For months I wondered, tried to imagine what Penelope was going to look like. It was hard to picture which combination of whose features she would come out with. I couldn't do it. No one can. Now that she's here, I can't imagine her looking any other way. She's perfect.
From her tiny feet, wrinkled and blue as if she were an aging Smurf, all the way up to her sweet little face, so round and soft like a freshly-picked peach, I wouldn't change a thing. Did you expect to hear anything else? Those little feet do resemble the talons on a bird of prey, ready to grab a fleeing mouse for a quick meal. And those little feet, unfortunately, also resemble the same much larger appendages attached to her father's ankles. A big toe so massive it makes the other four cower in its presence. Bullying them for their lunch money. But they're hers. And they're impeccable. When I saw those feet, that toe, I knew she was my girl.
I am on record as being one of those people who is brutally honest about babies who look a little beaten up at first, and now I will be about my own. Her pointy head reminded me of one of those aerodynamic helmets that cyclists wear. But the hat fixed that. And in those first few hours those luscious lips of hers looked more Bubba than Jenny, if we were casting for "Forest Gump." But she's already grown into them, like a young boy grows into a baseball glove.
Coincidentally, it was Penelope's growth, or lack thereof, that brought us to the hospital that fateful day. Remember all of that stuff I mentioned a month or so ago about "normal" and "average?" Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the delivery room. It turns out, during one doctor's visit a few weeks back, we learned Penelope was on the small side. That she hadn't grown in a week. She was less Thanksgiving turkey and more Cornish game hen. Maybe she wasn't eating enough. Already trying to be America's Next Top Model.
We were told the baby was fine, but if any symptoms appeared that might put her in distress (scary word), they would induce, to avoid any problems. So my wife had to schlep to the Upper East Side an additional two times per week for testing. And everything was normal. There's that word again. Normal. Until this past Tuesday, when my wife's blood pressure was slightly high. That's when our doctor told us, "You're going to have your baby tomorrow." Come again? What if I'm busy tomorrow?
We managed to clear our schedules, arrived at the hospital bright and early for Penelope's induction ceremony, and proceeded to wait. And wait. And wait. For 6 hours. Fittingly, the song that I couldn't get out of my head that morning: "Waiting For the World To Change" by John Mayer. Oh, there's that irony once again. It turns out, there was a baby boom that day. And they needed to get all of the women who were actually presently in labor into rooms, before they purposely put another woman in labor.
When they finally had a room for us, it wasn't a birthing suite. We were put in recovery, with the women who had just undergone C-sections. Hello, awkward! Our doctor was so furious that they had made us wait, and even had considered sending us home, she personally came from her office to get things rolling herself. That was at one in the afternoon. She set my wife up with a drug to make her cervix disappear. Appropriately enough, to pass the time as it vanished, we watched "The Illusionist," starring Edward Norton, on our laptop. It was then we learned that our doctor had an ulterior motive to get Penelope out today. She was taking her citizenship test in the morning.
There is, however, something both poetic and paradoxical about a woman who has brought hundreds if not thousands of American citizens into this world not being one herself. There’s something magical about this place we call home that someone who has accomplished all she has professionally, would want to also achieve that one thing personally. I for one am proud that we now have that in common. She is an amazing doctor who was always honest with us, and never steered us wrong. Even if she did ultimately choose our baby's birthday based on her personal schedule. In all seriousness, she always put my wife's and Penelope's health first.
We were told that drug could take up to 12 hours. It didn't. The contractions started to roll in like high tide about 2 hours in. At around 6 PM, Dr. Jin returned, told us we would have a room soon, and then said excitedly, through her Chinese accent, "I can't wait to meet your baby!"
When they finally got us into a room, it was the VIP suite, the room Donald Trump wanted his wife to deliver their baby in. But money can't buy you babies. That room was already occupied when she went into labor. But here we were, in the room The Donald couldn't get into, overlooking the 59th Street Bridge and the FDR Drive. A city of ants bustling below us, awaiting the arrival of yet another miniature worker.
