by Peter 9 Bowman
Copyright Peter 9 Bowman 2016
Also by Peter 9 Bowman, Published at Shakespir:
Armilus: It was the best of times; it was the End of Times
Who Wants a Cookie?
Owner of the House
July 23, 1972. Diesel exhaust wafts through a window. I close it and look down sixteen stories to the street below. Six buses with engines running are parked in front of the Dick Cavett Studio across the street. I feel claustrophobic not having a window open, but the exhaust is too much.
Bonnie and I are renting a small apartment in Manhattan. Our neighbors are luminaries like Muhammed Ali and Florence Henderson. They have huge apartments with terraces and foyers and fabulous views of Central Park. At twenty-five I’m doing well, but not quite celebrity well. We have a small studio at the back of the building with a not so fabulous view of 58th Street.
Our galley kitchen lets us open the dishwasher or the oven, but not both at once. The rest of the apartment is an L-shaped affair with one wall of windows looking out on dance studios, offices, and a few dozen apartments. Our bed is tucked into the corner of the room next to the windows. A television sits at the foot of the bed on Bonnie’s dresser.
In the middle of the room we have a queen-sized bed outfitted with a fuzzy black cover and center bolster Bonnie made. Guests sit around the edges, backs against the bolster, facing away from each other. It’s one of my clever designs that works better on paper than in real life.
The long windowless wall is lined with twenty modular bookcases I made in my parents’ basement – another of my clever designs that looked great on paper. In real life the workmanship and materials are terrible. The wood is warped with knots bleeding through the flat white paint. The joints are crude – it’s the kind of utilitarian quality you might find in a garage or basement. It was the first thing I ever built by myself and it looks it. But it holds hundreds of books and record albums and was the only way we could fit the contents of the two bedroom townhouse we moved from.
Especially clever and especially ugly is an upright six-foot square bookcase filled with fifty cubbies. I copied the design from a number theory book that showed how to fill a square with smaller squares, each a different size. It was supposed to be a diagram on a page, not a bookcase. The smallest cubby is a half-inch on a side and the largest about three feet – neither very useful.
Most of the rest of the furniture is from my bachelor days: a fifty-gallon acrylic fish tank, fancy component stereo system with huge AR3-a speakers and a studio-quality Teac reel-to-reel tape deck. In comical contrast to the homemade shelving, the rest of the furniture is imported Danish oiled rosewood: a three-meter wide wall system, coffee table, night stands, headboard, and upright dresser. Everything rests on two wool shag rugs: a bright yellow and orange Rya rug and one black three-inch thick hand-knotted rug from Portugal.
The newest addition to our furnishings is a small flat-white-enamel Danish-modern crib with bright pink and black designs on each end. Bonnie is nine-months pregnant.
She let her hair grow ever since we were married two years before. It flows down nearly to the top of her butt now. I love the way it plays on her back. She is positively radiant. Every time I see her naked she takes my breath away.
Her breasts have grown full. They look wonderful, but as they filled out they also became tender. It’s been “look but don’t touch” for months.
Bonnie has only gained a dozen pounds with the pregnancy. In her sixth month we went to Lady Madonna, a Fifth Avenue maternity shop catering to the rich and famous. A patronizing saleswoman looked at Bonnie and said, “I know how exciting all this is, dear, but you should really wait at least until your third month before picking out clothes. You don’t want to outgrow them you know.”
We’ve only had our fourth Lamaze class. We’re using our obstetrician’s wife, a friendly woman who insists on pronouncing centimeter sahnta-meter. At first I didn’t know what she was referring to. Maybe it was some special unit of measure for vaginas. We haven’t gotten to the actual childbirth lessons yet. We’ve been focused on relaxation exercises.
It’s stifling hot and muggy in Manhattan. Rush hour, the haze created by buses and trucks literally makes it impossible to see more than a block or two down Seventh Avenue. Both Bonnie and I are eager for the big event. It may finally be here. Bonnie says, “Here comes another one.”
