Well, last night, while Juniper was in the bath, I heard her recite "Paul Revere" in its entirety.
Such pride in hearing her sing a song that meant so much to 10-year-old me in 1987. Such horror in hearing about what she did with that whiffle ball bat.
Stage One: preparation. For this you will need: one house which you will not leave; one macchinetta; espresso beans, three bags of; ibuprofen, one bottle of; vitamins; green tea, 36 bags of; Gerolsteiner, fifteen bottles of; San Pellegrino, ten bottles of; pornography; four buckets for urine, one for feces, and one for vomitus; one television.
And now I'm ready. All I need is one final 2-Liter to soothe the pain while the pornography takes effect.
* * * * *
I used to be able to drink Diet Coke™ responsibly, just like anyone else. I might have ordered one in a restaurant, say, even if I knew there wouldn't be free refills, or even if there were free refills but I couldn't be sure the server would pay proper attention to the sound of crushed ice sliding back down to the bottom of my glass after I'd drained it. I might have leisurely sipped one can over the course of a whole meal. I might have burped a bit afterward, and been completely satisfied. I might have bought a 12-pack that would last a week.
But that all changed when my old law firm rigged the soda machines to give out free soda. Free soda? Who had ever heard of such a thing? It was part of the top brass's effort to get the firm on Fortune 500's Best Places to Work list, you know, throwing us a bone here and there. It was good in theory, but the tragedy of the commons left the soda machine empty just a few hours after it was refilled. This happened during that whole anti-carb craze of 2004. So not only was it free, it was carb free. Our sedentary asses didn't need to feel guilty about it. Secretaries would hoard twelve cold cans under their desks. Mobs of paralegals and mail clerks would stalk two paces behind the guy whose job it was to restock the machine. Lawyers paid six-figure salaries fought like wolves over the last free can in the machine. Paranoia reigned. No one trusted anyone else. I was drinking six, seven cans a day, constructing 1:8 scale replicas of Mayan temples next to my desk out of Diet Coke™ cans. It was chaos.
I'd made it through college, law school, and a few years at a big firm without reliance on caffeine. I'd never even tried coffee. But parenthood put an end to that nonsense. These days it takes a triple espresso just to get my IQ into the triple digits. But I'm still drinking the soda, too. Coke™ or Pepsi™ I don't really care, so long as its cold, caffeinated, carbonated, caramel-colored, and calorie free. If I can't find any in the fridge, sometimes I drive the streets of Detroit at night, looking for a place to pick up a 2-Liter on sale. If they don't have Diet Coke™ or Diet Pepsi™ I might buy Faygo™. At that point I'm desperate: nothing matters so long as I can get back home and deliver a bubbly, acidic shot of aspartame, caffeine and phosphorus into my bloodstream. I hand over the two dollars, the cap comes off with a hiss, and I can hear the soda sizzling inside. I take a sip, my pupils dilate, the Co2 tickles the back of my throat, the sip slides down my esophagus, breaking down into metabolites in my stomach and liver, spreading to my heart, my brains, my bones. "Ahhhhhh."
"You drink more diet soda than Posh Spice," my wife tells me. I look it up. It's true. And she drinks diet soda instead of water because she "doesn't like the way water tastes."
"Well, if you want me to stop, I hope you like chubby husbands."
"According to a new study," she says, "Diet soda actually makes your body consume more calories in the end."
"According to a new study, you're a pain in my ass."
"Did you know Donald Rumsfeld was the one responsible for pushing aspartame-based artificial sweeteners through the FDA approval process without the appropriate testing back in the eighties, and he received a $12 million bonus from the company who developed it (he'd been its president)."
"Is that true?" I ask.
"Yeah, and you know how well he thought out the whole Iraq War."
I think she's afraid that there's an aspartame-flavored tumor the size of an avocado floating around somewhere in my innards, or that suddenly my bones are going to turn to wobbly. I'd like to think her fear is altruistic, that she actually cares about my health. But really I think she can't handle the idea of not having me around to help deal with one of these alternatingly-screaming children.
So I'm off the diet soda. I'm not even allowed to drink any Arizona Diet Green Tea With Ginseng™. "But can't it be my methadone for a couple weeks?" I ask.
She appeals to my weakness: "Those things cost a dollar each, so multiply that by the three you'd drink every day, now that's almost fifty dollars you'll save by just drinking water. Imagine all the crap you could by at Value World for fifty dollars."
God bless my wife. I'm going to need her during these trying times.
I have been listening to a lot of records lately. After hearing my third mp3-filled hard drive sputter and die---the sound of millions of songs that took ten years to amass suddenly silenced---I have a renewed interest in the permanence of vinyl; the tactile pleasure of analog. Someday I will die and surely they will cart my record collection off to the thrift store, and as with most things cyclical or circular, I find some small comfort in that. Further, the length of one side of an LP seems to be the perfect amount of music to bounce Gram to sleep. As I lack lactating breasts, the old yoga ball and gramophone trick is the only one I know.
