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Authors: Michael Lewis

Home Game (8 page)

BOOK: Home Game
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like the right number to both of us until we had two, and even then it seemed sort of like the right number to me. Two was always the plan; five years ago, at fantastic expense, with the view to maximizing our living space while giving each child her own room, we'd torn up a four-bedroom house and made it into a three-bedroom house. Then one day Tabitha began to shoot me long, soulful looks at night and say things like, “I just feel like someone's missing.” She thought we should at least discuss the idea of having a third child, but of course all that meant was that she'd already made up her mind. It was up to me to prevent it, which is to say that it was only a matter of time before it happened. And that was that. Tabitha called the architect who had torn out the fourth bedroom, and told him we'd be building an addition.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

To the shriek of an alarm I awaken but don't move. What with the extra pillow and the warm blanket, the delivery room couch had proved surprisingly comfortable.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Having witnessed childbirth twice before, I have acquired this expertise: I know that alarms on delivery room machines are nothing to fear. Along with smoke detectors and airport security machines, they belong on the long list of devices in American life designed to cry wolf. Apart from that, here is the sum total of what I've learned waiting for my children to be born: (1)
arrive sober
; (2) do not attempt to be interesting, as it makes the nurses uneasy; (3) never underestimate your own insignificance; and (4) try to get some sleep, as no one else can. Of course, it is important to be present and conscious for the birth of your child. To miss it would be to invite scorn and derision and lead others to speak ill of you behind your back. But up until the moment the child is born, the husband in the delivery room is in an odd predicament. He's been admitted to the scene of the crisis but given no serious purpose. He's the Frenchman after the war resolution has passed.

I had just pressed a second pillow hard over my head to mute the alarm—it sounded as if it might be coming from the painkiller pump—and was very nearly asleep, when I heard a new voice. “You're ten centimeters,” it said.

The last time they'd brought the chains out onto the field, they'd measured her at a mere four centimeters. Ten was clearly forward progress, but it had been nearly five years, and I couldn't recall how many centimeters there were in a first down. I rose on the couch, and in the unnaturally bright tone of a man pretending he hasn't just been asleep, asked, “So…how many more centimeters we got to go?” That's when I noticed we had a new doctor. She looked at me strangely. “Ten centimeters means the baby's coming,” she said.


She'd been in the room only a couple of minutes, as it turned out. Before that, Tabitha had never seen or heard of her and—as the doctor now mentions—she's about to quit delivering babies and move to Detroit, so this is likely to be the extent of our relationship. “I'm Dr. Vay,” she says, and grabs a stool and a mask. It's 4:23 in the morning and the mood in the air, as far as I'm concerned, is giddy exhaustion. “Oy vey!” I holler as Dr. Vay moves into the catching position. Only somehow it comes out, “Ai vay!”

“It's oy vey, honey,” Tabitha says calmly. “Can you get the mirror?”

I find the mirror. In Berkeley, no birth is complete without a mirror. The belief here is that the mother, as she grunts and groans, should have all five senses fully engaged and pumping meaning into the experience. The ideal Berkeley birth has probably never actually happened, but if it has, it happened far from civilization, in the woods, without painkillers or doctors or any intervention whatsoever by modern medicine. Along one side of the birthing mother was a wall of doulas wailing a folk song; along the other, all the people she had ever known; at her feet, a full-length mirror, in which she watched her baby emerging; at her head, a mother wolf, licking and suckling. Incense-filled urns released meaningful, carbon-free odors. The placenta was saved and, if not grilled, recycled.

Tabitha never wanted the full Berkeley. But back when we started, seven and a half years ago, she gave a passing thought to employing a midwife instead of a doctor, and thought that it might make the experience more meaningful if she skipped the painkillers. She picked out music and found scented oils with which to be rubbed. To the immense irritation first of her obstetrician and then of herself, she hired a doula, who was meant to use said oils to massage her feet during the delivery, but instead went out for turkey sandwiches and never came back.

That was seven and a half long years ago. With her slender build and narrow hips and near-total intolerance of physical discomfort, my wife was ill-designed for childbirth. The first time around, in this very hospital, she began to hemorrhage. The doctors saved her life, and with so little drama that we didn't realize what they'd done until well after. The second time around, again in this hospital, they saved not only her but our second daughter, who had entered the birth canal at a historically tragic angle. Entering her third pregnancy, my wife lost interest in doulas and incense. She longs only for painless, antiseptic, impersonal modern medicine. Numb is good. If they ran tubes underground from hospitals to homes so that painkillers could be delivered in advance of labor, she might well have been their first paying customer. Of the original Berkeley Dream, the mirror's all she's got left.

