She was born on the only day of spring this year. Winter had lasted into May, teasing us with its exit but making a few last desperate reaches with wind and snow and frost. Warm days, surrounded by snow days, surrounded by warm days. The prairies are vulnerable, with nothing to surround them like a jacket against the cold. They have to wait until the earth feels it’s time to orbit and revolve and make the season change official. Until then, winter does what it wants. So a few days before her birth there was snow, and a few days after it was thirty degrees above. But the day she was born was mild, cloudless, warm, and peaceful, and the change in the air had a feeling of permanence. All the feelings of spring had been saved for that day; it seemed the blossoms waited to bloom, eggs waited to hatch, animals waited to be born, and newness and freshness were everywhere. With only one day on which to do it all, spring made a lively and vivid entrance.
The farms and animals that occupied them seemed to have awakened from a slumber. Though they had been awake for months, the arrival of spring may have helped shake off the last remains of grogginess. I doubt cows feel or think much, but even they seemed to appreciate the change and looked livelier than a few days before, when their heads were bent and their changing hides looked ruined by the sleet and snow. And as we drove past I wondered what it was like to be a farmer or rancher. Though I grew up surrounded by them, I didn’t think about them much. But something about them must have made an impression on me, and deep down I think I’m all prairie. Because, without really deciding to, Ashley and I left British Columbia to have the baby back home.
Ashley’s parents live outside of Lethbridge and mine live in Medicine Hat. On clear days you can see the mountains from Lethbridge, and though it’s two hours away, if it was a little taller you could probably see Medicine Hat. Nothing separates the two cities but farmers’ lands running into other farmers’ lands, fitting together, not like a jigsaw puzzle, but like squares on graph paper. There are no curves or bumps in the land to make the pieces of farming irregular. At one point on the highway, if the wheels are well aligned, steering isn’t even necessary for half an hour. Any turn is gradual and travelers only have to slow down to go the pace of the drowsy towns along the way. Even these are regular, as they were built at equal distances along the railway so that steam engines could fill up and keep moving past. None are destinations and the world seems small along that highway. But as we fled a flooded basement where we were staying at Ashley’s parents’ house to go stay with my parents, I wondered if spring was bringing anyone else a new life like it was bringing us. Though the area seems small, it includes thousands of people and chances were good that babies were being born.
Her major contractions started in Bow Island, but Ashley’s doctor was in Lethbridge and we were 30 minutes from Medicine Hat. Bow Island boasts a giant anthropomorphized pinto bean, cleverly named Pinto, standing guard on the side of the highway, waving to passersby. My high school basketball team used to wave to him for good luck whenever we passed through for road games. This time we needed that luck and his encouraging smile as we raced to find out if this was labor or not.
The Medicine Hat Regional Hospital is like all hospitals, with monochrome paint schemes, winding corridors, stale air, polished floors, and a fruitless attempt to be inviting (fruitless, since no one wants to be invited to a hospital). But there’s something intimate about it. Each wing can be seen from the main entrance and the building seems to be looking in on itself, giving the feeling that everyone knows everyone and you’ll be in good hands. I was born there and have been there many times since – mostly not for medical reasons, but to visit mom at work, or for school or scouting tours. So unlike every other hospital, going there doesn’t fill me with panic and it even feels a little like home. If the girl were to be born there we would share a similar origin and that should set us on a good path, I thought. But Ashley’s doctor was in Lethbridge and we wondered if we had time to go back.
This was labour, they told us, but nobody knows how fast it goes. We might have time to go back and we might not. Our only clues were Ashley’s pain, the frequency of her pain, her past knowledge of pain, and the fact that the second baby usually comes more quickly than the first. Take a walk, they told us, and see what happens. We walked downstairs and all the clues instantly combined to tell us we didn’t have time to go back to her doctor.
