The Falling Year

 

 January

Alexis wants a baby. I want a baby eventually. Alexis does not handle disappointment well. Alexis cries. I stare off into the middle distance. Rinse. Repeat.

February

Rinse. Repeat.

March

We have three options: 1) Have a baby. 2) Don’t have a baby and live out a tense, resentful period in the relationship. 3) End the relationship. 2 and 3 are undesirable, so we go with 1. A hard fought but simple conclusion. So, we try to make a baby. Alexis says it is difficult to get pregnant and will probably take several months.

April

It does not take several months. Alexis takes a pregnancy test in the middle of the night and tells me the news at dinner the next night. I have prepared a salad with medium-rare steak and bleu cheese. I get up in the middle of the room and spin around like a UFO. Or like a man being thrust into an experience for which he feels he is unprepared.

May

We settle into the routine of early pregnancy. Alexis accidentally eats all of the foods she is not supposed to eat and freaks out every time, convinced she has damaged the baby. We do a lot of googling.

June

We quickly make a rule about no googling. We will trust the doctor. We will e-mail her about everything.

July

Dad faints in a parking lot, falls, and scrambles his egg. Mom relays the particulars to me over the phone, her voice strangled with despair into a howl.

August

Alexis, Carly, and I fly out to California to be with Mom and Dad. Dad does not know where he is, cannot swallow, and cannot speak more than a slurred word or two. A tube runs up his nose and down into his stomach. He constantly gestures that he wants to leave. “You can’t leave, Dad,” we say. You can’t leave, you can’t leave, you can’t leave.

Alexis and Carly head back East and I stay on for a few more days to help Mom until reinforcements arrive. The dark times begin. Dad gains physical strength but slips deeper and deeper into a delirium that consumes him around 3 pm each day. He raves; he tries to pull out his tubes; he accuses us of imprisoning him; he kicks his old friend Pete across the room.

I flee back East to be with Alexis. Soon after my departure, the tide turns a little. Dad is admitted to the IRU, a fancy rehab facility within the hospital, and his nerves begin to calm. He is swallowing better and better and is allowed to eat pureed foods. I get manic texts from Mom about his improvement. I remind myself and her that we cannot get too attached to perceived short term gains. We have to be in for the long haul. We have to put our heads down and go.

September

Dad is released home. A rail is installed along our walkway, grab bars in the bathrooms. The nurses cry upon his release, Mom says. He is so kind, so accommodating to the staff. He does what is asked of him every time (stick out your tongue, clear your throat, look over here, wear this catheter, relax while we shove this tube up your nose) even when he has no idea where he is or why this is happening.

I am a million miles away, buried in work as the school year begins. I act in a sketch show in a one man piece I wrote. My first time on stage in years. It feels good. Just me and the audience and my pain and my jokes.

October

Alexis is getting very pregnant. From the back she looks nearly normal, but from the side she is secreting a basketball under her sweater.

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We start a birth class. It turns out to be a Lamaze class. Neither of us knew this and were not aware that Lamaze was still a thing. The class consists of Alexis and I and one other couple and is led by an 84 year old nut job, who is unfortunately named Harriet (the middle name we want to give our daughter). Harriet fancies herself a guru and holds forth on all aspects of the birthing process. She has (what she considers to be) great little theatrical moments rehearsed into the class. At one point, I utter the phrase C-section in response to one of her questions and she holds up a finger to silence me.

“It is not a C-section; women are not grapefruits. It is called a Caesarean birth.” She smiles out at the four of us as if she has just blown all our minds. I want to stand up and applaud sarcastically or leave and not come back, but instead I sit there in my white, inoffensive, middle-brow shame and smile a thin smile.

Harriet asks open-ended questions and then gets upset or near-abusive when we don’t give her the answer she wants. She will demonstrate a breathing technique and then ask us what we saw.

“You hunched your shoulders.”
NO. Watch again.”

“You tucked your chin down?”
NO. You’re not watching! Watch one more time.”

By the third week of the class we are all bludgeoned into silence and completely unwilling to answer her questions. When she asks, we respond with evasive smiles or (on my part) cold glares. Harriet does not seem to notice that we hate her and goes on acting as if she is our erratic but lovable grandmother. She is not.