“Can you feel the contractions happening?” the doctor asks.

“Slightly.” She's lying, thank God. If she felt a thing she'd be hollering.

Beep! Beep! Beep!
The painkiller pump, again. Another nurse appears—another stranger we're almost surely never again to lay eyes upon. “Angie needs a break,” she says. Angie's the nurse who still hasn't worked out what's going wrong with the painkiller. Angie exits. Dr. Vay prods and pushes and massages and waits. Behind her on the wall is a small sign, bearing the first words my child will see:
We Strive to Give Five Star Service.

“I think you're having one now. Push.”

Tabitha pushes, turns beet-red, and goes all bug-eyed.

“Maybe you shouldn't hold your breath,” I say helpfully. No one notices. A single thirty-minute nap and I've lost what little right I had to be heard.

“Can you feel anything at all?” the doctor asks.

“Not really.”

“Imagine you're trying to poop,” says the doctor.

Worried that imagining might make it so, I retreat up and away from ground zero, and stroke the tippy-top of my wife's head. But this just further isolates me as the character in search of a role—the carrot in the school play. Out of nothing more than a desire to seem busy, I grab hold of one of Tabitha's legs and pull it backward. Then, like the master on a slave ship counting the strokes, I begin to chant. “One, two, three…” I half expect the doctor and nurses to fall about laughing and tell me to stop, but they don't. I seem, in fact, to have written myself a speaking part. “One! Two! Three! One! Two! Three!” Tabitha pushes harder. Her eyes look as if they are about to pop out of her head and ricochet off the ceiling.

“Here it is.”

There comes a moment when I cease to be able to watch the birth of what is presumably my child with anything but horror. This is that moment. It's meant to be a beautiful sight—a thing to be videotaped or at least remembered, and played over and again in the mind—but it feels more like a hideous secret to be kept. But the damn mirror makes it hard to avoid. Ten minutes ago there was no place to hide; now there is no place to look.

Boy or girl? We didn't know. But girls were all we'd ever done, and we'd spent a lot less time arguing over boys' names than girls'. She'd gone from Clementine to Penelope to Phoebe to Scout and then back to Penelope. At midnight when the water broke all over the living room floor, we were just starting what I assumed would be a long creep back to Clementine. I liked the sound of Penny Lewis, but Clementine made you want to sing.

“That's the best push yet!” says the doctor. “One more time.”

“One, two, three…” I feel like Richard Simmons in one of his videos.
You can do it!

“One more just like that.”

“One! Two! Three!”

Next comes the sound of a hairless dog escaping from quicksand.

“It's a boy!”

And with that, Walker Jack Lewis comes into the world.

Tabitha from the delivery room to the recovery room, Stage 1 ends and Stage 2 begins. For the whole of Stage 1, a father performs no task more onerous than seeming busy when he isn't. Nothing in Stage 1 prepares him for Stage 2, when he becomes, in a heartbeat, chauffeur, cook, nurse, gofer, personal shopper, Mr. Fixit, sole provider, and single parent. Stage 2 is life as a Mexican immigrant, with less free time. Entering Stage 2, I know from experience, I have between twenty-four and forty-eight hours before I'm overwhelmed by a tsunami of self-pity. I set out to make the most of them.

The first assignment is to fetch our seven-and four-year-old daughters from home so that they can meet their new baby brother and see firsthand the joy of partial disinheritance. The birth is supposed to have put them into a delicate psychological state. As I enter the house, I see no trace of it, however, or, for that matter, of them. Just inside the front door lies the shrapnel from an exploded giant Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. In the kitchen is the residue of what seems to have been a pancake breakfast for twenty. Dishes long banished from use have migrated out of the backs of kitchen cabinets, toys untouched for years litter their bedroom floors. Exactly thirteen hours ago, at midnight, our kind and generous next-door neighbors left their own bed for ours, so that we might go to the hospital and have a baby. Briefly, I have the feeling that if I turned around and walked away, my children would very happily use these new grown-ups to create a new life for themselves and never think twice about it.

At length, I find them, at play with their benign overlords in the courtyard. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” they shriek.

We embrace histrionically. They know where I've been, and they know their mother has given birth. But instead of asking the obvious question—to what?—they race off to find various works of art they've created in the past six hours. “You have a baby brother!” I shout at their vanishing backs. A baby brother, as it happens, is exactly what they both claimed to least want. “A baby brother!” they shriek.

