So here’s what happened. It was Sunday night. My wife was downstairs with her mother, who was visiting from Arizona. They’d just watched Anna and the King; when I heard the credit music play, I went downstairs to visit. We were chatting about the day; my wife excused herself . . . then returned a few minutes later, eyes wide and slightly alarmed.

“I think my water broke,” she said. I instantly believed her. That’s probably not something you can misinterpret. I grabbed the phone, punched up her brother the Ob-Gyn, handed it to my wife, went to the sink, poured out my drink, and went upstairs to pack.

But I’d already packed. The week before I’d gone to Target to get all the items on the list: high-energy snacks for the birth partner, for example. There were no items specifically labeled as such, but I found many items to fill the bill. There were PBJ Snackers! - peanut butter and jelly in individual wells, packaged with crackers. Radical, dude! I bought two. Pregnancy rocks! Next item: hard candy. It didn’t say what this would be used for - perhaps something to suck during those long languid half-minutes between contractions. I bought Juicefuls, which had a Real Juice Center; didn’t want my daughter’s bloodstream contaminated with False Juice Center-juice. I also bought a tiny Curious George lunchbucket, simply because it was yellow and her room was yellow, and because I like Curious George. Other items: batteries for digital camera, toiletries, mouthwash - didn’t want to exhale a gust of coffeebreath on the little Gnat - and some shampoo. Trial size. With extra botanicals.

“And what was the secret to your successful pregnancy, ma’am?”
“The extra botanicals that gave my husband’s hair a richer, fuller cleanliness - when I grabbed on to his hair and yanked during contractions, my hand didn’t slide off like it would with greasy shampoos.”

I’d put this in the Star-Trib gym bag, and put the bag in the corner of my study. At a moment’s notice I was prepared to fill it with the other essentials.

And now I’d just gotten my moment’s notice.

In went the iBook. The tiny new camcorder went into one pocket; the digital camera in another. Power cable, USB connector for downloading pictures. Music for the Miracle of Birth: hmm. Grabbed four Eno / Budd discs from the old ambient collection. Focal point pictures! Hadn’t figured out which pictures to use for inefficatious visual distraction devices! Got out the box of pictures, spread the packs like decks of cards, dealt out a full house of Jasper pictures, put them in the gym bag. Next room. Underwear. Shirt. Zip it up, downstairs, drop by the door, cruise back into the kitchen.

“Greg says I have to go to the hospital,” Sara said, referring to her brother doc. “He says this is it.”

Her mother was standing there, smiling that ohmigod smile of a mother in the precious epicenter of her daughter’s life.

“Then this is it,” I said, and I went downstairs for another suitcase. Brought up Sara’s valise. She went upstairs and packed.

“This is surreal,” she said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Nor could I, on one hand. On the other, it was as real as it would ever be, and I liked it. I liked the fact that it had just HIT us right between the eyes with no warning; seemed like good practice. THINKQUICK we used to say as kids, right before we threw something in someone’s face.

Within ten minutes we were in the car, heading calmly for the hospital. I dropped them off at the emergency room, parked the car in the ramp. Got out. Walked alone across the lot to the hospital, thinking:

this ain’t no mudd club. Or CBGBs. Gonna all be DIF’rent this time.

Met them upstairs, second floor, the birthing floor. It’s beige-pink or pink-beige. Hello! We’re having a baby. Right this way, then. Within a few minutes Sara was in the TRIAGE room in a bed, fetal monitors hooked up, the sloshing sound of the womb-tides filling the room. It sounded like a noisy place, like the engine room of a ship in heavy seas.

“This is it,” she said. I made some stupid joke just as she had a contraction. She laughed and winced. “Don’t,” she said. “It hurts to laugh during one of these.”

Hmm. Deprived of the number one method of deflecting the gravity of the situation. Well. We’ll just have to get by on honesty, then.

