It was precisely 4:15 in the morning on Wednesday, December 16, 1987, when I felt a tugging on my hand. I had been deep in sleep and was a bit confused as my brain made the switch from dreams back into the real world. The word surreal defined the moment, as I realized my cat was gently tugging on my hand with her mouth. She had never done this before and I was still too drugged with sleep to wonder what it was all about. I pushed her away and was hit with the overwhelming need to pee that only women pregnant in their ninth month can understand. And just as quickly, I felt as though I was going to vomit. Millie, the cat, jumped back up on my bed and began to meow at me, only it was more of a moan. Something clearly wasn’t right with her, but something clearly wasn’t right with me either. Again I pushed the cat away. I slowly rolled out of the bed and managed to make it to the bathroom and back.
I lay in my bed quietly, completely attentive to every sensation in my body. My two-year-old daughter was asleep in the next room and my husband was finishing up his night shift at work. He’d be home in about an hour or so. Kate was recovering from a bout of the flu, and I wondered if I had caught the bug. Pretty rotten timing on my part. Christmas was a week away, I was due to give birth any day, and the stomach flu comes into the house.
What if? I wondered. No, it didn’t feel like labor at all. But it didn’t feel like the flu either. Millie was once again on my bed, moaning and pacing. “What is your problem?” I asked her. Another wave of nausea hit me and I rolled over onto my side. I stared at the phone on my bedside table and decided to call the hospital and talk to the nurse on duty and get some peace of mind. As it turned out, the on-call nurse was the mother of one of my husband’s friends. She was always so practical and not one to exaggerate. Instantly I was comforted knowing I could trust whatever she told me. We talked through my symptoms and the fact that Kate had the stomach flu. We both agreed I just needed to take it easy, drink lots of fluids, and get some extra rest. As we talked, the cat was having another fit of moaning and I decided she needed to go outside. I stood up at the side of my bed, about to hang up the phone, and with a thud I felt the baby drop and my water broke. The nurse and I laughed. It wasn’t the flu after all! I told her I’d get my stuff together and I’d be headed for the hospital shortly.
My mind was racing like crazy now, wondering how I was going to clean up the mess of “broken water,” who I should call to watch Kate until her dad got home, who could take me to the hospital this early in the morning, and what in the world is going on with the cat, and I need to go pee again. I made it to the doorway of the bathroom when the first contraction hit me like a brick. Down to my knees I fell, out of breath and in complete agony.
Breathe!! My brain screamed to my lungs. On all fours, I breathed and puffed and got through the contraction, but I was exhausted. I rolled over and lay on the bathroom floor to catch my breath. There was still enough oxygen in my brain for me to realize I was in trouble and needed help. Unfortunately, it was 1987 and portable phones were not yet on the scene. The only way I was going to get help was to make it back to the phone in the bedroom or to the phone in the kitchen. I decided the phone in the kitchen was the best one to get to as it had a really long cord and I could probably stretch it down the hall to the bathroom.
I was about to get up and get the phone when another contraction slammed hard and took my breath away again. I puffed and focused as best I could and as soon as the contraction was done, I moved as quickly as I could to get to the kitchen phone. One of my sisters lived five minutes away and she could get to me the fastest. Her husband answered the phone.
“I’m in labor,” I told him. “Dave’s still at work and I need help fast.”
“We’re on our way.”
I hung up the phone and fought through the beginnings of another contraction as I made my way back to the bathroom floor. I lay there, knowing help was on the way, and tried to relax. And then I realized, the front door was locked. It was a steel door and there was no way anyone was getting in the house unless I unlocked it. Another contraction hit and I followed the breathing exercises I had learned when my first baby was born. I focused my thoughts on how long it would take me to get up, get to the split-entry stairs, get down the first flight to unlock the door, and then get back to the bathroom. Contractions had been about two minutes apart and I figured I could do it. As soon as I did my cleansing breath, I was rolling onto my side and making my way to the front door. What I hadn’t figured into my equation was the force of gravity. I made it down the flight of stairs and unlocked the front door, but was knocked to my knees again when another contraction came much sooner than I had predicted. I lay with my feet at the door and my body pressed into the steps, praying to Blessed Virgin Mary to help see me through this.
The contraction wasn’t fully over, but it had lessened enough that I could move and I crawled up the stairs, down the hall, and back into the bathroom. I knew another contraction would be coming and I wasn’t disappointed. I told myself to relax and breathe through it. I can do this! Help is on the way!
(Many years later my brother-in-law told me my sister was in such a hurry to leave her house to get to me that she forgot to put on a shirt. She got outside in the cold winter air and screamed. She ran back in and grabbed a sweatshirt while he got the car started.)