I've never been able to feel whatever it is I'm meant to feel on great occasions, so I shouldn't expect them to, either. But of course I do. It's not until they climb into the minivan that they finally get a grip. “Daddy?” asks Dixie, age four, from her seat in the third row. “How does the baby get out of Mama?”

This minivan is new. I've never been in the same car with a person who still seemed so far away. In the rearview mirror, her little blond head is a speck.

I holler back what little I know.

“Daddy?” asks Quinn, age seven.

“Yes, Quinn.”

“How do cells get from your body into Mama's body?”

We wheel into the hospital parking lot.

“Help me look for a parking spot.”

That distracts her: They love to look for parking spots. In the Bay Area, looking for parking spots counts as a hobby. One day when they are grown, their therapists will ask them, “What did you and your father do together?” and they will say, “Look for parking spots.”

We find a spot and instantly the race is on to the hospital elevators, followed by the usual battle-to-the-death to push the up/down button, followed by the usual cries from Dixie that because Quinn pushed the up/ down button she has first dibs on the floor button, followed by Quinn's usual attempt to push the floor button, too. Since not long after Tabitha began to balloon, they've treated every resource as scarce; one of anything has become
casus belli
; no object is too trivial to squabble over. A Gummi Worm vitamin, for instance, or a ripped pair of stockings. Produce in their presence an actually desirable object—an elevator button in need of punching or, God forbid, a piece of candy—and you'll have screams inside of a minute and tears inside of two. Oddly enough, they used to get along.

When the elevator doors open onto the third floor—all smiles, you'd never know how narrowly they'd just averted bloodshed—they come face to knee with Shirley. Shirley is the large and intimidating security guard assigned to prevent the twelve thousand babies born each year in the Alta Bates hospital from being stolen. She must be a success at it, as she's been guarding them even longer than we've been making them. This is the very same Shirley who, seven and a half years ago, prevented Quinn from being abducted at birth, and thus spared some poor kidnapper years of sleep deprivation.

But even Shirley presents the girls with no more than a small speed bump in their endless race. Security badges gleefully grabbed, they resume their competition to see who will be the first to find Mama's room, Number 3133. Advantage Quinn, again, as Dixie can't read any number greater than ten. With Dixie behind her running as fast as her little legs will carry her and screeching, “Wait for me, Quinn!” Quinn flies to her mother's hospital door. And there, amazingly, she stops in her tracks. The big, cold recovery room door is too much for even her to barrel through. She knocks nervously and announces her presence, giving Dixie just time enough to catch up.

“Just let me put some clothes on!” I hear Tabitha shout.

That's not what she's doing. She's setting the stage.

Much effort, none of it mine, has gone into preparing for this moment. She's bought and read them countless books about sibling rivalry; taken them to endless sibling prep classes at the hospital; rented many sibling-themed videos narrated by respected authorities—
Dora the Explorer
for Dixie,
for Quinn; watched with them, every Sunday night, their own old baby videos; and even bought presents to give to them
from the baby
when they visit him in the hospital. Before this propaganda blitz, our children may or may not have suspected that they were victims of a robbery, but afterward they were certain of it. Hardly a day has passed in months without melodramatic suffering. One afternoon I collected Dixie from her preschool—to take one of approximately six thousand examples—and learned that she'd moped around the playground until a teacher finally asked her what was troubling her. “When the baby comes, my parents won't love me as much,” she'd said. Asked where she'd got that idea from, she said, “My big sister told me.”

I've sometimes felt that we're using the wrong manual to fix an appliance—that, say, we're trying to repair a washing machine with the instructions for the lawn mower. But my wife presses on, determined to find room enough for three children's happiness. The current wisdom holds that if you seem to be not all that interested in your new child the first time the older ones come to see him, you might lessen their suspicion that he's come to pick their pockets. And so that's what she's doing in there: As her children wait at her hospital door, she's moving Walker from her bed into a distant crib.

“Okay, come in!”

They push through the door and into the room.

“Can I hold him, Mom?” asks Quinn.

“No, I want to hold him!” shouts Dixie.

And with that Walker's identity is established: one of something that we need two of. In less time than it takes an Indy pit crew to change a tire, Quinn's holding him and Dixie's waiting her turn, swallowing an emotion she cannot articulate and wearing an expression barely distinguishable from motion sickness.

BOOK: Home Game
3.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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