And The Birds Were Singing

Home birth is not for everybody, but it was for us from the get-go. Here’s the story of our first one – our oldest, our high school graduate, our Ben.

I wasn’t a nurse yet, so when Nancy suggested we have our baby at home, I wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed a bit nuts – a little too granola for me, and that’s coming from someone who came of age in Boulder, Colorado, granola-central – but what did I know? I was still gettin00000294g used to being married, after all, let alone becoming a father, and it was Nancy who was going to be doing the work. If she wanted to have a hippie birth, that was fine by me.

Besides, all of our friends were doing home birth back then. It’s probably de rigueur there now, but back then it was all part of a particular “hom-ish” brand of Catholicism that we aspired to as newlyweds: Home birth for the babies, and then homeschool once they got old enough. After my stint as a hospice nurse years later, our homish loyalties came full circle, and we decided to embrace home death when that time came eventually. Birth, death, schooling in between – a home trifecta, womb to tomb!

But I digress. We’re still at the birth end of things, the first of what we hoped would be dozens. Please keep in mind that I was a rookie husband from a small family (one older brother and one younger sister) with very little experience in the world of babies. As a Catholic convert, I had taken to heart the idea that marriage meant generously welcoming new lives as God sent them, so I was all on board for family as an expected corollary of the wedding day syllogism. Yet, aside from the basics of biology, and what the midwife had explained to us, I had no idea what to expect as far as the birthing process itself. And, to tell the truth, I didn’t even really pay attention to what the midwife said. Pretty much I was flying blind.

So that night, 19 years ago now, when Nancy told me it was time, I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do. “Must call midwife,” I mumbled to myself. Or maybe it was Nancy mumbling it to me. Or rather suggesting strongly. Insisting.

Anyway, I did call her, and she hit the road. We were on the eastern edge of Ohio; Freida, our midwife, was in the middle of Amish country, about 90 minutes away. “I’ll be there as fast as I can,” she said. Right.

In the interim, I made one mistake after another – doing the wrong thing, then not doing the right thing, saying something stupid, and then not saying something when something was required. I either didn’t get the manual, or I just plumb forgot to read it. Everything was happening all at once, it seemed, or at a crawl. We were in a state of suspended animation, waiting on the midwife. Home birth is em1958405_10152382393094034_2340008002576282336_npowering to women, no doubt, but for your first one? You want the expert on hand.

Freida got there, and expertly, efficiently took matters in hand, gave me orders, and began attending to Nancy. In between contractions, Freida read Psalms aloud and prayed. During contractions, she comforted and encouraged. I was silent and in awe, afraid a little, but mainly bewildered. This was so tremendous, so immediate and tactile, so real. Is this something I was experiencing in the moment? Wasn’t I just watching it, like a documentary? Was I an observer or a participant?

Then Nancy’s * SQUEEZE * on my hand, and I shook my head awake. I didn’t much to do at that point, but drifting off into philosophical roundabouts was not an option.

The night and the labor unfolded together, and just at daybreak, our son was born. As if on cue, birds gathered on the tree branches just outside our second-story alley apartment and started to sing. I kid you not. Right at the moment Nancy delivered her first baby into the world, the world reacted with a glorious homegrown anthem. “Alleluia,” the birds declared that May morning. “God’s image, yet again, and still a new one, a new one, a new one!”

Yes, a son – our son! Nancy had been a mother for nine months, culminating in that mysterious conflation of anguish and elation that seems to be childbirth – and she managed to carry it off as if she’d been doing it her whole life, with grace and courage and calm determination. However, my role as a father was somehow theoretical and undefined until that moment when I met my son face to face. It was the dividing line, the watershed, the visceral marker of paternal transformation.

Suddenly, it was glaring: I had work to do.

But what work? We had a home, and there was food in the fridge. Nancy was recovering quickly, and our boy seemed to be perfectly fine. I felt like I ought to be doing something; I required a task, a mission. Like the film version of Jane Austen’s Colonel Brandon, I needed “an occupation,” or I feared I’d “run mad.”