Shortly thereafter, my wife experienced what would ultimately be the most painful part of the whole ordeal: the breaking of the water. Apparently, it can be done manually, like squeezing a water balloon too tightly during a game of toss at a backyard birthday party. Only this time, the level of discomfort is not measured by how much of the exploding balloon douses you. If I never see that look on my wife's face again, it will be too soon. Red and twisting, neck arched backwards and muscles throbbing. Grasping my hand tightly enough to force me to employ the breathing techniques we learned in Lamaze myself. But she soldiered through it like an athlete getting a separated shoulder popped back in during a big game. She even told a joke during it: "I guess this is the price I pay for getting the VIP room!" That sense of humor is one of many reasons why I love her so much.
We were ready for almost any scenario during labor. We are notorious over-packers. We take ski boots to the beach. So through all of this waiting, through all of these moves from room to room, I was hauling four - count 'em four - bags. One contained her clothes and the baby's. One little duffel for me. The laptop for movies, blogging, and to store magazines. And the fourth filled with labor tools. There were no socket wrenches in there. Not those kind of tools. We came with every type of food imaginable. Snacks that were sweet, salty, healthy, refreshing. You name it. Granola bars. Chex mix. Gatorade. Lollipops. What did she eat? None of it. She couldn't eat before or during the time she was getting that first drug. Torture.
It was also packed with iPod speakers, back massagers, Chap Stick because her lips get dry from all of that breathing, washcloths (one to cool her her face, one to soak in water and suck on if she became nauseous). All of you dads-to-be should be writing this stuff down. Our approach: better to have too much than not enough. Actually, that's more my wife's approach. She was not the one lugging all of this stuff around like a vagabond with a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans.
But our stay as VIPs wasn't long, because more babies were coming. There was a steady stream of miserable-looking women at that check-in station from the moment we entered to the time our baby was born. My theory: the Vacation Procreation Theory. Most couples conceive over the summer (like we did) or during the holidays (like our parents did with us), when they're not working. That's why there are so many March and August babies. Think about it. How many people do you know with birthdays during those months? See? It's all about Vacation Procreation.
So they needed the spacious VIP room to partition off to put more moms who had just delivered. Once we moved into a smaller birthing room, my wife got her epidural. She was planning all along to get one, but hadn't asked for it because she told me the pain was manageable, and she didn't want to get it 'too soon.' That's apparently a myth. We were told you can't get it too soon, or too late. Dr. Jin said she can get it whenever. "How 'bout 8 o'clock?" Like she was making an appointment for a manicure. So did the nurse. "What's the point of lying there in pain?" It was as if Bob Dylan was in the corner singing "Rainy Day Woman."
"EVERYbody must get stoned..."
I left the room, since they don't want a squeamish husband freaking out as a doctor is plunging a giant needle into his wife's spine. Good policy. Then we sat back, and watched "American Idol" and reruns of "Growing Pains." Actually, if Penelope ends up with the brains of Carol Seaver and the voice of Kelly Clarkson, I'd be fine with that.
Dr. Jin then came in and told us she was going to start my wife on the second drug that induces labor, because the contractions were coming sporadically. "You're dysfunctional,” she told my wife. I said, "What do you mean, you haven't even met her family!" She laughed. She actually got that one! Then told us that dysfunctional means the contractions were not coming regularly. See? Once again, I'm entertaining AND informing.
After that, she told us to settle in for the long haul, because my wife was only 3 centimeters dilated. You start pushing at 10. In the meantime, I was tracking the arc of the contractions on the monitor like contestants on "The Price Is Right" follow that Swiss mountain climber guy up that cardboard peak. Oh-dee-doo-dee-doh. C'mon, you know the tune. Every time I saw one starting, I would announce it, like the President of the United States gets announced for the State of the Union Address. "Ladies and Gentleman, I give you, another contraction." My wife would respond dryly: "I know." And a roll of the eyes.
