OUR FLIGHT FROM Philadelphia was at around 11 in the morning on Saturday. My wife and I said goodbye to our daughter and to our dog and also to my sister and our niece. They had come up the night before to watch over our daughter and pup. Then we hit the road, knots in both of our stomachs.
This was not a normal trip. This was not a vacation and this was not for a wedding. This was a mission; a mission to get our daughter, who was currently resting comfortably in the womb of our surrogate, who lived in southern Florida, about a half-hour north of Miami. It had been a long time coming, us getting to this point in making the trip in the middle of August. Before the drive to Philadelphia, there had been plenty of decisions and discussions, followed by more discussions and decisions. There had been two miscarriages and subsequently, more discussions and more decisions. There were doctors and nurses, waiting rooms, various procedures, lengthy calls with insurance, car rides, tiny cups, paperwork, lawyers, notary publics, and paralegals.
And then there was a pandemic.
But for the most part, that was all behind us. Well, not the pandemic. That was still very much surrounding us, hanging over us like a dark and ominous cloud. Everything else though was largely buttoned up with the important parts tucked neatly into a brown folder in my trusty red backpack.
If the drive to the Philly airport was Step 1, then Step 2 was checking in; checking in specifically with Spirit, an airline I have trust issues with. A few years back, we learned the hard way that you can make a reservation with Spirit, but that reservation will only get you so far. You need to also reserve a seat. What’s the point of the initial reservation, then? I still don’t know and probably never will but we had a credit with them courtesy of a canceled family trip that had been planned for April, so for at least one leg of the journey, we would be using Spirit.
As with any large-scale operation with a lot of moving parts, each step seemed to have its own unique hiccup or hurdle. With Step 2, there was some slight concern on my part that even though Spirit’s policy clearly stated that they would check car seats and strollers for free, the current absence of a baby in either might prove problematic. All good though, as the lady at the counter didn’t even bat an eye. Our two bags both came in under 40 pounds too (also a concern,) so it was onto Step 3.
Step 3 was security. That was relatively painless. Then there was Step 4, killing time in the terminal before our flight left. In my past life, this would have been a no-brainer, most likely ending with me saddling up to a bar somewhere. Not the case this time though, despite me being so keyed up that a drink would have done me good. Instead, I settled for some deep-breathing because that’s what Darin on Zac Efron’s Netflix show had recommended and that show is fantastic.
Step 5 was getting on the plane. And again, there was another potential bump in the road because we were looking to board early with families despite one part of our family not yet currently with us. We made our way to the gate and the gate attendant, who without looking up, asked how old the child with us was.
“TBD,” I replied. She looked at us, looked down at the empty car seat. Then she got it and waved us along.
It was a full flight. Only a week earlier, when we made our reservation (for both the plane and the seats,) it hadn’t been and that made sense. Florida was a hot zone not just in terms of temperature but also in regard to the number of COVID-19 cases in the state. Why the hell would someone be traveling to Florida right now if not for the birth of their child via surrogate? I was confused. And frustrated. Shotty mask wearers were all over the place, about every third person who boarded the plane was guilty of wearing their mask incorrectly. It was amateur hour in the midst of a pandemic, which scientifically speaking, is not ideal.
The plane finally took off and I again leaned on Darin’s breathing advice as well as a live version of Phish’s “NICU” to take the edge off. Both helped but I could feel a headache coming on. I chugged water, I breathed in and out, I listened to “NICU” again, and eventually, the threat of the headache quieted down. A couple hours later we landed in Fort Lauderdale. Another step completed.
We wanted to see the hospital where our daughter would be born before heading north to Kim’s parents’ place and after getting our rental car, we headed in that direction and as we did, the rain came. It was pouring, it had gotten dark and we slowly made our way to the hospital. Then we saw it. It was right there. Looked fine; looked like a hospital. With our older daughter, who was also born via surrogate, we had been able to go in and tour the hospital and check out the maternity ward. But not this time. This time the tour had been virtual, enough to get the idea, which was the same with our drive-by of the place – we got the idea. Now it was time to head north. The rain really hadn’t let up and every place we stopped for coffee was closed. That was a sign. Let’s wrap this up and get back to base.