I head out to California for one last visit before the baby is born. Dad is eating solid food but is woozy and fixated and even tougher to understand than when I left in August. Mom tells me that he doesn’t do any of the vocal exercises that the speech pathologist has instructed him to do on a daily basis. This is not like Dad. He’s a “fighter”. Or maybe at least the less cliche “overachiever”.

He has developed obsessions. He gets up early – sometimes at 4 am – and plugs away at chores around the house, eyes wide, until he is exhausted. He will not be deterred.

We go for a walk at Point Lobos, my hand on the small of Dad’s back, guiding him away from rocks in the path. He has developed double vision after the fall, which, when paired with his motor impairment, leads to difficult walking. We make our way over to a bench and sit in the narcotic California sunlight.

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I broach the subject of Dad’s vocal exercises. It takes a little prodding, but he opens up and speaks of feelings of embarrassment, of despair. People can’t understand him, or they finish his sentences for him, so what’s the point? He thinks that his friends don’t want to be around him anymore, that if they come over to spend time with him it is to babysit him. Dad has been more demonstrably emotional since the fall (a common result of head trauma), so his admonitions are punctuated with sobs. It’s hard to watch but, I must admit, gratifying. Our family has a difficult time being honest about hardship, vulnerability. Dad didn’t tell Carly and I about his Parkinson’s diagnosis until years after it became painfully obvious. A Dahl doesn’t want to be a burden.

So it is nice, in a way. No, not even “in a way”; it’s just nice to see Dad in touch with some deeper emotions. I tell him a story from the dark times. Dad’s friend Chris was invaluable to us, spending time with Dad in the hospital even when Dad was at his worst, giving Mom and I two hour breaks to eat and stare off dead-eyed or rationalize about minor perceived setbacks or advances. I helped Chris set up some risers for a choir concert at his church one day to free him up earlier to go be with Dad during one of his deeper bouts of mania. As we wrapped up, I thanked Chris awkwardly for all he was doing for Dad and for us. He looked me in the eyes and said very simply, very plainly, “Your father means a lot to me.”

I relay this story to Dad on the bench and his face contorts into a mask of agony and he buries his head in Mom’s hair.

November

One morning, I wake up to an e-mail from a friend stating that she has metastatic breast cancer. She is 33.

Alexis and I agree that a long walk is in order. We wind down the path to the Hudson River. The George Washington Bridge towers above us, maternal and resplendent in the cold morning air. I walked this stretch of the Hudson (from 181st to 145th) obsessively when Dad had his fall – walked it until my worthless achilles tendons ached and stung, until my brain was at least partially calmed. Alexis and I walk it now, hand in hand, death sitting heavy on the backs of our necks.

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Death has visited us all, or course. But this feels like a particularly pointed message: “You’re 32. Alexis is 34. What makes you so fucking special?” I had a close friend die in college at the age of 22 in a snowboarding accident, which, grisly as it was, now seems a valid way for a young person to die. Cancer fucking does not. I reject it. I send it back for internal fucking review.

And anyway, she’s not even dead. But the e-mail does not sound optimistic. Alexis and I reminisce up and down the river and wonder aloud if the explosion of technology our generation has witnessed, of wireless signals and devices we press up against our heads, will turn out to be as deadly as secretly feared. Whoops. A whole generation dead from tumors by the age of 50.

We get drinks with some mutual friends, but no one really knows what to say. We catch up, joke, but I keep forcing the conversation back to our friend. I want us to grieve, to emote. I want to force some sort of catharsis, but that’s not how it works. None of us knows how it works.

Carly falls from her bike. I get a halting voicemail from Mom. Not distressed, but serious, and with poorly placed pauses. “Carly fell off her bike last night, and…” GET TO THE END OF THE FUCKING SENTENCE, MOM. When I call Alexis at school to give her the news, I rectify this by describing each sentence before I say it. “Ok, so the first part of this sentence is going to sound bad but the second part is going to make the first part OK.”

A bump on the head and a broken clavicle. She is shaken up, sore, embarrassed, but she is “all right”. No concussion; no head trauma. The family could not handle another.

