Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reflections (Part 2)

Last week I told you the story of the birth of my son.  Just typing that story out last week and reliving it in my mind brought joyful tears to my eyes again.  Although that wasn’t why I wrote it, I was flattered to hear from many of you who told me what I wrote resonated with you and apparently the stock went up on several brands of tissues.  As promised, here’s the rest of the story of my reflection on my wonderful wife and the birth of my son.  The emphasis changes a little here, from my amazing wife to the beginning of my own development as a first-time father.

Paul’s Pitstop Along the Canal
I mentioned my wife labored for 51 hours before Paul was finally delivered by C-section.  As you recall, he was breach, then on the day we were to originally have the C-section, he flipped over and was properly oriented for a normal delivery.  And then there was the marathon.  After Paul was born and we were all resting quietly in the Labor and Delivery Ward (L&D from now on), our doctor came to us to explain what caused the lack of progress.  It seems that Paul had turned his head to the side at about the time he started progressing down the birth canal.  As a result, the shape of his head didn’t line up with companion shape of the birth canal and he simply stopped.  No amount of labor was going to change it, especially since Steph’s body was properly trying to move him along, creating enough pressure that Paul’s head just wasn’t going to turn back.  In times past this could have (would have?) resulted in the death of both mother and child, but thanks to God, modern medicine, the wonderful skills of the medical professionals that took care of us, I enjoy the company of my beautiful wife and son today.

I learned a bunch of cool stuff as Steph rested and recovered, and began bonding with my infant son.  Steph “held” him for nine months and now it was finally my turn.  I was nervous but eager to learn.  He had his first bath and I learned how to change his diaper and swaddle him.  The Super Bowl was on with the volume down and Steph fed Paul his first meal outside the womb watching the game.  (I can’t make this up!)  At about halftime, Steph fell asleep and Paul and I sat with my new son in my arms, watched the game, and bonded.  And every now an then, I found myself weeping just for a moment.  It wasn’t for any specific reason.  I think it was that intangible and very real bonding--father’s and son’s hearts were touching.  It was, and remains, one of the best experiences of my life, sitting in the quiet and warmth of that room next to my sleeping wife who had just done something truly heroic, and holding my hours-old son.