She still felt the pressure of the contractions, and a bit of discomfort, just not any pain. My job: to get her through them. Let her know how great she was doing as they got stronger, how the worst was behind her once they reached their summit, and to take a deep breath when they were ending. That's when you pour on the compliments and affection. And follow it up with an offer of water or ice chips. Mmmmmm. At the same time, I'm eating chicken wings and macaroni salad. I need comfort food when I'm nervous.
She had the button to increase her epidural if she was feeling a spike in pain, so we turned down the lights and tried to get some sleep. Assuming, of course, that Penelope would be here sometime around 5 or 6 in the morning. After all, we had been up since 5 AM, and were potentially going to be up for 24 hours straight. The nurse had moved my wife onto her side, to get a better read on the baby's heart rate. After a couple of hours, my wife wanted to shift sides. She asked me if it was OK, and I almost annoyingly sighed a half-hearted "Go ahead," and nodded back off to sleep. Way to go, coach!
So she buzzed the nurse, who then helped her change positions. Then Dr. Jin came meandering in like a kid at the mall on a Friday Night with nothing to do. I guess the baby boom had leveled off. "Let me just see how far along you are." Then, out of nowhere, a phrase that still echoes in my mind and gets my heart racing even as I am about to write it. "Oh my God, there's the head!" That's right, young Penelope was locked out of the house, knocking at the door, and mommy and daddy couldn't hear because they were sleeping!
Dr. Jin was giddy, as if that same kid at the mall had just found out his parents were leaving town for the weekend. "Justin, come and look at the head! It's right here." "No, thanks, why don’t you just go get it and bring it to me?" I told you I cringe at the thought of most bodily functions and the site of almost any human fluid.
Still, Dr. Jin was amazed at the situation. My wife dilated 7 centimeters in an hour and a half! That's crazy! "You might have this baby without me," our doctor said. Well, get dressed, for God sakes. Put on your booties, your smock, your Buck Rogers goggles, and get behind the plate to call those balls and strikes! Let's play ball! We already have one comedian in the room! I fill the quota. Put on your scrubs and your space boots and get to work!
In a matter of 90 seconds, she and the nurse were ready for delivery. BUT WAIT! I had to pee. I knew I wouldn't have the chance to go after the birth, what would you do? Plus, I'm anal about washing my hands. I had to do that anyway.
When I came out, my wife was calm, but concerned. "Should I boost my epidural since I'm going to start pushing soon?" "No," Dr. Jin said, "you're going to have this baby in 5 minutes." Another sentence that keeps playing over and over in my mind, giving me goose bumps every time I think about it. We looked at each other, and traded the same stunned expression. After months of waiting, wondering, worrying, anticipating, not knowing, hoping, preparing, reading, educating, questioning, bickering, loving, helping, laughing, buying, and praying, there was no turning back.
No more 'are you going to put that together' or 'are you going to read that book' or 'are you going to hang those shelves.' No more 'we have to fill out the registry,' or 'we have to pick a stroller,' or 'we have to tell our parents we don't want anyone at the hospital for the birth.' Oh yeah, that was a biggie! Nope. All the books were read, all the gadgets were bought and assembled, all of the necessary parties were waiting by their respective phones, in differing states of consciousness and hysteria.
I jumped in there like a Gentile who was thrust into the chair dance at a Jewish wedding (which I've done before: "You're strong, get in there and don't drop my dad!" Yeah, no pressure). Apprehensive, but excited. And I have to come clean, there was what felt like a minute, but might not have been more than ten seconds, when I didn't think I could stay. It must have been some combination of nerves, nausea, and excitement. I felt dizzy, faint, and smelled something funny. Must have been the thing you smell before you pass out. A mixture of rotten eggs and bubble gum. Don't ask me why.