It seems almost inevitable. If you bike long enough in the city, you will fall. If you live long enough, you will fall. The question is simply how hard.

After visiting Carly and dropping off food, I treat myself to some Shake Shack. Mid-burger/beer I get a call from Alexis. She has fallen in the subway station (it is rainy and slick) and doesn’t know if she landed on the baby or not. NOT FUCKING NOW, I scream internally. We rush to meet at the hospital to get checked out. I run into Alexis’s OBGYN in the lobby and I plug her with questions, my body in the slightly hunched posture of supplication, my hands inexplicably in prayer position. The doctor thinks she is probably fine but that it’s a great idea to get checked out. Minutes later, Alexis arrives, her face crazed with worry. We hold each other in the lobby and then head up to the 12th floor for examination.

The nurses are kind and knowledgeable. I rate them based on their physical attractiveness in an attempt to lighten the mood, which Alexis finds hilarious instead of maddening. We are made for each other.

I flirt with each medical professional that enters the room, male or female, as I always do, as I have always done, because I am terrified of illness, of the medical establishment. I need someone on my side, someone to save me, so I lavish them with jokes and good behavior. An especially attractive, sardonic resident asks me to plug in the mobile ultrasound unit for her, and I crack some joke about whether that means I’m now officially employed by the hospital. Later, when a nurse bursts in and apologizes for intruding, the resident says, “Don’t worry; they’re cool.” Alexis and I look at each other: we are cool. We are ecstatic. Even later, I make suggestive eyebrows at Alexis while the attractive resident does a cervical exam. We have fun.

The upshot: the baby is fine. Alexis is fine, minus a bruised butt and ego. We are all fine. We all fall.

December

Alexis feels a tiny little gush of something on the afternoon of Wednesday, December 9th – 10 days in advance of her due date. The gush is not nothing but also not significant enough to seem like something. It happens again the morning of the 10th. Alexis emails her embabied friend, Lauren, who says “Go to the hospital”. I say, “Let’s call the doctor”. The doctor says, “Go to the hospital.”

I ask Alexis if we should pack our go-bags just in case. Alexis says no. She is convinced it is nothing, convinced that we will get to the hospital and they will look at us like idiots and send us home. “Anyway,” says Alexis, even if my water did break, I’m not feeling any contractions, so we’ll be able to come home first.” We leave the bags.

On the subway, I joke that if Alexis’s water has broken and they keep us at the hospital, then at least we’ll get to fulfill my secret wish that we take the A train to the birth. On the train ride down, I show Alexis on my phone how you can just stomp anyone to death on the street in Grand Theft Auto. I think this is hilarious; Alexis does not.

At the hospital, a nurse (a 6.5 – pretty but too skinny) and a physician’s assistant (7.5 – very solid) run three different tests to check if Alexis’s water has broken. The first two tests are inconclusive. Alexis is convinced the staff will roll their eyes, tell her that she is imagining things, and send us home. The second that I hit ‘send’ on a text to Alexis’s mother, telling her that it looks like it was a false alarm, the nurse and PA walk back into the room.

“You broke your water!”

They have big, encouraging smiles on their faces, but Alexis and I look at each other with concern. This is not how it was supposed to go. We were supposed to have more time. We were supposed to have all of the baby paraphernalia set up. We were supposed to wait until the contractions were a minute long and three minutes apart. We were supposed to have all our stuff. We were supposed to be older, on firmer ground. We were supposed to travel, to delight in our beautiful, worthless bodies for longer. We were supposed to sleep luxuriously for a couple more nights. I was supposed to be famous, or at least artistically successful, or prouder of myself, happier with what I had done…I don’t know. Supposed to, supposed to, supposed to. I remind myself that this is a beginning, not necessarily an ending. But it is a year of beginnings that feel like endings. A year of falling endlessly forward and down. We lurch, we swing our heads, trying to fall up, ever up. Straining against all seeming hope to defy gravity.

