Last night Jeff called from Georgia and said he had a possum problem. He also said he had a telephone problem, and was not able to take inbound calls. His possum problem involved a dead possum in the yard, killed by his dogs. Jeff was distraught that the possum got into the backyard, and questioned the wisdom of the now dead animal.
“I’ve had dogs in the yard for years,” said Jeff. “You would think the local wildlife would have taken note by now, and that everyone would stay away from the dogs.”
Maybe it was the lure of the dog food in the bowls, I said. Or maybe the possum was being chased by something. Possums can be quite blockheaded. They tend to stroll wherever they’re going, and the usual possum response to danger is “Huh?” I like possums. Other than humans, I can think of no species that uses nonchalance and detachment as a defensive response. Cats have attitude to spare, but generally vamoose at the first sign of trouble. When really stressed, the possum pretends to be dead. I have days like that. Often grayish white and resembling large exotic rats, possums remind me of kangaroos, another marsupial with far better PR and the advantage of being a Down Under native. If kangaroos were American, there’d be a hunting season and kangaroo blood in the air. Tie me kangaroo down, sport. Kangaroo young are called joeys, but possum babies have no name, I guess out of lack of interest. Pup seems like a good descriptor for a possum newborn.
For several years a possum resided under the hood of my ancient red Beetle rusting in peace by the garage, reluctantly popping out of his home when the remains was being towed away to a final resting place. For a while, we just stared at each other, and then he possum shrugged and strolled up the driveway past the garage, pausing for several minutes at various points along the way before disappearing down the alleyway. Easy come, easy go, as they say in Possum Corners.
“So I have what I’m sure is a dead possum in the yard when suddenly I notice that it seemed to be still breathing,” said Jeff. “Looking closer, I realized that movement was inside its pouch, where I discovered two mice-sized babies, still alive,” said Jeff. “Now what do I do?”
I was just back from visiting with Jane and Chris and that baby, and I was stumped. It took me a moment to switch to animal protector. “Let’s get on the internet channel and find you a rescue organization!” I said. After decades of professionally looking things up, I know how to look things up.
Jeff said he had wrapped the pups in a towel and put them under a heat lamp. I said we need to find some advice fast. I quickly found a rescue organization for wildlife just a mile or so away from Jeff’s house. Jeff discovered a web site with tips for tending to possum orphans. He learned that his little possums were a bit more than 70 days old, since their eyes were open, but they hadn’t yet been weaned, which occurs after 90 days. Time was ticking for the pups, but the situation was looking more promising, apart from the recent unfortunate slaughter of their mother and likely several siblings. I’m waiting now to hear from Jeff, since he can’t take calls and wouldn’t think of sending email, to find out how the pups are doing.
Late last week the fish fly population peaked, a bit later than usual. Completely oblivious of that new baby in our midst, the backyard birds and spiders are feasting at the fish fly festival, courtesy of an abundant Mother Nature. By their numbers a sign of lake health or regret, the fish flies rise from the lake bottom to engage in their annual orgy of sex and death, congregating in the bushes, shrubs, and trees and rising in clouds from the lawn. With maybe 48 hours to live, the bugs cling to screens and clothes and hair in an attempt to escape their fate, but resistance is futile.
At night the mayflies swarm beneath lampposts and haplessly and hopelessly clog roads and walkways, waiting for a party to break out or Mr. or Ms. Right to pass by before time runs out. I think if fish flies had philosophy and art, they would concede that the whole lake bottom to left turn lane cycle of life is essentially pointless and sort of cruel, before making plans to do it again next year, same time, same place. If fish flies had bigger brains, they might have a fish fly god and fish fly religion, promising a fish fly heaven for true believers. Fortified by their faith, fish flies would still die in sudden summer multitudes along the watery east side, though with a conviction if not a certainty that their sacrifice would be eternally rewarded at the fish fly pearly gates.
