All a Parent Can Do

When our baby finally slid out into the world, I knew that nothing would ever be the same

I remember when my daughter Jessica was born. How could I forget? It was a difficult time in my life, a time I was too stupid and self-involved to even realize how fucked up everything was. And, of course, it was even more difficult for my wife Catherine. But I didn't know much of what was going on with her. She didn't say and I didn't ask. Probably because I wouldn't have known what to do with the answer.

We were both young. Way too young to be married, to be having a child, to have to act like adults and be responsible, be smart, even kind. But there I was, a 25-year-old man/boy with a massively pregnant and unhappy wife. Now maybe we had figured things wrong—it wouldn't have been the first time—but according to our calculations Catherine was way overdue by almost a month. Each added day, the pressure built. We would sit in the dark living room of our Philadelphia apartment, trying not to look at one another, waiting for something to happen.

"Are you sure it hasn't started?" I said. "Maybe you're just not feeling it."

"Don't be an idiot," Cathy said, looking stringy-haired and miserable. "You think I won't know when I go into labor?" Her face turned a blotchy purple, like it always did when she was angry.

"Don't call me an idiot."

"Well, you are one," she said with a withering look, and heaved herself off the couch and waddled to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

I lit a Marlboro and pretended that I was some other person, someone more like the guy I thought I was going to be when I left college. That guy was traveling all over the world, writing, meeting people, having adventures. Laughing like a goddamn loon for no reason. Too bad that guy wasn't me. The me who was teaching English in the worst high school in the city, hating every minute of it because I had no friends and no particular ambition and blamed my wife for just about everything because she was a handy target. I felt like I had driven my car off the side of the road and all I could do was watch the steering wheel spin around.

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When we moved into this apartment in a not-so-great section of West Philly, Catherine had gone out and bought yards and yards of a heavy velvet fabric in a deep purple shade that looked like spilled wine, and proceeded to make drapes to cover every window in the place. She said it made her feel safe, but it mostly made me feel creepy, like we were crouched down and hiding in a bunker, which might have been OK (even funny) if I'd been hiding with someone I got along with.

Finally, it did happen. The contractions began and we hurried out to the little Ford Falcon parked outside on the street—the car Catherine's father had given us with the admonition to me to be "really careful of this vehicle. It's a damn classic." Then the first day I parked it in front of the apartment, some kids from the school had busted out the taillights and left a note that said, "Fuck you, teach." And as long as I'd anticipated this moment, as many times as I'd rehearsed what to do—damn, we'd even gone to Lamaze classes—once the real thing was on us, I was completely surprised. Could this really be happening?

It felt like we were in an episode of "The Twilight Zone." I would not have been at all surprised to see aliens leap out of my wife's mouth, which was at the moment twisted in a blood-curdling scream, then punctuated with the kind of profanities my students used on the basketball court.

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During the delivery C. screamed at me, using words I'd never heard cross her middle-class, college girl lips before. "Get your fucking hands off me, dumbass!" It made me smile at the same time it scared the hell out of me. What had possessed her? I hung in there and fed her ice chips, no matter the names she called me. The doctor, who had looked at me warily beforehand, told me I was a trooper. I guessed that was a good thing. And when the baby finally appeared, slid out into the world, I knew that nothing could ever be the same. Right from that moment, the world was full of love and danger and I knew that my new job was all about protecting my daughter. The nurses whisked her away before we even had much of a chance to hold her or count her toes.

Something was wrong. I sensed that, though nobody was talking and C. was now too drugged up to protest. I demanded to know what was happening. Where was my daughter and why were people acting so weird? I might be a skinny hippie boy, but I knew when someone was messing with me. What I was being told was that they—the hospital—had everything under control. There were some, uh, minor problems, but that I shouldn't worry about them and should instead stay with and comfort my wife and they would let me know what I needed to know when I needed to know it.

I went batshit crazy. "You can't do this. Let me see my daughter. Right this damn minute or tell me why." The nurses had to restrain me from pushing my way into the ICU. The doctor was called to calm me down. I wasn't leaving until the baby was shown to me.

"OK, OK," he relented and led me in to see me my daughter, now hooked up to tubes and with a strange yellow cast to her skin. I was dumbstruck, scared. He explained that the condition was not unusual and could be corrected in a day or two. There were names and terms he used that I no longer remember—jaundice was among them. I said I wouldn't leave until she was OK. He said I couldn't do that. I said, "Sorry, man, but I'm not going anywhere," and crossed my arms over my chest. He called security, two beefy guys, who moved me forcibly out of the room and escorted me out of the hospital.

I was out of my mind. I wandered around the streets of downtown Philadelphia for awhile and then called my father, a doctor himself, who I hadn't gone to for advice since I was in eighth grade and my girlfriend had broken my adolescent heart, but now it seemed like he was the only one who would know what to do. He told me to take a deep breath, go back to the hospital, and stay there as long as I needed to.

"Just wait and watch," he said. "Be respectful. No shouting. No one is trying to hurt your daughter. This will all work out." And he was right.

We brought Jessie home in a couple days, healthy and squalling, and before long we had forgotten all the trauma of her birth, so involved were we with the miracle of her being in our lives and so scared of all the new responsibilities. Now, 40 years later, I feel no great degree smarter than I was then. I still try hard to know what the right thing to do is and stumble around bumping into things in my ignorance and concern. That's all a parent can do, I guess. You try to do the right thing, hope for the best, and thank god every day that disaster is averted.

Tags: family