3. DR. EAGLE

All the Fridays on the calendar said “Dr. Eagle.”

Unlike Ed and Diane, who had chosen to have their baby in Raleigh, where no fathers were allowed in the delivery room, Stewart and I were determined to find a way that he could be part of the experience. Through Sis we located a doctor in Chapel Hill, an hour away, who encouraged the presence of fathers during labor and delivered babies in a hospital in the nearby city of Durham.

Dr. Eagle was handsome and did not appear to be much older than I was at age twenty-four. I heard that he had been a teacher in the university medical school before starting his private practice in 1970, so I thought he must know what he was doing.

Everything about his approach was up to date. Even the routine forms he asked me to fill out at my first appointment seemed geared to the Woodstock generation. Along with the normal questions about medical history, his patients were asked about previous abortions and about recreational drugs—marijuana, LSD, etc. “No,” I checked. “No.”

There was also a family history section, which included a question about birth defects. I could only think of one. My mother’s brother Lawrence had been born with a cleft palate. Mother had told me that her parents simply could not make up their minds to risk an operation early in his childhood. Finally as an adult, he had undergone surgery—a procedure that was very painful and less successful than it would have been when Lawrence was younger. I entered the words “one uncle—cleft palate.”

The words “infant mortality” appeared next to another blank space in the family history. I knew that my father’s mother had borne a healthy son who died suddenly when he was a week old. He stopped breathing in the middle of the night. My father had not yet been born, but he remembered the stories his mother told him when he was old enough to understand them. “Your grandmother heard the night nurse saying, ‘The baby, the baby.’ She thought at first that the nurse was talking about her two-year-old daughter, your aunt Elizabeth. For a moment, she had forgotten all about her new baby boy. He was dead. He would have been named for your grandfather. That’s why we gave his name to your brother James. In the space I wrote “one uncle—Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” (a term that probably did not exist when that baby died nearly sixty years before).

The family history section did not ask about more distant generations, but I remembered my grandfather’s book of family history. Many of the men had two or three wives, the earlier ones having died in child birth. The family cemetery was littered with tiny markers: “Infant daughter of Legaré and Ellen Walker, 1877” and larger ones: “Ellen, beloved wife of Legaré Walker, 1852-1877.”

Dr. Eagle treated me differently from other OB-GYNs I had dealt with or heard about. In the 1970s, these doctors were usually very paternal in their relationships to their patients. They gave lots of orders. They scolded women about gaining extra weight during pregnancy. (A few years later, they would switch to urging women to gain more weight, but either way, the doctors lectured us.) Perhaps since their role was to assist at a function that only women could perform, they tried to take charge of as much of it as possible.

The doctor I had seen in Atlanta, before moving to Raleigh, was a good example. He thought nothing whatsoever of this business of letting fathers in on the childbirth experience. They might faint or otherwise distract the doctor and clutter up the delivery room. But he grew rhapsodic in describing motherhood. “It is one of life’s great mysteries,” he had exclaimed, “the way a new mother tenderly cares for her helpless baby and loves him before he can love her.”

Dr. Eagle was different. He seemed to respect women. He thought I could be in charge of my own diet and weight. He wore ordinary clothes instead of a white coat, and once when I told him that I liked the striped shirt he was wearing, he blushed and muttered, “My wife gave it to me.” Dr. Eagle did not present himself as an authority with answers to every question.

And I did not have to ask for much information. It was a calm, uneventful pregnancy. I had no morning sickness, no backaches. I loved wearing maternity clothes. (In that era, we wore loose-fitting garments. They were comfortable, but if they were meant to disguise our condition, they did not succeed.) I liked having the hollow spaces of my body filled with growing life. And the baby’s kicks and movements were a secret pleasure.

The only complication at all was a recurrence of the asthma that had afflicted me since childhood. During an appointment one rainy day, Dr. Eagle was alarmed. “That breathing sounds terrible,” he said. “We don’t want you to get emphysema.” He sent me across the street to a lung specialist who prescribed Tedral—at the time a common treatment for asthma. (I did not investigate the side effects, which are now known to include dizziness, drowsiness, and depression but also overexcitement, anxiety, insomnia, anger and annoyance, as well as hallucinations). The drug made breathing easier, but it also made me tense, and I had a hard time sleeping. I used it as little as possible. Sis suggested that I might take some when I went into labor, to make all those breathing changes easier.

In the last month before my due date, I made the hour-long trip to Chapel Hill each week with Polly Potts, another woman from the Laze class. For our convenience, Dr. Eagle scheduled back-to-back appointments for us. Polly had worked for years as a secretary, but since the birth of her first child two years previously, she seemed to have no other interests besides her children and elementary biology. “My little Susie can say anything now,” she told me. “The other day we were out in the car and she said ‘Airplane.’

‘There’s no airplane, Susie,’ I said, but she just kept saying, ‘Airplane, airplane.’ Finally I noticed that on the side of the truck in the lane next to us was a picture of an airplane. My Susie doesn’t make a mistake.”

I heard such stories every week, all the way to Chapel Hill and back. Included were detailed accounts of little Susie’s potty training and of Polly’s bladder and bowel functions as modified by pregnancy. Polly Potts never talked about a book or even a television program. She never asked a question. Whatever changes motherhood makes in me, I thought, I will not let it take over my whole mind. I will not turn into someone like Polly. I made myself a solemn promise.

Dr. Eagle was painfully shy and could never be matter-of-fact about doing internal examinations. He put them off as long as possible. Then, even with the nurse present for propriety, he blushed as he probed gently. He apologized if it hurt at all. He was sorry, but he had to see if I had begun to dilate.

On Friday, January 22, he checked again. “It could be any time,” he said. “Are you ready?” It seemed as if even in these circumstances I was being allowed to make my own decision.

I hesitated. The pictures were not yet hung in the room we had set aside for a nursery. I still needed to write scores of thank you notes for shower gifts. “I suppose,” I muttered.

On the way home from our appointments, Polly Potts was furious. “Do you know he wouldn’t even check me today?” she fumed. “Said I’d be a couple of weeks more at least.” Polly Potts was ready. She had all the diapers folded and waiting for the new arrival. She resented the delay.

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