The Birth of Gram, Part 1

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, February 27, 2008 |

All day it rained in Detroit, and all the snow melted away, and it was like a full threat of spring for the first few hours of contractions. She'd been having mild cramping for days, nothing worth telling me about, not one contraction that followed another, just the occasional glimpse of a smile on her lips that would fade into frustration as the seconds ticked on and on. But on that rainy Sunday, rhythmic contractions started in the afternoon, so we went out and walked around the neighborhood a half dozen times in the rain without an umbrella. As it came down harder we stopped at the corner store for an umbrella and I remember watching neighborhood girls running from sheltered spot to sheltered spot across a parking lot and squealing in the open. So this will be the day that he will be born, I thought, and looked at the sky and considered it quite a portent of misery. What snow remained lingered on the edge of parking lots with that stubborn, urban patina: mercury and sick dog piss.

Wood has this thing about jinxes. She wouldn't let me be Gene Kelly, stomping on clogged drains, even though my heart made me want to swing from street lamps knowing that the day was finally, finally here. I'm not sure if I was more excited about the birth of my son or the end of my wife's anxiety. By now they were one and the same.

I was all packed and ready to go at a moment's notice so that we wouldn't have to have the baby sitcom-style in the back of the car with the evil mother-in-law gabbing away and the birthing-vaginas-are-gross jokes. But I didn't need to be ready. The contractions weren't very intense, and despite our best efforts to make them more intense, I somehow had time to make dinner, watch a Tommy Lee Jones-in-relentless-pursuit movie, take a shower, and put the kid to bed. We weren't even sure we should go to the hospital until my mother arrived, joining Wood's mom who'd been there for days, and we realized we didn't have enough beds for everyone, so, hey, why not go to the hospital and have a baby. Better than sleeping on the floor.

"Want to go to a movie?" I said once we got in the car. "I hear that Tommy Lee Jones-in-relentless-pursuit movie by the Coen Brothers is still playing up in Royal Oak."

"No, let's just go to the hospital."

"It's probably not as good as Double Jeopardy anyways."

Wood had been on and off the phone with the midwife since the contractions started. She'd initially told us the baby could come by nine o'clock, but we didn't get to the hospital until eleven. It turned out she was the only laboring mother on the floor. We had chosen an "alternative birth center" where they didn't even have the staff or equipment for medical interventions: no IVs, no monitors, no epidurals, and no pitocin. The center did have all kinds of strange chairs, yoga balls, queen-sized beds and hot tubs in every room. It was more like a Tokyo love hotel than a labor and delivery ward. Except the one nurse on duty wasn't a "sexy" nurse. She was more like a middle-aged lesbian gym teacher with an endless supply of rubber gloves. Wood's contractions were still so mild she was able to complete her paperwork during the middle of one without it affecting her penmanship. The midwife on duty was one we'd never met, an older no-nonsense woman who looked exactly like Wood's crazy aunt. Later, in the delirium of delivery, I think she even called this woman by her aunt's name. The midwife stuck her finger up my wife and said there had been no progress from the three centimeters Wood had been dilated at her last office visit. The words hit my wife a shot put to the belly. "I'll give you two hours to progress, but if nothing happens by one a.m., I'm sending you home."

This all happened during Juniper's birth: the hours procrastinating before we left for the hospital, the contractions that just weren't strong enough to advance dilation, the disappointing news after every finger test. In the first labor, the water broke early, revealing meconium in the fluid. The hospital wouldn't let us go back home, insisting we stay at the hospital with my wife attached to all kinds of equipment. I was so proud of her then, watching her handle all that pain and disappointment covered in wires attached to beeping seismograph machines and IV tubes. She stayed like that for hours, and the labor didn't advance, and there was little we could do. I say I was proud and filled with admiration for the way she handled this internal and emotional beating, but I must admit I was even more proud and astonished to see her go through this the second time, in those moments after the midwife told her she might have to go home. One look in my wife's eyes told me there was no way we were going home. This baby would be born tonight. Where before she withdrew inward, this time she confronts the pain directly. It is the difference between the soldier who does not give up his ground and the one who leaps up out of his trench and advances into the tracer fire of the enemy. As her body is begging her to retreat, to succumb, she stands up in the middle of the night and we walk and walk around the empty ward. The longer we walk, it seems, the more the pain accelerates. We walk up and down those halls for two hours, every few minutes stopping as she bends over some empty nurse's station covered in stuffed animals and greeting cards and the kinds of toys you get in happy meals, and I stand behind her rubbing her back and counting with her, each contraction a song that crescendos at 34 seconds, and the sound of her voice: "Tell me it's fading."