The nurses want Alexis to stay at the hospital for monitoring. If the labor isn’t progressing significantly 24 hours after her water breaks (which we’re nearly at) then the baby and mother are at an increased risk of infection, and the doctor will likely induce. The monitor tells us that Alexis is having contractions, but she isn’t feeling them yet. The birth plan is disintegrating before Alexis’s eyes. I ask to speak to the doctor, expecting them to get her on the phone. Instead, she is there with us in our curtained off cubicle ten minutes later. The doctor is kind but firm. Alexis will need to stay in the hospital for the duration. I am glad. At least the doctor is clear, adamant. The worst thing at this point would be equivocation.

Very few people handle it well when they don’t get what they want, but Alexis (I love you) is the fucking worst. So, as Alexis’s plans (our plans? I don’t know. What were my plans? To pack a small bag?) for the birth fall apart before our eyes, she spirals, envisioning the possible negative outcomes.

If there’s one thing the past year has taught me, it’s that, baby, you need to be able to roll with it. Maybe this is a coward’s approach to life, but it’s what I’ve learned. Take what life has given you on its terms and just roll. The circumstances are the circumstances; energy spent on trying to change them is so often energy wasted. The quicker you can accept the givens, the quicker you can get about productive action. Alexis hears me, I think.

Alexis is allowed to walk around until they induce (4 pm). If the contractions have progressed sufficiently by then, Alexis can avoid being hooked up to a Pitocin drip (which the nurses call ‘pit’ – gross). I can’t remember why Alexis is so afraid of being induced (Pitocin increases the chance of Rosemary’s Baby?) but I don’t want to make her spiral further, so I don’t ask.

We pace the halls, hand in hand, trying to walk the baby loose – Alexis in her hospital robe, me in my hipster sweatpants. Well – hall. There is one hall that we’re allowed to walk up and down, so we ping pong back and forth, lingering at the east and west windows for a brief view of the city, which bustles on, casually unaware of Alexis and my irrevocably changing lives.

Alexis’s mother kindly drives to our neighborhood and picks up everything we’d intended to bring to the hospital: snacks, speakers, comfy clothes, phone chargers, cyanide pills. She comes up to the 12th floor to drop them off and ping pongs with us for a bit. She and Alexis debate what the rest of the family will do. Alexis’s sister is already on her way down from Boston, and Alexis’s mom is dead set on staying at the hospital. First labors, and especially induced ones, can be incredibly long, so we try to dissuade her from staying. But the issue turns out to be non-negotiable. The McGuinnesses will stay.

At 3 pm, Alexis’s contractions are not significantly more intense, so the doctor breaks the rest of her water [apparently there was a ‘fore-sac’ (gross) that hadn’t yet broken] with a creepy little hook thing that we had fortunately already seen in our terrible birth class. It’s decidedly less exciting than if Alexis’s water had broken all at once at dinner or at some other dramatic moment (a la rom-coms), but Alexis and I still marvel at the wildness of the body and of the whole thing and of life itself.

The contractions intensify a bit, but it is not enough. They will hook her up to the ‘pit’ (gross) to move things along. Alexis is visibly upset but resigned. I begin to wonder if a ‘natural’ birth would have been better after all. Did I bully Alexis into my version of a sterile, medical birth, in which interventions are quickly and casually implemented? I don’t think so…but I can be stubborn. I can be pushy. I can make it seem like my way is the only way.

The doctor tells us that she is unfortunately not on call overnight on Thursdays. Alexis and my hearts drop. Yet another downside to a hospital birth. But then the doctor tells us that Dr. Cummings is on call. Alexis and I breathe a collective sigh of relief. We met Dr. Cummings when Alexis came in after her fall and she is LOVELY. This will be ok. Not ideal but ok.

Alexis’s father and sister arrive and come up to visit individually. I think we’re past the point where Alexis wants any visitors, but I’m unsure and don’t feel confident making dramatic gestures like barring family members from the room. This is something we should have talked about and would have talked about in the nine days leading up to the actual due date. We thought we would have more time. I always think there will be more time.

Now that Alexis has been hooked up to an IV, she needs to be constantly monitored, so the nurses don’t want her to stand. They allow her to sit up in a chair, though. Compromise.

Things begin to move along. By 7 pm the contractions are silencing Alexis and sending her into a meditative state. She closes her eyes, back straight, legs firmly planted on the ground. It is happening. The warrior prepares.

