I think it was the banana split that did it. Or it might have been the spaghetti lunch before that or the giant ripe pineapple after it. Whatever the cause, Niku came two weeks before her due date. She was the third in a series of four children and I must say, every woman should try to have their third baby first. It is amazing how after raising two spirited, strong willed children, on a tight budget and living a continent away from your mother, gives you all the confidence you need to have more children. And of course, if you are brave enough to go for the third, you may be rewarded with a “good” baby, one that wants to be put down and left alone when she is sleepy not carried or driven about town for hours. One that reaches for whatever food you are putting in your mouth, and wants to try it instead of one who will only eat white things until she is four.
My good friend Estela and I found out we were expecting at the same time. It was my third and her second pregnancy. I was so excited to have a partner in pregnancy this time around, I kept planning things for us to do together: Go to check-ups together, go shopping for baby stuff together, take Lamaze classes together. She was all for the first two but I noticed she hesitated to commit to the birthing classes. Finally she came out and told me that she had had such a difficult labor with her first baby that she was not planning on repeating it. She was going to have a C-section. In fact, most women in my doctor’s office did elective cesareans because who could guarantee that natural childbirth would go as planned? My question was who could guarantee that a surgery would go as planned. Somehow, I trusted in God’s hands more than in a man’s. But I respected her choice and we spend nine months keeping each other’s spirits up, especially with afternoon coffees and ladyfingers. Have you ever tried dipping a ladyfinger in coffee and then sucking on it? There is an art to it. Take it out too soon and the cookie is just too hard; leave it in too long and it will collapse into the mug and turn into mush. That is why you need a big tin of it to keep practicing until you get it right.
A month before my due date, I saw a sign up for a pottery class. It was a two-week course on doll making. On a whim, I signed up. It would be the last two weeks of my life when I had no obligations during the morning hours. The two older kids would be at school, the third one was still pretty portable and my lovely housekeeper would be cleaning and washing while I was learning how to work with clay, something that I had on my list of 50 things to do before I die. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The teacher was a very giving human being whose very breath inspired you to take risks with the clay. And the clay seemed to have a mind of its own. But I think it was the little girl inside of me that moved my hands to turn everything I made into a baby of some kind. The first doll I made ended up looking pregnant so I went ahead and made a husband, a little girl and a little boy to complete the menagerie of our family. The cat I tried to make, ended up being a kitten and the elephant looked like a baby too. I am sad to say that three years later, the same little girl who had inspired my adventures in pottery, climbed up the shelf that held all my pieces and brought the whole collection down with her as the stand crashed on top of her. She was safe and unscratched but the dolls had to be swept up and put in the dustbin. Still I am glad that I tried my hands at making them and know that I have it in me to try again someday.
The year Niku came to us, was the year when Ben had a great job, we lived in a lovely apartment overlooking the Orinoco River and we had a tight knit group of friends with whom we spent most of our free time. On Sunday, July 28th, Estela called and invited all of us to go over to German’s office and play Ping-Pong. I am not much of an athlete under normal circumstances, so being nine months pregnant gave me the excuse to just watch from the side lines and heckle. Like most of our get-togethers, one thing lead to another. After playing a couple of hours, Estela suggested we go to her house and have some lunch. She made a giant pot of spaghetti and we all sat around eating, laughing and talking. Being pregnant gives you permission to express the oddest desires and normally sensible people will go along with it. So when I mentioned that I felt like eating a banana split, not only no one objected, Estela said she wanted one too. So we all got in our cars and drove to JTO, an ice cream shop whose name in Spanish, jamas te olvidaré, means I will never forget you. I think that might have been the first and the last time I ever had a banana split, but somehow it felt right. Eventually, we parted ways with our friends and came home. We had barely settled in for the night when there was a knock on our door and it was my cousin’s Venezuelan wife and my good friend Yrene, back in town to visit her family. In a time and place where cell phones and landlines were not always available or reliable, it was not unusual to receive an unexpected guest. I was delighted to see her. Yrene herself was five months pregnant with her first child and had just spent a week visiting her family in their rural home on the other side of the river. She came bearing gifts, namely a humongous very ripe pineapple that she insisted had to be eaten right away. Yrene deftly cut up the fruit and then she and I sat at my kitchen table and ate to our hearts’ desire. It turned out that Yrene was a God sent because when I woke up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to go to my regularly scheduled pre-natal checkup, I found myself with a broken water bag. Our plan was for my mother to be there to stay with Miranda and Safaa while Ben and I went to the hospital. But my mother was not due to arrive for another week. Our back up plan was to drive the kids to a friend’s house once contractions started. But as it turned out, we just left them soundly asleep with Yrene and went to the hospital. Before leaving, I called Estela to tell her that I would not be making our regular Dr.’s appointment because I was actually going to have the baby. That prompted her to move up her C-section a week, lest she be surprised with early labor!
It wasn’t until 7:30 that evening that Niku finally arrived. Beautiful baby girl with lots of brown hair, which pleased Ben immensely. After the birth, Yrene and Ben switched places. I was the only patient and Niku the only baby in the small clinic that night. Thank God again for Yrene who checked on me and brought me what I needed all night and even went to the nursery to check on the baby because the nurses were too busy watching TV.
It was interesting to see how the addition of a baby changed the dynamics of the other two children, now 6 and 4. Their attention was now focused on taking care of this little one instead of the power struggle between the two of them. It was scary at times because I would leave the room asking them to just watch the baby and I would come back to find one or the other carrying the newborn over his or her shoulder. Images of her little head hitting the tile floor would send chills up my spine. But somehow she survived. Not only survived, she basked in the double attention she received not only from mom and dad, but from two doting siblings as well. She was the reina and Miranda and Safaa her adoring subjects. And then one day, there was a fourth baby and the two and half year old Niku realized that her plans for the future as the consentida of the family were forever changed. It took her years to recover but I know that today her younger brother is her best friend and her comrade in arms in many of the projects either of them conjures up.
Having children is as much about them helping you grow, as the other way around. Each child has taught me valuable life lessons that I would not have learned otherwise. What I have learned from Niku has been: “Just do it, now!” While still in the womb, she inspired me to try learning pottery. When she was five she moved me to sign up for graduate school and become a teacher, something I had dreamed of all my life but never could see myself doing it. We had just arrived in Texas. It was spring and the wildflowers were everywhere. There were still large open patches of land around our home where an incredible variety of wildflowers grew. One day, at noon, she asked me to take her to pick some flowers. It was already hot and I did not feel like walking the few blocks with her and the baby in a stroller. I tried to convince her to wait until later that afternoon and we could stop on our way to pick up her older sister. But Niku was never good with taking no for an answer. So she insisted, I gave in and we walked to corner where we spent some time being amazed at what we never see when we drive by patches of wildflowers. We found some new species of plants, picked a few indian paintbrushes and brown-eyed susan’s and came home. Later that afternoon as we passed the same area on our way to pick up Miranda from middle school, I saw city workers mowing everything down to provide more visibility for cars that would try to turn at that corner. If I had not heeded her call to “just do it, now!” we would not have had that unique experience that day. But to me the incident was a sign that I should act on the flyer that had arrived with the weekly newspaper advertising a master’s program in education, only minutes from my home and in the evenings.
She just turned sixteen. She has a driver’s permit. She traveled to the East Coast by herself this summer. She spends a lot of time on her nails and her brown hair is now down to her waist. I don’t think she has ever had a banana split but she asks for green tea tempura ice cream for her birthday.