No arc could describe the trajectory of the day. We arrived at the hospital awash in emotions bright as a teenager’s. We smiled through the apprehension of “there’s no going back now.” Of course, that sense was entirely illusory; there’d been no going back since even before the pregnancy test announced “YES” on an August-hot afternoon. There was the kid-on-Christmas-morning excitement as we wondered whether we’d soon meet our son or daughter. But there was the occasional nag, that hangnail of the soul of knowing that doctors had discovered a problem in our child’s chest—fluid surrounding his right lung.
That fluid, some unknown liquid, drove the doctors to decide to induce labor a bit more than a week before our child’s due date. Were it not for that fluid, I’d have been in Denver, my wife relaxing at home. On the ultrasound it appeared as a black L-shaped space in the chest, innocuous to all but the trained eye. To me, it seemed an absence, like something missing, the place on the car where the wheel used to be. How much trouble could it cause? Even the briefest survey was the stuff of nightmares and whole bottles of wine: mal-formed lungs, abnormalities in the heart, Down’s Syndrome.
But if cycling has taught me anything, it’s that life is about playing the odds. Train hard enough, race enough, and soon enough you’ll throw your arms up in victory. More applicable is how we all know that playing in traffic can mean getting hit by a car but in a year of riding you’re more likely to stay upright than not. The odds, as they say, run in our favor.
Human beings are the same way. Our biology is as resilient as rubber and as remarkable as Bach. In 100 clones of our baby, we might only get one with the unmistakable eye spacing of Down’s. One might have a heart like a broken watch and another might possess the lungs of a popped balloon. Nearly all would be fine, normal as sunshine.
All our hopes for the natural path of a labor disappeared with that first dose of misoprostal. Because our first son delivery was induced, we’d hoped this time to experience mother nature’s version of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Giveaway, that knock at the door that tells you the big day has arrived. The reality is that a seven-syllable condition trumps every parent’s birth plan. So we waited.
We reminisced about our son Philip’s birth, something that was easy to do because we were in the very same delivery room. We slept in fitful naps that did little to refresh us. Later, defenses down, with our nurse we counted off the different ways a night with alcohol can go wrong; there were at least four different kinds of spins based on what we could remember of nights that are, to tell the truth, better left forgotten.
Initially, the idea that we knew what day our baby would be delivered was a comfort. It cut down on some of the variables we faced. Shopping for a car seems a good deal less daunting if you’re certain you’re going to buy another Honda Accord. The actual circumstance proved much less decisive; my wife’s labor lasted more than 24 hours. After about 18 hours we couldn’t help but acknowledge that we felt as if we were in a Twilight Zone of labor where we might spend eternity with contractions continuing to come every three minutes but a baby’s emergence staying tantalizingly out of reach.
To break the boredom and remind ourselves of the lives our friends were still living, we checked Facebook between contractions, read encouraging words for momma and scoped all the bragging about who swung the wood at the day’s training rides.
Ah yes, the bike. Wouldn’t that be fun? But who could think of the bike at a time like this? I didn’t have a hard effort in me, but there was no denying I had missed riding for the last three days. Thinking about the bike and knowing what a central role it plays in my life served as a barometer for my emotions, my fierce allegiance to my wife and my unborn child. There was no other place to be. Not to be there would require a coma or death. My bike wouldn’t miss me and the group rides that I missed this week would happen next week, right on schedule.
But those rides were in the future. The future. What might it hold? Between my imagination and that next group ride was the birth of a child. That would change everything, but how big is everything? Would this be a routine birth with a normal baby? Would this be a challenging birth with some hangups? Would this have complications and go Caesarian? Would our child have some sort of profound disability, one that would require so much effort cycling’s position in my priorities would shift, knocked rungs down the ladder of importance into a once-loved hobby?
In a day full of interventions, what brought our child to us was a decisive finger, the Little Dutch Boy in reverse. With less than an hour to go—if my memory is correct—we met the neonatologist who informed us our child was to be whisked away on birth and cared for in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU.
What the what?
Between contractions I was on the phone with friends to find someone who could pick up my mother-in-law and deliver her to the hospital so that Shana wouldn’t be alone when I followed the child to the NICU.
With a final push our child emerged. I stood on tip-toes to get a look at the slimy purple squirm and cried out to my wife, “It’s a boy!” Last time I cut the umbilical cord but this time there was an urgency to everyone present. Even as he made his initial cry, the doctor cut his umbilical and handed him to the neonatologist.
We had yet to touch him. Why was everyone working so quickly? The began to clean him on the warmer and what I didn’t notice immediately was he had stopped crying. Above him, I watched the screen with his vital signs. I didn’t need anyone to explain which was heart rate, which was blood pressure. I watched 160 drop to 140, then 120. Instinctively, I found a spot between my wife and the screen of the warmer so she couldn’t see it. The numbers kept dropping. It was dropping faster than I could comprehend, so by the time I was nervous that his heart rate was less than 100, he was dropping below 80. My resting heart rate has always been low, but this occasion subverted all the joy I see in recognizing a low heart rate. Babies run high, but our son’s rate continued to plummet. The neonatologist was working feverishly to intubate him, that is, add a breathing tube. The fluid volume in his chest, I would find out later, was too great to allow his right lung to inflate properly. And because he couldn’t catch his breath, his body was shutting down less than 180 seconds after being born.
Without intervention, our son would code. I was watching what the death of a newborn looks like. I was watching our son die.
But they got the tube down him and began breathing for him with a bag valve mask. And with that they transferred him to a neonatal incubator and rolled him from the delivery room and down the hall to the NICU. Mayflower movers wish they were so efficient.
I still had yet to touch him. Ditto for my wife.
Did I touch him while he was in the NICU at the delivery hospital or did I have to wait until he was moved to another hospital with a more elaborate and robust NICU? I can no longer recall.
All parents know that touch is crucial in bonding with a newborn in those first moments of life. It’s a fundamental part of the experience, beer to pizza. Every hour that passed that neither my wife nor I touched our son left me feeling anxious and guilty. The experience alone was disorienting, but the feeling that there was something I was supposed to be doing and wasn’t—through no fault of my own—had the confounding effect of frustrating me even as an inner voice chastised me for inaction. But what action could I take?
In honor of his birthday, 2/22, we nicknamed him The Deuce. It also fit given that he’s our second born, and because I felt like his was already getting a second shot at life.
But the nickname was only a placeholder. When our first son was born we realized that none of the names we picked out ahead of time seemed to fit. We had to go through an elaborate bit of paperwork and pinky swears before the hospital would discharge us without having yet named him. We promised we’d come up with a name for him in the next 72 hours and would be back with paperwork filled out.
Having glimpsed the Deuce’s mortality so vividly, I felt a keen responsibility to get him named. It struck me that were something to happen, the clichéd “turn for the worse,” burying a child that never had a name in life would be a tragedy of monumental proportion, a true parenting fail. My wife wondered why the hospital administrators hadn’t started hounding us about the name. I had to point out the obvious: He hadn’t been released.
In fairly short order we arrived at Matthew. There have been a number of men in both our families that were given names beginning with the letter “M.” Choosing Matthew was a way to honor each of them without favoring one over another.