68: Choosing Emily

68: Choosing Emily

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Choosing Emily

A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love.

~Stendahl

I went into labor on a Friday night, December 15, 1989, and my husband Peet was scared. It was nearly a week past my due date and the snow was starting to fall.

Over pizza and a Mel Gibson video, I felt the first pangs of labor. The nurse thought I could wait at home a while longer based on the time between contractions. But the snow started falling harder. Since we lived on a one-lane dirt road, one of the last to be plowed in our rural New Hampshire town, we thought it best to get to the hospital sooner.

As we pulled out of our driveway around midnight, Peet looked at our small antique cape and at the shingled barn, which was built into the gentle slope of a hillside. It looked like a Currier & Ives scene, with our apple orchard trimmed in snow. He choked up a little as he started to talk. I expected him to say something sweet and reassuring. Instead his voice found its deepest register and was serious. “Whatever happens, when we return here, our life will never be the same again,” he said.

I knew he was trying to be brave and honor the moment, while at the same time preparing stoically for the worst. What if there were complications with the birth? What if the baby was born with disabilities? What if the child was difficult or sickly?

We’d spent a lot of time during the previous three years playing “what if.” Peet’s traumatic brain injury in 1986 had left him with cognitive and behavioral issues that hadn’t fully resolved. His memory was sometimes spotty. His words did not always come smoothly or quickly. And he had not regained all of his stamina after the one-story fall in our barn, which resulted in emergency brain surgery to remove a subdural hematoma.

We’d learned firsthand how lives could change in an instant. Peet’s words made me realize that as I’d gone into labor, he worried about facing another pivotal moment. It was more than the typical worry about something going wrong with the baby’s delivery. I knew he was concerned that lingering issues from his brain injury would prevent him from being a good father. Still, we’d decided together to try, more than a year before.

Like most young couples, we’d done everything we could to ensure the arrival of a healthy newborn. We’d checked with doctors to be sure that the anti-seizure medication Peet used after his injury would not impact his fertility or the health of the baby. I’d eaten wholesome foods. I exercised routinely, swimming laps until days before the birth.

Still his “whatever happens” comment echoed in my head as we crawled along on unplowed roads for the half-hour drive to the hospital. We both stared silently at the small path that the headlights carved for us in the whitened night, as if our concentration could get us there more safely. When we made it up the final hill that led to the hospital in Peterborough, we breathed a sigh of relief.

Peet was unable to stay awake while I was in labor during the next several hours. His need to sleep at least ten hours a night simply overwhelmed him. I spent the night going in and out of the whirlpool tub for relief, watching him nap on the chair in our hospital suite.

By mid-morning I was fully dilated and Peet was wide-awake by my side. Minutes from delivery though, things got tense. I was not having the urge to push as I should. Even when guided by the nursing staff to push hard, the baby was not budging. It turned out that one of the baby’s arms was extended alongside her head in the birth canal and the umbilical cord was around her neck. The doctor asked for permission to use a vacuum extractor—a sort of suction cup attached to the baby’s head to help a doctor pull a baby out while the mother pushes. The first few tries with the vacuum extractor did not work. I knew that the next step might be forceps. I had always heard that forceps were riskier and had a chance of causing brain damage. We couldn’t use forceps. The doctor tried the vacuum extractor one more time, yelling “push” with an added sense of urgency.

Emily arrived.

They put her on my chest and she began nursing almost instantly. Her hazel eyes were a kaleidoscope of beauty, intensity and curiosity, as they are today. She was alert and content. Peet and I wept.

Within an hour, Peet went home to get some rest. I watched through the second-story window of my hospital room as he brushed about eight inches of snow off my old red Saab and drove away. Vibrant blue skies contrasted with the blanket of snow, which was literally sparkling in the daylight.

Alone that afternoon, I noticed the shape of Emily’s head. It was cone-shaped and a little bruised, which I knew was not uncommon. Still I was concerned. I’d been so happy at her arrival that I’d forgotten to ask the doctor if there could be anything wrong that resulted from her difficult time in the birth canal.

I got up the nerve to ask the doctor about Emily’s head, explaining that my husband had suffered a brain injury years before. I needed reassurance that the baby was fine. “Completely normal,” he said. “A 9 on the Apgar scale. She’s practically perfect.”

The next day, a Sunday, we were serenaded in the maternity ward by Boy Scouts singing Christmas carols. We watched a Buffalo Bills football game, our favorite team, and Peet made a spaghetti dinner for us in the little hospital kitchen. We feasted on Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

As we left the hospital the following morning, we shared an elevator with two elderly hospital volunteers. Bundled in homemade knit hats and scarves and weighing about a hundred pounds each, the women reminded me of Santa’s elves.

“Is this your first baby?” one of them asked, clearly delighted.

Peet and I looked at each other, grinned, and nodded sheepishly. No doubt I was holding the baby protectively at an unnatural angle, afraid I would break her. To the outside world, we were just an average set of newly minted parents. How good it felt to be average.

“There is nothing more special than a Christmas baby,” the other woman added before saying goodbye with gentle finger waves.

We drove back home with Emily sleeping peacefully in her new carseat. The roads were clear and dry. As we pulled into the driveway to bring our daughter home, I recalled Peet’s words from a few nights before and heard them differently this time. He’d been right. Our life would never be the same again, in the best possible way.

~Tina Rapp

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