First Born

Not Bev­er­ly Hills

Right after we moved to Los Ange­les in the sum­mer of 1975, my wife seemed tired all the time. Cindy told me what she thought was wrong. I sat in the lob­by while the doc­tor exam­ined her. When she came out of his office, she was smil­ing. “I’m preg­nant,” she said.

We’d arranged to have lunch that day with the Lath­am lawyer who gave me my job offer. As I drove from Bev­er­ly Hills toward the restau­rant in down­town Los Ange­les, the prospect of hav­ing a child occu­pied my thoughts. Cindy was dis­tract­ed, too, I guess, because we rode along in silence.

Where are we?” Cindy said, after a long time.

I looked around. Graf­fi­ti-cov­ered build­ings and a chain-link fence topped with rolled barbed wire lined one side of the street; ram­shackle hous­es with board­ed up doors and win­dows on the oth­er.

We’re not in Bev­er­ly Hills,” I said in a hol­low voice.

I’d appar­ent­ly dri­ven through down­town into a bombed-out neigh­bor­hood. It didn’t look safe, but we were in no dan­ger of attract­ing the atten­tion of bad guys. Our mus­tard-col­ored Pin­to sta­tion wag­on hadn’t been washed since Vir­ginia; the stench of cat urine assault­ed any­one with­in ten feet of it; and its front end bore the imprint of a tele­phone pole. Our sporty ride fit right in.

I found my way back to the restau­rant. We met our friend and told him the news. When he toast­ed us, I dropped a glass of ice water in my lap.

You seem stressed,” he said, grin­ning.

I grew more rat­tled as my role as a prospec­tive dad took shape. Back in 1953, when my moth­er went into labor, Dad drove her to the hos­pi­tal, dropped her off, and came home. About 3 a.m. the phone rang. “Yeah . . . Great . . . Thanks.” Dad told me I had a baby broth­er, and we went back to bed.

Cedars Sinai 1975

Mom said she didn’t remem­ber any­thing about the birth. “They wheeled me into a room and put me to sleep. When I woke up, they hand­ed me a baby boy.”

Times had changed by 1975. Dads didn’t go home and wait for a call. They were expect­ed to be present in the labor and deliv­ery rooms. This didn’t seem like a great idea to me. At Cedars Sinai, the hos­pi­tal where our child would be born, a dad faint­ed in the deliv­ery room, gash­ing his head on the cor­ner of a steel cart and knock­ing him­self uncon­scious.

Maybe we should plan for me to stay in the wait­ing room,” I sug­gest­ed to Cindy.

I want you with me at the birth,” she said.

Right,” I said.

The deal for moms had changed, too. No more knock-out drugs. Moms remained ful­ly con­scious dur­ing deliv­ery, and a grow­ing move­ment advo­cat­ed nat­ur­al child­birth with­out any med­ica­tion, which was sup­posed to be bet­ter for the baby.

Cindy want­ed a nat­ur­al child­birth. Car­ol Bur­nett once said you could sim­u­late the pain of labor by grab­bing your low­er lip and pulling it over the top of your head.

LaMaze Class

Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.

I’m sure.”

Right,” I said.

We enrolled in La Maze class­es. The goal of the La Maze tech­nique is to block the pain of child­birth through relax­ation strate­gies and self-dis­ci­pline.

The Focal Point

We went to class­es every week. The instruc­tor said Cindy should stare at a focal point dur­ing a con­trac­tion and breathe through her mouth in short rhyth­mic bursts, mak­ing a lit­tle squeak­ing sound, “hee . . . hee . . . hee.” My job was to be her coach. I would set up the small stained glass medal­lion she chose for her focal point and breathe with her to help her con­cen­trate.

It sound­ed like hocus-pocus non­sense to me, but it seemed to work. In the class­es, the instruc­tor told me to grab Cindy’s leg just above the ankle and apply pres­sure while she stared at the focal point and breathed the lit­tle hee hee’s. Each week I tight­ened my grip. By Decem­ber, she could take all the pres­sure I could inflict with­out flinch­ing.

