On September 11th, 2001, I was at the front of my middle school classroom, likely giving kids a rash of shit about not doing their homework, or explaining why Eddie Vedder is actually very cool, or trying to get them to give me the best parts of their lunches.
It was a gorgeous day. Remarkably gorgeous. Memorably gorgeous. And I planned to take the kids out to the nearby brook in search of caddisfly larvae, and crawfish, and whatever else we needed to look for just to stay outside under the deep and bright blue sky.
My door opened. The guidance counselor walked in. She didn’t chirp and giggle, “Good morning!” in the familiar way I had come to know. She didn’t knock, she didn’t smile, she didn’t wave, she just walked across the room holding my gaze with her own bleary, wet eyes.
Something was terribly wrong.
“The World Trade Center was bombed.” she whispered.
I remember little about what happened next or how we came to be in my colleague’s classroom, students piling in, sharing chairs, sitting on the floor, all of us watching 9/11 unfold on live TV. Watching the very buildings we visited during our class trip just months before ripped open and on fire.
Watching the second plane. Watching people jump out of windows. Watching one tower drop, and then the other. Watching. Stunned. Silent. Disbelieving.
Watching and watching.
Six years later, in the twinkling, twilight hours of September 10th, 2007, I’m unpacking my dishwasher between excruciating contractions, arranging for my three-year-old daughter to go to a friend’s house, and wondering if they deliver epidurals like they do pizza and chicken wings.
It’s been just two months since my father killed himself. Two months since everything I thought I knew burned. Two months since I stood at his ICU bedside, trying to close the distance between leaving and arriving, never to meet.
At the hospital, the midwife suggests I hold off on the epidural so as not to slow down the baby train. We’ll try other methods of pain relief, she says. How about the bath? Fine. A bath. I’ll try it.
The bath is not big enough for me, my belly, and all my limbs. I am not sure how my epidural turned into this bath. My husband declares that pregnant me in the bath is sexy.
He’s trying to encourage me. I am sexy labor woman, the tip of my buoyant belly poking out of the water. Bobbing in this water like an iceberg in the sea. I am a sexy iceberg.
Wait, what? I’m an iceberg? Suddenly, I hate the bath. I hate all baths everywhere. Get me out of the fucking bath.
The midwife offers me a therapy ball instead. “Would you like to bounce on the ball?”
Um. Bounce on the ball? Well, if by “ball” you mean “epidural,” then YES, I’d like to bounce on the ball. Otherwise, is it game time?
But. I do want the bath. I do want the ball. I do want to be strong and present and all that other good, holistic, hippie stuff. I want it.
The truth, though, is that the contractions are coming and coming, and I can not catch my breath. I sink to my knees with each wave. I come up sobbing and afraid. My dad should be here. Would be here. Would sit in the waiting room watching C-Span. Would check in now and again. Would ask if I wanted the gum drops from his shirt pocket.
Would say: Autie, I love you so much that I think my heart might burst. Would say: You got this, babe. Would return again to the waiting room where grandfathers properly await their grand-babies.
His absence rips through me. It punctuates the pain and I am panicked.
I clarify things for the midwife. Listen, lady who has no children: you are not the midwife I seek. You don’t know me. I once camped out in the Meadowlands parking lot to see The Grateful Dead and they gave me drugs for THAT.
I’ll tell you what too: they were good drugs! And I didn’t even have to take a baby home at the end! I just went home and slept it off. Do you see what I am saying here? Get me drugs for THIS.
The midwife calls for an epidural. A petite and porcelain doll of a doctor arrives pushing a cart of magic potions. She explains to me how it works, administers the medication and, PRAISE THE LORD, I am awash with sweet relief. I tell her I love her. I tell her that if I had a million dollars, I would pay off her med school loans.
The lights are dimmed in the room, the monitors are hushed, and night settles in. My husband notices the clock on the wall. Look, he says. I look, I see. We’ve climbed over midnight and into 9/11.
Mingling here in this hospital room with the loss of my father and the arrival of our child is the still-raw memory of that gorgeous and terrible day. I think of it. Of being in my classroom. Of watching. Of not knowing how not to watch, not knowing what would come next.
I think: this is the day my child will call his birthday. This day, always and rightfully enshrouded by the collective grief of a whole nation.
Near dawn, when I am ready to push, the number of people in the room steadily increases. A gaggle of medical students dressed in matching yellow surgical gowns enters the room and circles the heat lamps. They look like the entertainment, they look like they might start a little doo-wop. I wait briefly for their number to begin. I wait until I remember that I am pushing a baby out of my body, and they are not actually the back-up singers.
Finally. Mercifully. One more push. One more. And then. Then. I’m emptied and filled.
I look up and watch my husband straining to see who has come. Who is this child? I hear voices, but not words. I search for my husband’s eyes. Tell me. Tell me. He looks down at me. He’s crying. A boy, he says. Oh God. A boy. This day. This baby boy.
And my father. Who will not walk into the room now and hold his grandson in his arms. Who will not tip his head sweetly to one side, surveying each tiny finger and each tiny toe. Who will not know that we’ve named our son for him. Who will not whisper: Welcome.
He will not. He will not. He will not now. He will not ever.
We are brimming. We are raw and exhausted from nursing jagged, lacerated loss. We have traveled lifetimes, all of us, to this antidote. That tragic ending. Oh but, this glorious beginning.
He cries out, my baby boy. Finding, filling, drying his lungs. Cries so loud. Cries so long. Crying to signal life. Crying to remember death. Crying and crying and reminding us: all of the angels are home now.
All of the angels are home.