The light outside was fading to blue when we took our last walk as a family of four. We trundled slowly around the block and pretended not to covet this house or that one, the three of us holding hands while the oldest boy wandered behind or ahead, searching the skies for mysteries and the ground for clues.
The contractions had begun in earnest about an hour earlier, when I got a call at the office. “Are you coming home soon?” my wife asked. I glanced at my watch, oblivious to her tone. “Soon. I’ve only got a half-hour to go.” A heavy silence on the other end was the first hint of things to come. “Josh… I need you to come home. I’m not feeling great.” Jolted from idiocy, I grabbed my keys and ran. I was met at the front door by a woman of poise and patience who handed me several bags for the car. “Well?” I asked, eyebrows raised as I took the bags from her. “I’m not feeling great,” she repeated, “but… let’s go for a walk after you put those in the car. Just in case.”
You might find it odd, this stall tactic in the face of impending labor, even depraved, in light of our ‘hour-from-the-nearest-hospital’ mountain-town status. But that’s only because you haven’t experienced ‘FLG.’ A frantic sprint down the mountain the week before and 24-hours of false labor later, my wife and I had experienced, identified and labeled a new psychological phenomenon we now refer to as ‘False Labor Guilt.’ Chief symptoms? Cagey replies to pain-level questions, second-guessing phone calls to family members and stalled departure plans to emergency room check-in stations, all in the name of avoiding compounded false-alarm embarrassment. By the time we took our walk on that gloamy evening in January, we were well down the road of symptom #3. Almost too far.
It was dark by the time we got on the road. Like firefly watching on a summer night, I monitored the progress of labor by the light of her cell phone, which she activated intermittently to time her contractions. My stress levels increased steadily, in tandem with the frequency of illumination, until we arrived an hour later at the home of family friends. Dropping off the kids and feigning confidence, we hugged the boys and waved, heading off to our appointment with Mercy.
We stopped twice on the way to the front desk, just to let her breathe. Strangers offered kind smiles and knowing glances. These did nothing to ease the pain, but still, she returned their stares with laughter and a winking smile. How did she do it? Shuffle, breathe. Shuffle, breathe—laugh, wink. Shuffle, breathe, shuffle breathe. Finally, endless corridors and an elevator ride from hell later, we found the right green linoleum countertop and were admitted. It was 7:30PM.
An hour later and I was practicing Facebook intercession for the anesthesiologist to arrive. Stat. I alternated between status updates on my Blackberry, holding my wife’s hand and staring at the mountain ranges that continued to erupt spontaneously on the computer monitor next to the bed, but when I turned back to look at her, I froze.
I’ve seen things in people’s faces before, things I’m sure I wasn’t intended to see. I’ve seen a look of pure and utter horror on the face of a childhood friend as the vine he was on suddenly and abruptly snapped off at the pinnacle of his swing. I’ve seen a look of sheer panic on the face of a fellow seminary student as his name was called, for the first time, to stand up and preach before God and the entire preaching class. But there’s another thing I’ve seen in people’s faces, seen on the face of a 5year-old missionary kid as his parents drove away and left him at boarding school, seen on the face of an addict about to begin a long and tortuous journey of recovery. It’s the same thing I’ve seen in the faces of heroes from dramatic, heart-wrenching movies, the kind of movies which— incidentally— I love and my wife loathes.
My wife only watches movies with happy endings, or else the ones that are so obviously absurd that the endings are completely irrelevant anyway. But never dramas. Schindler’s List? Forget it. The Mission? Yeah right. I remember the last trip we made together before getting married. We flew to New York city to visit the seminary I’d be attending and, in the process, watched perhaps the last action/drama flick we’ve seen together since: Gladiator. It might just be my favorite movie of all time, but, of course— my wife hated it. And yet… when I looked at her in the harsh glare of the Mercy Hospital delivery room, eyes closed as she battled her way through yet another contraction, what I saw there was the same thing I saw in the face of the gladiator about to face his nightmare. It was the same thing I saw in the face of the addict and in the face of the trembling 5year-old missionary kid. The look I saw was courage.
It was so clear to me, so substantive and palpable and gut-wrenchingly real that I felt, had I taken a picture of her and shown it to complete strangers, they would have instantly identified the look on her face. My wife will, of course, challenge these observations and counter with claims of great fear rather than great courage. I will, of course, then remind her that it simply isn’t accomplishment if there aren’t risks. That it simply isn’t courage if you aren’t afraid.
The great irony is that my wife is the hero of her own drama, and still, she got her happy ending. Samuel Edward Thompson was born at 8:59PM, one and a half hours after my wife walked in through the hospital doors, smiling and winking. He weighed 7lbs, 14oz. and was 20 inches long. And so it was that my gladiator wife faced her nightmare, with a courage so admirable it made this particular man feel fearfully, humbly, thunderously PROUD. Gladiator… I salute you.