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The Birthday

03/23/2015 07:33 am ET | Updated May 23, 2015

THE BIRTHDAY
by Melissa Franco Reed

These days I come to New York City as infrequently as possible. When I lived here many years ago the sight of Manhattan's profile from my Brooklyn window fed some kind of energy to me, but no more.

I was going to be a famous journalist then, maybe even a novelist. He was a gifted writer and would toil at an appropriate "day job", saving evenings and weekends for his art until he was discovered. Together we would raise a couple of city-smart kids.

The taxi from LaGuardia crosses the bridge and I feel the inevitable disorientation that comes when I look for the towers. We used to take every hometown visitor up to its penthouse bar for drinks. Later, over moo shoo in nearby Chinatown, we'd offer up stories of Norman Mailer jogging on the Brooklyn Promenade, of film crews interrupting our daily commute to Manhattan, of our birds-eye view of the Bicentennial's tall ship parade.

"You here for Fashion Week?" the sweet-smelling cab driver asks.

I have forgotten. It is that chaotic five-day period when the world looks to New York to learn what it must wear in the coming year. The tents would be up in Bryant Park. I recall the September I got a guest pass through the magazine where I worked. I touted to my friends the deep wine-colored lipstick that seemed to be the rage on the runway. It was the only new thing I could afford that year but by mid-season I'd heeded my husband's suggestion that it wasn't my best look.

"No. Just take the FDR to Mount Sinai Hospital, please."

"Nothing bad, I hope." God, he smells strong, like sweet incense or bad aftershave.

I smile, happy to be pulled back to the present. "No, not at all. My daughter's having a baby."

He grins. "Her first?"

"Yes. My first grandchild." His scent is making me slightly nauseous now. He smiles in the rear view mirror and we continue in silence.

I try to calculate the hours Shelley has been in labor. The call came at six-thirty this morning, so that would be, what, eight or nine hours so far? A first baby usually takes eighteen hours, start to finish, at least that's what I learned on-line. That was not my experience though. I can still remember the urgency with which the nurse greeted me when I arrived at labor and delivery thirty some years ago.

"Honey, there's no time for drugs. You're ready to push!"

Later, my doctor had cautioned that the next baby would likely arrive lightning quick. But there had been no next baby and, in fact, no next wedding anniversary. The responsibility of fatherhood had tipped its hand well before the going got rough, and Shelley's dad had taken a lifetime pass just months after we'd brought her home from the hospital. It should have come as no surprise, although I wouldn't have admitted it then.

Damaged, I'd left New York for the safer, more affordable Midwest, where the rest of my family lived. I promised myself at the time that I'd go back someday and pick up where I'd left off. But the moment was lost and I never did. Today I am the corporate communications officer of a leading grocery chain.

In the beginning of our separation, I was bitter and wanted nothing but to keep her apart from him. Dark and moody, the result perhaps of two brutal years in Vietnam, he exuded an aura which was, at times, frightening.

The metaphors of war entered all aspects of our life. A messy diaper evoked the scent of rotting flesh in the Nam jungle. A stray firework over the Fourth of July holiday conjured up enemy gunfire. And, a family recipe called "dump cake", which required that one dump various cans of sweet things into the pan, was deemed inedible because it brought to mind the army mess.

I look up in surprise as the driver complains about gridlock. "Traffic is stopped dead. It's a bad time of day..."

After a split second consideration, I hit speed dial to call Jack. Maybe calling him now will annoy him, but she is my only daughter, having her first baby.

Jack is his usual calm self. "We're fine, Grandma," he assures me. "Just waiting for the doctor to do the epidural, but he's stuck in an emergency C-section."

"Shelley. How is she?"

"Yes, I'll be waiting in a few minutes at the nurses' station." He is talking in code, I know. She is surely in agony.

I end the call in frustration and look out the window. We are standing still, bumper to bumper.

