A Birthday Birth Story

There is one birth story missing on this blog.

The first one.

I wasn’t frequently blogging — or web journaling, as I called it back then — back in 2003. Our website was very photo heavy at the time, with just enough text to bring family and friends up to speed on our activities.

Oh, I wrote out the story of her birth, of course. I sent it as an email to my family, who were in the United States and couldn’t be there. Yet, what I published on this blog was an announcement, not the story of how our lives changed exactly nine years ago today.

Nine years ago.

While I won’t repost here the novel I wrote for her baby book, I will tell you that the heat that summer in Italy was brutal. It was literally the hottest summer on record in Europe since 1540, since before even William Shakespeare was born.

And I was pregnant for all of it and living in a gorgeous country with no central air conditioning.

My due date was Wednesday, August 13, and it couldn’t come soon enough. I was miserable. Martin went out and spent 400 Euros on two portable air conditioners so I could be comfortable either on the first or second floor of our townhouse.

When I wasn’t at work as the editor of the military newspaper there, I was sitting in my underwear on our bed or our couch: sleeping, reading, and waiting. We knew she was a girl. We knew her name, too. Her nursery was ready and waiting for her.

For a week or two before her due date, I tried all kinds of ways to move things along: walking, hiking in the mountains, drinking lots of water, eating particular foods. In the evenings, when it was a little cooler and more tolerable to be outside, Martin and I walked to the playground in the cul-de-sac of our street in that tiny Italian village just an hour north of Venice. For hours, I sat on the swings and gazed at the Alps until the sun went down.

This was taken about a week or so before the birth.

The Monday morning before my due date, I was in such miserable shape with the Braxton-Hicks contractions that my supervisor sent me home and told me not to come in anymore. I had been on half-days and my work load was already scaled back, but she could tell the time was close.

If they needed my help with the newspaper, she would call me.

That Tuesday afternoon, she called.

They needed my help after all. Before I could groan, she reminded me the office had awesome air conditioning, and that she didn’t care if I wasn’t in uniform, just as long as I was dressed.

We were there in ten minutes. I was in yoga pants.

I waddled to my desk and took a seat, ready to tackle whatever newspaper crisis required my assistance. The entire newspaper staff stood across from me, staring back. Before anyone could say anything, one of the colonels from the commander’s staff — who regularly dropped last-minute newspaper changes or edits on behalf of the general — stormed into the office.

My officemates threw a surprise baby shower for us a few weeks before the birth.

“Where’s Julie?” he barked.

The others pointed at me. He stopped in front of my desk and threw down the most recent edition of the newspaper.

“What’s with the stuff you guys published this week?” he asked, folding his arms across his chest.

“I … I’ve been on half-days,” I stammered, a bit blind-sided by his irritation. “I’m not really sure what all’s been published this week.”

“Ohhh … you didn’t see?” he asked. “Maybe you should take a look.”

I flipped open the newspaper. A pair of staff sergeant stripes were taped into the middle page, on top of a story about military promotions.

Was there an advertising promotion? Were they putting freebies in the paper now?

I looked up, confused. Everyone was looking back at me, a mix of forced irritation or barely-contained smiles. I noticed Martin’s face turn red.

“What is this?” I asked. “I don’t get it.”

All of a sudden, there was a mixed chorus of explanations. The colonel broke out into a grin.

“You made it!”

“Congrats, Julie!”

“Staff sergeant select, baby! Way to go!”

It still didn’t dawn on me what these people were talking about. I still didn’t get it. I turned to Martin and handed the newspaper to him. He took the rank and held it in front of me.

“You passed your promotion test. You are getting promoted,” he said, clearly and evenly.

That’s when I remembered.

About two months prior, I found out at the last minute that I was eligible to test for promotion to become a non-commissioned officer. There had been a hiccup in the personnel records, which were transitioning to a digital database at the time, and for the longest time, I was told I didn’t have enough time in rank to test that cycle, but once confirmation came back that I was good to test after all, I only had two days to really prepare for it.

Fortunately, I had just completed all my initial career development courses, and I was well-versed in my job’s policies and Air Force culture, which were the two main topics of the promotion test. The test center was in a particularly old building with no air conditioning, and I had to sit in one of those old, vintage-type school desks with the table attached to the chair. Being seven months pregnant at the time, I was not comfortable and just wanted the test DONE. I rushed through it and then never thought of it again.

Yet, as it turned out, I passed the test with flying colors, and qualified for promotion. My supervisor admitted she was torn about calling me into the office when she found out that morning, but the whole office was so excited for me, they didn’t want to wait.

It was a great moment.

Martin and I went out for a fried chicken dinner at the base commissary to celebrate. Frankly, I wasn’t dressed for anything nicer. (Hello, maternity yoga pants!) We sat in a booth in that busy food court, daydreaming about the extra money that would be coming in now, and remarking how funny it would be if the baby actually came on time the next day after such big news.

Then we went home and went to bed.

Or rather, Martin went to sleep. I tossed and turned for a few hours. I read a book. I played with our cats. Eventually, I hefted myself up and decided to take a bath.

Our bathtub in Italy was amazing. It was super long and super deep: perfect for soaking. It was right underneath a large window, too, so I could stare outside at the moon and the Alps. It was heavenly. While reading all my natural birth/Ina May Gaskin books, I envisioned a tranquil water birth in that very tub. It was perfect for it.

