Jennifer Bridgman

"Sonshine"

Making the decision to have a child is momentous.
It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
                                                                                                                                                                                   
–Elizabeth Stone

Chapter 8: "Sonshine"

An alarm blared from my bedside monitor two feet away. The shrill noise pierced the air and sent a swarm of nurses buzzing into the room. My doctor was right behind them.

“What’s going on?” I shrieked. “Is everything all right?”

“Jennifer, we need you to turn over and get on your knees,” Dr. Tran ordered. The shift in her tone was subtle but unmistakable. I searched her face for reassurance but found none. 

“Wh-what’s going on?” I stammered.

Dr. Tran looked me directly in the eye, her next words even but urgent: “We’ve lost the baby’s heartbeat. We need you to get on your knees.” 

My blood ran cold. I strained to move, but my body refused to cooperate. I grunted and pulled again, trying to move legs that had turned to dead weight following an epidural. Somehow I forced myself upright onto hands and knees that wobbled beneath me like logs on water. 

Panicked voices swirled together. They were male and female now, hurried and loud. “Stay on your knees, Jennifer!” Dr. Tran commanded. “We’re taking you to the O.R. for a Cesarean delivery—the cord is around the baby’s neck.”

My heart leapt into my throat, gagging me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. The gurney’s guardrails were thrust up moments before it spun around. The movement caused the room to blur, but my eyes locked on the two women standing motionless against the wall. My mother’s mouth had fallen agape, while my mother-in-law’s was concealed by the single cupped hand she’d brought to her lips. They wore matching expressions of wide-eyed terror. The gurney whipped backward out the door, and I struggled to stay upright on all fours. We flew through swinging doors and rammed into walls in our race to the operating room.

“Please help my baby!” I wailed. My face smashed into the mattress as I lost my balance, suffocating my pleas. No, no, no! God, please save my baby! Chris and I cannot survive any more heartache. Wait—oh my God…Chris!!!

I lifted my head up and cried, “My husband! He’s in the bathroom!”

***

My water broke just before dawn on Saturday, March 27—seven days after Chris’ discharge from the spinal cord rehab unit. I was roused awake by wetness and confusion, unsure of what was happening until I flipped on the bathroom light and my first genuine contraction hit. I’m having a baby!

I craned my neck around the doorway and called softly into the darkened bedroom. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready to become a father?”

There was just enough light from the bathroom to detect movement under the covers. Then came Chris’ muffled response: “Not really. I’m still asleep,” he grumbled.

“Well, wakey-wakey! My water broke, babe.” I could almost hear the news registering from across the room.

Chris flung back the covers and his head shot up from his pillow. “Are you serious?” he said. He spoke quickly now, his voice loud and alert. He fumbled around for the bedside lamp switch, blinking and rubbing his eyes as they squinted in the sudden brightness. He looked up at me and smiled. “Well, let’s do this!” he said. 

Our hospital bags were packed, but it was still a mad dash out the door. After leaving a message for my doctor, I rechecked that all items on my typed-up Hospital Bag Checklist were accounted for. The average Labor & Delivery patient had a considerable amount to pack: infant car seat, receiving blanket, baby’s going-home outfit, camera, toothbrush, toiletries, slippers, nursing pajamas, and bathrobe, among other items. Following Chris’ injury, our packing list doubled in length. We now also needed to bring his wheelchair, cathing supplies, nighttime boots, bathroom commode, tools to assemble and disassemble the commode, and three days’ worth of his extensive medications. By the time we were ready to leave, it appeared we were permanently moving into Stanford Hospital.    

“Hey, hon…?” I halted mid-sentence and mid-step just outside the bedroom, grunting through clenched teeth as another contraction hit. I was stunned by the amount of amniotic fluid that gushed down my legs with every contraction. Only after the contraction passed was I able to finish my sentence. “What do you want to wear today?”

Chris remained in bed, awaiting my assistance to remove his nighttime boots. He couldn’t sit up until we strapped on his post-surgery TLSO brace, and we couldn’t put on his TLSO until he was dressed. Since his hospital discharge seven days prior, Chris had already become more autonomous around the house, remembering to do things like put clothes for the next morning on his nightstand before bed. But not this time—our Friday evening had gone late. I’d arranged a casual “Welcome Home, Chris” celebration for about twenty friends, and following dinner at a Mexican restaurant down the street, a few couples returned to our home for cookies and conversation. By the time we’d hugged our goodbyes, it was late and Chris and I were beat. We’d barely had the strength to brush our teeth, but it was the happiest I’d seen my husband in a month.   

“How about a black T-shirt, those gray Nike sweatpants and my white Fox hat?” Chris called from bed.

“Gotcha,” I called back. “Holy crap—what a mess!” I hunkered down to wipe the floors with a damp washcloth. It took all my strength to stand back up; I paused to catch my breath with both hands on my knees. “This is such a joke. I can’t believe I’m helping you get dressed when I’m the one in labor!”