Before that though, we needed to stop at the grocery store and as we did, I got a voicemail from a New Jersey number. I listened to it as we walked up to the store and my heart started to beat faster. A knot in my stomach came back. It was the Immediate Care that we had gone to a few days earlier for a COVID test and they were telling me that they had my results and to call them in the morning. We had taken two tests, one of which was rapid. It had come back negative. I thought everything was cool, but now, what if it wasn’t? That would be a hell of a hiccup.
I tried calling them back then but no one answered and I had no choice but to wait until the next morning. We did our best to remain calm and I worked on convincing myself that it was probably just an insurance issue because it’s usually always an insurance issue, regardless of the situation. Nothing to worry about. Everything was fine. I was going to have a Mahi sandwich. In Florida, Mahi and dolphin are the same thing. That was incredibly disturbing to me for a while before I realized it wasn’t the cute kind of dolphin, but Mahi, for some reason calling itself dolphin. Now I can laugh about it and hopefully, by the time I got in touch with Immediate Care Sunday morning, I could laugh about that as well.
That night we watched Jaws. Kim, myself, Kim’s mom, and Kim’s dad, all crowded next to each other on a couch watching it on my laptop. It was adorable.
Sunday went as follows:
- Tried to sleep in, but was woken up by the cable guy
- Called Immediate Care, and the results were negative, which was nice but they really could have just left a message
- Confirmed that tomorrow our surrogate would be induced
- Kim made sure the hospital bag was ready to go
- I looked up the plots of the Jaws sequels and trust me, it’s not pretty
As Sunday wound down, Kim and I went for a walk and braced ourselves for the week ahead and what that might bring.
OUR SURROGATE WAS to be at the hospital at 5am on Monday morning. We also wanted to be there then but were told by the nurse to stand by as there was no sense in us being there then. So, we did as we were instructed but it didn’t last long. As we ate breakfast, we were told to head down and that Kim could come in whenever. As for me, I would still be standing by. The nurse said that she was hoping to talk to some people over at Mother/Baby and that once labor was underway, maybe I could be let in. She was going to try but she also wasn’t making any promises.
This was not new information. A few weeks earlier, while speaking with the head of Labor and Delivery, we were informed that due to COVID-related restrictions that had been put in place since March, the hospital’s policy was that each patient was allowed only one guest. The surrogate was the patient until the baby was born and naturally, we wanted her husband to be with her, meaning that was her one guest. Given that our situation was unique, an exception could be made and Kim would be allowed in as kind of a plus one. Once the baby was born, Kim would become the baby’s guest. All I could do was wait the entire process out from outside the building.
We had had some time to process this news, but that time didn’t make things any easier. That time gave us an opportunity to talk ourselves into believing that everything would be fine. But that was fool’s gold. It was a bummer and it would continue to be a bummer. I would be missing the birth of my daughter and wouldn’t see either her or my wife until they were discharged at least two days later. Yet while it would certainly be tough and it would definitely be hard, it would be the way things were to play out and there wasn’t much we could do about it. As long as our baby girl was delivered and was safe and healthy, nothing else mattered.
So, with that in mind, we got in the car, picked up coffee, and drove south. When we were in a similar situation with our older daughter and were headed to the hospital, the soundtrack of the car ride was Pearl Jam. So it was only fitting that we again turned to Pearl Jam when headed to another hospital to get our other baby girl.
At noon, we arrived at the hospital and I walked Kim to the entrance. We said goodbye and that was that. She walked in and I stayed outside. I stood there for a moment or two, not entirely sure what to do next. I had to do something though, so I decided to get gas. I needed an objective; a purpose. Having a plan made things a little easier and on the way, I saw an old dude chopping at a palm tree with a machete.
I then made my way back to the hospital and the parking garage. I drove around looking for a spot with good cell reception, a notoriously hard thing to do in parking garages. I finally set up camp in a spot on the ramp leading up to the closed-off top level. It was the best I could do.
And then I peed in my empty Starbucks cup. And then I watched Avengers: Endgame. And then I waited for text messages from Kim. And then my stomach nearly collapsed into itself and tears formed in my eyes each time I received one, most of which were updates about how not much was happening. This was going to take time. Our other daughter couldn’t be born quick enough. Not so much this go around.
