The Prone Boy

I see the prone boy sometimes when I close my eyes, his red t-shirt hiked up to reveal his soft belly, his rump slightly raised like my daughter’s when she sleeps. But the prone boy is not sleeping; he is dead, face down on a beach in Turkey.

I saw his picture when it came out a couple years ago — I think; I can’t remember — but had no reference point for it. He was a Syrian child (I had no children and had never been to Syria), dead (I had minimal experience with death) on a beach in Turkey (another country I had never been to). The only thing that’s changed since then is that I now have a child. I’ve traveled but haven’t been to either of those countries (or anywhere in the middle east), and though I’ve gotten older, and thus increased my proximity to it, I don’t feel any better acquainted with death. The other thing that’s changed is that we now have a president who doesn’t give a shit about non-Americans (or most Americans, for that matter). But anyway, I’ve got a daughter, so now I can better imagine it — a child dead, drowned, on a beach.

Childless (child-free? unchilded?) people hate this premise I’m working with — “you don’t have children, so you just don’t know, can’t understand” — and they’re right to hate it; it’s sanctimonious, but it’s true for me. When I didn’t have a child, I didn’t know, and now I know. I have been yanked sideways into a world in which I can imagine all the unimaginable things that can happen to a child.

For us parents (if I may speak for us) the prone boy represents our deepest fear: that we cannot keep our children from the worst that life has to offer. Parenting is hard enough (for me at least) in an affluent country that has many parental support structures (let’s leave aside the topic of paid parental leave for the moment, Ivanka); I can’t imagine how hard it is in a country ravaged by war, death loitering at every turn. Or, actually, I do imagine it all the time. On the subway: I’ve got Poe strapped to my chest, and a deranged man (always a man) pulls out a gun and starts firing. Do I kick the gun out of his hands or turn and face the corner, the bullets going into my back instead of into Poe? In the street: I launch myself, knocking Poe out of the way and taking the full brunt of the oncoming bus myself. During societal breakdown: Alexis and I walk across the George Washington Bridge and down to Hoboken to her parents. I defend us from marauders with the knives we got as a wedding gift (I have already picked out the two that will give me the most heft and ease). But these are action movie fantasies divorced from the true horrors that life constantly dishes out in countries on the other side of the world.

I cannot show the picture of the prone boy to Alexis. I don’t think I’m underestimating her when I say she couldn’t handle it. As it is, she gets this wary, panicked look when I start in on any story involving harm to children, like she might rather jump out the window or knock me unconscious than hear about it. Maybe she has seen the picture. I don’t know. We don’t talk about it.

Much has been made of the picture of the prone boy by the public. His family was trying to migrate to Canada, and his death (or the picture of his corpse, actually) set off a far-reaching national conversation about refugees and may have had a hand in the election of the dreamy Justin Trudeau, a politician who seems to have been created by a computer to make us feel even worse about our American president (if that’s possible). Justin Trudeau is Luke Skywalker to Trump’s Jabba the Hutt (America is Princess Leia in this scenario). Donald Trump is a disgusting, cretinous piece of shit is what I’m ultimately getting at.

Others have, bafflingly, taken issue with the photo as manipulative, as propaganda. As if the truth has a political bias. And yet, there’s a point in there. Should one photo dictate national policy? Probably not. The world has had refugee problems for eons and one photo of a boy face down on the beach, the surf advancing to touch his hair, his skin, belies the complicated nature of immigration, no matter how evocative the photo is. Much smarter people than I spend their lives thinking about this sort of thing, but allow me to dig in for a moment.

Let’s get extremely obvious: immigration, like most ideas that have ramifications in the real world, lies in a grey area between two extremes. We can’t bar everyone from entering our country: besides being impossible, it would be unthinkably cruel. But we can’t let everyone in either. I can’t seem to find a concrete number of attempted immigrants to the U.S. (hey, this is a blog, not a journalistic publication like Breitbart) but let’s presume it’s a rather large number. The U.S. currently has around 320 million residents. If we let in every prospective immigrant, that number would rise precipitously quickly, cities would bulge, the infrastructure of the country would buckle. So we (other people, not me) have to decide where to draw the line and how to draw the line and what dictates whom the line includes and whom the line leaves out. And sometimes the line will leave out young people, and sometimes those people will drown when their impossibly flimsy boat capsizes off the coast of Turkey.

And jesus, look, the prone boy didn’t die because Canada (or the U.S.) wouldn’t let him in; he died because his own country didn’t want to let him out, because the journey was grueling, because there were people willing to take money from refugees and put them on boats that were nearly guaranteed to sink. So, the picture, for me at least, sets off complex political questions that spiral off into the ether, questions that the picture alone cannot answer.