“I’m so sorry, babycakes. You’re doing gr-…” Chris replied, his voice trailing off. “Babe, please tell me you’re not actually trying to clean the house right now?”

We both laughed at my ridiculousness. Excitement pulsed throughout the house. Nothing, not even Chris’ injury, could compete with the buzz in the air. We called our parents to let them know I was in labor. Since we didn’t have hand controls installed in our car yet, Larry was on stand-by to drive Chris, his wheelchair and his bags to Stanford Hospital. My parents were enlisted to drive me and the rest of our belongings. The situation was not ideal, nor the way we dreamed it would be, but it would do. Chris was alive, he was home, and he would be present for the birth of our first child—all other details paled in comparison.  

Larry video recorded us in the living room as we waited for my parents to arrive. I knelt beside Chris’ wheelchair, and we wrapped our arms around each other, smiling for the camera.

“You, baby, are grounded!” Chris teased, pointing at my belly. “I can’t believe you didn’t wait until eight or eight-thirty—the time I normally get up on a Saturday. I haven’t even had my coffee yet.”   

***

By the time my parents and I checked into Labor & Delivery, my contractions had increased in frequency, duration and strength. I promised myself, however, that I would remain amiable the whole day. I refused to be one of those women who screamed at anyone within earshot while giving birth. My anxiety dissipated as soon as I was hooked up to the monitors and met my nurse, an older woman who called me “dear” in a soothing Irish lilt.

Chris and Larry entered the room a short while later. “Well, look who decided to join us!” I said, smiling but shaking my head at the disposable cups in their hands. “I see you had time for a coffee run?”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about us today,” Chris teased, patting my arm. “Larry and I still had plennnty of time after Peet’s to stop for a Denny’s Grand Slam and a car wash.”

Without missing a beat, Larry held his watch inches from his face to scrutinize it. “Hey, Chris,” he said. “I think there’s still time for that hair cut. Shall I bring the car around?”

“Ha-ha…very funny, guys,” I laughed.

Larry then located a screwdriver in one of our duffle bags and began assembling Chris’ commode. “After I’m done with this, would anyone like me to rotate their tires? Perhaps change their oil?” he deadpanned.

Kathy arrived soon after and pulled up a chair up right beside Chris. As we chatted, I noticed the way she automatically reached over and began massaging Chris’ paralyzed leg—a mother’s instinctive desire to heal and protect her offspring. Our laughter and repartee continued throughout the morning. After a month of non-stop, weary discussions concerning Chris’ injury and recovery, this was the joyful reprieve we all so desperately needed.

 

***

Because my water broke, the baby had to be delivered within twenty-four hours to reduce the risk of infection. Doctors decided to expedite the labor process by administering the synthetic hormone Pitocin through my IV. An anesthesiologist came in soon after to start my epidural. My contractions now hit with such severity that Chris could see my body quake from across the room. My jaw trembled as if I was freezing. I nearly vomited.

All that changed following the epidural. Pain from my contractions became non-existent, and the hours breezed by. Chris had settled onto a cot beside me, and we were lulled to sleep by the steady rhythm of two dancing heartbeats on the monitor, one waltzing mother and one quickstepping child. Family members popped by our room to offer encouragement and snap photographs.

At one point, I was roused from my dreamlike state by sensing a presence in the room. I opened my eyes to find my grandfather hesitating in the doorway. “Grandpa Charley! You came!” I called out.

He smiled and chuckled before shuffling into the room. His hands were clasped in front of his pressed slacks and matching wool sweater. “Well, hello there,” he said in his subtle Oklahoman twang. “I heard this is where the party’s at.”

I knew from an early age that I was lucky, for none of my friends had a grandpa who lived just down the street. One who could deliver a punch line with the same twinkle in their eye or one who understood that a shopping spree was never complete without a coordinating purse or belt to complete the new outfit. None of my friends had a grandpa who had taught them how to keep a poker face during card games, how to hook a worm to a fishing pole or how to stand up on two skis behind a boat. While my relationship with my grandfather continually evolved over the past three decades, its significance had never faltered. When I was a child, my grandpa had been there to tell silly jokes and remove splinters from my bare feet. When I was a teen, he’d remained my ally, even as I rebelled against my parents and rejected their rules. When I was a young adult, he’d commiserated with me over lousy jobs and even lousier boyfriends. And when I neared thirty, he’d been there to offer an approving handshake and warm smile to the man who would become my husband. As I grew older, the stories about my grandfather’s early hardships--losing his father as a toddler and growing up in a poor farming family during the Dust Bowl--took on greater meaning, merely solidifying what I had secretly always suspected: my grandpa was extraordinary. 