I would need to find a spot out of the sun because I was going to be there a while and the southern Florida sun was merciless.
Over the next few hours, I finished Endgame, thought about time travel, wrote about the Foo Fighters, and then got out to stretch my legs. I walked around the top deck of the parking garage, taking pictures of the clouds. In one direction I saw a building that looked like a giant guitar and in another direction, I could see the ocean. I did some light stretching and I stared off into the distance. There’s a good chance that I most likely raised an eyebrow or two if anyone happened to be watching me, wondering A) what this dude was doing walking around aimlessly on the top deck of the parking garage and B) if it was the same guy who has so far dumped two Starbucks’ cups full of urine out of his car today.
You bet, buddy.
The day dragged on and it was getting close to dinner time. Our surrogate’s husband recommended a burger spot nearby and I got something there. They had outside seating and there wasn’t anyone around, so I felt comfortable staying there and eating. Some places in Florida allowed inside dining, which made absolutely no sense to me. You had to wear a mask when you entered, but not once you sat down. But the staff wore masks and I just think that nothing makes sense anymore and this pandemic might last forever. On the plus side though, I had a Mahi burger and it was amazing.
Storm clouds were rolling in; things were getting dark again. But no really, this pandemic might never end.
While the rains once again came down outside, back at the hospital, nothing much had changed. Our baby girl was still too high, but also a tad bit on the big side so while our surrogate was trying for a natural birth, a C-section seemed likely. Whatever the method though, Monday night looked like a quiet one. The move for me was to head north for the night and come back in the morning. But there was something keeping me from doing that, something making me unable to go through with the decision or even make a decision at all. I hated leaving Kim, but at the same time, it’s not like I was physically with her and I knew I could be just as supportive up north at her parents’ place as I could sitting in the parking garage.
The rain started to let up and I pointed the rental car north. To the west, the sunset was really something, bursts of orange, yellow, and purple exploding from behind the heavy, dark clouds. It was an easy drive and I was in an easy state of mind. Tomorrow would be another day, but tonight the Bruins were on. I would just have to try and get some sleep, see what happens on Tuesday.
TUESDAY STARTED THE same way Monday ended, with not much having changed. Our baby girl was still too high and with each passing hour, a C-section was more and more likely. I hadn’t slept but I had nothing to complain about. Kim got about 20 minutes. Sleeping in a hospital is statistically impossible. By 10am, I had resumed my post in the parking garage, but feeling adventurous, I wandered around and found a couple of picnic tables with umbrellas. I asked the man sitting underneath one of the umbrellas if I could open a closed one.
“They’re all broken,” he replied.
So being outside was not meant to last. It was already 90 degrees and it felt like 100. Soon I was back in the car, queuing about an episode of The Wire. As someone who likes to have something of a plan in place, the uncertainty of the day was unsettling. I had no idea what the next hour would bring. Every text message was met with a rush of energy even though most of them said that again, not much had changed.
Kim was able to come outside at noon and for the first time in 24 hours we got to see each other. We went for an aimless walk around the hospital grounds and with our surrogate sleeping, Kim felt she could stay outside for lunch. And it was nice. With a whirling dervish of uncertainty guiding our every move and our every decision, the sense of peace that came with just sharing a meal with Kim was perfect. We barely even talked about what would come next. I don’t think we even talked much at all. We just enjoyed being with each other.
I brought her up to what we were now calling my office and she closed her eyes, lounging comfortably in the passenger seat as I continued to watch The Wire. As our time together crept closer to ending, we decided that our best course of action would be to book a hotel room close by for the night, that way I could be in the area and she could stay there if it looked like it would be another quiet night.
The hotel room was then confirmed but everything else was far from certain. I walked Kim back to the entrance where she again went in while I again stayed outside. I stood there for a few moments, just like yesterday, not knowing exactly what I should do with myself. The doctor was supposed to come by around six and presumably, a decision would then be made about a course of action. I would wait until then and go from there.
Six o’clock passed and so did quarter after six. At half-past, I needed to change things up and take a break from The Wire. I opened the windows, turned the car off and now on the passenger side, sat there with the door open as a light breeze made its way through the parking garage. Up on the fourth level, it was quiet. It was just me and the pigeons. Anyone else who parked on that level had left. It was almost peaceful.
