It is oft said every journey starts with a single step. That’s not true. It starts with three.
I was on time or early for all of Robin’s OB appointments while she was pregnant — a first for me — with the exception of the 40-week.
She told me that morning I didn’t have to go, that the last appointment was just a compulsory check in, make sure mama is happy and baby, who is coming any minute, is in there beating strong and kicking and ready to greet the world. I wanted to be there though, you know, cross the finish line and all that.
Work got in the way a little that morning and some meeting ran over. I arrived 15 minutes late expecting to see her in the reception, but she was already in the back. The nurse led me to the room and I opened the door to find Robin hooked up to the ultrasound. She looked worried and her eyes were attempting to hold something back.
“It’s upside down.”
Since the previous visit, the little tumbler had flipped from head down, ready to go, to butt-first, head straight up digging into Robin’s rib cage. To that point it had been a pleasantly uneventful pregnancy and since both of us were well past our prime of Instagramming-the-Pinterest-worthy-nursery child-bearing years, the hiccup — while unexpected — was not something entirely unanticipated.
Robin wanted to attempt a natural birth and her only option was to do a literal gut-wrenching procedure that called for our doctor to manually flip the baby. So she was scheduled for a hospital visit the next morning. They hooked Robin up to an IV in case the baby’s heart rate raced and our doctor, all 122 pounds of her, put everything she and her Dansko clogs had into getting that big-headed kiddo to turn. No dice.
The doctor took off her gloves and scheduled us to return on Friday. Scheduled?
“You’re going to have a C-section and I want it done before you go into labor,” she said. “Friday morning’s my first opening.”
There was no discussion. The surprise birthing candles I’d ordered were returned to sender and the playlist I’d made that week on Spotify disappeared. The sample sheet of requests for hospital staff I’d gotten from a pair of friends who just had a daughter a few weeks earlier, dragged into the trash. Robin was on a one-way street to cutsville.
While the pregnancy was an unexpected one, it was extremely welcome — for both of us — but that doesn’t mean it was easy. Only a year prior, doctors had found skin cancer on Robin’s left foot. Though the irregularity was isolated to a single dime-sized area, it did require topical surgery that sidelined her from her passion, running, for a few months. Once she got back on her feet, she found out she was pregnant. And though she kept running all the way through month eight, I could tell the news of the pending surgery put her return to the trails even farther away and maybe out of the picture for good.
The baby, a boy, was born that Friday. He had her round face and big eyes and tiny turned up nose. And, as it turns out, he got my and my father’s annoying (but cute for now) cackle.
The next 72 hours in the hospital were a sleep-deprived blur. It was like prison if prison had HGTV on all day. The nurses were friendly and helpful and the baby tried his best to always be his best — his mother’s son from day one. On the third morning, I was bringing some coffee back to the room when the night nurse, about to leave her shift, stopped me at the door.
“Has Robin gotten up recently?” she asked. Nurses always ask the best leading questions.
“To the bathroom last night, I think — maybe,” I said.
“It’s important to get the mamas moving,” <- again, nurse talk. “Encourage her today if you can.”
I told the nurse I’d try. She wasn’t having that for an answer. “No matter what she says,” she said. “She needs your support. She’s been strong this whole time, now it’s your turn — Dad.”
Side note: Is there somewhere in nursing school they give these little motivational snippets? Because I pretty much sat there for the next two minutes as she squeaked down the hallway wiping tear drops from the tops of the coffee.
That afternoon, Robin got up. She took three steps and doubled over looking like she was going to be sick. My voice quivered as I tried to offer her the encouragement I was tasked with offering. When she returned to her bed, she looked at me with that look. That look that says, “I know you’re fucking trying and I get that — but right now I need a little more than just trying.” I believe that look is what all mothers inherit the minute their children are born. And Dads, well, they by comparison simply latch on to that signature dumbfounded-but-hopeful expression.
Two weeks later, with friends swinging through town, Robin and I took them and the baby to her favorite running spot — a place known as the Bluff Trail on the cliff’s edge of California State Park Montaña de Oro. Robin took her first tentative steps onto the gravel, baby already too big for his little sling, wriggling around. She looked at me and shrugged, disappointed. I saw it in her eyes, the realization that it would be a long time before she’d run it again. We got in the car and she stared out the window as we drove away.
Fast forward 27 months and she and I went for an easy taper run together on the same spit of land Monday. For the last 14 weeks, Robin has been training for the inaugural SLO Ultra. The woman who’s been strong enough for three the last two years finally gets to channel that strength for just her on Saturday.
She spent the run skipping over rocks and stones and tramping through creek beds like the native black-tailed deer. She let me catch up on the flat and left me several paces behind on the uphill. Her legs were strong, her upper body more sinew and freckled than I’d remembered. Her gait is always light, she barely touches the ground compared to my Pigpen dust clouds as I clomp, clomp, clomp up. But this time as I watched her scamper on single-track, there was an added bit of agility and grace I hadn’t seen before.
As we reached a minor summit which descends back down to the cliffy trail head, the one she’d struggled to walk on not so many months ago, I drew in a breath of the ocean air and said, “I think you’re ready.”
Robin paused and looked back with a half smile.
And she was off.