Right now, though, their collective demise stinks to high heaven, a less exalted part of paradise, located across the tracks near the landfill. Vowing to stay on top of the crisis, the mayor has redirected street sweeping trucks to Jefferson Avenue along the lake and other areas of the city battered by the fish fly invasion. “I don’t think we can wait until the very last fish fly,” the mayor said. “That stinks in more ways than one.” Our mayor may have his shortcomings, but when it comes to counting and cleaning up fish flies, he’ll brook no nonsense.
A fish fly can only be a fish fly, the old man said as he cast his line offshore, and a cabbage can only be a cabbage. But you, little one, you can be anything, within a certain tight range.
That baby has a way with a lap. She fits perfectly and nestles serenely in the crook of my arm, which eventually aches and grows sleepy from maintaining the official infant holding position. Snoozing between meals, she looks like a tiny Buddha, silently bestowing blessings on those who attend her. She has ballerina feet like her mother and expressive conductor hands, and her fingers often clutch her face, as if she has some unspoken concerns, like where am I and how did I get here? All in due time, I say. We’ll answer all those questions as best we can.
That baby keeps her often tired mom occupied, but I’ve never seen Jane so engaged, embracing motherhood with devotion and enthusiasm. That baby has her full attention. I hold that baby and watch her and catch my breath. Her resemblance to her mother as an infant is startling and brings a rush of memories, including colic and projectile vomiting. She’s growing fast, picking up size, strength, and speed, and bursting through some of her outfits like a miniature mighty Hulk. Yesterday she head butted me in frustration. Maybe she’ll be in the NHL one day. When that baby cries, and she does her share, she becomes an instrument of body English, twisting and turning, tightening and kicking. It’s amazing how much noise that wee baby can make. Newborns often have their emotional limitations, understanding only right now. They seem to have no capacity for delayed gratification, even when promised year-end bonuses. Already, that baby is to crying like Mozart was to sonatas. But sooner or later, sleep will overtake her, and back to dream baby dream she’ll go.
It’s alright, baby, I tell her, gently rocking her. Everything’s going to be alright.
Sometimes that baby will run through a riot of expressions in seconds, apparently downloading a program on facial emotional cues that will come in handy later. These include an elusive half-smile that is gone almost before it appears. When she learns to hold and direct that, we’ll all be at her mercy. I ordered a user manual from Amazon to help us better understand our little bundle of mystery and joy. Soon after that baby was born I was watching Raising Arizona, hoping to pick up tips on caring for little critters. First and foremost, I learned that it is a bad idea to steal a baby, even from people who seem to have too many of them. Avoid the confrontation with the law a shortage of diapers may occasion. For sure you don’t want to drive away with your baby in the car seat on the roof of the car or leave her unattended while you rob a bank. Though not directly applicable to our situation, these seemed like sensible suggestions. I made a mental note.
The Monday before that baby arrived, we went dancing with Mr. C at Royal Oak Theatre. The E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons had died from complications of a stroke two days earlier, and a good bracing dose of rock ‘n’ roll from Elvis Costello seemed an appropriate way to honor the Big Man. Last time I saw Elvis was at the same place, 34 years ago, when he did a short and frantic set during his initial tour of the New World. I like Elvis and have many of his many records and don’t understand why there was a three-decade gap between concerts, other than time certainly flies.
At the last moment, after much dithering, I had decided to go to the show. I was supposed to rendezvous in Royal Oak with Mary Beth and Marianne. I didn’t know where in town, since that seemed like too much planning. Mary Beth and Marianne found me while I was standing in the VIP line outside the theater, waiting to get in, though I didn’t understand the nature of the line at the time. I first began standing in the VIP line because it was so much shorter than the ordinary people line stretching around the other side of the building. I wondered why the two lines had such distinct mathematical properties, and decided that it was just clever of me to notice and measure the difference. People tend to gather where other people are already clustering, like lemmings drawn to a traffic accident, but I’m an independent thinker. I actually bought my ticket from some guy’s cousin in the other line, for $31, which was all the money I had in my wallet. “Interested in a cheaper ticket?” a man said as I walked toward the box office. “Well, yes I am,” I said, stopping. “My cousin here has an extra,” he replied. “How much would it be?” I asked. “Forty dollars,” he said. I opened my wallet.
