White Lie

They saw it coming. They said it was going to be the biggest snowstorm in twenty years. Just as the blue-white flakes began to fall, I gingerly climbed into the car, cradling my pregnant belly in my hands, and headed into the storm with my sixty-two-year-old father at the wheel.  It was what Google now calls “The North American Blizzard of 2003,” and it began on Valentine’s Day. As my father drove me to the hospital to have my baby, my husband was 6,500 miles away, on the deck of the USS Ashland, in Kuwait. As I went into labor, he was reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, waiting until he could make a phone call to me (a very rare thing, only allowed because I was having a baby). After the call, he would step off the ship and onto the dessert sand to await orders.

Having a baby while my husband was deployed was not the bravest thing I ever did. Neither was enduring the dramatic events of the birth itself. The bravest thing I ever did was tell a lie.

In 2003, I had been married for six years, had  two small kids, and was expecting a third. My husband worked for a newspaper, producing their website, but he was also a Reservist in the Marine Corps. He’d enlisted after high school, despite a high GPA and SAT scores, because he loved his country, and he wanted to do something different. Something hard. Enlisting in the Marines was bold. Rebellious, even. He had no regrets: he still went to college and eventually grad school, and served his country one weekend a month and two weeks every summer.

We were accustomed to phone calls late at night: if the servers at The Times went down or a story broke that had to be covered, he would get a call. But when the phone rang at ten-thirty, and I heard my husband saying, “Yes, Sir. Yes, Sir…” my heartbeat quickened. Colonels and Majors don’t call up enlisted guys at ten-thirty on a Monday night. Unless…

He was gone by Friday. Forty thousand Marines, including the 4th Civil Affairs Unit of the Second Battalion, were being deployed to Kuwait, hours from the Iraqi boarder. Spouses were not told the details. Enlisted Marines did not take cell phones with them or have access to email. I was eight months pregnant, with two little kids, and on a tight budget about to be made tighter by my husband’s sudden pay cut.

Watching him go wasn’t the bravest thing I ever did, either. You don’t have a choice about that. Reservists sign a piece of paper saying if they are called, they will go. Period. And my husband wanted to go. He loved me, he loved our kids, and there was  pain in his eyes when he let go of my hands and walked away, but he wanted to go do what he’d been training to do for a decade, and serve the country that he loved so much.

Twenty-nine days later, I was thumbing through a magazine with my feet in stirrups, a warm blanket over my lap as snow fell outside, waiting for Pitocin to work because it had been nine hours and I was only three centimeters dilated. My doctor came in sipping coffee, to offer me some words of encouragement before he did a scheduled surgery down the hall. He decided to check on the progress of the baby one more time.

He never finished his coffee.

His eyes widened, then locked on mine, and he said to me, “I need to make a decision, and there isn’t time to talk about it. This baby has a pro-lapsed cord, meaning the head is pushing on it, cutting off the oxygen. You need to have a C-section, right now. Do you trust me?” I said a weak “Yes,” and within sixty seconds I was on an operating table, nurses buckling my wrists and ankles down and an anesthesiologist telling me they were moving as quickly as they could, and I would be “out” in about twenty seconds. There wasn’t time for an epidural; they needed to knock me out. My doctor gave me a look of pity, and I saw in his eyes the moment he made his decision. He had delivered my other children, and he knew me. He knew what I would want. He said, “We don’t have twenty seconds.” I felt that first cut. Completely.

That wasn’t the bravest thing I ever did either. Again, I didn’t really have a choice; the decisions were being made for me. Neither was the recovery, or taking care of a newborn and two small kids. Alone.

The bravest thing I never did was lie on the phone. It was during the phone call my husband got to place from his ship, that same evening. The time delay and background noise of an international call did not help the conversation, but I was thrilled to hear his voice and be able to tell him we’d had a boy. I’d named him Christopher, after the patron saint of safe journeys. When my husband asked, “How was the delivery? Are you okay?” I had a moment to think about my answer. I didn’t know where he was, or what he’d be doing the next day. We’d been told he’d be gone for about a year, and it had only been one month. No matter what was going on with me or the baby, they were not going to send him home unless somebody died. So I didn’t tell him about waking up from the surgery in my own vomit, or the fact that our son may or may not have been without oxygen for a while. I didn’t tell him that the baby was blue, at least from what I could tell; they’d whisked him off to the NICU before I could hold him. I mentioned that it was snowing, but not that they were predicting another two feet, the power had already gone out in much of the area, and the roads were closed. I didn’t tell him that when I thought about the months that lay ahead, I felt so lonely that my chest and arms ached. Instead, I swallowed, and said, “I’m fine. The baby’s…beautiful, and we’re…we’re fine. Really.” I heard the relief in his voice when he said, “That’s great. That’s so great. Happy Valentine’s Day…” The line went fuzzy, then dead. I had no regrets. There was no point in worrying him. It would have distracted him from the job he had to do, and my own need for catharsis wasn’t as great as my need for him to be happy, and, well, alive.

He had to spend a month in Kuwait, waiting, just in case Saddam Hussein decided to play nice and let the U.N. weapons inspectors back in. For four weeks, my husband had too much free time, and he spent it fiddling around with coding web sites. He told me in a letter that if he came home, he wanted to make a Shakespeare search engine, like Google for Shakespearean actors and scholars. He thought maybe it could be his Master’s thesis. By the time I read the letter, he was in Nasiriyah, trying to evacuate villages before they were bombed by the Saddam Fedayeen. Sometimes people died. So I am glad I lied. I’m glad that when he thought of me, he probably pictured me and the children in some scene of domestic tranquility: me cradling the new baby in a rocking chair while the others looked on, a soft glow around my face as the baby slept. The reality was exhaustion, Cheerios on the floor and my hair unwashed for days as I watched Kerry Saunders on the news and bit my nails.

Christopher is ten now. He plays soccer and the piano, and has a fondness for card games and butter-pecan ice cream. Miraculously, he had no brain-damage at birth. Even if he did, I would do it all again. My story is like many, many others that will never get published or even told. In the big scheme of things, it is not a story of remarkable bravery,  just everyday bravery, when you put aside your feelings to do a job that must be done, or to put someone else’s welfare before your own. Soldiers and Marines do it every day, so other people don’t have to. Parents, doctors and rescue workers do it every day. Grown children, taking care of their parents, do it every day, and anyone who hasn’t had to be brave in this way will have to at some point. I will probably have to be brave again soon, but for now, I am happy to sit listen to the sound of my kids downstairs, playing blackjack and talking about Shakespeare with their dad.

 

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