Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day: A Triptych

September 22, 1984: The air in the room is heavy, suffocating, moist.  We are on the second floor of a 100-year-old house near downtown Eugene, Oregon.  There is a small wooden sign on the patch of lawn in front of the building: Lucinia Birth Home.  We've been here all through the night, pacing, murmuring, moaning.  The room is dim in the pre-dawn hours.  There is a single lamp lit with a small bulb somewhere in a corner of the room.  It's like we're cave explorers, my wife and I, feeling our way by touch through this new phase of our life; where we'll come out, God only knows.  Our midwife is here with us, slumped against the wall, too exhausted to even raise her head from her knees.  She has been riding the waves of contractions with us, but now she has given up and fallen by the wayside, dozing in a corner.  We could care less; she doesn't matter; she's only a speck in our lives, come and gone in an instant; and in twenty-eight years we will no longer remember her name.  There are only two people of importance in that room and that's us--a 21-year-old boy and a 24-year-old girl--trying to get through this as best we can.  We are panting in the thick, moist air and our eyes are locked.  This is happening.  This is really happening.  We are excited, we are scared, we are curious.  Our child--sex still unknown since we have adamantly refused an ultrasound--shifts beneath my wife's skin and she releases another low, trembling hum which in other circumstances might have sounded like a growl.  Our right hands grip tighter.  With my left hand, I reach up to brush aside a rope of hair, heavy with salted sweat, which has fallen across the bridge of her nose.  She shakes her head, silently telling me, "Not now.  Not now."  Because it has arrived, the now we've been waiting for.  This is the moment, the penultimate push, the last huge gulp of air we will take as a single couple, the final breath of childlessness.  A sudden sharp cry rises from my wife, splits the air of the room like a knife slicing a bedsheet hung on a laundry line.  She has been so brave for hours, relentlessly stoic in her approach to the pain, and I know she feels even this brief yelp is a sign of weakness.  "It's okay, it's okay," I whisper.  Her cry cuts the heavy air, dividing it between the Before and the After.  Because now it is Now.  Beneath the lingering pulse of my wife's triumphant yell comes a wet, slithering sound.  I have moved from my night-long position next to her ear, where I've counted and sympathy-panted and encouraged, to the place between her legs where the drama is unfolding.  And so I can see it happen: my son's entrance into this world.  For nine months, he has been this mystery--identity unknown, a shifting shape behind the barrier of my wife's skin.  To us, he's been only pieces and parts--a kicking foot here, the knob of an elbow there--but now here he is, pink and wet and complete.  He comes out of my wife's body and his arms spring open wide, as if he's at the end of a dream about falling from a skyscraper.  He gasps--the very first sound he'll make in this world--as he takes it all in: the dim, close room (not unlike the place he has just left) and the giant faces leaning in to welcome him to the world.  I take him into my arms and bring him to my wife and together the three of us cry.

