Words By Seth Z. Herman, Art By Hailey Renee Brown
I have a complicated relationship with crying.
As a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, my exposure to pop culture consisted of a heavy dose of Schwarzenegger, Metallica, and Pro Wrestling. Which meant that amongst my friends, if you expressed any sort of emotion or thought that was less than macho, you became a target.
You play the violin?
Shed a tear at the end of that movie?
Are you reading . . . books?!
At home, I never saw my father cry. Not when he reminisced about his young father who had died of a heart attack at the age of forty-eight, leaving my dad, his mother, and his teenage brother to take care of the family bakery in Pittsburgh. Not when that brother died, suddenly, from complications with diabetes, leaving behind a widow and three kids. And certainly not when I moved my young family—including my wife and son—6,000 miles away to Jerusalem, so I could live in the Holy City.
After getting married, my wife Andrea and I were blessed with three kids, several years apart, all planned. Kids have a funny way of rearranging your priorities. You stop thinking about whether you can afford a new phone and start considering how you’ll pay for more basic things like, I dunno, diapers. When you trudge into work looking like an extra on the set of The Walking Dead, it’s no longer because you were out until three drinking bad beer with the guys and watching The Big Lebowski for the hundredth time. It’s because your four-year-old wet the bed in the middle of the night and you spent the next two hours trying to convince him to stop crying and go back to sleep. And though I love them fiercely, when my kids cried, I grew impatient. The sound grated on my nerves, like nails on a chalkboard.
Just get him a pacifier.
You want to make her a bottle?
I have a big meeting at work today. I don’t have time for this.
Amidst all of the screaming, teasing, complaining, and tantrum-throwing, I reaffirmed my belief that crying—and emotion-sharing in general—was to be avoided at all costs.
Until our fourth kid came along.
His arrival finally broke me.
And sometimes, in order to build something, you need to dismantle it first.
The morning started off like any other. Pack lunches. Drive the kids to school. Make sure to grab my lesson plans on my way out the door.
Andrea and I left the apartment at the same time, as we always tried to do. We didn’t have much time for each other with both of our work schedules and familial responsibilities, but at least we could always grab those five minutes in the morning when our Google Calendars synced up. I walked out holding a muffin and a banana. She waddled beside me, car keys in hand.
“I think my back is hurting.”
One of the biggest misnomers I’ve found, with regard to labor and pregnancy, is that labor pains come from the stomach. I am by no means a doctor and my medical expertise consists of measuring out cough syrup in two-to-four teaspoon rations, but after having three kids, I knew that back pain meant something.
“You want to stay home?” I asked.
“Yeah, maybe I should.”
The fact that she was agreeing with me raised concern. My wife is a powerhouse and a bit of a workaholic. The only woman working for a small hedge fund, she would come home with stories about Merchant Cash Advances and bull-and-bear markets. The only bulls and bears I knew played basketball and football in Chicago, but I had learned to nod my head, pay attention, and sympathize with the corporate world I found so foreign.
After thinking it over, Andrea decided to stay home. I headed out to the seminary where I taught, armed with a few lesson plans on the laws of Sabbath. She called me two hours later to say that the back pain had picked up, and this was definitely going to be the day we met Little Bundle of Joy #4. I gleefully told the principal I had to run home. She wished me Godspeed and said I should hurry.
I hopped into our eight-year-old van and revved the engine. We lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem in an apartment building that overlooked the mountains. There was only one way in and out of our little enclave. Oftentimes, traffic would build up because there was not enough road to accommodate the growing number of cars.
I was about halfway home when Andrea called to tell me her water had broke, something she’d never experienced with our other kids. Naturally, I panicked.
“Do you need me to hurry? Should I drive on the shoulder? Honk my way through?”
Andrea giggled. “No, you have twenty-four hours to get to the hospital after your water breaks. We have time.”
Time. Such a precious little thing.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call an ambulance?”
“An ambulance?” She laughed again. “What for?”
I got home to find my wife all smiles, breathing hard with a hand on her back, elbow pointed out.
“I’m fine. Just help me pack this bag.”
We haggled over different items to take to the hospital, as if Andrea was going on a three-day spa vacation. How many changes of clothes. Which deodorant to take. (She’d been using my Old Spice lately because her gel roll-on no longer kept the sweat at bay.) Whether we should download a movie now or later.
She must have gone to the bathroom five times in that half-hour. We didn’t think anything of it, though, because she’d never had her water break before. It wasn’t until the sixth time that she called to me from behind the door.
“Seth? Something doesn’t feel right.”