An Angry Dad
The next morning everyone was doing fine and the process began to do some final testing in order to discharge mother and son.  We were excited, tired and happy to think about taking our son home for the first time.  But there was this little thing called jaundice we had to deal with first.  He didn’t look jaundiced, so this came as a surprise when, as we were being discharged from L&D, we were taken upstairs by someone from another department.  It was the first we’d heard that this was the plan rather than going to our car and heading home.  And now I was angry in addition to being tired.
The change from pleasure with the L&D crew to thorough disgust for the “professionals” in the new ward was dramatic, none of whom could competently or authoritatively explain to me why we were even there other than to say, “your son has jaundice; his bilirubin levels are on the edge of high, and this will prevent a problem from developing.”  It made sense, but we couldn’t get a doctor to see us until I threatened to take my family and leave the hospital.  An orderly actually told me I couldn’t do that.  I didn’t mention to him that I could have snapped him like a twig and instead maintained my composure and told him he needed to rethink what he had just said.  We weren’t under arrest and no one could even confirm we were the right people who were supposed to be there.  I told him if a medical doctor didn’t come explain to us why we were in this new ward within two hours, in an adult manner, we would be leaving.  We had signed formal discharge papers in L&D and had not been formally readmitted to any part of the hospital.  As far as I was concerned, this was all a mistake reinforced by lack of any interaction with a physician or appropriate staff.  I wanted to see test results and have them explained to me like an adult.  I also wanted to know clearly and concisely what the “treatment” would do to remedy the alleged problem and how long it would take.  For those of you who are familiar, you know the treatment for an infant with elevated bilirubin levels isn’t cosmic and really doesn’t require a lot of explanation--it involves baking the boy under some incubator lights (technically called phototherapy, accomplished with lights or a photo-optic blanket) in a controlled manner.  Having a medical background I was actually familiar with the treatment, but didn’t like that no one with any authority or medical competence seemed to want to explain it to my wife and I.  I was literally packing our bags up again, when a doctor showed up.  I politely and professionally let him have it.  With the doctor’s apologies appearing genuine, along with his sufficient explanations for why we were there and for how long, we ended up staying through the next night to let Paul bake and went home the next day.
Don’t Look Into The Light:  Shaping a Father’s Heart
The real story is actually about the time that passed with Paul under those lights, especially through that night, and the thoughts and feelings that continued to emerge as a brand new, first-time father.  My wife was exhausted and I was beyond tired.  The hospital didn’t have a photo-optic blanket, so Paul was laying helpless in an open-sided incubator with ridiculously designed little goggles on to keep the lights from causing damage to his eyes.  For those of you who are parents, you know about infants--they have no motor control and so I worried about him knocking the goggles off and ending up with eye damage.  Designed as they were, they seemed to come off his head when he simply thought about moving.  And so I intended to sit up all night hoping to let Steph sleep as much as possible.  She was actually doing well and thankfully was able to sit up with Paul for part of the night, giving me about three hours of sleep.  But it wasn’t very good sleep and I was entirely consumed with this little son of mine and that my wife now had to stay awake even longer.  All Paul had known was nine months of comfort in the womb, then suddenly he’s on the bright, noisy and cold outside but in the protective arms of Steph and I, and before that dust could settle he has something awkward on his face and no real contact with either of us other than the sound of our voices and fairly regular adjustments to the goggles.
I still don’t know how a heart can be full of joy and thoroughly broken at the same time, but mine was.  What’s really beyond my ability to explain is although I couldn’t have loved my new son any more than I already did, every moment that passed as I sat awake with him my love grew.  My heart was full, but somehow it kept getting fuller.  A better picture of this is that my love for my son was growing deeper and stronger with every minute that passed.  I know this would have happened even without the frustrating side trip to the incubator, but this little bit of additional frustration and adversity simply highlighted it for me.
Homeward Bound
The next day, and two very tired parents later, we took our son home.  Everything was exciting and scary.  Was the car seat in right?  Was he warm enough back there?  Would his little head flop over too far and hinder his breathing?  Would we know since the car seat faces to the rear for safety?  I can’t stare at him the whole time; what if we get into an accident?  Somehow we made it home.  Since then, like all parents, we’ve received perfect support and great advice from a variety of folks within our circle of friends and family.  I think we’ve managed to do OK as parents so far.  It’s wonderful to have the experience of others to lean on, and to learn that you really can do this parenting thing--a subset of this marriage thing--without an instruction manual.  By the way, that last statement doesn’t mean you can’t raise a child without both parents.  Life is messy and things happen--at a minimum the “Ds” haunt many of us:  deployments (or long business trips), divorce, death.  There’s other stuff too, but to keep this truthful, after my own experiences these last three and a half years, it seems to me solo parenting isn’t the default or preferred situation.  It takes two of us to make those little, wonderful kids, and it seems two should bring them up.  When that can’t happen, I hope that same circle of family and friends is there to stand along side the parent flying solo.  
Honoring our Women
My wife Stephanie is amazing and she’s also a hero to me, on that same very short list I have with just a few other people on it, including my dad and both grandfathers.  Ladies, every one of you stands on a pedestal in my world, for many reasons.  In the absence of other reasons though, you still hold that special place for that most wonderful and miraculous thing you can do--bare children.

Men, if we don’t honor our women--all women, but especially our wives--then we’re not really men.  The word “honor” gets used a lot in certain circles, but I’m not sure many of us really understand what it means practically.  Not that I agree with every premise behind his statements, consider this amazing conversation between Robert MacGregor and his son in a scene from the 1995 movie Rob Roy:
Son:  Father, will the MacGregors ever be kings again?
Rob Roy:  All men with honor are kings, but not all kings have honor.
Son:  What is honor?
Rob Roy:  Honor is what no man can give you, and no man can take away.  Honor is a man’s gift to himself.
Son:  Do women have it?
Rob Roy:  Women have the heart of honor, and we cherish and protect it in them.  And you must never mistreat a woman, nor malign a man, or stand by and see another do so.
Son:  How do you know if you have it?
Rob Roy:  Never worry in the getting of it.  It grows in you and speaks to you.  All you need do is listen.
Men, all our circumstances are different whether we’re single, married, or fathers.  But we can’t afford to mess this up.  We live in the world and others see us:  other men, sons, women, and daughters.  Never be an ass; just be an honorable man.  
Single men, it’s OK to be the man that women want you to be and that younger men can genuinely look up to.  Be a real man of strength and honor--mentally and physically.  Don’t let yourself fuel the caricature that men are full of rudeness and too much testosterone.  Don’t go to the other extreme either though and be that ugly model of overdone pasta with no idea who you are or what you stand for, and who doesn’t know where to find his spine or what testosterone is.  If you’re a husband, you have a wife to love and cherish.  If you’re a father, you have sons and daughters to raise.  For those of you with sons, join me in my hope that we raise our sons well.  We are men.  If you’d prefer not to be, like last week, feel free to send me your Man Card; I’ll quietly and discretely dispose of it for you and we’ll never speak of this again.
It’s great to be a dad!