Because maybe it is just a picture — of a boy on a beach. The beach in the picture is clean, the boy’s clothes soaked but undamaged, the skin on his soft belly and legs immaculate. A man from the Turkish Coast Guard stands several feet away, looking on. “Get out,” I think. “Get the fuck away from him.”

I can only look at the picture for a couple of seconds at a time before needing to look away. It is too much. So many things feel that way these days. Too, too, too much. Come to think of it, I regret even writing about the prone boy. I don’t deserve to engage with his picture. I am just some guy that has the luxury of waxing intellectual about an image that contains within its borders the absolute worst that life has to offer.

The Paternity Leave Chronicles, Vol. 1

I am writing this feverishly during one of Poe’s four daily half-hour naps. “Shouldn’t a baby nap for more than a half hour?” you say. And my answer to that comes in two parts: Fuck. You.

Yes, she should. She should be napping more like an hour to an hour and a half at a stretch, but Poe’s always been a trend-setter, and the baby books are so full of “shoulds” that I could puke. I want to shove all the “shoulds” up my own ass, light them on fire, and then shoot into the air like a bottle rocket.

So, paternity leave is going great, thanks for asking!

I’m kidding. It’s mostly pretty ok, but it started out with me having a full emotional breakdown in front of my parents. It’s been (mostly) up from there. It’s all so tedious to relate. I attempt to exert some sort of control over the situation, find myself woefully intellectually and emotionally over-matched, and then have some sort of anxious meltdown. If I ask you to hang out any time in the next couple of weeks, DON’T DO IT. I guarantee I’ll talk to you about naps the whole time and possible cry at the end (or throughout).

Again, I’m kidding. I’m ok. I’ve been not ok for stretches of this, but right now I’m ok. I’m trying to find that middle ground between caring and letting go. I came at parenting like a battering ram, thinking that if I just threw myself at it hard enough, I could master it. But it’s clear now that there will be no mastery. I am reconciling myself to being a B- father. And let me be clear: in terms of amount of love and care that I give to Poe, I think I’m an A/A-. A lot of fathers are barely present in their children’s lives and if there is one thing I am right now, it’s present. I am extremely fucking present with my child. I am Deep. In. The. Shit. But in terms of keeping myself mentally, emotionally, and physically together, I’m about a D-. So, let’s say that averages out to about a B-.

I wish I could relax. I want to let go. But here’s the thing: letting go only works up to a point. Sleep is a fundamentally important part of Poe’s life, and if she doesn’t get enough of it, EVERYONE suffers. So, I’ve got to provide her with structure and routine, or she and I will be miserable. And if I obsess, if I try to force things, she and I will be miserable. So, I have to find my balance somewhere in the middle. Which has been difficult.

I can’t determine whether I wish I knew more or less. Less probably. Fuck it, definitely less. I have often joked at my job (standardized test prep) that once I’ve moved on from it, I will get a very specific lobotomy to erase my intimate knowledge of all of the SATs and ACTs that have been released in the last 10 years. I feel the same way about parenthood. Once Poe stops napping during the day, I would love to go in and excise the part of brain that contains intimate knowledge of infant sleep cycles. I wish I didn’t know how much babies need to nap or that most babies can nap 1-2 hours at a stretch. I wish I didn’t know that naps in the stroller or carrier have a detrimental effect on Poe’s ability to nap in the crib. I wish I had enough of a fuck-it attitude to just strap Poe to my chest, throw the diaper bag over my shoulder, and go explore New York City, letting Poe sleep when she damn well pleases. But instead, I’ve imprisoned myself in the apartment, reading baby books and staring at the monitor, trying to will Poe into napping longer with the sheer force of my titanic anxiety.

I think I will look back and be (grimly) thankful that I took paternity leave. I will be thankful that we were able to get Poe that much more time with a parent before she toddles off to daycare (where she will probably finally decide to nap for long stretches, THE BITCH! Sorry.). But for now, I can’t help but think that maybe Poe would be better off with a professional who is paid (and trained) to take care of babies. I don’t know. I’m probably selling myself short. But having a daddy that goes off the fucking deep end is likely not too healthy for a child.

I’m not going to go off the deep end. I’m being hyperbolic. What? No, I don’t do that all the time; I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Poe pulled herself across the floor for the first time yesterday. I placed her on a mat on the kitchen floor and handed her a couple of toys to play with while I did the dishes (so many bottles). When I looked down a couple minutes later, she had turned 90 degrees and was two feet closer to me. She looked up at me and I looked down at her and she grunted, slapped her hands to the floor, and pulled herself forward an inch. And then she did it again. And again.