I stroke her belly lightly and feel a raised ridge running down the middle. It’s so hard and tight it makes me uncomfortable – like touching an over-inflated balloon getting ready to burst. She’s been having contractions on and off for the last few hours. I look at the clock. It’s nearly 10:00 in the evening. I ask her to call the doctor. We don’t need to be trying to hail a cab at 3:00 in the morning.
Her doctor tells her to go to the hospital for a checkup. About an hour later a doctor we’ve never met before examines her and sends us back home for the night. Close, but no cigar.
Her contractions continue through the night. I drop into and out of sleep. She calls her doctor again in the morning. He asks her to wait until 1:00 in the afternoon when his office hours start. Four more hours. It’s not that I have any particular duties to make the baby come out, but I’m eager to hand off responsibility for the delivery to someone who knows what he’s doing.
Three tense hours pass and it’s time to find a taxi. I bring Bonnie to the doctor’s office on 28th Street – thirty-one streets in heavy Manhattan traffic. The waiting room is empty when we arrive. She’s the first one in. The doctor takes a quick peek and says “It’s time. I have a few more patients to see right now. Then we get you off to the hospital. I’d better come with you in the cab.”
Better come with us in the cab? Why is that? Are we trying to save cab fare or have we waited a little longer than we should have?
We leave for the twenty-five block ride to the hospital at 2:00. I run out into traffic to snag a taxi. The driver takes one look at look at Bonnie and refuses to let her into the cab. The doctor assures him everything will be okay.
We make our way up 8th Avenue to 53rd Street in very heavy traffic. 53rd Street is completely jammed. After five minutes without moving, our doctor says we had better walk the last bit because we’re running out of time. I think about telling him that’s why we went to the hospital the evening before but decide that pissing him off may not be the best thing to do just before putting our future in his hands.
I help Bonnie out of the cab. The doctor tells us he’ll walk ahead to get ready. She’s fully dilated and about to deliver and we’re walking a city block to the hospital. Every thirty seconds or so we have to stop so Bonnie can bend over and manage another contraction. She takes all this in stride. I’m feeling as if I might throw up.
After what seems like a three-day hike, we get to the hospital. I take Bonnie up to the maternity floor. She sits in a wheelchair. I’m sent back downstairs to the admissions office to do paperwork.
I find the admissions office. I’m told to take a seat. “My wife’s having a baby upstairs and it’d be really nice not to miss it. We don’t do this all that often.” No one cares. There are forms to be filled out. I’m told they’ll get to me as soon as they can.
Eventually someone starts the agonizing process of finding out how to spell my name. “What an interesting name. How do you say that?”
“How do you think?”
The clerk starts guessing. “Baumen? Bohwmen?”
I quickly learn that any sarcasm on my part produces an excruciating delay. They need my Social Security Number, where I live, what my home and work phone numbers are, what I do for a living, what kind of insurance I have, what my relationship is to Bonnie. They want to see my photo I.D. and my insurance card. I fumble with my wallet and finally hand them the whole thing. “Take whatever you need.” I hope Bonnie is doing better than I am.
They make photocopies of this and that and then they want all the same information for Bonnie. To save time I think about telling them I found her on the sidewalk and have no idea what her maiden name is. Meanwhile, Bonnie is by herself without the partner that was supposed to make this a tiny bit easier. I sign here and here and here and initial there and there. I have no idea what I’m signing.
At last I’m done. I run out of Admitting at full tilt and take the elevator back to the maternity floor. A nurse gives me a gown and mask. I change. I’m led into a delivery room.
The lighting is harsh. The room smells of ether and other evil odors from my childhood. Bonnie lies on a delivery table with her knees up. She’s pant-breathing like she was trained to do in class. So am I. Lamaze has nothing to say about breathing exercises for the father, but I figure it can’t hurt.
I’m going through all this in a mild state of shock. It feels like I’m not really in the room – just looking at myself in the room. We’ve been thinking about this event for nearly nine months. It’s now actually happening. There’s no slowing down, no turning back. It’s going ahead at its own pace, with or without me.
The doctor says don’t push. Pant, pant, pant. The doctor says push. Pant, pant, pant. Bonnie draws on some inner strength. I’m there with the breathing and touch, but in the end this is really something she’s doing on her own. I have no contractions, I have no kicking in my belly. I have no sensation of being split apart.
