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The Christmas babe in my family


Nearly every family has a Christmas baby, the baby born in December. It might be your grandfather. It might be your aunt. It might be your brother. It might be your second cousin twice removed. It might be you, a child whose annual birthday is nearly forgotten in the bustle of celebration surrounding the birth of the Original Christmas Babe. I have several friends who were born in December. They all say the same thing. "With all the fuss about Christmas, I might as well not even have a birthday. My birthday present and my Christmas gift seem always to be lumped together."

Sondra Ashton

In my family, the story of our Christmas Babe is a different story. She was born the first day of December, six years ago, in Yokosuka, Japan, where my daughter Dee Dee's husband, Chris, a Navy man, was stationed. Antoinette Jean Marie Robart, was an early bird. She was born in trauma, not breathing, diagnosed with a brain bleed and a concern of cerebral palsy. The Navy doctors rushed her to the neo-natal intensive care unit at the nearby Japanese hospital. There Toni spent her first weeks. Although she was still in danger, the doctors released her, figuring she had a better chance of recovery at home with her mother. Dee Dee, who had spent every moment at the hospital with little Antoinette, was physically, mentally and emotionally depleted. She needed help.

Fortunately, I had planned to be there for the birth and had my airline ticket. I arrived in Tokyo late on the night of Christmas Day. I expected Chris to be the one to pick me up. Instead, the whole family arrived to meet me. Antoinette, swaddled in a pink blanket, nestled snugly in her mother's arms only as long as it took for me to dislodge her into mine. That fragile little girl immediately stole my heart.

We rode the Navy bus back to the base where they lived in a high-rise apartment overlooking Yokosuka Bay. I had arrived with no agenda for the next month but to help whenever and however I could. Being there with my daughter and her family was my best Christmas present.

What do babies do? Babies cry. But the doctors had ordered that this little baby, who was in constant pain, was to be kept from crying. Crying could induce bleeding. We needed to avoid that at all costs. We took turns walking the floor with the little mite in our arms. Chris, when he did not have duty, could induce her to sleep against his chest. We were jealous that Chris had that magic touch. Jessica, just entering the terrible teens and gone a lot, took her turn when she could be corralled. I was the newly arrived helper. We took turns spelling Dee Dee, who though still exhausted, bore the brunt of baby duty. We sang to Toni, lullabies and love songs and rock and roll. We told her stories. We watched soap operas in Japanese and made up the plots, laughing as we inserted our own dialogue. Sometimes we quietly watched the twinkle of the Christmas tree lights.

Every day it was touch and go. Once, in a moment of insight, my daughter said to me, "Mom, I feel like she is trying to make up her mind whether she wants to stay or not." I could only nod my head that I understood. We constantly told our baby that we wanted her and loved her.

The Japanese health care system is phenomenal. Every other week the hospital sent a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and other health care personnel to the apartment to work with our little baby. When I had been with them three weeks, it seemed that Toni had turned a corner. She seemed stronger. She slept more. She seemed to be in less pain.

By the time I had to leave Yokosuka for home, we could coax the occasional smile from Toni. Dee Dee was still exhausted. I knew it would be months before she got to have proper rest.

Thanks to the constant care and therapy, both in Japan and stateside, today Toni is healthy and happy. As a precaution, she is periodically checked for any symptoms of cerebral palsy. Toni has one speed and that is full ahead. She runs to meet life fearlessly.

Our family will always have two big December birthday celebrations, one for our special little girl on Dec. 1 and the other for The Special Little Boy on the 25th.

(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)


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