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APRIL 18, 2012 7:01AM

My post-9/11, with my 5-lbs. newborn boy

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Four days after 9/11 I took home a five-pound bundle in a taxi with my mom. My son was born on 9/10/01 in Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. I was in a room on the 12th floor and I could see the Twin Towers from my window. He was early, and small, too small to be in a carseat. I just held him wrapped up in a blanket, with his little cotton hat on. I was taking home the most priceless package. I was incredibly happy to break out of the hospital after four days. I hope I never have a long illness or go to prison, I wouldn’t do well. My mom and I walked out into a changed world. It was an incredibly beautiful day, and the weather was uncannily gorgeous all fall. Why—as if in mocking, as if in celebration, of the tragedy, of my new boy?

The entire West Side highway along the Hudson River was closed except to emergency vehicles. So we took a street, one of the avenues—I don’t even know which one. It seemed we were moving in slow motion, and I had the odd feeling we were in a parade. Or, more accurately, we were being filmed for a movie, at least I was. First, I didn’t know how the whole entire world couldn’t be centered on me at this moment, as when a king is born. Second, there was an ultra-vivid quality of unreality to everything, enhanced motion, enhanced passers-by on the streets, coupled with an aura of unspeakable sorrow, sorrow to the point of wonder. Third, I was on the last of my Percocet. I had had a C-section.

The light was beautiful inside the apartment

When we got home my street seemed lit up somehow, as vivid as in a story. The fall light was clear and brilliant and soft. The breeze was perfect. We got out of the cab and my mom paid the driver. We had made a small little talk along the way, but not much. I looked up and down my street. I desperately wanted someone to be there to show my baby to. I knew a few people in my building, and even this crazy neighbor next door would have counted. It just seemed I should have a homecoming of some kind. But my street looked uncharacteristically deserted, practically abandoned, which simply heightened the aura of unreality I was feeling.

I felt let down for just a fraction of a second, and then my mom and I went inside with the baby. When we got upstairs I put my tiny boy on the bed. I put a light blanket over him and looked around the room. The light was beautiful inside the apartment, even coming through the closed blinds. I was so happy to be out of the hospital and to bring to the baby back to this soft place. I immediately wanted to put music on. “What should I put on?” I said to my mom, going to my CD’s. “Bach, Vivaldi, Paganini?” I had quite a little classical collection—I had gotten my taste from my dad. “I don’t know,” my mom said. The events of the last days had done her in.

I got Bach going and called everyone I knew, which basically consisted of my two sisters. Then I constructed these birth announcements on the computer, more like a flier, actually. I put one on the door and started mailing them to a few people—getting addresses and envelopes but then I got distracted and started doing something else. And later that day, or was it the next, my neighbor came over with two dozen yellow roses. He only came in very briefly, and he seemed astonished by how small and precious my baby was.

I wanted to be with some father of my baby, if not really the father of my baby

I quit taking Percocet the very next day and started on Vicodin, which I had been given to take home. But I only took one before I switched to Tylenol. I was exhausted from that revved-up and crashed-down feeling. My mom had lost her wallet in all the coming and going, including all her ID and $200 cash. She couldn’t get back on a plane without ID so she was nervous and fretting about that and trying to decide what to do. She cooked for me and everything and helped me get the house together. And before she left we went to the store and got a huge amount of groceries that she paid for.

I told her she could go and she was relieved, I could tell. She was supposed to stay for about three weeks but she ended up leaving after only 10 days. She wanted to help me and everything but it seemed all too much for her. And she was kind of driving me crazy. Plus, I had the sense that I didn’t really want to be with my mom, I wanted to be with some guy. I wanted to be with some father of my baby, if not really the father of my baby, some guy that could represent the father of my baby, or something.

So I told her my mom she could go but then when she was about to leave, I thought, holy crap, how am I supposed to take care of this baby? How am I supposed to make decisions or be in charge? And it had kind of gone like that my whole life, my mom driving me crazy and me wanting her to get the hell out of there, and then being terrified when she did. My brother-in-law had had to drive to Milwaukee from Madison and get into my mom’s house with her extra key. He found her old passport in a file and shipped it to us UPS overnight. It was expired but the airline said they would accept it when we called and then she left.

My baby would sleep and move about, still all curled up and small

I almost flipped my lid when my mom left but things really did turn out okay. The whole time my baby was just sleeping preciously. He would sleep and move about, still all curled up and small. I was convinced he thought he was in the womb, the way he would stretch his little hand out. His motions were so fluid and so smooth. My mom had been terrified to change his little diapers and kind of even to hold him because he was so small. But since he was the only baby I had ever had I was used to him. I had watched the nurses at the hospital and just did things the way they had.