She withdraws into herself and seeks no external support. She doesn’t cry out, doesn’t whimper or moan. She makes no sign at all of looking for someone else to ease her burden. I’m amazed at her strength. If I were on that table I’d be screaming my head off to let everyone know what I was enduring. She is the living definition of stoic.
A few minutes later, five-pound seven-ounce Michael Joseph pops into the doctor’s hands. The doctor says, “We have a little problem here.” I look at my son as he draws his first breath and see that his upper lip and lower nose are missing.
My priority is Bonnie. There’s blood and fluid everywhere. She’s exhausted. She’s delivering the afterbirth. Instead of handing Michael to her, the doctor brings him to a cleaning station and puts him in a plastic bin.
“Is the baby okay?” Bonnie asks.
“We have a little problem.” The doctor’s effort to make his voice sound reassuring is anything but reassuring. “He’s a boy, a bit light weight for full term. I give him an APGAR of six out of ten. It looks like he has a bilateral cleft lip and,” the doctor looks inside Michael’s wide open mouth with a flashlight, “a bilateral cleft palate. I know it doesn’t look so good, but these days we can fix this kind of thing right up. I’ll have our resident plastic surgeon stop by to take a look.”
“Can I see him?” I ask.
“Oh, sure. Nurse, hold him up,” the doctor says.
I hold Bonnie’s hand. “You made a baby! Good job.”
Bonnie is transferred to the recovery room. I get back into my street clothes and make my way to a pay phone.
I call my mother and tell her the good news. She’s very excited. This is her first grandchild. “Is everyone okay?”
I say, “Everyone’s doing fine. “He’s a boy and his name is Michael Joseph, after his two grandfathers.” My mother sighs. My father’s name was Michael. He died without warning a year earlier at the age of fifty-five. It was the night before his funeral that Bonnie and I first talked about starting a family.
“Michael does have a cleft palate,” I add as casually as I can.
I hear my mother drop the phone and scream. It’s pure anguish. My sister comes on the line. “What’s wrong?” she asks.
“It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Everything’s okay. Put Mom back on.”
I try to be stern with my mother. I tell her, “I’m not upset, so you shouldn’t be either. The doctor said they can fix this right up these days.” I act unconcerned.
“Then it’s not so bad?” she asks.
“It’ll be fine – don’t worry.”
I’m talking to a woman who knows a good deal about the doctors and operations and recovery periods and agony that lay ahead of us. My mother gave birth to a cleft palate child of her own – me.
I return to Bonnie with flowers and magazines. I know it’s a silly gesture, but it’s all I can think of to do. How much do I love her? Three magazines, two paperbacks, and a dozen roses worth.
She’s tired, so I keep my visit short. I haven’t eaten all day and I’m exhausted from lack of sleep and an overdose of stress. I walk back to our apartment.
The feeling of detachment I had during the delivery has intensified into real shock. I’m confused. I think about the surgery and everything else that lies ahead as though Bonnie had just given birth to me and I’m the one who’ll be operated on – again. I’m still being marched through this process, observing it from outside, and I don’t know what to do.
Early next morning I wake up and head back to the hospital. Bonnie is sitting up in bed with an untouched breakfast tray. She looks sad, withdrawn.
“How’re you doing?” I ask.
“It feels like the baby died. They won’t even let me see him,” she says with a hopelessness in her voice that goes right to my heart. I need to fix this and fix this now.
I go to the nurses’ station and tell them what Bonnie just said. “You have to let her have her baby.”
It’s as though Michael has somehow slipped through the cracks. There are charts with numbers and medical terms I’d never heard before. But I can’t believe it hasn’t occurred to anyone that Bonnie needs to hold her own baby.
I go back to her room. The nurse brings Michael in. Bonnie holds him and cuddles him. I stroke them both.
His fingers are so tiny. He doesn’t look real. How can a human being start out this small? I’m amazed all over again that Bonnie made something this complicated without even using her hands.