The first kid preferred early Johnny Cash albums, but what seems to work best with Gram is singing along embarrassingly with Side B of the passionate, undecipherable madness of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album much-remembered this year of its tenth anniversary. I listen to it now, and like everyone else who loves it, I'm brought back to where and who I was when I first heard it: I'd spent a year living with six of the best guys in the world and I was about to leave for law school. The album was recommended by one of those friends (now lost to me) who moved to Athens, Georgia for graduate school and quickly immersed himself in the music scene there. Every time I went down to visit him it felt like Hipster Hollywood: you might rent a movie from Kevin Barnes or buy an Olivia Tremor Control CD from a record-store clerk who played clarinet on seven of the songs. You might order a Maker's Mark and ginger ale next to Mike Mills at the Manhattan Cafe. One time I nearly ran into Michael Stipe on Prince Ave. with a giant sheet cake draped over his forearms. There was always a party somewhere. Everyone you met was in a band. After one long night of debauchery we were walking home and found an old wheelchair on the sidewalk and after spending a few minutes looking for Vic Chesnutt in the bushes we decided it was abandoned and took turns pushing each other home in it. Cool town, Athens.
One evening we were standing outside the Grit when in a blur of ugly flannel Jeff Mangum walked past us. A girl with us knew him from somewhere and he stopped to talk to her for a minute and then went back on his way downtown. A few hours later we were drinking at the Flicker and Mangum walked in and sat alone at the bar for over an hour, drinking tea and talking to no one. I followed the Official Athens Code of Conduct and did not attempt to talk to, acknowledge, or gaze directly at him. But I will admit I was silently awestruck just to be in his presence. Soon after, Mangum left Athens, stopped making music, and spiraled into the seclusion I suppose he wanted.
I stopped visiting my friend in Athens after my first child was born. He stopped calling me while sober at some point, and then stopped drunkenly calling me in the middle of the night. He was no longer awed by the rock stars: he became one of them. He joined a band and through the weird prism of his flickr stream I can see him happy now in photos of bloody concert injuries, bass-drum surfing, new tattoos, new girls, tour buses, beards, cooler friends, and snapshots from the SXSW Vice Magazine party. I am happy for him. I can't help but feel like the bourgeois putz I was always destined to be, though, sitting here on a yoga ball listening to a ten-year-old album with nothing on my agenda except getting a newborn baby to stop crying. But I can't really blame my kids for any of this: the loss of old friends, all these divergent trajectories. That's my fault. It started long before them.
Sometimes I still feel like I'm supposed to be the same person I was ten years ago. But I've changed. Of course I have. When I sit here with my son and these songs, I try to remember what I thought of Mangum's lyrics in 1998: the impassioned paeans to Anne Frank, the sense of polluted childhood, the confrontation of innocence and sexuality. None of it really made sense to me then, but it didn't matter. It still doesn't make much sense, but Mangum still sings as though it should. With all this re-listening, certain phrases echo in my head all day: mostly all that uninterpretable mysticism of familial dysfunction. I look down at my sleeping son in my arms and I know there's nothing I can do to prevent myself from damaging him, from failing him in the million ways I must as a father. I cannot simply restrain myself and save him from this. The damage will not come from anything I do. It will be the result of me just being me.
Even if I were to do everything in my power not to damage him, not to fail him, wouldn't this in itself be damage, a form of failure? Who ever brags of having a perfect childhood? Perfect parents? No one wants to hear impassioned songs about perfect childhoods, as if there were such a thing. I need to fail, to falter. I need to give him my shoulders to stand on; my life to surmount. I know that one day he must hate me and resent everything I represent. If he doesn't, something must be wrong with him. Or me.
I believe this knowledge is what makes the time right now---terrible as it is---seem so precious. It is what derailed any career I'd hoped to establish, this surety. I remember reading somewhere that babies my son's age don't yet understand that they are separate from their parents, that independence is a state of being every baby discovers on its own. So I hold him close to me while the first lines of "Two-Headed Boy, Part Two" are amplified through a Sansui receiver that's older than me; sometimes I take off my shirt and hold him skin-to-skin as if this might fool him into unlearning what he has been learning, confuse him into thinking for a moment that we are not separate, but one. The heft of responsibility weighs on me. I think of the dread I felt during my wife's first pregnancy; I think of friends older than me who still tell me they're too young, too irresponsible, too unsettled to have kids. What is it we all really fear even if we don't yet know how to articulate it?
A parent must do everything in his power to protect a creature that must do everything in its own power to grow independent of him. You can't be The Man and still flip off The Man.
