On a crisp November day, in a labour room at Toronto General Hospital, I watch in wonder, excitement and more than a little fear as the moment arrives
By Stephen Trumper
I t was a couple of years after our wedding when Judith first seriously broached what she knew would be a difficult subject. At the time we were still basking in the giddy glow, the absolute joy of a deepening relationship.
Romance was so much more fun, so much more intense than I could have possibly imagined in high school. Back then, in the 1960s and ’70s, being part of a couple never seemed possible. Where were the lovers with wheelchairs, crutches or prosthetics? They certainly weren’t in the movies, TV or on the streets. Anybody with a disability, it seemed to me, was doomed to be single and chaste.
Then along came Judith. She thought I was smart. Funny, even. One day she said I was handsome. I vowed to follow her anywhere.
In the months of courtship following our chance first meeting there were many dinners and lunches at which we shared our hopes and dreams, our triumphs and travails. We went on long drives. We had sex (awkward at first but bringing with it a whole new appreciation for accessibility).
Judith now wanted to discuss having a family. She was in her early 30s, and thoughts of toddlers, infants and babies were filling her brain and heart.
I was 30. At first the idea of having children scared me. Then it terrified me. I had lived so much of my life in the land of When The Body Goes Wrong.
What if something is wrong with our baby?
What if something is wrong with his or her spinal cord?
Or anything else? Gulp.
And so conversations began.
At this point in my life I had, as in the previous 20 years or so, little use of my left arm, some power in my left leg and close to full use of my right limbs. It made for an ungainly walk, a delicate balance and lots of trouble doing anything that required the use of both arms.
Like hold a baby.
Or change a baby.
Or pick up a baby.
Or dress a baby.
Or bathe a baby.
Okay, I told Judith. I’m worried that the physical work involved with raising a baby for the early years would be too much for you.
I’m worried about that, too, she replied. But single mothers do it all the time. And from what I’ve observed in most marriages, despite the advances of feminism, women do most of the physical work anyway. It’s your emotional support I really need. And, of course, your sperm.
Well, you bet, I can do that…
As the days and weeks passed, Judith and I would talk more.
What, I asked, if the baby were disabled, either physically or mentally? That would be even more work for you. And I’m not sure I could cope. My own disability and living through my mother’s long, losing fight with schizophrenia was enough for any one person to go through, wasn’t it?
Yes, said Judith, it could be. But we should at least consider having a child, and talk about how we’d manage if the baby were healthy or if there were something wrong. In some ways, you’d be the perfect parent for a disabled child. You have so much of your own experience you could draw on.
Oh, I responded, hadn’t thought about that.
You should also think about how helpful you will be to me if our baby has any kind of disability.
About a year later, at home on a crisp November morning, around 4 a.m., Judith’s contractions are increasing and, after several nerve-fraying minutes of phoning around in search of a maternity ward that would admit us (our first-choice hospital had been closed by a sudden outbreak of the Norwalk virus), we are on the road, fueled as much by nervous energy as by gas in the tank. Twenty minutes through deserted streets and we arrive at Toronto General Hospital, looking for the admitting entrance, at which somebody is supposed to be waiting.
No one is there.
We find a security booth just outside the front door. I roll down my window, and tell the guard our predicament. Could he phone up to Obstetrics?
Within minutes, not one but two orderlies are waving at us. Each has a wheelchair.
I drive up to them and say, One of you take my wife up now. The other should follow me over to the parking lot. Leave the chair. You can help me take out my own. Judith, I’ll be right behind you.
I don’t think I’ve ever moved so fast. Within a few minutes my orderly catches up to Judith and her orderly at the admitting desk.
Which one of you is the patient? asks the woman. Sigh.
After my explanation we are both whisked upstairs to Obstetrics and then to a labour room where, a few hours later, I watch in wonder, excitement and more than a little fear as the moment arrives:
The baby’s coming, the nurse exclaims…
You can do it Judith…
Push harder please…
The baby’s almost out…
There she is, our baby girl. Her name will be Hannah, a name the editor in me fancies, in part, because it is palindromic, the same backwards as forwards.
She’s so red, I think. I hadn’t expected that.
She’s got long fingernails. I hadn’t expect-ed that, either.
She’s breathing. I had hoped fervently for that.
She’s got all four limbs, and they’re all moving. I had hoped fervently for that, too.
I sit down in my wheelchair, the nurse bringing Hannah to me after she has spent a few minutes in Judith’s cradling embrace.
I look deep into my new daughter’s squinting brown eyes.
Hi Hannah, I’m your Dad. Then I make my first promise to her: If there is something wrong inside you, I whisper, I will do everything possible to help you through it.
And your Mom, too.
Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer and editor associated with Accessible Media Inc. (AMI) and is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University.