The story of my birth has been told by family members over and over again, and, to be honest, I have become bored with the retelling of it. Not that it was a boring event in itself, only that I have told it so many times that I sound like a broken record. (For those of you who are too young to know what a broken record sounds like, consider that a small blessing.)
My mother was rushed to the Sisters Hospital in Buffalo, where doctors frantically tried to save her life. She was hemorrhaging, and my parents were sadly informed that Mom had lost her baby. Mom was screaming that they were wrong — she knew that I was alive even though the doctors didn’t. They explained to her that there was no indication of a heartbeat, and that they would have to do a Caesarean section. “We must remove the baby in order to save your own life at this point.”
Mom had lost a lot of blood and suffered great trauma. They explained to my dad that it could be a very long night, as they had to stabilize my mom before they could perform surgery to remove me. My dad’s sister, my Aunt Gerry, was in the waiting room with him, and she reassured him that it wasn’t over yet — she told him not to give up. The following morning, after a tremendous effort in stabilizing Mom, the doctors were finally ready to perform surgery. However, the only thing that ended up being aborted was the surgery itself. In the process of prepping for surgery, a tiny miracle was born! On the morning of September 13 at 8:34 a.m., I came into the world with a faint heartbeat, weighing just less than three pounds.
Mom was crying, saying through her tears, “I told you she was alive!” Doctors immediately informed Dad that his wife was going to make it, and that he was the father of a baby girl. He hugged Aunt Gerry, realizing that she had been right. I was placed in an incubator, going from a womb without a view to a room with nothing but windows! My parents couldn’t think of a name for me, so for the time being, I was only known as “Precious Jewell.” In 1956 babies that tiny rarely lived, so the moniker was fitting and soon caught on with everyone. “Precious Jewell in the Glass Case” made the morning paper, announcing that at that time, I was the tiniest baby who survived at that hospital. That was my very first press release.
When most babies come into the world, they find the reassuring comfort of being held in their mother’s arms, being fed and cared for. I always wondered what it must have felt like for me living within a heated glass enclosure for the first three months of my life. I have seen pictures of me inside the incubator with one leg propped up on the thermometer. Perhaps I was content; after all, what did I have to compare it to? It was all I knew.
One morning at 4 a.m. my parents were awakened by the shrill ring of the phone. They immediately went into a panic, knowing intuitively that something was wrong, and expected the worst. Somehow I had managed to get pneumonia, and I was not expected to survive the night. A nurse told my parents it was imperative that I be baptized immediately. “We have contacted the parish priest,” she said, “and he will be waiting for your arrival.” Mom notified my godparents, Aunt Gerry and Uncle Russell, so they could be present for my baptism. Soon everyone was gathered around me, praying for my life but knowing that I might not live to see daybreak.
I obviously lived but was unable to keep any formula down until a doctor decided to give me some mashed banana, mainly for the potassium and weight gain. It could have been a combination of everything that gave me the strength needed to survive: between the Jewish doctor who had donated his blood for my transfusion, the Hindu nurse who watched over me, and the Catholic priest who performed my baptism, it seemed I had many faiths rooting for me! I was finally named Geraldine Ann Jewell, but “Precious Jewell” remained on my incubator. Aunt Gerry always thought I was named after her, but Mom had named me after Saint Gerard, the sacred saint of life, because I fought for my life coming into the world. “Geraldine” was as close to “Gerard” as Mom could get without it sounding butch. Aunt Gerry couldn’t have been more pleased that I was named after her, and my parents were not about to spoil that pleasure for her. My name was always spelled Gerry until I personally changed the spelling in the ninth grade to Geri.
At three months, I finally weighed in at seven pounds, and my parents were notified. “Come get her quickly, before she loses any weight!” When my parents brought me home, it was a huge celebration. I was the size of a doll, and my brothers were amazed that they could hold me with one hand! Our German shepherd, Kim, intuitively took her post as my protector, standing guard over the bassinet and watching me intently. This made Dad nervous.
“Get Kim away from the baby!” he said. “Dad, Kim’s not going to hurt her!” David protested. Nevertheless, Dad ordered Kim to come over to him, but she refused. She just gave Dad a doggy dirty look and lay down under my bassinet. Everyone agreed, Kim was very protective of this precious jewel.
Once, when Aunt Gerry babysat me, Kim wouldn’t let her near me. My family backed down the driveway in their dark green 1955 Chevrolet station wagon, leaving the three of us alone. When Aunt Gerry went to pick me up, to her surprise and frustration, Kim wouldn’t budge and actually growled at her! There was no way Kim was going to leave her post. My aunt was wily, though: she threw a bone down the basement stairs and locked Kim down there. As much as Kim loved me, dogs will be dogs. She ran after it and felt duped. When she was finally let back in, she ran faster than Rin Tin Tin, right back to my side. Kim adored me, and at night she was always curled up on the floor, watching over me like a guardian angel.
The entire first year of my life was jotted down in a steno pad. Every movement, mood, and bowel movement was painstakingly kept in a journal by Mom. I was being monitored closely, just in case my health took a turn for the worse. Mom didn’t mind doing this at all. In fact, by observing me so closely, she became aware that something wasn’t right with me. Dad sometimes became impatient with her very detailed account of everything and felt at times that she was looking for problems that didn’t exist. “My God, Olga, you’re so bent on every single detail, you’d think this steno pad belonged to a detective working on an unsolved murder!” Mom just ignored him most of the time, but it did create some tension between the two of them.
As much as Mom wanted to believe that everything was all right, she couldn’t shake the feeling that I was different. As the months went by, Mom became more and more convinced that something wasn’t right. She kept comparing me to what my brothers had done at the same age, and even though her pediatrician kept assuring her that I was normal, that not every baby does everything at the same time, Mom was not convinced. She took me to two other doctors, seeking second and third opinions. One sleepless night, she woke up my dad, telling him that she believed that I had cerebral palsy. Dad didn’t think he had heard her correctly, but she repeated the same words with equal conviction in her voice.
The following morning, Mom brought up the subject again. “Jack, we need to talk about Geri. She is not progressing normally.”
“Olga … the doctors say she is fine, just a little slower.”
“Jack, I don’t care what the doctors say. They don’t see her day in and day out. They see her once a month for about thirty minutes!”
He cut her off, waving his arms. “And they are the doctors! Did you go to Harvard?”
“Jack, I know Geri has cerebral palsy. David started crawling at six and a half months, and Fred was crawling by eight months. Geri hasn’t even tried to crawl yet, and she’s almost a year old!”
“What makes you believe that she has cerebral palsy? I mean, there are other conditions that it could be as well.”
“Do you remember when I took that job in Maine for the summer, as a nanny?”
“Well, yes, but what does that … ?”
“Jack, they had a twelve–year–old daughter with cerebral palsy. Her mother, Anna, gave me a crash course on cerebral palsy. She wanted me to fully understand Ann’s condition, so that I could be more able to care for her properly.”
Dad was stunned, not least because the girl’s name was Ann and that is my middle name. “Did you name Geri after this other child?” Mom admitted that, in fact, she had. She loved the Turner family and wanted to pay tribute to Ann. Dad had always assumed I was named after his mother, Anna Jewell.
Naming me was one thing, but Dad was beginning to understand that Mom’s intuition wasn’t something to be ignored, so they promptly made an appointment with a specialist in downtown Buffalo. The doctor there was the first to agree with Mom. After examining me, he believed that there was definitely something not right developmentally. In fact, he even suggested that they give me up before they become too attached. “What?!” Mom was stunned, to say the least. “She will be a year old next month! It’s a little late to not get attached, don’t you think?”