AldenJonesThe adjectives “dark” and “raw” are often used to describe the stories in Unaccompanied Minors. Are you a “dark” person? Is there perhaps something wrong with you?

It’s funny you should ask that. My wife and I have an ongoing struggle with television and what to watch together. She can’t handle anything violent or cruel. Somehow every show I love involves this element of intensity and often this intensity is measured by how far into some area of darkness – crime, violence, psychological terrain – the show and the characters are willing to go. She says “Modern Family!” and I say “True Detective!” And we meet in the middle with “Orange is the New Black.” So this is something I think about a lot: Why am I drawn to the dark side?

Now He Lives

By Nick Kocz

Memoir

When he was eighteen months old, Stephen was captivated by a nursery rhyme.  He wanted me to read “Humpty Dumpty” to him every night.  We had three different picture-books of the nursery rhyme and often he had all of them spread open on his bedroom floor.  Hearing and seeing “Humpty Dumpty” was not enough—he needed to absorb it into his body.  As I read, he ran his fingers over the pictures of the brick walls Humpty precariously perched upon.  He touched the king’s men who gathered to unsuccessfully rehabilitate the broken egg.  And then he would stand back and flap his hands, stiffly and with utter concentration.  I would no sooner finish one “Humpty Dumpty” reading when he’d demand another.

Waiting

By Marissa Landrigan

Essay

Over the course of the past year, the final year of my twenties, many of my closest friends have become mothers. Which is to say, they have come to understand the design of their bodies as evolutionary miracles, capable of withstanding great pressure, change, eruption. The body as engine.

I do not feel sad or overwhelmed.

I do not feel “over the moon.”

My vagina feels like it has been mugged, beaten, and left for dead.

It’s 4:35 AM and I’m running around the house like a chicken with its head cut off. Up and down the stairs. Up and down. Up and down. Back and forth. All the while the orchestral “William Tell Overture” by Gioachino Antonio Rossini is playing in my head as if plucked from a scene in a Looney Tunes cartoon when Elmer Fudd is chasing that whaskily wabbit Bugs Bunny through the forest with a double-barrel shotgun.

I shit you not.

Except I have made up impromptu words that go like this:

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

Rewind back a few minutes.

4:30 AM: My wife wakes me and informs me she’s in labor.

Not as in I-am-going-to-work-now labor.

Labor.

Child labor.

I-am-getting-ready-to-have-a-baby labor.

The conversation goes a little something like this.

WIFE: I think I’m going into labor.

ME: You?

You, question mark.

This is what my wife later tells me I say when all is calm and we’re sitting opposite one another in our hospital beds.

“You,” as if someone or something else in the room was getting ready to give birth.

My dog Motzie is fixed, so it’s obviously not her.

The television has no genitals, so it’s definitely not it.

I don’t have a vagina, so it’s definitely not me.

I’m pretty sure I would have recognized if it were me anyway. I hadn’t even bought any cute maternity clothing for work. It’s definitely not me.

And I have a penis.

That always makes giving birth difficult.

Unless you’re Thomas Beatie.

So there I am: 4:30 in the morning.

I wasn’t expecting this even though it’s been nine months coming.

Our first child isn’t due for two-and-a-half more weeks on April 27.

It’s April 11.

And the kid has my genes.

I’ve been determined there’s no way this baby is arriving on time if it has my genes. I’m never anywhere on time. I even have this funny scenario in which following my death—whenever that is—at my funeral, I don’t arrive on time.

It plays out like this: Everyone in church is mourning my loss. Tears are flowing. Family, friends – they’re all sobbing and boohooing their eyes out. The preacher stands in the pulpit at the podium or whatever it’s called in church. He looks out into the crying crowd. In walks a guy from the side door dressed in black. He’s holding a note. He walks over to the preacher and hands him the note. The guy walks back toward the side door and out. The preacher clears his throat and addresses the congregation, delivering the following:

“I’m sorry but I’ve just been informed Jeff is running a few minutes late and will arrive shortly. Until then, he has asked that his friends and family join in a hymn together. Please turn to page 368 in your hymnbooks as we sing, “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys, followed by an a capella rendition of “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag.

