On Ramps In The Rain
Well, I’m back.
I’ve been wandering around today, listening to the thrum of rain on the roof, sipping a Diet Coke and catching up with my colleagues in the office, telling them tales from my own strange little odyssey of parenthood. I’m tired but not exhausted; we’ve had some help with Augustus around the house, which enabled us to catch up on some desperately needed sleep. For a while there, things moved around on the far side of dark glass. Life stuttered and has regained its footing. The world is not as it was.
Little by little, change has thawed to reveal a new normality. Just the other night, for instance, Amanda and I had a nice quiet thirty minutes – maybe the best thirty minutes of my life – watching the most recent episode of Orphan Black while Augustus slept. Hiro the cat lounged on his tower. My mom was driving in from across town to watch him and sing him songs through the night. For a few minutes, life was good and full, like a fridge after a trip to the store.
I’ve been told that loving a child is different than anything else. I’m a skeptic by nature, but I’ve come to think a bit about that idea in the days since Augustus came into the world. It’s amazing to me what’s the same and what’s different. I’ve loved before, of course, and that love was strong and true. The love I feel for the tiny person asleep in his blanket as he wears his little hats is different. (I can’t with his little hats. I just can’t.)
This love is bigger and brighter and yet somehow more compact. Loving a child is so much more emotion than I’ve ever felt, fit into so much smaller of a space; it’s a kinetic kind of love, the kind of feeling you can touch with your fingertips, one you can feel by the ache in your bones.
I remember reading about the feeling. I’ve heard it before; “You’ll love them so much it hurts.” I thought that was a metaphor, or a cliché. I read forums and articles and spoke to various folks about this sort of thing. They all said the same thing – all knowingly, all certainly, all with some degree of benign condescension – “You have no idea.”
That was a wretched phrase. It made me angry, and I’m not sure why.
Maybe I was angry because I hadn’t ever felt it, this mystical “love them so much it hurts” type feeling. I’ve always hated being left out of things, after all. I hate feeling left behind.
Perhaps it made me angry because I was worried that – when I did have a child of my own – I wouldn’t feel the right things. That I’d see the baby and feel nothing at all except irritation or disappointment. That I’d be a bad father by proxy, and would live the rest of my life in some sort of strange theater production if I wanted the kid to grow up any semblance of normal.
Maybe I was angry because I knew parenthood for me was inevitable and – from the outside looking in – something about parenthood looked…well, diminutive. Parents are parents, after all, at the base of everything else. It’s the single biggest foundation of who they are as people.
Sure, they’re your buddies and your colleagues and your bosses – but at the end of the day, when they’re trying to scurry out the door, they more often than not have a child they’re trying to get to. At five o’clock, no matter what a person’s title, life for parents devolves into a knotty tangle of logistics – Jon has to drive to a show because his son is playing in it; Darryl has to take his daughter to soccer practice; Shanna has to take her daughter to the pediatrician because she’s sick again. Et cetera.
At the end of the day, all parents became variations of the same person.
Perhaps I was afraid that being a dad would somehow reduce me; that fatherhood would knock off all my jagged complexities until I was smooth and heavy and monochromatic as a billiard ball.
And to be fair, maybe that has already happened.
If it has, I haven’t noticed. And if it has, I don’t care.
To anyone reading this who may be wondering about parenthood, I write from the other side. Here is what I have to say:
I used to think of my life as a book. If it had a title, it would be A Perpetual Symphony. It’s a long and interesting book (I think) with triumphs and failures and highs and lows. Heroes and villains, even. Goldleaf font pressed into a green leather cover. Definitely an unreliable narrator.
As of June 17th, 2017, that book is over.
A Perpetual Symphony turned its final page. Halfway through a chapter that meandered and went nowhere, thereafter came the telltale blank pages, an About-The-Author segment with a black and white photo of me leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette.
Even thinking of it, I’m overcome with that strange bitter sweetness which accompanies the end of any book; that slight chill of dropping out of a story and back into the world. I won’t lie to you and say the sensation of being a dad isn’t terrifying, at least for me. My book – and my life – are over, after all.
