You wait nine months, and then there you are. Playing a waiting game you thought you’d be ready for but still feeling overwhelmed. They say it’s the waiting that’s the worst. And I guess I can see that, a year later, watching my son run around the living room with a broom handle in his hand and a mischievous look in his marble eyes. I would argue getting three hours of sleep a night for two months is actually the worst thing, but again, I know what they were talking about; nine months is a long time to sit with that “edge of the cliff” feeling looming every second.
We weren’t ready. Not for the pregnancy in general but after nine months there is some time to wrap your head around the living thing that took over your wife’s body. No, we weren’t ready for him to be born yet. We thought we had time. It was two weeks before his due date, that window where you know it could be “any minute now” but where you think you still have some control of the situation.
“Sure, let’s go see that movie next week, I mean, we still have time.”
Control. Oh you fleeting, fickle, tease. We never had you, not really. But we didn’t know that yet. You were still a tangible expectation. You and your friend Plans. We were so stupid then.
I had started to dread going to work. In my head, every time I was away from her was another opportunity for something bad to happen; that “bad” thing that is always possible when you worry for a living, when you’re dealing with a first child, when you’ve seen too much television and you think women having babies in cabs or police cars was just as natural as there being a spontaneous twin you never knew was there. It was our friend Sam who talked me down.
“What’s the worst that can happen? Nothing happens like on TV. It’s never a You Have To Get Here Right Now! moment. You’ll have time. When it happens, it’ll be slow. You’ll have time to get there. Maybe even too much time. Bring a book.”
Things were different the morning my son was born. We could both tell. My wife was acting strange. Off. Slower than normal. They teach you to look for the signs of labor in those birthing classes, the ones where you’re forced to watch the old VHS of that one woman giving birth to that one kid. The one where you feel like you’ve just encroached on someone’s most personal moment before you think, “why did they let the camera guy in there!?” So we knew what to look for. What would mean things were about to happen, or if it was just a false alarm. But there goes that illusion of Control again. Of thinking we’d be out in front of this thing we were sure we were ready for.
I left for work that morning and the sky seemed bluer than normal. A perfect Brooklyn Fall day. The air was still warm, carrying some left over summer in each breeze, but the colors were vibrant in that fall way. Reds more red, yellows more yellow. And the sky, more blue then I’d remembered. I went to work thinking, “we have time”, thinking “we’re in control”. “Things don’t happen like they do on TV.” I was confident that I would come home that night and we would laugh at the strange morning vibes that we both felt hours before. The train ride was uneventful. Which means it was good, quiet. No screaming kids heading to school. I even got a seat and I never get a seat. It was peaceful. It was disarming.
I called her an hour after getting into work and she was breathing heavy over the phone. Labor heavy. My mind started racing. I tend to over-worry. Or, I did then. It’s amazing what a kid will do to your worry sensors. They shift. I worry about new things now, bigger things. I just don’t have the mental fortitude to worry about the small stuff anymore. But then, a year ago, I did. I definitely did.
“Are you ok? What’s going on? Should I come home? How do you feel? What’s happening? Are you hungry? Sleepy? Dopey? Grumpy? Are you any other of the seven dwarfs? Jesus are you ok?”
She tells me that she’s fine. She’s feeling some contractions that’s all. The false ones, Braxton-Hicks they’re called. She called the doctor, but she’s sure it’s nothing. Everything’s fine. And remember, we have two weeks. We. Have Time. But the shakiness in her voice betrays her and I can tell she’s feeling unsure. Maybe not as much as I am, there, sitting at my desk with nothing but my worrying keeping me company. But still unsure.
“I’m coming home right now.” I tell her, and she emphatically told me not to. I had missed some days of work the previous week and we were both concerned about how much vacation time I had.
“We’ll need them in two weeks so stay ok? I’ll call you when I get back from the OB. We have time. Blah blah plans. Blah blah control.”
So I hung up, tried to focus on spreadsheets, and let the smooth sounds of my custom work playlist wash over me. Thank you Jack Johnson, thank you Cake. I let them take it from there.