The song’s chorus spoke to me and I started singing along as I walked and I felt good, I felt okay.
“Everything’s right, so just hold tight.”
Our baby girl was going to be born, either tonight or tomorrow. Maybe even the day after. She would be safe and healthy and so would the surrogate. I couldn’t be there and would still be out here in this godforsaken parking garage peeing in cups, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she would be born.
“Everything’s right, so just hold tight.”
In the middle of listening to the song again, Kim texted saying that they had all talked to the doctor. Not only was it going to be a C-section and not only was it going to happen soon but some strings had been pulled and I was going to be able to be let in.
I needed to get my act together. I needed to pack up my office. I needed to pee one more time. I did all these things and then waited, waiting for the word from Kim as she waited for word from the doctor.
Then the word came.
I grabbed my trusty red backpack.
I bid the parking garage adieu and hoofed it around the building to the emergency room entrance.
I was sweaty. It was hot.
There was a line to get in, people waiting to be screened because of COVID and I told the nurse at the door that I was going to Labor and Delivery, that my wife and I’s surrogate was about to give birth and he waved me in through a side door. I told the same thing to the security guard, who waved me on, giving me directions, which are always the same directions in a hospital.
Go down that way, make a right and then a left, then look for these elevators and take them to this floor and when you get off make another right and go down the hallway past this area until you get to the double doors and the security guard waiting there. It doesn’t matter where you are going in a hospital, the directions are always the same.
I got to the security guard outside of Labor & Delivery and she too waved me in and when passing the nurse’s station, a nurse called over to me, saying I must be Mr. O’Connell. She led me to the recovery room, telling me that they had a room for us tonight but weren’t sure about tomorrow.
Us. She kept saying “us.” I had initially thought I would miss the whole thing but now I was going to be able to stay over with Kim and the baby, just as I had with our other daughter. I didn’t need the hotel room, didn’t need to worry about when to leave. It was a good thing I had brought some extra shirts with me.
“Everything’s right, so just hold tight.”
With it being a C-section, Kim would be in the recovery room with me as only our surrogate’s husband could be in the operating room. So, we waited together. We waited and listened intently each time the door opened, waiting to hear a baby crying, our baby crying. I think we waited 20 or 30 minutes but it felt significantly longer than that. Our parents kept texting for updates and at some point, I stopped responding.
We just kept waiting. Not even talking really. Just waiting.
And then finally a nurse appeared. It was the same nurse as before, and she told us our daughter was here. I cut the umbilical cord and we watched as she was weighed and measured. Yes, she was big; the biggest baby one nurse said she had ever delivered, but she was here and she was perfect.
“Everything’s right, so just hold tight.”
A little while later, as the three of us sat peacefully in our area of the recovery room, that same nurse from before came by to congratulate us and say goodnight. We said goodnight and thanked her for making sure we had a room. It was her pleasure, she said and then, before turning to leave, she wanted to remind us that only Kim and the baby could stay overnight. When it was time for them to go up to the maternity ward, it was my time to leave.
“But what about tomorrow?” I asked. “Would I be able to visit tomorrow? Or the next day.”
Nope, not unless Kim wanted to leave and we wanted to swap out. If not, then the next time I would see them was when they were discharged and needed a lift home.
We sat dumbfounded. Again, we had prepared for this, knew that it was going to go down this way but amidst the confusion of the C-section decision and it suddenly being go time, miscommunication had reared its ugly head and wires had been crossed. It had all been too good to be true because it was just that, too good to be true.
I couldn’t complain, though. I had come down to Florida under the impression that I wouldn’t be able to be in the hospital at all but by sheer goodwill and kindness, had been allowed in for a few hours following the birth. I got to cut the cord, I got to hold my newborn baby girl and I got to sit beside my wife as she did the same. I couldn’t complain at all.
Still, though, hope found its way into the conversation. When another nurse came to bring Kim and our baby girl upstairs, I said that I guess I should leave and she was surprised, asking why wouldn’t I also go upstairs. So, I did. I walked with them down the hallway, past the random patients who smiled seeing us and said congratulations. I went up with them in the elevator and walked with them to the room; was there as they got settled in. But it started to get awkward. I knew I had to leave, but maybe they didn’t know I had to leave. So now, who is to say I couldn’t just hang out until someone who did know caught wind of the situation and gave me the boot?
