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Lew Kaye Skinner

The Calmly Beating Heart

        It was a dark and stormy night, the kind you might focus on for a bad-writing contest. Well,it wasn’t actually all that dark, but it certainly was stormy. In the middle of February in the middle of Nebraska, you don’t expect lightning, especially in the middle of a snowstorm. A snowstorm it was, worthy of the name, soon to turn into a blizzard. Nan and I were on the way from Grand Island, the largest city in central Nebraska, home to Wood River, a farming community of about thirteen hundred some fifteen miles to the west along the Platte River valley. We had gone to town in the afternoon to run a few errands, have supper, and get groceries before the weather got bad. We’d had plenty of storms already that season and were in for plenty more. The first big snow in 1983 had come on Thanksgiving weekend, causing both of us to call off Sunday services at the churches we were serving, and the last big snow would be on the final weekend in April 1984. That’s unusual for Nebraska; I don’t remember another time like that when we had snow through the whole season.
        That morning Nan and I had gone together to see our family doctor, Gary Settje. It was the due date he had given us the previous summer, but after checking Nan over, he said she could count on another two weeks, at least. Anyone who’s ever been in that situation will know Nan wasn’t too thrilled with that news. We were ready for the new arrival, names picked, diapers in stock, room repainted, crib set up, car seat installed, all set. I like to be ready for things, but would gladly have given up some of the preparations to have the baby arrive. I knew that first-time dads often feel left out of the emotional loop when the baby becomes the center of the mom’s attention, but Nan and I were both professionals, and we both knew about dealing with emotions. I was going to be cool, calm, collected, the all-American male to make macho men everywhere proud. See, I had a plan. Our friend MaryAnn worked at the hospital, and if the baby decided to come at home, I was going to call her; she would do whatever a nurse does during delivery, I would boil water in the kitchen (which is primarily to keep the father out of the way and out of trouble), and her husband Ray would pace and smoke in the garage. We had everything covered.
        Everything but the weather, that is. When we went into the Italian buffet for supper, a little bit of snow was in the air, the kind of snow that just seems to hang there, more like smoke than precipitation. The wind was about as close to completely still as we ever get on the Great Plains. The buffet wasn’t anything to brag about, not even as good as cheap frozen pizza, only slightly better than pizza from a box. I offered to refill Nan’s plate and bring it back to her. Every time she got up from the table to go back to the buffet seemed a little harder than the last time. But she went on her own. The snow was still just floating lazily in the air when we came out after supper and went across the street to the grocery store.
        This store was one of those big warehouse affairs, just bare cement floors, steel girders holding the insulation against the walls, and noisy industrial-strength heaters up among the steel rafters and harsh florescent lights. It was cheap food with no pretense of any other attraction. That night the aisles seemed about a hundred yards from north to south. To Nan, they seemed about as long as I-80 through Nebraska... and growing. I suggested she sit in the grocery cart so I could push her, but she just wanted to be done and home. We went as fast as we could and came outside to a surprise. It was raining. In February. In Nebraska. Nan got into our little brown Corolla while I loaded the groceries so we could get on the road.
        The strange day very quickly got much stranger. Before we got to the edge of Grand Island, snow mixed with the rain. Before we got past the industrial areas at the edge of town, it was snow, sleet, thunder, and lightning. And we found the wind, too. It was an exciting drive back to Wood River, the kind of excitement you don’t need. By the time we traveled that thirteen miles, we had gone from rain to horizontal snow, turned on its side by the howling wind. You’d think we would have headed straight home and snuggled down for the night; after all, both of us had some last minute preparation to do for our confirmation classes the next morning. But Nan had gotten her wind back enough that she wanted to see if the bridge party we had been invited to was still on. I didn’t want to argue with a pregnant woman, and when she said we would probably be calling off the confirmation classes because of the snow, I pretended to be convinced. Sitting at the card table, well insulated from the wind, was a lot easier for Nan than walking those long grocery aisles.
        When we headed home a little after ten, the ice, sleet, and snow were crusted all over the Corolla, and it took a while to scrape it off enough to see the streets. Not that there was much to see. All the sane people were inside. Our house was on the north edge of town with nothing protecting us from the north wind but a leafless bush and a telephone wire. Fortunately, the garage was on the north end of the house, so there was some insulation, and we were cozy. Whatever preparations I did for the next morning didn’t take too much time. Mostly, I just listened to the ravenous wind and went to bed about midnight. Nan was already on her side of the bed, reading.
        About two o’clock in the morning, Nan asked me what I have always since considered the dumbest question I’ve ever heard, though she always defends it as honest, sincere, and not the least bit dumb. She touched my arm and said softly, “Lew, do you think you could wake up?” Now, the question by itself wasn’t dumb. But this was on the night after our child was due, and I was a scared, nervous, still new-to-it-all husband trying to do everything right and not let on that any of this mess had me the least bit concerned. She says I flew out of bed. I don’t know about that; I do know I answered her immediately and from across the room. About when I had gone to sleep, she had started timing these strange feelings she had been having since before we went to the buffet for supper. They were coming faithfully every ten minutes. Contractions. I stayed calm. About as calm as the wind. There was a drift forming in front of the garage, but she didn’t want to go back to Grand Island already. After all, they were still ten minutes apart, and Dr. Settje had just told us that it would be another two weeks. Don’t get excited. Excited? My wife was in labor fifteen miles from the hospital in the middle of a freaking blizzard! Why get excited about a little thing like that?
