Happy Birthday, Little Boy

My husband and I talked about the baby thing forever. In five days, we will have been together for nine years, and we only just got around to making a baby now, which exposes some of our ambivalence. It was the same old crap that most urban (not to be confused with urbane, because we aren't--I don't think) couples face. First we were broke and I was in school: we were living in Rinky Dink, Washington, living on my student loans and his job at a music store. When we moved to Portland, both of our "careers" flowered. By then we got complacent and happy with our grown-up lifestyles: traveling, eating out all the damned time, drinking far too many beers and smoking far too many smokes. There were places we still wanted to travel, things we still wanted to do. We had it pretty good, and we were loathe (I hate to admit) to give it up.

And there was the terror issue, as well. For me there has been a deeply buried but real fear of heartbreak: I suspected that a kid was going to make me more fragile and vulnerable than ever before, and I wasn't sure I was up to the challenge. I have sometimes waged battles with my own psyche; I feared that throwing a tiny little person in the mix might be just the cocktail for a full-fledged meltdown.

But time eventually gets the better of you, and you have to face whether or not you are going to take the plunge. I turned 33, my husband turned 40, and time wasn't seemingly slowing down for us. So rather than make a decision in any hard and fast way (our conversations ran like this: "What do you think?" "I don't know; what do you think?") we began keeping track of when we might try if we were so inclined. But nothing serious. No commitment, mind you.

So on one of those "maybe" days, the first day that we were, as they say, trying, we got a bun in the oven. Just like that. Presto. It was absurdly, ridiculously easy--so easy that my husband didn't believe me the first time I told him there was a pip in the pipage. And the rest is history.

Except that on that slightly chilly January day, this spectacular little visitor showed up. I worked outrageously hard to bring him here, harder than I've ever done anything (without even the benefit of aspirin--I think I was insane), and it just about killed me. It certainly injured me. The nurses who looked in on the new little family at the City on the Hill (the hospital is precariously perched on a small mountain; while picturesque, one can't help but imagine it sliding down the precipice in an earthquake) all told me that I was the most mangled new mom they had seen in a while. Unable to walk, unable to sit up without help from either a nurse or my husband, or sometimes both, my husband had to take care of both me and the newest member of the clan.

He took charge immediately. Not one for reading all the articles I pushed at him over the course of my pregnancy, and certainly a novice (like myself) in the tot department, it was a surprise to see him deftly picking up his tiny son and soothing him as though his entire life was all just a dress rehearsal for this one moment. Unclear about diapers, not only did he watch the nurses every time they changed the bun, but he insisted on private lessons if he was feeling a little unsure about it. He asked questions, he watched them take his temperature, followed the bun like a shark when the doctors wheeled him away for a check-up, threatening to take off the head of any person who so much as tapped him wrong. All the while he would prop me up, hoist me out of bed to walk me gently and slowly to the loo, change my clothes for me, tip me sips of water. I had never understood what "invalid" had meant until after the bun was born; I would have been lost without my husband's complete care of us both.

The only thing I was capable of doing was sleeping and so I did. I would fade in and out of a twilight daze, aware of time only through the shift changes of nurses who came in at all hours of the night and day. I was never quite asleep and never fully awake and all the activity that swirled around me seemed distant from my island hospital-bed seclusion.

So the sweet bun spent much of his first days in the warm embrace of his papa. He would coddle him and rock him and sing to him. He would raise him out of the bassinet for me and set him back in it when he was finished nursing. He changed his tiny, tiny diapers. He studied with the rapt attention of boy scout exactly how to swaddle him. He put his tiny cap on his head if he feared he was chilly and pulled up his ridiculously small socks to keep them on his feet.

And once, when I woke up from a deep sleep the day after he was born, I saw him standing there cradling the bun in his arms. There, in the permanent half-light of the dim recovery room, was my husband falling in love with a tiny little boy. It was a private moment, precious by my stumbling into it unbeknownst to my husband.

I watched for a few minutes silently. My husband was completely entranced. And then I asked him what he was thinking about.

He looked at me, gently roused from his reverie. "I'm thinking about my dad," he said.

And I saw it. My husband's father died when he was a seven when his father was only 33 years old. He had two young children and a pretty young wife, and a virulent form of cancer swept through his body with the speed of a freight train and took his life in a few short months. My husband can remember little about him; what was left was a void. He was traumatized, and remembers almost nothing of the years leading up to and after his father's death, and what memories he has he isn't sure if they're real, or whether they were manufactured from stories and photographs. He was left with a ghost.

But holding on to this little boy, this tiny little person, and gazing upon his face with absolute adoration, he captured what his own father must have felt about him: his own son, his own baby boy. My husband experienced, for the first time in his memory, his father's love as he must have felt it clinging to his first born baby: pure, unconditional, absolute. The long arm of family was reaching forward in time through his son and far back in history to his father. My husband met his father through his son, and it was perfect.

This is how much your father loves you. He loves you eternally and completely and universally. Happy birthday.