What I’ll tell you, though, is what I’ve come to think this actually means.
You see, it’s not actually a big deal when a life is over, because nobody ever lives just one life.
We are lucky enough to live one lifetime, and one lifetime can be a decade, even a century of lives. You’ve already experienced this. You were a child once. Remember sprinklers in summer? Remember the smell and taste of Halloween? Remember Christmas? That was a whole life that came and went - and before you think I’m being silly, answer me this: does Halloween mean to you now what it meant to you as a child? How about Christmas, or Happy Meals from McDonalds? Of course not. You grew up.
That life ended, and then you were a young adult, and a student. At some point you were a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Maybe you played an instrument. Maybe you were a Marine or a soldier or a sailor or an airman. Maybe a husband or a wife. All of these were different lives of all different shapes and sizes and colors. Some were better than others. Some were fleeting. Others were permanent.
Living one full lifetime means living many full lives. The happiest people, I think, are the ones who try to experience as much as they can, wherever they are, whoever they are, whenever they are. Nobody is just one person. We’re all many people. What I realized as I closed my book was that A Perpetual Symphony wasn’t a standalone novel, but was the first book in a series; not one big book, but a bookshelf full of big books, and now it was time for the sequel.
What’s the conclusion to this analogy, you ask?
Simply this: Having a child doesn’t dump the books.
It adds more bookshelves.
Labor went too long. 38 hours, all in. Amanda was in so much pain at times she dipped in and out of consciousness between contractions. In one such pocket I sat alone in the hospital room with the lights dimmed, looking at her swollen feet and the little toenails she had painted on Gus’ due date, the day he was supposed to come but didn’t, the day she’d treated herself to a pedicure at the local salon.
The room was quiet. The only sounds were the machines and the muffled hum of conversation out in the hall. Amanda put six hours of Disney music on her phone for labor. That music never played. Something about the shadows made me hide it.
Death was in that room.
We never spoke about it but I knew it was there. I could feel it at the edges of things. Life was there, too. I could feel them wrestling and struggling with one another; a sliver of a war as old as time itself. I saw evidence of their attrition in the spasms of pain across Amanda’s face.
As I sat there, looking at Amanda’s feet, I remembered how one day she started swell up and started to really show. That was the day pregnancy became real for her and as such it became real for me. I forget how many weeks it was, but it was right around then that Amanda started to give off the proverbial glow, started smiling more, started talking to her stomach when she thought no one was listening, and began dancing around the kitchen with her bump to make me laugh.
Sometimes, when she was particularly delighted, she’d wiggle her toes on her giant feet and giggle, and I’d laugh all the harder. Hiro the cat sat on the countertops, wondering what the hell was wrong with us. For months, there was a lot of laughter in our house.
There was no laughter in this room. This was a grim place, quiet but for Amanda’s gentle, rhythmic weeping and the ticking of a clock.
“I love you,” she said one time, thirty hours into labor.
She said it as though she’d been in the middle of a sentence, not knowing she’d passed out. One moment her head was on the pillow and the next it was up and she was speaking again. The tears from her last contraction hadn’t even dried her on her face. Barely had she gotten the words out before she cried out and whimpered, wrenching her back and gripping the sides of the bed.
I reached out and touched her leg. I opened my mouth to respond but she was gone again before I could say a word, snoring where her sweaty head fell back against the pillow. I looked down at her feet and saw them unmoving and swollen, pale as stone in the dim light.
I clasped my hands and prayed.
“Please, God,” I said. “Please.”
Women are stronger than men. I hate generalizations, usually, but this one I believe to be true. Women come in all shapes and sizes; some bright and chirpy, others dark and elegant. Some are loud and some are quiet. Tall and short, thick and thin. Some want to be princesses and others want to be CEOs. Some want to be both. Some don’t know what they want and some don’t think they deserve to want anything.