        My dearly beloved sweetheart was also not the least bit interested in being in any kind of hurry about anything at all. The snow isn’t that bad; just relax. Of course. I did relax (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) enough not to call Ray and MaryAnn until seven o’clock. By then, the drift in the driveway was enough that I wasn’t going to attempt it without a tractor, and all I had was a Corolla and a Chevette. Having forgotten about my well-laid plan, I didn’t know what Ray and MaryAnn might do, but I sure didn’t want to do this without any help. Nan was kind of upset with me for calling somebody else. She was even more upset when MaryAnn showed up at our house about eight o’clock with the fire chief in his Jeep and the head OB-GYN nurse from the hospital, who also lived in Wood River. The Jeep made it through the drifts on the street okay, but couldn’t handle the drift in our driveway. Through it all, Nan was as calm as if she were lying on a tropical beach somewhere with a gentle breeze and warm sunshine. The contractions were still nine and a half to ten minutes apart, so she saw no reason to get perturbed. I was perturbed enough for both of us... and the whole county besides. It didn’t help my blood pressure any that she wanted to wear her regular shoes; after all, she was still wearing her regular winter coat and zipping it up. I let the two nurses get her into her snowboots.
        With two nurses along and a fire chief driving, I was feeling as good as any expectant father might in the middle of a grade A, Nebraska-choice blizzard. With six of us crammed into a Jeep built for four, Nan was concerned there wasn’t any room for a baby. I’m glad she didn’t tell me that at the time. The streets in town, Highway 30, I-80, actually all of central Nebraska was closed down because of the snow, but we headed out for Grand Island anyway. Forget about the light, fluffy snow in a Currier & Ives painting. This stuff came straight from the Norse Hell. Highway 30 is usually a good smooth road with wide shoulders and only reasonable traffic. There wasn’t any traffic that day. No one else was crazy enough to attempt it, or maybe desperate enough. The smoothness was completely gone, too. The road runs mostly east-west, and the wind was out of the north. That made for a drift everywhere there was the slightest hint of an obstruction on the north side. And there were plenty of hints. Our fire-chief chauffeur was accelerating to make it up and over each drift, so our casual, Saturday morning drive resembled a roller coaster ride more than anything else, an extreme roller coaster ride. Either of our cars would probably still be in the first drift. It was nine by the time we got to the hospital; the blizzard was just getting into the spirit of things, and the contractions weren’t much closer together. Hurry up and wait.
        The faithful posse that took us to the hospital was wise enough not to wait around. By the time they got back to Wood River, people were already calling to ask if we had a boy or a girl. If they had somehow called me at the hospital, I could have told them how far apart the contractions were. Timing them was about all I had to do all day while the blizzard tangled its temper tantrum outside. At least externally, I was much calmer now that I didn’t have to worry about being left alone with a woman delivering a child. I even dozed between contractions and napped right through a couple of them. They were getting more intense for Nan, but there wasn’t much I could do for her, except hold her hand and agree that the angry nurse who wanted to be home with her own kids was only adding to the stormy chaos. I don’t know how he managed it, but calm and faithful Dr. Settje came to the hospital a couple of times during the day to make his rounds. Maybe doctors have a special non-aggression pact with blizzards, but I doubt it.
        Late in the afternoon, with the wind still yelling outside the windows, the contractions quickly got closer together, huddling together for mutual support just as we were. My calm facade was blown away in the wind of impending events. Earlier in the day, somebody had given me a set of ugly green scrubs to wear into the delivery room. Maybe part of the reason for asking the father to change his attire is to give the mother a little comic relief from the intensity of her experience. Nan was quite amused watching me spin around in the corner of the room, trying to figure out where to go to change and what to do with these suddenly alien pieces of cloth. Cool, calm, and collected? About as much as the wind-torn snow! The nurses knew what to do; I didn’t know where to find my own foot. In the delivery room, I stood beside the table, let Nan squeeze my hand into mush, and coached her through her Lamaze breathing, keeping both of us focused. Some fathers watch the actual arrival. That’s okay. I’ll stay by her side and not faint.
        Philip Andrew made his entrance into Dr. Settje’s waiting, experienced hands; he had the full, normal complement of fingers and toes along with a healthy set of lungs to protest the cold air of the delivery room. I wanted to touch him, to hold him, to assure him that the world isn’t always cold and bright and hard. I wanted to marvel at this new life. One of the calm, competent nurses handed me my own camera and asked if I intended to take some pictures. Oh, yeah. Of course. That’s exactly what I... completely forgot about in the awe of the moment.
        Some time during the night, the blizzard finally moved on to other victims. Without checking with any administrators or insurance companies, the nurses let me use one of the empty beds since I didn’t have anywhere else to go or any way to get there. There wasn’t anywhere else I wanted to be anyway, nowhere but in the calmly beating heart at the center of God’s creation. In the quiet of a hospital room with no need for beeping electronics, the chaos within me had given way to peace. I was no longer an expectant father; I was a daddy.