Gram won't stop crying in the middle of the night. I bite my knuckles. He's slowly destroying me, but I can't blame him for being born. I have to let him damage me, and weaken me, and destroy what I once was so I can be the kind of parent he actually needs me to be.
And yet it is no small part of me that relishes the destruction.
So the older kid seems to have finally brought something home from school other than a virus intent on crippling our household for several more weeks of this ever-morphing malaise that's kept us sighing and blowing into hankies like lovelorn, syphilitic fops: now she's brought home all kinds of annoying gender issues, too. For the first semester of the school year, her class was all girls, and I guess they spent their time quietly cooking and sewing and walking across the room with books on their heads. But about two months ago, her class received a hot beef injection in the form of three strapping male toddlers, one of whom is still in diapers (Juniper told me this with a hint of scandal). Now she won't wear the cowboy outfit I found at Value World because, "Duh, Pops, cowboys are BOYS." She won't play with toy cars anymore, not even her beloved die-cast Wienermobile. And I'm no longer fit to do her hair in the morning, because I don't do it "girly" enough.
I fully expected that one day my daughter would come home from school with all kinds of annoying gender issues, but I thought that day would come in 2024 when she's had half a semester's worth of an introductory women's studies course and my grizzled fatherly ass will say over Thanksgiving dinner, "I'm not paying $300,000 a year for some graduate student who doesn't bleach her mustache to teach you that all men are evil. Most are, of course, but not all." Now that her preschool classroom has gone coed, boys are gross and she doesn't want anything to do with them. Her brother and I are tolerable exceptions. She still can't walk into a room where her brother is sitting without running over to give him a kiss and a hug.
Her conception of gender and clothing has also become totally out of whack. Jeans? "Boy clothes." T-shirts? "Boy clothes." Sweaters? "Too boy-ee." It certainly doesn't help that since we found out #2 would be a boy, my thrift store eye has widened towards clothes she can wear now that he will also be able to wear later, i.e. a lot of "boy-ee clothes." When I ask her what "girl clothes" are, her answer is succinct and unequivocal: pink dresses. Upon further interrogation, it turns out pink skirts are also acceptable.
My wife just lets her wear the one damn pink dress she owns over and over again. "Why fight it?" Wood says in her typical laissez-faire manner. She lets the kid dress herself, and Juniper inevitably chooses some garish combination of pink and purple. "Great," I say. "She looks like a box of Grape/Strawberry Nerds." Wood just shrugs her shoulders.
See, I have always been the one who dresses the kid. I'm the one who buys all her clothes. I have much more at stake in this battle. For the longest time, simply giving her a choice between two outfits was all the control she needed. Now, when I dress her before school she's inevitably upside-down and screaming hexes at me while I stretch some piece of fabric dyed a PRIMARY COLOR over her tiny torso. And you can forget about brown. If I go anywhere near a piece of brown clothing she screams "Brown is a boy color!" and assumes a defensive kung fu stance. It turns out that red, blue, yellow, green, black, and orange are boy colors too. When I ask "what is a girl color" and she says "pink," I tell her I used to wear pink shirts when I worked in San Francisco. She then looks at me as though she has serious doubts about the truthfulness of my purported sexual orientation. "Some boys wear skirts, too," I say, but she just laughs. "Silly Dada," she says.
Instead of letting her grow out of this, I seem intent on proving that I can be more stubborn than her. The fact is, I don't like my daughter thinking there's something she can't do---or wear--- just because she's a girl. One of the most annoying things about having a parent who's a lawyer is that lawyers always think they can convince you to change your mind if they just show you enough evidence. So I show her a picture of a young Katherine Hepburn in a pantsuit. "That's Katherine Hepburn," I say, though apparently this means nothing to her. I put Annie Hall in the DVD player. "Look, Juney, that's Diane Keaton. See how she's wearing that boy tie and boy vest and how she still looks girly? She's so girly that annoying little guy with the glasses falls in love with her somewhere in the middle of all that whining. . ." Finally I say, "Look at your Mama. She's a girl, and she wears jeans almost every day. And t-shirts too." Juniper mulls over this damning evidence.
"I'll wear boy clothes like that sometimes when I'm older."
For the St. Patrick's Day parade this past weekend, we battled for fifteen minutes until I told her the leprechauns wouldn't talk to her if she's wearing a filthy pink dress and not a green one. The thought of missing out on a conversation with some wee fairy folk was too much to bear, so she relented and let me put a green dress on her. When we arrived at the parade, I couldn't believe my good fortune. Everywhere you looked, there were prime examples of that certain type of douchebag who loves celebrating his Celtic ancestry by drinking heavily while wearing a kilt. "Look Juney, look at all those BOYS wearing SKIRTS!"
She was clearly crushed. Everywhere she looked, there was evidence that boys, indeed, wear skirts. I almost felt bad for her, but then out of the corner of my eye I saw the one piece of evidence I needed to deliver the coup de grâce. "Look Juney," I shouted, pointing at a fat guy wearing rollerblades and peeing on an abandoned building. "Utilikilt!"
