Life Expectancy Page 3

I have seen that space because my child entered the world in the same maternity ward on another unforgettable night of incomparable chaos.

On that stormy evening in 1974, with Richard Nixon gone home to California, and Beezo on a rampage, my father found a nurse sprawled in the hallway, shot point-blank.

He remembers almost being driven to his knees by pity, by despair.

The loss of Dr. MacDonald, although terrible, had not fully penetrated Dad, for it had been so sudden, so dreamlike. Mere moments later, the sight of this dead nurse-young, fair, like a fallen angel in white raiments, golden hair fanning in a halo around her eerily serene face-pierced him, and he absorbed the truth and the meaning of both deaths at once.

He tore open the storage-closet door, searching for something he might use as a weapon. He found only spare linens, bottles of antiseptic cleaner, a locked cabinet of medications... Although in retrospect this moment struck him as darkly comic, at the time he thought, with grave seriousness and with the logic of desperation, that having kneaded so much dough over the past few years, his hands were dangerously strong. If only he could get past Beezo's gun, he surely would have the strength to strangle him.

No makeshift weapon could hope to be as deadly as the well-flexed hands of an angry baker. Sheer terror spawned this lunatic notion; curiously, however, terror also gave him courage.

The short hallway intersected a longer one, which led left and right. Off this new corridor, three doors served a pair of delivery rooms as well as the neonatal care unit where swaddled newborns, each in his or her bassinet, pondered their new reality of light, shadow, hunger, discontent, and taxes.

Dad sought my mother and me, but found only Her. She lay in one of the delivery rooms, alone and unconscious on the birthing bed.

At first he thought that she must be dead. Darkness swooned at the edges of his vision, but before he passed out, he saw that his beloved Maddy was breathing. He clutched the edge of her bed until his vision brightened.

Gray-faced, drenched with sweat, she looked not like the vibrant woman he knew, but instead appeared to be frail and vulnerable.

Blood on the sheets suggested that she'd delivered their child, but no squalling infant was present.

Elsewhere, Beezo shouted, "Where are you bastards?"

Reluctant to leave my mother, Dad nonetheless went in search of the conflict to see what help he could provide-as (he has always insisted) any baker would have done.

In the second delivery room, he found Natalie Beezo upon another birthing bed. The slender aerialist had so recently died from the complications of childbirth that her tears of suffering had not yet dried upon her cheeks.

According to Dad, even after her agony and even in death, she was ethereally beautiful. A flawless olive complexion. Raven hair. Her eyes were open, luminous green, like windows to a field in Heaven.

For Konrad Beezo, who didn't appear to be handsome under the greasepaint and who was not a man of substantial property and whose personality would surely be at least somewhat off-putting even under ordinary circumstances, this woman was a prize beyond all reasonable expectation. You could understand-though not excuse-his violent reaction to the loss of her.

Stepping out of the delivery room, Dad came face to face with the homicidal clown. Simultaneously Beezo flung open the door from the creche and charged into the hall, a blanketed infant cradled in the crook of his left arm.

At this close range, the pistol in his right hand appeared to be twice the size that it had been in the waiting room, as if they were in Alice's Wonderland, where objects grew or shrank with no regard for reason or for the laws of physics.

Dad might have seized Beezo's wrist and, with his strong baker's hands, fought for possession of the gun, but he dared not act in any way that would have put the baby at risk.

With its pinched red face and furrowed brow, the infant appeared indignant, offended. Its mouth stretched open wide, as though it were trying to scream but had been shocked silent by the realization that its father was a mad clown.

Thank God for the baby, Dad has often said. Otherwise I would have gotten myself killed. You'd have grown up fatherless, and you'd never have learned how to make a first-rate creme brulee.

So cradling the baby and brandishing the pistol, Beezo demanded of my father, "Where are they, Rudy Tock?"

"Where are who?" Dad asked.

The red-eyed clown appeared to be both wrung by grief and ripped by anger. Tears streaked his makeup. His lips trembled as if he might sob uncontrollably, then skinned back from his teeth in an expression of such ferocity that a chill wound through Dad's bowels.

"Don't play dumb," Beezo warned. "There had to be other nurses, maybe another doctor. I want the bastards dead, all of them who failed her."