I’m putting this in my will. I’ve told my wife that if I die before she does, this has to play out exactly as I have written. If not, I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt her. (Not really)

That shit will be hilarious.

Tears go to laughter. Quite the send off. Quite the exit. Just how I want it.

“Oh, that Jeff,” someone will say. “He sure knows how to get a laugh out of someone [pause] — even in death.”

Yet it’s April 11 and my kid is on the move down the birth canal.

I quickly pack a few clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, clean underdrawers, deodorant, cell phone charger, and my bottle of Citalopram, which I call my chill pills because without my chill pills I’m fucking crazy I tell you. Crazy.

Not really.

I take it for depression. Have since about six months after my dad’s death.

Leukemia. Age 59.

I saw my dad die before my eyes over a two-month span, then held his hand as the machines went beep and his soul ascended.

Two years later I still can’t face the fact my dad’s dead.

And here I am, about to become a dad myself.

I run back downstairs, open up my laptop, and type an e-mail to my boss.

“Not gonna be in this week. Having a baby. Not me. My wife. Some proofs will be coming in if you could take a look at them and sign off. They’re good to go. If you need to make any changes (which you shouldn’t), the InDesign files are located in the Comm. Info folder. Here’s my cell number if you need me but don’t call me for the next couple of hours. In labor. Not me. My wife. Holy crap!”

Rewind back again to me sitting in bed, my wife delivering the news she’s in labor.

“Did you call the hospital yet?” I ask.

“No. I will now.”

She does.

“Come in at 7:30,” they tell her. “Come sooner if your body tells you to.”

Flash forward less than two hours later.

6:20 AM: “I think we need to go now,” my wife tells me as I finish up my e-mail to my boss.

“Oh crap, I haven’t eaten anything yet.”

Yes, that’s right. I’m thinking about food at a time like this.

I have no idea what I’ve done over the past hour-and-a-half. Why the hell have I not eaten?

“We can stop by McDonald’s if you want.”

“We can? Are you sure there’s enough time? I’d rather you get to the hospital than me a chicken sandwich and extra hash browns.”

At this point, my wife is freaking me out with her breathing.

“Breathe in and out like they told us at our child birthing classes,” I say, trying to soothe her. But on the inside, me, I’m hyperventilating. On comes the “William Tell Overture” again. Bugs Bunny shoots down a rabbit hole.

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

“Yes. We have time,” she says. “You need to eat.”

See how wonderful wife my wife is? Always looking out for the nourishment of her husband even at times such as this. She continues:

“You can get into a funk when your sugar is low.”

Now the truth comes out.

“I don’t want you in a bad mood with all this about to happen. It could be a long day, a long couple of days in the hospital.”

She’s right. I do get into a funk when I don’t eat on time. And I eat all the time. Like six meals a day. It’s the only way I can balance my sugar. Even when I played basketball in college I was like this. Before the game in the locker room, I’d eat a Snickers and drink a half bottle of orange juice while Coach gave his words of wisdom. At halftime, I’d eat another Snickers and finish off my orange juice. Otherwise, I’d get the shakes – like Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias.

But I’m not diabetic. I’m hypoglycemic.

I put my dog in her crate, tell her to be a good girl, that she’ll have a new best friend soon, and scat.

6:30 AM: We stop by McDonald’s. I pull up to the drive-through window and order a chicken sandwich, two hash browns, and a large Coke.

“$4.29. First window please.”

I pay. Onward to window two.

It’s taking longer than usual to fulfill the order. I’m a very patient person, probably too patient in my day to day life (they say patience is a virtue), but I want to say, “Can you guys please hurry it up? Just this one time. It’s an emergency. My wife is in labor.”