My freshman roommate was in an a cappella boyband. This was 1995, so they didn't yet have In*Sync or the Backstreet Boys to aspire to, but make no mistake, it was a boyband. They were sort of an a cappella Color Me Badd, but with more fat white guys. There were seven vocalists contributing to the group's signature R&B harmonies, so they brainstormed for a week and eventually came up with the name "Seven." But they wrote it with a Roman numeral VII. Before creative differences splintered VII (if I recall correctly, one guy left to focus on his beatboxing, then the members who were devout Christians refused to sing anything but Take 6 covers, while the other half wanted to be "the next Rockapella" or something like that) for a few months there they had a pretty good run of dorm rec room performances, intramural hockey national anthems, talent shows, and shotgun weddings. I only went to one performance, where it quickly became clear that my roommate was "the cute one." At the crescendo of the most romantic song in their arsenal of Jodeci and All-4-One covers, with his bandmates harmonizing softly behind him, my roommate would pull one girl from the audience and sit her on his knee and sing directly to her. To my amazement, the girl he chose didn't laugh right in his face. She seemed to actually be moved by the lyrics to "I Swear." A few hours later, I walked into a darkened dorm room to a shout of "No! Wait!" and then I saw her underwear on the floor. This set of incidents merely confirmed to me that there was a lot I didn't understand about girls.
The boyband performances proved to be a rich source of one-night stands for my roommate, who swore by the old sock-on-the-doorknob cliche, giving me endless opportunities to wander around to figure out my own way to snare a female. I usually ended up reading Whitman or writing in my journal alone in the forest behind the dorm, hoping that some other free spirit would just happen across me and think I was deep and romantic and not some kind of sexual predator. The one time a girl came over to the edge of the woods, she only did so to vomit. I do give my roommate a lot of credit for showing me how attractive the life of a swinging bachelor can be. For one thing, there were his sheets. I won't get into too many details, but let's just say if you were planning to be "the cute one" in an a cappella boyband in 1995, it would have been a good idea not to buy black sheets. His black sheets were so streaked with the DNA evidence of his voluptuary activities, they looked like you could ice skate across them. If you turned on the black light in our dorm room, his sheets lit up like Las Vegas in the desert night. I don't know if it says more about his skill in seduction or the standards of the seduced that he ever managed to convince anyone to climb in there with him in daylight. I swear, his blankets had stalactites.
I have been thinking about my old roommate a lot these days, particularly those sheets. You see, our newborn son is a lot like a drunk coed. He whines a lot and is an extremely sloppy kisser. He drinks a lot and passes out all the time. He throws up whenever he drinks too much, which is pretty much every time he drinks. He throws up ten times as much as his sister ever did. An hour after we wash our bedsheets, they are covered again in his milky spit up, which dries to a glossy stiffness that brings me back to my dorm days. And that's only from what comes out of his mouth (there's a whole other end). Anytime we wear black clothes (and duh, we are yuppies, so we have lots of black clothes), after a few minutes holding our son we end up looking like my old college roommate has been dryhumping us. I can't imagine what early parenthood must have been like for Johnny Cash. I have reached into coat pockets to find several inches of spit up, but my wife still gets the worst of it. I can't tell you how many money shots she's had right down her cleavage. That's where we are these days, wading around in slightly-curdled breastmilk and stomach acid. So what did we do yesterday? We grabbed our wellies and took a trip to the dairy farm that provides all the non-breastmilk to our household:
Because nothing makes you feel better about the sanitation of your own home than seeing buckets of freshly-pumped bovine milk speckled with hay and cowshit.
One thing that really triggered my curmudgeonly tendencies during the lead up to the birth of our first child was a burgeoning awareness of the baby industrial complex. I watched as a corner of our 500 square-foot apartment filled with boxes covered in photos of smiling, chubby babies who were only smiling and chubby because their parents had the good sense to register for the "Gymini Super Deluxe Light and Music" or the "Safety 1st Comfy Bath Center." Who names these things? They sound like the kinds of places Hong Kong businessmen go to unwind after long days of being Hong Kong businessmen. If it were up to me, there would have only been one box in the corner, and it would have been this box:
My wife does not lack that peculiar gene native to both her sex and her profligatory Gaelic ancestry, the gene that creates enjoyment in the exchange of hard-earned money for overpackaged gewgaws that one doesn't really need. We had a baby monitor in an apartment where it was physically impossible to be more than seven feet away from a baby, for chrissake. She bought a bouncy seat and a swing. She's a helpless slingaholic: having purchased and wrapped herself in dozens of different fabric babycarriers over the years, German tourists take pictures of her, thinking Christo has something to do with her. During the leadup to Juniper's birth, there was a lot of conflict over what we thought we needed. Wipe warmers? I'd ask. Really? I didn't believe there actually was such a thing. Are we as a nation really at the point where the asses of our infants cannot tolerate the cold touch of an unwarmed pre-moistened disposable wipe? I wonder if anyone's ever studied the relationship between infant mortality in sub-Saharan Africa and the lack of warm pre-moistened disposable wipes. Get on it, scientists.