Now, I can conclusively tell you that a lot of things don’t feel right when a woman is pregnant. And a loving, caring husband is consistently made aware of the changes to his wife’s ever-growing body. Which is totally fine; I will never be able to fully commiserate with a woman who is creating a child in her uterus. Instead, I often employed the same technique I used when my wife told me about her work: nod my head, pay attention, and sympathize.
But this . . . this was different.
“What do you mean?”
“Something . . . something’s coming out.”
Let me tell you, there are very few phrases in the English language that’ll freak a husband out more than when his wife says “something’s coming out” during the early throes of labor. I mean, my sister-in-law gave birth at home, unplanned, but she’s a doula and fully equipped to handle those kinds of things. My wife was not.
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe call Liz?”
That was her sister, the doula. I fumbled with my phone and found the right number.
“Hi, Liz? Listen, Andrea has a question for you . . . yeah, hold on.” I opened the door a crack and slid the phone down the tile floor.
“Yeah, Lizzy . . . something’s coming out of me . . . no, not the baby . . . it feels like . . . the placenta, maybe? My water broke, and just something’s coming out now . . .”
The conversation went back and forth for a minute or two, and then the phone was slid back to me.
“Hi, Liz,” I said. “Not sure what—”
“Seth, you have to listen to me.”
Now, you don’t know Liz, but she is a happy-go-lucky, don’t-worry-everything-will-be-great, God-will-take-care-of-us type of person. She is never serious, not like this.
That freaked me out a little.
“You have to look and tell me what’s coming out,” she instructed. “If you don’t want to do it, get Mimi, or someone else. But do it now.”
Mimi, our downstairs neighbor, has been my wife’s best friend since we first moved into the building five years ago. Her husband is a medic, and she has considerably more grit than I do when it comes to being squeamish.
I went and got Mimi.
“Hey, what’s the issue?” She came into the apartment all cheerful. “I hear that Andrea is having some back pain?” she chirped.
“Mimi?” My wife called from the bathroom. “We’re about to get real close and personal.”
Andrea explained what Mimi had to do. Then I handed her the phone. Liz was still on the line.
“Hi, Liz? It’s Mimi. Uh-huh. Sure, no problem.”
There were a few moments of silence.
Then I heard Mimi speak.
“Yeah, it looks like a cord.”
Mimi didn’t say anything else. She threw open the door and handed me my phone. Then she pulled out her own. I glimpsed the picture on the call screen: Yair, her husband.
“Yair, get an ambulance.”
I stared at her.
“4 Brand Street, Apt #14. They’re going to need a gurney.”
A gurney? For what?
“She has a cord prolapse.”
All I could gather from the conversation around me was that there was a cord coming out of my wife’s body. More than that, I couldn’t tell you.
I’d forgotten that Liz was still on the line.
“Yeah. Andrea has a prolapse. What’s that?”
Liz sucked in her breath. “Listen, Seth. You need to prepare Andrea for the possibility of an emergency C-section.”
By then, medics had flooded our apartment. Our part of town is blessed with an incredible first-responder medical-emergency system, where community members are trained to react to situations like this with remarkable speed. In thirty seconds, they were there. Maybe less.
By now Andrea had moved to the living room and was lying down. The medic examined her and then swiftly reached for his walkie-talkie.
“Prolapse confirmed. I need an ambulance and a stretcher. Now.”
The urgency in his voice was terrifying.
The next few minutes were a bit of a blur. Four or five people burst into our apartment, overturning sofas and chairs and spreading a gurney on the floor. Mimi sat beside Andrea, holding her hand, whispering over and over that it would be okay. Andrea nodded up and down, her face and eyes red.
I can only imagine what was going through her head at that moment. She was probably steeling herself, mentally preparing for whatever was coming next. I, on the other hand, stood there in a daze, too overwhelmed to feel afraid or crouch down next to her with words of comfort.
The medics lifted Andrea onto the gurney and held her at a forty-five-degree angle, head down. Someone said something about blood flow and keeping pressure off the cord. Slowly I started to piece the information together.
The cord was the life vessel of the fetus.
When the cord came out before the baby, that meant there was unnecessary pressure on the cord, thereby possibly halting the flow of blood.
Okay, I figured. But how bad was that? Today was her due date. She was already in labor. Wasn’t the baby just going to come out anyway?
I asked a medic again for the name of the condition my wife had.
“A prolapse. An umbilical cord prolapse.”
I parked myself off to the side and tried googling it.
That’s right. My wife of fourteen years was in the midst of a medical emergency and I just stood there, furiously typing the name of her condition onto my phone’s tiny screen. The callousness of it still haunts me.