Women pride themselves on what makes them different from one another. If you strip away all their differences, though, you’ll soon find what they share; an ancient strength, passed down from when God carved them from bone. Beneath all their color and gentility and music, women have souls that can quicken to iron. Remember that, if nothing else.
When Gus finally came, I felt everything change.
God blinked. Something pulled back off the world, like the sheet was finally whisked off Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper machine. There was a sound in my ears like receding water. I felt a strange sensation, as though I was standing naked on a precipice over a wide open space.
He looked at me. Not in my direction, but right at me. I’d never seen anything so small. His face was wrinkled and fragile and – to my tired, bewildered, uncertain brain – ugly as hell. I looked through his eyes and saw his soul, and when I did my heart broke like glass and changed.
Let me tell you this:
I’d never seen anything more startling, more electric, more utterly transfixing in my life.
The minutes after a delivery are madness. Sound and fury. Blood everywhere. Before the nurses took Gus to be cleaned off, they placed him on Amanda’s chest for a moment so she could see him. She laughed a weak laugh and said hello to him as I cut the umbilical cord in one, two, three snips. It felt like cutting through a slab of chicken. Sometime after that I slip out of the narrative and find myself on the outside of things looking in. It looks like this:
I feel as though I intrude upon the world. I lick my lips and do my best to stay out of the way.
“He’s beautiful!” the doctor booms. The nurses babble and agree.
He’s not our doctor. We’ve never met him before, yet here he is, blue smock covered in arterial spray and other, nameless mess. He holds Gus up to the light.
When I see my son, I don’t think he’s beautiful.
Beautiful is too small, too limited a word. Words are keys, after all, and while beautiful is a good key that fits many locks, Gus ain’t one of them. Gus is mesmerizing. He’s small. He’s vibrant. He’s fast. The first time I touch his arm, I am startled to learn that he is strong.
Most all, even now as the doctor holds him in the air with two hands, and Gus flails his arms and feet, he’s alive – he’s a real-life-whole-new person who seems to have come out of nowhere; the prestige of a really gory, loud, violent magic trick. A solar system of human ingredients is splattered across the room and there at the center of it all, like a nucleus or a sun – Augustus Grant Murphy. My son. My sun.
I follow him as the nurses take him away to the heating lamp, where I lean over him, more analytical than wondrous. His skin is gray and fleshy. He’s shrieking and rolling his head on the tissue paper, flexing his tiny hands and feet as though tormented by a great pain. I wonder if life hurts when it starts. I wish I could remember. I wish that I could help. On a whim I catch one of his little hands in my palm and hold it in the air. His tiny fingernails scrabble across my skin. It feels like holding a beetle.
“Wow,” I say. I blink away a sting in my eyes and I say it again. “Wow.”
I don’t realize when I start crying. They say in college never to use the word suddenly, but there’s no other word for it this time. Suddenly, there are tears all over my cheeks. I rub them away with the back of my wrist and turn back to Amanda.
Looking away from Augustus feels wrong. It feels like I’m doing something I shouldn’t, but I have to know: is Amanda alright? She has anxiety around men she doesn’t know. Now there’s a man neither of us knows sitting on a stool between her legs. Is she okay?
“Wow, I had no idea,” Amanda is saying.
She’s propped up on her elbows, her expression that of someone deep in thought. I hesitate. Were it not for the circumstances, I might have thought she was discussing Othello over coffee. The doctor is nodding. He’s a big man with a big voice. He pulls on a needle that winks in the light, tugging a dark string taught behind it. I realize he’s sewing her up between her legs. I walk across the room, my limbs heavy and resistant. It’s like I’m moving through water.
“Isn’t that amazing?” the doctor says. “I thought it was so cool when I learned that.”
“It is,” Amanda agrees. “Really cool.”
I go to her side, passing on the way the doctor’s back and the blinding illumination of the surgery lights. Vibrant red blood flows in a cascade down the plastic sheeting where it hangs over the side of the bed. I avert my gaze and cup a hand up over my eyes like a horse-blinder.