In a day or two, I got one: Ben’s complexion yellowed like a lemon. “Sounds like infant jaundice,” Freida told us when we called, and she gave me my task. “Take your baby outside and hold him up to the sun.”

“That’s all there is to it?” I asked.

“Yup,” she replied. “That should do the trick.”

So, while Nancy rested, I took Ben outside into the bright sunshine, and lifted him up. I felt like 983679_10152369779509034_9099952338263042065_nRafiki elevating the infant Simba before the assembled crowd at Pride Rock, and, sure enough, within a minute or two, the neighbors gathered around to take in the sight and lend some credence to my imagined metaphor.

“Your baby?” someone asked.

“Yes,” I confirmed. “My son.”

“Congratulations,” came the reply. “When was he born?”

“Yesterday.”

“Yesterday? And you’re home already?”

“We never left home.”

That took some explaining. Meanwhile, Ben soaked up the sun, and the bilirubin burned away. I did nothing, really – it was God’s sun, after all – but I still felt like I’d accomplished something very dad-like that day: Taking counsel on behalf of someone in my care, and then acting accordingly.

It was my first significant lesson as a papa, and we were on our way.

And now, 19 years gone by, and my boy is a man. I wish I’d recorded those birds. It’d be a good time to revisit their celebratory anthem.

Naming Our Prince

The press and paparazzi were on pins and needles: When would the royal baby be born? How long would the labor take? Would all go well? And, of courprince georgese, the all important question: What would his name be?

George, it turns out. My money was on Edward, but Prince George it is—long live the king!

Naming rituals are important to commoners as well, and every family has its own approach. We always consulted the Catholic calendar to see if a due date coincided with a favorite saint’s feast. Whatever names were proximate to the due date—male or female—were fair game.

Well, maybe not every name.

We always ended up with a “probably not” list in addition to the favored “A” list. For example, when we found out we were pregnant with our sixth child, we determined that he’d be born in mid-October sometime. “How about Hedwig, honey?” I asked my wife after glancing at the calendar. “She’s on the 16th. Or Ignatius, on the 17th?” I knew Nancy’s naming limits—long ago she had made it clear that no son of hers would be named Bruno (or daughter for that matter). I was crushed. What dad wouldn’t want a son named Bruno? But I acquiesced, and Nancy retained the name veto in perpetuity.

Back to our sixth: Teresa, perhaps, if the birthday was the 15th? Or Luke if it was the 18th? What about the 19th—one of the North American Martyrs, maybe John or Isaac? We waited and pondered: Who would this child be?

There was nothing unusual about the pregnancy itself, and everything was in order when Nancy approached (and then rolled by [also not unusual]) the due date. Nesting was complete, supplies were at hand, and the bed double-layered and prepared. (No swimming pool, however. I was stubborn and skeptical, so Nancy didn’t get her water labor until Katharine, our seventh. But that’s another story.)

Labor commenced the night of October 16, and Lynn arrived at the ready shortly after I called her, although it seemed like forever—another “not unusual.” Time flies and stands still during a birth. It’s as if everything slows w-a-a-y down, but it all speeds up, too. Weird.

Anyway, labor progressed as normally as the pregnancy had. (Note: I realize I’m taking a liberty [as a man] in using the words “normally” and “progress” in reference to childbirth—or even talking about childbirth at all—and I acknowledge that Nancy should be telling this part of the story, for she did all the work [and marvelously, heroically so, as always], but this will have to do for now.) At some point in the wee hours of October 17, Nancy made that final push, and our baby was born—a boy! Alleluia!cececenick

He pinked up right away, and let us know he was breathing by letting out a squeak or two—no bellow or wail if I remember correctly. As Nancy cuddled with him and assisted him to latch on for the first time, the three of us settled down to get acquainted. Lynn was nearby attending to Apgar scores and the placenta. At some point, we woke up Ben, our oldest, to come meet his new brother and cut the umbilical cord.

