A look back at the joy of childbirth

October 29, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd

THE RESTAURANT was crowded and noisy, and at first they didn't notice the six waiters who encircled the table like a mob hit team and asked her to stand.

"Someone here is celebrating a birthday!" one waiter chirped, placing an ice cream sundae topped with a single lit candle in front of her. Then, all at once, it seemed as if everyone in the joint was singing "Happy Birthday."

This is not a girl who can handle 150 people staring at her with half-chewed food in their mouths, even if they're singing "Happy Birthday," so she quickly turned the color of boiled beets.

As he watched her die of embarrassment, the father turned to his wife and whispered: "Thirteen years old. It feels like yesterday that I watched her being born."

"You never watched her being born," his wife said.

"You are so picky about these things," he said, and they both smiled.

But soon his thoughts drifted back to a long-ago October morning that still seemed surreal in his memory.

The year was 1985. He was covering the World Series in St. Louis, where an entire city was intoxicated with Cardinals baseball, where 60,000 lunatics at Busch Stadium delivered a pre-game standing ovation just watching owner Augie Busch circle the field in a red wagon pulled by the Budweiser Clydesdales.

At 5: 30 a.m. that Saturday, the phone rang in his pitch-black hotel room.

It was his wife, calling from the suburbs of Baltimore. There was news that simply couldn't wait.

"Well, it's time," she said quietly. He marveled at her voice, so calm. "I called the doctor. He's meeting me at the hospital. I guess you should get the first plane home."

He had been up until 3 that morning, filing a story about the gritty Kansas City Royals making a fight of this Series. Then he'd watched an old Charles Laughton movie until sleep came.

Now all traces of sleep were gone, replaced by a panic welling in his gut.

The panic took the form of a lame joke.

"Let me get this straight," he said. "You want me to pack up and leave the World Series, just because you're having a baby? I don't know . . . what would Red Smith say?"

They talked for another minute or two, but there wasn't much to say.

The baby was arriving three weeks early, and that was that. His wife said she felt fine. The contractions were still fairly far apart. She was going to drop their 3-year-old at her girlfriend's apartment, then head for the hospital.

Alone -- that was the part that unsettled him. It summoned images of Sioux women lumbering off by themselves to deliver their babies in a field of clover hard by a swift-running stream.

"Tell the baby to wait for me," he said at last, and hung up.

The next 30 minutes flew by in a frantic blur of phone calls.

Eastern had no direct flights from St. Louis to Baltimore. Neither did United or American or USAir. The guy from Delta said there was a direct flight to Dulles in Washington, but it wouldn't land there until midafternoon.

"The kid'll be shaving by then," he told the guy from Delta. "Or trying on her first pair of stockings."

TWA finally came through. Yes, there was a direct flight to BWI. It left at 9: 55, arrived in Baltimore at 12: 55 EST.

Throwing his clothes in a suitcase, he came to a stunning realization: He was going to miss this one. He could feel it in his soul.

This baby was going to enter the world in the brightness of an antiseptic, white birthing room, his wife pushing and moaning softly. And when the doctors and nurses furrowed their brows and delicately inquired as to the whereabouts of the father, what would the answer be?

That the father was currently at 27,000 feet, sandwiched between an enormous man badgering the flight attendant for more honey-roasted peanuts and a well-traveled cosmetics saleswoman who inquired, as soon as she learned where he was from: "So . . . how many murders this week in Baltimore?"

The two-hour flight was uneventful. It was warm and sunny when they landed. He elbowed past a couple of Hari Krishna hustlers working the baggage claim area, found a phone and called the hospital.

A woman at the other end confirmed, in the clinical tones of someone taking a pizza order, what he already knew: His wife had delivered hours earlier.

"Boy or girl?" he shouted into the phone, and now you could hear papers rustling and finally the woman said: girl. Mother and daughter were doing fine.

He was at the hospital 40 minutes later. He found his wife resting in room 2545, her eyes half-closed. She looked pale and tired. The baby, a beautiful little girl, all pink, all hands and cheeks, was brought in a short while.

Then for the next hour, he learned about all he'd missed at 27,000 feet.

Had 13 years really passed that quickly? Now, as the waiters finished singing "Happy Birthday" and his daughter sat back down, her cheeks still burning from embarrassment, she looked at him.

"I'm going to kill you," she said, and then she laughed.

From Day 1, he thought, she could always take a joke.

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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