Over time, on every occasion that my wife suggested a trip to the baby store because there was something that just might make our parenting experience .000027% easier, I would cough and grumble "Sacajawea." It's well known that the Shoshone maiden adorning our most-recent failed dollar coin led Lewis and Clark from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean, but it's often forgotten that she started on that journey just a few weeks after giving birth to the child of a Gallic fur trader. Believe it or not, that baby, Jean-Baptiste, made it all the way to Oregon's coast and back without a single ear thermometer or Breathe Easy Sleep Positioner! Sacajawea brought her baby on a journey of many thousands of miles without a "travel system." She just stuck him in a papoose and led a band of lusty legionnaires through the wilderness. And don't even get me started about childproofing. How do you childproof the entire Louisiana Purchase?
The Sacajawea Theory, in short, is that all newborn babies really need is boobs. Everything else is just marketing.
Repeatedly annoying my wife with this theory in the early days of Juniper's life really seems to have paid off. Before we left San Francisco, she sold the stroller and the swing and the bouncy seat and all kinds of other crap to a Chinese guy who talked her down to $20 from $100. Before Gram was born, we didn't buy anything. No crib, no changing table, no crap. She did buy some mind-bogglingly expensive cloth diapers, but I approved because it meant we would never have to drive out to the suburbs for diapers again (a sound fiscal decision: with my wife, any trip to Target for $24 worth of diapers inevitably ends up costing us at least $150). But as this second kid gets bigger, I'm having to rely on the Sacajawea Theory more and more with each passing day.
She'll see some cute little toy on one of those newfangled websites that focus on infant products and I'm all, "Sacajawea. . ."
"Well, get off your ass then and whittle him a rattle or something, will ya?"
She starts grumbling about needing a dresser for Gram's tiny clothes. "But Sacajawea. . ." I start.
"Sacajawea wasn't married to a tightwad who comes home from the thrift store with twenty early 1980s Garanimals mix-and-match separates every week."
The UPS guy comes to the door and she tries to play it off like he has the wrong address, hiding the box containing the new sling she's ordered. "Sacajawea. . ." I scold.
"This one's made out of buckskin and sewn together with sinew and a bone needle, if it makes you feel any better."
And still, the UPS guy keeps coming. "This one's for Juniper," she tells me. "And shut up about Sacajawea. It's not like Lewis and Clark had a 3-year-old love child, too."
"Well, if they did, I can promise you she wouldn't have needed anything from the Mini Boden catalog."
During my first year as a lawyer at a big firm in San Francisco, I quickly got drawn into some massive bankruptcy case involving airplane leases with many millions at stake, the kind of case all gray-haired senior partners smile thinking about before heading off to the land of nod. Such cases come with virtually no restrictions on the number of hours attorneys can spend on them, so partners and older associates use these cases for the big firm equivalent of a fraternity hazing: endless hours of meaningless work performed in the name of "due diligence"; forcefed triple espressos at 6:30 p.m.; and the Friday 4:45 p.m. phone calls letting you know you should probably cancel any weekend plans you might have made, because, yeah, we're going to need to pull some all-day and all-nighters before that motion for reconsideration gets filed on Monday. It takes some time before you realize this is just an initiation. Fresh out of law school, you believe you actually have something to contribute to this case, but in reality you're pretty worthless. They prey on your false belief that you are bright, capable, and worth the $350 an hour they are charging for your time. And then they work you like a Russian hooker in a Turkish brothel. Because you are surrounded by other little pledges in the same position, you think this is perfectly acceptable. The partners do it because someone once did it to them. And that's the way the whole durn legal comedy keeps perpetuating itself down through the generations.
Many weekends during those first few months, I found myself at the beck and call of an older associate clearly gunning for partnership. I never saw him leave the office, except one Sunday morning when he ducked out and didn't come back for hours. Pissed, I sat down and tried to come up with an answer to one of his impossibly arcane questions about subject matter jurisdiction. Later that evening, he showed up. "What's up dude! Guess what: my son was born today!" I knew he had a toddler already, but he'd never even told me his wife was pregnant. I congratulated him. "Thanks, man," he said. "Now how's that research coming?"
"Well, like I said, I won't be surprised if you don't find anything. But if you do, that will be great. Now let's get back to work."