That would probably happen at three in the morning, though. Would it be worth riding it out for a few hours or should I just leave? What kind of terrible decision is that? Do I be honest and leave my wife and newborn baby or do I be sneaky and stay with them, knowing I’ll have to leave at some point, no doubt at the worst possible time? I still had the hotel room, but I didn’t want to go, but I also did because I knew I had to.
I just wanted to lie down on the bed with my baby girl. Let her fall asleep on my chest as I rubbed her back. I wanted to stand with my wife and look at our daughter as she slept in that clear bin they had her sleeping in. I just wanted to be there.
But I had to leave. The nurse in charge came in to make it clear that it had to happen and also make it clear that she felt terrible about it. This wasn’t a situation exclusive to us. Since COVID, one parent getting the boot had become an ugly standard practice that no one was happy with. The nurse must have apologized a dozen times and told me I could stay for a little bit longer if I wanted.
And so I did, but only for a few more minutes.
Then I left. I left Kim and I left our new baby girl. I walked past the nurses’ station and none of them looked up. I don’t think that was intentional but it still made me feel like I didn’t exist. I walked slowly down the hallway and slouched against the elevator wall as it took me down to the first floor where I then slowly walked down more hallways, all of them quiet as it was now past one o’clock in the morning.
Outside it was still hot but it was now incredibly still. Nothing doing here. Even the pigeons had left and I climbed into the rental car. I turned the A/C on but kept the windows down. The air from both felt good and as I pulled out of the garage and off the hospital premises, “Waiting On A Sunny Day” by Bruce Springsteen came on. I think Spotify knew it was what I needed because it’s been my happy song since it helped get me through my uncle’s death a few years back. It was a ten-minute drive to the hotel and I listened to the song twice. I thought about stopping at a gas station for a beer but I drove past the one next to the hotel without a second thought. I just wanted to lay down.
Over the next few hours, I Facetimed with Kim a handful of times and slept briefly, keeping the light on the whole time. I didn’t feel right turning it off, making myself too comfortable. I wanted my experience to mirror hers as much as possible.
Morning came and I felt weirdly refreshed. I felt good. I made some coffee and opened the curtains. I turned on the news and sat down, just trying to take stock of what had happened over the past 12 hours. It was a lot to make sense of but all that mattered was that our baby girl had been born and at least Kim could be there with her in the hospital.
But for how long? A place for Kim to stay that night was far from a given. I had gotten a late check-out at the hotel, so we had until 2pm to make a decision. If Kim could stay in the hospital, I’d head north to her parents. If she couldn’t, our baby would go to the nursery and I’d get another hotel room for both of us. Once again, we were in wait-and-see mode.
I busied myself getting things done, securing a local pediatrician for a follow-up visit later in the week, checking in with our lawyer, booking our flight home, extending the rental car, and outlining the next steps with insurance. I didn’t pee in a cup once. It was nice to feel so civilized.
By the time it was 2pm, they had moved Kim and our baby to our surrogate’s room, which they would all share for the night. I checked out of the hotel and found some lunch and coffee, soon resuming my post in the parking garage with the pigeons. But I wasn’t sure why I was there. Kim was good, set up for another night in the hospital. It didn’t make sense for me to be either in the parking garage burning gas by running the car so the A/C would stay on and it didn’t make sense for me to get another hotel room for the night. The only thing that seemed to make sense was to head north even though at the same time, that didn’t seem to make any sense at all.
Why would I put more distance between us? Why wouldn’t I stay close?
Because it did make sense to leave even though it didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense to think in traditional terms because this was not a traditional situation. I couldn’t think of it in traditional terms. I needed to look at the situation clear-eyed and almost emotionless. I was going to drive north and that was that.
It rained again. It rained a lot. I drove through three or four different storms and watched lightning bolts touch down all around me. Then there was traffic and then there was more rain and then there was more lightning. A drive that should have taken a little less than an hour and a half stretched out longer than two hours but finally, I got to Kim’s parents and sat in the driveway for a few moments. Just quietly sat there. My brain just sat there; my heart just sat there. Everything just sat there for a few moments.
