Stephanie was conceived one summer day in June of 1985. It happened when her mother, Claudia, and I went on a camping trip in San Diego near the border with Baja California.
It started out as a special trip from the beginning because it was one of the few times we managed to get away by ourselves. Usually when we went camping we took our two teenagers plus several of their friends. But this time we had been enticed by a campground named Thousand Trails that wanted to sell us camping time shares.
Our son, Sean, was embarrassed. He said, "We always go to those "time share" things and you never buy anything. You just go for the free stuff!" "Yeah, they look at us like we're freeloaders or something," said our daughter Marie, huffily. We didn't care. We enjoyed traveling and camping and we went frequently.
To save money, we accepted free vacation offers to all kinds of exotic places. We went because we enjoyed the trips; the other stuff they gave away was a bonus. Besides, we didn't mind matching our resolve against the high pressure sales pitch they lay on you. In fact, we were already seasoned veterans due to the many skirmishes we had with outfits selling time shares for Palm Springs condos, Lawrence Welk Resorts, Glen Ivy vacations, Thousand Trails Campgrounds and Las Vegas hotels.
The campground was located at Otay Mesa which is on the outskirts of San Diego. On Friday and Saturday of the trip, we were wined and dined royally as the Thousand Trails staff showed us all their fine amenities. On Sunday, we were scheduled to get the sales pitch before we left for home. Instead, we opted to spare ourselves and our sales rep the anguish which would come with our planned refusal to buy.
After dinner, we left the campground and headed for San Diego. Our destination was the familiar Borderland RV Park near the Tijuana border. We set up camp in the dark and then headed for the Jacuzzi with a couple of bottles of champagne. We finished our evening giggling like two little kids who got away with something and toasted each other on the fast one we had pulled.
The next day we were in Tijuana sipping Margaritas outside the Hotel Cesar when she told me she had forgotten to bring her birth control pills. "Don't worry," I told her, "nothing's ever happened with or without them." She said, "This time it's different. I can't explain it, but I feel different inside." I made light of it and suggested it must be the bubbly we had the night before that she was feeling.
But inside I was secretly elated and hoped fervently that she was right. I had already raised one family and this was my second one. Both wives had children when I married them and I came to love them as my own. But the biological urge to procreate was always very strong and I longed for a child of my own. I couldn't help wondering what a baby would look like coming from a fair New York Irish lass and a dark Chicano lad from Texas. But I was no longer a lad; I was already forty-one. Most important, she was thirty-seven and felt she was too old to have a baby. So, she was on birth control pills until that fateful weekend. Well, it turned out that she was right. It wasn't the carbonation from the champagne she had felt. Amazingly, she had felt the tiny stirrings of what was to become our daughter, Stephanie.
During the pregnancy, you never saw such preparations. It's not like we were not used to having a baby around. My grown daughter and her baby were over all the time. But this was different. Our disjointed family consisted of two adults as different as night and day plus two sullen teenagers. Now we were going to have a baby? How would it affect that tacit truce that we had learned to live under? How would those teenagers -- she into Rap and he into Punk -- react to someone who was going to remove them from center stage? How would we find the strength to deal with a demanding bundle of energy?
Well, this was answered almost instantly, as the level of happiness in our house increased to giddy levels. The brooding teenagers started to behave like angels and the old parents became like young turtle doves with their first nest. Outside my home, I was not the dove. I became more like a strutting, comb-out, fan tailed, rooster. Yes sir, I became the cock-of-the-walk with my chest swelled out so far I thought I would burst.
My wife went into her baby mode so quickly you would have thought we had babies every year. First off she established "Baby Central." Actually, it was our family room, but it was instantly appropriated and it became her operating quarters. From here she guided all her far-flung baby enterprises. "How come we have to have a hand-hewn Oak baby crib?" I would ask her. She would just give me one of those looks which wives all over the world use to shut us up. "Can't you see I'm busy cutting patterns for the baby's T-shirts? And don't forget we got our Lamaze class tomorrow. When are you gonna strip the wall paper off the baby's room? Do we have enough mint chocolate chip ice cream? Marie, did you find my knitting needles like I asked you? Sean, bring my new rocking chair in here, my back's hurting." Jeez, and I was afraid she wouldn't have enough energy.
After about six months, my home really went into high gear with the preparations to receive the baby. It was then that my wife took the Amnio Synthesis test. The test is usually recommended for older mothers because they are more susceptible to problems with genetic abnormalities. We were all thankful when tests showed everything was OK, but my wife was even more elated because the test also told us the baby was to be a girl. It was new motivation for her since she now knew which sex to prepare for.
Although I had hoped for a boy, I was not disappointed. I was happy no matter what.