By then, the medics were ready to go and Andrea was whisked out the door, which woke me from my stupor. I pocketed the phone without getting the information I had so selfishly craved moments before and slipped out into the hallway. I squeezed her hand, telling her I loved and that everything would be okay.
I think she believed me.
The gurney didn’t fit in our apartment building’s small elevator, so the medics had to carry Andrea down the stairs. There wasn’t room for me now, so I let them pass. In another moment of brilliance, I asked my wife, “Should I bring the bag?”
She wasn’t in a position to answer me.
I hesitated for a moment. All she had talked about, for the past half hour, was the bag—what she should bring with her to the hospital. In my meek male understanding of what women need, this was somehow at the forefront of my mind.
I ran back for the bag.
When I got to the bottom of the stairwell, they were already slamming the ambulance doors shut.
One of the medics asked if I was coming with them.
Like an idiot, I hesitated.
I had to pick up the kids from school that afternoon. How would I get home after the birth? I didn’t want to pay for a cab. The hospital was forty minutes away, in this traffic.
I found out later that the ambulance made it in seven.
“I’ll drive,” I finally said, and jumped in the car, figuring I would follow the ambulance and be there to hold my wife’s hand as they wheeled her in for whatever procedure was necessary.
Immediately, I found that this plan would be impossible. Traffic getting out of town was a mess. The ambulance waited for a spot of daylight, then zoomed into the opposite lane and blared its horn at oncoming traffic.
I gripped the wheel and watched it drive away. I felt like a giant squid was thrashing around in my stomach.
In my wife’s moment of greatest need, I was not with her.
It felt like the single greatest failure of my adult life.
My wife is the greatest, best, most amazing person I have ever known, and I use that ridiculous string of adjectives because there is no single word or phrase in the English language to describe what my wife means to me. For me not to be there in this moment . . .
I was a failure of a husband.
That’s what I was thinking. Not about the baby, not about the impending surgery, but about how I had failed to be there for her when she was scared.
The heavy flow of traffic allowed me to use Google properly now. I propped my phone into the holder and asked Siri to search for “umbilical cord prolapse.”
I was not encouraged by what I saw.
Infant mortality rate. Birth defects. Risks to mother.
The squid started to squirm its way into my chest.
A minute later, my phone rang.
“Seth? It’s Liz.”
“I’m stuck in traffic.”
“She’s in an ambulance. They passed me a while ago.”
“Okay, I’m going to meet them at the hospital.” Liz lived right near there.
Her voice dropped, like she had something really serious to say.
“Seth . . . you need to prepare yourself.”
“Prepare myself?” My brain was not working. “For what?”
“The baby might not be alive when you get there.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
Tentacles wrapped themselves around my heart and squeezed with all their might.
Not . . . alive? But . . . how? Andrea had been in the early stages of labor. A woman’s water breaking was normal, as far as I understood. We had been at the doctor just a few days earlier and the baby was healthy, fine, ready to meet us.
And now . . . now we weren’t going to have a baby?
I thought of my kids, how excited they’d been when they’d heard the news: another sibling! But now, after nine months of waiting and getting ready, instead of having a new addition . . .
The crib would be empty.
The stroller would have to be packed up.
And the first thing I would have to tell Andrea after she woke up from an emergency C-section: Listen, honey . . . the baby didn’t make it.
“Seth, the ambulance is here. I’ll call you back.”
The line went dead.
I could feel my body start to shake; my palms were slick with sweat and I struggled to grasp the steering wheel. My eyes teared, my vision blurry. I fought the emotions back down.
I don’t know how long it was until Liz called back. I was just arriving at the hospital, cheeks wet—half a pack of disposable tissues on the floor of the passenger seat—when my phone rang.
I could hear a commotion in the background. People yelling, wheels squeaking.
“They’re wheeling Andrea into emergency surgery.”
I wanted so much to be with her. There were five cars in front of me, all creeping toward the parking lot. The car in front was trying to back into a spot, but the driver took a bad angle and pulled back out into the street, blocking my way. I slammed the horn, then instantly regretted it.
“I’m here, Andrea, I’m here with you, it’s okay,” I heard Liz say through the phone.
One by one, the cars in front of me inched forward. I felt like leaving my car in the middle of the street and jumping out.
Liz was talking to the nurses now. I could only catch bits and pieces of their conversation. Familiar words like prolapse, emergency C-section, general anesthesia. Scarier words like blood flow, lack of oxygen, and brain damage.
I wasn’t even wiping the tears away now.
“Come on!” I yelled at the car in front of me. To this day I remember the driver, an old Israeli with a big caterpillar mustache and checkered hat like in the children’s book Caps for Sale. I had just read it to my four-year-old the night before.
