From the end of September through mid-October, I was on baby watch in Omaha, waiting to get the call from my daughter that told me it was time. My part was to stay with David, who’s two, while Liz and Van went to the hospital to bring forth his baby sister. Baby watch required that I leave my cell phone on at all times, much to the amusement of my students, who now know exactly how few calls I get. (No wonder she makes us turn ours off, poor thing!) Faculty members who found themselves in meetings interrupted by the jazzy riff of my ringtone may have been more annoyed than amused. Well, I’m sorry, but I miss too many calls on “vibrate only.” Besides, it’s a great ringtone. Sometimes I let it play a while before I pick up, though not when I’m in a meeting.
Liz was due in October this time, and of course I’m going to tell you how it all came out, but first let’s flash back to early August 2010, when it was big bro David we were waiting for. The first grandchild.
I was almost ready for one. My husband and I talked about it one night in City Park pool, where we spend as much time as we can every summer. I said I was worried.
“What’s to worry about? A little baby,” my husband cooed, making a boat of his arms and rocking them on the water. (My husband is a little weird. That’s why I married him.) We had paid three dollars extra to Swim Under the Stars between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. John went off the high dive for the occasion. I’d watched him from here, waist deep.
“What if I forget his birthday?” I said, as if that were the problem.
“You won’t,” John said. He tilted his head sideways to knock the water out of his ear. “This is why I don’t do that”—diving, he meant—“anymore.”
Swim Under the Stars was a fundraiser for the aquatic program sponsored by Old Capitol City Roller Girls, which is a combination athletic team and charitable foundation. They donate a portion of the proceeds from every roller derby bout—that’s what they call them—and from other fund-raising events, such as the Swim, to various local organizations and causes.
John and I knew very little about the Old Capitol City Roller Girls and their causes. We just wanted a chance to swim in that lovely pool on a warm summer night under the lights, something we used to do quite regularly, in the days before the pool’s closing time rolled back from 9:00 to 8:00 p.m. We had come earlier for lap swim, and now we were lolling around in the water, treading and floating and watching the belly flop contest in the diving well. (There really was a contest—those Roller Girls!) The belly floppers were mostly elementary and middle school kids, doing their best to make their friends and siblings shriek and their parents wince.
They weren’t trying to take my breath away at the thought of our three children, once this age and poised with their father on all four diving boards, two high and two low, having juggled their places in line so they could be the Flying Stefaniaks together. I used to watch them (and wince) from the shallow end. I didn’t know how to swim back then.
Where did they go, those three children? That was the problem. Where did they go?
One of them was in Omaha at that very moment, counting down the days to her due date, which happened to be one week before her own birthday. (Now we both knew, my daughter and I, what it’s like to be due in August.)
Liz is our middle child, the Flying Stefaniak who always called the high dive. Ever the adventurer, she herself was a bottom-first breech birth. Can you picture one of those Olympic divers grasping her ankles as she tumbles off the platform, folded in half, somersaulting toward the water far below? That was Liz, minus the somersault, plummeting from womb to air with her ankles next to her ears. I’d tried to warn my obstetrician earlier that month that she felt heads-up to me, but what did I know, a curly-headed 27-year-old about to have her second baby. He was the Chief of Obstetrics at a major Milwaukee hospital. Did I know how many babies he’d delivered? Luckily, I was the Queen of Monster Contractions. Liz came right out into the world without so much as a helping forceps. Given her position, my husband could yell on the very first push, “It’s a girl!”
“No way they’d let you do that nowadays,” Liz told me. “I’d have been a C-section for sure.”
“They x-rayed us, quick, to see if you’d fit.”
“They wouldn’t do that either,” she said.
They didn’t have to. The grandson had his head down, ready to go. David Arthur Huett arrived, a Goliath-sized 9 pounds 13 ounces, just two days after he was due.
It was the first day of school at Creighton. Liz called me that morning to say she’d had some monster contractions of her own and she and Van were on their way to the hospital. The hospital wasn’t far from campus. I figured I could make a dash to see the baby as soon as I got word. All day I waited for another call. They’re busy, I kept telling myself. I tried to concentrate on grading policies and other preparations for my four-hour class that night: World Literature, Beginnings to 1650. We’re talking Gilgamesh to Shakespeare. On the syllabus for the first night were ancient Egyptian Love Poems (circa 1290 B.C.E.) and a 3,000-year-old collection of poems on all possible subjects called The Chinese Book of Songs. There was even a poem for the occasion, #238, about Chiang Yuan, legendary mother of the Zhou people. Under the circumstances, I especially liked these lines:
Indeed she had fulfilled her months,
And her first-born came like a lamb
With no bursting or rending,
With no hurt or harm. . . .
That easily she bore her child.
Liz called back—finally!—at 5:30 p.m. My four-hour class was scheduled to begin at 5:45.
This is where my colleague Dr. Brooke Stafford enters the tale as my personal hero. She gets all the credit as well as my undying gratitude—for offering to cover my class that night. “No way you’re going to wait till tomorrow to see that baby,” she said, and setting aside whatever plans she had, she pedaled back down to campus so that one first-time grandmother could hold her grandson in her arms on the very first evening of his life.
Two years, one month, and 21 days later, my baby watch duties came happily to an end when David’s little sister, Vanessa Elizabeth Huett, plunged headfirst into the world making a perfectly executed entry, as befits the daughter of a Flying Stefaniak.
Mary Helen Stefaniak is author of the award-winning novel The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.