Strik­ing Dr. Going Nuts

As we approached the due date of mid-Jan­u­ary, 1976, I began to think every­thing might go well. Then the doc­tors in Cal­i­for­nia went nuts. To protest astro­nom­i­cal mal­prac­tice insur­ance pre­mi­ums, they called a state-wide one month strike begin­ning Jan­u­ary 1. We called our doc­tor in a pan­ic. He was on strike, but he told us Cedars Sinai would main­tain an insur­ance-cov­ered Ob/Gyn on duty through­out the month to deliv­er babies. We were wor­ried, but there was noth­ing we could do.

The night of Jan­u­ary 17, Cindy said it was time. Mirac­u­lous­ly, I drove her to the hos­pi­tal with­out get­ting lost. A nurse exam­ined her at 11:00 p.m. She was dilat­ed three cen­time­ters. I set up the medal­lion, and Cindy began the breath­ing reg­i­men.

Nurs­es exam­ined her through­out the night. The results were always the same. No progress. At 8:30 a.m. she was still dilat­ed only three cen­time­ters. I was exhaust­ed and hyper­ven­ti­lat­ed from coach­ing the hee hee’s, but Cindy seemed steady and deter­mined.

The con­trac­tions got stronger short­ly before nine. A cou­ple of real­ly big ones rolled through at the top of the hour. Then came an earth­quake-sized mega-con­trac­tion. Cindy closed her eyes and grabbed the bed with her fists, fight­ing the pain. Sud­den­ly, her water broke. Spec­tac­u­lar­ly. Shoot­ing through the sheets to splash against the wall at the foot of the bed.

I ran for the nurse. “Ten cen­time­ters!” she said, smil­ing ear to ear.

The deliv­ery team wheeled Cindy down the hall so fast I had to run to keep up. We banged through big dou­ble-doors into blind­ing flu­o­res­cent light and gleam­ing stain­less steel.

Amaz­ing­ly, anoth­er woman was in the midst of child­birth at that very moment, and Cedars Sinai’s only cov­ered Ob/Gyn was ful­ly occu­pied with her!

Hero­ical­ly, our doc­tor, who was wait­ing in the deliv­ery room to watch over the birth, stepped up and saved the day. With no insur­ance cov­er­age and know­ing I was a lawyer, he took his place between the stir­rups, his brown eyes smil­ing reas­sur­ing­ly above his sur­gi­cal mask.

I stood on the oth­er end of the table at Cindy’s head and held her hands.

Push,” the nurse said. Cindy squeezed my hands and pushed.

In a mir­ror perched above the table, I saw the baby’s head crown.

Our doc­tor cupped his hands. Relaxed, calm, in love with his job, he was hum­ming the song, If I Were a Rich Man.

One more big push,” the nurse said.

Despite her low­er lip being pulled well over her head long before then, Cindy hadn’t screamed once up to that point. She clenched my hands and pushed with all her strength and groaned/screamed from way down deep inside.

In the mir­ror, I saw our child slide out of the birth canal into our doctor’s gen­tle grasp.

You have a son,” he said.

Tears stream­ing into my mask, I kissed Cindy’s fore­head, so proud of her.

They cleaned up our baby and Cindy held him in her arms. I’ll nev­er for­get her smile.

Lat­er, they placed him in a warm­ing tray. I stood beside it and looked down at him. He stuck his left foot up in the air and made lit­tle cir­cles with it.

I was for­ev­er changed in that moment. I still was, and would always be, the child of my par­ents, but that morn­ing I became much more. I became a father.


Post Script: I stood beside Cindy in the deliv­ery room twice more. Each birth was mag­i­cal.

A gen­er­a­tion lat­er, I got lost on the way to the hos­pi­tal in the mid­dle of the night, but I man­aged to find the place just before Cindy and I became Granny and Papaw.