Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Preparing For the Afterlife

I held onto my heavy, round, taut stomach as the car swooped around a bend on Barnes Road.  I could just make out the shapes of trees in the dim light of the August dawn, their silhouettes leaning out over the narrow road that led to the hospital.  Ed and I had left our daughter at my parents' house and were now on our way to catch another baby.  I was nauseous and intent.  I had expected to have labor pains every few minutes.  I had not expected to have one continuous contraction that didn't let up.

We burst out of the Sullivan Gulch tunnel into the hills above Northwest Portland and slid down Lovejoy, where Ed pulled into the drive-around at the hospital entrance.  I got out of the car.  Something about my gait must have tipped off the staff in the lobby, because they met me at the door with a wheelchair.  Somehow we were in a delivery room and I found myself in bed in a blue cotton gown.  "Would you like a shower?" asked Henry, the young but balding delivery nurse.

"Unnnh!" I answered.

"I don't think we have time for that," Ed said.  "I think it's going pretty fast.

Henry gave me a quick exam and picked up the phone.  "Tell Dr. Ono to come briskly."  He looked at Ed and said with a cheerful smile, "She's at six centimeters already."  Ed, holding my hand, leaned over to give me a kiss.  I patted his cheek, and then as the pain intensified, my hand closed on his beard and I started to pull.  Something about the alarm in his eyes brought me back to reality enough to  let go, and he straightened up.  Dr. Ono came into the room, smiled at us and walked over to the sink to wash his hands.

I had known Al Ono for years.  He came to my voice recitals.  He was the only doctor I ever knew who would sit and chat with his patients for half an hour.  He looked like he was from Tokyo but really he was from Minnesota.  "Dr. Ono?" I managed to say.  "Can I get something for the pain?" I was proud that I had given birth to my daughter, ten years before, without so much as an aspirin.  This time, I was sure I would need a little help.

"Sorry, Brenda, it's too late.  You're going to be having this baby any minute now."  He looked at Ed.  "It's what we call precipitate labor.  Well, we thought this kid would come fast!"  He took one final look and told me to push.

I am a trained opera singer.  I have excellent lung capacity.  When I scream, it's loud.  Dr. Ono is a music lover.  "Brenda honey, be careful of your vocal cords.  If you can't keep from screaming, at least keep the pitch low."  I modulated the scream to a low growl.  "That's better.  Here he comes!"

Ed, looking down between my legs, suddenly looked surprised.  He told me later that a perfectly formed little head had appeared, the eyes had opened, and the baby took a breath.  Although I couldn't see it, we all heard what happened next.  Astonishingly, the baby sang, a seven-note pattern alternating down and up a minor third.  "Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!"  Then the rest of him slithered out into Dr. Ono's hands and the baby landed on my stomach.  A perfect little boy, blinking in the light.

"Baby, baby!" I tried to gather him up in my arms to a chorus of "No, no!  He's still attached!"  I waited impatiently as the cord was cut and Robin, for that is what we had agreed to call him, was wrapped up and handed to me.

He lay calmly in my arms.  I could tell that under the overlay of baby-blue, his eyes were going to be hazel, or maybe gold.  Oblivious to the after-birth medical activity in the room, I fell into Robin's intent gaze and felt my insides contract with love.

The nurse took him from my protesting arms.  Time for his first bath.  I steeled myself for him to cry, but when they slid him into the warm bath, his arms and legs relaxed and he floated on the water, still cooing, eyes closed blissfully.

I was just two months past my 37th birthday.  Robin was a loved and waited-for baby, but still...I wasn't entirely sure how this middle-aged mothering thing was going to work out.  I had already been a mom for ten years.  My daughter and I were well past the diapers and sleep deprivation stage.  I was overweight, out of shape, and wasn't sure how I was going to keep up with a little kid.

And before the pregnancy started, Dr. Ono had more to say about this whole idea.  Did I realize that the pregnancy-related health risks go up considerably after the mid-thirties?  Did I really want to be raising an adolescent while going through menopause?

But Ed really, really wanted another child.  So heigh-ho!  I didn't have much of an idea of what else I wanted to do with the rest of my life anyway.  I'll be 56 when he graduates from high school.  Clearly we'll be talking end-of-life issues.  Poor kid, with this old slow mom.  Once he grows up, he'll leave home and then I'll just sit around and wait for death.

Well, in the first place, I didn't know anything about what my forties were going to be like.  It's ironic that during the No Life Of My Own phase, I earned a Master's degree, lost 60 pounds, wrote two books and went back to performing.   I didn't plan on having a life exploding with friends and fun and possibilities so that I screeched into my mid-fifties feeling like I was just graduating from a high-end college and I'm a first-draft pick.

But mostly I didn't know anything about who  Robin was.  I just had this idea of "having a baby."  Just some random baby sent from the other side.

But it turned out to be Robin.

I've called him my "sound track boy," and that's true.  He's the show-biz kid.  He's been singing since that first breath.  For his first grade show, he sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" in front of 700 people, so professionally that the adults didn't know how to talk to him after the show.  It's all about the make-up and costumes for him.  When he was four, he wanted a beard so Ed put little pieces of masking tape all over his chin.  Oh, did that make him a happy boy!  He started channeling Harpo Marx in middle school and then went on to Monty Python in high school.  He wanted to wear a top hat to the first day of high school (I talked him out of it) and tried to pass himself off as a British exchange student his sophomore year (he would have gotten away with it, too, if everyone hadn't known him by then).  He asked for, and got, a tuxedo for his fifteenth birthday.  He sings like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.  He's in a close harmony men's group, and has sung with professional choirs with Pink Martini and the Portland and Seattle Symphonies.  Once, when he got home from a sixteen-hour day of rehearsing and performing, he said, "I'm tired of music, Mom."  Then he picked up his guitar and sang old folksongs for two hours.

