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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Dorothy Is Born

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/3/2024
Occurred: 2/19/1973
Page Views: 4628
Topics: #DorothyElizabethCilwaKinder
The birth of my my oldest daughter.
Dottie in 1974
Who:Dorothy Elizabeth Cilwa Kinder
Date and time:February 19, 1973 7:05 AM
Father:Paul Sigmund Cilwa
Mother:Mary Ann Steinberg Cilwa

The weeks leading up to the birth of our first child can best be described as unsettled. Mary and I lived in a room rented in the home of an older widow, who had fixed up this room, with a lock on the inner door but access to the outside through its own exterior door, for the purpose of renting it to young couples like us. Or, so we presumed. Mary was gargantuanly pregnant, and it's possible I never actually said, "This is my wife, Mary, who is great with child." But it wasn't something a person could miss.

Looking back, I suspect our landlady wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. For example, we did not have kitchen privileges; but we were also forbidden to cook in our room. (We got around that by cooking in our room on an electric frying pan, but not telling her about it.) The room did have a small refrigerator, so at least we could drink milk or orange juice without violating our agreement.

A week before Christmas, the Florida Employment people had found me a job at the Hollywood Elevator Cab company. After my first week, Mary and I drove to St. Augustine to spend Christmas with our parents. On the way back, we had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, without a working spare. By the time we got back to Ft. Lauderdale, it was late evening. When I went to work Tuesday morning, I was told I was fired—and they weren't interested in any excuses.

I was immediately sent next to a construction job. I don't know what they were building, just that it was on a canal and involved a lot of concrete. By the end of the day I was covered with grey dust, so before leaving I jumped into the canal to rinse off. It felt wonderful, and I couldn't figure out why no one else joined me. Years later I learned that South Florida canals were infested with alligators and not considered safe places to swim.

Well, one other guy did join me. His name was Dick Drolshagen (his actual name!) and he and his girlfriend, Brenda Buckenmeyer, lived on a boat, a small cabin cruiser, docked on the New River. I thought that was just cooler than anything.

Minimum wage back then was just $1.60 an hour and that's what they paid us. So, instead of orange juice, we drank Tang and instead of eating real food, we dined on Chef Boy R Dee. Still, some income was better than none; and since we didn't have a TV, we spent most evenings "hanging out" with Dick and Brenda before returning to Our Room.

Then, one night, the labor pains started. (Actually there had been labor pains before—false labor—and also a scare a few months into the pregnancy when the doctor had instructed Mary to lie down until the baby came, which of course she didn't do.) We had a clock radio next to the bed (well, everything we owned was right next to the bed!) and I jotted down the time of each contraction so we would know how far apart they were. I was extremely groggy and not very successful at this one simple task; in the morning, the list contained the following entries:

xX pond

But by 4:30 am, it was clear the contractions were about ten minutes apart. Mary wasn't supposed to eat before going to the hospital, but she was thirsty and I made her some Tang, which she promptly threw up. It was definitely time to go. I helped her to the car and off we went.

Once they found out that Welfare was paying for the delivery, the people at the hospital became quite icy to me. In 1973, only upscale hospitals allowed fathers into the delivery room; I was told to wait. And wait I did, for hours. Periodically I asked: Surely the baby had been born by now. All I got was a flat, "No, not yet. We'll tell you." By midafternoon—I hadn't eaten lunch and was headachy with hunger—a nurse had pity on me. "First births usually take awhile," she explained. "Twenty-four hours or more isn't at all unusual. Why don't you go home and wait? We'll call as soon as we have some news."

The only phone number I could give was our landlady's. I left the hospital, ate a little McDonald's, and fell asleep on a park bench outside the hospital. A few hours later I awoke and checked inside—still no news, and I still wasn't allowed to visit—so I went home.

It was around six the next morning that I was awakened by a banging on Our Room's inner door. "You have a phone call," the landlady called through the door. "It's the hospital! Your wife's there." I opened the door and accepted the telephone receiver. Someone—presumably a nurse—told me Mary had just delivered a baby. I said I'd be right there and hung up before I could even ask if it was a boy or a girl.

"I hope your wife is all right," the landlady said, concerned.

"It sounds like it," I assured her. "Our baby was just born!"

"Baby?!" the woman exclaimed. "What baby?"

"Our baby," I said. "You…must have noticed that Mary was pregnant."

The landlady was horrified. "I can't have any babies here," she said. "This is an adults-only housing development."