She called me back an hour later and when retelling this part of the story, I tend to laugh because man, Control and Plans, right? Assholes! Diabolical madmen! She started by telling me she’s begun to dilate. And I know that that’s birthing talk for “this guy is getting ready to come, whether we like it or not.” But, she assures me (She tries to assure me. It’s like telling someone you’re going to punch them in the face, but hey not right now ok. Let me assure you, you will be punched but not right this second. Do you feel reassured now?) that the midwife told her we still had time. Time. The last musketeer along with Control and Plans. And not time as in the two weeks we thought, but days time. This weekend time. The baby probably won’t be born until after the weekend, which I reminded her isn’t two weeks. As if she’d forgotten. She hadn’t. She knows just as well as I do. But she’s quiet now, and I feel bad for maybe not empathizing as much as I should have in that moment. I feel like I’m maybe not being supportive enough. I feel…wait, what was that sound?
“Are you ok?” I ask.
“Yeah, no, yeah I’m fine. It just…” and she’s quiet again, followed by a low animalistic, guttural noise I’ve never heard her make before.
“Are you, having contractions right now? Is that what’s happening?”
She says no because I mean, the midwife said we had days. We had time. Time, time, time. It was like water and apparently we thought we had jugs of it. Handfuls! We forgot what happens to handfuls when you start spreading your fingers. Drip. Drip.
“Are you literally going into labor over the phone with me, and telling me NOT to come home?”
I have to be a little more forceful now. Decisive. If it were up to her I’d still be at work now, a year later, and she’d still be reassuring me that we had time, this wasn’t happening. So I tell her I’m leaving right now. I’m going to the house; I’m going to take care of her. Put her head in my lap, sing her sweet nothings, make her tea, let her watch her favorite TV show. Anything to make her feel better. We had time, and I was going to spend it with her. I hang up. I tell my boss I have to leave. I get pats on the back, and well wishes. I get walked to the elevator and reassurances that everything is going to be fine. I nod, I smile. I say things like, “I know, I know” and then I proceed to sprint like a madman to the subway.
Being on the subway in a time like this can feel like being trapped in a cave. I might as well have been at the center of the earth. I’m in a time warp. Things slow down to an inconceivable speed. Snails race by with each second that passes. I wonder if I should have just ran home; through midtown, over the Brooklyn Bridge and all the way to our doorstep. Each stop lasts an eternity. Minute delays feel like days, and I started to forget what the sun feels like. How long was I down there? I start becoming a mole-person, and if I hear one more “Please sir, step away from the doors, you’re delaying this train” I felt like I was going to lose it. It feels like two lifetimes by the time I emerge up onto the street and rip my phone out of my pocket. I need to call her, is she still ok? Does she feel better yet? Will we laugh about this all the way to the “end of the weekend” when time will have officially run out?
I have one voicemail and I listen to it as I start walking to the apartment. I don’t remember the exact words but it goes something like this,
“Hey Danny, it’s your dad. Everything’s fine. We’re at the hospital so head over here when you can. Ok, see you soon!”
And my dad has this voice that’s like a picnic on a Sunday afternoon. No stress, no urgency. “…when you can.” Like he’s inviting me to stop home first, have a sandwich, take my time. I call her phone, to hear from her own mouth what’s happening. My Dad picks up.
“Hi son! What’s up?”
“What, where are you guys? Where’s Golden?”
“Well, we are here at the hospital. We are waiting for you to get here.” His voice is calm.
“What? Uh ok? Is she ok? What happened?”
“Oh no, she’s doing just fine. She’s been great.”
“OK. Um, yeah…I’ll just get the car. I’ll be right there.”
To this day I contend that no one has ever driven down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope faster and more reckless then I did. I don’t even remember it. In my mind’s eye I see lights, people, random faces, some dogs maybe, but overall it’s a blur. I roared into the lobby, tore my way up to the fifth floor. Raced into the hospital room. She was lying on a bed, a tube in her arm, hospital gown hanging lose about her. This was more than being “at the hospital”. This was being IN the hospital. And as if I had been in denial through this entire experience, I remember pausing for a second and thinking, “Oh my God”. That was my Oh My God moment. Right there. Looking at her on the bed, feeling so helpless, so small. I could smell those hospital smells that you never get used to. Rubbing alcohol and bleach and Vaseline and sweat. They were so real. I stood there in the doorway, and I could only see her. Not my parents, not the midwife. Nothing else.
The midwife turns away from a computer screen (I speculate she may have been checking her email or reading up on celebrity gossip but I realize that is probably not the case. She just looked so casual) and saw me and smiled.
“Great, you’re here! We’re ready to go when you are.” I looked back at Golden. She smiled. I broke from my stupor.
“Danny, you can take your jacket and book bag off.” Golden continued to smile at me. And she looked so tired. When telling the story of how her and my parents got to the hospital, she often says how no one tells you one crucial detail.