The delivery rooms in Medicine Hat are bigger than the ones in Lethbridge, the chairs for the fathers are more comfortable, there are more windows letting in natural springtime light, and the whole wing is more private and peaceful. The hospital, however, doesn’t have the same pain treatments that helped last time. But what they did have seemed to work even better. We felt like we were the only ones in the whole hospital and that everyone there would make sure everything turned out right. The nurse was very attentive, kind, caring, and encouraging, and I was proud of my hometown for treating my wife so well and for making her stay as comfortable as possible.
When the boy was born he showed up suddenly before the doctor arrived and was delivered by relay. The nervous student nurse was first, as her mentor was out calling for the doctor. She passed the job off to her mentor when she returned, and the doctor finished everything off. But he was almost too late and things didn’t go as smoothly as they should have.
We found that what they say about the speed of the second baby’s arrival is true, as she was ready to come out two hours after we had arrived. The moment came suddenly again, and there were signs that history was about to repeat itself. But the doctor made it in time. He was a big man and looked more like a farmer than a doctor. He was wearing a plaid shirt, tucked into tough-looking denim jeans; he had large hands, and looked thick and strong all over, like he had just cleaned up after doing hours of physical labour. He gave us all pleasant hellos in a thick Dutch accent. He was probably in his late 50s, and looked like he had delivered many children and had many of his own. He had a fatherly vibe and I felt like we were in good hands.
Everything went well. The doctor was great, the nurses were helpful, and Ashley was brave and calm. It is very unpleasant to see her in so much pain. Last time I was nearly overwhelmed by it. But this time I knew what to expect, took deep breaths, and felt better about my performance as her support. I didn’t have to be revived by a glass of apple juice like last time.
Penny was perfect when she came out. She took a while to get started, but the nurses warned us she would, as she was feeling as loopy as her mother was from the pain medications. But her motor kicked in and she came to life. And I knew instantly that she was mine and she looked just like me. I’ve never been one to believe in letting babies choose their own names; I don’t think they come with names attached, but grow into whatever name their parents give them. But we hadn’t chosen a name by the time she arrived, and I was forced to admit that she was as chubby, rolly, cute, and beautiful as a baby Penelope should be. Penelope suited her, and she was more a Penelope than any other name we had considered.
I loved her instantly. Mothers get a nine month head start on developing a connection with their babies. Fathers spend that time worrying about the mother and sometimes forget to think about the baby. And so when Harry arrived, I loved him of course, but our connection was like a slow boil that has developed as he’s grown through the stages of childhood. But with Penny the connection was instant. I don’t know if it was the hospital, the fact that she looks like me, because she’s a girl, or something mystical or spiritual, but seeing her was true happiness and it brought an overwhelming feeling that this is the meaning of life. I’ve had that feeling with Harry too, as we’ve played in the sun, wrestled on the floor, hiked through parks and trails, and read books at night, and it was hard to imagine that the love I had for him could be shared with another child. But the love isn’t shared: it doubles. I got a fresh supply as soon as she arrived and started using it immediately.
Later that night we had a bit of a kooky nurse, with fluffy bangs and colourful scrubs. She spoke quickly and didn’t explain things very well. I heard her say, “you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” but didn’t catch what it was that I didn’t have to do, and said, “sure I will,” anyway. I ended up standing in a very busy nursery for about an hour as they did various tests and filled out various reports on Penny. The place was full of other babies getting the same treatment, and they told me this was the busiest night they’ve had in a long time.
As I walked out to my car to go home that night I overheard two policemen comparing cigarettes: “I’ve smoked these since I was…”, “I got these ones at…” They were taking a break, and they would be up all night carrying on with their jobs. Most of the rest of the city was asleep. And people would wake up in the morning and carry on with their lives, going to their jobs and following their routines. But I could see across the river and up the hill where the city ends and the farms start. And I remembered the cows, pleased to see the sun and their new calves. And I remembered spring and the freshness of the air and noticed the warmth of the night. I could see blossoms, even in the dark. And though life carried on as usual in most places, there are places like this hospital and those farms where life is just starting out. Though the spring only lasted for a day, it brought us a beautiful gift.