“How about thirty one?”
“You’re breaking my cousin’s heart,” he said, as his cousin produced the ticket.
The line began to move and soon we were at the doors. Once we were inside, an employee checking tickets helpfully explained to me that the VIP line was for VIPs and turned us away. I used to be somebody, I argued, but there was no line for people who thought they once were special, so we went across the street and had a beer.
While we were drinking and waiting, Mary Beth and Marianne excitedly explained their idea for a web site that they said would make millions. I added keen insight to their proposal because in addition to being an independent thinker I am a creative-type person and said I would be happy to be their business partner until they felt the need to take legal action and get rid of me. Afterward, we could still be friends, but I would nurse a small grudge and grumble about the way I was treated. We returned to the theater after the line had evaporated in the thick summer heat. Taking our good old time like we were in no big hurry due to our imaginary VIP status, we tossed rose petals and skipped casually down to the front of the stage, where we stood near Costello’s big roulette wheel of destiny.
Soon Elvis and the Imposters stepped on stage, joined by a go-go dancer gyrating in a cage. Sweating in the warm theater and with mischief on his mind, Elvis wore a snazzy hat and coat and sometimes waved a cane and frequently waded into the audience to retrieve able assistants, who would spin the wheel, known formally as the Spectacular Spinning Songbook , with the assistance of his blond Vanna White co-host. We were nearly face to face with tiny Elvis several times. Mary Beth stood next to me but had a different concert experience, using her cell phone and satellite technology to track down coworkers standing way back by the soundboard and direct them to our spot right next to Elvis and the stage. She also was engaged in a two-hour long sporadic conversation with a woman in a red dress who seemed uninhibited and very talkative, flashing the audience or Mary Beth early in the set. Hoping to get invited on stage, Mary Beth tried to grab Elvis when he scooted by once, but the woman in red who couldn’t stop talking threw an inadvertent block (or was it?) and he got away. Short as he is, you had to keep an eye on the top of his hat as he disappeared into the crowd.
It takes a lot of energy to be Elvis Costello. If that job was open, I don’t know anyone who could do it.
As master of ceremonies, Elvis kept the quips humming and the wheel turning, cheating when necessary. While Elvis and the band performed, the wheel spinners would sit at a small shabby bar onstage near the go-go booth and Steve Nieve’s keyboards and sip cocktails, a television with Fox News providing the appropriate background atmosphere. If seized by the moment, they could jump in the cage and shimmy with the go-go girl. Apparently inspired by our proximity to the gallivanting Elvis and a concert bursting with greatest hits and audience favorites, including “Alison,” “Watching the Detectives,” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” plus a little bit of Smokey Robinson, the Animals, and the Who, I danced with Mary Beth for part of one song, though I can’t remember what song (Red Shoes) it was because I was so shocked to be waltzing with Mary Beth. Nobody was hurt, though twirling space was limited. Lifetime, that makes maybe three dances total, though I don’t dance so much as circle, shuffle, and pause. To an outside observer, it might appear like an attack of palsy. Still, intent counts. Joy is a powerful antidote for whatever ails you, conjure it as you may.
Clarence Clemons was a man who knew more than most about how to create joy. Since the E-Street Band reunited in 1999, we all worried about Clarence. He was several years older than the other members of the band, and had a variety of physical problems the last few years, undergoing hip, knee, back, and most recently, wrist surgery. For the last decade, whenever we’d go to see Bruce and the band, it was with that unspoken concern that this could be the last time we’ll all be together. Then keyboardist Danny Federici passed away from cancer in 2008, and the notion of band attrition began to take serious hold. That fear of mortality colors a lot of my concert going these days. Also my grocery shopping, dreams, and enthusiasm for lawn care.
