This newspaper column first ran in December of 2006. It is the story of the birth of our first child who would, today, be celebrating his 46th birthday.
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The pains were 3 minutes apart and the weather was terrible. Snow on the ground had never been unusual in December so it was not unexpected but we sure didn’t need it on this day. My wife, Susie, was on the telephone with her mother describing the pains and I was pacing the floor because I didn’t have anything else to do. Everything was done.
I looked in the baby’s room where Susie’s overnight bag sat just inside the door where I could grab it at a moment’s notice. The freshly sanded and painted bassinet, with it’s yellow skirt and white dust ruffle, hand made by Susie, stood in the corner. The lamp with the cute little animals marching around the lampshade cast it’s glow on the polished top of the chest of drawers where the 2 dozen white cloth diapers were stacked neatly. The chest was my pride and joy. After I had sanded and painted the whole thing, Susie had attached Alphabet blocks in place of the normal drawer pulls. I didn’t think there was a neater chest in the whole city.
An unopened bottle of black olives sat next to the lamp waiting to be opened after Susie’s return from the hospital. I had bought them the morning after Thanksgiving as a peace offering to her after I had made her cry when we had set down with her family to our holiday dinner. While the rest of the folks around the table were loading their plates with turkey and all the trimmings, Susie, 8 months pregnant with our first child, had skipped everything else and dumped the chafing dish full of black olives on her plate. She was eating them one by one and I told her she had to eat something else as well.
“I can’t help it.” She said, the tears already starting to flow. I was a 25 year old man who had no experience dealing with pregnant women and any emotional imbalances they might be suffering. Much to my dismay, the looks I got from Susie’s 6 sisters as well as her mother told me I’d better back off. I did.
The bottle of olives had sat in the baby’s room while I was sprucing up the walls with new, lead free paint. The recent disclosures that paint loaded with lead could be harmful to babies had me reading fine print on everything I brought into the house.
We had picked the yellow color on the walls since it was suitable for either sex.
“You know what?” I had said to Susie the day I was painstakingly using a tiny brush to touch up the white ceiling where I’d gotten bits of yellow paint.
“I bet I could make a million dollars if I could figure out some way to predict the sex of babies before they’re born.”
“Right. And how would you go about doing that?”
“Don’t have the foggiest notion.”
“I don’t think people would want to know anyway. I know I wouldn’t.”
“Me neither.” I said agreeably, concentrating on the paint brush in my hand.
My thoughts of paint, olives and gender predictions were interrupted when Susie walked out of the bedroom, suitcase in hand and announced “Time to go.” How could she be so calm?
I took the suitcase from her and guided her to the car. I had mapped out the route to the hospital weeks ago, making daily dry runs on the primary course and averaging the times down to the seconds so I could have a pretty good idea how long it would take to get there. I also had two alternate routes laid out but they were to be used only if some sort of disaster had the primary route blocked.
There were no disasters in our vicinity that evening of December 20th, 1965 and we reached the hospital in 16 minutes and 14 seconds; 22 seconds better than my fastest practice run.
It was a long night. I spent several hours holding Susie’s hand in the labor room and when they finally took her to the delivery room, my job was done because men were not allowed in there.
I spent a frightened hour or so, pacing up and downRitter Avenuein the snow, smoking one cigarette after another. I went back inside to see how things were going and met the doctor in the hall. We had a boy, he told me and Susie was doing fine. I excitedly told him we were naming the baby John but he interrupted me to tell me there was a problem with our son. He had been born with a cleft palate but he assured me it was repairable. We would just have to wait until the baby was older.
I had no idea what he was talking about. I needed to talk to Susie and let her know what had happened. When I walked into her room, I could tell from the tear stained cheeks that she already knew. Neither of us really knew what this birth defect was all about but we assured one another we would get it taken care of.
We took John home in a few days after lessons on feeding him. He was such a good baby. Unlike the babies of our friends, he never cried but feeding him was a constant chore for Susie because he choked so easily. She persevered however and John began to grow. He wasn’t doing things other babies were though, so when we went for his one year checkup, I asked why. Tests were scheduled and taken. A week or so later, a very serious Dr. Kirkhoff, John’s pediatrician, sat us down in his office and told us that John would never be like other children. In addition to the Cleft Palate, he had also been born with Cerebral Palsy and would be mentally and physically challenged.
That was forty five years ago when we sat down to be told that our lives would be forever altered but not like one might think. As it turned out, the alteration was difficult at times but for the most part, it was a good one. John was a wonderful little boy with a constant smile on his face. He wasn’t immobile either. He never learned to walk but he could scoot across a floor faster than any of his 3 younger siblings. When he wasn’t scooting, he was busy teaching our other kids how to clap. Taking their hands in his, he would sit in his wheelchair clapping his hands to the beat of the music emanating from the radio. I expect he would still be at it but he died midway through his 26th year, the victim of advancing scoliosis that put too much strain on his lungs and his heart.
Today, the 21st of December, John would be 46. Every year about this time, I wonder what he might have been like had he just been a regular kid. I look at his brothers and his sister and try to see him in one of them. Which of their traits would he have had? He could have been an artist like his mom. He might also have been a musician; it was obvious he loved music. Of course, there was also the chance that being my son, he might not have been able to carry a tune in a bucket.
Even though I periodically speculate on what John might have been, I realize it’s a useless exercise because I always come to the same conclusion. It doesn’t matter. But there is something that does. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I now realize just how lucky we were to have him in our lives for the time that we did.
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If there any 46 year olds out there who happen to stumble over this posting, could you let me know what kind of life you have had. I’m not maudlin or anything like that. Just curious about what John’s life might have been like through the eyes of his peers.