My jaw dropped, but I had no idea what to say.

"You'll have to move out," she said.

"Well, I can't do it this instant," I said. "I've got to get to the hospital. Let's talk about it when I get back."

So now, I had something else to worry about.

I hurried to the hospital's "paternity ward," the waiting room devoted to the fathers who weren't permitted in the delivery rooms, and found a nurse. "I got a call that my wife, Mary Cilwa, had her baby. I'd like to see her, please."

The nurse looked at a clipboard. "I'm afraid there's been a mistake," she said. "Mrs. Cilwa is in labor. She's still in the delivery room."

So it was back to waiting.

I dozed on the uncomfortable chairs—from the Marquis de Sade collection, no doubt—for just a few minutes when another nurse, quite annoyed, shook me awake. "Mr. Cilwa?" she demanded.

"Yeah," I replied.

"I told you on the phone to come in. Your baby girl has been born."

"Can I see my wife?" I asked.

"Follow me." She led me into a darkened hallway. There on a gurney, was a body. With growing horror, I realized it was Mary, who had clearly died in childbirth. Her lips were chapped and split, her skin ashen, her hair spilling lifelessly onto her pillow.

"Oh, my God," I whispered. How was I going to raise our new daughter alone? "When did she die?" I asked the nurse. "Is our daughter all right?"

The nurse laughed rudely. "She's not dead," she said. "All our mothers look like that right after delivery."

"Why is she unconscious?" I asked.

"The anesthesia hasn't worn off yet. Give it time."

"Can I see the baby?"

Giving a heavy sigh, the woman led me to the nursery. Of course, being a mere father, I wasn't allowed to hold the creature. But there she was, in a little white crib, on the other side of a large pane of glass, teenier than you can imagine, head misshapen and bruised. "What happened to her?" I asked before the nurse could escape.

"That's from the forceps," the nurse replied, adding at my blank look, "like giant salad tongs. The doctor uses them to pull the baby out of the mother."

I tried to imagine bringing my little girl to her first day of school, worrying that the other kids would make fun of her lopsided head. I would have asked the nurse if the marks from the forceps would heal, but she had already escaped.

I returned to Mary's gurney, pulled a chair alongside it, held her lifeless hand. I probably dozed, but when Mary's hand twitched I awoke and began stroking her hair. She tried to speak but couldn't; her lips and mouth were too dry. I hunted down a cup of water, which she gratefully accepted. Even then, a croaked "Baby?" was all she could utter.

"She's beautiful," I said, deciding to withhold the news of the infant's deformity until later. "How do you feel?"

She could only manage to glare out me from beneath narrowed eyelids.

Another nurse presented me with forms to fill out, which included one which would name the baby and apply for her birth certificate. Mary and I had previously decided on Dorothy Gene, after my baby sister who had been lost to crib death. I wrote out "Dorothy" on the page, then hesitated. "Are we sure?" I asked Mary. "I almost feel like giving the baby Dottie Gene's whole name will be, like, jinxing her."

"We could name her after my mother," Mary whispered.

"Dorothy Agnes?" I sounded it out. "There are some fates worse than death."

"Middle name…is…Elizabeth."

"Dorothy Elizabeth." I nodded "Dorothy Elizabeth Cilwa. That works. Are you okay with it?"

Mary nodded, and that's what I wrote down.

I spent the next couple of days looking for another place to live. Given that we'd been paying a week-to-week $50 rental on the Room, and I'd missed two days of random employment for the birth, I didn't have a lot of money to work with. Finally, I remembered that there was an apartment of some sort that we'd passed on our way to visit Dick and Brenda at the docks. The building was an unpainted, three-story firetrap, but the sign over the door read "Comfort Hotel" and I could only hope they had a vacancy and that we could move out very quickly when I found any place better. The rent there was also $50 a week and they did have a vacancy coming up the day we would have to vacate Our Room.

I spent most of the trip home from the hospital explaining to Mary why we had to move and why I had chosen the place I had, as well as trying to convince her, before she had seen it, that it wasn't really "that bad."

But the Comfort Hotel was what we'd now call a crack house. Crack hadn't yet been invented, but there were many other drugs and much evidence that our neighbors used them. There was screaming and fighting in the hallway outside our door the first night, which included the sound of someone breaking a bottle to use as a weapon. The next morning, as we were getting into our car, a pretty young lady walked up to us, smiling, as she asked if she could borrow my "set of works." I had no idea what that would be, but told her I'd left them in our room and we were in a hurry to be on time for an appointment.

