The night before my niece was born was restless; sleep came fitfully. I later compared how I felt to waiting for Christmas: too many thoughts were echoing through my head to allow rest to fully descend. My tussle with slumber ended when the dawn’s first light poked through my bedroom window. As I got out of bed, I heard a distant sound like footsteps on the staircase. I mused, was that my sister and her husband making their way through the house? It seemed a bit early. Nevertheless, I imagined my brother in law taking my sister’s hand and gently guiding her down to the front door. Then I could envisage him putting her brown leather suitcase into the back of the silver rental pickup truck. It’s a rather unusual vehicle for conveying my niece and sister: when he rented it, I wondered if there would be time to put a gun rack in the back and if one pressed on the horn, it would whistle “Dixie”.
The noise actually came from the air conditioning softly clattering as it switched on. Apart from that, the house was quiet. I descended to the kitchen and switched on the small LCD television in the corner of the room. I checked the news; I thought I may as well look at the world that my niece is coming into. I set the coffee maker to run: it ground the beans and then sucked water through its plastic and metal innards, making bubbling and gurgling sounds in the process. The heady aroma of Hawaiian Kona coffee soon filled the room. The news stated that Greek election ended with something like a conclusion. Pro-bailout parties will form a government, do their best to adhere to the conditions of their financial assistance but probably fail anyway. The problem, I thought, is that the Greeks need a greater change than what they will likely receive, namely, they need to leave the Euro. They also need institutions they can trust which will bring the economy out of the darkness. This won’t happen. Worse, it is absolutely appalling that the Greek Nazis, the Golden Dawn party, managed to maintain their vote share: 18 freshly minted MPs who moonlight as jackbooted thugs. My thought was, “Sort your lives out, don’t you know what day it is?” My niece deserves to live in a Europe that isn’t littered with such refuse.
Nevertheless, the news carried on with further entries from its miserable litany: Spanish bond yields were going up. Europe is still strangled by recession. Our political leaders seem more interested in momentary advantage than the interests of the nations they serve. Some of our business luminaries seem to think Windows 8 on tablets is a good idea. I sat at the table and sipped my coffee. I thought, we adults have done a terrible job in arranging matters for those who follow us. We succumbed to foolishness, not just once, but often. We seem unable to break out of our love affair with nonsense. We embrace the ephemeral at the expense of the truth. The bills for this folly are so great that it will be beyond my generation’s power to pay them all. My niece will pay too. Perhaps her children will also have to pay.
My reverie was interrupted by my sister entering the kitchen. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt: the shirt was brown and emblazoned with the motto, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, the legend neatly outlining her protruding baby bump. I looked at her.
“I thought this was an appropriate motto for today,” she explained. I couldn’t help myself, I burst out laughing and said, “Wonderful!” I snapped a picture and put it up on Facebook. My brother in law arrived; he wore a dark shirt and trousers. He told my sister that it was time to go. She nodded; he led her out the door as he held her hand.
“See you at the hospital!” he called over his shoulder.
I took a shower. I got changed. I’m a new uncle and a suitably eccentric one: I wore a short sleeve shirt, a pair of black jeans and grey trainers. To protect my head, I wore a Barcelona FC cap. I slung my iPad case over my shoulder and along with my parents was swiftly out the door.
The maternity ward in my sister’s chosen hospital was entitled the “New Life Centre”. I found my aunt and her partner waiting for us, both were happy but had that slightly frazzled quality that comes from persistent overwork. Hugs were distributed as the golden sunlight blazed through the plate glass windows. I looked out and saw that the skies were a perfect blue.
We sat and talked a while as we waited. My aunt, a nurse, informed me that whooping cough was making a comeback: as we sat there, my mother rang her doctor and arranged for me to get a vaccine booster. Whooping cough, I said, sounded like one of those 1930’s diseases that one had hoped medical science had vanquished. No, my aunt replied, people coming from Mexico where immunisation was less prevalent had carried it across the border; the disease was back. Best to get the shot. I’ll go on Wednesday.
Other families were in the same room as we. Fathers and grandparents went in and out of the delivery ward. One young father wore a Yankees baseball cap as he entered the ward. One red haired middle aged gentleman wearing a bright yellow polo shirt burst out after his grandchild was born and told us, “There’s nothing like it!”