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I recently picked a book up while browsing at a local bookstore.  Fathers and Sons: 11 Great Writers Talk About Their Dads, Their Boys, and What It Means To Be A Man is a collection of essays written by fathers, sons, and one daughter.  Only part way through the first essay in the first section of the book, entitled “The Beginning”, I found myself fighting indoor allergies, sweaty eyeballs, um, alright--tears.  Awkward to say the least, as I was sitting in a bookstore sipping coffee.  It was an unexpected reaction to an essay written by someone I don’t even know.  I can't say it brought back memories because what went through my head hadn’t been forgotten, but the essay did result in fragmented memories coming back together that hadn't been that way since the birth of my son almost three and a half years ago.

I haven't appropriately honored my wife for bringing my son into this wonderful world in this forum; it's overdue and the time has come.  I also haven't talked about those first hours in the hospital after Paul was born and the initial thoughts that went through my head a brand new dad--not so much the lofty philosophical thoughts (because frankly, there weren't any), but rather my initial caveman reaction to going from being a father who's son is still on the inside to being a father with a son in my arms.  So i'll write these thoughts and reflections down because I need to for myself, but hopefully those of you who read this will carry something away as well.  Dads, especially you first-time dads, assuming my experience isn't unique, maybe you'll find you're not alone; there are other men standing around you--standing with you in the fraternity that is fatherhood.  Moms, if you have a husband who doesn't like or want to talk about his fist contact with fatherhood, maybe this will give you some glimpse into your man's inner workings.
Our pregnancy was pretty much a standard one.  Steph dealt with gestational diabetes and pregnancy-related hypertension, but that's not uncommon and it wasn't ever a real issue.  Good advise from the doctors, discipline on Steph’s part, and things went smoothly.  Late in the game though, Paul did a summersault and ended up breach.  No big deal again.  As the day approached our doctor talked us through the procedure to turn him around just prior to delivery.  If it worked, a normal delivery would follow; if it didn't he'd still arrive courtesy of a C-section.  The day arrived and we checked into the hospital, armed with all our knowledge and no experience, ready to bring our child into the world.  Check in, get "comfortable," a sonogram to confirm the position of the child, rotate as required, and deliver--ready, set, go!  We came in with the C-section scheduled and mentally prepared for the surgery.  One quick sonogram later we learned that our child decided to have mercy on Steph; as she slept the night prior, he reoriented himself and was pointy end down.  The doctor told us we had an option: go ahead with the C-section as scheduled, or start down the path of a normal delivery.  Either was fine, but due to Paul's position, the natural path would take a little more time than usual to allow him to move the rest of the way down the birth canal and into contact with the cervix.  Having nothing else to do and a preference not to have surgery, we opted for a normal labor.  A little extra time, plus another 14 or so hours (what we were told was the average length of labor for a first child in the U.S.) and we' have a baby on the outside.  We were nervous but ready.
About that whole 14 hour thing...the next 51 hours were the fastest and longest hours of my life.  You read it right, I said fifty-one hours.  Hours.  Nothing really went wrong, but everything took a long time or even longer.  Let me back up; nothing went wrong in this modern world, but Steph and Paul may not have survived the birth in times past.  Paul simply wasn't  moving down the birth canal like he should.  He came down a little, then stopped and decided to take a break, think about coming out later, who knows.  Steph started having some major league contractions somewhere along the way, but not near the end.  Paul just wasn’t ready.  She was a superstar and powered through it like it was business as usual and she had done it many times before.  I don't and can't understand how this is possible other that to believe what I've heard others say: you ladies are made to do this.  And for the record, it's not only mysterious to us men; I think it's miraculous.  I was there and watched my wife do something she had never done before--give birth to my son, after doing something else she had never done before--carry another human inside her body for nine months while that little guy grew from a microscopic size to almost seven pounds.  I get the science behind it all but when I hear scientists talk about it all I hear is Charlie Brown's teacher talking.  When you look only at the biological and chemical science of pregnancy and birth, you miss the absolute majesty of it all.  There just aren't adequate words in human language to capture what happens.  And our wives some how contain this in their bodies naturally!