Then there's his big heart.  He is capable of tremendous empathy, generosity, and courage.  If he's eating something, he'll give you half of it.  If you feel sad, he will drop whatever is going on for him to listen and say something thoughtful and encouraging and give you a hug.  He once kayaked into a strong current in the Puget Sound to save two kids who, having fallen out of their own boat  into icy water, were being pulled relentlessly away from shore.

It's true he was something of a fixer-upper.  He has had three heart procedures, major orthodonture, and a foot that was two sizes smaller than the other foot.  Until he was 16 and had surgery, he had no sense of hearing in one ear and no sense of smell.  We were very thankful for health insurance.  And yes, there were times when he just wouldn't do his homework and I thought my head would explode.  I didn't like that he left milk glasses on his floor until the ants found them.  I will not miss the old sock smell drifting out his door into the living room.  And yes, I have spent the last year driving him all over town for this rehearsal and to that friend's house, and putting in dozens of hours a week volunteering for his choral program until I'm going nuts because I can't get my own work done.

But during the past year, he's learned to manage a complicated performance schedule, taught himself to play the guitar, learned to drive, and built a happy relationship with a lovely girl.  He auditioned for college music programs and was accepted into his two favorite schools.  I would say that he's at the top of his game, except that I think he's just getting ready to launch.  We ain't seen nuthin' yet.

This spring, Robin got a three-month job for this summer, working as a cook at a camp in the San Juans.  So during this past spring, I've been thinking and thinking about how quiet the summer will be.  I'll get up the morning after he leaves and what'll I do?  Then I realized it's not just the summer.  Once he comes back from camp,  he'll be home for just three weeks before we pack him up and drive him to college.  My throat keeps closing up.  My friends say cynically, "Oh, don't feel too bad, he'll come back.  They all come back."

I actually find that kind of insulting.  They DON'T all come back.  Robin wants to be out on his own so badly.  He has job skills that will allow him to make a living right away.  And besides, there's no denying that this part of our relationship will be different.  After almost thirty years, the job of mothering won't be my daily life.  Suddenly I'm being propelled into an After Life.

I always say that I'm not worried about dying.  I wasn't aware of myself before I was born and probably I won't be aware after I die.  If I'd never had children, I wouldn't feel like my heart is being pulled out of  my chest.

But I do.

Last week, Ed and I drove Robin to the ferry in Anacortes, Washington, so he could travel the last leg of his ten-hour trip to Johns Island.  He had chosen this camp because he had attended as a camper for eight years, half of his life.  Two weeks of training and setting up the camp awaited him, then cooking from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. for three months.  From Portland to Anacortes is a five hour drive.  Robin slept most of the way, because he'd been up since 4:30 a.m. -- he'd had one last performance with his close harmony group, singing at the Rose  Festival ceremony -- what a wow finish to the year!  When he woke up, he looked a little lost.  It had been hard for him to walk out of his room that morning.

But as we entered Anacortes, we rounded a corner and suddenly, there was the Puget Sound and the wooded, rounded islands peering through the mist.  Robin smiled dreamily, tears in his eyes.  "This is home," he said.

"Welcome back," I said to him.  This is his dream job.  He loves the San Juans, he loves this camp, he loves the outdoors, and he loves to cook.  He'll be working with people he has liked and admired for years.

We pulled into the parking lot at the ferry terminal.  We got out of the car and made our way to a picnic table and sat down with our lunches.

"I see camp girls," Robin said through a mouthful of peanut butter sandwich.  I hadn't thought that, of course, half the camp staff would be catching this ferry.  "I better go get my stuff."  We went back to the car and unloaded Robin's trunk, backpack and guitar case.  He shouldered his backpack, picked up his guitar and one end of his trunk, loaded down but moving fast.  Ed ran around him to get a picture, and I have it with me now...Robin heading for his friends with a big grin on his face.

(Cue the music...)

Then we saw the ferry come around the headland.  Slowly it pulled into the dock.  Robin came trotting back to us.  Cars and bicyclists and walkers streamed past us, and then it was Robin's turn to board.  He turned, tears in his eyes, and all three of us hugged, hard.  Then we stood to the side while he pulled his luggage aboard.  He disappeared into the maw of the ferry.  We saw him again on the deck above us, standing in a group of friends.  He'd gotten out his guitar and they were already singing camp songs.  The ferry started to pull away, and he freed an arm to wave at us.

Arms around each other, Ed and I watched Robin float away across the water.  He was singing blissfully, eyes wide open.

(Music fades out...)

I'd like to say that's how it happened, but it isn't.  What happened is, I got out the sunscreen and handed it to him.  He put two streaks of sunscreen on his already red arms.  I said, "Here, let me get the back of your neck."

He looked at me, put up a hand and said, "Mom, I'm ready to say goodbye now.  I'll catch the ferry when it gets here."  He gave me a quick hug, hugged his dad, took the handle of his trunk and started rolling it down to the ferry dock where his friends were waiting.  Ed and I walked back to the parking lot and got in the car.

We drove back to Seattle.  As we were poking through the Pike's Street Market, we got a text from Robin.



The ride was a lot shorter than I thought it would be.  Thank you, Robin.  It was glorious.