Apart from that anxiety, our relationship was a simple pleasure. I showed up whenever the band was nearby and Clarence did his Big Man thing and everyone went home happy and content. Back in the 1980s I saw him with the Red Bank Rockers at Royal Oak, and he played a free gig at the Arts Beats and Retreat festival in Pontiac in the 1990s. Now there’ll be no more opportunities to renew our friendship, and I can’t figure out how to process that bit of information, other than I know I’m going to miss Clarence. I imagine the band is devastated, but they’ll try to pull through like warriors and brothers and sisters, after taking some time to heal. As Bruce said in his eulogy, “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.” The next tour, the next show, will be dedicated to Clarence, making things that much more bittersweet and that much more inspired. Till death comes a knockin’, we’ll keep a rockin’.
Last time I saw Clarence was at the Palace of Auburn Hills in the fall of 2009, when Bruce mistakenly greeted the audience with “Hello Ohio!” Terri, Jeff, and I had just returned from a jaunt to see Springsteen in Cleveland, and we were certain that we were no longer in Ohio, having passed a sign on the road that said “Welcome to Michigan.” Highway department signs don’t often lie. Plus, we had the advantage of familiarity, since we live here. We were not rock gods with private jets flying in and out of cities across America and Canada like supersonic gypsies. No, we were ordinary people often stuck in the wrong line. From the air, you can’t read the roadside signs and probably find it difficult to distinguish Cleveland from Detroit, though if you look closely, you’ll notice Cleveland has the Indians and Michigan is shaped like a mitten.
Moments ago I received an email from Terri. “Driving home from Frankenmuth listening to E Street Radio, which is playing a boot of our Cleveland show that Jeff slept through.”
“Cool!” I replied. “I just got done talking to Jeff. His yard dogs killed a possum tonight, and Jeff discovered two baby possums in the mother’s pouch, and he’s trying to figure out how to care for them. I gave him information on a wildlife rescue organization just down the street from him. The web is an amazing research tool. While I was talking to Jeff I was working on the Clarence part of the blog that someday I hope to post. I was kind of distracted by Jeff’s bouts of unconsciousness during that show, and think maybe it was better organized then I gave it credit for then. How’s it sound on the radio?”
“Ooh, poor baby opossums!” wrote Terri back. “The Cleveland show sounded good. Just caught the last hour of it. Mark and I were puzzled by the odd Elvis (Presley, the original Elvis) ballad in the encore, and Rosie as the last song after Higher and Higher (which I loved) felt weird, and I remembered how we thought that show was kind of a hot mess. But eh, it’s Bruce, he’s forgiven.”
I shouldn’t mention Cleveland without saluting Jane Scott, who died the other day at the age of 92. As America’s oldest rock critic, she was an early supporter of Bruce and the boys, helping Cleveland become a Midwest outpost for the band. Bruce always gives her a shout-out when he’s actually in Ohio. As Uncle Junior once observed, they’re dropping like fucking flies.
After Bruce’s gaffe at the Palace, Little Steven pulled the Boss aside to point out the obvious geographic facts, and a sheepish Springsteen burst into a ragged but spirited “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” as an apology of sorts. Maybe Seger was lurking around the corner, hitting a cigarette, working on his night moves. “I’ve been having nightmares about this occurring for years,” Bruce explained, making light of his senior Spinal Tap moment. Still seeking our forgiveness, Bruce launched a particularly inspired version of the legendary Detroit Medley, featuring the best of Mitch Ryder. I always enjoy it when well-oiled concert machinery breaks down and improvisation is in the air, particularly when it involves Bruce.