But I imagine the 18-year-old kid who is waiting on me, stop and say rather coldly, “Then why the fuck did you stop for breakfast dickhead?”

And he’d have a point.

A very valid point.

Out comes my combo meal. Peace and chicken grease Mickey Dee’s. We’re off to Martha Jefferson Hospital.

I use this as an excuse to drive like a bat out of a hell down 29, just like in the movies. Then I picture a cop fly up behind me with his siren on to which I stick my arm out of the window and wave for him to pull up along side me. Then I say, “Officer, my wife is having a baby. Can you please escort us to the hospital?”

He nods yes, flashes his lights, and I roll my window back up, turn to my wife and referencing the cop, say, “Sucker.”

We (“we” as in me following behind sucker cop) bolt down the highway, going through red lights like it ain’t nobody’s business. I smile for the asshole traffic camera they just installed at the intersection of Rio Rd. One day I’ll put the photo the Police Department sends me in my baby’s scrapbook.

But none of this happens. Because this isn’t the movies. It’s real life.

But I continue to drive like a bat out of hell, weaving in and out of traffic, beeping my horn at any car in my way and yelling at them, “Get out of the way you slowpoke prick. My wife’s having a baby.” A very cautious, alert bat out of hell I might add. Okay. You got me. You called my bluff. So I’m not really driving like a bat out of hell. I’m going 55 MPH in a 45 (technically, I am breaking the law) and there is hardly anyone on the road. I’m not weaving in and out of traffic. I’m not beeping my horn. I’m not yelling.

6:45 AM: We arrive at Martha Jefferson Hospital on Locust Avenue. I pull up to the Emergency Room entrance. A security guard approaches and opens the door for my wife. He tells her where to go. I tell him where to go (hell) and to stop looking at my wife’s cleavage (she’s pregnant. Her breasts are full of milk, nourishment for my soon-to-be first child, you stinkin’ perv). Actually, I do none of that either. He isn’t even eyeing my wife. He’s very polite like some child’s nice grandpa.

I park the car, strap on all our bags like I’m some oversized coat rack made of pine, and make my way to the Maternity Ward.

It’s Go Time…

Following is an excerpt from “Cooking for Gracie,” a memoir with more than 40 recipes that recounts a year in the life of a new parent learning to cook for three.


Just weeks into the experience of parenthood, I seem to experience a fresh epiphany about every other day—moments of clarity, addicts call them, in which the camera lens of life is screwed sharply into focus, and the afflicted suddenly realizes what path he must take.

I’m having a moment of clarity now, alone here in my kitchen at night, where I’m spooning and spooning cold cereal. This is dinner, these days: standing at the kitchen window with a bowl of breakfast. I’m nettled by problems with sleep, and with timing, and with other things. The hour is late enough that even the pointillist panorama of New York, a city I’ve called home for fifteen years, seems almost subdued; York Avenue, five stories below, is nearly deserted, and taxis streak by only occasionally. Summer is barely hanging on, having exhausted itself with hot September. The scene appears tranquil to the naked eye, but it’s really not—if this kitchen were the galley of a Boeing jet, the Fasten Seatbelts sign would be blinking right now, directing all passengers to buckle up and prepare for terrible turbulence. I’ve ruined dinner, blackened it to the pan—the haze hanging below the ceiling is the proof. My wife, Jessica, and I were going to eat six pristine lamb chops an hour ago, but as we sat down at the table our weeks-old daughter, Grace, gave a cry of hunger from her room—and I looked up with the troubled expression of a picnicker who hears distant thunder.