Yet, something wasn’t quite right.

For one thing, Lynn was a bit hesitant—not her typical modus operandi during a birth, I assure you. And our baby had certain physical features that were out of whack somehow: Ears too low, for instance, and almond-shaped eyes.

Lynn finished tidying up and took leave to go chart. I broke the silence in our bedroom: “Is he alright?” Nancy answered, “I don’t know,” and then, after a brief pause, “It looks like he has Down’s.” I followed Lynn downstairs to ask her.

Do you know Lynn? Let me tell you about Lynn. She was our midwife for our last five births—prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postpartum care—so we got to know her pretty well. I can tell you without any reservation that Lynn is an extraordinary person—not just a great nurse, but truly an extraordinary person, with a soul full of tenderness and love. Those qualities were particularly important that night in October.

Extensive experience and training enabled Lynn to see immediately that our newborn son had Down syndrome—something the Apgars only reinforced. But she said nothing; she did nothing different. She went about her work as professionally and unobtrusively as she’d done throughout our previous three births with her.

And when I showed up in the kitchen with my question? She didn’t mince words—I greatly appreciated that. “He has Down’s, Rick,” she said. Simple as that—although I think her eyes were welling up a bit. Mine were, too, I’m pretty sure. In any case, I hightailed it back up to Nancy to fill her in, and we both wept over our boy.

They weren’t tears of disappointment though, or tears of anger or regret. And Lynn knew that. She knew that we welcomed our baby son no matter what—without question, absolutely, and no exceptions. This wasn’t a messed up order from Land’s End or Amazon, for God’s sake, so no thoughts of “returns” or customer complaints. He was our child, after all; and not just a child, but the very child we’d been waiting for and praying for. God had bestowed on us as an inestimable gift, and we were grateful and delighted.

Nevertheless, Down’s did present some challenges, even that first day outside the womb. There was the possibility of serious heart defects to begin with, and we had to get him a hearing test as I recall. Plus, a definitive diagnosis required a blood test, and that was important to get done right away as well. After a generous interval to allow us to process everything, Lynn gave us the lowdown on what we needed to accomplish ASAP—like an echocardiogram to rule out life-threatening heart problems.

Back up for a moment and consider this line: After a generous interval to allow us to process…. Our new gift from God wasn’t whisked away by strangers to get tested and poked and prodded; no awkward silences or downcast eyes in response to parents’ questions and pleas, “Where is our baby? Is he OK?”

No. A generous interval to get to know our new son in all his glorious particularity—just like any new baby. Home birth—and, in particular, home birth with Lynn—made it possible for a hard situation to be truly humanized. The Down syndrome was a surprise, for sure, and we knew we had a steep learning curve ahead of us. Moreover, we knew our boy (and we with him) would be facing difficulties and battles our other kids never faced. But…so what? He was our boy, and he was fiercely loved from the very beginning. Lynn knew that and incorporated it into her care.

1091154_221445288005265_569329236_oOh, and the name? As noted above, October 17 is the feast of St. Ignatius—not an option.

Instead, we chose Nicholas Matthias. Nicholas, for the patron saint of children, i.e., Santa Claus! And Matthias? Ben (the umbilical-cord-cutter) had lobbied for that name because of his favorite Redwall character, but that wasn’t the clincher. Instead, we chose it in honor of St. Matthias the Apostle, the one that took Judas’ place after the Resurrection—the one they chose by casting lots. The Eleven had narrowed it down to Matthias and another guy named Barsabbas, and Matthias lucked out.

In fact, it’s because of that selection method that some cultures consider St. Matthias’ feast the luckiest day of the year—the best day to gamble or buy lottery tickets.

I don’t know about that, but it’s certainly true that Fortune smiled on us that night in October. The Creator, the King of the universe, entrusted us with another beautiful child—indeed, a prince! Like every baby, this baby was the latest edition of God’s own image of Himself, the image of the King in our midst.

Nothing could alter that. Nothing. Deo gratias!
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