Speaking of Uncle Bob, I saw Seger at the first night of his stand at the Palace in May. I bought a ticket two days before the show, the morning of Jane’s rainy baby shower. I left my home at 7 p.m. and was sitting in my seat at the side of the stage at 7:35, watching the Rockets, led by Jimmy McCarty, blister their way through the opening set. For the main event my seat was next to Alto Reed and his amazing rack of saxophones, overlooking the small canyon where backstage visitors congregated. Famous local people kept walking by, including every living disc jockey in Detroit. Alto proved quite the showman, as always, and I thought Seger and the Bullets were razor sharp for guys supposedly well past their prime. Like the E Street Band, the Silver Bullet is a ferocious force of nature at full throttle. You keep wanting Bob to let that band fly. We’re not getting any younger.
I’ve been going to Seger shows since 1968, when he headlined a sock hop at Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods on a Friday night. Bob rocked very hard in those days, with either the Last Heard or the Seger System. My first date with that baby’s grandmother and coincidentally with another member of the human race was in 1970 to see Seger at the old Birmingham Palladium, which was owned by Bob’s manager for life, Punch Andrews. Her father, Clarence, who was known to his friends and family as Bud and to his children as Killer for a variety of reasons, told me to make sure I bring his 15-year-old daughter home on time, but I was unavoidably detained. I lacked transportation and was several years away from owning an automobile, which turned out to be a used 1973 Levi Gremlin, so one of my buddies was driving that night. The show ran long and we never went anywhere without stopping to eat and engaging in pointless, time-wasting adolescent horseplay. All these factors conspired to delay the return of Killer’s daughter. Summoning courage I didn’t know I had, I kissed her at the door and stumbled back to the car, where my friends made particular fun of me. That’s at least a paragraph in the story of how that baby came to be.
At the Palace with Bruce and the band, we had a very Clarence night. Before the show I bought an autographed copy of his book, Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales, at the souvenir stand. I never buy souvenirs before a show, because then you’re responsible for their well-being the rest of the evening. You have to worry about where you put them and keeping beer off of them and not stepping on them and not leaving them behind. Plus, there’s the anxiety generated over having the concerns in the first place. But with Clarence’s book, I felt compelled, particularly once I discovered it was autographed. Clarence won’t be around forever, I told myself.
Real Life and Tall Tales is not really a memoir, though it occasionally takes a pass at filling in some biographical details. It’s more of a frequently hilarious postmodern collection of stories that C and his coauthor buddy, Don Reo, choose to tell in order to create an impressionistic version of Clarence and his life that bypasses the usual autobiographic clichés and requirements, including that part where you chronologically describe things that happened. I learned that we shared a love of the late great Willy DeVille and that Clarence may or may not have had a fairly strange encounter with the author Richard Brautigan, beat Fidel Castro at pool, and spent an odd holiday with Bob Dylan. The line between truth and fiction sort of dissipated, but I thought the mix was charming and entertaining, like sitting around a table with a buzz listening to Clarence tell stories. I read it late at night during the winter while eating chocolate chip cookies and drinking milk, and laughed a lot. A natural raconteur observing the world from his own mountaintop, Clarence was good company.
At the show that night our seats were right next to Clarence, on the side of stage, as close as I’ve ever sat, seats that seemed at the time to have been given to us so we could fully witness the power and the glory of C. Terri and Mark were one section over, while Mary Beth and Marianne and my brother Tom were on the other side of the lower bowl. Jeff and Jim were somewhere inside the Palace, though not together. Tom had not expected to be at the show, but a pub regular came in around five p.m. when Tom was behind the bar, and as the conversation turned to Bruce being in town, presented him with a great ticket for free. That’s what you call mojo. An aura of generosity often surrounds the world according to Bruce. Maybe a hundred years from now he’ll be Saint Springsteen, and there’ll be a shrine dedicated to him along the boardwalk on the Jersey shore. He’ll be the patron saint of lost causes and romantic disappointment and unexplained disappearances of household items. “To save your lazy ass I’m gonna start praying now,” someone will say, “to Saint Bruce of New Jersey.”