Bonnie tells me we have an appointment with the hospital’s resident plastic surgeon in the afternoon. Resident sounds to me as if he lives there. He must be the most experienced guy they have. Bonnie recites a list of things I have to buy for the baby so we can take him home: diapers, pins, formula, bottles, nipples, sterilizer, powder, ointment. The list goes on and on. We were planning on a shopping trip in a couple of weeks. Our doctors’ guess about when Michael would show up was off by a few weeks.
I leave the hospital a few minutes later. On the street it occurs to me I’ve no idea where to buy any of this stuff. I’ve never bought diapers or formula. I’ve never even been with anyone buying diapers or formula. I’m on foot in Manhattan. We have no relatives in the state, no less the city. None of our friends have children. I’m on my own in a very big city with an urgent mission and no clue how to begin. I need a plan.
I go to a small convenience store near our apartment and ask an elderly Hispanic woman at a cash register where I can get baby equipment. She points to a display of condoms.
I use pantomime to act out what I need. “Bottles.” I hold an invisible bottle and pretend to drink from it. “Formula.” I point to the invisible bottle. “Diapers.”
She gets it and directs me to a store a few blocks away. I thank her for the clue. If this new place doesn’t work out I’ll ask there. I’ll just keep asking random people until I find a place. It’s a plan.
The convenience store lady has sent me to the right place. The second store has six kinds of everything on Bonnie’s list. Bottles, nipples, sterilizer, formula. How to choose? Enfamil or Similac, Similac or Enfamil. I stare at the labels. Is more fat better or worse? What about corn syrup? Hopeless. I choose Similac because it’s twenty cents a can more expensive. I have no idea what I’m doing and I know it.
At 2:00 I return to the hospital for the meeting with the resident plastic surgeon. He looks like he’s in his late twenties. He explains that Michael has a bilateral cleft palate and lip.
I say, “I have a cleft palate and lip. What does ‘bilateral’ mean?”
“On both sides.” He says, “I’ve never seen a bilateral cleft before, but I think surgery may be required soon. I’ve not worked with cleft palate children, but if you’d like, I’d be happy to take Michael on as my first patient.”
Bonnie and I are overwhelmed by the complexity and pace of everything. I’ve now graduated from picking out diaper pins to picking out a surgeon. I can barely think at all, but this seems really wrong to me. My own childhood surgeries tell me that doctors spend years training with experienced specialists to learn the intricate ins and outs of cleft palate treatment. This guy hasn’t worked with cleft palate kids at all. He’s offering to take Michael on? This has to be terribly wrong.
I’m so confused I don’t even get angry at his obscene suggestion. “Thank you very much – we’ll think about it and get back to you.” Later on I wish I had thrown a chair at the bastard.
Before going back to our apartment I stop in at work. My office is in the General Motors building just two blocks from our apartment. I’ve been a missing person for the last two days. It never even occurred to me to call.
I see Claire, an administrative assistant in her early thirties. She lives by herself in an apartment on the upper East Side. She’s meticulous about her appearance. Her hair is always coiffed perfectly, she likes expensive clothes, and has the subtle underdeveloped upper lip that many of us with cleft lips share. Unlike mine, her scar is barely visible.
She smokes white-tipped Parliaments. I find her smoking surprising. I can’t stand the smell. I’d assumed that anyone who’s had the breathing problems that come with deep nose and mouth surgery would want the cleanest air they can get.
Claire acts surprised to see me. “Where have you been? We’ve been looking for you.”
“Bonnie gave birth yesterday. He’s a boy.” I try to sound the way a new father should. Instead, my voice is wobbly.
“Something’s wrong?” Claire doesn’t know me well, but apparently she sees I have something on my mind.
I’m a grown man standing in the middle of a busy office talking to a woman I barely know. Tears come streaming down my face. “He has a bilateral cleft palate. I have to find a doctor. I don’t know anyone. I don’t know what to do.” Tears are welling up. I’m losing control.
Claire looks at me for a second before what I said registers. She takes an involuntary breath, as if I’ve knocked her off balance. She reaches for pen and pad at the same time she starts talking. “I know just who you need to see. His name is Dr. Hogan. He did some work on me. He’s head of the Cleft Palate Clinic at New York University Hospital. He also has the most exclusive cosmetic surgery practice on Park Avenue. I’ll tell him you need to see him. He’s worked with hundreds of kids. He’s the best there is, really.”
