Immigrant Bengalis

A Dozen Roses

Debajyoti Chatterji

Birth of the first child in any family is a memorable event. For a young couple in their fourth year of living in a foreign country eight thousand miles away from home, it can be both a momentous and a formidable life event. At least, it was for my wife and me.

After finishing my PhD in 1971, we moved from Indiana to Ohio. I had secured a post-doctoral fellowship at a research lab in Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. With that move, I had more than quadrupled my monthly earnings, although post-docs were hardly considered well paid (then and now). Now we could afford to have a child, if we so desired. In fact, my wife had so desired for a couple of years but had deferred her dreams to better financial times.

I was delighted, when a couple of months later, my wife gleefully announced that she was expecting our first child. For the two of us, it was a time for excitement and celebration, mixed with some apprehension about the upcoming journey into the unfamiliar world of pregnancy and parenthood.  In the ensuing months and years, we would go through a period of intense self-learning.

We knew that the first order of business for us was to find an Ob-Gyn specialist. And we found one right away! During an afternoon walk, we wandered into a nearby strip mall and noticed a signboard for one Dr Kalfaolou who specialized in preganancy and childbirth. We walked into his office and made an appointment to see him the next day. We were elated with our early success until we went to a weekend gathering of our small circle of Bengali friends from the greater Dayton area.

We joyfully shared the good news about expecting our first child and received good wishes from everyone present. We then proudly proceeded to explain that we had also found a doctor whose office was only a mile away. Our friends wanted to know if someone had recommended the doctor to us. Our answer was, of course, no – we had found the doctor ourselves. I pulled out the doctor’s business card, and someone noted that the doctor had a DO degree, not MD. I thought that DO stood for Doctor of Obstetrics but a friend corrected me right away. DO stood for Doctor of Osteopathy, not Doctor of Obstetrics. Now the surprise was on me. What the heck was Osteopathy, I meekly asked. As someone explained the difference between DO and MD, another friend noticed that my discomfort level was rising.  So, he decided to change the subject and asked which hospital the doctor would use for the childbirth. “Greene Memorial Hospital in Xenia”, I replied. My friend went quiet. Sensing that something was not satisfactory with my answer, I probed a bit. “Is something wrong with that hospital?”, I asked. The reply came a bit hesitatingly. “It’s a small, municipality hospital with limited resources. All will go well, if there are no complications. A bigger hospital has more resources to take care of unexpected situations.”

On our way back to home, my wife and I discussed the three sobering lessons we had learned from our friends: seek advice early and often from people who had gone through pregnancy and childbirth, do some research on doctors and hospitals before signing up, and unusual situations may arise unexpectedly in our journey to parenthood. 

Fortunately, things went relatively smoothly for us. From a drugstore bookshelf, we picked up a copy of a paperback book, “Baby and Child Care” by Dr Benjamin Spock. This inexpensive, easy-to-read book proved to be an invaluable guide to Sikha and me for more than two years. Both of us read the book, chapter by chapter, to make us knowledgeable about what to expect during the various stages of pregnancy, how to prepare for the childbirth process, and how to take care of the baby over the first couple of years of its life. We learned to carry smelling salt with us in the latter stages of pregnancy (and use it effectively when Sikha almost passed out during grocery shopping). Dr Spock taught us how to watch for early signs of toxins in the mother’s body and when to seek prompt medical intervention. The good doctor warned us about “croupe” attacks that can easily bedevil parents of little babies and how to handle such situations coolheadedly. His advice went something like this: “To relieve incessant coughing, close the shower curtain or door and turn on the shower at high setting. When the shower is full of hot steam, turn off the water and hold the baby in your arms and step inside. Do NOT put the baby under the hot shower!” More than fifty years later, we vividly remember that bit of medical wisdom about the benefit of heavy humidification to relieve intense attacks of cough, all the while keeping in mind the safety of the patient.  

Our friends advised us to attend childbirth education classes to learn about a whole range of issues of importance to the new mother before, during and after childbirth. The father was also expected to attend the classes so that he would learn how to be a true partner in the journey to parenthood. We followed our friends’ suggestion, and we were glad that we did.

Towards the very end of Sikha’s pregnancy, our old Buick Skylark of 1963 vintage caught fire because of an electrical short. So, we said good bye to that clunker and bought a brand-new Dodge Charger. It was our first purchase of a new car, and we were ready to welcome our baby in grand style. And the baby indeed arrived in a grand style on December 3, 1972.

Sikha woke me up in the middle of the night of December 1, complaining of labor pain. I drove her to the hospital, some fifteen miles away. Once she got admitted into the hospital, the labor pain gradually diminished, so the doctors ruled that the event was a false alarm. However, they believed that the labor pain will return in a day or so and decided to keep her under observation in the hospital. Sure enough, she went into labor the next morning and delivered a baby girl around noon time. We were hoping for a girl and were delighted that our wish had come true. We named our first child Ananya, meaning “unique”.