Deighton Taylor Abrams

March 15, 1986:  "Don't you think you ought to--"  My wife holds up her hand and says, "Not now, Mom.  Not now."  Then she takes my arm in a death grip and we continue to pace the floor on the second-story of the birth home, by now a familiar path from two years ago.  My mother-in-law is hurt and offended by my wife's sharp rebuke and I throw her an apologetic glance.  She sniffs and nods, then goes back to her seat next to the bed.  I know she means well, she only wants to help her daughter get through this experience--which, to her disappointment, is not taking place in a hospital, but in a dim, unsterile room with nary a set of surgical scrubs in sight--but by this point, my wife and I think of ourselves as pros.  We've done it before, we can do it again.  We walk fifteen paces, stop, turn, walk another fifteen paces, stop, turn.  I go slow, holding myself back to my wife's pace though what I really feel like doing is running, skipping, pirouetting through the air.  This is happening again!  We're bringing another one into the world!  Right now, my wife is a little less excited.  This is a harder labor, her body objects to this repeat performance.  It knows what's coming and it does not like it one bit, no it doesn't.  My wife stops in mid-pace, leans against the wall, moaning with a pain I will never be able to appreciate (even my vasectomy, when it comes years later, will be a tickle by comparison).  My wife's fingers turn into a falcon's claws gripping my upper arm, squeezing as the tide of a contraction washes through her body.  I'll have a bruise on my arm the next day, but I don't care.  If this is how my wife needs to bear through the agony, then so be it.  I look up at my mother-in-law and smile through the pain.  It's cool--we're pros--nothing to it.  My mother-in-law clucks and looks away.  Even though she was with us here in this very room for our first son's birth, she's still not convinced in the value of birth homes and will hold on to her disparaging attitude until precisely two hours and twenty-three minutes later when she will stand next to me and watch my second son come into the world.  My mother-in-law is not one to surrender easily to emotion.  She holds everything inside with an impressive will and determination.  In the few times I've seen her cry, it's like watching a drop of water being squeezed through the crack of a dam.  On this day, at this moment, however, the dam breaks.  I put my son into her arms and she coos, then starts to cry openly.  She looks up at me and tries to speak, but nothing comes out.  It's okay, though.  I know what she is trying to say: "This all worked out just fine.  You knew what you were doing."  Yes, we did--to the extent that any scared young parents can know how to do this impossible task of creating another person.  My mother-in-law hands our son to my wife, then quickly runs her fingers across the hollows of her eyes to brush away the tears.  I pretend I never noticed her crying.  I turn to look out the window of the birth home.  The sun cracks the horizon and bleeds orange across the buildings of downtown Eugene.  It's a sight I would never dare to write into my fiction because it's an eye-rolling cliche.  My son, the sun--both arriving at the same time.  If I hadn't been standing there at that window watching it happen, feeling the day's new warmth spread across my face, I would never have believed it.  The others in the room are oblivious to this poetry.  The small moment is mine and mine alone.  I smile and turn from the window, then ask, "Anyone hungry?"  My wife looks up from our son nursing at her breast and says, "Starved!"  My mother-in-law says, "I doubt you'll find any place open at this hour."  But I do.  I drive through the streets of Eugene in the soft morning and, in another impossible miracle, I find a Chinese restaurant that's open for breakfast.  I bring the food back to the birth home, holding up the bags with all the triumph of a hunter returning with a deer slung around his neck.  The three of us sit on the bed, plates balanced on our laps, and stare at the miracle of my new son as he sleeps in a nest of bedsheets.  It is the most delicious Chinese food I've ever eaten.