"It's fading," I say.

We do all this by ourselves. Occasionally the nurse stops us mid-step and uses a handheld monitor to listen to the baby's heartbeat. "Keep it up," she says. "You two are doing great." Twenty minutes later than when she told us she'd be back, the midwife returns and snaps on a rubber glove. It is time to check the dilation again. Hard to believe at the time, but an hour later they'll be trying to get Gram to breathe and the room will look like a troupe of marauding Vikings used it to perform the Blood Eagle on a group of Anglo-Saxon peasants. But for now everything is clean and quiet as the whole night and the beginning of a new life hangs on the finger rolling around my wife's cervix.

"Four centimeters," she says. "You can stay."

[Onward to Part Two]

I'm really not supposed to write about my wife's new boobs, even mere trivialities like hearing her in front of the bathroom mirror muttering, "I don't think breasts are supposed to have right angles," or "I feel like one of the Girls Next Door." Weeks ago we might have been able to describe their girth and density with common geological or astronomical terminology, but they've become so exaggerated that we can only use the patois of bad reality television. "I feel like the silicon skeleton in Dr. 90210's closet," she says.

"The guy who wears sleeveless scrub tunics and practices Capoeira, the Brazilian art of dance fighting?"


So instead of writing about her boobs, I'm only allowed to write about her cabbages. She has gone through several cabbages this past week, using their leaves in some private mammary ritual to treat what she calls "engorgement" (a word that brings back shiver-inducing memories of family reunions at the Ye Olde Country Buffet). When I express some concern that our son will develop an unnatural attraction to sauerkraut, she orders me to walk up to the market to get more cabbages.

Juniper and I go to Eastern Market a couple times every week. The market is a few dozen produce wholesalers, butchers, cheesemongers, spice dealers, nut peddlers, and shea butter vendors who keep irregular hours in windowless shops. The kid and I once bought a pot for some flowers up there and the salesman who sold it to us handed me his card. "I'm the biggest pot dealer in town," he said casually. "Yeah, you've sure got a lot them!" I said. "No," he responded tersely, pointing at a handwritten phone number on his card. "I'm the biggest pot dealer in town."

In other words, Eastern Market is kind of a magical place.

This morning, we stopped by for another carton of cabbages, but the produce dealer I normally go to was closed. We poked around a few graffiti-covered side streets before I found another wholesaler with a giant black man wearing coveralls standing out front. "You guys open to the public?" I asked.

"What you need?" he replied. I told him about our household cabbage exigency, and he told me they had as many cabbages as I could carry home. "First though," he said, "Let me put down this MARIJUANA." He enunciated every letter in that word as he laid a huge spliff down on a box of red bell peppers. What is it about me that makes people think I care? Is it the hair? The guy disappeared under three hanging polyurethane strips and came back to hand me two cabbages. I handed him a buck.

"Thanks man," I said. "Now I'm going to go home and help my wife put these on her nipples."

Posted by jdg | Friday, February 22, 2008

Juniper stayed at our house with both her grandmothers during the twenty hours we spent in the hospital. My mother is completely deaf in one ear, and Wood's mother is completely blind in one eye. I'm sure there were enough hijinks and miscommunications to fill half a Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder movie, but everything worked out great in the end. Though, to be honest, I don't know how they managed to find their way through Detroit to the hospital (I sort of tuned out the story after the second middle-eastern gas station attendant behind bulletproof glass gave them bad directions). Six or so hours after the boy was born, we heard Juniper's voice as she entered the room: "I've been waiting for this day for a long, long time!"

I was there, ready to photograph the moment she first saw her brother:

After nearly ten minutes of jumping around the bed in excitement, she snuggled in for a hug:

She would still be holding him like that if we hadn't cruelly pulled him away from her, you know, just to "nurse." An hour ago, she sat in my lap as we rocked him together, singing her new favorite lullaby. He was asleep before the third verse.

And yet in seven or eight years, no doubt, we'll be driving somewhere and I'll have to slam on the brakes and pull off the road because she just can't stand how he's looking at her like that. And then when I ease back into traffic I'll tell her about how sweet she was to him on the day he was born and she'll roll her eyes and think I'm lame. And we'll both be right.