If I hadn’t taken leave, would I regret missing these little milestones? I doubt it. Poe has a couple milestones a week, and I don’t need to see her do something for the first time to feel a sense of wonder when I see it for the first time. But it’s still meaningful. It’s meaningful to be the person that helps her get through the day, that sees her scoot for the first time, that spends those couple minutes after she’s been fed and is completely milk drunk listening to her babble and coo and watching her grin at me and drool. The moment to moment of it all is mostly tedious and is almost definitely flooding my system with enough stress hormones to fell a walrus, but if I’m able to step ever-so-slightly back, distance myself from it the tiniest bit, I can revel in the magic of my quickly developing daughter and bask in the difficult glory of it all.

Distance/Waves

In a shabby kitchen in Moscow in the winter of 2006, my closest friend, Thom, told me that I shut people out. That I was never willing to reach out and meet people halfway. If I wasn’t getting what I wanted from someone, I shut down, closed off. It was startling. Our friendship up until that point had rarely, if ever, involved candid, blunt criticism. I yelled, “but these people don’t understand me, Thom!” while continuing to angrily stir my abysmal dinner (I couldn’t afford anything beyond pasta and sad-looking Russian vegetables.

It was a ridiculous, Chekhovian moment — one of many that occurred throughout the petty disputes about the play we were currently producing with three others. We were working in Russia in the dead of winter on a half puppetry, half live-action adaptation of a play about the holocaust. All in all, a great choice.

The group couldn’t see eye to eye on anything. We didn’t possess a shared language with which to discuss aspects of the play, so the work was inefficient and muddled and I was beyond frustrated. Thom didn’t like the direction things were headed in either but adopted a significantly more upbeat attitude than I. We brought our issues and recommendations for a way forward to the rest of the group at a meeting. Our pleas fell on entirely deaf ears. The people in charge denied that our issues were really issues and thus didn’t see a need to make any changes. It felt as if I had gone to them with my arm on fire and said, “what are we going to do about this?” and they had responded, “about what? We don’t see a problem.”

So, I shut down. I turned into a morose, vicious collaborator, lashing out at what I saw as grave injustices with the only weapon I really possessed: sarcasm. Every little hiccup, every stumbling block we ran into merited a vicious comment from me. I became compulsively, relentlessly negative. I tore down everything I could find with derision until the head of the project pulled me aside during a rehearsal, tears in his eyes, and begged me to be positive for the sake of the rest of the cast. I told him that it was too late. The project was a failure as far as I was concerned, and I had been betrayed. So, while it was impossible for me to be positive, I could — at the very least — shut up. Which I (mostly) did.

Had it been a professional production, or at least one not run by friends of mine, I would have been fired. Decisively. My complaints were justified and, I still think, correct, but my response was inexcusable.

I don’t really know where this persecution complex, this me against the world mentality, this vengefulness, comes from. I’ve led a pretty easy life. Though, as a child I went to an elementary school for children of active military members (not because my parents were military but because they taught there) and my friends were constantly moving away, their families re-stationed every couple years. So, I’m used to being left and left and left. Used to having to put up defenses.

I don’t know.

I could exhaust myself with the amount of self-psychotherapy I conduct.

◎◎◎

Alexis and I got pregnant before I was ready¹. So, I’m primed to see issues, bumps in the road of parenthood as evidence that we should have waited. “Aha! You see! I’m not prepared for this! I was right. We should have waited.”

In calmer, steadier moments (of which there have been many, despite what my writings might suggest) I am able to see that this idea of readiness is irrelevant. I have a daughter. I love her so much I can’t handle it all at once. I have to let the love in in little pieces, like sunlight between half-closed eyelids, or I’ll be blinded. I am a good father. These things are true. But in unsteady moments, when Poe wakes up 20 minutes after we’ve put her to bed or when I’m battling her for a nap, when the familiar darkness encroaches at the corners of my vision, I want to lash out with “we should have waited!” I want to rub Alexis’s face in it. I want to torture her with it.

There have been long stretches² when parenting has brought Alexis and me closer together, and then there are times when it detonates between us like a mortar, driving us apart. Like Poe’s behavior and sleep patterns, these times are temporary, stunningly transient when taken in context of the bigger picture. I know this. But Alexis fears this will hang over us forever. That I will bring it up in times of strife in a never ending cycle of emotional violence.

I don’t think so. But I don’t know. How do you let a thought go? It’s easy to think, “this is irrelevant; I should let this go,” but how do you do it? Concentrate really hard? Yell about it for a while? Write it on a tiny piece of parchment, tie it to the foot of a mourning dove and then release the mourning dove into the sky and then incinerate the mourning dove with a flame-thrower?

Two things are unimpeachably true:

1) We had a baby before I wanted to.

2) I have to let that idea go.

Ultimately, I said “yes, let’s do it; let’s have a baby.” It takes two to tango³. But I want…I don’t know. Not an apology. Recognition. Witness. What exactly this recognition consists of I do not entirely know, but once I’ve got it, I want to let all of this resentment fall through my fingers like sand.