Over the TRIAGE bed was a picture of an impossibly cute baby, and I thought: oh, I hope so. As long as she’s okay. Please let her be okay. Please let her have all the right parts in all the right places. Let no one reel back in horror when she emerges spitting and blaspheming, sulfer-streak’d and brimstone-dripp’d. Ten toes and fingers and facial features in the expected configuration; that’s all I ask.

kawoosh kawoosh kawoosh kawoosh: 150 beats per minute. I’d never heard her heart before; now it filled the entire room, and the room was the entire world.

After a few tests we were moved down the hall, past a room full of squalling babies, into our own apartment. Mai, a charming nurse, welcomed us to room 214; she fetched me a bed, hooked Sara up to the monitors, and got us settled in. I hooked up the boombox, turned on the non-booming music. We looked at each other and laughed:

Here we go.

NEXT: the iBook diary on birthing day ~

The Birthing Diary, written on the iBook in room 214 on July 30, 2000, part 1:

It’s four twelve AM, and much to our surprise we are in the hospital’s birthing wing. Well, not that much of a surprise; my wife’s swelling belly, waddling gait and sudden food aversions had led us to wonder if a pregnancy was in progress. And then there were those interesting ultrasound pictures, the bills from OB-GYNs - yes, we had our suspicions.

Noted on a device they’ve been attaching to my wife:

“Excessive cuff tightness may cause discoloration of the limb.”

You’d like to think that the people who used these things are well aware of this, and don’t need reminding.

Just tried to sleep for a while; laid my head down in the dark room, listened to the gentle burbling Harold Budd music, imagining myself in ‘82 sitting on the roof of the house on 8th, staring at the sky, listening to this music . . . and then between tracks, I’d hear the clacking of the typewriter of the Conscience across the street, the fellow who wrote long and loud into every night. (I met him, years later; he was a technical writer, working on extremely boring manuals.) So just now I thought about all the things I was going to do tomorrow, next week, this month, and I had this horrible clammy thought: I will never get to them. Ever.

But of course that’s not the case.



You really can’t ask your wife for reassurances on the matter, because she’s hitting another contraction now. Honey, will I ever get to finish “Grim Fandango? What’s that - you’re being speared in the uterus by a gigantic broadsword? Well, what does that have to do with my question?”

Time for a backrub. The TECO meter is spiking in the 50s, which supposedly has no relation to the contraction and the duration, but seems a good indicator.

“So much for laboring at home,” she just said.

True, that was the plan. A nice leisurely day at home, perhaps gardening between contractions, or enjoying herbal tea while supportive friends chant and light votive candles.

Just got out a T-shirt from my wife’s bag; every item is black. T-shirt, leggings, shorts. “Are you expecting that the doctor will be from SoHo?” I asked, and was reminded: no jokes during contractions.

It’s 4:04 AM.

No sleep.
We just ate the peanut butter & jelly Smackers. Not bad. Peanutty.

We just met the doctor. Nice guy.

Sara is now pacing, and the contractions are coming close together. From nothing to close-spaced contractions in four hours.

Anyway. The radio is providing a nice soundtrack. We have the Calming CDs (Satie is in the stack, although I’d think that in the right mood it would not be calming but highly annoying; all that careful mincing.) When we got here and I plugged in the boombox, the classical station was playing Bruch’s violin concerto. Can’t beat that. Followed by Sibelius’ First. Can’t beat that. Start her off with a Romantic education.

After a while I sent Sara’s mother home to get some sleep, and take care of the dog. Old whatsisname. Actually, I said goodbye to Jasper when we went for the car: from now on, I said, you’ll be returned to your rightful role as a dog. All child displacement is hereby lifted from you. Go now and hump some more.

I’m never going to sleep. Ever. Again.

5:07 AM. Just came back from a little provisions run. In the family waiting room, there’s an ancient stack of magazines. It’s nice that someone dropped off some issues of “Shape,” but perhaps women around here don’t want to see the headline “Get a Bikini Body in Eight Weeks!” I figured I’d be safe with Popular Mechanics, but the first ad said, in big letters, CUT THE CORD.

I come from a long line of non-cord-cutting men. I’m probably the first Lileks who’s present for this, and not pacing in a linoleum-tiled room with a bluesmoke haze.