"They ran," my father said, certain that it would be safer to lie about having seen the medical staff escape than to insist that he had encountered no one. "They slipped out behind your back, the way you came, through the waiting room. They're long gone."

Feeding on his rage, Konrad Beezo appeared to swell larger, as if anger were the food of giants. No Barnum & Bailey buffoonery brightened his face, and the poisonous hatred in his eyes was as potent as cobra venom.

Lest he become a stand-in for the medical staff no longer within Beezo's reach, Dad quickly added, with no trace of threat, as if only being helpful, "Police are on the way. They'll want to take the baby from you."

"My son is mine,"" Beezo declared with such passion that the stink of stale cigarette smoke rising from his clothes might almost have been mistaken for the consequence of his fiery emotion. "I will do anything to keep him from being raised by the aerialists."

Walking a thin line between clever manipulation and obvious fawning in the interest of self-preservation, my father said, "Your boy will be the greatest of his kind-clown, jester, harlequin, jack muffing

"Jackpudding," the killer corrected, but without animosity. "Yes, he'll be the greatest. He will. I won't let anyone deny my son his destiny."

With baby and pistol, Beezo pushed past my dad and hurried along the shorter hall, where he stepped over the dead nurse with no more concern for her than he'd have shown for a janitor's mop and bucket.

Feverishly trying to think of something that he could do to bring down this brute without harming the infant, Dad could only watch in frustration.

When Beezo reached the door to the expectant-fathers' lounge, he hesitated, glanced back. "I'll never forget you, Rudy Tock. Never."

My father could not decide whether that declaration might be an expression of misguided sentimental affection-or a threat.

Beezo pushed through the door and disappeared.

At once, Dad hurried back to the first delivery room because his primary concern understandably remained with my mother and me.

Still unattended, my mother lay on the birthing bed where Dad had moments ago discovered her. Though still gray-faced and soaked with sweat, she had regained consciousness.

She groaned with pain, blinked in confusion.

Whether she was merely disoriented or delirious is a matter of contention between my parents, but my father insists that he feared for her when she said, "If you want Reuben sandwiches for dinner, we'll have to go to the market for cheese."

Mom insists that she actually said, "After this, don't think you're ever going to touch me again, you son of a bitch."

Their love is deeper than desire, than affection, than respect, so deep that its wellspring is humor. Humor is a petal on the flower of hope, and hope blossoms on the vine of faith. They have faith in each other and faith that life has meaning, and from this faith comes their indefatigable good humor, which is their greatest gift to each other-and to me.

I grew up in a home filled with laughter. Regardless of what happens to me in the days ahead, I will have had the laughter. And wonderful pastries.

In this account of my life, I will resort at every turn to amusement, for laughter is the perfect medicine for the tortured heart, the balm for misery, but I will not beguile you. I will not use laughter as a curtain to spare you the sight of horror and despair. We will laugh together, but sometimes the laughter will hurt.

So... Whether my mother was delirious or sound of mind, whether she blamed my father for the pain of labor or discussed the need for cheese, they are in relative agreement about what happened next. My father found a wall-mounted phone near the door and called for help.

Because this device was more an intercom than a phone, it did not have a standard keypad, just four keys, each clearly labeled: staffing,


Dad pressed security and informed the answering officer that people had been shot, that the assailant, costumed as a clown, was even then fleeing the building, and that Maddy needed immediate medical assistance.

From the bed, clearheaded now if she had not been previously, my mother cried out, "Where's my baby?"

Phone still to his ear, my father turned to her, astounded, alarmed. "You don't know where it is?"

Striving unsuccessfully to sit up, grimacing with pain, Mom said, "How would I know? I passed out or something. What do you mean someone was shot? For God's sake, who was shot? What's happening? Where's my baby?"

Although the delivery room had no windows, although it was surrounded by hallways and by other rooms that further insulated it from the outside world, my folks heard faint sirens rising in the distance.

Dad's memory regurgitated the suddenly nauseating image of Beezo in the hallway, the pistol in his right hand, the baby cradled in his left arm. Bitter acid burned in my father's throat, and his already harried heart raced faster.

Perhaps Beezo's wife and child had died at birth. Perhaps the infant in his arms hadn't been his own but had been instead little James-or Jennifer-Tock.

