The details of the day I first met the FTS, nearly two and a half years ago, exist in my mind like tangible things. They have form and substance, dimension and clarity. The memories are so distinct that they blur the lines between past and present.
[Cue the trilling harp and start the wavy flashback special effect…]
After 16 hours of labor that day, the OBGYN had told the FTM that it was time to start thinking about a C-section. The doctor knew that the FTM was determined to deliver naturally, so she offered this news with the care and concern of a veteran. Of course, the doc had been around the block enough to also know why the medical profession called delivering a baby the “trial of labor.” The delivery of the FTS was a trial in the Biblical sense, in the God testing Job sense. So she wasn’t surprised when the FTM responded with a desperate, relieved “Yes, please, anything, just make it stop.”
The sharpened point of medical necessity ran into the soft flesh of the patient’s desire, and like it always does, the sharp point won the day.
The role of the husband during delivery is support. Short of battlefield injuries sustained in the cruelest of wars, the level of pain, discomfort, and humiliation borne by a woman during the trial of labor is nothing a man will ever experience. But truth be told, it’s not easy on us, either. To watch the person you love most in the world suffer through the final insult in the 9-month-long ordeal of pregnancy is a trial all its own. There is screaming, and sweating, and bodily fluids evacuated in ways more gruesome and unpleasant than you could imagine. So when the doctor announced her plan to deliver via C-section, I was as relieved as anyone.
Either through Hollywood’s over dramatization of the world, or through my own misinterpretation of the same, I had a mental image of an operating theater that bore no resemblance to the real thing. I had pictured a dark room with deep shadows, the only illumination coming from bright spotlights throwing yellow halogen warmth on the doctor and patient.
What I found instead, on that day more than two years ago, was the best-lit room on the planet. Every corner, every crevice was bathed in a white light. The surface of the mostly white floor, counters and table were cleaned to a shining brilliance that made me feel like I was stepping onto E.T.’s mother ship.
The FTM and I were seated in the center of this alien environment, our view of the surgery blocked by a large blue drape. We were making nervous small talk when we were interrupted by the cry of a baby. This is how we were introduced to our son, and it was an astounding moment. What had been only the idea of a baby – a writhing, tumbling, hiccoughing idea of a baby – was suddenly real. He was swaddled, ointment was applied to his eyelids, and the FTS was handed to me.
To say it was a life changing moment would do a disservice to the words life, changing, and moment. I entered the operating room a self-centered, self-absorbed person whose understanding of the meaning of life was limited to his own aspirations. I left as a father.
I know this all sounds like a cliché. And I know it’s not the same for everyone. It can’t be. If it was, no parent would ever harm a child, abandon a child, or simply not love a child. And there are way too many parents who are guilty of all three sins for my experience to be anything approaching universal. So when I speak, I speak for myself and no one else. What I experienced was true, unconditional, unadorned, everlasting love. I know this because really, there are no words to describe it.
When the FTM became pregnant for the second (and last) time, I was terrified. How could I possibly have that experience again? Wasn’t that day a once-in-a-lifetime event? How could I possibly love another being the way I love the FTS? Isn’t it his uniqueness, his singular bond with me, his oneness that makes him so special? How could a second son evoke any of those feelings in me? Won’t it just seem like old hat? I have been living in fear that when I hold my new son for the first time, I will feel nothing. Wait, that’s not right. Not nothing, but nothing special. Been there, done that.
[Okay, cue the flash forward harp music and the wavy special effects. Back to present day.]
At the doctor's suggestion and to the FTM's great relief, pregnancy number two was to end in a scheduled C-section rather than a trial of labor. So this past Monday, my betrothed and I were led to what I think was the very same labor and delivery room we had occupied in 2008. Same ominous machinery, same neonatal resuscitation poster, same view of the parking lot. It was eerily familiar. But that’s where the similarities ended.
While the first pregnancy saw hours of labor, punctuated by moments of frenetic activity, today’s trip to the hospital was a hurry-up-and-wait affair. The FTM was scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. c-section. Her doctor materialized right on cue at 9:20, but only to tell us that another one of her patients was fully dilated and starting to push. We would have to wait. And wait we did. And wait. And wait. And wait some more.
hospital clocks were all off by an hour.