Schuyler Daniel Abrams

December 1, 1988:  On the day my wife's body is once again being split up the middle with pain--wrenched apart like a Thanksgiving wishbone in the hands of a malicious 8-year-old--I'm clinging to a log forty feet above the floor of a forest on Fort Knox, Kentucky, thinking I'm about to die.  My wife has been walking through a shopping mall in Albuquerque, her mother at her side, both of them trying to encourage the onset of labor.  The pain has now arrived, ringing the doorbell with an insistence she cannot ignore.  At the same time, 1,300 miles away, I'm feeling my own sort of pain.  I'm in the eighth week of Army basic training and it's killing me.  This day, our platoon has gone through a confidence course, the drill sergeants' vein-popping screams goading us through the obstacles: a rope climb, a 15-foot wooden wall, rows of crotch-high beams which we must step over while keeping our hands locked on top of our heads.  We call it The Nutcracker.  I navigate it with aplomb (albeit groaning aplomb) because, frankly, I no longer need my nuts.  I'm about to have my third child and my wife and I have agreed to call it quits after this one, even if it's not the daughter we're hoping for.  This child is one of the reasons I've signed up for the Army in the first place.  We've been strapped for cash ever since I graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Oregon a year ago--we're what's known as "the working poor"--and I want to raise my children with the security of money the Army will provide.  Now, halfway through the confidence course, I'm not so sure I've made the right choice.  The rest of my platoon has already passed through this obstacle known as The Weaver, a pyramid of irregularly-spaced logs through which we must thread ourselves like a cross-stitch needle going across fabric: over under over under.  The logs are thick--impossible for me to fully wrap my arms around in a hug--and they are slick from decades of use, shiny from the passage of a hundred thousand other scared soldiers.  I go up and up, higher and higher.  Far below, the forest floor is hard and cold as concrete.  I am two logs from the peak of The Weaver's pyramid when I make the mistake of looking down.  I am terrified of heights--always have been, always will be--and now I freeze, despite the outraged screams of my drill sergeants.  My arms cannot hold on to this sweat-greased log much longer.  I close my eyes and think of my wife.  I think of her standing at the base of the pyramid, holding my sons' hands, and calling to me with words that, yes, fill me with confidence.  I take a deep breath, summon one last surge of energy from my fright-numbed muscles, and go over under over under, wriggling like a snake through the remaining logs.  Four states away, my wife is doing the same thing--willing herself to ride through the peaks and valleys of pain--but I have no idea this is taking place.  To prevent the "real world" from distracting us, the Army only allows soldiers in basic training to make one "morale call" per week (this is long before email, cell phone texts, and Facebook updates).  Each Sunday, we line up at the bank of telephone booths near our barracks and wait to make our one call home.  My wife goes into labor on December 1, a Thursday, but I'm not able to call her until December 4.  I dial the number to her parents' house in Albuquerque where she has gone to stay during my nine weeks of basic training.  My mother-in-law answers the phone.  "Well?" I say.  "Am I a father?"  There is a pause.  "No one told you?" my mother-in-law asks.  "Told me what?"  Another pause.  "Here, let me put her on."  Another long pause during which the phone is passed between hands and my mind races to any number of tragedies--stillbirth, umbilical cords wrapped around throats, deformed limbs.  My wife comes on the line.  "I can't believe they didn't tell you."  "Tell me what?"  I'm leaning against the wall of the phone booth, my legs still weak and trembling from The Weaver.  "Tell.  Me.  What?!"  Through the grimy glass of the phone booth, I can see other soldiers standing in line, checking their watches, glaring at me.  My wife's voice crackles through the phone--half of it static, half of it her voice breaking with emotion: "How does it feel to be the father of a little baby girl?"  My own throat clogs.  "Really?  A girl?"  "Yes, and she's absolutely beautiful.  A perfect little baby."  Now I am openly crying and I don't care how long those other soldiers have to wait in line.  I'm a father.  Of the daughter we'd been waiting for.  "When?" I ask.  "Three days ago.  I can't believe they didn't tell you.  God, I hate the Army!" (This was the first, but not the last, time my wife would say this over the next 20 years.)  "It doesn't matter, hon," I say.  "It's not that big of a deal.  I'm a father.  And that's all that matters."  My wife dries her tears, then asks, "Do you want to say hello?  She's nursing right now, but I'll hold the phone close to her so you can hear."  Then, through the interstate hiss of static, I hear it: a tiny, soft suckling sound.  Proof of life.  I walk out of the phone booth ten minutes later with a wet face.  I'm not ashamed.  In fact, I want all those other angry, impatient shave-heads to see I've been crying.  And let them try to figure out why I'm also smiling.  Later that night, I'm in the barracks polishing my boots when the drill sergeant bellows at me from his office at the other end of the room: "C'mere, Private!"  I scramble to my feet, hustle along the polished wooden floor, stand front-and-center at parade rest in front of his desk.  "I hear you got some news this morning."  "Yes, Drill Sergeant!"  "I hear you're a father."  "Yes, Drill Sergeant!"  He squints at me, like he's measuring the distance between his boot and my ass.  Then he grunts and reaches down to pull something from his desk drawer.  "Congratufuckinglations, private!"  He thrusts a cellophane-wrapped cigar at me.  "Th-thank you, Drill Sergeant."  The grimace returns to his face and he looks like he's about to cock back his leg for a swift ass-kick.  "Now get the hell out of my office, Private!  Who the hell you think you are standing here talking to me?  You think you're my best friend or something?"  "No, Drill Sergeant!"  I beat a hasty, nervous retreat from his office, clutching the cigar to my chest.  I will never smoke that stogie and somehow it will be lost or stolen before I graduate from basic training.  But that night I go to sleep with it on the pillow next to my face.  Each time I breathe in the woodsy aroma of tobacco, I pretend I'm sniffing the baby-powder scent which rises from the warm crown of my new daughter's head.  Just before I drop off to sleep, I tell the cigar I love it and that I'm proud to be its father.

Kylie Caitlin Abrams


  1. Just for the record, that's breast milk in that bottle!

  2. Aw, I'm all teared up. Very moving.

  3. A classic, memorable, touching piece, and I love those kids too, and their parents!!! Love Mom

  4. What a wonderful way to preserve those memories. My eldest was born in 1986, and youngest 1989. This is very moving, and of course our children are our greatest achievements, in life (but it's not an easy process, that birthing stuff). My husband told me after the first (that was the bravest thing I've seen anyone do) and after the second "we're done" (yes)