When I was a kid, my friends and I would often venture out into the cold central California surf. I was nearly always terrified but didn’t want to be the sad boy left alone on the sand. Anyone who’s spent time in the ocean knows that when a big wave comes rolling in, you have to go out to meet it. If you flee, you’ll inevitably be crushed. The current surges out to fuel the wave and only the strongest of swimmers (of which I was and am absolutely not one) can overpower the current and get themselves far enough in towards shore to not get slammed. It’s smarter, and much easier, to pour your energy into heading straight at the wave. The current will be with you, and when you reach the behemoth, you can go over, under, or, if necessary, through it.

Intellectually, I knew this. Everyone — parents, friends, surfers, swimmers — had told me. And yet nearly every time, I couldn’t do it. I’d flee. I’d beat my flimsy, worthless limbs agains the water, trying desperately to reach the safety of shore. And more often than not, the wave would reach me and punish me for my fear, slamming me to the ocean floor. This happened time after salty, sputtery time, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to go out to meet the wave. What if I got over it and right behind it was another towering wave, and after that another and another and another?

Well, there is. There are. Wave after wave after wave. And if I continue to pull away, I will continue to get slammed with the full force of the raging ocean⁴. But if I can gather my courage up inside me like a fist, maybe I can swim straight at the waves, flow over them before they break, feel their power beneath me, and respect their might without getting pummeled. And after cresting wave after wave, maybe I’ll get far enough from the shore to  reach some semblance of calmer waters⁵.
¹ What exactly the word ‘ready’ means and whether anyone can ever actually be it is a topic for another post.

² Long? Ha! Poe is 4 months old!

³ Have procreative sex.

⁴ Life. This is a metaphor for life. Have you gotten that yet? I bet you have. You’re very smart. And attractive. What are you doing later?

⁵ Still using a metaphor here, just to be clear.

I’M OK (cry for help)

I want to go around punching all the childless people I see.

Poe’s sleep devolved about a week ago, and now we’re in the shit. Everything was looking rosy for a little while, culminating in one night where Poe slept for 6 hours in a row and then 3 straight hours after that. Glorious. But then something changed. It resulted from one of two things. Or both.

One, babies have sleep regressions. Something about their brains develop and they need to adjust to the world again, which causes disrupted sleep. The first big one is supposed to come at 4 months. Poe is only 3 months old, but she’s been advanced in other ways, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if she’s early. I’m not bragging, but, I mean, yeah, suck it, I guess.

The other possible cause is the one I’m kicking myself about. Three days before the breakdown, we started trying to get Poe to nap in the crib. Up until that point, she’d only ever really napped on someone or in the stroller. In an effort to not overwhelm Poe or ourselves, we started by trying to get only the first nap of the day in the crib.

The first time we put her down, she cried. Not surprising, but the crying was more fervent than the type of crying she does at night, which is more like complaining. I put my hand on her and tried the pacifier several times. On the fifth or sixth try (after about 15 minutes), she fell begrudgingly asleep. She only slept for about 25 minutes, but, all in all, it felt like a victory. Stupid Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it took us 7-10 nights of solid work to get Poe to sleep on her back in the bassinet at night, so I was prepared for a period of adjustment.

The next day, we tried again. This time, she cried a little harder and required a pick-up followed by some rocking. But then she fell asleep and napped on her back for a half hour. A tiny step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the next day was worse. Then things snowballed. Within three days, all of Poe’s naps, as well as her night-time sleep, were disrupted, culminating in a truly hellish Friday night.

I began to read voraciously. What was going on? Was it time for sleep training? Had we screwed things up somehow? The pediatrician said that the devolution of the naps was clearly affecting the night-time sleep and that it may be time for some version of sleep training. I asked the pediatrician which type she recommended, but she said that she couldn’t single out one method as better than the rest. They all seemed to work equally well, she said, as long as we committed to one and were consistent. I asked the doctor about concerns about a baby’s distress and cortisol levels in response to sleep training (I made the mistake of reading a study) and she assuaged those concerns relatively well. Poe was going to have to go through an adjustment period if we were going to try to get her on her back, and that would involve some crying, one way or another. I hung up the phone emboldened and encouraged.

And then we completely balked.

I made the mistake of reading up more on sleep training (why do I keep fucking reading?!) and read The Baby Whisperer, which makes some good points, but is stunningly negative and condescending and, at times, terrifying. It made me feel like I’d already ruined Poe’s life by letting her cry a minute here and a minute there.

So, we balked. We weren’t ready for sleep training. Most experts don’t recommend babies start sleep training until they are at least 4 months old. Poe is, as I said, 3 months old. We don’t want to scar her, and we don’t want to have to start sleep training right back up after the 4 month sleep regression wraps up (if this is indeed it).