The FTM had an IV and a fetal heart monitor, and oh yeah, she was still uncomfortably pregnant. We killed time watching Neil Diamond perform a Monkees song on the Today Show, Rick Springfield being interviewed on Access Hollywood, and the worst noon-time newscast I’ve ever seen. (NBC in New York, you should be ashamed of yourself.) Time passed in slow, rhythmic waves, each one bringing more anxiety than the one before, kind of like non-contractions contractions.
Finally, after what felt like an entire epoch in recorded history, it was the FTM’s turn.
My wife was wheeled away and I changed into my hospital scrubs. Then I waited some more. And then some more!
Nearly half an hour later, they came for me. I was led into the same blindingly white operating theater I had been to for the delivery of the FTS, averting my eyes as I passed the medical team that hovered over the FTM’s torso. I was directed to my now usual seat behind the blue paper screen. The FTM’s head and arms seemed to be floating free behind that screen, as if she were an apparition. Seated behind me was the anesthesiologist, a man about my age, who seemed to content to read his email and send text messages from his phone.
The surgery itself was a more brutal experience for the FTM than was her first delivery. More than once she gritted her teeth and gripped the O/R table, feeling the pain and pressure of the doctors jostling the baby. Most disconcerting was hearing the doctor instruct a resident on how to perform a C-section. It was kind of like getting a haircut at Barber College.
At 1:49 p.m., we heard a cry. More like the screech of an angry and very small bird. Or maybe a velociraptor, if the Jurassic Park movies are to be believed. This wasn’t the cry I remembered from two years earlier. This cry was kind of scary.
The boy, who we quickly and officially named Second Time Son (STS), was weighed (7 lbs. 9 oz) and given the Apgar Test. Apgar is both the name of the doctor who invented the test and an acronym for Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration. It’s a quick and dirty way to make sure a new baby has no overt medical problems. The test is done at the moment of birth and again at birth plus five minute,s and is scored on a scale of one to ten, with ten being perfect. (Seven is a pretty normal score.) We were delighted to hear that the STS scored a 9 at birth and 10 at birth plus five. The nurse told us that scores of 10 were very rare. (Maybe she says that to all the parents, but either way, the STS aced his first exam, and dammitall if I wasn’t proud!)
Weighed, tested, and foot-printed, the little guy was held up high for his mother to see, and handed to yours truly. Given his perfect Apgar score, I was a expecting a hearty handshake and a “How do you do, father? Pleased to make your acquaintance.” But for some reason, he was still wailing like a siren when I took him.
Like his brother before him, the STS was swaddled to immobility and his eyes were sealed shut with a Vitamin K paste. His mouth was moving not quite in time with the screeching, like a badly dubbed foreign film. Going on instinct, I started to sing to the boy:
Hold me now
Oh hold me now
‘Til this hour goes around
And I’m gone on a rising tide
Gone to face, Van Diemen’s Land
It’s the first verse of a U2 song written and performed by The Edge, and it calmed the STS down. I sang several other songs, rocking him gently as I did, all of which he seemed to like. With the siren silenced, I was able to contemplate my new soon with calm, cool, clarity. And here’s the truth:
I didn’t feel the same way I’d felt with the FTS.
But that’s okay. I didn’t want to.
What I felt with the STS was no less potent, no less profound, and no less love. It was just a different kind of love. Kind of like the difference between your first true romantic love and your last true romantic love. (For some folks, this is the same person, but not for most of us.) The first true love is a white-hot passion, a brightly burning fire that overwhelms you. Your last true love is a like a heated pool on a cool night, enveloping you in so much warmth and safety that you never want to get out. Both are real, both are love, and both mean the world to you. That’s what it was like with the FTS and the STS. Of course romantic love, especially your first, can end. Parental love, near as I can tell, lasts forever.
Many more things happened this day, notably the introduction of the STS and FTS to one another, which I’ll save for a future post. For now, let me just say again, to have a child is to fall in love. And I am in love, again.