As the contraction ended I heard the front door fly open and hit the wall, then heavy footsteps on the stairs. My sister and her husband stared at me, and what a sight I was. My nightgown was a mess from when my water broke. And I lay half in and half out of the bathroom. My brother-in-law tried to tell me he could take me to the hospital (it was a thirty minute drive on a good day, and this was a bitterly cold and icy winter morning). I looked at my sister and told her to call an ambulance, just as another contraction hit. My sister bolted to the kitchen phone and my brother-in-law gave me his hands to hold onto. I squeezed his thumbs, evidently with super human strength, and he cried out in pain. My sister came running with the long-corded phone. The police dispatcher had put her directly through to the doctor at the hospital. My good luck was extended—the doctor on call that morning was my doctor.
And so we waited. I faithfully did the breathing exercises and the puffing to prevent pushing with each contraction. My brother-in-law sat in the hallway at the side of my head, trying to say soothing things to me but essentially had no idea what he was saying or doing. And my sister stood in the hallway on the long-corded phone giving updates to the doctor at the hospital. Once in a while she would come into the bathroom and look to see if a head was crowning. It was a complete miracle that Kate managed to sleep through all the commotion.
My brother-in-law couldn’t understand what was taking the ambulance so long. And he thought the police should have been there by then. (A couple of days later we learned two police cars had circled the house waiting for the ambulance to arrive first.) My sister was growing nervous that she might have to deliver the baby.
I lay there helpless on the bathroom floor. Another contraction hit and I heard familiar footsteps come up the stairs. My husband was home from work an hour early. That never happened! Another stroke of good luck.
“Thank God!” my brother-in-law shouted. “What are we supposed to do?”
Dave looked at him and shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t a clue.”
I directed them both to a maternity book (about 600 pages long) that I had on my bedside table and told them to look at the chapter on emergency births. They looked at each other as if I had just spoken in Greek and another contraction hit. My husband knelt at my side and talked me through the breathing. What a relief it was to have him there.
And then the ambulance crew arrived. And right behind them were two police officers. The two EMTs crowded into the small bathroom with me and the two police stood in the hallway with my husband, my brother-in-law, and my sister—who was still on the phone with the doctor.
There wasn’t any time for introductions as another contraction came hard. The EMTs unpacked their bags and tried to create a somewhat sterile environment to welcome the baby.
“Okay, when the next contraction comes I want you to push,” the female EMT instructed me. I obeyed, but nothing happened. We tried it again and still nothing happened. My husband realized I was growing nervous and tried to calm me down. My sister was no longer on the phone. (Unknown to me, when there was no progress after the second push, the doctor hung up the phone and got in his car to come to our house. Except he had no idea where we lived. He had heard an intersection on the police radio and headed for that spot, thinking he would be able to see flashing lights. But we lived another mile away from that intersection, so he couldn’t find us. It was 4:45 in the morning and a friend of ours just happened to be leaving his house headed to work. The doctor flagged him down on the road and asked him if he knew us and where we lived. Our friend recognized the doctor and told him where to find our house.)
“Wait!” The female EMT shouted. “We need to sit her up. She can’t be lying flat.”
My husband and brother-in-law each took one of my shoulders and propped me up. A contraction came and so did the baby’s head.
“Stop! Don’t push!” the EMT cried out. My husband and brother-in-law lowered me back down. The EMT worked her fingers around the baby’s neck to free the umbilical cord. “Okay, go ahead.” I pushed with all my might.
The male EMT exclaimed, “It’s a girl!” and placed the baby on my belly. The female EMT shouted out, “Time of birth, 4:58.” When my first daughter was born, she had been born with the sack stuck to her skin. So they had wiped her down quickly before handing her to me. This newborn was covered in what looked like cottage cheese and her skin was tinted blue. I must have registered shock on my face because the male EMT took my hand and placed it on the baby’s back. “You need to rub her,” he said gently. The whole house grew quiet.
And so I rubbed life into that precious little baby. She turned pink and cried out. Everyone shouted for joy, and baby Kate was finally awakened by all the noise and commotion. My sister went and got Kate and brought her to the scene on the bathroom floor. Little Kate, at two years old, understood exactly what had transpired. “The baby came out!” she said. And then I heard the doctor’s voice. “Looks a little crowded in there,” he said.
“We just made room for one more,” the female EMT said. “We can make room for you too!”
“I can’t believe you’re here,” I said to him.
“Looks like I missed another of your births,” he joked. Yes, my first baby had come while he had taken his supper break and the doctor on call had ended up delivering.
He pushed on my belly and helped me deliver the placenta, then checked out the precious new bundle. (An hour after her birth, Rose weighed in at 9 pounds 4 ounces!) The doctor was satisfied that all was well and the EMTs began to pack up their things and bring in a stretcher to take me out to the ambulance and to the hospital.
My husband carried the newborn out to the ambulance. And as the police carried me down the steps to the front door, Kate yelled at them, “Be careful!” And then when we got outside, they debated if they should walk down the steps or down the front yard. They decided to avoid the steps. They took a few steps into the yard and proceeded to slip and fall, but I was strapped in and okay.
At-home births were pretty rare in our area in 1987, and Rose’s birth made the front page of the county newspaper on Christmas Eve. The whole experience sure proved to us the miracle of birth and the blessings of Christmas.