"Me, too," she said, but released us to ask someone else.

Dick and Brenda's boat was a small 24-footer, but it was a cabin cruiser and I invited ourselves to stay with them a few nights until we could change apartments. They were reluctant—there were only two single beds in the cabin—but I wasn't taking "no" for an answer. The Comfort Hotel was just too dangerous for my wife and baby.

The construction job didn't leave me a lot of time to house hunt, but I found another downscale apartment that was also $50 a week. This one was actually a cottage, and the atmosphere was very different from the Comfort Hotel. For one thing, there were no hypodermic needles in the driveway. (I had wondered what those were doing there!) In fact, no one was hanging around outside at all, which improved the ambience. We moved in immediately; my last visit to the Comfort Hotel was to retrieve our stuff, which I did with heart pounding until I had gotten safely away, neither arrested nor sucked into the world of drug addiction.

The new cottage was "nice" only by comparison to the Comfort Hotel. It had two rooms, and was already furnished with a bed and sofa (as well as old but working kitchen appliances). We put Dorothy's basinet next to the bed. The only issue we had was that there were quite a few cockroaches roaming around—something that is pretty common in Fort Lauderdale, but still, this was an amount that seemed excessive. I told Mary to think of them as "pets we don't have to feed!"

When Dottie was a week old, to celebrate the fact that her head had, indeed, restored itself to proper baby-head shape, we drove her to St. Augustine to Meet the Grandparents. These were the days before seatbelts and bucket seats, so we jammed Dottie's basinet into the front seat, by the door, wedged between the back of the seat and the glove compartment. It fit perfectly. Mary sat next to me and I drove. It was a convenient arrangement that allowed Mary to change and breast feed the baby without our having to stop. Breast feeding itself was very convenient, although Mary found it painful—something that never resolved, and we were forced to switch Dottie to formula after just a few weeks.

Once when Dottie was a few days old, she was sleeping in her bassinet when a neighbor knocked at the door. Mary had taken me to work and was at home with the car and the baby; and the neighbor needed a ride to the bus stop about a mile away. Eager to get out of the house, Mary said, "Sure!" grabbed her keys and went. When she returned, maybe five minutes later, she heard the baby's cries before she could even open the door. There was nothing wrong, but that was the last time she forgot she had a baby.

(I also had one occurrence of Forgetting Dorothy. It was years later; we were in a motor home, on vacation, and had just stopped at a country convenience store for snacks. In a hurry to get going, I hopped into the driver's seat and when I heard the group climb into the vehicle and close the door, I yelled, "Everyone here?" and put my foot on the accelerator. As I was pulling onto the highway, I spotted, in my side mirror, little ten-year-old Dorothy running after us and waving frantically for us to stop.)

I will always regret never getting any photos of Dorothy when she was an infant. One was taken of her at the hospital but they wanted $20 for it that I simply didn't have. I had a camera, but couldn't even afford a roll of film—every cent was going for substandard food and overpriced rent. I did, however, make up for it the next year, as Dorothy became one of the most-photographed toddlers ever.

The cottage was a safe but depressing place to live. Depressing partly because it was so downscale—lumpy bed, uneven sofa, peeling paint, cockroaches—but also because the rent, at $50 a week, added up to slightly over $200 a month. We had friends in very nice, mid-scale apartments who were paying just $165 a month. —But to get in one, we had to have first and last months' rent, and a $100 security deposit, all at once.

Fortunately, our luck was about to change. When I checked in with the employment office, they had an interview for me, at King Pest Control, as a pest control person. I went, and got the job.

Today, at 34, Dorothy has grown into one of the loveliest young ladies you could know. She is the mother of my first granddaughter, Cailey, and is married to Cailey's daddy, Frank Kinder.

Dottie in 2006

Dorothy actually prefers to be called by her middle name, Elizabeth, which of course makes me wonder if that would still be the case if we'd named her Dorothy Gene as planned. It's also funny that, during her first try at this, she told all her friends to call her Elizabeth and then, when they did, didn't respond. But she has since gotten used to it, I understand. We don't get to see her as often as we'd like, since she still lives on the East Coast.

Dorothy, amazingly, looks today almost exactly as she did when she was a year old. Currently she is mentoring drug addicts who are seeking recovery. I'm happy to say she is one of the people I most admire.