20 years ago this afternoon, I sat in a Chinese restaurant in Topeka with Ken and our friend Mike Rundle, waiting for some wonton soup and figuring out what time the new Patrick Swayze movie started. That was the plan: a late lunch and a long movie. Between the soup and crab ragoon, however, I realized there would be no Patrick Swayze for me that day.
I was in labor. Actually, I thought I was in labor a few hours before, which is why Mike drove me to the birthing center in Topeka, where we met Ken, and our midwife Ginger. “You’re too happy to be in much labor yet. Go out to lunch and catch a movie. Then come back,” she told me as I swung on the porch swing of the center.
But now, looking at those panda playing in the grass murals at the Chinese restaurant, I was well beyond that giddy-almost-labor way. In fact, I was feeling downright miserable. We paid up, and went to my friend Victoria’s house, when I got into her bathtub, to spend the few hours of contractions under water.
Eventually, it was dark out, the contractions were overwhelming — each wave
coming on the heels of the last one — and we sped over to the birthing center. While I sat in a rocking chair there, nodding occasionally at Dr. Josie when I wasn’t in bouts of agony, her toddler son came and put his little paw on my leg. Strangely enough, it was comforting. Lisa and Judy, two good friends who planned to be with us for the birth, arrived, Ginger too, and in the hours that followed, things went from intense to uber-intense (as these things tend to do).
About 11:30 p.m., I squatted beside the bed, and pushed out Natalie. Falling back into the bed, crying and laughing in relief and happiness, Ginger placed Natalie on my chest, and Natalie smiled. Not just a little grin, but a huge smile, her eyes squinted closed, and then she opened her eyes. Nothing has been the same since. Our friends laughed and cried too, and Mike, who had grown up on a farm, said, “This is really different from seeing cows give birth.”
Ken and I had planned to spend the night at the birthing center, but about 2 a.m., when another woman came to give birth in the room next to us, it only took her crying out once for us to look at each other and say, “We’re out of here.” Josie came in and put little socks on Natalie, then swaddled her in a blanket, telling us she loved dressing newborns for the first time. Then we put Natalie in a car seat and walked in the cool, damp air to the car.
Daniel’s birth, three years earlier, was so tumultuous — a long labor followed by a week in the neonatal unit of a nearby hospital — that it felt positively illegal to be pulling out of the parking lot to drive our three-hour-old baby home. We kept giggling at the surrealistic splendor of the moment as we drove onto I-70.
Once back, we went straight to Ken’s parents’ house, where we had planned to spend a few days recovering first. They greeted us at the door, marveling at the tiny, sleeping girl in the car seat, so comfortable there that we dared not disturbed her. Instead, we put that car seat between us on a bed, and went to sleep ourselves.
That was two decades ago, long before we knew much about how little we knew when it came to children. While so much has unfolded that we never could have imagined — including her refusal to wear anything but frilly dresses for most of her life, and her astonishing voice as a young woman and singer — one thing remains true: her name still speaks to her life’s calling. Natalie, after Natan in Hebrew, means “to give,” and Gayle (Yael in Hebrew) means joy, and it’s in memory of an exceedingly kind friend from college who loved to sing. Happy birthday, Natalie Gayle, and may you continue to give joy to yourself and others your whole good life long.