Mid-December, 1977, and it hadn’t rained in months. What a crazy year: Elvis died in August, kids went nuts over “Star Wars,” and Jimmy Carter scared everyone talking about the energy crisis. My husband and I were driving to San Francisco, just around midnight. We weren’t talking much, so we cranked up the radio. The late-night DJ had a funny bit where he played a record and then added the sound of fighter planes gunning it down. You could call in and ask him to fire away at a particular song, just for the satisfaction.
Hours before, we had been at the grocery store, putting juice and milk and bread in our cart. I could no longer reach down to grab items off the bottom shelf. Two days away from my due date, my belly got in the way of routine things like picking up the newspaper or tying my shoes. Doing what we should have done months ago, we had gone shopping for an infant seat and stroller at Sears the night before. A woman in the store looked at me and said, “You’d better hurry!”
But as the last in the lineup of women I worked with who had delivered babies that year, I got used to being patient. Eight healthy babies, and mine would be next. The nursery stood ready. I had stained all the unfinished pine furniture myself: cradle, rocking chair, dresser. I hung white curtains edged with a sunny yellow on café rods. We painted the room the color of a robin’s egg. We hung a mirror on the wall alongside the crib, and put a mobile, right where the baby could see, that played “You Are My Sunshine” when we wound it up.
I awoke that night and felt a sharp pain. I nudged my husband and said, “I think something just happened.” He is a sound sleeper and didn’t budge from his deep slumber. I nudged him again and then poked him hard. “What?” he said. “I think I might be in labor. I think…” “No, no, go back to sleep,” he said. “It’s OK.”
I waited a minute, five minutes. He’d drifted off; I could tell by his breathing. Then, another contraction and a feeling of wetness. I got up and wobbled a bit. Five more minutes, and again: a rising tightness over my belly. I flipped on the bedroom light and started grabbing my clothes. “We’d better get going. I mean it,” I said loudly, suddenly full of adrenaline. He rolled over and stared at me. “Holy shit,” he said. I looked him in the eyes and said, “You have to drive, OK?” And then realized, well, of course he would have to drive. Wide awake at last, he threw on a red and blue striped t-shirt and a pair of jeans. He splashed cold water on his face, grabbed the suitcase and his keys and said, “Let’s go have a baby!”
So there we were, on highway 101, driving from San Jose to San Francisco at midnight listening to the DJ dive bomb songs on the radio. My contractions held steady at five minutes apart. James Taylor sang “Whenever I see Your Smiling Face.” I sang along between jolts and dribbles, my brown corduroy maternity pants quite soggy by then. I had packed along my old jeans, which I would be humiliated to learn would not fit me again for several months. Nobody told me that the belly does not go away—poof—just like that when the baby is born. It was one of many things that no one told me.
With no traffic to slow us down, we made pretty good time. We hadn’t done a practice run to the hospital, and hadn’t really planned out the parking situation. My husband offered to drop me off and park, but I explained to him that there was no way in hell I would walk into the hospital in labor alone. We parked and walked together, stopping along the way so I could lean on him and breathe.
We were escorted into the birth center, a pleasant room with low light and a double bed. My nurse took a look, then handed me a gown, wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my arm, took my temperature and fired off a list of questions.
The hours ticked by. My nurse told me I could walk. Walking would help “move things along.” I wasn’t ready yet, keep walking. So we walked, up and down the fluorescent bright corridors. I wore two cotton gowns, one backward and one over it like a robe. They smelled antiseptic: clean but not especially fresh. I wore hospital socks with rubbery lines on the soles. Walking around and around the halls, I could hear what was going on in the rooms: women crying out, sometimes a baby using its lungs for the first time. I’m getting a little scared, I said, and stopped to lean against the wall and breathe. Please, I prayed silently. Let’s go.
Hours later, I learned that our new baby had failed her first test, the APGAR test. APGAR stands for Activity, Pulse, Grimace, Appearance and Respiration. They check these signs one minute after birth and then five minutes after. She received a zero on her skin color. Instead of a healthy pink, her skin, lips and fingernails were a dusky blue-gray. The doctor told us the problem could be her heart or it could be her lungs. She couldn’t say for sure. She said she wanted to send our baby across town to the intensive care nursery and that an ambulance would be ready for transport soon. She looked at my husband: you can go with her, she said, and left the two of us alone in the quiet room. We heard the rain then.
In the days that followed, I learned to draw a diagram of my daughter’s heart on a cafeteria napkin. Instead of these things being in the proper places, they were here instead, see? Transposition of the great vessels, I explained. Yes, it can be fixed.
A very tall doctor with the hands of a basketball player would operate on her heart as soon as she grew a little bigger and stronger. Her newborn heart, the size of a walnut.
On a clear, windy day in March, we brought our daughter home to the blue room with the white and yellow curtains and the rocking chair and the cradle and the “You are my Sunshine” mobile. And when she was big enough to pull herself up by holding on to the edges of her crib, she planted juicy kisses on the baby in the mirror with her perfectly pink lips.