Now with the baby's arrival coming soon, I had to dig deep to find more energy. Not only did I have a full time job, I was also working on my bachelor's degree part-time and now found myself under the full authority of Baby Central in the remodeling of the baby's room. I thought my teenage daughter was going to be peeved about having to share her room with her new sister. On the contrary, that little tattletale would instead rat on me if I slowed down progress. "Mom, Dad's in your bedroom watching football again." It seems like I was forever at the Home Depot for new supplies. I was there so often that the cashiers begin to greet me by name.
Although wallpapering, painting, sewing, furniture finishing, knitting, shopping and constant worrying were draining, we were continually reinvigorated by the delicious anticipation we enjoyed. The family was constantly talking and discussing our plans for the arrival. Plans and alternate plans were made. Checklists were checked and double checked. Potential godparents were considered.
However, there was one thing we were not able to resolve: what to name the baby. We used baby-naming books and lists of relative's names going back three generations with no success. We did everything except consult with a Shaman to study the stars. Approaching the eve of her birth, we had barely decided on her middle name. Like all the females of her Irish family, she was to be named after the Virgin Mary. So we agreed on Marie as her middle name. As for the list of first names, it had only been whittled down to four names. But even after many discussions we still could not decide. My wife and I hardly considered the suggestions from our kids since they tended to be the names of rock or movie stars. We certainly were not going to name our little princess Cher, Demi or Janet.
As with most births, the time came unexpectedly. I was at work and was paged to report to the office immediately. There, our venerable secretary, Vera, told me that my wife had called to say that she was on her way to the hospital because her water had burst. Although I had been anticipating that call, I was not prepared for the strong mixed feelings that overcame me. I was elated because the time had finally come, but I was also scared like hell that something might go wrong with my wife or baby.
I was never so nervous as when I drove to St. Joseph's Hospital in the City of Orange. When I got there, she was already in a labor room. She was in bed wearing a hospital gown and looking scared. There was a sensor on her belly and a monitor next to her that showed when the contractions were coming. A nurse had her head under a sheet that covered Claudia's lower body. The nurse said, "The baby's crown is starting to show. You're dilated 10 centimeters. It won't be long now." I reached over and held Claudia's hand and tenderness came over me when a weak smile replaced the worry on her face.
I assumed my position beside her and commenced my Lamaze duties. I held her hand and watched the monitor as I guided her through her "phew, phew, phew" breathing exercises. When the contractions started coming more frequently and stronger she started to moan and perspire profusely. After about twenty minutes of this she was really moaning. When I told her another contraction was coming, she blew her stack! She yelled at me with fire in her eyes, "You sonofabitch, you don't have to tell me when a contraction is coming! I can fucking feel it! Get the fuck outta here and leave me alone! It hurts so much! Oh God! Pleease!...Give me some fuckin drugs!"
When a devout Catholic like her starts using profanity, you pay attention. She looked like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist", so I got the hell out of there and went and got the nurse. The nurse told me, "Now honey, don't take it personal, it happens a lot. You go down to the cafeteria and get some juice, I'll take care of it."
When I returned, she was OK. I don't know what kind of drug she got, but she was calm and apologetic, "I'm sorry honey, but it hurt so much." "I know, baby," I said. Then the nurse came in and told me they were coming to take her to delivery. I was to scrub and get into my delivery-room greens so that I could be present at the birth. Quickly several attendants and nurses showed up to make the transfer. I was ushered into a delivery room where a team was waiting alongside Dr. O'Brien, her physician. Everything became a rush as the baby was fast coming. I stood alongside and not directly in front because I couldn't bear to see my wife in such an uncompromising position, her privates bared to everyone. The baby came with the doctor hunched over like a baseball catcher waiting for a pitch. And there it came. Slap, cry, snip, clamp and he held her up for us to see. Dr. O'Brien looked at me with his merry Irish eyes and said to me, "Papa, come here and take your daughter."
While they cleaned up my wife, I held the baby in my arms. I stood there with my mouth agape under my mask. Although the baby was naked, with a shiny clamp hanging off her long umbilical cord and her whole body covered with a mucus-like slime - she was beautiful! Her tiny red body shook and her arms and legs flailed as she screamed at the shock of being removed from that warm safe place that had been her home for nine months.
I held her up for my wife to see and I kissed her and thanked her for the wonderful gift. She smiled and drifted off to sleep. I felt blessed--blessed and special. I silently thanked God for letting me be present at the miracle of my daughter's birth.
The nurse then took me and the still crying baby into a preparation room. She took the baby from me and placed her on a table. First she tagged the baby, then she cleaned her thoroughly. Given a small formula bottle, the baby immediately stopped her crying. The nurse took her vital signs and checked every inch of her body as I held the bottle. Everything was normal. Next she was weighed, measured, and her foot prints were taken. Finally, she was dressed in a diaper, gown and a little stocking cap then was put into a basinet. She was fast asleep. The nurse asked me, "What will be the baby's name?" "Stephanie Marie Qui?ones," I said without hesitation. It was the name we all had liked but had been reluctant to choose. I had looked at her cute little face as she lay there calmly sleeping and the name just seemed to fit her.