The contractions intensify and Alexis moves into a standing/leaning position. I massage her lower back and ask her needy questions about how she is feeling/what I should be doing. My questions and small talk and jokes fall on deafer and deafer ears until I feel like a desperate madman, babbling inconsequential nonsense to someone going through something deep and true and life-altering. The current nurse (at least an 8 – unless everyone is seeming more attractive to me because I am now scared) thinks the contractions are coming too quickly, so she reduces the drip a bit. The contractions slow but not much. They are coming 1.5 to 2 minutes apart, a much higher frequency than I can ever remember talking about in our birth class. At some point, Alexis’s mother and sister come back into the room. I can’t remember why they came, but I can remember that at this point I feel much more confident that visiting hours are over. They quickly get the message and communicate their love to Alexis and retreat back downstairs. We are in the thick of it now.

Alexis begins to vocalize: groan-y, actorly sighs and glides. Kristin Linklater would be proud. I am happy too. Any noise is preferable to concentrated silence punctuated by my needy, superficial commentary. The sighs morph into grunts and then yells and then quickly screams. At this point, no medical professional has been in to check on us for at least an hour and a half, but I am too focused on Alexis to notice.

The screams turn into ragged, guttural shrieks, and Alexis cries out in anguish that she feels like she has to push but that she doesn’t know if it’s time for that yet. I finally realize how alone we are and push the call button. Our nurse is apparently on break but her replacement (older and domineering – not going to rank her) comes quickly when she hears the screams over the intercom. Alexis tells the nurse that she feels the need to push but doesn’t think that it’s time. “What makes you think that?” the woman asks sternly. She asks if this is our first and when I say yes, she disappears and is replaced by a young doctor (a 7 probably, I don’t know) and two nurses, none of whom we’ve ever seen. The doctor wants to examine Alexis (her first cervical exam since 4 pm), but Alexis is in too much pain to move from her leaning position. The doctor asks her to get on the bed again, this time with a noticeable level of urgency, and we are able to get Alexis in position during a brief respite between contractions. The doctor has her hand up Alexis’s vagina for one second before saying, “She’s fully dilated and the head’s right there.”

Everything moves quickly. Scrubs are donned, tables and instruments are wheeled in, stirrups are extended from the bed. The nurse puts in a call to Dr. Cummings, and it is only now that I realize that ‘on call’ doesn’t mean ‘at the hospital’; on call means ‘at your apartment in Harlem, waiting for a call’. Oh boy.

But it is not the time for these concerns. It is happening. We are here.

I am on Alexis’s left, a nurse is on her right, and the unknown but relatively attractive doctor is between Alexis’s legs. They have Alexis pull her knees up to her shoulders and push with each contraction. Alexis makes sounds that my memory has fortunately mostly erased. Her eyes are closed. I am barely able to tolerate seeing her in so much pain and know that if it were me in her position, I would be telling the nurses to knock me out, do a C-section (Caesarean birth, women are not grapefruits), or just straight up shoot me in the fucking head.

I had told myself that I wouldn’t watch this part. That seeing a human head come out of Alexis’s vagina might significantly impact my ability to interact with said vagina in the manner that I (and Alexis) would like. But I’m here, up by Alexis’s head, and her vagina is not as far from her head as I had somehow expected, and a little voice in the back of my head says, “If you look away from this, you’ll be a coward for all time.” So, I watch.

With each push, the unknown but beautiful doctor with the gorgeous weave puts her index and middle finger from each hand inside Alexis’s vagina and pulls. She’s stretching the canal, I assume, but the way she kind of leans back into it makes it look like Alexis is flying through the air and the beautiful young doctor is holding onto Alexis’s vagina for dear life.

It only takes a couple terrifying pushes before we can see the head. Except it doesn’t look like a head. Not fucking at all. It looks like a white, floppy, translucent…sock? I don’t know, it doesn’t look human. I know that a baby’s skull bones are flexible and not yet fused to allow for easier passage, but I still don’t know really know what I’m looking at. But the doctor and nurses don’t seem concerned. And Alexis keeps flying through space, and the unknown doctor keeps hanging on for dear life.

The nurses do a great job of instructing Alexis and I where to put our limbs and what to do. They have Alexis push during contractions and relax in between. But there comes a point where Alexis is just pushing constantly. We roll with it, as I assume this means we are getting close. And we are.