“You think that you go into labor, and then magically you are at the hospital. But no one mentions that from the apartment to the hospital room, you’re laboring the whole way. I was in labor on the sidewalk. In labor in the car. In labor on the ramp going up to the hospital doors.” So when I got there, and saw her damp brown hair sticking to her face, I could already see the exhaustion on her face. And the real work hadn’t even started yet.
“Oh yeah. Yeah.” I take off my coat and bag and throw them inconsequently into the corner onto a couch.
“Oh baby, I’m so glad you’re here.” If it’s possible to have a moment, there with a midwife, nurse and two parents looking at you, we had it then, looking into each other’s eyes. We were there. Time, Control and Plans were nowhere to be seen. Embarrassed maybe, or off smirking over a beer. Who really knew.-
“Ok, so are we ready? This baby is just waiting to get out of there.” Again I’m amazed at how calm the midwife was. We knew her through a mutual friend in addition to the nine months’ worth of doctors visits that we had to get to know her. We had a connection outside of the hospital room which was the result of the small world that was Brooklyn. Our doctor, had he been on call that day instead of the midwife, was an old high school friend of mine, and he would have delivered my son. Yeah, Brooklyn felt that small sometimes.
Her next words broke through the surrealness of the situation and it took me a second to really understand what she was saying. But in retrospect, when your wife is about to give birth and the midwife asks, “So are you squeamish?” you better answer quickly. I barely understood the implications before she told me,
“Ok, grab that leg, and hold her head in your hands. Let’s go.”
It should be mentioned that I had planned (Plans!!!!) on only being a spectator during this whole thing. I had my spot chosen behind the hospital bed where I would offer support and love from a safe, sterile distance. Instead I was right there, holding one leg in the air while my mom held the other leg (my mother instead of her mother since, well, WE HAD TIME! And her mom wasn’t scheduled to come in for another few days.) The midwife told me to take her mind off pushing and contractions and everything that was happening, which is a tough thing to do. It’s not like I could just tell her some dumb jokes and we could laugh our way through the whole thing. Well, that is exactly what I tried to do. And I am full of dumb jokes. You can say I had been preparing for this moment my whole life. My whole Dumb Joke Making life. And thirty minutes later…thirty dumb joke filled, “why is this taking so long”, “is it out yet”, “just push”, “you are doing great” minutes later, I heard our son cry for the first time. The midwife placed him right in front of me and asked “Ok dad, what is it?” and all I saw was my son’s junk and I cried out, “Atticus! It’s a boy!” And tears. And kisses. And headshaking in disbelief. That’s all I remember after that. “It’s a boy!”
I also remember having scissors thrust into my hand and being told to cut the cord. I had felt very strongly that I wasn’t in fact going to do this. I mean, why am I being trusted with scissors and a cord when there are so many professionals in the room who train for that sort of thing. But I cut it, after two tries (they don’t tell you how rubbery it is) and he was out. Detached from his previous home, signing this new lease with us. For the rest of his life. We just held each other. Me, Golden. Golden, Atticus. My parents were weeping somewhere behind us but we could only focus on each other. Nine months of waiting, and it was over. Or rather, it was just beginning.
That first night was the scariest night of my life. And I had nightmare issues as a child so that’s saying a lot. Talk about feeling helpless. Feeling small. He was here, alive, a real boy for us to ruin and make mistakes with. Oh God how do you not ruin something so tiny and weak. I had no idea. It seemed inevitable. How could life be so irresponsible to trust US with this perfect little baby? I couldn’t even keep a plant alive for too long. I had two cats but damn, they practically take care of themselves. But like all things that night passed. And so did the next night, and the next and before you knew it we had survived a month, the three of us. One month, two, three. Each made slightly easier because of the month that preceded it.
To say the year has passed so quickly would be just a little misleading. I felt every day, every week. It feels quick but then I remember how long some of those nights were. How we felt it would be two in the morning forever. I look at him now, walking, babbling and learning about the world on his own and find it hard to see the little worm that he used to be in this bigger and smarter toddler. He has more hair for one, it cascades in sweeping arcs across his forehead. And he has his mother’s huge brown eyes. So expressive and wise, but capable of so much humor and joy. These days I feel more in control, secure in knowing we have plans for him and us as a family. And I know we have time to raise him into the best person we know he can be. Control, Plans, Time. The holy trifecta. We’ve made our peace I think. We have an understanding. And now we’re playing a whole new waiting game, but this time it isn’t so bad. It isn’t bad at all.