I thought "kidnapped," Dad says when he recalls the moment. / thought about the Lindbergh baby and Frank Sinatra Junior being held for ransom and Rumpelstiltskin and Tarzan being raised by apes, and though none of that makes sense, I thought it all in an instant. I wanted to scream, but I couldn't, and I felt just like that red-faced baby with its mouth open but silent, and when I thought of the baby, oh, then I just knew it had been you, not his at all, but you, my Jimmy.

Desperate now to find Beezo and stop him, Dad dropped the phone, bolted toward the open door to the hallway-and nearly collided with Charlene Coleman, a nurse who came bearing a baby in her arms.

This infant had a broader face than the one Beezo had spirited into the stormy night. Its complexion was a healthy pink instead of mottled red. According to Dad, its eyes shone clear and blue, and its face glowed with wonder.

"I hid with your baby," Charlene Coleman said. "I hid from that awful man. I knew he would be trouble when he first showed up with his wife, him wearing that ugly hat indoors and making no apology for it."

I wish I could verify from personal experience that, indeed, what alarmed Charlene from the get-go was not Beezo's clown makeup, not his poisonous ranting about his aerialist in-laws, not his eyes so crazy that they almost spun like pinwheels, but simply his hat. Unfortunately, less than one hour old, I had not yet learned English and had not even sorted out who all these people were.

Trembling with relief, Dad took me from Charlene Coleman and carried me to my mother.

After the nurse raised the head of the birthing bed and provided more pillows, Mom was able to take me in her arms.

Dad swears that her first words to me were these: "You better have been worth all the pain, Little Blue Eyes, 'cause if you turn out to be an ungrateful child, I'll make your life a living hell."

Tearful, shaken by all that had occurred, Charlene recounted recent events and explained how she'd been able to spirit me to safety when the shooting started.

Unexpectedly required to attend two women simultaneously in urgent and difficult labor, Dr. MacDonald had been unable at that hour to locate a qualified physician to assist on a timely basis. He divided his attention between the two patients, hurrying from one delivery room to the other, relying on his nurses for backup, his work complicated by the periodically dimming lights and worry about whether the hospital generator would kick in reliably if the storm knocked out electric service.

Natalie Beezo had received no prenatal care. She unknowingly suffered from preeclampsia. During labor she developed full-blown eclampsia and experienced violent convulsions that would not respond to treatment and that threatened not only her own life but the life of her unborn child.

Meanwhile, my mother endured an excruciating labor resulting largely from the failure of her cervix to dilate. Intravenous injections of synthetic oxytocin initially did not induce sufficient contractions of the uterine muscles to allow her to squeeze me into the world.

Natalie delivered first. Dr. MacDonald tried everything to save her- an endotracheal tube to assist her breathing, injections of anticonvulsants-but soaring blood pressure and convulsions led to a massive cerebral hemorrhage that killed her.

Even as the umbilical cord was tied off and cut between the Beezo baby and his dead mother, my mother, exhausted but still struggling to expel me, suddenly and at last experienced cervical dilation.

The Jimmy Tock show had begun.

Before undertaking the depressing task of telling Konrad Beezo that he had gained a son and lost a wife, Dr. MacDonald delivered me and, according to Charlene Coleman, announced that this solid little package would surely grow up to be a football hero.

Having successfully conveyed me from womb to wider world, my mother promptly passed out. She didn't hear the doctor's prediction and didn't see my broad, pink, wonder-filled face until my protector, Charlene, returned and presented me to my father.

After Dr. MacDonald had given me to Nurse Coleman to be swabbed and then wrapped in a white cotton receiving cloth, and when he had satisfied himself that my mother had merely fainted and that she would come to herself in moments, with or without smelling salts, he peeled

off his latex gloves, pulled down his surgical mask, and went to the expectant-fathers' lounge to console Konrad Beezo as best he could.

Almost at once, the shouting started: bitter, accusatory words, paranoid accusations, the vilest language delivered in the most furious voice imaginable.

Even in the usually serene, well-soundproofed delivery room, Nurse Coleman heard the uproar. She understood the tenor if not the specifics of Konrad Beezo's reaction to the loss of his wife.

When she left the delivery room and stepped into the hallway to hear Beezo more clearly, intuition told her to carry me with her, bundled in the thin blanket.

In the hall, she encountered Lois Hanson, another nurse, who had in her arms the Beezo baby. Lois, too, had ventured forth to hear the clown's intemperate outburst.

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