But I rallied. There was no time to think about myself. And I didn't want to be 'that guy' who missed his baby's birth because he was wiped out on the floor. I snapped back into the moment, and heard the nurse say "The next contraction, you're going to take two deep breaths, and on the third, don't exhale, just push. Like you're going to the bathroom. Three times, for ten seconds each." I grabbed her right leg, the nurse grabbed the left. We looked in each other's eyes. I said "You're gonna do this, and you're gonna be great." And I believed it. And she knew.
It was all over in a matter of minutes. First contraction, the head came out half way. Second, Penelope was here! And I couldn't help myself. I actually looked! But I hedged my gaze just enough so that the special area on my wife's body that looks a certain way, in my mind at least, can remain that way, in my mind at least.
There was my daughter, her torso out like she was peeking through a door. I said, "Oh my God, honey, it's Penelope! She's here!" Seconds later, the mouth was cleared, the baby cried, and was on my wife's belly. Surreal. Euphoria. They haven't yet invented the word to describe it.
She let out a little howl. So did my wife. "Hi sweetheart," and then a little sob. A happy sob. The most heartwarming moment I have ever witnessed in my life.
"Are you going to cut the cord?" I didn't hesitate. "Absolutely." My wife said, "Really?" So did I a little, to myself. Are you kidding me? Not complete the trifecta of staying upright, watching the birth, and cutting the cord? As a father, and a writer, I was symbolically freeing that child from her mother's womb, and welcoming her into the world. The nurse warned me, "It's tough, you might have to use two hands." No, I don't. I've got more adrenaline than a baseball player on a record-breaking home run streak. One hand. One snip. That baby's mine.
I stood there, frozen in amazement. Not sick. Just stunned. And happy. Very happy. I followed the nurse into the other room where she cleaned the baby off, making sure not to snap any gross, unnecessary pictures. It was a one person assembly line. Hat on head. Take the temperature. Shot of Vitamin K. SCREEEEAAAAM! Clamp on cord. Diaper. Weigh. Measure. Footprint. Security bracelet. OK, she's passed inspection, here you go.
And there I was, in a moment I had imagined since well before we were pregnant. I was holding my child. I was giddy. But I composed myself. "It is so nice to finally meet you." Then I calmed and comforted her, got her to stop crying. That made me feel like I could do anything. I had the power of a Greek God, and was giving my daughter a Greek name.
Then Dr. Jin grabbed the camera, and transformed from Medicine Woman, to Ansel Adams. She took what felt like dozens of pictures of me with the baby, then the three of us. Then she went to show us her handy work, and couldn't figure out how to set the camera to view mode. Here’s a woman at the forefront of her profession, one of the top obstetricians in New York, and she can’t work a digital camera from Best Buy. You can’t make this stuff up!
Then we were alone. Just the three of us. We couldn't believe it. She was here. In our arms. I was so proud. Not of me. Of them. My beautiful daughter. And my amazing, incredible wife. For getting through this. For doing it with very little complaining, and even less crying.
I find it difficult to write cards for my wife. Often I feel like I have run out of glowing words to describe how I feel about her, and how our relationship has developed for nearly 10 years now. Well, after witnessing what she accomplished in the early morning hours of Thursday March 8, 2007, I am adding a new word to the list: hero. I have never thought of her that way. Until now.
I am infatuated with her to begin with, but after seeing her performance that life-altering night, I have reached a new level of respect, admiration and love for her. I didn't think it was possible to love her any more. And it's a level I don't see myself coming down from anytime soon. I never doubt it, but she continues to prove to me, just by being herself, why I married her. She is the embodiment of grace and courage in the face of adversity. I will never look at my wife again and not think about what she did, and how she did it, and just marvel at what a strong, focused, remarkable woman she is. And what an extraordinary mother she is going to be.
Hooray, Hooray! Welcome to the world, Penelope Mae! We're ecstatic to have you. And I'm just as ecstatic to have the both of them.