I’ll never forget that morning I sailed onto the lakefront bike path in my finest wind-breaking gear, against the advice of every newscaster in the greater Chicagoland area. The air smelled more watery than usual. Hurricane Sandy was arriving on the East Coast but was so powerful that its winds were whipping up the Midwest. For a while, a surge of air shoved my bike from behind and continued shoving me toward downtown and in the direction of the hospital where my sister was in labor.
There wasn’t a single boat or human in sight, a thrill for any cyclist worth her salt. Normal people do not go out in this weather. It was one of those rare moments you could forget you’re in a large city. Treetops whipped around in a nervous frenzy to my right. As I flew past increasingly useless breakwaters, scary-huge, dark grey waves sprayed into the air and poured over them.
But the possibility of getting thrown into the water didn’t faze me nearly as much as the question of what exactly my role in the whole birth thing was supposed to be.
Officially, my plan was to provide all the support and wisdom of a sibling with no kids of her own. I felt a creeping sense of unpreparedness. Should I tell her to breathe? That seemed presumptuous. What the hell do I know about breathing? For some reason, I imagined massaging her feet while crooning “Everything’s Alright” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
I arrived just in time. Soon the winds would grow even stronger, and flooding would cut off access to the path entirely. The delivery room conveyed all of the calm of the eye of a storm. I sat in a comfy chair in the corner and flipped through a newspaper.
My sister Molly used to be the tomboy. When we were little, she slept in a trundle bed that she literally had to fold and stuff under my bed every morning. Now she lay on her side like a blond goddess, looking oddly chill about the whole thing.
“Are you thirsty? Can I get you anything?” I asked for the fifth time. Thankfully, my mom and cousin, both pros, were also there. Medical announcements filtered in from the hallway. I was surprised to discover I could keep a protective eye on my bike six stories below. It was lying on its side next to the bike rack where I left it. The helmet attached to it rattled fiercely against the pavement. I wasn’t sure whether to feel proud or disturbed by my accomplishment.
When the contractions finally began, things picked up fast. Now the unstoppable force was at Molly’s back. Her face flushed, she sat up and pushed in brief intervals—mercifully, without any screams or gnashing of teeth. I’ve heard louder people in yoga. Her husband stood near the top of the bed and glanced vaguely toward the ceiling. We shameless women were all at the bottom. Everyone was saying things like, “You’re doing great!” The further along she was, the more we cheered.
Then the doctor turned and asked me, “Would you like to hold one of your sister’s legs?” Of all the scenarios I’d pictured, this was not one of them.
To this day, the image reminds me of a cartoon I used to watch as a kid. You know, the one where sibling superheroes would bump fists and yell, “Wonder twin powers, activate!” And a fiery explosion would emanate from their conjoined hands, turning them into random shit like octopuses and unicycles. In that moment, I may as well have shouted: “Form of … a doula!” Because all it took was her calf in my left palm to, almost, feel like one. I coached and encouraged and looked places I never thought I would. We were nearing the finish line. From that point on, it was a team effort.
Someday, I hope to tell my niece Imogen (the dad’s British) about all of it. How strong her mom was. How the doctor let my cousin cut the cord. Maybe even how I got a glimpse of the baby’s slimy, mauve crown before she was totally out. And how I battled ferocious winds just to greet her.