After I saw and held our baby in my arms, Sikha suggested that I go home, take a shower, eat and rest – and return in the evening. I followed her advice and headed home. Light snow began to fall but driving was not difficult.

By the time I got ready to return to the hospital, it was quite dark. I was surprised to see that at least four inches of snow had accumulated and large flakes were continuing to fall. I was an inexperienced driver and afraid to drive in snow. Nevertheless, I gathered enough courage and headed for the hospital. Driving carefully and slowly, I got to a florist store about half-way to the hospital. I had planned to buy some flowers and present them to my wife as a surprise.

I stopped in front of the small store, went inside, bought a bouquet of a dozen red roses and carefully returned to the car. I unlocked the trunk and rearranged some stuff in the trunk to make sure that the bouquet was safely and securely placed on the floor. Then, without further thinking, I slammed down the trunk lid of my lovely new car. Instantly I realized that I had left my bunch of keys, including the car key, inside the trunk, next to the flower bouquet! I had locked myself out in the middle of a snowstorm in front of a tiny florist’s store in a rural area. It was a Sunday, and I knew that the store was going to close in a few minutes. I ran to the florist and explained my predicament.  He was very sympathetic but couldn’t help in any way.  He kept saying, “If I had a coat hanger, I could try to pull the door locks up but I don’t have a coat hanger!”. He volunteered to keep the store open for a while, just in case a customer walked in who could help.

After about fifteen anxious and restless minutes, someone did walk in and saved me – a police officer! I would never find out why he stopped by at such an hour because as soon as he entered the store, the florist and I rushed to him to seek help. He smiled broadly and said, “Yup, I have the right tool in my cruiser. Let’s go to your car.” He took out a long file from his vehicle, slid it through the rubber gasket around the driver’s side window at an acute angle and popped the door lock in no time. Then he pulled down half of the back seat, crawled into the trunk and popped the trunk lid open. Wonder of wonders, my bouquet of roses was not damaged in any way by the police officer during his acrobatics inside the trunk.  

I thanked the police officer repeatedly and proceeded to drive slowly and carefully to the hospital. When I reached the hospital, much later than my expected time of arrival, my wife was ready to give me a dressing down. When she saw the bouquet of red roses, her anxiety and anger melted and a broad and bright smile appeared on her pretty face.

The next day while visiting the hospital, I met with Dr Kalfaolou for about fifteen minutes. He explained that both the mother and the baby were doing well and would be discharged in two days’ time. At that point, I made a plea: could my wife and the baby stay in the hospital a couple of days longer because we were an inexperienced couple and had no relatives (or friends) to guide us through the very early days of baby care. After a slight hesitation, he agreed – and Sikha and Ananya left the hospital five days after delivery. The world of insurance and hospital regulations was very different those days than what it is today.

As we drove back from the hospital, with Sikha holding the baby in her arms in a bundle of blankets (there were no baby carrier restrictions those days), we talked about Dr Kalfaolou’s kindness. We decided that we should show our appreciation to the good doctor in some way but could not figure out how. We were ignorant about such social protocols and didn’t know who to turn to for advice. Finally, brilliant me came up with the idea of sending a bouquet of flowers to the doctor.

A couple of days later, I visited the same florist and told him that I would like to send a bouquet of flowers to our doctor. He wanted to know if the flowers should be delivered to his home or office. When I told him that I didn’t have the doctor’s home address, the florist looked up the big, fat Yellow Pages directory and found the doctor’s home address quite easily. As to the flower arrangement, I chose my familiar “a dozen red roses”. I returned home, mighty proud of a job well done.

A week or so later, Sikha had her first follow-up appointment with the good doctor. The doctor entered the examination room, exchanged usual greetings and then said, “So, you sent me a bouquet of red roses?” Sikha smiled and said something like we wanted to show our appreciation, etc. The doctor did not return the smile. Instead, he added, “My wife was curious that a patient of mine had sent me red roses.”

Soon the examination ended and we left the office. We were happy that all was OK with the mother and the daughter but a bit puzzled about the doctor’s reaction to the bouquet of red roses.

The special meaning of red roses, from a young woman to her Ob Gyn doctor, would become clear to us years later. But it was too late for us to go back to the doctor to explain our act of ignorance and ask for his understanding. We moved to upstate New York six months later and did not return to our small town in Ohio for twenty plus years.

 (Posted January 1, 2024) 

This article is reprinted with permission from Anandalipi 2023, published by Ananda Mandir, Somerset, NJ.

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