I stared at the face of our third baby girl, propped up on my knees as I sat in the hospital bed. We were face to face, and all I could see in that little face were the droopy ears, almond-shaped eyes, tiny nose, and the tongue that wouldn’t quite stay in her tiny mouth. She looked like a baby Yoda, and I couldn’t seem to see past that. I just saw Downs syndrome. “Lord, give me love for her. I need to be her mom. Let me see her,” was my tearful plea.
After we were settled in Fargo, I had connected with the doctor who had been our family doctor when I lived in the area as a little girl. Dr. Esh was kind and considerate, with a quiet gentle bedside manner. Now I was a twenty-two year old expectant mother with something on my mind, “I never get a good swift kick from this baby. The movement is always so fluid. Do you think that’s strange?” He met my concern with the reassurance that only he could give me, “All babies are different. As long as you’re feeling lots of movement, don’t worry.” He estimated that we would have, at the very biggest, an eight pound baby. He had no clue. I didn’t have eight pound babies. The previous girls had weighed in at 9 lbs 14 oz and 9 lbs 6 oz.
The delivery room scene was a nightmare. The nurse put our little girl up on my belly for only seconds before whisking her away for height, weight, and apgar score. Someone reported back weight and height to us. As we called all of our family to tell them the happy news, I felt unsettled. Something about that little face. The doctor and nurse were whispering for just a second as our new baby lay facing me, but opposite from how I was, so that I had to really crank my neck to see her face, now covered with an oxygen mask. “Her oxygen level is a little low,” we were told. “Something isn’t right,” I said, concentrating hard on her face. Somewhere deep inside, I knew, and wished I didn’t. Holding out some hope that I was wrong, I asked “What’s wrong with her?” Dr. Esh continued with his mantra, “You have a beautiful baby girl.” I was done tip-toeing around it. I needed desperately to hear how wrong I was, “I’m afraid she has Down syndrome.” Dr. and nurse exchanged looks, “That’s what we think. We’re pretty sure she has Down’s.” As in slow motion, I wailed, “NNNOOOOOOOOO! God, please, NO!” What came out of me seemed to be coming from some other place where the sound of my own voice became distorted. That, and the terrified look on my young husbands face, will stay etched in stone on my memory forever. Time stood still.
So many things made sense now. The change in my due date after the ultrasound, measuring head circumference and using that as a point of reference. Her head circumference would make it seem as if her gestational age was younger because people with Down’s syndrome tend to be microcephalic. She didn’t have the muscle tone to give me a good swift in-utero kick. From the first time she moved inside of me until she was born, her motion was gentle and consistently fluid. She weighed two and a half pounds less than our other two girls had. It was a melancholy moment of clarity.
We had taken the refresher lamaze class, not because we needed it. We’d been to this rodeo twice already. We needed a break from the monotony of using grocery shopping as our cheap date night. We could barely afford a sitter, or the groceries for that matter. We certainly couldn’t afford an actual date. So, we met weekly with other expectant parents who were probably all there for the same reason. Although, one dad was beyond enthusiastic, to the point of going in, spurs and all, to cut their baby’s cord. Yeah, giddyup there, Hoss. Good for you. We would stick with popsicles for the both of us, and cigarets for Lyle, and the scissors would stay at home.
But now the entire course had changed. We were in uncharted territory and scared to death. I blurted out, “How do we know how to take care of her? We can’t even hear her cry. It’s like a whisper-cry.” Again, with Dr. Esh’s unyielding reassurance, he persisted, “You’ll be fine. You have a beautiful baby girl. Take her home and love her. Do all of the things you did for your other girls.”
I could barely choke out the words when I called my parents back, “She has Down’s syndrome,” I sobbed. “We’re on our way,” was the first thing out of my dad’s mouth. They were coming from Bismarck to Fargo, which is about a two and a half hour trip. From the time I hung up the phone to the time they were in my hospital room, it was about three hours. “Oh, she’s beautiful. Look at her. She’s just a little peanut,” Mom fussed over her newest grand baby. It was almost as if she had been expecting something much worse, and was relieved. They took turns holding her, asked about her health, which seemed good. She had no detectable heart defects and seemed pretty healthy. Lyle held her and cooed to her as he had to his other baby girls, “Hello, Princess. How’s Daddy’s princess? Daddy loves you. Yes he does.”
Lyle’s parents were at the hospital first thing in the morning. We went to the nursery for Nana and Papa’s first look at Emily Ruth. She was way in the back, hidden from sight. Nice. The nurse, looking sheepishly at us, began to wheel her bassinett closer to the window. At that point, I was completely defeated, “Just bring her to our room, please.” How were we supposed to feel like this was a joyful life event with them hiding her away like some kind of freak. Nana and Papa held her and fussed over her saying all of the things people say to new grand babies. What is wrong with me? Why cant I see past it? I was angry and ashamed with myself.
When everyone had left and all was quiet, I took the blanket, white flannel with satin trim, that I had worked on for weeks, cross stitching the little bear slumbering lazily on the crescent moon surrounded by the stars. I draped it across my lap and propped my knees up so that I could be face to face with this little one, who deserved nothing less than love and adoration from me. I stared at her face, searching, willing myself to see more than just Down’s. Nothing happened. I wanted so desperately to see HER. I wanted to be her mom and love her. I felt despair, and then I prayed that prayer, “Lord, give me love for her. I need to be her mom. Let me see her.” I opened my eyes and saw my baby girl for the first time. My heart nearly burst with the flood of overwhelming love. I felt relief, joy, and emotions I can’t name. I held my new baby to me cheek to cheek, “OH–HELLO. Hello, Emily Ruth. I LOVE YOU. Mommy loves you. . . and we are going to be FINE.”