My wife literally wore the doctor and her staff out.  Around the 49th hour our doctor came in, did some of that poking around doctor stuff and said, "OK, if that baby isn't on the outside in an hour, we're going to go ahead and do the C-section".  We hadn't asked about this or even really discussed it between us since opting for labor, but when she said it Steph and I were absolutely agreeable and ready.  Exactly one hour later, our doctor retuned, did some more doctorly poking around, said some scholarly things about things with Latin names, and everything shifted to the surgery.
We Have A Son!
Another hour passed and Paul arrived.  I was in scrubs and sitting at Steph’s head.  The room was cool, and Steph was all bundled up (from where I sat), wrapped in sheets and blue towels, interestingly, looking a lot like Paul would just a few hours later after the nurses swaddled him.
The c-section was relatively fast after so many hours of labor.  Steph was a champion.  We exchanged small but important words, mostly exchanges of “I love you” and “how are you doing?”  She seemed very calm and I was nervous.  At one point she told me she felt like she couldn’t breath very well.  I glanced up at the monitor and anesthesiologist; things looked fine and he comforted her immediately by assuring her it was a common feeling due to the anesthesia, but that she was breathing fine and her oxygen levels were good.  Steph seemed OK and I had to trust him.  Very shortly after, our doctor said, “OK dad, I’m ready to deliver the baby, do you want to stand up and see?”  I winked at Steph and stood just in time to see my son enter the world.  His back was to me as the doctor gently and smoothly lifted him up with her hands under his arms.  Just a few seconds later and I heard his voice for the first time as he began to cry.  My heart leapt for joy and broke at the same time.  Nothing was wrong; everything was right and good.  And I had just witnessed the most amazing thing in my entire life:  the birth of my firstborn son; and my amazing wife who instantly became a hero in my eyes.
I’ve seen some amazing things through the 47 years of my life.  I’ve traveled to all but one continent on this earth, been to some of the wealthiest and poorest nations, worked as an EMT and firefighter, and served in combat along side my brothers and sisters in arms.  I have never seen anything that rivals what my wife did.  I didn’t do it; she did.  She bore my son, kept him safe, nourished him by God’s grace, then made herself completely vulnerable by placing herself at the mercy of everyone except herself as she lay helpless on her back on a table--entrusting herself entirely into the hands of people she really didn’t know.  And our son was born.

Like Alec Wilkinson wrote in the third essay in Fathers and Sons, I began to cry.  Just like him, I didn’t anticipate it.  In fact, I didn’t even think about my possible reaction to my son’s birth in advance.  Here’s what Alec said, “I did not expect to cry when my son was born--it seemed a silly and conventional and trivial thing to do, weep for joy, like a figure in an advertisement--but I did, quite suddenly and without warning, as if it were a reflex.”  I was blown away and I shed tears: not bawling, not even sobbing, but I quietly and lovingly wept in absolute awe of my wife.  Although it wasn’t the case before Paul was born, at that moment it became inconceivable to me that anyone can view human life as anything but miraculous: whether you’re a creationist, evolutionist, a noneoftheaboveist or a nothingatallist.  You get my point:  life is a miracle and my wife and son are the proof.  Ladies, you rock.  Moms, you’re something even more special.  You have facilitated miracles.
Men who are dads, if you don’t respect this about your wives, you should probably just turn in your man cards now, if you can find it.  If you think I’m right and can’t tell your wives what you think, or the other men in your lives, I fraternally encourage you to grow a pair or send your card to me and I’ll discretely dispose of it for you.  (We’ll never speak of this again.)  If you’re one of those other men and would presume to mock a fellow man who happens to be a dad and tells you something like this, turn your card in too, and use some form of express mail.  Finally, if you’re a single man or husband with no kids, I humbly ask you to just accept and respect what I’m telling you.  If and when your turn comes; let me know if you think I missed the mark on this.  By the way, unless you were born in a lab courtesy of a test tube, if you have the privilege of still having your dad around, consider finding the right time to ask him (or any other dad you respect) for his thoughts.  Be prepared to learn something (or to confiscate his man card).  I know you’ll do the right thing.
The first few nights after Paul was born were ordinary in one context, but extraordinary in another.  The extraordinary aspects I’m referring to are my own reactions to some very common things that happen with many an average newborn.  Nothing about the events of those next few short days and hours surprised me, but my reactions stunned me.  If you’re interested, please be patient and I’ll write more about this story soon.
It’s great to be a dad!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Real Living: Love and Friendship