For the longest time, I couldn't come to New York, even on business, without a nervous stomach. I lived in fear that I would run into him. One visit I sat in a corner bistro in lower Manhattan, waiting for lunch, when I saw him walk up to the restaurant's take-out window. I thought he looked seedy, the back of his corduroy jacket seemed worn. His hair was shaggy. My heartbeat filled my ears and I froze until I saw him gather up a take-out bag and shoulder his way through the glass door without seeing me.

I can come fearless to the city now. He is dead going on five years. The circumstances surrounding his death were sad. A neighbor found him three days following what the coroner said was a heart attack. He lived alone all the years after he left us, dabbling at his writing, immersing himself in liberal causes. When he died, I guess I had my last chance to return and pick up in the city where I'd left off. The knowledge that it could be mine again kept me going, through years of failed romances and job disappointments. But then the day arrived, and it seemed, the moment had passed. Besides, it was Shelley's turn.

A winning entry in a journalism contest had earned her an internship at Conde Nast, which lead to a full-time job, a walk-up in a good neighborhood, a long season of youthful indulgence, and, finally, Jack. For the moment at least, she has it all.

The air conditioning isn't working well and I roll the window down a few inches. Breathing deeply now, and staring at the river, I recall, in spite of myself, the day we had watched the tall ships sail into Manhattan's harbor in celebration of the Bicentennial. So many years ago, but a good memory lingers of baking in the July sunlight on a Brooklyn rooftop, watching the procession with friends, passing cheap wine. The event had inspired a poem, which I remember now as pretty good, although it had been rejected by one of those nameless poetry journals. He was still submitting work back then.

The promise of his early work was palpable. The professors who, one after another, validated his talent as a rare one, the regular invitations to read at community colleges, and the ongoing correspondence with other writers all convinced me that his was a gift worth sacrifice.

When did the discouragement swallow him, along with the drugs and the bourbon?

It surely wasn't the first year after we arrived in New York. Everything was good then, the dirty city air felt ripe with promise. That Saturday we stood in line in Times Square, determined to get half price tickets to anything that was available. Our first Broadway show, and it turned out to be "Pippin", seen from fabulous discounted orchestra seats. I can still feel the full body chills I got when the chorus danced along the apron of the stage, looking straight at me and singing "we've got magic to do..." In that moment, I was certain that at least one of us would write a Broadway play or publish a memoir or become the poet laureate.

Later that evening, over Chicken Sardi, which was the least expensive entree on the famed restaurant's menu, we agreed that anything was possible. Our caricatures might hang on the walls there someday.

But then, a few years went by and he became increasingly disillusioned with the advertising world which employed him. His boss, the golden boy of the agency, coasted for months after creating the slogan: "Lipton's got the goods!" for the tea manufacturer. Hours of meetings were devoted to its grammatical appropriateness, but in the end it was agreed that "Lipton has the goods!" didn't have the same ring. He called in sick too many times.

Shelley, named for a poet, had surely triggered the final cataclysm that swept our lives in the months following her birth. The financial demands, my desire that we lead a more structured life, the "nine to five" job that curtailed his creativity, all helped break us down. My heart, when I remember that time, is softer now.

"Do you know if it's a girl or a boy?" the cab driver asks.

"What? Oh, yeah, it's going to be a girl. Or, I mean, it is a girl."

I can admit to myself that it was no surprise when I learned I was pregnant. Call it short-sighted, call it selfish, but I have never wanted anything so badly.

How can I excuse myself, except to say I was young, and that I spent the next twenty years of my life trying to prove that my immaturity hadn't shortchanged her in any way. The sacrifices of career options, the necessary choices in love and life seem fair, finally, measured against my pride in this daughter.

The predictable divorce itself was a nightmare. At one point, we were disagreeing about visitation rights and he reminded me what I always knew. He had been trained to use a gun.

Over time he proved himself to be more hot air than danger, but not before I had indulged in some overreactions, like calling the police to sit on my street during a particular visitation. It was the year that "Kramer vs. Kramer" came out, and it wasn't lost on me that Dustin Hoffman got the boy.

