It was ten o’clock in the morning on a beautiful summer day in Minnesota. Not a cloud in the sky as my wife and I hopped in the car and made the two-mile drive to the hospital. The anticipation and excitement had consumed us both over the past nine months – to the point that I’m sure all of our friends were exhausted listening to us talk about everything from baby names to crib styles and diaper choices. I think even we had started to recognize our self-absorption in this event. Even today I have to chuckle when I think about how wrapped up we were at the thought of being parents. But if there’s anything a person should have complete freedom to be “ad nauseam” about, it’s the birth of their first-born child.
We were young, still in our twenties and both just barely into the start of our teaching careers. We lived in a small town just west of Minneapolis, a place we had chosen specifically because of the strong reputation of the school district and its success and potential continued success in music education in particular. For me personally, it was one of those rare times in my life that I became hyper-focused and “hyper-motivated” to ensure that everything that I could control was going to be absolutely perfect.
I was going to be a father… a dad. This was something I had dreamed about for many years. That may sound odd to some people, but that hope and dream were born of a reality from which I came. My own biological dad was, to put it mildly, cursed with a wickedness fueled by alcohol and abusive behaviors that no child should ever have to witness or be a part of growing up. I recognized early on in life that I was a byproduct of a pattern of deep dysfunction. And there was no way in hell I was ever going to allow those patterns to continue. He left us – all seven of us and my mom, after my mom divorced him (later we would merge with another family of four additional kids – yep, there are 11 of us!) But I owned my inherited foundation, and for years I had dreamed of the day that would come where I would be given the opportunity to change all of that, and exemplify what a good father looked like in word and action. Today was that day.
It was August 12th, 1996 – four days after the official due date that this miracle was to occur. On doctor’s orders, we had scheduled an appointment to come in for a “non-stress” test. This was a standard procedure done for many different reasons. In our case, it was just a check-up on our baby because we were past the official due date. The test itself is called a non-stress test because it’s a non-invasive test that puts no stress on the baby. I can tell you with full authority that it can put plenty of stress on first-time parents!
It’s really simply a short routine exploring of where the baby is at, making sure they are still moving around and getting adequate oxygen, measuring any contractions if there are any, and listening to the heartbeat of the baby.
The heartbeat. It wasn’t there. It had been there strong and steady throughout her pregnancy. Both doctors had reassured us for the past nine months that there was every indication that things were proceeding perfectly, with no reason to suspect that this would be anything other than a healthy, routine, natural-birth. As I stood by the bedside as the test was administered, my eyes shifted from my wife to our doctor, and to the heart monitor repeatedly. Anxiety, excitement, fear, love – they stirred inside of me like an unpredictable approaching tornado.
In what seemed like forever, but in reality was only minutes, I sensed the silence of the doctor grow in urgency as my wife stared at me, searching for any indication of words or reassurance. I had none.
“What’s going on?” I asked. In our doctor’s best effort to conceal any signs of concern, she began to explain that she was “having the darndest time finding the heartbeat.” Moments later, she went into full “ER” mode and directed the nurse to go get the other doctor, immediately.
My wife was squeezing my hand so tight, and the look on her face will be etched in my memory forever. My knees became weak and I could feel my own heart pounding hard and fast as I felt my face become flushed. The anxiety and panic fought hard to invade what just moments ago was my confident joy and celebration. I knew my wife was experiencing the exact same emotions. If you can picture yourself stepping onto the down escalator at any airport or mall, and then suddenly having those solid moving stairs ripped out from under you sending you into a free fall – that’s what it felt like.
The other doctor ran into the room and they both worked these magical medical machines, searching for a beating heart.
“I found it!” one them said. “I heard it, too, now,” they agreed. The heart monitor lit up and I gazed in thankful amazement at the most beautiful blips I’d ever seen! “It’s going to be OK,” I reassured my wife, “the heartbeat is there.”
The doctors explained that although they had found the heartbeat, they also heard an arrhythmia that they hadn’t heard before. “What does that mean?” I asked. “It means you’re going to have a baby…today,” they both said in unison. We were instructed to drive directly to the hospital, just a parking lot away, and check in to prepare for a c-section. They both said they would meet us there.
We did just that, and within an hour we were in a birthing room prepped for surgery and just minutes away from seeing our son…or our daughter – we had chosen not to know until they were born. So either Julia (named after the Beatles song with the same title) or Nicholas (chosen primarily because we loved Christmas, St. Nicholas, and a short but strong name) was about to take their first breath on this beautiful earth, and meet the two people who loved them and would always love them more than anything in the world.
Nicholas William Soden was born at 1:03 pm at the Buffalo Hospital in Buffalo, Minnesota. He was 8 lbs. 13 oz. and as the doctor lifted him out of his only known environment from inside his mom, Nick entered the world!
Still connected by the umbilical cord, he immediately peed and pooped. One of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had in my life, I couldn’t stop the flow of tears. God had just blessed our lives with the most amazing little boy, and our incredible journey together had just begun.
Nick was whisked away rather quickly by the nurses immediately after I cut the umbilical cord. He was cleaned up and hooked up to heart monitor probes that covered his body like polka dots while he uttered his first baby babblings. As it turned out, Nick was born with a heart arrhythmia, which we learned was not all that uncommon.
We brought him to the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis where they prescribed Digoxin, a common heart medication that we administered to him for 6 months – after which his “extra beat” disappeared.
Nick, now about to turn 20 and preparing to finish his sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, has made overcoming challenges a habit. He has also become a very talented musician, a world-class percussionist who I tease occasionally by reminding him he was born with an “extra beat.”
Today, ironically enough, I had one of those “Facebook memories” pop up from three years ago. Nick was still in high school then, and I posted a comment – “I remember when I used to sit next to my son, Nick and listen to him baby babble. Now, he reads magazines in another language. I still can’t understand him!”
Nick’s “baby babblings” have evolved into being fluent in four languages; English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Music. 🙂 He recently won a scholarship from the University of Minnesota Interpreting and Translation Department (his minor) and has been asked to apply to be a Fulbright Scholar next year.
In two days, I will drive to see my favorite oldest son compete once again at the Drum Corp International World Championships as a member of the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps out of Denver, Colorado. He’s been away from home since May traveling all over this great country of ours, and I will get to wish him a “Happy Birthday” at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis!
I am as proud as any dad could possibly be. The baby boy with the “extra beat” found a way to use it… to reach the hearts of others.