My grandfather had witnessed war in the Pacific, the tragic death of his only daughter and the passing of his beloved wife of sixty-three years. And yet, I had never heard him complain. He represented cowboy strength, American pride, old-fashioned charm and family values. His stories made me nostalgic for a way of life that had ended long before my time. He was an easy conversation and a comfortable silence. He was one of my best friends. Now, it was an honor to be blessing him with the priceless gift of a great-grandchild.

“Grandpa, you know the party never really starts until you arrive,” I said with a grin. “Come pull up a chair.”

 

***

My labor lasted a total of twelve hours. By five o‘clock, the nurse announced I was fully dilated to ten centimeters—it was go time. She left to alert Dr. Tran, leaving Chris, Kathy and my mother in the room. We decided now would be a good time for Chris to go cath in the bathroom, as the nurses had warned us the pushing phase could go on for some time for first-time mothers. Chris leaned forward in his wheelchair to kiss me goodbye before wheeling into the bathroom.

My mother smiled and picked up her purse. “Well, Jenny, we’ll be in the other room, waiting to meet our grandbaby!” She reached down to pat my leg. “I just can’t get over how smooth the whole day has been. Boy do I ever wish I’d gotten that epidural. I should have begged for it!”

“Seriously,” I grinned. “Today has been the mellowest day I’ve had in over a month.” I was not exaggerating in the slightest. I couldn’t have known, however, that in a matter of minutes, I would be down the hall undergoing emergency surgery to save my baby’s life.

***

We were now in the O.R. A disposable cap was fitted around my ponytail, and I was again lying flat on my back. I heard Dr. Tran’s voice close to my ear. “Baby is fine, Jennifer. By having you on your knees, we relieved pressure from the umbilical cord around its neck.” She placed a hand on my shoulder. “Hang in there—it’s going to be okay.”

Two male anesthesiologists hovered above my head. “Can you feel this?” one of them asked while pricking me with a pin.

“Yes!” I cried out. “My husband? Can someone please find my husband?!”

“He is on his way, Jennifer,” the man continued. “I’m going to do a series of pricks along your torso. Please tell me as soon as you can feel them.”

My eyes were fixed on the door. They watered and stung but refused to blink. My thoughts were like marbles, spilled onto the floor and rolling in every direction. I could barely track a single thought, let alone focus on the sensation of minute pin pricks. Finally I felt an unmistakable jab. “Okay,” I gulped. “I can feel that—but barely.”

At last, Chris wheeled into the room, the green light for my emotional floodgates to burst. I sobbed with relief at his presence and with relief that our unborn baby was okay. Chris wore sky-blue scrubs that matched the color of his eyes…eyes that now shone back at me in utter alarm.   

“I love you, honey,” he whispered repeatedly, stroking my hand with his fingers.

This was just not right. After everything we’d been through lately, we presumed the birth of our baby would be seamless. Hadn’t we already paid our dues?

I tried to concentrate on the words Chris murmured and block out what was going on behind the raised sheet. Medication coursed through my veins, numbing my entire body and thickening my tongue. My arms were pinned out to the side. My airway was closing in on itself, and my lungs felt deflated as if someone was sitting on my chest. I could not speak or swallow. I was convinced that I would suffocate before meeting our child. My eyes darted from side-to-side, desperate for the anesthesiologist to notice. Help me!

“Breathe, Jennifer,” a voice bellowed over my head. Moments later the same voice announced, “Baby is out.” I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know surgery had begun.

The room fell quiet. Chris’ fingers stopped stroking my hand. Our eyes locked. Finally, we heard it—our baby’s first cries, a mesmerizing sound somehow both foreign and familiar.

Chris released my hand. With both hands on his wheelchair armrests, he hoisted himself high enough to peer over the curtain.

“It’s a BOY!” Chris cried out, tears spilling down his face. “Oh my God…it’s a boy!”

Engrossed with the baby’s first cries and my struggle for air, I had forgotten to even wonder if we’d had a boy or girl.

A boy. I have a son. The thought was too overwhelming to digest.

The raised sheet blocked my view of half the room. Heads popped over the sheet to pass along good wishes. Masks concealed their lips, but their eyes all smiled at me. “Congratulations,” they said. “He is beautiful.”

Then, finally…I saw him. A nurse appeared and placed our bundled baby between Chris and me. We leaned our heads together, our matching paper scrub hats touching as we wept and kissed our tiny infant. I had never known perfection until that moment. He had doll-like beauty, but his quivering mouth and gentle whimpers convinced me that he was real. I marveled at his button nose and the small dimple in his chin.

“Well, hello, Christopher Lawrence,” I cooed. Upon hearing my voice, he unsealed his squinted eyes for the first time and peered back at me. It was the grandest moment of my life. I felt the shift deep in my core and knew that my world would never revolve in the same way again. My son’s life had begun in that delivery room, but in many ways, mine had begun again, too. Gazing into his eyes, I realized that this was not a moment I’d waited nine months for. This was a moment I’d waited for all of my life.  

 

 






Click here for more excerpts from Jennifer's memoir, Love Never Fails.