And 9/11 was still out there. The day after I got home I had walked down to the ATM to get some cash for us since my mom had lost her wallet. It was kind of a big deal for me to walk down to 23rd Street from 30th, since I had had a C-section. There was a very sad aura outside, even if the weather was gorgeous. I saw an emergency vehicle driving down 23rd Street that said Bellevue Morgue on the back. Its doors were open in the back though I couldn’t see anything inside. There signs for missing people everywhere. And that was all the way up in my neighborhood.

I went out more and more, little by little. This was when my mom was still here, because after she left I was doing everything, it was normal. I went to the bra store because my bras wouldn’t fit anymore. I had left the hospital without wearing a bra because I couldn’t even get mine on—I had gotten so big because of breastfeeding. I was lanky and had never had much of a chest so this was a brand new world for me and I loved it. I got this sturdy white bra that looked like something out of a late-50’s Parisian movie and it just added to the feeling that I was playing some kind of assigned role. And every time I went out I looked for signs of 9/11 and I saw them. The air of an aftermath was palpable everywhere. It pervaded the entire city.

That’s what everyone had been doing—just kind of looking at each other

At times when we opened our windows, if the wind were blowing in a certain direction, the air smelled acrid. And it was still so preternaturally beautiful, the light, the breeze, the perfect temperature. I had to go the UPS warehouse to pick up the carseat we had ordered. I didn’t have a car but I needed it for taxis, a plane, or when I visited my mom in Milwaukee. They had attempted to deliver it while we were gone so I walked over to 11th Avenue and 43rd Street. There was a feeling that everything was going in slow motion outside. Or not so much that, but that everything was extra precise. The keen quality of the light added to this feeling. It seemed things were playing out moment by moment, and maybe that’s because nobody really knew what to do, how to act, or what exactly should happen next.

I took a cab after retrieving the large box and the driver wanted to let me out at the corner, so I said, fine. Then I was sort of kicking the box down the street since I wasn’t supposed to lift because of the C-section. A young guy came along and carried it for me to the door of my building. He had been down at the site volunteering and he told me he saw body parts. He said he saw a hand, and a head. We just kind of looked at each other. That’s what everyone had been doing—just kind of looking at each other. “I just had a baby,” I said. And the guy smiled at me and said congratulations.

Every time I mentioned my baby or people saw him on the street they smiled and said things like congratulations, and god bless. And it was more than just someone having a baby. He was like this little beacon of hope at that time. My mom and I went down to a store to get a stroller as well. We wanted to make sure I would have the essential things I needed before she left. I didn’t have a lot of things because my baby was born three-and-a-half weeks early. We had thought we were going to have more time. I had my little boy wrapped up in a blanket and he wore his little hat and I carried him over to the subway station on 34th Street to catch the A train.

There were fliers all over about missing people

A middle-aged man came over to look the baby and he had a badge on that indicated he had been working down at the site. “How’s it going down there?” I asked him. He just kind of nodded and I asked him what he was doing. “Coordinating,” he said quietly. He had the air of a business executive and he looked so tired and sad that he could barely speak or even see. My mom and I felt so terrible and I thanked him for helping. I meant for helping out the city and I later worried that it was a stupid thing to say but my mom said it wasn’t.  The man congratulated me on my baby, and seeing my little boy did seem to make him feel a little better.

One day I went walking down to Washington Square while my mom stayed home with my little boy. That much closer to the World Trade Center there were fliers all over about missing people, lining the fence across from Saint Vincent’s Hospital. There were already shrines at the fire stations commemorating dead firefighters. There was so much sadness you didn’t know how the city could contain it. I brought my mom’s cheap, prepaid cell phone with me—I didn’t even have one of my own yet at that time—and I called her when I got to the Square.

I had started thinking about how my baby’s heart rate had gone down before he was born and I hadn’t said anything. I tried to tell my mom how terrible I felt, how guilty, that I hadn’t done anything. “But he’s okay,” she said. I still didn’t know if I’d ever get over that. Anyway, she didn’t really get what I was saying because I was also thinking about the time my younger sister fell into a pond and I didn’t pull her out. My older sister had, but I had just stood there watching. I seemed to watch things go by as if nothing could change them.