My family and I ate cinnamon scones and talked about the baby. Nine months seemed like simultaneously an eternity and an all too brief time. The clock ticked on: the hands marked an hour after my sister had gone in. Then it was an hour and a half. At long last, the first of the doctors emerged: this was our extraordinary paediatrician who had looked after me when I was small and had been present at my sister’s birth. He had ostensibly retired, but couldn’t resist seeing one of the children he had helped into adulthood have a child herself. His kind brown eyes were lit up with happiness. He had taken a photo of my sister, her husband and their new daughter just after the procedure and e-mailed it off. I saw it on my iPad: my sister looked tired but happy, my brother in law looked elated, the baby had her eyes shut and her mouth open, crying out as if she couldn’t understand who all these people were and why she had to leave her quiet, warm cocoon. Our paediatrician was closely followed by the surgeon. He beamed and said that the baby was healthy, everything had gone well: my niece had entered the world with a yell, apparently.
“She could sing Aida,” the surgeon stated.
We then had to wait for my sister and niece to come out of recovery. As we sat, another pregnant woman came into the room; she had dark, curly hair and pale brown skin. Her tight facial expressions and the way she moved made it clear that she was in severe discomfort, most likely due to labour pains. Strangely, she was given forms to fill out before anything else happened: she worked on them slowly. She told the receptionist she needed to use the restroom. She was not offered a wheelchair in order to get her to the bathroom: only her sister helped her as she struggled, though my aunt offered to assist. All the time, the staff were more focused on doing administrative work. I wondered: is this nonsense born out of the necessity to protect the finances of the hospital or the insurance company? Does it arise out of the hospital’s need to ensure all its processes are pristine to prevent lawsuits? Shouldn’t medicine be mostly about the patient? Why was that woman particularly ill treated?
My sister and niece are fortunate; with excellent doctors and persistent parents and grandparents they can overcome all other hurdles. But this isn’t the experience that everyone has; I wonder how much priority that other woman got. She did not protest, she was in too much pain: perhaps on the other side of the delivery room door, things improved. I doubt it. The inequity of medical care in America means that some, like my sister, can get care that rivals the best in the world. Most, however, have to do with the scraps that fall from the table.
Eventually, my brother in law emerged. It’s rare that one sees a look of pure transcendence settle on someone’s face, but he had it. It was if his eyes were focused on a point in his daughter’s future which we could not see. He invited us in. Beyond the delivery room door, my niece awaited, propped up by the nurse in her clear glass basin. Her little shoulders were adorned with small striped blankets; seated there, it was rather like she was holding court with us. She was impossibly tiny. She tried to open her eyes and look around. She alternated between periods of quiet and crying. The world was all so confusing. She sneezed for the first time: she scared herself in the process. She cried. It was a powerful reminder of how frail our beginnings are: we come out with a few instincts but knowing nothing. A sneeze is something commonplace to the adult or child, but to the newborn it is frightening until proven otherwise. All she had was the warm hand of the nurse behind her, a grip on her father’s hand, and these tall shapes surrounding her in the dim light, speaking in warm tones, telling her she was beautiful and we were so glad to see her.
She continued to struggle, trying to look us up and down. As I looked back at her, I realised that I was radical before, but now having seen that little face and her earliest efforts to understand what was going on around her, I not only want a far better world for her than the one we have at the moment, I demand it.
After a bit of a wait, my sister and my niece were taken up to their peach coloured room in the maternity ward: it overlooks the hospital parking lot, which is surrounded by trees and was in prime position for the afternoon sunlight. I got to hold my niece in my arms; she was so light, her tiny little hands reached out of the blanket towards my face. I found that all the stories about newborn babies having a unique and pleasant smell were true. She blinked, her large eyes having trouble focusing. I wanted to tell her that everything lay ahead: life would be fulfilling and wonderful. I made do with softly saying her name and telling her that everything was all right. Later, I got to see her smile for the first time. My understanding is that this was a sign she may have been passing gas.
My last impression before I left for the day was a rather simple one: my sister lay in bed, holding the baby. My brother in law gently embraced both of them, and they, in turn, held him. It dawned on me that what happened this day was more profound than any cliché about the circle of life taking another turn, rather, their family had once had an empty place. Now it was filled. Now that my niece was there, their lives were complete: they needed little else besides togetherness. Leave it to the crazy uncles to mount Rocinante, go forth and charge at windmills: mother and father and baby are at peace. As the sun sets and the house falls quiet again and the earth sleeps, that’s really all that seems to matter.