In the following weeks, this poor guy saw way more of my ugly mug than he did of his new baby. During the first weeks of this new life he usually spent twelve to fifteen hours a day in the office. The working weekends went on for months. He would sometimes drink in the middle of the day. He would go out to the bar with us after work and either go back to the office or somehow find his way back to whatever suburb his kids were sleeping in. I didn't give it much thought then. When you're in this sort of environment, this is just how it's supposed to be. I think I respected him, even, working so hard to provide for his family. I just assumed it was an arrangement he made with his wife, who'd put her own legal career on hold to raise their family by herself. I mean, how hard could that be?
But after two and a half weeks with a 3-year-old and a newborn at home, even with two of us taking care of them, I can't stop thinking about this man's wife, and what a saint she was for not putting a shotgun in his face every morning on his way out the door.
I didn't bring up the castor oil in my first post is because who wants to know that my son was propelled into the world by the aftershocks of contracting bowels? Certainly not him. I'm sorry boy, if you ever read this: I would have invented a better beginning for you, something Dickensian, perhaps, or something like the nativity of a scion in a Rougon-Macquart novel. But your mother had to be all "honest." I was against the castor oil from the beginning. I was deeply aware that the story of a man's birth becomes a part of his personal mythology: I would have invented Herodic adversaries, astronomical anomalies, inclement weather, stealthy flights, shepherds. Athena burst from her father's head, fully clad and armed; Aphrodite rose from the foam of Cronos' testicles; Dionysus was rescued from Semele's womb and sewn into Zeus' thigh. And yet none of the gods or heroes entered the world as the direct result of self-inflicted diarrhea. Needless to say, I expect mighty things from you.
It's not as though you won't fit right in here, though. Your sister is currently obsessed with diarrhea. I once made the mistake of describing it as "when your poop is like brown water." She made me repeat that four times just so she could soak up all the gloriousness. Then I made the bigger mistake of teaching her "The Diarrhea Song." You'd think I hung the moon. Her favorite verse is the one I invented in a church camp cabin the summer before fifth grade: "When you give someone a hug/ and it ends up on the rug / diarrhea [fart noise, fart noise] diarrhea [fart noise, fart noise] ." Now we sing together: "When you drink some of that castor/ to make your baby come out faster/ diarrhea [fart noise, fart noise] diarrhea [fart noise, fart noise]." Yes, humor in our household exists in a state that would make Cracked magazine, circa. 1984 look like The Economist.
I really should have put a warning at the top of this post, like the kind they use to sell super-violent, disgusting albums and video games to children. Really, I'm just using all this talk of diarrhea to warm anyone still reading this up for the coming descriptions of amniotic fluid, blood clots, and gooey placentas yanked out of vaginae by cartoon-sausage-like umbilical cords. For all the talk of how "beautiful" birth is, there is much less acknowledgment of how humbling it is, too. I suppose to many it's all a disgusting reminder that despite being made in the image of a god, we still come into the world like goats or dogs or chimpanzees.
So the room is dimly lit when the midwife offers to break my wife's water. The lighting seems wrong to me, the same way it seems messed up that the investigators on CSI consider the evidence under atmospheric wall sconces and not the overhead lighting of your typical laboratory. Babies, like suspects, I figure, should be first exposed under fluorescent lights. My iPod is playing Music for Egon Schiele by Rachel's somewhere on the far side of the room. The nurse is on the phone with the regular labor and delivery ward, telling them she needs backup right away. Wood is naked and still wet and warm from the bath. I am on my knees up on the bed with her when the water is broken, but I'm worried that it would be full of meconium, so I crawl down to watch it cascade in pulses, like a squeezed rag between her legs. "Meconium?" I ask, and the nurse shakes her head. I crawl back up to be by Wood's face and wait with her for the next contraction to start. Up until now, I'd been helping her work through them alone, without the nurse or midwife in the room, and suddenly with both of them there and a third nurse arriving to unwrap all kinds of stainless steel, I feel self-conscious, like they think we're doing this all wrong. I remember everything I'd read about Lamaze and the Bradley Method and the breathing chapter of The Birth Partner but it has all kind of gone out the window with my wife. She only wants me to count in her ear and massage her back. She sometimes responds to my suggestions about breathing, but then she gets pissed that I'm not counting out loud and I am in no position to argue with her about what is the right thing to do here. So I count, in front of the nurses and the midwife, and she rests on me between the next few contractions.
"I really, really feel like I need to push," she finally, breathlessly tells her midwife. "That time, I really wanted to."
"Let me check," the midwife said, and did her thing. "Well, you're fully dilated, so go ahead and give a little push with the next one."
"How do you want me to sit?"
"How do you want to sit?"
I can tell Wood is a little annoyed with the midwife's lack of direction. I'm sure she has nothing but good intentions, but my wife doesn't even like to decide what to order on a pizza. She remains almost paralyzed on her back. "Why don't you try sitting on your knees and bending forward." My wife rolls over into the position that probably got us all here in the first place. The midwife and the nurses stand poised behind her. I am up on the bed when the next contraction starts.