One more big push and out she comes. Out into the light and the noise. Into a room filled with the two people who love her most in the world and three well-meaning, well-trained strangers. Out into a world of conflict, and pain, and unimaginable strife. A world of unavoidable death and incomprehensible joy. A world whose future is bubbling forth with each passing moment. A world that neither Alexis nor I can guarantee will be safe or even habitable, but that both of us will strive with each breath to fill with love and possibility. Out into the light she comes, an embodiment of potential and hope, screaming and clawing against the incursions that life is already trying to make.

Epilogue

This is all just a construct, of course. Epilogue to what, exactly? And the epilogue consists of…what, the rest of our lives? Even splitting a year into months is arbitrary. Time flows and, I think, ultimately resists these sort of demarcations. People who think of years as discrete packages of time drive me crazy. “Ugh, 2015 was a terrible year. I am sooooo looking forward to moving on to 2016.” Of course, every minute of your life is a chance to turn it around, but just because the calendar flips over to January doesn’t mean your problems magically disappear or your life necessarily changes at all.

Anyway.

There was a lot of blood. Poe came out, briefly screamed, and calmed almost the moment she was put on Alexis’s chest. As she was handed to Alexis, Poe’s forearm bumped Alexis’s nose, leaving a little smudge of blood. She began sucking on her wrist so hard that her tiny hand flapped back and forth comically. We moved her up to Alexis’s breast, and she latched on almost immediately. I didn’t notice the placenta come out, but when I walked around the foot of the bed to wash my hands, I noticed it sitting in a little tub and also noticed a not insignificant amount of blood coming out of Alexis. The doctor investigated and found that there was a small laceration that needed to be sewn up. The doctor went about it with some novocaine and needle and thread. After several pieces of gauze were soaked with blood, I no longer had any regrets about a hospital birth.

In the rush of the birth itself, the doctor had cut the umbilical cord immediately. We had wanted to delay cutting and for me to do it, but the unknown and wonderful doctor did not know our birth plan. How could she? We’d never met her before and would likely never see her again. Dr. Cummings had barely been able to get out her front door in Harlem by the time Poe was in the world. She arrived 30 minutes after the birth and talked to us for a bit. She was lovely. Wish she had been there.

After some skin to skin contact with Alexis, it was time for Poe to have some skin to skin contact with Dad (Me. I’m a dad now.). Even in such an emotional moment, I felt uncomfortable taking my shirt off in a room full of strange women (and Alexis). Fortunately, I’ve been sporting a #dadbod since before it was cool.

The nurse handed Poe to me and I clutched her awkwardly to my chest. Mercifully, I would get skilled at baby handling relatively quickly, much to my surprise. Poe looked around a bit but mostly closed her eyes and sucked on her impossibly small hand. Her vernix (the white goo newborns are covered in) got smeared all over my stomach and pants. It created a warm and not unwelcome feeling.

After about 10 minutes of Dad time, Poe was given back to Mom, and I was quickly dispatched to go try and reserve a private room. The hospital puts new mothers into two person shared rooms unless you shell out an extra $900 a night for a private room. Alexis and I debated the financials a bit earlier that day but ultimately decided it was worth the privacy/security (Dads can’t sleep over in shared rooms). Additionally, an email from my boss earlier that day alerting me to a holiday bonus I had received was well timed.

The private rooms are limited and you can only reserve them after the baby is born, hence my hasty exit from the delivery room. In my first true instance of “dad brain”, I accidentally took the elevator to the top floor and then the lobby before finally hitting the button for the correct floor. The nurses and attendant on that floor were incredibly kind and warm (if they couldn’t already tell what state I was in, the vernix on my pants was probably a giveaway) and informed me that all of the private rooms were full but that we would be first on the waiting list.

In the elevator back to the delivery room, I took a photo of myself. In retrospect, it feels like a silly gesture, but at the time I was trying to capture something. Some sort of change. Some sort of transitioning from one type of man to another. I look at the photo now and I don’t see it – whatever it is I’m looking for. I don’t know. A man embarking on a vast and unknowable journey.

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