Liz kept me on the line. When the old guy pulled into a spot, I zoomed forward, scouring the parking lot through bleary eyes and blurry vision, praying to God for the health of my wife and my unborn child.
I spied a parking spot to my left and pulled the car around.
And that’s when I heard it, through the speakerphone. A shrill cry, an unmistakable shriek.
The cry of a newborn.
I don’t think I will ever forget that moment for the rest of my life.
And then I heard my sister-in-law scream.
“He’s alive! Oh God, he’s alive! It’s a boy! Mazel tov!”
I put the car into park.
And the dam burst.
I don’t recall too much from that moment, only that I collapsed on the steering wheel, sobbing incessantly.
And from that moment on, I no longer hated crying.
It was like a switch had been flipped in my mind.
Crying wasn’t a sign of weakness.
It was proof of life, evidence of feeling, of engaging with the world around me.
Crying meant I was human.
A few minutes later—when I’d finally wept enough for my body to recalibrate itself—I called Liz back to find out where she was in the hospital. She greeted me outside the emergency room with a somber, hopeful look. The creases on her face told me she was almost as ragged as I was. Maybe even more so. After all, she knew the procedures involved. What Andrea had gone through. What the baby had gone through.
I stumbled around the hospital in a daze, grasping that stupid bag with both hands. Congratulations were bestowed. Those who had been in the emergency room threw out phrases like “it’s a miracle” and “keep praying” and “God must love you.” I found out later that a cord prolapse happens about once in every three hundred births. When it happens at the hospital, the mother is immediately taken for a C-section and the baby is removed from the womb because of the danger of anoxia. Blood loss means oxygen loss. Oxygen loss means brain damage. Brain damage means cognitive impairment. Or worse.
I learned that when a prolapse happens in the hospital, the mortality rate for the infant is a smidge above 16 percent. When it happens at home, the number jumps to 40 percent. I asked about those numbers in the hospital after I’d researched them. The nurse on call shook her head and insisted they were too low.
“You had minutes,” she said. “Not hours. Minutes to get that baby out.”
I felt the tears coming again.
“Those first-responders . . . they gave your baby a chance.”
We spent two more weeks in the hospital, Andrea having a much worse go of it than me. She didn’t remember anything about the whole ordeal, as if her mind had suppressed the pain and terror it had felt. She didn’t get to see the baby until three days later because of complications from the C-section. She was in the birthing ward for over a week. By the end, every nurse knew her name.
Later, she would joke that “being famous is great . . . unless you’re in a hospital.”
I spent long hours at the baby’s side, watching him, talking to him, talking to God. My eyes weren’t dry for more than a few hours at a time. He underwent test after test, most trying to answer a single question: was there any brain damage? With it impossible to tell how much blood had or hadn’t been supplied to the baby’s brain during the prolapse, the possibilities were endless, ranging from severe levels of mental retardation to various learning disabilities to no long-term effects at all.
Nurses came up to us one by one, mentioning how blessed we were. Students from the nearby university came to hear our story. “Tell them what happened,” the professors asked me, more than once. I tried to recall as many details as I could. Each student looked at me with a conflicted mix of interest and compassion. They could probably see the anguish on my face, every time I relived the tale.
Our parents kept calling, practically begging us for good news about the baby’s health. Being six thousand miles away in the US must’ve been hard for them. I tried to explain that with so much unknown to us, there would be no good news, no definitive moment where we could say, “Okay, he’s good to go.” The news would either be bad, or not-yet-bad. And if we got enough not-yet-bad news, we could take our son, go home, and hope for the best.
I will never forget the moment our doctor called us in, and with a tear in her eye, said there were no more tests to perform.
“Seems he’s passed them all.” The doctor wiped her cheek. “We don’t have anything else to check.”
My wife and I cried with her, too.
The baby came home that day, and even though he wailed every three hours at night, I jumped at the chance to feed him. I almost looked forward to it, each night, when I lay down. A sound that once would have frustrated me to no end was instead a reaffirmation of life, happiness, and blessing.
We tried to choose a name that would commemorate the miraculous nature of his birth. Ethan, in Hebrew, means strength, and we thought that to be apropos. At the circumcision ceremony, I retold the story, thanked the first responders and the hospital’s medical staff profusely, and went to sit down, my emotions running through me like a live wire.
My father, who had flown in for the ceremony, came over and put his arm around me.
“You okay?” he asked. He had a tiny glisten of a tear on his cheek.
I looked up at him, startled. Then I smiled through blurry eyes.
“Yeah, Dad. Never better.”