Posted by jdg | Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I am standing at the end of my driveway holding a maroon canvas bag big enough to hide a body. It has a smell that radiates around it, even in cold February air that turns my breath to steam. I have borrowed almost all the equipment inside from other guys, an entire archaeology of sweat on shinguards and shoulderpads. Sedimentary sweat, an adolescent bouquet. In a year, when I’m old enough to drive, I will keep this bag in the trunk of my car between practices , and the sweat in the dirty boxer shorts will freeze them stiff overnight. I have seen the others bang their underwear against concrete walls, or wait for them to soften like wet chamois in the warmth of the locker room, and then put them on again. It is 4:35 a.m. and my ride to ice hockey practice is late. I have never been outside at this hour. Who knew the whole world was out here, like this, every night? Every set of headlights I see on distant main road doesn't turn. Who are these other people, out here with me at this godforsaken hour?

* * * * *

Every time a car heads towards us at the university gate in the dark we get anxious. Well before five o'clock, we finally flag down a cab. This is the second day in a row that I have been taxied across the entire city of Beijing at this hour of the morning. Yesterday we arrived at the airport only to linger over goodbyes for hours. Finally, when I was as close as I could ever be to finally say goodbye for five more months, a Chinese airline official with a Chinese love for the rules refused to let me into the concourse. International flights required passengers to be at the gate an hour before takeoff and there I was, only 55 minutes early. I argued and got a ticket for this morning's flight, and we knew we would be going through all this again, now. All of yesterday and last night we spent in bed, so exhausted during this 24-hour reprieve we could hardly talk. In the cab, she takes my bare hand in her woolly-mittoned one, and I dread the passing of each gaudy block of Beijing, the neon logograms, and the streets empty of their many millions.

* * * * *

At eleven o'clock the midwife was ready to send us home, but your mother was too stubborn to be told she wouldn't get to meet you tonight. It is 4:30 in the morning now, but your eyes are open and all of Detroit sits dark and quiet outside this window. I see brake lights down on the avenue, and watch as a car goes several blocks under the street lamps before the driver realizes he doesn't have his headlights on. Over on that bed, one hell of a woman sleeps, and we'll give her whatever she will take. The only sound in this room is you breathing. It took so long for them to get you to start, and we were all breathless there with you until it came with a sour gulp of mucus and finally, a cry. All night I have felt like a wanderer in a foreign city, comparing the sights to those in another strange city I wandered into years ago. But you cannot compare cities. They are just where people sleep, or don't sleep; where they rise and live out their days. I forgot how small you'd be. After life with your sister, her endless queries and interrogations, you are so unexpectedly quiet. Soon there will be light. The room will fill with your first day. But for now it's just you and me at this window, with the few other souls out there doing what it is we do before dawn breaks.

* * * * *

Thank you for the wonderful comments to the last post, we've enjoyed every one. We're hammering out a birth story together, tentative title: There Will Be Blood 2. That, and more details, will follow.

Hello, bub

Posted by Wood | Monday, February 18, 2008

First name Gram, middle name Woodward. Born 2:24 a.m., February 18, 2008. Eight pounds, four ounces. Twenty-one inches.


Posted by jdg | Sunday, February 17, 2008

We are heading to the hospital. Long night ahead. More later.


Posted by jdg | Saturday, February 16, 2008

For over two weeks, I have been hesitant to start a load of laundry, for fear that we would be rushing towards the hospital before I put it in the dryer. If I make a pan of lasagna, I don't know if I should even put it in the oven, because forty-five minutes is such a huge commitment. There are a thousand such considerations in any day, and we've had two weeks of these days. Other than uneventful trips to the midwife, where membranes are stripped, stress tested, and dilation checked, we hardly leave the house. At the end of every day that passes without this kid we look back on all the time we've spent sitting on our hands and wish we had done something constructive with it, you know, because it's never going to be the same again. Every morning we wake up and wonder what we're still doing in this old life. And still, here we are.

One minute, Wood is animatedly reading me this week's incredible Miss Manners, and the next her head is buried in my chest, her massive belly between us. She wants so badly for this baby to be outside of her body. I quickly learned you can't feed an overdue pregnant woman platitudes like "he'll come out when he's ready." You can feed her chocolates. And give her foot rubs. And hold your breath together.

Posted by jdg | Thursday, February 14, 2008 |

"Maybe he's waiting for us to choose a better name before he comes out."

"Why? What could possibly be wrong with Travis?"

"I told you, we're not naming him Travis."

"Well, let's just wait to see if he looks like a Travis. Or a Roy."

"Well that didn't work. What now?"