"OH MY GOD!" she shouts, followed by a long string of profane zoological sounds that throw me off my count. "KEEP COUNTING!" she roars. I make a guess about how long it's been. "OH MY GOD THEY AREN'T STOPPING THEY JUST KEEP GOING."
She's pushing. The nurses and midwife tell her to try not to push so hard if she can help it. "I CAN'T HELP IT!" she screams. The contraction finally ebbs. She looks at me and says, "Can't we turn this all off just for a minute?"
"You're so close," I say. "I don't think you would even believe how close you are. He'll be out soon, and then all this is going to fade into nothing."
"I would like that a lot," she says. Her eyes are closed.
I can see on her face the next contraction coming, and that's when her mother walks in the room.
"Oh my God I'm so sorry I'm late who'd have thought there's be so much traffic at two in the morning! And I swear, if you're going to own a gas station, you should at least know something about how to get around the neighborhood." Then she looks up and sees her daughter screaming on her hands and knees not wearing any clothes with blood and fluid streaming down her thighs.
"Oh," she says, suddenly ashen. Fully-coated, she brings with her a whiff of cold air and gas station coffee and fresh cigarette smoke. She comes over to Wood's side and puts her hand on her cheek but it's a lot of scene to take in, so she soon fades into an armchair across the room. I imagine it would kind of be like accidentally walking into the wrong theater during the climactic scene of The Exorcist. Except, you know, real. Later Wood's mother will admit this was the first live birth she's seen: Wood was born with forceps under anesthesia.
"OH MY GOD I FEEL LIKE I'M RIPPING APART!" she screams as she pushes. "OH NO I FEEL LIKE I'M RIPPING IN HALF."
This strikes some horrible vulnerability in my imagination: my poor girl, ripping in two! I imagine her lower torso rendered like concrete in an earthquake movie. The assuredness with which she says it makes me almost certain that it's true. I don't want to leave her steady grip, but I feel compelled to look, just so I can reassure her. Thankfully, nothing has ripped. The midwife confirms it as she busily rubs warm wet washcloths on the perineum. But there is blood up to her elbows. I return to face my wife, who is sobbing. "You're not ripping apart," I tell her. "I just saw everything." But then, again, on the next contraction:
"I FEEL LIKE MY WHOLE BODY IS RIPPING IN HALF." A minute more of pushing and all the air is suddenly sucked out of the room. All sound, too, except for this one sound that I can't quite put my finger on. I picture Hollywood sound effects artists trying to replicate it: a water balloon pressed into a bed of nails; half-set jello thrown against a wall; a jellyfish dropped from a ten-foot ladder. Squerlch. Thud. My son, slipping between the hands that were there to catch him, lands with a liquid parachute on the bed, gray as a submarine.
I feel a sudden aloofness. A buoyancy, I'm a few feet above myself, staring down at the room as they oblige my wife by letting him rest for a second on her breast, but as the midwife clamps the cord I notice the cold urgency as they stick a tube down his throat, sucking out the fluid, another instrument shoots a stream of oxygen just under his nose. I try to stay out of their way while holding his tiny hand. A nurse is talking to me: "Sometimes they're born so fast, they still have it all in their lungs and they don't breathe when they're born." How long? Twenty seconds? Breathe. A minute? Breathe. They are slapping his feet. Then I hear a small bird. Thirty seconds (an hour?) later, a phlegmatic shriek. I am afraid to say his name.
But an hour later I am up on the bed again, joking with my wife, our little Gram at her breast. "Some women push for hours," I say. "You couldn't even handle six minutes." She says she can hardly remember pushing. I tell her how she screamed about being ripped in half. She's embarrassed. It may seem like this is cruel, but really, I'm intensely proud. Though she's had twelve hours of contractions, true labor only lasted about an hour and a half.
Then I feel something wet on my leg. They haven't changed the sheets, so I peel back the blanket and look at my jeans and socks drenched from a pool of blood and fluid. I remember the nurse massaging the postpartum uterus, the way the blood oozed right there onto the sheets. "Look at all the blood on the floor, too," I say, and Wood peers over the bed. "Well, at least you didn't poo all over the place, too."
"Yeah," she responds. "Thank God I got rid of all that yesterday morning."
Though my due date was actually February 10, as I'm sure we all remember, I'd stupidly and wrongly assumed that the baby would come much earlier. There were even a few times in mid-January where I convinced myself I was on the verge of labor. But as the days and weeks passed, I started to grow desperate. I tried to recall every detail about the day before Juniper was born, and every day I tried to do everything the same, like stepping backwards into footprints I'd already made in the snow. I had picked a fight with Jim that day and cried a lot. I had fish and chips for dinner. So for three weeks our lives were a lot like Groundhog Day with a lot of fighting, crying, and battered cod. Every morning I woke up more pregnant than the day before, with Sonny and Cher taunting me from the radio.