Before the show everyone, including last-minute Tom, gathered for a tailgate in the parking lot, though we missed it because Jill was driving the VW in her usual careful and deliberate manner. We had family car trouble, and I had loaned my car to my sister so she could visit my mother in the hospital. Just a few days earlier, Mary Lou had been on a ventilator dying of pneumonia until staging another in a series of miraculous recoveries. She has a penchant for near-death experiences and a talent for defying medical science and the laws of probability. And a flair for falling off of beds, chairs, stairs, ledges, curbs, and otherwise flat ground. When she was six months old, my mother who was then a baby tumbled out of a second story window, fracturing her skull. I’m probably here writing this blog by the narrowest of margins. Random couplings, sheer coincidence, and chance survival probably have everything to do with any of us being here. Existence hangs by the thinnest of threads. An inch this way or that, and you’re not here. Once you are here, it’s not wise to rest too serenely on your laurels, comfortable as they may be. Yes, it’s quite an accomplishment, arriving on planet Earth. But sooner or later the fickle finger of fate will point in your direction and offstage you’ll be whisked, never to be heard from or seen again. Vanished. Disappeared. Up in smoke. Dust in the wind. And so on.
Funny how that works.
If my mom had not been in the hospital dying and then not dying of pneumonia, I would have been driving instead of not driving and we probably would have made the tailgate, since I drive faster and am more reckless, though often late. Clinging to the right lane the silver Bug was buffeted by bigger faster traffic flying by at the speed of sound. We appeared to be climbing hills on long flat stretches of I-75, captive of that special denser gravity reserved for people who drive slower than everyone else. We passed the outskirts of Pontiac at a ceremonial crawl and Jane and I waved to people who thought we were part of a passing parade. Hoping to reduce wind resistance, I leaned forward in the front passenger seat. But I was just glad to be going to a Bruce show and not to a funeral for my mother.
That night Bruce and the E Street Band played the full Born to Run, and I remember watching Clarence, majestic and bigger than life in the dark blue beam of the spotlight, swoop through the epic saxophone solo at the heart of “Jungleland,” and I recall being stunned and awestruck, standing with 20,000 others in an arena suddenly full of grace, that warm tone of Clarence’s encircling the audience like a giant spiritual embrace. After a lifetime of listening, I thought it was the most perfect Jungleland. I didn’t know it was the last Jungleland, but that would be the Jungleland to go out on, if you had to leave. As Clarence held those last long somber notes and Bruce prepared for that final verse, that profound moment of transition and transcendence occured, a beautiful passage that lyrically could be called despairing but musically argues for life everlasting. “Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz,’ Bruce began as Clarence stood silently, saxophone at rest, his work for the moment completed.
Between what’s flesh
and what’s fantasy
And the poets down here
Don’t write nothing at all
They just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of a knife
They reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand
But they end up wounded
Not even dead
So I won’t be going to Jungleland again, least not with Clarence, and how do you find that place without the Big Man leading the way? I won’t see an ecstatic Clarence shaking the maracas and dancing slowly across the stage toward Bruce during the frenzy of “She’s the One.” I’ll miss seeing the Big Man and little Nils swaying together during the extended “Ramrod.” And I can’t imagine “Badlands” without Clarence’s hard-charging sax. During Springsteen’s introduction of the band near the end of the show there’ll be no more ritualistic, highly anticipated call-outs of Clarence. I’m going to miss hearing that recitation of obvious fact and joyful exaggeration. The Big Kahuna, the Duke of Paducah, the man with a plan, the Master of Disaster, the King of the World, the saxiest man alive, the minister of soul, and the eighth wonder of the world has now gone truly universal, transcending the physical limitations of even the Big Man.