“I don’t want you seeing me like that,” she’d said to me once, and I’d promised I wouldn’t look. The memory feels like years ago; an oath from a time before the world was here to witness it.
Now I’m at her side and she’s smiling at me through an oxygen mask. I lean over her and touch her cheek with my knuckle. I didn’t look, I tell her, I swear didn’t look. It feels like a confession. Her blue eyes are tired and shining.
“I love you,” she says. I move my hand on her forehead and tell her I love her too.
When I look up again it takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. Across the room at the heat lamp there’s nobody at all. No nurses. No nothing. The screaming has stopped. For a single blinding moment, I panic. Never before has a silence felt so profound.
That’s when I see them.
Two tiny hands, curious and gentle, flexing and moving through the air as though touching a fabric I cannot see. I stand and watch them sway and drift, like seaweed at the bottom of a lake.
My son, I think again. My son.
The word feels strange. I wonder what it means, even now as it occurs to me that I’ll have to sing him Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as soon as I get a chance. He’ll have never heard that song before, because he’s never heard anything. To my baby boy, this tiny thing with the gentle hands that move like seaweed at the bottom of a lake, all the world is a story his father has yet to tell him.
Now I think of the world and all that’s in it, and I watch his little hands feeling in the air for something I cannot see as I touch the warmth of Amanda’s forehead. I’m crying again. Perhaps I never stopped. For a moment, he and she and I are all who are and ever were and ever will be.
All around us, the world is going out and coming in.
The sound is like an ocean in a seashell.
Today’s my first day back at work and of course it’s pouring rain. Stormy season in northern Alabama, I suppose, though I’ve yet to come across a season here that wasn’t prone to a bit of stormy weather. Our first day in Huntsville, Amanda and I were at a Thai restaurant, considering the rain as it battered the windows of the dining room, driving hard and sideways from the north. Having lived in Georgia for a few years, we were unaccustomed to such weather, and were fascinated by the downpour.
Gus hasn’t even been conceived yet, in this memory. Here, in this chapter of the book, we’re still thinking about things like finding a job and breaking a lease.
Life was smaller, then.
Now I’m not so fascinated by the rain. I drive slow, afraid to get in a wreck.
I’ve got music on, but it’s not what I normally listen to. I don’t mind. I’m looking for new songs to show Gus. I wonder what I’ll show him next, now that I’ve introduced him to a few of the golden oldies. I’m making plans about what movies to show him first (Disney, obviously, but also Indiana Jones and Star Wars and Blade Runner and Casablanca) and wondering if I’ll have written a book by the time he’s old enough to read it. I realize at some random point in the day that I’d only want to write a book my son would want to read. I wonder what that entails. I wonder where to begin.
I come to an on ramp in the rain and am grateful for it. All the rainwater sloughs off to the sides of the road into the gravel and the grass. The asphalt is clear; one small pocket of safety on a treacherous morning. The Toyota crawls up the incline, dark wipers trundling across the windshield.
“Thank God for on ramps in the rain,” I say to myself, alone in the car.
Jump Around by House of Pain comes on and I think about how I’ll show Gus this song, someday, when he’s old enough to jump around with me to the music. I think about Mrs. Doubtfire, and about Robin Williams, and how Gus will never know a world where he was alive. I think about how much happiness and melancholy we have on this little planet of ours. Somehow, I’ve got to bring it to him.
My colleagues are happy to see me. Many ask why I’m at work at all, so close to Gus’ birth. I smile and tell them that I wouldn’t be here if I had the leave days to burn. I tell them that if I’m ever a senator, one of the first things I’m going to push for is paternity leave as a matter of national law. They laugh and shake their heads and ask to see photographs. I oblige.
If you’re reading this, and are a parent, you probably know what we mean.
If you’re not a parent yet, thanks for reading this. I hope it helped if you’ve ever been curious about (or afraid of) what becoming a dad (or maybe a mom) is like. What I can promise you about having children is this – and I say it without a shred of condescension or twinkling eyes, but with my hand on my heart, and the other on your shoulder: When you have a child, you will understand. You will.
Until my next writing.