When I was about a week past my expiration date, one of the midwives in the practice I'd chosen mentioned castor oil. The next morning, at 5:00 a.m., I chugged a small glass of Diet Coke with two tablespoons of Castor oil mixed in. It was like drinking Aspartame-flavored Astroglide. Mmmm, Asparglide. After gagging a lot, I went back to bed, and woke up two hours later with the most urgent case of acute diarrhea I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The theory here is that all the intestinal cramping you experience shitting liquids can also cause uterine contractions to start. It's an act of sheer desperation, fathomable only to those women who would prefer spending the day sluicing out their colon to spending one more damn day gestating.
It didn't work. So of course, the next morning, I took more. My stomach, seeming to recall the previous day's gastrointestinal jamboree, sent it right back up the tube. Not being easily intimidated, a few hours later I took two more ounces that Jim mixed into a chocolate milkshake.
As Jim wrote, at around 2:00 p.m., I started to have regular, short, and not very painful contractions. I was terrified that they would stop, so I didn't sit down for hours, unless you count the toilet. At some point when we were out walking Jim said: "Hey, this is great! I bet we're home by tomorrow night with our son." I almost stuck his face in one of his annoying poetically-dirty snowbanks, I was so sure such blasphemous optimism would cause my contractions to evaporate.
And this gets us to where he left off. I'd finally progressed from 3 centimeters to 4, and by that time, the contractions were as powerful as I'd been wishing for them to be all day. After the midwife told us we could stay, I felt like I lost some of my sense of purpose. The thrill of actually progressing quickly wore off and all I was left to deal with was the pain. I couldn't talk much, and I was starting to feel myself fade in and out the way I had during Juniper's birth. Each contraction left me depleted, and I couldn't catch my breath between them. I knew I was only four centimeters, and still had a long way to go. As the nurse pointed out, "You've been having plenty of contractions, but your actual labor has only just begun."
I looked over at the soaking tub sitting in the corner. "It's huge," Jim had said when he first saw it. "I wonder how many gallons of chili you could make in there."
I knew I needed to get into it. The midwife warned that tub might slow things down or even cause the contractions to stop, but at this point I needed some relief, so I swore I wouldn't stay in the tub for too long and would get out if labor wasn't progressing. Jim filled the tub with water that was the perfect temperature to slip into, and as soon as I could I stripped down and climbed in. The relief was immediate -- I now felt relaxed and awake, and the pain actually started to go away between contractions, which remained as intense as they had been. In the tub, I finally had a second to acknowledge to myself that I really was in labor, and that the baby was on his way out of me and into the world sooner rather than later. I called my mom to tell her we were staying at the hospital. "I'm four centimeters," I said. "You can come now, but it still might be awhile."
When I first got into the tub, I had a hard time believing anyone would ever convince me to get me out of it. It felt that good. The contractions hadn't slowed. My bag of waters was intact. But after almost an hour in the tub, I had a pesky little urge to push and a new pressure with each contraction. I told Jim to give me just a little bit more hot water, closed my eyes during one last break between contractions, breathed, and told the nurse, "I know it's crazy, but I feel this urge to push." The nurse ran to grab the midwife.
"Get out of the tub," she said on her way out. "Now." There was a thin ribbon of blood floating in the water. I wasn't sure I had the strength or balance to climb out of the tub, put on a towel, and make it to the bed, but somehow, with Jim's help, I did it. He toweled me off and I remember the nurse commenting on the tattoo above my left breast. I was stark naked and didn't give this fact even the slightest bit of attention. I would be naked until long after my son was born and only then would I feel the need to cover up. I was in the world of pain and between pain. There was only that.
I crawled up onto the queen-sized bed, knowing the midwife would need to check my dilation. It seemed like the contractions were no longer stopping. There was no longer space between the pain. When I was sure a contraction had ended, I felt the dull certainty of her fingers inside me. "Nine," she said. I'd dilated five centimeters in less than an hour while I was doing something that made me feel so much better that should have slowed rather than hasten the process.
I remember their voices. I was on my side; my husband was next to me on the bed, a spoon. The midwife pulled open a drawer and pulled out her crochet hook in a sterile bag. "I think it might be a good idea to break your water," she said. Everything was calm suggestion with her, as if this birth was all up to me. I looked at her, wanting some actual direction, but only seeing an unflappable sense of service or duty in her eyes. She was there to guide me through this process, not force me. "Do it," I said, and then the plastic was in me, sharp yet distant, a twist, and the gush between my legs. The midwife broke my water, and it was almost over. But I didn't know that then.
Jim can tell the final part with much more clarity than me.
Onward to Part Three.