Susan Biggar

Writing about things that matter… and a few that don’t

The Upside of Down — Excerpt from my upcoming book

Surprises

‘Are you sure you’re in labor?’ Darryl asks suspiciously, eyelids fluttering in the torch-lit room but remaining closed.

‘No…I don’t know…I can’t say for sure.’

‘Maybe it’s just another one of those false alarms. We could wait a little longer and see what happens.’

Before I have time to respond, I hear a gentle whistling followed by a slow and steady exhalation. He’s obviously planning on snoozing through this delivery. Sleeping is more than just a hobby for my husband, he’s so accomplished—able to sleep anywhere and anytime—he could just about add it to his resume.

‘Darryl, wake up!’ I say, louder than necessary. ‘Do you want to have a baby here at the gliding club? The midwife told me false labor wouldn’t be painful and this is beginning to feel a lot like pain.’

‘It probably just feels more painful because you’re tired …’

Tired seems to be all he can think about right now.

‘Oh, come on. Are you saying childbirth isn’t painful for women who get enough sleep?’

It’s January 1996 and I’m seven months pregnant with my first baby. As a Californian, I ought to be nestled away safely under my duvet in some leafy San Francisco suburb, awaiting a smooth transition into the maternal life. Many of my more organized friends seemed to casually slip motherhood into their lives over a long weekend, without even changing a dress size.

But, oh no, not me. Instead, it’s three o’clock in the morning and I seem to be in premature labor, lying in my sleeping bag next to my New Zealand husband on the peeling linoleum floor of a gliding club in the rural Wairarapa region of the North Island. We actually both intended to go gliding that day but the weather scotched the plan. Thank God, as my mother and mother-in-law would never have forgotten it or forgiven me. Especially given that my mother recently suggested that I start acting ‘pregnant’. I didn’t know just what she meant at the time, but I doubt if flying in an engineless aircraft using only the naturally occurring currents of rising air to stay airborne would constitute pregnant behavior in her view.

And all of this is after a period of infertility, an early miscarriage, a high-risk pregnancy, a number of false labors and circulation problems.

Leaving our sleeping bags and gear behind, we climb in our old Toyota Corolla and drive five minutes down a dusty and uncomfortably bumpy road to the nearest town to find a phone. As I wait in the front seat, Darryl disappears into the booth to call the local country hospital just fifteen minutes up the road. He emerges much too soon with a report.

‘Um, I called Masterton Hospital. They said our baby would be too small to be born there.’

‘What? Do they have a size limit on babies? How can they turn us away?’

My eyes glance down to my pitifully undersized stomach which, up until now, had seemed like an unexpected benefit. In fact, my tummy’s so flat that a number of acquaintances don’t yet know I’m pregnant.

‘She said we need to be at a bigger hospital with a baby this premature.’

This news is like shooting adrenaline into my womb, the contractions speeding up instantly.

‘Call the midwife, please!’ I say through the half-open car window, panting with fear, trying to resist the rapid creep of self-pity.

Darryl slips obediently back into the booth but pops his head out almost immediately.

‘The phone card just ran out of money and this phone doesn’t take coins. Do you have a card, Sue?’

‘That one was mine, remember? Don’t you have one?’ Tipping the contents of his wallet on the hood of the car, searching, he shakes his head.

A few minutes later, after negotiating some complex terms of payment with the telephone operator, Darryl’s back in touch with the midwife.

‘My contractions are every five minutes now,’ I call out to no one in particular, baring my teeth in an unattractive, snarling dog way.

A moment later he hangs up the phone, steps out of the booth and then stops to carefully place all of the cards back in his wallet before getting in the car.

‘Okay, the midwife says we should drive to Wellington,’ he explains while tuning the radio station, as if passing on a message about overdue library books. ‘If the pain worsens or the contractions become more frequent we need to call an ambulance.’

‘Doesn’t she realize we have to drive over the Rimutaka mountains to get toWellington? That will be ninety minutes and we would never find a phone booth on this road.’

‘Good point,’ he says, nodding. ‘I guess we had better get moving.’

The Rimutaka road is remote, narrow and exceptionally windy. It’s a route you might choose on a sunny Sunday afternoon to enjoy the spectacular views back over the Wairarapa valley and its magnificent vineyards. But only with a sturdy stomach. On this particular night, light rain splatters the windows and a low-hanging fog surrounds the car, closing in around us, thick and palpable. Like fear. I begin to pray in short sentences, slurring my words, drunk with worry. Please, please, please.