I left the maternity ward happily assured that they were both safe and out of danger. I was in a hurry to leave the hospital because I was anxious to spread the word about the successful delivery. I didn't have far to go. The waiting room on the first floor was already full of friends and family waiting for news. Our kids were in the group and were anxious to know about the arrival of their new baby sister and what name I had given her. Everybody was wondering what she looked like. "You can't tell, " I told them. "She is red, wrinkled, bald and her eyes are closed."
After I left them, I headed straight for our then parish church, Saint Barbara's. It was not a usual thing I did since I had been alienated from my religion for a long time. I had stopped going after my Mom passed away and had only returned when I married Claudia. I had been skeptical and attended Mass mostly because it was important to her. But after I had experienced the birth of my daughter, I was reborn in my faith. The miracle of new life that happened that day in front of my unbelieving eyes affected me profoundly. I went straight down the middle aisle of the empty church and prostrated myself at the altar to ask God for forgiveness at having been a doubter. I thanked him for my baby and for bringing my wife through safely. I then lit a votive candle to the Virgin Mary and dedicated my baby in her honor as we had agreed. Returning home, I was humbled, tired and hungry. But despite that, I couldn't eat or sleep because of the intense feeling of happiness that swelled up in the middle of my chest and that threatened to spill out in shouts of elation.
I could never have imagined the happiness that this little girl brought into our lives. Before she came, our family had been fragmented. When I married Claudia she and her children had lived alone for about ten years. I was considered an outsider. I understood it because I knew it went along with the territory in today's divorce-split families. But Stephanie made us a whole family. It was so simple. She was related to all of us; so now we were all related. She looked like all of us too.
A few weeks after leaving the hospital her features became more obvious. Her complexion was fair but yet she appeared to have a perpetual tan. Her eyes were the same shade of blue as her mom and her siblings. Her wavy brown hair had highlights of red like her sister, mom and grandma. But her strong, sturdy body and round, bright face were the same as her daddy's.
Stephanie's birth caused wondrous changes in our family. She captured our hearts immediately and brought great joy to our lives. My wife, the wiseacre from Queens, New York and a tough manufacturing supervisor, was transformed into the epitome of a doting mother; complete with obligatory rocking chair. She talked with Stephanie endlessly and even managed to make her usual, off-pitch, off-key singing sound almost angelic. Of course, Stephanie was a trend setter when it came to baby styles. Momma sewed her dozens of outfits from the latest patterns to hit the street. And she also made Daddy drive them to Tijuana where she would buy baby her shoes. "They don't make cute shoes like these "Mary Janes" anywhere except in Mexico", she would say.
We spent lots of time outdoors in our huge backyard. And baby was in hog heaven. She would be digging in the dirt with Mom in just her diaper so she could get as dirty as she wanted. She would chase and catch and wrestle with all three of our dogs. She would splash in the water and turn her dirt into mud. Her big brother would chase her around the yard and it would end in tickles and horsey rides as she clung on to his spiked hair. She would help Pops put raked leaves into the trash can...one leaf at a time. Finally, after an exhausting day, she would be fed and bathed and given to me to put to bed in her crib. It was a treat they tossed the old man. It was fine with me because I got to hold her in my arms and smell her baby sweetness before I put her down. I kissed and hugged her and sweet-talked her until she fell asleep. Before I went to bed, I would look in on her. Instead of her crib, Stephanie would always be found sleeping soundly next to her big sister.
The sad part is we lost Stephanie in an automobile accident when she was 18 months old. However, I am not going to dwell on those details. My intentions in writing about her are not to lament her passing. Instead, it is a fond remembrance of the great joy and intense happiness this sweet child brought into our lives Even on her last day, she was a source of pride and happiness to us.
On that day, I was busy working on remodeling our kitchen as the rest of the family was getting ready for Mass. Claudia wanted me to watch her while they all went to Mass so they wouldn't have to get her ready. I didn't feel it was a good idea because Stephanie was such a curious child and was always getting into everything. I was afraid she would get hurt with all the tools and stuff lying around. So, she was given a bath and quickly dressed. Then Claudia sat her on a kitchen chair to comb her hair. She said to me, "Hey Hon, come look at this". I got up from where I was working to see what she was looking at. Stephanie was sitting with the sun and wind coming in from behind her. She sat there looking up at us with her berets in her chubby hands. The breeze was blowing her wavy auburn hair as it framed her smiling face. The sun shown through the hair and illuminated its red highlights so that it looked like a halo. "Look how beautiful she is", Claudia said. It's the last image I have of Stephanie and it's the first one that comes to my mind's eye when I think of this golden child that was my daughter.
Willie Quinones is a Crafts Supervisor for the Los Angeles Community College District.
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