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by Philip Gulley


    I was born deep in the winter. Each birthday my father phones to recount the events surrounding my birth. Our sons are asleep in their bedroom under the eaves. My wife and I are sitting in front of the fireplace; she is doing her needlework and I am reading a mystery. The phone rings. I ease out of my chair, walk to the kitchen, pick up the phone and say, “Hello.“

    It is my father. No “Hello.” No “How are you?” Just the same question each birthday:“Have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”

    “I don’t believe so,” I tell him.

    “Well, it was eight o’clock in the evening when your mother went into labor. I remember the time because Gunsmoke was just starting. There was a terrible snowstorm. We could barely see the neighbor’s house for the snow. We got in the car to drive to the hospital in the city. Our defroster didn’t work, and I couldn’t see through the windshield. I had to drive the whole twenty miles with my head out the window. It was so cold my face was frostbitten. I ran a red light and a policeman pulled me over and said he was going to give me a ticket. I told him to hurry up because my wife was going to have a baby. The policeman said, ‘Follow me!’ and he turned on his lights and siren and off we went, all the way to the hospital where you were born. You had a police escort to the hospital. Not everyone can say that. That makes you special.“

    When I was a child, my mother would tuck me into bed, kiss my forehead, then leave the room. My father would come in and sit at the foot of my bed and ask, “Say have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”

    “I don’t believe so,” I would tell him.

    He would lean back, close his eyes, and conjure up that memory — the snow and the swirling red lights and the siren’s wail. I’ve heard that story nearly forty times and I never tire of it.

    Every year I wonder the same things: Will they make it in time? Will I be all right? Of course I will be, because here I am. But the way my father tells the story leaves the outcome in doubt and I never quite relax until the story concludes with me safely delivered.

It was a wonderful gift my father gave me, that story.
    In my teenage years, when my father and I were at odds, I would remember how he suffered frostbite to bring me safely into this world... and my heart would soften. I was a skinny child, the target of bullies. When beaten up and ridiculed, I would take comfort in the fact that I was ushered into this world with a police escort and they were not. It was a wonderful gift my father gave me, that story. He could not give me wealth or fame to ease my way, so he gave me that story and it provided a deep consolation.

    My chief regret is that I am not able to offer my sons a similar story. Their births were routine, insofar as a child’s birth is ever routine. We had sufficient time to drive to the hospital. The roads were clear. The car ran smoothly. My wife was unruffled. The doctors and nurses were competent and our children were delivered with a minimum of pain. I didn’t feel a thing.

    When my older son turned five years old, he asked me, “Daddy, what happened when I was born?” I didn’t want to tell him the truth — that as births go, his was unremarkable, with only one peculiarity. When he was due to emerge, I was in the hospital restroom reading a back issue of Reader’s Digest. Drama in Real Life. A man ran off the road and over a cliff, where he lay broken and dazed for three days before spelling out HELP with rocks and sticks. Spotted by an airplane, he was rescued and lived to share his dramatic story.

    As I finished reading his harrowing tale, the nurse knocked on the door and said, “Your wife is having your baby. You better get out here.” So I came out and five minutes later, so did my son. That is the truth, though it isn’t the kind of story I want to tell my son. It is not the stuff of legend. So when he asked me what happened when he was born, I kissed his forehead and took my place at the foot of his bed.

    “Yours was a very special birth,” I told him. “Quite miraculous. It was the middle of winter. It was snowing. We were sitting in the living room late in the evening. Your mother went into labor. We climbed into the car and made our way toward the hospital. The roads were terribly slick. As we were rounding a curve, we slid off the road and over a cliff, where our car came to rest at the bottom. We were dazed and bruised. Your mother was pinned in the wreckage and couldn’t move, but I could, just barely I managed to climb through a window and gather some sticks and rocks, which I used to spell out HELP. The next morning, an airplane, circling overhead, spotted us and we were rescued. We were rushed to a hospital where you were safely delivered. And that, son, is the story of your birth.“

    He swelled with pride. He’d had no idea his beginnings were marked with such drama. “Tell me again,” he pleaded.

    “Next year,” I told him. “You’ll have to wait until your next birthday.” I kissed him good night and went downstairs to sit in my chair. My wife was there.“What were you and Spencer talking about?” Joan asked.

    “I was telling him about the night he was born,” I answered.

    “Did you mention how the nurse had to get you out of the restroom because you were reading that story in Reader’s Digest?”

    “Indirectly,” I answered.

    “I hope you haven’t put ideas in his head,” she said.

    My wife is a straightforward woman who doesn’t always appreciate the advantage of story and drama. She doesn’t need to embellish her birth story. Her mother delivered her without assistance after the doctor had left for the day. With a birth like that, you don’t need to exaggerate. It’s miracle enough.

    I went back upstairs to talk with Spencer. “I would prefer,” I told him, “that you not talk with your mother about the car wreck and your birth. The memory of it is more than she can bear.“

    My birthday came a few weeks later. My parents invited us for Sunday dinner. We were seated in the dining room. I said to my father, “Tell me about my birth, about the policeman and the snow.”

    “What policeman?” my mother asked. “What snow?”

    “The policeman who escorted you and Dad to the hospital the night I was born. Remember? It was snowing and the defroster was broken and Dad got frostbite from driving twenty miles with his head out the window.”

    Mom said, “It wasn’t snowing — it was unusually warm that day. And he wouldn’t take me to the hospital until Gunsmoke was over. It was his favorite show, you know. He almost named you Festus.“

    I looked across the table at my father. He smiled, winked, and said nothing. It was all a story — no snow, no policeman, no frostbite, no siren, no swirling lights. But it was my story, true or not, and I was grateful for it. I did not have wealth or fame or muscles or good looks to ease my way into this world. But I did have my story my father gave it to me. It was his gift to me, bestowed with love, and I treasure it.

    Later that night I was sitting in our living room. The phone rang. It was my father. “Say have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?” he asked.

    “I don’t believe so,” I answered.

    He spoke of blowing snow and running a red light and how he got frostbite. He told about the policeman who pulled him over and the police escort with the swirling lights and the siren.

    “Not everyone gets a police escort” he pointed out. “That makes you special.”

    These are the stories passed from father to son. We have no wealth to bestow, no fame to offer. We have only these legends to remind our children that on the day they were born, the ordinary was suspended and the miracles flew thick.

      From the book For Everything a Season, by Philip Gulley. © 1999 by Multnomah Pub., used by permission.

      Title: ""
      Author: Philip Gulley
      Publication Date: January 11, 2002


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