The doctor attached a thin cord to the top of baby's head and was able to find the heartbeat again. At this point I could see the head--we were almost there.
"I can't do this anymore, I'm tired," Nicole said. We were both sweating. She was in tears. "Yes, we can. C'mon, baby, I'm so proud of you right now," I said. And I was. One final scream that I'm sure pierced every eardrum in the building and out popped the most perfect little person I'd ever seen. I cut the cord and the nurses cleaned and wrapped up the baby, a beautiful seven-pound, 22-inch, 10-fingered, 10-toed girl. They put a tiny little red, white, and green skullcap on her. "Oh yeah, what time is it?" I asked. Time stopped having any meaning hours ago. It was 1:48 a.m., Christmas morning.
In the recovery room, we had hospital-issue graham crackers and apple juice instead of gingerbread cookies and egg nog. Little Ralphie begged for a BB gun on the television giving off a flickering light that was better than any fireplace I'd ever see, and the view of the snow-covered street below was serene.
"I knew we could do it," I told Nicole. "I knew we could do it, too," she said. And as cheesy as it sounds, it felt just like all those lame holiday shows I envied as a kid. It was the bestest Christmas ever, for us anyway. Our friend never did get his turkey, making his Christmas dinner all starches and canned cranberries.
The nurse came in and handed us our new baby. "What are you going to name baby?" she asked. "Noel or Christina or something Christmasy? She's the first Christmas baby of the day." That was a little too cliché even for a TV junkie like me. So we went with Imani. It means "faith."
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
In Her Views (10/10/2007)
Char Brooks And Annie Waldrop Deconstruct Femininity In Their Own Ways
Streets Is Watching (7/25/2007)
Local Novelist Thomas Long Hits The Big Screen
Back From the Grave (6/27/2007)
City Dedicates Funds To Help Clean Up Mount Auburn Cemetery
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