So, we’re back to square…I don’t know. Negative one? First, we’ve gone back to Poe napping in the wrap, hoping this will calm her down and stabilize her a bit. We’re trying to get her on a more reliable schedule during the day (something we hadn’t really done at all until now) and are going to try to stop nursing her to sleep, which has become a big prop for her. So, we’ll see. The first night trying to get things back on track, it took 50 minutes to get her to sleep, but then she had a so-so night. The couple nights after that, not so great. I don’t know. Help?

But, so, anyway, the last week has been hell, and I’ve been looking around at childless people and wanting to tackle them and scream my pain into their eyes and down their throats. Just now, upon leaving my building, I saw a young man walking without a care in the world, two books under his arm.

“What do you think you’re gonna do, fancy boy?!” I thought-screamed, “Read both of them?! Well, aren’t you awash in a sea of free time?!”

Walking through the park with Alexis and Poe this weekend, I saw couple upon couple lounging on the grass or spread out on benches. One sat beside each other, separated by a backpack, he staring at his phone, she reading a book. Next to them, another couple, the man looking as if he had been posed by a photographer to embody disaffected, carefree boredom. I wanted to puke fire onto all of them.

Happy parents rankle me as well, but rather than wanting to rage-jaculate all over them, I want to grab them by the shoulders and scream, “How do you do it?!” If I had one less ounce of self-control, I would accost every last parent I saw on the street and demand they tell me how they got their kid to sleep, or at least how they survived the first year. Sleep training? Co-sleeping? Just riding it out? Anti-depressants? Partial self-lobomy? I don’t give a shit, I’ll do it! I’ll do it.

Or not. I mean, if its the least bit challenging or stressful, we probably won’t do it. So…yeah.

Scattered Thoughts About Bodies

Bodies

We were skinny when we were younger, lithe and barely there.

◎◎◎

By the time I re-met Alexis, I had softened up a bit, but I remember in college being ashamed of how flat my torso was, how visible my bones were. Then, slowly over time, whiskey, beer and bread bulged over my waistband and pulled my chest out and down.

Alexis has always been impossibly thin, dangerously so at times. I remember her hip bones jutting against mine in a dorm room at Dartmouth at an alumni theater festival, the first time we took our clothes off together. There used to be a running joke among my friends about how I purported to like full, curvy women but always ended up with waifish intellectuals. You can’t escape what you are, I guess. And deep in my heart, I’ll always be a waifish intellectual.

◎◎◎

Two summers ago, I had a bad reaction to Cipro¹ and was hobbled for months, my achilles tendons aching and weak. I fell genuinely out of shape. I’ve always been lazy, too free with my fried potato consumption, but this was different. I wasn’t able to exercise aerobically for four months. Unsurprisingly, this showed up in my body. My thighs rubbed together; I went up a couple pants sizes. This was, I think, barely noticeable to anyone but the body-obsessed (and Alexis, of course) but I noticed it, staring at myself in the unforgiving light of the bathroom mirror at the beginning or ending of the day.

I am constantly pulled between two poles, as, I believe, is the whole country: the desire to be healthy (and thus conventionally beautiful) and the desire to love my body no matter what it looks like. The former is a real concern. Even if I got to the point where I loved my sagging, softer body unconditionally, that love would be short-lived if I were felled by a massive heart attack at age 45. I eat too much saturated fat, too few vegetables; I drink too much alcohol too often: these are things that are true. But, secretly², I want to do these things and reap the consequences. I want to die fat and rosy and tipsy and extremely fucking happy, knowing that I had sucked deep from life and hadn’t counted calories.

But at the same time I don’t ever want to die³. I want to feel good when I get up in the morning. I want to take my shirt off and not look like the human equivalent of a tuna salad sandwich on white bread.

◎◎◎

Alexis, much to my chagrin, asked for a fancy video monitoring system on our baby registry. We set it up a little while back (it’s terrible) and found that it plays a hilariously cruel joke: it records moments of activity and plays them back to you WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT⁴. Want to forget the time you walked around in circles at 4 am, bouncing your daughter and singing her an unhinged, improvised lullaby? Too bad, here it is on repeat! I caught a glimpse of myself shirtless, bending over to put Poe down in her bassinet, and it was FUCKING CHASTENING. I immediately turned to Alexis and thanked her for continuing to be attracted to me⁵.

◎◎◎

I did something that hurt Alexis, back when she was still living in Switzerland and I was struggling with the idea of commitment, and she lost a not-insubstantial amount of weight. It was scary. She was already desperately thin and I watched her begin to disappear before my eyes. Then, when we moved in together, she gained some weight. I knew Alexis had dabbled in eating disorders before, and I would get in her face if she skipped a meal (something I suspect she got away with on a regular basis when she lived alone). She would make assessments of her body that were categorically insane for someone of her size and frame, and it would make me angry.