Years went by and he seemed to evaporate. We heard little about him, except through a few remaining mutual friends and I gathered he had sought psychological help. Much later they would put a name to it: post traumatic stress syndrome, compliments of the Nam tour, and bi-polar disorder, which explained the cycles of inertia and crazy energy. When I allow myself to think about it, I wonder how it could have turned out differently. I mean, I have friends who have been treated for bi-polar disorder and are doing perfectly well. Not to mention how many of my friends' kids have been through rehab and emerged full-functioning. But I don't think about that much.

Except that now, in spite of myself, I remember that the first day I saw him he was wearing a navy blue blazer. Funny, that I remember that of all things, but it set him apart from the other young men on our campus. That, plus the fact that he was a few years older, had been wounded in an unpopular war and was now a teacher's assistant of English, which gave him an outlet for his considerable body of anti-war poetry. I was toast.

"Finally," the cab driver says, shifting on his beaded seat cover. The taxi gently accelerates around a fender bender in the left lane. An older man is wagging a finger in anger at a lanky kid in dreadlocks, who stares at the ground.

We pass them at last and begin a treacherous road dance, slipping in and out of lanes as we climb to 90th Street. A bi-plane tips its wings over the Hudson River, tugging an ad for apartment rentals through the sky.

We pull into the entrance of Mount Sinai, which seems not to have changed from the night that Shelley was born. Wheelchairs are lined up outside the automatic door to the lobby, awaiting laboring women who will be sped to the fifth floor upon arrival.

"Thank you," I say, stuffing a wad into the driver's hand. I haven't taken the time to count it, but know it will be his biggest fare of the day. I don't care, gambling that my generosity will somehow tip the cosmic scale and deliver Shelley's baby painlessly into this world.

In the lobby I pause near a sign-in desk, covered in floral arrangements waiting to be delivered. I dial Jack. The phone goes directly to voice mail.

Refusing to panic, I lean against the counter and ask a receptionist where I go for labor and delivery.

She looks up from her notebook and gestures to the elevator. "Fifth floor. Family waiting room, first door on the left."

In my haste, I mistakenly get on a local elevator, which stops at every floor. Two nurse's aides with carts full of blood samples chat about a supervisor, oblivious to a woman in a wheelchair panting noisily, slumped over her belly. The bell finally dings for the fifth floor and I slip in front of the aides to get off. Jack is as good as his word and is waiting at the nurses' station.

"She's great now," he says, before I can ask. "The epidural kicked in a few minutes ago and she's a new woman."

He explains quickly that I can come in to say hello but that due to hospital regulations I will have to sit the rest of the time in the family waiting room.

"Mom and Dad are on their way. They should land at JFK any time now."

I follow him down the long hallway, mindful of the occasional moan I hear. Along one side, a woman in a hospital gown paces, clutching the bar along the wall.

We enter a door toward the end of the hall and there is Shelley, sitting upright in the hospital bed, her hands folded across her stomach. She reaches out to me and I hug her gingerly, trying to avoid entanglement in the IV tubes.

She looks tired. Something about the deep set eyes, void of make-up, makes me think of him again.

"This is the way to go, mom," she smiles, tapping her finger on a plastic bag of clear fluid that drips invisibly into her spine.

A nurse has wheeled a cart into the room and is entering data in a notebook. She stops for a minute to read a monitor without acknowledging either of us.

"Are we getting close?" I ask her, in spite of myself.

"You'll have to wait for the doctor to tell you that," she answers. She turns to Shelley now. "The bell is here if you need anything."

We wait until she closes the door behind her. "Jack is going to want his spot back, so I'll go out to the waiting room."

I look at her, messy hair, shiny face, faded print hospital gown, willing myself to remember every detail.

"Love you, sweetie," is all I can say, squeezing her foot at the end of the bed. Her toenails are painted bright red.