“How’s she doing?” said the nurse.

“Oh, she just had the baby,” I said. “I’m here for the towels to mop it up.”

“Great, great.”

They don’t pay attention to anything the husband says, as long as he’s not hysterical.

Checked out the food supply in the little larder. Peanut butter. Jelly. Crackers.

But they’re not individually wrapped.

(Continued Tomorrow . . .)

The Birthing Diary, written on the iBook in room 214 on July 20, 2000, part 2:

6:51 AM

The heaves hit her when she was in the shower, an unfelicitous combination. The shower is not working to relieve the discomfort. Of course, nothing relieves the discomfort, except the birth. Nature doesn’t want you dawdling along the way. With certain lazy types, it would take weeks to give birth. Months. The sort of people who take seven years to complete grad school are not the sort of people you want to set their own pace for birth.

Slept. It was nice. Interrupted by an airplane, and then by the annoying filligrees of Satie, then by a nurse removing an IV. People are entering the room all the time, and everyone comes in with a SHOUT and a HELLO! as though it was the most natural thing in the world for a stranger to enter your bedchamber and stick a needle in your flesh.

But it was sleep nonetheless, and recharged me for the next set.

Total time asleep: 8 minutes.

8:34 AM

I went down for breakfast - not that I really needed it, but I wanted something else to do. Sara was in the shower at the time. The meal consisted of a scoop of “eggs” with two long greasy ferret-stools that passed as sausages. I read Popular Science. That was four 1/2 hours ago, or three days; can’t tell. Came back up, more contractions, more walking, pressing, microwaving the hot compresses (which are never needed, but that doesn’t matter) and then somehow I got a half an hour of sleep. Delicious.

Ate toast. And it was crackin’ toast, Gromitt, crackin’ toast it was.

Now we wait and we do not sleep.

11:12 AM

All hail the epidural! She’s as numb as Keith Richards, and far prettier. Actually holding down a cherry popsicle right now. Gnat is happier too - less stress during those horrible contractions. And they were getting bad; it was if unseen gnomes were pulling Sara into the center of the earth with rusty grappling hooks. But she bore them with courage and patience. When I was talking with the nurse, I mentioned that she had preferred not to have the ep - that was one of the recurring themes in planning.

“Not so fast,” Sara said.

Thirty minutes later they’d swabbed her back with burnt-orange iodine and threaded a needle into her spine. There’s your first clue this is not an ordinary day: people are painting your back and inserting needles into your spine while you have hideous searing contractions. The guy who did it was very good and very fast; he’d done a half-dozen that day already. Another day, another six sharp objects plunged into stranger’s spinal cords.

Eleven hours into this, and everyone’s ready for another nap.

Here the iBook entries end, and for good reason. Now, the conclusion of the beginning:

I’d just had a nice nap, consisting of 14 thin minutes of shallow sleep. Time for lunch? Perhaps. No, I’d eaten lunch already. Time for a little walk? Sure.

She’s dilated to eight, the nurse said.

Great! I replied, and wandered off down the hall. Dum de dum. Hello, ice machine. Hello, snack closet. Hello, room full of swaddled infants; hope mine is as cute as you. Hello, elevator. Now then. Where was I going, again? Right! Lunch.

I was downstairs in the cafeteria before I remembered that I’d had lunch. A hamburger. I had read a Popular Science magazine on MP3s. They were the wave of the future, it seemed. Where had I put that magazine?

Coffee? Should I just get coffee?

Some little voice told me I was far past the point where coffee would help. If coffee was Los Angeles, I was already halfway to Vegas. Whatever that meant. No, let’s go take pictures. Of something.

I wandered around the hospital, trying to figure out which wing we were in. It felt as if I was circling a carousel that moved in the opposite direction. I snapped a few shots, then remembered that Sara had complained of a stomach ache, once. Let’s go buy her some Tums!

The gift shop was open. A wizened little woman who seemed like a large albino raisin sat behind the register. I bought Tums. She entered what seemed like fourteen separate combinations of keystrokes into the register. I noticed it was running Win95.