"He's just too comfortable in there. Remember how they were able to get all those enemy combatants in Guantanamo to admit all kinds of stuff by playing rap and Barney songs really loud? Maybe if we play some really annoying records really close to your belly, he'll go crazy and want to escape. Like Manuel Noriega."

"Let's start with some Twitty."

"Conway Twitty looked just like my grandpa."

"Yeah, kind of, but with a 'fro instead of that slicked-back mobster hair."

"It always creeped me out as a kid because Twitty's such a pimp. He's like the Barry White of country music. Every one of his songs is about cheating or getting some."

"Mmmm. Tight Fittin' Jeans. This is a good song."

"Yeah, too good. Let's switch up."

[Reading from the album sleeve] "The calliope is essentially a thing of the past. With its passing, an age passed as well. There was a time when the cheerful tootling of the calliope served as a gay and gaudy herald for old-time circuses, menageries, and county fairs."

"It's like a Zamboni pipe organ. Pretty gay, alright."

"Calliope was not the muse of crappy music."

"You know why there aren't calliopes around anymore? Because Satan bought them all up to provide a soundtrack for hell."

"Who was Denny McClain?"

"The greatest Tigers pitcher of the 60s, and the last pitcher to win 30 games in one season. A well-known philanderer and gambler, too, as well as an accomplished organist."

"Why is he playing 'The Look of Love' as an instrumental on an organ?"

"I think Burt Bacharach should be interpreted by more major league baseball all-stars on Hammond X-77 organs."

"Ewww, put that calliope record back on."

"I took this one from my Grandma. I just like the picture of his church on the back. The Cathedral of Tomorrow."

"If I could go to that church, I would totally be a repressed patriotic homophobe."

"Oh my god, turn it off before we turn this wombling into a Republican."

"This record is actually pretty good."

"Yeah, and she's hot, too."

"Way hot."

"Dear 1980 Tanya Tucker, can you be my dreamlover?"

"This album is the answer to the question What would it sound like if Neil Young tried to make a Kraftwerk album?"

"I don't think anyone ever asked that question."

"I own it on CD, too."

"You should never admit that to anyone."

"Remember that scene in The Sopranos when Tony wants to back out from a contract for a beach house but the seller won't let him, so he gets two of his toadies to play Dino songs from a boat behind the seller's house?"


"That would have worked much better if they had used this album."

"Hey, this is one of my favorite records."

"You really shouldn't admit that either."

"I wonder if Mildred and Julie Ann have a Myspace page."

"This is bad, but not as assaultive as it needs to be. I wish I hadn't thrown away all those StryperLPs back in the eighties."

"You want something assaultive?"

"Come on, this is a band with like four dozen banjos!"

"They should have titled their album BANJO ASSAULT 3: RELENTLESS BANJOS!"


"Maybe you should get out your banjo."

"Maybe you should shut the hell up. Besides, it has a broken string."

"This isn't working."

"Don't you wonder if all this is having the opposite effect, like maybe he's in there with his hands over his ears convinced that our home is a place filled with strange and terrifying music that he never wants to leave the womb for."

"Well, I guess he'd be kind of right, wouldn't he?"

Awkward moments in labor inducement, #3

Posted by Wood | Sunday, February 10, 2008

Me: "You know, lots of spicy food, two mile walks. We're doing all we can."

My mom: "A co-worker of mine asked if you'd considered intimacy as an option. I told her I wasn't sure."

Almost as bad as that time when I was fourteen and she said, "You know dear, hands and mouths are wonderful things."

But at least I didn't have to hear her say the words "nipple stimulation."

Dodging a red, mangy-furred bullet

Posted by jdg | Friday, February 08, 2008 |

Right now my wife and kid are sitting in the Fox Theater, watching Sesame Street Live without me. While I actually had a reasonably tolerable experience last year speculating about the actors' backstage sex lives, this year I thought it would be nice to give the two of them some mother-daughter time before Wood has a y-chromosomed suckling attached to her twelve hours a day. And frankly, when it comes to Sesame Street Live, once is enough to get the whole idea.

The snow keeps piling on top of itself here. The other night I took the dog for a walk and by the time we got back to our front porch I couldn't see the footprints from when we'd left. My mother is across the state, staring at various weather reports, anxious about rushing to Detroit in a snowstorm to mind Juniper while Wood labors. When she herself went into labor for the first time thirty-one years ago this week, my dad had to take her to the main road on a snowmobile where an ambulance waited to take her to the hospital. Hours later into that snowstorm, I was born. It was her birthday.