The family waiting room is eerily quiet, except for a television suspended in the far corner, frozen on CNN. I can smell the smoky dregs of a dried out Mr. Coffee pot that sits on a burner to one side of the room. The room is empty, except for a man alone in one corner, hunched over a notebook.

It's been said that there is no slower time zone than that in a hospital. I recall the day my father died, some ten years ago, when we all took turns sitting with my mother in the waiting room as doctors tried to jumpstart his heart in the OR.

The waiting room feels cold now and I rub my hands up and down my arms. I hear a voice behind me, from the couch in the corner.

"Long day?" he asks.

He looks to be about 35, maybe a little older. He is badly in need of a haircut. A white lab coat hangs on his shoulders and I let my eyes wander to the embroidered name on the left hand breast pocket. I can't read it, but it doesn't matter. I see the "M.D." written in script.

"Yes, it's my daughter. She's having her first baby."

He smiles. "Congratulations."

"Do you work up here?" I ask.

"No, no, I'm in psychiatry. It can get pretty intense on the fourth floor, so I've figured out this is the best place in the hospital to come when I just need a few minutes to myself." He takes a long sip from a paper coffee cup. I feel self-conscious that I'm probably interrupting his break.

"Please. Don't mind me, I'm just a nervous mother," I say, hoping he will go back to writing in the notebook in his lap.

"Not at all. It's nice to talk to someone in happy circumstances. You're the only family member here?

"Oh, no, my son-in-law's parents are on their way. They should be here in a few minutes." As always, when asked about family, I sound apologetic.

"How many grandchildren will this make for you?"

"This is my first. My daughter is my only child." There I go again.

"Wow, pretty special." He has a nice smile.

"You're a psychiatrist?"

"Almost. An old-ish resident actually."

He stands up now. He is too thin, I think.

"What's happening with your daughter right now? Is she close?"

I look helpless, I know. "I have no idea. She's had an epidural but it seems like it's been forever."

He tosses his coffee cup in the trash. "Wait here."

I watch as he walks past me, down the hall and through the doors marked "Hospital Staff Only." CNN drones on, something about another bombing in Iraq. My stomach is roiling and I remember my mother saying that no matter how old, one cannot bear to know that her child is in pain. I am thirty five again, and Shelley's nearly severed finger tip is being meticulously stitched up after a nasty playground accident.

Down the hall the elevator dings and I see Jack's parents exit and look around. They see me and come running, arms spread open. Our blended family has always felt real, although I sometimes sense they feel sorry for me. We are all talking over one another as the young doctor returns from the birthing area.

He hardly interrupts, but touches my shoulder and assures me that everything is fine. "It's very close now," he tells me, "and she is going to do very well."

He is gone before I can introduce him to Jack's parents, but they couldn't have noticed. His father is unpacking a camera and his mother is on her cell phone providing an update to some family member.

And, then, Jack is running down the hallway to us. "She's here! She's here!"

I feel myself crushed in what Shelley used to call a sandwich hug but push myself away to ask if everything is okay.

"Fantastic! She's gorgeous!"

We rush down the hall, bumping into one another, to get to the glass-partitioned nursery. Three little beds by the window are filled with tightly wrapped babies, sleeping off their rigorous entries. They all wear little pink and blue striped caps and are lined up like identical playing tokens in a board game.

Behind them, a nurse is bathing a screaming arrival. The baby is red and seems angry at the disturbance, even outraged. She is surely ours.

I stop breathing to stare at her. Transported under the hospital's florescent lighting, I see her mother a million years ago. And the two of us on that day, spellbound by her presence, due in equal parts to both of us.

In a few minutes I am able to hold all seven pounds of her, tightly swathed in a hospital blanket. Her hair is wispy and wet from her first bath. Her fingernails remind me of tiny pink seashells. Her eyes blink tentatively, brimming with antiseptic eye drops.

I kiss her, twice, and silently promise that she will want for nothing.