“Seems like a lot of bother for Tums,” I said.

“Well, they have it set up so you have to enter your own ID for every transaction,” she said in a friendly rasp. “I asked them if there was just a way to do with one key -”

“Of course there is,” I said.

“-because when you get a bunch of people coming through, buying pop, one after the other, it’s a lot of work to put in your ID every time, Doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s horrible design,” I said, suddenly furious at this appalling interface design.

“Us old ones, you know, we don’t know much about computers -”

“That doesn’t matter!” I said. “If the machine makes you feel stupid, it’s the programmer’s fault, not yours.”

“Really?” She looked at me with hope. I suddenly remembered something:




“You’re right!” she said. “It’s not my fault. They oughta keep in mind the old folks who got to use these things, and -


And on she went, and on, and I started backing away, and on she went and on until finally I just LEFT and RAN and PUNCHED the elevator button and SWORE and DARTED around the corner to the stairs, up, two at a time, three, open the door, down the hall -

“There you are,” said the nurse. “She’s at ten.”

Someone standing outside in the hall would have seen the door swing open; they would have seen a friendly doctor snapping on his gloves, a nurse moving the machine-that-goes-ping towards the lovely worried woman in the bed; they would have seen a small fellow in a worn green shirt grab the camcorder, put it in the corner of the room and head for his wife.

And then the door closes slowly, quietly, and the mystery begins.

She didn’t cry. She opened her eyes and looked around, and waved her arms like a conjurer, willing the world into existence like a clever spell she’d just invented.

She’s here, Sara said, and I have never heard a voice so full of joy.

She’s perfect, the doctor said.

She’s lovely, the nurse smiled.

They put her in my wife’s arms, and I leaned down to embrace them both.

She’s ours. We’re hers. Now everything starts all over again.

0M8.M1 0.M0M0

Preemie Ward Diary, banged off on the iBook during the Week of Irritable, Nervous Waiting:

The problem, it seems, is - well, no one has a specific answer, and no one really seems interested in a specific answer. The parents are an impediment to the nurse’s job, which consists of rushing somewhere to take care of someone else’s baby. The ratio of nurses to babies is about 12 to 1, and sometimes there aren’t any babies in need of attention at all; they’re snuggled up in cottony cocoons, snoozing in ignorant bliss. There’s one baby in a crib in the corner that I haven’t seen move in three days. I think it’s a wax doll. But still the nurses are busy. Doing - what? Paperwork, perhaps.

1:00 PM: blew off question on nursing. 1:45 PM - gave evasive answer on how to burp a baby. 2:50 - took temp, became huffy when asked how it compared to the previous day.

I’m not exaggerating. While I do not expect the nurses to answer my every query, or stop in their tracks every time I have a question, I’m getting ten tons of attitude from this cabal, and I’ve had about enough of it. Neither my wife or myself are demanding any more of their time or attention than anyone else - not that there’s ever anyone else in the room when we’re there - and I know my wife is not the bossy sort. I am not the bossy sort. We’re in terra incognita, feeling our way in a dark room towards a wail that’s neither up nor down, behind or front, but all around and indistinct; where do we go? Can we ask one question an hour without pissing everyone off? Two? Three? How many do we get - perhaps a punchcard would be useful here. Perhaps if we don’t ask a question this visit, we get a punch - and when we get 10 punches we get to talk to a doctor.

We’re dealing with Frau Helga of the Tube Brigade. Her solution to preemie problems: tube ‘em. Thread it up the schnozz and down the gullet, set the drip, run the fuel down their throat, and ignore the little buggers until the ripe funk of an vintage Pamper peels the paint and sets off the smoke alarm.

We don’t want the tube. She’s eating. She’s sucking down six bottles a day. We’re more than happy to show up and feed her. Frau Helga, however - well, let’s back up. There was one incident that probably poisoned the well for everyone, and made subsequent trips to the preemie ward feel like a trip behind enemy lines. The first time happened on Tuesday, when a series of nurses walked by my wife as she nursed, and tossed out a comment that contradicted what the last passing nurse had said. Thirty comments, thirty nurses. They have an endless supply. It’s as if there’s a natural spring in the basement, out of which burble blondes in scrubs. When they’re done with their shift they probably throw themselves into the incinerator shaft.