I then start repeating soothing mantras in my head. Everything’s going to be fine. I’m okay. The baby will be okay. Everything’s going to be fine. I’m okay. The baby will be okay. Everything’s…

It’s nearly five o’clock in the morning by the time we arrive in Wellington, a capital city which can look slightly sleepy on a bustling day. Before dawn on this morning in January, the height of the southern hemisphere summer when much of the nation is still away lounging at the beach, we don’t see a single person on the street. It takes a few minutes of knocking at the door of the delivery ward before we’re admitted but thankfully, on account of New Zealand’s excellent public health system, we’re not asked for either proof of insurance or a credit card prior to entry.

We’re shuffled into a small single room where I’m hooked up to a monitor. Our midwife, Karen, arrives at the hospital just after we do, with matted hair, a crumpled blouse and surprisingly tidy lipstick. I have seen her regularly throughout the pregnancy and I know she has been delivering babies for twenty years; her presence is a relief. A doctor arrives about the same time. Yes, he says matter-of-factly, the baby looks okay. And, yes, it is on its way. Today. Definitely.

I am tempted to grab him by the collar—our doctor with his wire-rimmed glasses and pimpled face who doesn’t look old enough to legally drink a beer much less determine when babies are coming—pull his face close to mine and yell, ‘Do something about this, please. I’m not ready to have a baby!’

When the adolescent medic leaves the room, Darryl and I both dissolve into sobs. My tears aren’t surprising—I cry as well as he sleeps—but his are unsettling, seen so rarely in our five years together. He is generally a brick; calm and reasoned. But now he looks rattled with his sleep-short blue eyes lined with red streaks and unbrushed mess of hair. He’s still wearing the faded black sweat pants and Stanford t-shirt he wore to bed last night. He rubs away the tears with the back of his hand. In a way it’s oddly reassuring to see him crying, reminded that he’s as invested in this as I am; the responsibility is not mine alone to have this baby properly.

All I have with me is my own grubby t-shirt, black biking shorts and sandals. What about the soothing Mozart and organic nibbles for energy in labor? We planned to get organized in the final two months of the pregnancy, after this past two-week holiday with Darryl’s family. We had hiked and camped around the tip of the rugged Coromandel Peninsula further up the North Island, then sprawled lazily at Waihi Beach with the relatives at their cozy old beach house. After Waihi, Darryl and I had crammed our Toyota full of beach gear, windsurfers and his two brothers, Grant and Kevin—all four of us over 6’2” tall. (At our wedding in California five years earlier, Grant had quipped that Darryl was marrying me because I was the only woman to meet the family height requirement. Funny, until you’re trying to pack twenty-five feet of family into a compact car.) Then we had driven south to the gentle Wairarapa for a few days of pleasant gliding, the brothers continuing on to Wellington.

So we haven’t managed to shop for the baby clothes, crib, stroller or car seat, nor have we started converting our office into the baby’s room. It’s still housing just a desk, filing cabinet and old boxes. As for names, there isn’t even a decent shortlist.

‘Are you going to the cricket tonight?’ asks a red-headed nurse to someone behind her as she enters our room, passing closely by the end of my bed and stopping with her hand lightly resting on my foot. ‘Susan, I’m just going to put another monitor on your tummy, okay?’

Right then a contraction hits and the nurse dissolves from my view as I focus on the second-hand of the wall clock. Five, ten, fifteen seconds. Breathe. Twenty, twenty-five. As the jolt fades, the nurses’ conversation breaks in again.

‘Rick is trying to get me to go with him to the cricket but, my god, how much of it can you take in one summer? So I said to him, “What about going to the movies instead. “Apollo 13” is just out and I thought both of us might like that.”’

‘Yeah, so what did he say?’

‘Oh, you know that whining tone, “But the cricket season is only here for such a short time…”’

‘Of course. But before you know it rugby season will be here!’

‘Exactly.’

The nurses are kind though, like the doctor, appear disturbingly underage. And their lightweight bedside chatter is unsettling, so far removed from the forever nature of the responsibilities about to descend on us. I thought I knew the hardcore tales of parenting, but mostly they warn of disjointed sleep and vomit on your best blue blouse, not babies calling the shots on when to arrive and in what state of readiness. One of the nurses offers to take Darryl upstairs to the Neonatal Unit. I watch as my normally oh-so-relaxed husband mutely follows her out of the room. I can see that he’s trying to digest the news of his looming fatherhood, chewing on it, forcing it down, like swallowing tough meat. Upstairs she apparently points out babies of similar size to what ours might be. After twenty minutes in the neonates, he returns with little to report.

‘Well, what was it like?’ I prod, after he sits down and picks up the remnants of the morning newspaper.

‘Hot.’

‘Hot? What was hot?’

‘The Neonatal Unit. Apparently they have to keep it warm because the babies can struggle to maintain their body temperature.’