Just weeks in, and I’m already a worried dad. The big questions seek me out after midnight, and apprehend me at the moment of sleep—there in the night, that grand unifier of parental anxiety. Every night I face down the stark information of Gracie’s low birth weight— these are delicate subjects, these subjects of Gracie, birth weight, and nourishment, and when our daughter delivers a cry of hunger we answer it. So an hour ago we abandoned dinner, and just now I blackened the chops trying to reheat them. I’d thought this would be a simple process of applying the flame, the necessary heat, but things moved much faster than I expected and quickly evolved into a Larry, Moe and Curley scene of the highest order. As I heaved the window open, fanning the smoke out into the night, I wondered if it was possible to be mad at a kitchen implement. But no, it’s hunger itself that I’m mad at—I was hungry for those chops, and now I’m having a bowl of breakfast instead. There was a time when I thought of hunger as a useful, instructive thing—not just physical hunger, but hunger for things like success, or romantic love. The idea was that the wanting could teach things about yourself, about your various prowling appetites, and perhaps I was right in that, because tonight’s hunger has propelled me into a moment of clarity, with all of its dreadful data about my situation.

Here is what I’m coming to understand: What is broken in the kitchen is broken elsewhere—the problem would appear to be that life no longer moves according to my schedule. If you’re a writer or a cook, timing is crucial; if you happen to be both, as I am, you’re finished without it. I used to have it, this timing, in the kitchen and on the page, but now it’s gone. I’m a beat behind in everything I do—I go around half the time feeling like an actor who belongs in a drama, and finds himself, instead, in a comedy, where the jokes are all at his expense.

 

********

 

I’ve felt this way for weeks—since September 9, 2007, when I surfaced from a deep sleep around 4 a.m. and found Jessica standing over me in the pale bedside light. Marriage has taught me a few things, among them that you should be worried when your pregnant wife wakes you at 4 a.m. by standing over you with the lights already on.

My confusion resolved itself quickly enough when Jessica told me in no uncertain terms that she hadn’t slept one minute all night, and added that she was pretty sure our baby was on the way, showing me startling evidence to the same. (I’ll not describe it here, but rather note that the condition “bloody show” is very well named indeed, and as bracing as two strong cups of coffee to see. Google it.) I slapped around on the floor for about ten minutes, searching for my clothes, and we phoned the obstetrician. The baby, if she came today, would be five weeks early. At our latest sonogram we were told that the baby’s weight was just north of four pounds. In most cases an obstetrician encourages a couple to remain at home until the woman is through early labor, but the fact that we were five weeks early, combined with other unusual conditions of the pregnancy, was enough to cause him to tell us to come on in, and right away. There were no cars out so early—we hunted down a cab, and the driver seemed to understand everything with a glance. He thundered through intersection and along crosscut, around hairpin and down avenue. Jessica was in that trancelike state women achieve when the biological imperative asserts itself; that is, she was an arresting example of female can-do. If there’d been any time to stop and think I suppose I would have panicked, but I was fully occupied by the events unfolding around me and, anyway, I was still shaking off the anesthetic effects of the martini I’d had at dinner the night before. We swept past the sleepy hospital admitting desk and were fired skyward by the express elevator to the birthing floor, where an IV was inserted into the back of Jessica’s hand. At this point Jessica’s blood pressure swirled upward like a cartoon barber’s pole, and I heard a staffer in attendance use the word preeclampsia. A monitor strapped over Jessica’s navel began delivering data to a printer beside the bed—a measure of the contractions she was experiencing. This immediately began drawing rolling ocean swells, and for a moment the illusion was complete: I imagined that this was indeed an ocean liner, and here were the heavy seas. But then the IV began to do its work, Jessica’s blood pressure eased, and the printout swells subsided into barely-noticeable upticks.

That’s it? I asked, and the attending doctor repeated my question in the declarative.

During the cab ride home I was electric with the cherry high of someone who has been granted a reprieve—every other block I felt the urge to seize the cabbie by the shoulder and say, “That was a close one, wasn’t it?” Now I had time to prepare for this thing I hadn’t been prepared for. I helped Jessica into bed, seared a grilled cheese sandwich for her and watched her eat, then pulled the covers over her head and drew the curtains. After offering a heartfelt plea that she rest, and rest well, I stepped into the shower. What a still moment that was, standing blameless beneath the roaring benediction of the showerhead, nodding to myself, arms crossed, eyes closed, breathing deeply through my nose and reflecting on the near-miss of a five-week ­premature birth. Close, Keith, I said, so close, too close, and then hollering Jessica ran into the bathroom and leaped, fully dressed and exultant, into the shower with me. Her water had broken. The warning shot had revealed itself to be the report of a starting gun.