When I went in for the six o’clock feeding, I was greeted by a nurse I’d never seen before. Frau Helga of the Tube Brigade, as it turns out. I asked how Nat was doing. Fine, of course. Subtext: not fine, or she wouldn’t be here, now WOULD she Herr Papa? So I asked what the situation was that kept her here. The nurse pointed to a crib in the corner - “that’s the goal.” There was a baby sleeping in the crib. There had always been a baby sleeping in the crib. I think it’s a dummy just to shame the other preemies.

We want to get her into that crib, said the nurse, but she has to maintain her body temperature outside of the incubator. Otherwise, she’s not going to make it.


Otherwise, she’s not going to make it.

WHAT? She’s - she’s not going to make it?

I mean, she’s not going to be in the crib anytime soon.

"You - do- not,” I said, shaking, “use those words to someone in this room. You do not tell a parent in the special care room that their baby is not going to make it.”

She flushed, violently, looked down, clenched her jaw, apologized in that sort of screw-you way people have.

When I got home and told the story to my wife, she said the nurse had used the same words to her.

We’ve now learned this nurse is the head of the Special Care Unit. And - quel surprise! - she has no children of her own.

Of course she holds us in contempt. We think we know anything, and we have the gall to take the baby away in the end.


But. There’s nothing as sweet as holding the little peanut, feeding her, telling her stories, and threatening her with the Jaws of Life if she doesn’t open up and take the nipple. Yesterday I made up her first story, which Sara says I can’t repeat, lest it give her nightmares. It was about a little girl who hiccupped so much that her head fell off. Bounced into the corner. The story was an adventure for the head, and how it got back on the hiccupping body. I thought it was sweet, in a luridly sort of sweet fashion. It had an evil cat, and a good stupid dog, and an O. Henry ending. Natalie’s comment at the end of the story was an audible evacuation of her bowels. Honest criticism, dealt straight. I can take that.

Fatherhood, succinctly defined: not batting an eye when someone you’ve known for three days takes a dump in your hand.

It’s a manly thing, feeding your baby. You just have to see it the same way you’d see a rifle. This is my baby. There are many like it but this is my own. You learn to clean it and reassemble the parts in the dark. Name it. Actually, it’s not manly at all, but who cares? It’s fun. Time evaporates, the nature of the day dissolves; it’s just you and the baby and the bottle and the soft wheedling pleas: one more gulp, come on, that’s it, here’s the bottle, yum yum, it’s a fine product of the Simulac conglomerate, it’s flavored with iron, oh, so good, it has Beatrix Potter on the label so it’s quaintly nutritious, it’s 70 percent mom-sauce, too, drink up, that’s a girl.

And she takes what appears to be most of it - and then you upend the bottle, and find there’s still 25 cc to go. That nipple hides a ton of formula. Or, it’s a trick bottle. One of those novelty store items. They ought to come out with a combination trick bottle / nudie pen / dribble glass, just to keep the ward in stitches. Or course, every bottle is a dribble glass. Makes me realize that one of the advantages of adulthood is the ability to take fluids without having it all roll down the sides of your neck into your collar. Unless you’re doing shots, that is.

And eight years ago, I was doing shots. I was sitting in a bar called Dick Head’s in Houston; it was where the reporters had the end-of-the-convention party. Everyone had been reduced to drooling idiocy by Jello shots, which is a very undignified way to go. Then tequila got involved. French toast made a brief appearance in a brightly lit location; then back to the Holiday Inn. The French toast made a slightly prolonged appearance in another brightly lit location, this one a little more echoey. That was then: heaving HCL into a bowl in a strange bright land. This is now: cradling this precious squirmy comma as she barks up supper on my shirt.

I have put away childish things, for now I have this thing called a child. That’s in the Bible, I think.

I’m babbling worse than Nat. Because I’m so very, very, very