It was the summer of 1985. Jill and I were taking the first steps into our thirties, and while our goals were still ambitious, they were no longer earthshaking. The dream of changing the world had begun to fade, and we had started to focus on the smaller world right around us. We wanted what everyone wanted: a safe home, a healthy family, a few good friends, enough money to pay the bills, and some time to enjoy it all. Measured against those criteria, we were doing well. We’d been married for almost four years, had bought a house in Connecticut, and were soon going to have a baby.
The circumstances leading up to those events, and the ordeal that followed, are the subject of a memoir I’ve recently finished. It took me nearly three decades to write The Long Hall. Not that I was working on it with anything that could be described as diligence. Mostly, I was avoiding the whole project, because it seemed like an insurmountable task to pin down the details and capture the thoughts and emotions. The truth is, I doubted that I could do it justice. The more time that slipped by, the less I wanted to go back and re-open the wounds. But it’s a story that deserves to be told, especially now that my daughter Allison is about to have a baby of her own.
The Long Hall recounts, in a series of eighty-five connected scenes, our adventures into both the mundane and the unimaginable. It’s filled with humor and heartbreak, a lot of good memories and a lot of unbearable ones, too. This excerpt is one of those scenes.
Very close to the end of the pregnancy, we were out walking near our home. Jill had been having contractions, on and off, for days, and she thought activity would hasten things along. We went to the end of our short street, then followed a path that led to the public library. We spent about an hour looking through books and magazines, until Jill got restless and wanted to go home.
Outside, the sky had darkened and about a minute from the library, it began to rain hard. It was July, so the maple trees were thick with foliage. We noticed the ground was dry under each one, and we sprinted from tree to tree. But the rain turned into a downpour. The trees soon lost their battle with the torrent, the dry ground vanished, and we were getting drenched. About halfway home we realized there was no shelter and just ran the rest of the way, screaming and laughing — pretty much the same as we had months earlier, when we first spotted the doughnut in the plastic tube. We were soaked. We undressed just inside the front door and took a shower together. Our skin was cold from the rain, and the warm water mingled with the laughter, and with the unspoken sense that we were racing toward something that was racing toward us.
A few days later we watched the movie, The Competition, on television, then left for the hospital at eleven-fifteen. Jill’s bag was already packed because we’d been through this routine at least twice, thinking she was ready to deliver, only to find out it was false labor. When a baby is ready to arrive, the mother’s body begins a series of contractions in order to push the infant out. But prior to this process there is often a practice period, a dress rehearsal of sorts. It isn’t time to deliver, but it feels like the real thing. Women refer to these early contractions as Braxton Hicks.
“She wasn’t ready to go. She was having Braxton Hicks.”
Women are born knowing about these things. Men have to listen and learn through experience, passing through several stages of decreasing ignorance before they can comprehend what’s going on. The first time I heard of Braxton Hicks, I assumed it was the name of a medical office. Then I thought it might be some kind of rash. I rarely understand anything the first time around, but I eventually made the connection with false labor.
The key point, I guess, is that you don’t know it’s Braxton Hicks at the time. You only find out when you come home without a baby. With each false alarm, it seems more and more as though the real thing will never happen, even though some part of your mind knows it must. In a strange way, it was similar to watching someone endure a long terminal illness, the way I watched my father inch slowly downhill. You may think they’re about to die, then they pull back, and for a little while seem to be heading toward recovery. Each time, there is that sense of relief, because you’re never really ready. But now the contractions were closer together and felt different. I reminded Jill that she had said that before.
“It feels different,” she said.
“That’s what you said the last time.”
“But those weren’t real. This is real.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it feels different this time.”
We called the doctors’ office and the nurse told us to get to the hospital. So this was it. Here was that car ride I’d thought so much about, the one you see on television and you think, please don’t let it happen like that. I’d practiced it over and over in my mind. We’d done a trial run the week before. We’d been to the hospital for the new parents’ tour. We should’ve been ready, and we were. Everything was under control. My driving was smooth and effortless. We could have been going to the supermarket for a loaf of bread, except it was almost midnight, and you leave your house at that hour only for life-altering events.
After parking the car, I felt bothered for just a moment by the bright yellow EMERGENCY sign. I opened Jill’s door and she climbed out. Then we walked slowly through the doors of Bridgeport Hospital.
It was 11:40. The day we would have our first baby — July 12, 1985 — was itself about to be born. We were in that moment when everything changes. The bridge from here to there was twenty feet of linoleum. We stopped at the desk and answered questions. Name, address, insurance. A thin man in pale green scrubs appeared out of nowhere, steered a wheelchair up behind Jill, snapped the footrests into position, and pushed her toward the elevator. We had no way of knowing, but Jill had just walked the last twenty feet she would ever walk. Right there. That faded, scuffed stretch of hallway. She was thirty years old. I was twenty-nine. We had been on top of the world for the past four years. But the world rolls. Sometimes you roll with it, and sometimes it rolls on top of you.
I was surprised to notice that my hands were shaking. I was having one of those conversations in my head, like the one I have when I’m on an airplane that’s about to take off.
“There are thousands of flights just like this every day.”
“I know that.” (This is me talking to myself.)
“Every day of the year.”
“Almost without incident.”
“So what are you nervous about?”
“I didn’t think about those other planes. I wasn’t on them.”
“This plane will have a problem because you’re on it?”
“I should get off now and save these other passengers.”
It was the same conversation I’d had so many times while driving across bridges. Worrying that the bridge would fall actually prevented it from happening, because the coincidence of this massive structure giving way at the very moment I was thinking about it was too unlikely. Sure enough, I’d always made it safely across, along with hundreds of other drivers, all seemingly unaware that I’d just prolonged their lives.
Logic, of course, is on the side of the optimists. More than a hundred million babies are born each year. How often does something go wrong? Statistically, almost never. In only about three percent of all births, there’s a serious problem with either the mother or the baby. However, that still works out to thousands a day. We don’t hear about those incidents because they’re small and private. There’s no debris field or black box, no eighteen-wheelers doing headstands after a vertical drop. Just long hospital stays, years of struggling, quiet funerals. Newspaper headlines are reserved for airplanes slamming into mountains and bridges falling into rivers.
I followed as the attendant backed Jill into the elevator. There was something comforting about the way he shuffled his feet, and how he pushed the buttons without looking. Another night, another baby. Still, it felt like a dream, and not an entirely pleasant dream. For one thing, I was sure I’d never get used to seeing Jill in a wheelchair. For another, I hadn’t completely shaken that vision I’d been having, the one where I was in the grocery store with a newborn baby, and Jill wasn’t there. I was looking out the airplane window and could see the ground rushing up. I could feel the roadway sinking away as the bridge began to collapse. But I wasn’t sure if it was really happening, or if it was all in my head. I shuffled along with the attendant as he pushed Jill out of the elevator and into the future. I looked ahead, down the long hall, and tried to see where we were going. My heart was full, and racing. My movements, I knew, were calm and smooth, just as my driving had been between our home and the hospital. I was all right, and yet I was not all right. There was a wheel rotating inside my chest, turning to fear, then joy, then a hazy uncertainty, and back to fear. Not a panic attack, exactly, but something like it. A false panic attack. An emotional Braxton Hicks.
If you have found any enjoyment and derived any value from this blog, I think you will like the memoir just as much. I hope so. Thank you for reading, and for helping me get the word out about this book.