I take the note. “We’ll call him first thing tomorrow. Thank you.”
I think about calling Dr. Hogan myself, but it’s out of character. Bonnie and I have a partnership, each with our own roles. I’m the provider, the one who hunts and gathers and creates and presents the options. She’s the decider – the one who chooses the path we take.
Later that evening I return to the hospital and tell Bonnie about Claire and Dr. Hogan. She takes the phone number. She’s been asking doctors at the hospital about where to go and also found out about the NYU Cleft Palate Clinic.
I’m with Bonnie the next morning when a man in a white jacket walks into the room. “I’m Dr. Hogan. Are you Bonnie?”
Bonnie and I are both surprised to see him. We made no appointment. We didn’t know he was coming.
“I’ve seen Michael.” There is something reassuring about him. He gets right down to business. “He has an extensive bilateral cleft of the palate and lip. It’s as severe as any I’ve seen and I’ve been doing this for thirty years. He’s going to need a series of procedures. First we’ll close up his lip. I know the center section seems to protrude pretty far out now, but we don’t want to remove any tissue or bone because he’s going to need it later as he grows. We’ll operate when he reaches ten pounds. That should be in about a month.”
I feel gratitude welling up inside me. This man knows what he’s talking about. Thirty-five years. He knows what comes next. He’s seen it before. We’re no longer in this alone.
“Next we’ll construct a new palate for him by slicing the tissue in his mouth and doubling its size. He doesn’t have much to work with, but I think we can do it. He’ll eventually need some bone grafts to stabilize the center section of his upper jaw. We usually take bone from the hip and pack it around the upper jaw. He belongs in the clinic program. We have specialists who deal with kids like Michael every day. We’ll take care of his mouth, nose, hearing, speech, teeth, and anything else that crops up. Why don’t you think about it and give me a call if you want me to proceed.”
I look at Bonnie. She nods. I say, “We want you to proceed. Bonnie has heard good things about the NYU Clinic and Claire thinks you walk on water. What’s next?”
“Take Michael home. You’re going to need a Breck feeder. The nurses will show you how to use it. Check in with his pediatrician regularly. Give me a call as soon as he weighs ten pounds and we’ll schedule the first procedure.”
Dr. Hogan leaves. I feel a huge relief. I needed a plan – I needed to follow someone’s advice who knew what he was talking about. I believe that Dr. Hogan truly is the best there is. I trust him completely.
Bonnie says something amazing. “If Michael had to have this problem, it’s a good thing he got us as parents.”
Her words come back to me all night long. I drift in and out of sleep. At about 6:00 in the morning her words ring in my head one more time. I realize I’m Michael’s father – not Michael himself. Yes, we have a lot to go through. But I’ll be there to help, to support, to calm fears, to get the best care possible. I won’t be the one having the surgery, helpless, vulnerable, unable to influence the events around me.
For the last three days I’d believed I was Michael – seeing everything through his eyes, dreading the smells and needle pricks and burning of endless surgeries. I was baby Michael – and I was overwhelmed.
I dress and feel an indescribable closeness to my new son, an overpowering need to be there for him. I need him as much as he needs me. He gives me purpose and direction. I know why I’m here.
I’m Michael’s Dad – and I’m the luckiest guy on Earth.
I call my mother. She’s very excited. This is her first grandchild. “Is everyone okay?” I say, “Everyone’s doing fine. “He’s a boy and his name is Michael Joseph, after his two grandfathers.” My mother sighs. “Michael does have a cleft palate,” I add as casually as I can. I hear my mother drop the phone and scream. It’s pure anguish. My sister comes on the line. “What’s wrong?” “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Everything’s okay. Put Mom back on.” I try to be stern with my mother. “I’m not upset, so you shouldn’t be either. The doctor said they can fix this right up.” I act unconcerned. “Then it’s not so bad?” she asks. “It’ll be fine – don’t worry.” I’m talking to a woman who knows a good deal about the doctors and operations and recovery periods and agony that lay ahead of us. My mother gave birth to a cleft palate child of her own – me.