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SHOWCASE

A Grandmother is Born

by

Susan Amlung

I was awakened by a sound no mother ever wants to hear: the scream of her child in pain.
No matter that the child is 24 years old or that the cry is followed by the soothing murmurs of her husband at her side. I still sprung from my bed, alarmed and momentarily forgetting that my daughter was almost in her ninth month of pregnancy.
After living away on and off since high school, usually with a boyfriend or at school, Jenny had returned to our house more than a year before, husband and dog in tow. Her homecoming hadn’t been easy for either of us.
She had called on the phone, sounding both hostile and defensive. “You have a choice, Mom,” she said. “We can’t pay the rent. Either I can quit school and go to work or we can move in with you. It’s up to you.”
It sounded almost as if she was handing me an ultimatum, but I knew that was a cover. After years of defiant independence, she must have had to swallow hard before asking for help. Besides, I was thrilled that finishing college finally seemed to be a serious goal for her after so many fitful starts. Her father and I had struggled to keep her in school ever since she virtually dropped out in her junior year of high school. And I didn’t mind at all refilling our empty nest and having a chance to rebuild relations with our prodigal daughter.
Bill was less enthusiastic. Of course he wanted to welcome our daughter with open arms, but he was less certain about the rest of the package. Despite his feminist convictions, I think, deep in his liberated heart, he was angry with his son-in-law for failing to support his daughter. Not to let them off the hook entirely, he demanded that they pay a modest rent. But his intention, he told me, was to put that money aside for them so they’d have something to get them started again after Jennifer finished school.
For the first year or so, the shared housing arrangement went well. Jenny was pulling straight A’s, and her husband Steve was eager to please and took on much of the repairs and maintenance of our old house. Then, in the middle of Jen’s senior year, they told us with great excitement that Jen was pregnant.
It was apparent that they had planned the pregnancy carefully, timing it so Jen could get her degree before the baby was born. But it took Bill and me by surprise. Of course, we were thrilled at the prospect of having our first grandchild, but we were nonplussed that we had not been let in on the plan while there was still room for discussion. Clearly, the young couple wasn’t yet anywhere near being able to afford their own place, especially since, with a baby obviously on the way, Jen would not be able to get a teaching job for the next school year. There was no choice; they’d be staying with us a while longer.
Jen graduated that spring, her swelling belly barely showing beneath her robes as she delivered the valedictory address. Whatever doubts Bill and I had had receded in the face of our pride that day. Who would have thought that our wild and rebellious daughter would ever be graduating college summa cum laude and expecting a child, in-wedlock no less, all at the same time?
Which brings us to the fall night when I was awakened by that terrifying scream.
Rushing toward their room, I encountered Steve in the hall.
“What’s happening”? I asked somewhat redundantly. “How long has she been like this?”
“About two hours,” he responded. “It’s much too soon. We thought it was false labor, and we were doing all the Lamaze stuff, you know, the massages and breathing exercises. But now it’s getting worse.”
At that moment Jen emerged, stumbling toward the bathroom. Her legs were wet and laced with pink trails of blood.
“It’s time to get to the hospital,” I said.
“That’s what we’re doing,” she replied as she stepped into the bathtub and turned on the water to rinse off her legs. “I’m just going to wash up so I can get dressed.”
Hurrying back to my bedroom, I woke my husband and had barely pulled on my jeans when we heard Jen scream again, even more blood-curdlingly than before. I rushed into the bathroom. She was still in the tub, but now she was squatting, holding on to the side with both hands, tears streaming down her flushed, twisted face.
“Mom,” she panted. “I have horrible cramps.”
I got down on my knees and put my arms around her shoulders. “Don’t worry,” I assured her. “Everything is all right.”
I wished I knew that was true. I wondered whether to call an ambulance.
She screamed again, long and loud, right next to my ear, and her entire body tensed. I held her tight and she relaxed. As I loosened my grip, my hand dropped into a warm, gelatinous pool at the bottom of the tub. That’s when I saw the baby, bluish and barely discernible in the muck. Quickly I scooped it up, grabbed a towel and hastily wrapped the limp, wet body. Fear gripped my chest. Was it dead?
“Steve, I screamed. “Call 911. Now!”
“Lie down,” I told Jen, trying to keep my voice even. As she lay back, I stepped into the tub and kneeled between her legs so as to keep the baby close to her and not pull on the umbilical cord. I knew I had to get the baby to breathe, but holding it by the ankles and smacking its bottom seemed much too risky. So I draped it, head down, over my arm and began gently rubbing and patting its back. Would she forever blame me if it died? I could hear sirens approaching.
“Get the door,” I called to my husband.
The baby was not responding. Turning it over, I put my mouth over its face and inhaled gently, hoping to clear the airways. In. Out. “Please, please, dear God, make him breathe.”
In. Out. Heavy footsteps were pounding up the stairs. Suddenly, three men in black rubber coats appeared in the doorway.
“It’s not breathing,” I barely whispered, hoping somehow to spare my daughter the news.
“Not to worry,” said the firefighter in front, stooping down. “I’ve done this before.”
Two big hands took the baby from me. One cradled it while the other deftly inserted a small rubber bulb into its nose. Within a second the infant’s feet kicked, its mouth opened and out came a faint cry. The firefighter laid him gently on Jen’s stomach and covered them both with a bath towel that Steve tossed to him. Jen was a little hysterical, crying and laughing as she nuzzled the baby’s downy head.
I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to stop shaking.
But when I finally lifted my head and looked around, I almost laughed out loud. It could have been a comedy skit. Looming over me in the tiny room were three huge men in long black coats. In the doorway, struggling to see over their broad shoulders was my son-in-law, backed by my furrowed-browed husband. Everyone was staring into the bathtub where a tearful naked girl, a crying infant and a half dressed middle-aged woman were entwined in a pond of placental goo. And everybody but the baby was wearing a huge smile.
Within minutes baby and Mom were wrapped in blankets and, along with Dad, being hustled into a waiting ambulance. As they were leaving, I again thanked the handsome young firefighter who had revived the baby.
“You’ve really done this before?” I asked. “Does this happen often?”
“Well no, not really,” he replied. “It was 31 years ago.”
“Thirty-one years?” I repeated, confused.
“Yeah,” he said. “The same thing happened to my mother. I was the baby.”
* * *
That was 17 years ago. The child who was born that night is a smart and handsome young man now. There have been other grandchildren since. Thankfully, all came into this world under more mundane circumstances, and all are cherished. But with this one I must admit I feel a special bond.
As I do with his parents. After his birth all our hesitation about their continuing to live with us vanished. For the next three years I reveled in the ability to hug and kiss my beautiful grandson every morning and see him laughing and playing, growing and learning every day.
Eventually they were able to buy a place of their own with the help of the money Bill had saved for them. We stayed in that old house another 16 years until my husband fell ill and the maintenance became too much for me to handle alone.
Now we are living with my daughter and her family again, this time in their house. Once again I can see my grandson every day as he matures into a charming young man.
I am glad to be here. Someday, when my aging body is filled with pain and terror of what’s to come, maybe my daughter will hold me and reassure me as I did her that night 17 years ago. And when I grow very old and my fluid-filled lungs struggle for air, maybe my grandson will rub my back and pray for me to breathe. If so, I will be comforted because I will remember that, like the firefighter who saved his life, he’s “done this before.”

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