We stood in silence for a moment—facing each other, hands clasped, like a couple about to recite a marriage vow. Even the most vivid memories tend to fade with time, but decades from now, when Death appears in my doorway and beckons with a bent finger, this is the image that will burn brightly in my mind’s eye—Jessica standing fully dressed in the shower, clothes dripping, wet hair plastered to her face and neck, and the waters that had protected Gracie for the first thirty-five weeks of her life now swirling around my bare ankles.

Here comes the future, at one hundred and forty heartbeats per minute.

 

********

 

I have a funny relationship with pain. The experts tell us that pain is trying to tell us something, that it is delivering a distress signal from a body part that is being misused, and that we ought to listen to that signal. For that very reason I don’t mind small amounts of pain—I’m strongly resistant to taking aspirin, cough medicine, allergy medicine, and other such palliatives for headaches, scrapes, burns, cuts, etc. & etc.—but I just can’t stomach the bad stuff. When it comes to the big-ticket items—knee operations, cavity fillings, room-spinning migraines—I immediately cave, jettison all principles, and request as much painkiller as possible, and the sooner, and stronger, the better. Were I faced with the prospect of eight or more hours of labor, I would surely arrive at the hospital pre-tranquilized, all but holding out my arm and slapping the vein to show the doctor where she should thread the needle. Jessica, on the other hand, has always been a believer in using aspirin and other painkillers to ease the discomfort of everyday headaches, sore muscles, cramps, etc.—which suggests that she believes in using modern medicine to ease pain. I was surprised, then, to learn that she planned to scale what is considered by many to be the Mount Everest of pain: to push a baby out with a drug-free birth. Upon hearing this news, my first thought, selfishly, was to fear that in this extreme circumstance I would be placed in a position that any husband deeply dreads: that of feeling essentially useless.1 There were a number of logical fallacies we employed to mitigate my (and Jessica’s) fear about meeting this challenge. “It’s temporary,” she would say, referring to the pain, “it’s temporary,” and I would nod my head and say, “Yes, it’s temporary”—thinking, But, Jessica, this is a very long temporary, lasting hours (or even, God help us, days) instead of moments. Nevertheless, we stuck with this line of logic, to great success. “It’s temporary,” she would say, and I’d nod my head and repeat the phrase back.

We would discuss this matter of painkillers nightly, sometimes more than once a night, and we even took a weeks-long class on how to survive a drug-free delivery.2 Through the early stages of this, there remained an element of unreality about the whole thing, which helped tamp down the urgency of the discussion—many first pregnancies, after all, don’t begin to show until some time during the second trimester, which means that even as you’re having these hard discussions about things like painkillers, the whole enterprise at times seems almost theoretical, as if you were being rooked by a slew of doctors and baby-gear vendors trying to separate you and your wife from your last dollar. The doctors keep telling you that a baby is on the way, these men and women dressed in long white coats, all busily poking columns of blood test results, a tax­ audit’s worth of facts about height, weight, bone length and fetal age, and the occasional sonogram photograph—but for the first five months you study your wife’s belly region and see no obvious evidence that any of this is true.3 I remained silent through much of the drug-free delivery sessions, thinking, Well, it’s her call isn’t it? But I also remained silent because a significant part of me believed that this would all resolve itself when the first wave of contractions hit and Jessica, duly startled by the size of the pain, would raise her hand and call for an epidural, and perhaps even a martini on the side to hold her until the anesthesiologist had done her work. I had this opinion because this is the way I would have come at the birth4—so I was doubly ashamed by my self-assured outlook when Jessica devastated all parties involved by seeing her way through labor without so much as an aspirin to blunt the edge of the contractions, even though near the end of it the pain was so intense and went on for so long that it caused her eyes to roll up until the whites showed, and forced her to grip me so tightly about the waist for support that she threw out my back.

