The baby was due on July 4. Independence Day always ranked low on my list of treasured holidays, but now the date felt significant, like something written in the stars. In truth, no one really knew when our baby would arrive, thanks to my lackadaisical approach to biological record keeping.
An exasperated midwife insisted I supply a best-guess date of conception. I gave her our friend Bill’s birthday because I’d already picked him to be a non-blood relation. This random uncle-based selection hitched our baby’s star to the birth of our nation. My head filled with sparklers. My child’s existence would be an occasion for fireworks. Annually.
Boy or girl, the name I liked best was Independence Armstrong. Louis Armstrong, a favorite of my husband Greg’s late father, was born on the 4th. (Later, records were unearthed that established the 4th of August as his true birthdate.) Greg had other ideas about the name, but I hoped labor and delivery might give me the edge. Tyranny, I know.
The as-yet-unnamed baby emerged at 2:37 p.m., a couple of minutes before the emergency back-up obstetrician’s deadline for vaginal delivery. I was told the baby was a girl, with an extra thumb that turned out to be the least of her problems.The freestanding birth center where I was due to make an underwater delivery was a short walk across town. I figured that after a few hours luxuriating in a birthing suite the size of our entire apartment, our little family could make its way back to the East Village on foot. We’d climb six flights to the roof of our tenement building. Friends would gather to welcome Independence Armstrong, as his or her first day drew to a close, fireworks bursting overhead.
My water broke late on July 2, and very quickly nothing went according to plan. I thumped around the apartment in agony until sunrise, when we made our way to the birth center, where I failed to push the baby out despite seven hours of trying. Offered the choice of an ambulance or a taxi for my transfer to St. Vincent’s Hospital, I opted for the cab, creating quite a stir when I disembarked into the thick of the hot dog vendors’ noon rush. That same corner would have been a ghost town on July 4.
The as-yet-unnamed baby emerged at 2:37 p.m., a couple of minutes before the emergency back-up obstetrician’s deadline for vaginal delivery. I was told the baby was a girl, with an extra thumb that turned out to be the least of her problems.
When she was four, a scar that was detected on her brain when she was a newborn manifested as epilepsy. It’s controlled through medication. I only mention it because, even with the meds, she really shouldn’t be around fireworks, unless they’re very far away.While others were enjoying their July 4th picnics, my daughter underwent a battery of tests administered by nervous, brand-new residents. The experienced senior doctors who would have overseen the collection of blood cultures were off enjoying their July 4th picnics too. I’ve since heard from several medical professionals that this is why July is the worst month to be hospitalized.
Whatever was wrong with the baby, it was getting worse. To me, she looked beautiful, perfect, but those in a position to know could apparently look beyond her full brows and lips and see that she was going down the tubes in a number of alarming ways. They used terms like MRI, CT scan, IVs. I’d spent my pregnancy preparing to do battle at the least sign of medical intervention. Now she was being taken away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for reasons no one could ever pinpoint—the cultures the residents had taken were found to be contaminated and therefore worthless.
I could barely hobble to the bathroom, so Greg was the only one to accompany her to the NICU, a place where time and weather cease to exist.
She was released on her late great-grandmother’s birthday, which would become, three years later, her younger brother’s birthday. I, of course, had been hoping for Bastille Day but was thrilled when fate conspired to spring her earlier than planned. She had a name: India, a country her father and I had explored together as the childless couple we suddenly no longer were. She was healthy. Or healthy enough.
And as our baby was getting settled into the clear salad bin that was to become the center of our world for the unforeseeable future, he chanced to glance up at the tiny windows placed just below ceiling level and saw…fireworks.When she was four, a scar that was detected on her brain when she was a newborn manifested as epilepsy. It’s controlled through medication. I only mention it because, even with the meds, she really shouldn’t be around fireworks, unless they’re very far away.
As she is now. The baby I’d wanted to call Independence Armstrong, whose entry into the world I’d envisioned as bohemian fireworks-viewing party, is 17 now, spending the summer studying filmmaking at a Southern arts college. I wonder what she has planned for today, her birthday, and tomorrow, too, a day whose most lasting memory turns out to be one I experienced indirectly.
The final hours of July 4, 1997, were the darkest of my mostly lucky life.
My baby had been taken away, for reasons both terrifying and unclear.
The phone calls from concerned family and friends weren’t helping.
The doctor seemed quite capable.
The nurses all seemed nice.
There were a lot of monitors and machines.
And as our baby was getting settled into the clear salad bin that was to become the center of our world for the unforeseeable future, he chanced to glance up at the tiny windows placed just below ceiling level and saw…fireworks.
For more about the author and her family’s experience in the NICU, read her book The Big Rumpus.