The very last time I saw Clarence, he was coming down off of the stage on a small lift several minutes after the show ended, nursing a bad back, while Bruce waited for him on the main floor below, joking with the people who remained in our section. Jane and Jill both caught Bruce’s eye, waving and yelling. We watched Clarence descend slowly on the elevator, standing in his metal capsule. Arriving on the main floor, he gingerly stepped off the lift and Bruce reached up and threw his arm around his shoulder and they walked backstage, happy together. I wondered then why we’d been given such an intimate glimpse of Clarence, because it seemed astonishing in a singular way. Sometimes before people go away, they stop to say goodbye, so you have to keep an eye on the inevitable, estimating the odds. Love makes you strong and love makes you weep and reconciling the facts of existence can’t erase the grief at life’s core. Given the circumstances, you might as well stretch your synapses beyond the stratosphere toward the stars and absorb some of the song of the universe. That was Clarence’s specialty. We all need our rocks of Gibraltar, something that gives the illusion of permanence or at least a flicker of meaning, a reason to believe. A fish fly can only be a fish fly, but you, you can be anything, within a certain tight range. Sometimes a benevolent deception is the same thing as a state of grace. Who’s to say?
Nine days after the Palace show, Terri and Mark travelled to Buffalo and saw Clarence’s final performance with the band, at the last show of the tour. “There definitely was a feeling of things coming full circle that night,” wrote Terri. “The band knew it, and the audience knew it, and as a result, the collective experience was typically joyous and unhinged but also wistful and knowing–this very well could be the last time we’ll all do this together. While Clarence was the most obvious question mark, the focus wasn’t on him—it was on the sum of the parts. But instead of becoming maudlin at the prospect, or ignoring it, or being indifferent to it, the night was about celebrating the journey, from Asbury Park to “fuckin’ Buffalo, New York,” as Bruce put it, about the ability for rock ‘n’ roll to create a community, to lift, to create transcendent moments through the collective force of wailing guitars and a strong beat and of course, a blasting saxophone, just as it was 40 years ago.”
Early the last Sunday in June, a week after Clarence died, that baby was born. Later that day Terri and I had planned on going to East Lansing for the U2 spectacular, where Bono and the boys were going to blow apart Spartan Stadium with technological whiz bangs and supernatural showmanship on a giant revolving stage that at the end of the encore blasted off into space. That would be something, we all agreed. We figured U2 would give Clarence a shout-out, and Bono didn’t disappoint. That baby wasn’t officially due to arrive until July 2, but we were advised that delivery dates having to do with that baby were at best, approximate. A week on either side was considered on time and full term. I thought if that baby was anything like me, she would appreciate some slack in the schedule.
But our concert plans changed when half past midnight, a night owl like her mom and grandpa, that baby arrived, obviously flustered. Weighing in at six pounds, 14 ounces, she was all of 20 inches, a good-sized baby, but small for a turkey. Saturday night, on Jane’s third trip to the emergency room in two days, the resident finally conceded that she might be having a baby and conducted an ultrasound, which revealed the baby was breech, positioned to sidestroke her way into existence. Babies in my family, they often do everything they can to resist being born. We’re always spilling out of the womb with umbilical cords wrapped around our necks or poised to exit where no exit exists. “I’d rather not,” is one part of the family motto, the other being, “especially right now.”
Meanwhile Jane was having serious contractions and wanted the baby to be born right away, immediately, ASAP. Her doctor was Korean and kept saying “baby no breech,” but the resident, he seemed pretty sure so eventually they came to some sort of agreement about extracting the baby. While they were talking it over I got the phone call from Jill that said Jane was having a C-section so I quickly ate a sandwich and slurped down a glass of milk, thinking it might be a long night, and jumped into the car and pressed the automatic garage door opener and backed the car down the driveway and drove off down the street, hopefully toward the hospital, which was 15 miles away. Traffic was light, though as I neared my destination a car carelessly popped out of a side street and came barreling across the intersection before screeching to a stop in the middle of the other lane as I swerved, and we did not collide. Not tonight, I said. No time for an incident with the automobile tonight. Driving on the same road an hour earlier, Jill and Aunt Michelle had passed a bad crash at nearly the same spot, and for a moment feared that Chris and Jane were involved, pulling over in a nearby 7-11 parking lot to more carefully check the scene. I had the feeling that we were repeating an ancient sacred pilgrimage, each of us overcoming trials on our way to honor the newborn.