You felt that way about the world and it brought out the sadness in everything

You felt that way about the world at that time, and it brought out the sadness in everything. But at home I felt okay, with just my mom and my little boy. He really didn’t do anything except sleep, so peacefully, though he still woke up every two hours at night to feed. It didn’t take long before you were completely strung out. And then when my mom left I cried. She was leaving me, I felt that way, just like a little kid. And I also didn’t think I’d be able to take care of my little boy. I couldn’t imagine how I’d go get groceries, cook, or do any of the normal things. Yet I’m the one who I had wanted her to leave as well. I didn’t want things now to be like when I was young, or at any other time when I was with my mom in my life. Not that my life had been bad, no, I just wanted my life to be mine.

So I sat there with my little boy when she left and I thought, holy crap. But I had been through graduate school. I had taught in Japan. I had traveled many places in the world, by myself. I had moved out to Manhattan on my own, driven a rental car across the country with my stuff. And I barely even drove a car. So little by little I just did all those same things I had been doing when my mom was here. And I got by.

Then my older sister came out to visit me when my little boy was just three weeks old and that marked a change. She said he was the smallest baby she had every seen. “He has such a unique look,” she said. And I think that’s because he was born early. More than one person out in public had said, “Oh, his eyes aren’t even open yet.” Of course babies aren’t like kittens and their eyes are open right away. But he just had that look of something so new and delicate.

We always fell back into our old ways—we laughed until tears rolled down our faces

My sister made me feel more confident just being here. She has an easy way about her and she knew how to get things done. We went out to dinner and did all sorts of things, bringing my little boy along. We’re only 13 months apart and we had grown up almost like twins, sharing the same bedroom until she went off to college a year before I did. I had followed her all my life until I turned 20, and then we had a rough patch for a while. But we always fell back into our old ways—we laughed until tears rolled down our faces.

We went to a Thai restaurant, and my baby lay in the stroller sleeping. And we went to a café once where I breast fed him under a little light blanket, even though we were sitting right by the window. It was so unobtrusive and I didn’t feel self-conscious because my sister was there. And we laughed that we were in this raised area by the window practically on display. Anything and everything was a joke to us. Suffice it to say my sister really lifted my spirits, and she stayed five days. The city was also returning more to normal at that point. Around my neighborhood movie posters were going up, fliers were once again being attached to every available space, advertising services and goods of every imaginable kind—house cleaning, a better diet, tutoring, se rentan cuartos, moving sale. These somehow replaced the posters of missing people little by little. There was tragedy in this, but also a sense of life returning, shock abating, grief being accepted, and change.

My little boy had been thin at first like a little starving child. But I fed him constantly and he filled out, little by little. By the time my sister left it was close to what was supposed to have been his birth date. And here we had had this entire dramatic life together already. Before he was born I had told the guy—the dad—that I wanted his childhood to be just like a dream. And when you say things about life you can never imagine how they’re going to turn out. Life creates its own dreams for you, and its sorrows. It was extraordinary how life and death were so intertwined. 

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"And when you say things about life you can never imagine how they’re going to turn out."

Thats for sure.
What a surreal time that must have been to bring a new baby home. Reading your story, with all the little day to day facts of life with a newborn weaving through the tragedy, somehow makes it even more so. Nicely done.
Well deserved EP. It was as if you and your son were a bubble of sanity and hope floating through the horrible aftermath of 9/11, there to remind the rest of New York that brightness would eventually return.
What a lovely, poignant and complex post. The contrast of a newborn baby against such a tragedy is most striking ... a number of wonderful details truly leave an impression.
This is a beutiful story. The juxtaposition of the joy of a new life at a time of such sorrow and despair is very evocative. I can't imagine being suddenly alone in a big city - the big city - with a new baby. Even wearing your James Bond/Secret Agent bullet proof white bra. R
What an incredible perspective. Life does go on...
A friend of mine had a baby on the night before Hurricane Katrina hit. She and her newborn had to be evacuated from the hospital - they didn't make it home for more than 4 months. She describes some of the same feelings that you do. Thanks so much for sharing your son's birth story. Best wishes to you both!
The first time I read about this extraordinary circumstance, this confluence of life and death, despair and hope, I was so moved by it. And now you've moved me again.
What an amazing slice of that reality which pounded us all into a new world. Thanks for sharing how this all happened to you. What a time that was.
All of the foregoing comments, "in spades"! Plus: how old is your son in the accompanying photo?

Thank you for this riveting and so-well-crafted post.