But I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in this country, and I never will. The entertainment industry does its best to body-shame men equally as hard as women these days⁶, but it will always be worse for women. Agents and casting directors say things like, “well, you’ll need to lose 15 pounds,” and we can’t even call it an insult. It’s just the truth. Low on talent? Who gives a shit?! If we can see your jawline and collar bone⁷, then you’ve got a passing shot. Even our overweight celebrities are gorgeous. Melissa McCarthy is genuinely good-looking, as is Aidy Bryant. Adele is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.

I know that tv, film, theater — and even music these days — are visual media. Executives are going to employ people who they think will attract the most viewers and thus make the most money. I’m not an idiot; I’m not being disingenuous. I’m aware of how capitalism works. But why are we so afraid of people who don’t look a certain way?

◎◎◎

Alexis, of course, gained some more weight when she got pregnant and then has kept on some of it post-partum⁸. She laments it, thinks about it often. But I didn’t fall in love with her because she was skinny. I fell in love with her because her brain was made of holy fire. I fell in love with her because her whole being was alight with life, with simultaneous brightness and darkness. An optimist with a deep well of melancholy.

And look, I hope this doesn’t sound like some sort of sanctimonious pat on the back⁹ or that it sounds blithe or naive. I know how insidious, how deeply ingrained body image issues can be. So I don’t mean to imply that this is some sort of simple or easy fix. But, seriously, how do we free ourselves? How do we help our friends, our lovers, our children free themselves to be able to look down at the curves, the lumps, the angles, the evidence that life, that experience, can put a mark on our bodies and think that that is not sad, not disappointing, but beautiful. That is time; that is life.

And how do I direct that love back toward myself? How do I look in the mirror at the folds and the handles and the softness, and smile and think, “that’s life”?

◎◎◎

We were skinny when we were younger, lithe and barely there. But now life has filled us up a bit. And in the dark, in the night, our daughter (hopefully) asleep in the next room, our hands search for each other, trace the curves and the bones, trying to grasp the life, pull it out of each other, trying to fill our noses and our mouths with it. In stolen moments and quiet hours, we bury our faces in each other’s hair and attempt to inhale the particles of eternity that have begun to settle there.

___________________________________________________

¹ In not especially rare cases, Cipro (and a handful of other antibiotics) attacks all the tendons in a person’s body. DO NOT TAKE CIPRO. Seriously.
² And plenty of the time not so secretly.
³ Have I told you about my fear of death? It is POTENT.
⁴ I’m not kidding. I can’t figure out how to turn this feature off.
⁵ Or at least feigning it well.
⁶ When was the last time you saw an Everyman hero with an actual everyman physique? 1980?
⁷ And hell, throw in a couple ribs, why the fuck not?
⁸ Difficult to jog with an infant attached to one’s nipple, I presume.
⁹ I still love my partner even though she gained 15 pounds?! What am I, A SAINT?!?!

In Tune

I linked to this video in my post about ‘‘Boy Meets Girl’ but figured I’d give it its own post as well.

I made this for Christmas, 2014, for Alexis. Clearly. It serves as kind of a warm-up for Boy Meets Girl. You’ll notice the song, ‘Window’ by The Album Leaf, is the same as in Boy Meets Girl (apparently I’m not too creative in that department). I’m technically (well, not just technically) using it illegally. I did this because I didn’t really ever intend for these videos to see the light of day beyond my family/close friends. Still, I feel a little bad about that. Anyone want to collaborate and write a replacement song?

Anyway, Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone, and especially Alexis.

A Valentine’s Day Moment

It’s 9:10 pm on Saturday, February 13th. Poe and Alexis have been asleep since we got home at 6:30 pm from a party thrown by some of Alexis’s colleagues. Poe has slept variously on my chest and on the couch next to me. This is, technically speaking, cheating, since Alexis and I have been trying to get Poe accustomed to sleeping on her back in the bassinet as often as possible. But Poe’s had a rough couple of days and got her first round of vaccines this morning, and we’re all pretty tired. So I cheated.

We’ve set Poe’s bedtime at 9:30 pm and done a pretty good job of sticking to it over the last couple weeks. So, I really should be (ironically) waking Poe up to get her to bed — changed, fed, swaddled, sung to, etc. But her sleep’s been so bad for the last several nights that I’m hesitant to wake her from anything. So, I head in to the bedroom, where Alexis is sleeping, to consult with her and figure out a plan. Alexis is dead asleep when I walk in, but immediately wakes up when she hears me and begins getting out of bed to go and comfort Poe. This is how I’ve awoken Alexis innumerable times over the last 9 weeks. I walk in, let Alexis know that it’s her turn with Poe, or that I’m too upset or tense or tired to finish my shift, and every time, Alexis gets up immediately, without complaining, without being negative or distressed in any way. Alexis is significantly more underslept than I am, but she is constantly looking for ways to ease my burden. Simply, lovingly, without complaint.

