Today is the birthday of Conrad Joy Bishop, Oct. 8, 1941, Denver. His dad, who had been very clear about not wanting kids, had been spending longer and longer away on his various wartime jobs, and Margaret was on her own. She had to call a cab to get herself to the hospital and went through labor without support. I remember keenly my own labor with Eli, who inherited his father’s very large cranium. The don’t call it labor for nothing.
The labor was long, the delivery was lacerating, and Margaret remembered a nurse saying, not intending to be overheard, “She won’t be good for anything after that.” None of that pain dampened the joy of having her baby in her arms, at her breast. His given name was his father’s, but his middle name was purely from his mother: Joy.
Birth is heavy whitewater rapids, no guarantees, and when the outcome is good its radiance fills all the dark corners where fear was hiding. I have been the witness of three more of Conrad’s birthings.
One was in Chicago in 1975, during the long complicated surgery that removed a growth called an insulinoma from his pancreas. The lab pronounced it benign, but I knew better. The violent blood-sugar crashes it had been producing had made our lives surreal for an entire year. The surgeon had to “go in blind” because the iodine-contrast imager had broken down as soon as the scan started, and it couldn’t be repeated because the dye had produced a violent allergic response. The surgeon’s skill, and maybe his sixth sense, enabled him to find the little bugger hiding behind the stomach (which had to be detached and swung out of the way), nestled into a corner between the common bile duct and the aorta. Perilous territory for a blindfolded search. A real-time blood-sugar monitor was running, and the moment the insulinoma came out, the reading shot back to normal. That was a second birth, a return to being able to claim his own mind, his undistorted consciousness.
The second was in San Francisco in 2013 when he had open heart surgery after a month-long battle with a vicious bacterial infection that had colonized the interior of his heart and further damaged a mitral valve weakened by childhood rheumatic fever. His three beloveds, daughter, son and wife, were allowed to gown and mask up and accompany him to the door of the surgical theater to wave bye-bye. From there the three of us went to the waiting room, and he went to the knife and the machines. For hours he was technically dead. The heart is stopped, its blood rerouted to cleansing machines. The lungs are stopped, as oxygen is supplied to the blood via another miracle machine. The surgeon had a living heart in his hands, opening its chambers, delicately sewing repairs into intricate damaged valves, then restoring all normal connections. The rebirth, from my perspective, was not the shift from the machines to the repaired living body. The family was allowed to visit him in the ICU as soon as he had regained a semblance of consciousness, but he was still intubated and hence mute. Removal of that tube from deep down the trachea is a nightmarish sensation for the patient, and the doctor required our assurance that we wouldn’t freak out at the sight. The doc was so good. He spoke gently but firmly to his semi-conscious patient that this would be an awful moment: was he ready? The grunt meant yes. 3, 2, 1, NOW! A whole-body shiver, and it was done. His eyes were wide open, he smiled at us, and again he was reborn.
The third was this year, the end of March, after a fall that landed him flat on his back on a parking-lot tarmac. I didn’t see the fall happen, but when he didn’t return to the driver’s seat after stowing the beach-picnic basket in the back, I got out, walked around to the driver’s side, and saw his motionless body with his head in a puddle of blood. After a stunned moment that nearly stopped my heart, I called his name, with no response. Kneeling, I could feel breath, and began a murmured mantra: Stay with me, don’t go, stay with me. After a long time, his eyes fluttered, then opened, and again he was reborn. It was a difficult rebirth, his recovery, learning to walk again, but that was the moment of crowning.
All birth is holy.