Since it was afterhours when I arrived, I had to enter the hospital through the emergency room past a security guard who smiled when I said I had to go to maternity. I walked west for a mile or two through various empty hallways and rode up an elevator, never encountering another human, before arriving at maternity, or the birthing station, as hospital lingo would have it, a little oasis of levity behind locked doors amid the general doom, gloom, and institutional isolation. We had the waiting room to ourselves, the four anticipating grandparents and Aunt Michelle. We didn’t know how to operate the television on the wall, because we were technically befuddled old people now. Two large vending machines sat in the corner, filled with soft drinks and chip products, apparently part of a plan to create future healthcare customers. Chris’s dad, who we hadn’t met before, read a paperback and resembled current Bob Seger and regular Santa Claus, a Christmas heartland bonus for the new grandkid, I figured.
We waited and waited in the somewhat awkward silence of the waiting room, which all things considered, was less than what you’d hope for in a room supposedly designed for waiting. The waiting is the hardest part, as Tom Petty sings, unless you consider all the other things that happen after the waiting is done. If they found a way to convert all the hospital waiting everywhere into energy there’d be no need for Middle East oil. People would fly and buildings would levitate. Breaking the hospital code of suppressed silence, Michelle kept bringing up events of the past I couldn’t recall. Are you sure that was me, I repeated several times. I wish I could remember. I have two parents with a touch of dementia and I’m not feeling that well myself, but I sensed a comedy act developing. Then Chris popped in covered in hospital scrubs and announced that there’s a baby. A baby this big and that heavy, he said. A baby girl. He looked tired and concerned, though not sorrowful, but he had no baby.
That baby, he said, is fine but she has fluid in her lungs, which the doctors say is often the case with C-section babies and so they’re working on her. Working on her, I thought. Working on her? Hospitals are always working on you. That’s often not a good thing, at least until the final five minutes of whatever medical show you’re watching. I had no idea where we were in the script. What about Jane? Chris disappeared and we waited for another hour or so and then we were ushered into a maternity room where we encountered Jane in bed wrapped in blankets and in a cheerful mood, though I suspected she’d been helped along by the hospital meds. She had no feeling in her legs but was otherwise in good shape, or as good a shape as someone can be who’s been awake for three days and just undergone surgery and had a baby yanked out of her. Still, we, the assembled new grandparents and Aunt Michelle, had no baby to lay hands on and not much information about her whereabouts, and so we waited some more and tried to dispel the general anxiety by quizzing Jane about her condition. A young nurse stayed with her, monitoring her IVs and answering questions in a pleasant stoner way that worried me. “Your baby is like, doing okay, you know,” she said. Meanwhile, I was internally building to a Meryl Streep crescendo. A dingo took my baby! I thought.
I believe Chris was with us and then with the baby in the nursery and then he was with us again, but I don’t really remember. After a visit to the nursery, he arrived with news, saying the baby had a partially collapsed lung and they were working on her some more. Eventually, in the middle of the night, the other grandparents departed for home, but we stayed, hoping to see that baby. Somewhere after four we were allowed to go to the nursery. Outside the nursery we washed our hands. I stepped into the small room filled with several wee beds and another infant and lots of equipment that goes “bing!” and three nurses and there that baby was, on her back on a heated crib. Fragile, tiny, and alive, she had an oxygen tube under her nose and red patches on her face and a little knit cap on her head and monitors on her bare chest. The tag on the equipment post above her bed said her name was Rhiannon Rose. I know that baby, I said, touching her cheek near the tape holding the oxygen tube in place. “You’ve had a very rough first night, little girl.”