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Moment of Recognition

By Suzi Schweikert

summer2008_SCHWEIKERTBoarding an evening flight home from a medical conference, I shuffle along in an interminable line that winds its way to the back of the plane. My thoughts of home are interrupted by a man who is seated and facing me. His manner isn’t flirtatious, but we make prolonged eye contact. Or rather, he does. While he stares, I glance at the back of someone’s head, down at my boarding pass, back up at the seat numbers. At last I arrive at my row, a few behind the man in question, and settle in with a magazine. That might have been the end of it.

The moment our plane lands, though, I become aware of him again. He’s standing, hunched over, his head at a tilt between the chair back and overhead bins. He eagerly waves at me. “Hey!” he shouts over the rumbling plane engines. “Did you deliver my baby?” Heads spin around on both aisles to watch the happy reunion.

I can’t remember him. I’m aware that people don’t go around accusing random strangers of delivering their babies, and I’m an OB/GYN, so the most logical thing to say is, “Yes. How are you?” But that’s not what I do.

Maybe it’s fatigue or the ringing in my ears or my fear of strange men following me to the parking lot. Whatever the case, I can only manage a weak, “Maybe.” I sense the other passengers growing more uncomfortable by the second.

If this is a comedy of errors, my fellow actor is unperturbed. “Her name is Haley Savannah,” he adds, as if that should clinch it. Unluckily for him, Haley and Savannah are in the top ten names of babies I’ve ushered into this world. The strangers around us pretend they’re not listening to our every word, but it has grown quieter than planes tend to be. I think they’re holding their breath, embarrassed for him, for his case of mistaken identity.

“My wife’s name is Sarah,” he adds. I look at him blankly. At this point, I am certain that I will never, ever remember him, his daughter, his wife, or the most crucial moment of his life, in which I apparently played a key role.

“How old is she?” I finally ask.

“My wife?” He looks at me strangely for the first time. “Oh, you mean my daughter. She’s six.”

Six years ago. Do I tell him what has happened since then? How I left my private practice because I had no real life? How I could barely drive myself home after an all-nighter of delivering babies, much less remember any of the little bundles’ names. How my own daughter’s appearance has used up all of my previously unemployed brain cells.

I conjure up a question. “What hospital was she born at?” If he gives the correct answer, I will admit he is right, that I did indeed deliver his baby.

But he blithely ignores my query. “It was you!” he announces loudly. “My wife always said you looked like that doctor in Father of the Bride , you know, the Steve Martin movie? The blonde lady who comes rushing in at the last minute?”

I somehow doubt if “rushing in at the last minute” is a good thing.

He senses my unease. “Oh, you were great!” he says, smiling. I relax a bit. All I have to do is pretend that I remember something, anything, and ignore the fact that it feels like lying. I look around, wondering why nobody seems concerned that the airplane doors still aren’t open.

A lady sitting nearby chimes in. “You sure have a good memory,” she says to him, not to me. It is clear, even to eavesdroppers, that I have zero memory of the event in question. To them, I am an unfeeling robot who rushes in to catch babies without so much as a “How do you do?”

He shakes his head at the interloper. “If you can’t remember the person who delivers your wife’s baby, you must be dead.”

The throng of passengers begins to move slightly forward, and I am excused for a moment to grab my bag from the overhead. It seems I will be saved from further exhibitions of my callous indifference.

I’m almost at the door, just three people behind him, when he turns to smile at me again. I can tell from his face that he forgives my bad memory, forgives my rushing in at the last minute, forgives my everything.

I smile back this time. “Give Sarah and Haley my best,” I say, waving as much as possible with four bags of pretzels clutched in my hand.

A few minutes later, snug in my car with the engine running, his words have left me on the verge of tears. To qualify this, I always get emotional after flying, partly in relief that I have more time left on this earth, partly from exhaustion. But this time feels different. It’s not fatigue, or even a gratefulness to be alive that I’m feeling. It’s loss.

The truth is, while I’ve coaxed, pulled, and manhandled hundreds of babies from the womb, I don’t have a birth moment of my own. I have no memory of a surgeon wrapped in blue scrubs, a midwife coaching me to push a little more, or an anesthesiologist promising instantaneous bliss. There is no “If you can’t remember it, you must be dead.”

For the first time since adopting my daughter over a year ago, I feel left out of one of life’s most significant experiences. And though my pain is real, it is, thankfully, short-lived.

Another, deeper emotion comes as an aftershock—a scrap of the past begins to surface, the memory of a feeling that I somehow put aside in this long, crazy year. I remain frozen in the airport parking lot, willing it to find me. As the other cars drive off into the night, I feel the near magnetic pull of my daughter at home, a few miles away. The memory won’t come. I put my car in reverse, then a scene flashes through my consciousness, the way an actor’s name pops into your head, hours after trying to remember it.

This scene feels so indelibly etched in my brain that I wonder how I ever overlooked it. Just like in a hospital delivery room, there are two people, both virtual strangers, whose faces I could pick out of a crowded airplane, six years later.

The first is the foster mom who took care of Emma for three months before I came along. When I held my daughter for the first time, Stephanie exclaimed, “Look how she smiles at you.” Then she coached me through my first, clumsy diaper change and my agonizingly slow re-snapping of the onesie, all with the patient tone of voice that nurses use with new mothers.

The second is Emma’s social worker, who was also at this meeting. After watching me hold my daughter for a few minutes, Lisa casually remarked, “We usually wait a few days for the child to get used to their new parent, but I think she’s ready to go home with you tomorrow.” Her words, and pokerfaced delivery, are remarkably similar to a doctor telling a new mom she can leave the hospital a day early. It had never before struck me as anything but a clinical observation: Mom and baby are bonding. No problems expected. But when a social worker said it to me, it was like my certificate to mommy-hood.

In that brief one-hour encounter, despite the near panic that I felt upon finding myself responsible for such a tiny child, my mind managed to record an amazing array of details: the angles of Stephanie’s living room, the beams of sunlight falling across the carpet, and sounds of her other children playing nearby. Indeed, the faces of Emma’s foster mom and social worker are so vivid that I used to dream of them and wake up feeling that I was there again.

Now, over a year later, this scene resonates like a surreal landscape of exquisite beauty. By the time I’ve left the airport and pulled into my garage, I sense that my moment is as good as a delivery-room moment, and in some ways, perhaps better. After all, there was no narcotic drug haze, no excruciating pain, and no numbing exhaustion to alter my state of mind. It felt, as any new mom will tell you, like being in a cloud high above the world, and we were happy.

Author’s Note: After Emma’s adoption was finalized, I learned the name of the doctor who delivered her. Though we’ve never met, he’s another Ob-Gyn in our community, and it would be easy enough to arrange a meeting. I’ve imagined myself stopping by his office to say, “Hi there. You delivered my baby. I wasn’t there myself, but thanks for doing such a great job.” On the other hand, I could blurt out, “Hey, did you deliver my baby?” and watch the look of non-recognition cloud his face. But I’m not planning to do either of these anytime soon.

Brain, Child (Summer 2008)

About the Author: Suzi Schweikert is an Ob-Gyn whose essays have been published in Nursing Solutions and WORD/San Diego. She was a contributor to the nonfiction book Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America. She lives in San Diego with her husband, Nate and their two children, Emma and Ben. When not fighting overwork in her own life, she is working on a dystopian/suspense novel.


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