Anyone who reads this blog or whom I’ve spoken to lately knows that I’ve really struggled at times since Poe’s birth to be a good and present father/partner. I’ve had dark times; I’ve had anger; I’ve considered (impulsively, not seriously) fleeing, abandoning. It’s been difficult. But it would have been impossible if I didn’t have a partner as kind and committed and loving as Alexis. Impossible. Impossible.

The Bloom

I have these little meltdowns. Intense but rarely outward-facing – implosions rather than explosions. Something goes just wrong enough and I completely shut down. It’s happened before, as Alexis can attest, but has grown more common since Poe’s birth, no doubt due to the added stress caused by sleep issues and trying to keep a tiny human that stubbornly refuses to obey common sense alive. The first post-birth meltdown occurred when I tried to install Poe’s car seat to get her home from the hospital. I had spent a good 20 minutes up in the hospital room looking over the instruction manual and watching YouTube videos and felt capable of installing the seat.

I was not.

At the first sign of trouble (buckling the seat into the recessed bars in the back seat of the car was difficult) I melted down. The world and everything in it was terrible; I was worthless; fate was set against me, and my best bet was to give up and take a forever nap in the Hudson.

Alexis rubbed my back, her mother said some kind words, I took a few deep breaths and was quickly ok again. The car seat didn’t have to be rigged that way. It had another option in which you could thread a seat belt through the base of the car seat and secure it that way. Simple enough. Except I couldn’t get the seat belt tight enough. The car seat wiggled easily back and forth. I pictured explaining Poe’s auto-related death to the police. Meltdown #2 tapped me on the shoulder. Everything was shit. I was shit. We were never going to get this car seat installed, and we were going to have to walk home with Poe, and she was going to die of exposure.

Encouraging words, deep breaths, and I was able to try again and find success.

The next meltdown occurred when putting together the hand-me-down swing/rocker we had gotten from a close friend of Alexis’s. I won’t bore you with the details because it was exactly the same as the first two meltdowns. Minor technical thing briefly doesn’t work, everything is shit, this product is designed to ruin my life, I want to put my head in the oven.

Take a deep breath, rewatch the YouTube video, realize I am putting one piece into another piece backwards, easily rectify the issue, voila.

Often, in my previous life, I was able to avoid these sorts of meltdowns with a deep breath and some perspective. In the addled/stressed state of taking care of a newborn, I lack these coping mechanisms, so I feel that my flaws have been laid completely bare. I am a petty, easily disturbed, rage-filled manchild.

But ultimately these meltdowns are meaningless when they are directed at inanimate objects. So, I broke the new needle to my record player on purpose when it wouldn’t snap easily into place and then had to go stand alone in the other room for 10 minutes. Who cares? No one got hurt.

But then I noticed the moments happening in relationship to Poe.

The first few days home were filled with a sort of hormonal bliss. Poe wouldn’t sleep for long stretches and Alexis was on essentially no sleep at all, but it didn’t matter. We both felt the soaring accomplishment and appreciation of new parents. I had never loved Alexis more and felt a need to take care of her that I have never felt for another person. Poe was a miracle and the fact that she had constant needs was outweighed by the fact that each moment brought on new and exciting developments.

Then the aura wore off a bit and reality settled in. Poe wouldn’t sleep in the bassinet for more than 20 minutes at a time. In fact, she wouldn’t sleep at all unless she was on someone or directly next to them in bed. This meant that someone needed to be awake at all times while she slept to prevent asphyxiation or the dreaded SIDS. By nature, this ended up being Alexis most of the time. I would take the early shift (9 pm – 1 am) but then Alexis would take over and get 0-1 hours of sleep between 1 am and 7 am, when I would wake up and relieve her. I was averaging 6 hours a night, so I was outwardly functional, but I became obsessed – monomaniacal – about getting Poe to sleep on her own so Alexis could sleep. Alexis’s lack of sleep became a profound source of anxiety for me, and the only solution was to get Poe to sleep by herself.