‘Did the babies look, you know, okay?’

‘Yeah, fine. Small, very small.’

A short time later Kevin and Grant turn up with an enormous armful of flowers and huge broad grins. We had left them just a day earlier after a big Mexican dinner, none of us expecting this. Grant was meant to be driving north to Auckland this morning and then flying home toNew York within a few days; Kevin ought to be at work. Instead they’re here to welcome the first of the family’s next generation and their light-heartedness is just what we need. As they arrive I have just had an epidural and am, well, pleasant again. Darryl describes me as ‘transformed’.

Hours pass relatively uneventfully as we wait for the labor to get into gear. By about midday the brothers have called half the population of New Zealand—not that difficult really—to say we’ll be having a baby today. Grant and Kevin are both single, globe-trotting twenty-somethings. In fact, after our wedding near San Francisco, Kevin had managed to find work in the Bay Area, loitering around us much of our first year of marriage. He then moved to London about when we did, becoming our longest-staying housemate as he stayed with us for over a year. Ironically, when we moved to New Zealand a year ago he also took a job in Wellington, arriving a few days before us. It’s beginning to feel like we’re being tagged by Interpol. Grant, who also lived in London when we did, is now somewhat more settled in a banking job in New York. Though neither of them are anywhere near having kids of their own, they’re giddy with excitement.

While we wait, the three brothers amuse themselves reciting comments they’ve heard dads should avoid during childbirth. ‘Oops! Which cord was I supposed to cut?’ And, ‘If you think this hurts, I’ll tell you about the time I got hit in the shin with a cricket ball…Oh man, that hurt.’

The young medical team comes and goes, sprinkling into each conversation more possible complications premature babies can face. They advise us that our child might not come home from the hospital for weeks or possibly even months. Months! Luckily our house is only ten minutes up the road, out along the coast in a suburb called Island Bay, but how would we manage months here? Piece by piece the image of normalcy, good health and ease which we have tried to build up over the pregnancy is dismantled.

Eventually we’re moved into the delivery room, Kevin taking up our offer to join us but Grant declining immediately, a vaguely panicked look flashing past his eyes. ‘I’ll call the family once the baby comes,’ he adds, heading back down the hall toward the nurse’s station.

And then, surprisingly sudden after all that waiting, he is here. And he’s a boy. And it doesn’t seem so bad that he turned up early and without a name or a stroller. He’s wrapped up so tightly in a soft white blanket he looks like a little pupa, like I have given birth to a tiny caterpillar. As sweet as he is, he’s also apparently too grey and not enough pink, so after a rushed photo he’s swept upstairs to his new home.

We are left exhausted and relieved.

Next

Upside of Down to be published

13 Comments

  1. Amazingly, quite fascinating. Even though I was aware of some of this as it happened, hearing in your voice kept me turning pages.

  2. Wonderful post, Susan! Ann put the link on Facebook and I was curious. Than engrossed. I’ll be back.

  3. Michele Burdick

    I can’t wait to read the book!!!!! I love a book that has me laughing and anxiously awaiting the next page all at once. So glad I know he is a strapping teenager as you write this – didn’t remember his early start on top of everything else!

  4. Andy Griffiths

    I’m looking forwArd to reading more!

  5. Peggy Begor

    remember I am coming to the first signing!!

  6. Kim Gordon

    Hi Susan, I enjoyed reading this and am looking forward to reading more!

  7. Congratulations on the website!

  8. GRUBB MF

    As I read through it seems like yesterday as Armelle was 16 yesterday ! Of course I cannot wait for the book (in french may be !!!!). XXXX
    Marie-France

  9. Susan,
    Such a wonderful story, from such a wonderful book.
    Your writing is that beautiful balance of humour and pathos.
    Cannot wait to see this in print.
    Kate

  10. RJ Moriconi

    Susan…
    Please let your editor know my very positive response to your excerpt from THE UPSIDE OF DOWN. You handle the language beautifully, being able to depict events, locations, emotions, and thoughts so that the reader is there with you. Your empathy is so apparent, as well as your bright sense of humor. Your intelligent, perceptive, humane approach to life really comes through. Brava! And keep at it.
    RJ Moriconi
    Modesto, CA

  11. Cora

    as ann said – love hearing your voice, and visiting with you by reading my way through on New Year’s Eve while my kids have simultaneous nerd parties here : )

  12. Liat Harrower

    OK, I’m hooked. September can’t arrive soon enough now.

  13. Marcie

    Dear Susan, we read this before and enjoyed it even more this time. What a wonderful way you have of storytelling! Aldo, such good news about Aidan! Marcie

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