Then I did some laundry and ate some dinner. I watched the Celtics and watched Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention. And that was that. I passed out just as he was finishing up.
I wasn’t out for long though. All night I kept waking up and once again, I slept with the light on, still trying to recreate the experience Kim was having in the hospital. Relaxing was impossible. Letting myself go so I could fall asleep was tough sledding and while I did doze off a few times, every time was short-lived and by 5am I gave up. I just lied there, waiting. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for exactly. I was just waiting. Once 6am came around, I turned on the news and stared at it blankly. I couldn’t really concentrate. All I could think about was Kim, our baby girl, and not being with them.
AFTER A WHILE I GOT cleaned up and had a good Facetime with our oldest daughter. It went much better than the one the night before where she mistook me saying I was heading to Nana and Poppa’s as me saying I was heading home to get her. My folks said it was tough after that but like me, eventually, she just passed out. She was in good spirits this morning and around 11:30, I headed back down south again, back to the parking garage and the pigeons and the limited cell service.
There was reason to be excited because my girls were supposed to be discharged at some point in the afternoon. All of this would be over and we’d be together again. It’s all I wanted; for us to be together again but it had proven to be such an elusive goal, so unattainable. Now it was so close, though. I just had to watch a few episodes of The Wire and wait for the word to pack things up and go scoop my gals.
The afternoon came and went.
At some point, maybe around 5 or so, Kim thought she was close to being discharged and I ran to get coffee and snacks for her. I set up shop in a new parking lot for a bit, taking some time to shore up the appointment with the pediatrician, make an appointment for some lab work and get our ducks in a row. The time kept ticking away and I still hadn’t gotten word about the girls being released. Once again not sure what to do with myself, I headed back to the friendly confines of the parking garage. I didn’t know where else to go and didn’t want to even think about figuring out where else to go. The parking garage had begrudgingly become my safe haven and at this point, all I wanted was a safe haven.
I needed a light breeze, which is what I got by the upper deck and for the first time since I had become a part-time resident of the parking garage, the temperature wasn’t that bad. It was tolerable. I didn’t want to stay in that garage for a minute longer but if I had to, things could have been worse.
And then I got the text: “pull up in front of the main lobby now.” It was 8:10pm. Kim had gone into the hospital at 12:15pm on Monday and now 80 hours later she was leaving. And she was leaving with our baby girl.
It had all been worth it; it had all worked. If I could have safely driven straight off the edge of the parking garage roof onto the street below to speed things up I would have but instead, I circled my way down to the bottom, one last time going around and around and around, down from level 4 to level 3 to level 2 and finally to the gate at level 1. For the last time, I gave the attendant my ticket and the money I owed and pulled up to the main entrance. Two lanes had been created with cones and I assumed the closest lane was closed off because of COVID so I parked in the far lane and started looking. I just kept staring at the door, waiting to see my girls. It reminded me of our wedding, where I just kept my eyes on the church door, anxiously waiting to see her emerge from them.
I couldn’t wait.
Of course, that closer lane wasn’t closed due to COVID and a minivan pulled up, blocking my view of the door, and damn it, man, did he NOT realize I was trying to have a moment? I pulled up some and resumed waiting, resumed looking.
And then I saw Kim and I could have exploded with a mixture of relief and happiness and joy and gratitude all rolled up into one. I jumped out of the car to meet them and that was it, it was everything I had wanted, everything we had worked so hard for. It was beautiful.
Our baby girl was perfect and we buckled her into the car seat and soon she was fast asleep. I cautiously pulled out of the driveway and onto the road that led to the highway, passing houses, buildings, and businesses that had become all too familiar to me over the past couple of days. Kim and I talked a little bit but soon the car grew quiet as we watched as lightning once again shot down from the sky off in the distance. The Ghost of Paul Revere played loud enough for me to hear it and for the girls to sleep or in Kim’s case, relax some and close her eyes.
We headed north and we headed north together. There was more to this mission; it was far from over, but the most important part had been completed. It didn’t matter if I was physically there or not. We had gotten what we came for and that was all that truly mattered.
The parking garage is all yours, pigeons. Treat her well and yes, that is pee. I’m not going to apologize.