Friendship and love are interesting.  In a way, they’re pretty straight forward but at the same time, they’re complicated beyond measure.  On occasion they overlap, and I think that’s when we go from living to truly living.

We all have friends.  These are the people you trust and invest time, attention, and to a varying degree a part of yourself into.  Across the spectrum of friends there are good ones and best ones; not really a problem though since people have depth and are complicated.  There are folks we invest more into than others for a variety of reasons--shared interests, available time, distance, etc.  Then there are those special circumstances where it’s not clear if someone is your friend or not, but elements of the relationship look and feel like friendship--even a very strong friendship.  Let me give you an example.  I’m in the military and move with some regularity.  Every two or three years I uproot my entire immediate family and off we go to a new place.  One of the amazing things about this lifestyle though is that we share it with many others in the same circumstances, and when we get somewhere new, we have immediate friends.  They may not be good friends at the start, or even ever, but there are elements of the relationship that would shock the best of friends outside this context.  I can arrive at a new location and literally trust my neighbor with the keys to my house, my car, to sign for my household goods (all the stuff we own and fill a house with), and frankly my wife and son.  Amazing!  I think someone once referred to these as the common bonds that will tie folks together.  And so goes friendship.  Because I’ve moved my entire life I have only a few friends I’ve retained from my youth (up through high school).  Oddly, I have even fewer that I’ve stayed in contact with from college.  But I have quite a few from my adult life, all spent in the military, several of whom are truly like brothers and sisters to me.  Some may be closer.  But what’s most interesting is my wife--I’ve known  her since grade school and we ended up married.  We are best friends, and we’re lovers.
So then there are those we love.  Philosophers bicker about what it is (and isn’t), but for us regular folks, it’s like “good art”, you know love when you see it.  It doesn’t really matter what the “experts” say.  We all love lots of things and the word has a variety of meanings.  In this case though, I’m talking about when we’re fortunate enough to find someone who is the love of our lives.  I’ve seen this in others now and then; sadly it seems rare.  I feel fortunate that I’ve found it too.  As I said, I married my absolute best friend, the mother of my son, and she’s also the love of my life.
So what’s the point?  Well there’s living, and then there’s living.  Don’t get me wrong--I’m not diminishing any relationship that anyone has, with or without a husband or wife.  For me, I was living a great life before I married my wife.  She was the right person for me, and over the seventeen years of our marriage, I’ve realized that while life was good, while I was living before, once we were together, life took on a whole new significance, meaning and purpose.  And it was amplified when we had our son.  I am alive--really alive.  I’m middle aged, my body has been broken (literally), and even serves as host to at least one “tropical” critter (parasite) that decided I’d make a good home when I was in Africa (and I’ll probably never be rid of until I move on).  But that’s not life.  My body can fail.  Living is having friends and genuine friendships.  Living, is when you have the privilege of seeing one of those friendships develop in to love.  It might be marriage, it might be the genuine love between brothers or sisters, and frankly it could even be between folks who aren’t related in either of these ways.  I’m not actually sure what makes it happen, but it does.  Life is a wonderful thing; real life--genuine living--is when we have the privilege of wonderful friendships, at least one of which becomes the love shared through marriage, through the deep bonds of brothers or sisters, or the absolute closest of friends.  Because of the dear friends I have, and the special love of my wife, I am a better man than I could have ever been otherwise.