The rocker helped, but even then, Poe would (LIKE A NORMAL NEWBORN BABY) sometimes wake up quickly or need multiple feedings in a row. One night, we tried to put Poe down in the bassinet and she immediately started complaining. She had been fed 10 minutes prior, so I thought she just needed to be soothed. I took her out of the bedroom and told Alexis to try and get some sleep; I would handle it. I took Poe out to the living room, put her in the rocker, turned on the fancy vibrate feature, and set the rocker to swing Poe automatically. She was unmoved. She squealed and writhed and cried. I tried to give her a couple minutes to see if the swing would take effect. It didn’t. She simply got more upset. “Fucking impossible,” I thought to myself. “You just had a full feeding 10 minutes ago, and I know how big your stomach is – I REMEMBER THE LACTATION CONSULTANT’S DEMONSTRATION. YOUR STOMACH IS THE SIZE OF A PING PONG BALL SO YOU CAN’T BE FUCKING HUNGRY AGAIN.”

The rage rocketed up my spine and I picked Poe up from the swing. Brusquely. With anger. I stopped myself. I had just picked up a helpless infant like a sack of flour because she wasn’t conforming to the adult logic I was laying out in my brain. What was wrong with me?!

I took a deep breath. Poe was fine. Still hungry, but fine. Even in my rage, I had picked her up carefully. Quickly, with an ugly thought behind the action, but I had supported her shoulders and neck and had kept her safe.

Still.

It happened again. Nearly the same circumstances, but this time I had been asleep. We had put Poe down at 10:30 pm after a full feeding and after a long day in which Alexis had gotten in zero nap time. It was now 11:20 and Poe was up and screaming and writhing. Again, the rage bloomed in my brain like blood in water. I held Poe in bed and bounced her gently, shushing her like fucking famous Dr. Karp said to. No effect. Alexis headed to the bathroom to pee, ready to nurse upon her return if necessary. “Please calm down, Poe,” I thought. “Please go to sleep. I need to get Alexis more than an hour of fucking sleep tonight.” Poe’s complaining intensified. The rage pressed against the insides of my skull. I rocked Poe in my arms. Hard. Too hard. I stopped myself in horror. I was one degree away from shaking a baby. One degree away from a fucking crime. I put Poe down next to me in bed, put my hands over my eyes, and cried.

Alexis came back into the room and rushed to my side. She asked what was wrong, fear in her voice. I felt hopeless, helpless. I couldn’t control myself around a tiny infant. I was a terrible father. I wasn’t fit to do this.

Deep breaths, time, perspective. Alexis was able to calm me down and ease me into a productive discussion. In retrospect, I hadn’t rocked Poe very hard. Certainly no harder than she was rocked in the womb when Alexis exercised or walked down stairs. But still. The feeling behind it was dangerous and absolutely terrifying.

As any parent will, I’m sure, tell you, it’s completely mind-bending to have this tiny, barely human ball of cuteness that completely dominates your life. Poe is a twentieth the size of most humans, and yet she’s had a far more significant effect on my life than any adult (sorry, everyone) – at least in the short term. And she follows no logic, or common sense, or decency. These may sound like the most obvious things ever stated by a human, but when you are holding this human jelly of contradictions with a face in your arms, and she is bawling and making sucky face, even though you just saw her drink two full boobs worth of milk, it feels like she is ACTIVELY trying to ruin your life. Toss in a dash of stress and sleep-deprivation (even if it’s minor on my part) and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

It’s getting better (as all of this will have to, or I’ll be very seriously considering the forever nap in the Hudson). The episode of vigorous rocking scared the SHIT out of me and has made me extra vigilant. I’ve had a couple more episodes and will undoubtedly have more in the future  (why, just the other morning I said ‘fuck’ more times than a Scorsese film because I couldn’t get the moby wrap correct after five fucking tries, while Poe cried and cried on the couch.) but I’m coping. I catch it a little earlier and am able to put deep breaths to earlier, better use. I also absolutely paint the air with cursing when something is especially frustrating. But harshly whispered, not yelled (well, mostly). Verbalizing allows me to release the steam before it becomes physical.

And I’m seeking help. There are a lot feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability that can come with being a father, and American males (and certainly myself) can really struggle with that sort of thing, no matter how sensitive and theater-y they think themselves to be. So, I’m seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. An event that is touted as joyous and life-affirming is sending me to seek professional psychological help.

How’s that for a motherfucker?

Boy Meets Girl

Every holiday season, my company, Private Prep, holds a vocab video competition. The goal is to make a video defining an assigned word (this year, it was ‘accismus’). I’ve entered the last two years and use the word more as loose inspiration (I’ve always had trouble with guidelines). Also, this year there was supposed to be a 2 minute time limit and I accidentally (I promise) blew right past that.

I’ve dabbled with stop motion in the past and really enjoy it (though I have minimal technical expertise and am sure I’m going about it in the least efficient way possible). Anyway, I’m happy with the video and wanted to share it, as it feels like an accurate snapshot of my (raw, over-exposed) mind/heart recently. Happy belated holidays and new year, everyone!

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.

alexispreg

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.

IMG_3171

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.

FullSizeRender

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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