Until I actually went into labor in it.

It was just a few minutes after midnight on my due date when it happened. It dawned on me that the contractions I was feeling were REALLY intense and different than before. During these new contractions, too, my big, ol’ belly was tightening up, turning solid like a soccer ball. After about 20 minutes of this, I started to panic and I yelled to Martin.

Who was sleeping.

And snoring.

Like a bear in a coma.

So I yelled. And I yelled. And I yelled. It was getting painful and I was getting winded. Of course, throughout this whole ordeal, I had tried to hoist myself out of our deep Italian bathtub, but between my size, the pain, and the idea of being wet, cold AND in pain on the bathroom floor in my birthday suit, I wasn’t going anywhere by myself.

Yet, I knew if I really screamed, I would startle him awake and startling Martin awake is never pleasant. But things were getting crazy here, and I needed him.

So I screamed for him. And sure enough, it startled him awake. I heard him jump out of bed, cursing and knocking over the lamp from our nightstand. It took a few seconds for him to get his wits about him, but he quickly joined me.

“What’s happening?” he asked.

“I think …. gasp … I am …. pant, pant … in labor.”

“So ….?”

“So, I don’t know what I should do!”

“Well, I don’t know what to do, either!”

I remember glaring at him. Like, if my eyeballs were actually lasers, he would still have scars where I drilled two tunnels through his forehead. For months, I pestered him to read the pregnancy and childbirth books, but he was absolutely not interested. I talked to him about dilation, what happens when the water breaks, breathing, the specifics of my 20-page birthing plan, and he seemed totally content just taking my word for things.

“We’ll figure things out when we get to that point,” he assured me.

Well, we were at that point and I was looking — cold, hard STARING — at him to figure things out.

He went to get the birthing book and the phone.

Thus was the beginning of my labor that lasted 15 hours and 12 minutes. Once we determined that my contractions were coming hard and fast, the military nurse on the phone told us to come on down to the Italian hospital where a staff of American military medical personnel greeted us. (There was no base hospital at the time, so the Americans rented hospital space in a local village.)

Once there, time was a big jumble of chaos and pain for me. The contractions weren’t letting up. Martin was the perfect partner, helping me count through the pain, letting me know when the spikes on the monitor were fading, reminding me that it’d all be over soon, that I was doing something amazing. Sporadic phone calls to the states and Germany were made. There were nurses coming and going.  I spent time in the shower, letting the warm water relax me for as long as possible. At one point, I asked Martin to rub my back with my sandalwood massage lotion (as described in the birth plan, page 18), but in his haste, he mistakenly picked up peppermint foot cream instead. (Just a bit of advice: don’t do that.)

My doctor — an extremely patient, extremely attractive gentleman with red hair, an Irish name, and amazing biceps — gave his blessing for an epideral, and all was right with the world for at least a few hours. Things were progressing smoothly, I was able to relax (somewhat) and brush my hair and freshen up.

In a positive sign, the nurses began setting up equipment for a normal birth.

Our last photo together as non-parents.


Things were going well.

Until they weren’t.

It was nearly 3 p.m. when the baby started showing signs of distress.

So was I.

The epidural had worn off, and I was in the most constant and intense pain, no rest between the contractions, and as my heart rate was spiking, the baby’s was dropping. The decision for a C-section was made, and within minutes, I was being wheeled down a hallway and put on an operating table.

I was worried, of course, but I remember feeling relieved.

And extremely, extremely loopy.

I remember thinking the room was so light and green.

I remember thinking Martin looked so blue in his scrubs.

He held my hand and cried.

I remember telling him to get good pictures, and cracking jokes with the doctor and anesthesiologist.

And then there was pressure as they lifted her out, followed by the sound of a cat squawking.

They assured me that no, I actually gave birth to a baby girl, and not a cat.

They didn’t hold her over the curtain because they wanted to check her right away. They called Martin over to her, and then he was gone. From the photos Martin captured — all lopsided, since he literally just held up the camera and clicked — she was pale and purple, but pinked up right away. Eventually, her cries grew lusty and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

I remember my doctor telling me there was a true knot the size of a golf ball in the umbilical cord, and by sheer luck, Martin got a photo of that, too. Had Miss C traveled down the birth canal, the knot would have been crushed, and who knows how that would have turned out.

But instead, all was well, and before too long, Martin walked over to me with a bundle of blankets, and he placed her down on the pillow next to me.

Her face was so round, and she was twisting her head from side-to-side, searching for me. I put my hand up alongside her and pulled her closer, cheek to cheek.

“There you are,” I said to her.

And there she was.

The most beautiful baby ever born.

I will swear to you that all this took place yesterday.

At least, it feels that way. It doesn’t take, but a blink to mentally go back to that time and feel with every fiber in my being that it was all so recent. Even to this day, the smell of stargazer lilies — which were brought to us in abundance after her arrival — takes me back to those sweet newborn days.

But it was nine years ago.

Now, that beautiful sweet baby is a beautiful sweet girl, who makes me proud every single day.

I’m so very lucky she’s mine.

Happy Birthday, Miss C!

We love you forever!