In the old days, fathers were not allowed in the delivery rooms. Admittance for them beyond a series of swinging doors even in the early stages of a wife’s labor was strictly forbidden.
Go, sit in the waiting room, watch the television high up on the wall, we’ll keep you informed of the ritual secret birth and call you when your life has changed in unimaginable ways, when you and your wife are forever marked as blessed by a tiny life you’ll come to love above all else. So go on, pace the halls and lobby of The Woman’s Hospital if you must but never ever go through those swinging doors because you are germ-filled and are only the father.
Dee woke me early Thanksgiving in the still-dark morning and told me she was in labor. No old Dick Van Dyke routine with a cap on the top of the headboard, ready to sit up in bed and put it on in one quick motion, no fumbling for a suitcase that springs open and dumps all the womanly clothing and items needed after becoming a mother. It was simply excitement and a call to the doctor who said he would meet us at the hospital. So eyes puffy from lack of sleep, excited heartbeats felt in our throats, we met the doctor and he said Dee was barely dilated, to go on home and enjoy Thanksgiving. So we mentally put my baseball cap back on the headboard and had breakfast and waited for the Thanksgiving meal at Dee’s mother’s apartment. Miriam had baked the requisite turkey and her usual delicious fare of dressing and squash and butterbeans and cranberries cooked fresh that morning, a late afternoon feast with Dee’s brothers, David and Ricky, rounding out the family.
Once seated and no prayer, my first forkful of food heading toward my mouth, I swear, the first forkful heading up on an arc toward waiting teeth and tongue, and Dee said quietly, My water just broke. My fork clattered down on the plate and catapulted a piece of turkey to the other side of the white linen tablecloth like some invading eat-or-die mongrel hoard launching the only ammunition they had left.
A quick trip home to retrieve the suitcase and we were back at the hospital, me handling the check-in paperwork, Dee in a wheelchair facing the corridor of swinging doors leading to the Labor Room and, ultimately, the Secret Birth Room and special reclining chairs with here’s-one-for-the-boys-in-the-balcony leg stirrups in a wishbone Y. Hurried kisses and reassuring hugs, finally losing sight of Dee through a small window before being exiled in the waiting room.
Dee attempted Natural Child Birth but it was a long hard labor, stretching on into the night and all the next day, so long, in fact, that when they did finally wheel an exhausted Dee into the hallway and finally allowing me back by her side, she put her hand on my face and told me we had a daughter and wondered if worry made a man’s beard grow.
When she went into labor with Jennifer two years later, two weeks after Christmas in January of 1972, Dee remembered the two long days trying to deliver Laurie. She started holding out her arm for a shot as soon as we hit the hospital parking lot—or at least as soon as we cleared the first doors of the hospital. But Jen’s birth came much easier, not nearly the physical ordeal of Laurie’s first appearance on the Cothern stage.
I posted a sign on the door of The Rainy Day Bookstore that we owned, saying the store would be closed for a day or so and giving proud father details on Jennifer’s birth and weight. A reporter for a newspaper from one of the smaller towns around Baton Rouge took a photograph of the birth notice and we were told it had been published, one of those feel good items smaller newspapers seemed particularly fond of trumpeting.
During the time both daughters were born, their historical holiday birthstones included the still raging Vietnam War and the sometimes violent push for racial equality. While the Beatles’ “Come Together” / “Something” was climbing Billboard’s Hot 100 as a two-sided single (and would peak at Number One on Laurie’s birthday of November 29, 1969), The Plain Dealer published shocking photographs of the massacre of Vietnam villagers at My Lai, and in a more subtle approach John Lennon returned his MBE medal to protest his government’s support of the war in Vietnam. Two days after Laurie was born (and something that concerned her father), the first Draft lottery was held in this country since World War II. Three days before Jennifer’s birth on the 13th of January, 1972, a local reporter and anchorman, Bob Johnson, and his cameraman, Henry Baptiste, were covering a rally for a group claiming to be Muslims from outside the state who parked cars in the middle of North Boulevard to protest racial discrimination. The crowd grew, 200 or more strong, deputies arrived, and bottles and bricks flew. Two by three they died, two deputies, three Muslims, and the enraged crowd attacked Johnson and Baptiste as they fled, and it was Baptiste, a black man, who dragged from the scene his co-worker and friend, Johnson, a now comatose white man, who would remain in a coma for almost four decades.
So in all the years down the road, there were celebrations of birthdays while historical events swirled amid the holidays, always making reflections of the season a little deeper, more poignant. The girls grew up so quickly, and in the rush and hassle of living day to day we sometimes blinded ourselves to the simple sentimental facts that no matter the season of discord in the world, loving and sharing and protecting and giving to one another were the best gifts we had to offer.