May 29, 1958 Redux

Thursday, May, 29, 1958, turned out to be a day full of impossibly contrasting emotions, a day of such intensity that 62 years later it remains, hour by hour, firmly fixed in memory.

Early that morning, Annette shook me awake to news that her contractions were real this time. We were living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then, far west near Wauwatosa, and St. Joseph’s Hospital was far away across the north side of the city, an easy trip at that hour of the morning but already full of the anxiety of a first-time birth. It was a familiar trip. Annette had been working in surgery at St. Joseph’s for most of a year. In three days we would celebrate our first anniversary.

There was no great tension as we drove, no hints that birth was imminent, not like it would be a year and a half later when our race across the city ended almost too late. I had lingering doubts that this one was real, but Annette was admitted to the obstetric ward and quickly reassured by attending nurses that indeed her labors would produce a baby. Long before ultra-sounds were essential, the baby would have no gender identity until “it” had fully appeared. The time was barely past 7:00 a.m. CDT.

As Annette worked at St. Joseph’s she became aware of the one specialist she intended to be her doctor through her first pregnancy. Through years of training and working, she had watched doctors in all sorts of situations and formed strong conclusions about the quality of their work. She had no doubts about Dr. William Buggy (nor did we have any questions about his decision to be an obstetrician, given his name which was pronounced exactly as was the contraption in which a baby could be pushed around town). Through the prenatal period I, too, had become aware of his apparent ability and skill, although he seemed very young (he was 33 at the time, I found out reading his obituary—he died last year at age 95—and also learned that he had delivered nearly 10,000 babies in his 40-year career), but it was easy to detect his caring and his love of his work. Not only that, but he had several children of his own of whom he spoke with much affection.

Annette’s contractions and the accompanying pain began in earnest soon after arrival, and it wasn’t long before it became clear that the baby would not arrive quickly or easily. Contractions came and went with the baby advancing little on “its” trip through the birth canal. Pains increased, as did my back-rubbing and comforting task, hour by hour past noon and well into the afternoon, by which time Dr. Buggy had appeared. Annette had planned happily and unshakably to have a fully natural delivery. There would be no anesthesia. By late afternoon, she was exhausted, as was I, plus I was deep into being an utterly anxious presence. Dr. Buggy had been in and out by that time, and finally he came to us with his opinion that he must help “it” be born with an obstetrical forceps.

The decision was ours: a high forceps delivery or more labor. For me it was a tough decision. Somewhere, somehow I’d gotten an impression that forceps were a form of medieval torture instrument that often leave a baby disfigured if not dead, but Annette, knowing far more than I did, had only minor misgivings, and she fully trusted Dr. Buggy’s wisdom and skill, although it also meant the end of her dream and preparation for a natural birth.

Then another fringe benefit of our relationship with Dr. Buggy came as complete and wonderful surprise, long before there were comfortable birthing rooms where a father is expected to be on hand, back when a mother went to a surgery-like delivery room, and Dad was brushed off to a smoke-filled waiting room for expectant fathers by stern nurses. St. Joseph’s and a few other Catholic hospitals were far ahead of their time, and even there at St. Joseph’s, Dr. Buggy was one of few baby deliverers who welcomed a father at the scene of the action. I was unprepared for his question, “Would you like to be with Annette in the delivery room?” Out of my complete surprise, and giddy uncertainty, I answered, “Of course I would.”

She is soon wheeled into the delivery room, I trailing along beside her into a scene that was at once unfamiliar, mysterious, and overwhelming. Annette is placed on the delivery table, stirrups in place, gowns draped, instruments laid out, masked attendants swarming. I sit on a stool near Annette’s head, out of the way much as possible, most likely unwanted by most anywhere in the room.

Dr. Buggy has other ideas; he must have a sixth sense that I am not about to faint or scream and that my curiosity must be enormous since I had opted to be present. He calls me out of my spellbound awe and asks me to move. “You won’t see anything there behind the drapes. Come over here with me,” and as alarmed attendants look on, I move to a perfect vantage point, watch him administer local anesthetics, make a few swift cuts, and then slowly, clearly with great care, insert the salad tongs-like forceps.

Within moments “it” emerges, bloodied, inert, and soon we know, with no possible doubt, that neuter has become male. “He” is born, for a first few unsettling moments, silent, and then an explosive crying out to a waiting world. We have a son, without any visible defect or injury, Dr. Buggy’s delivery perfect, and suddenly I am overwhelmed with a flood of emotion, relief, gratitude, and just sheer, unimagined joy. Philip James Anderson! Our first-born! Alive and well! My eyes turn quickly to Annette, who by this time has given in to total exhaustion, barely conscious of the raw emotion churning in the room, but definitely sufficiently awake to hold her newborn son.

It had been a violent day. The outcome was so marvelous that the terrific pain and uncertainty earlier were a foggy memory. Our gratitude to Dr. Buggy was unbounded, and I am sure that God received our unreserved thanksgiving as well.

******************

Philip’s beginning had been violent, leaving, even more so.

Twelve years and 20 days later, on a very different Thursday, June 18, 1970, late in the evening, when he is tossing frisbee with a friend and runs into the street to retrieve the frisbee, a speeding car collides with him on N. Sawyer Ave. in Chicago. When the driver applies brakes in panic, Philip slides from the hood of the car and is run over by the right front wheel. Dozens of his bones are shattered and internal organs damaged. He dies five hours later in an operating room at Swedish Covenant Hospital a few blocks away, where his mother had learned how to be an excellent nurse, and a brother and sister had been born, and he’d had tonsils removed, and doctors attending as life left him were his friends.

This year we will count 50 years since that tragic evening. We left his body buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in southwest Iowa, small, rural, and lovely, atop a hill near the farm where he’d had many, many days of happiness with his grandparents.

That cemetery, at this time of year near Memorial Day, is alive with abounding peony blooms. One small peony plant, placed beside his grave by his grandmother shortly after his burial, still blooms there, usually with one, maybe two, flowers, deep red. Nearby large plants are heavy with dozens of flowers, as is the plant on his grandparents’ graves a few feet away; his has always been small. A single flower remains his lasting memorial.

Mt. Hope Cemetery in full Memorial Day bloom. Above the large white peony plant at the lower left corner is a single red flower that marks Philips grave. Four other generations of Philips ancestors are buried in this old country cemetery.

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