Wood had been certain this baby would be born a little early. All her friends that have given birth in the last few months have done so weeks or even a month early. We watched the full moon wane without incident. "Juniper was born on her due date," I remind her. But she's convinced from reading and excessive googling that second babies come earlier. "He'll come when he's ready," I say, but this does nothing to calm her. I know part of the stress comes from having taken a week of maternity leave before he's born, knowing that she'll have to return a week earlier when he's so small and still needing her.

I still haven't packed my hospital bag, charged up the camcorder battery, or cleared my SD cards of 6 gigs worth of boarded-up art deco theaters, graffiti, and old highway signs. And yet I feel a mounting pressure, too. I'd better pack that bag. And I do have a feeling I'll soon have something more momentous to photograph than packs of wild dogs and half-burnt houses.

Update soon.

Still on the approach

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Wood is antsy. She doesn't know what to do with herself at home with us now that she's officially on maternity leave. "You don't want to keep playing SQUID CAVE?" Juniper and I ask, quite shocked.

"Let's go bowling," she says, hoping all the strikes and gutters will somehow inspire her womb to evict its occupant. 39.4 weeks pregnant, and the woman manages to outscore me. Even the kid, with her crafty use of the bumper lanes and her 4-lb ball with its 2.12 MPH rolls, somehow also outscores me. Bowling never was my game, dude.

Don't assume that our silence means anything. We'll post the second anything happens.

An Ace on the bench

Posted by jdg | Saturday, February 02, 2008 |

Every morning that I sleep past seven seems like the last, a gift, so it's cherished. I'm like a convicted white-collar felon embracing freedom for his last few days before showing up at the penitentiary door; I have a list of things that I want to do one last time, knowing it will be eons before I get to do them again. At the top of this list is sleeping. A lot.

When dropping the wife off for her last day of work yesterday, I realized, too, that I would no longer be able to just put the kid in the car and take her on the long, rambling drives we love around the city or out into the country, just the two of us. Instead of heading home that morning, we took Michigan Avenue west, the old pre-interstate Chicago road. Along the way I asked her again what she thought we should name her baby brother.

"Yagi-Yogi," she said without hesitation. This is her top choice among her five personal favorites, which also include Munja, Li-Li, Ace and Biddy-Bada-Boo.

"How 'bout Kwame?" I ask.


"I like Ace," I said.


"I don't know. He could be a quarterback."

She lets me stop to take pictures of old neon motel signs, those former beacons to weary travelers who'd park their DeSotos or Studebakers outside tidy little rooms, now dreary homes with low weekly rates for entire families who've been evicted or faced foreclosure, chainsmoking prostitutes, and other down-on-their-luck types. We pass trailer parks. Strip clubs advertising one-dollar chilidogs. Poverty that's the same as in Detroit, really, just a different color.

Our destination is the world's greatest thrift store, and it doesn't disappoint. I've hardly bought any clothes for little Yagi-Yogi yet, so the kid patiently follows me through rack after rack of tiny sleepers and onesies and teensy-weensie button-down shirts, taking seriously her role in helping me find clothes for her baby brother. I seem to always hit the motherload of early-eighties primary-color faded-label polyester goodness at this thrift store. Two hours and $76.42 later we leave with 45 outfits, five pairs of shoes, 15 sleepers, a bunch of toys, and three plastic bags full of books, including several lost bellbottom-age children's lit masterpieces such as Jennifer Jean, The Cross-Eyed Queen and About Handicaps:

I'm telling you, when I get done organizing the kid's library, we're going to have dewey-decimal subdivisions for hairlip-sensitivity fiction and illustrated polio memoirs.

After the thrift store, we take the dog for a long walk in a nature preserve I used to hike in all the time during law school. I check that off my list. We walk around Ann Arbor, stopping at Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger for a late lunch. She's no Blimpy novice: she takes a single patty with an egg, pickles, and mayo. She snuggles up next to me in the booth, shares her deep-fried broccoli. On the way home, she needs to pee. To prevent her whining about it, I tell her we need to be a team and look out the window for a good place to stop. "What's a team?" she asks.

"It's two people who work together to help each other out."

"Are we a team, Dada?" she asks.

"We are." I say. We were, I think, a really good team. We meander back down Michigan Avenue, stopping whenever we see something interesting, until we see the Detroit skyline in the distance. When it's five o'clock we pick up her mother at the old road's terminus, or its beginning, depending on how you look at it. She waddles out of her building and into the car. "Done with work," she sighs. "Now let's have this baby already."