Seemingly all at once, with the fury of a tornado that had gathered for hours and then dropped out of clear blue sky, here was the moment of birth, and here was Gracie, born at four pounds—her skin alarmingly gray. Just seconds old, the obstetrician held my daughter aloft with a single hand, then carried her over to the heat lamp, where an attending staff-member rubbed her dry with a towel, her color rising now, the staff member suddenly sweeping past me, taking Gracie out of the room in a cart, things already moving faster, and Jessica didn’t bother to remove her oxygen mask when she lifted her head and said: “Go with her.” Then down the hall, through the double doors and into another wing, this one as harshly-lighted as an interrogation room, Plexiglas isolettes lining the walls, each occupied by a tiny baby, and I thought, Ha ha, very funny, joke’s over, the NICU is where Other People’s children go. Isn’t it?

But I was now Other People, the person whose misfortunes you talk about in hushed tones, and the joke was on me. The unreality of the moment was scored by a sort of electronic symphony, alarms sounded by individual heart-rate and blood-oxygen monitors. Gracie now had one around her foot. The alarms are false, a nurse said, grasping my elbow for effect, no need to worry, it just means the baby has shaken the cuff so that it’s not getting an accurate reading—but later that night another baby’s alarm went off, and this time a pair of nurses seemed to materialize out of thin air at either side of the isolette, one with her hand inside going about some sort of complicated business with a baby the size of her palm. When I got it, when I realized what was happening, it was like being dashed with a bucket of cold water: the baby’s heart had stopped or the rate had grown erratic. The nurse was giving it CPR. I watched the nurse bring the baby out of it, my heart in my throat even though it wasn’t my kid, and I reflected that if you’d asked me before Gracie had arrived what emotion I thought I would have experienced in such a situation, I probably would have guessed sadness. And I would have guessed wrong. This was something more like waking from a nightmare long after midnight and sensing, with the decisiveness of a hatchet stroke, that someone was in my room and was here to harm me. Except this predatory force wasn’t here for me—it was here for my baby, and I could do nothing to protect her.

Three days later I was introduced to a diagnosis known as Failure To Thrive. The parents of its victims may feel inclined to ask why the name must be so literal. Perhaps we should rename hypothermia Failure To Keep Warm. I learned about this condition when my Gracie Failed To Thrive, and seemed to waste away before our glazed eyes, her weight sinking below four pounds. First she became too exhausted to eat; and because she was taking in no nourishment she became even more exhausted, the situation rapidly deteriorating from there. During the midday feeding she was nearly unresponsive, asleep in her mother’s arms while all around us babies were crying out for food. I was paralyzed emotionally. It was like trying to feed a plastic doll, and I suppose we were as naive and deluded as children playing house that afternoon. The nurse assigned to us, who had hovered at a distance for a day, now moved in, as if cued by a director with very good timing, and with gratitude I felt control being taken away from us. We were told that Gracie would be fed with a feeding tube that night, and were sent home. The last stage of my grandmother’s life began when she was fitted with a feeding tube. I was helpless to avoid drawing parallels. I found myself thinking, You need to begin dealing with this now. You need to accept what may happen. If you don’t, this is going to send you all to pieces. You will not recover.

My mother: ‘It’ll be okay. Babies are tough.’ But I’m not. At home, seeking comfort, familiar rhythms, I made dinner with ingredients from the cabinet. It didn’t help. She’ll come out of it. You’ll see. Sometimes I’d feel all right, almost human for ten or even twenty seconds. And then I’d picture my three-day-old daughter limp in her mother’s arms, unresponsive, and all at once I’d feel as if the ground had vanished beneath me.

This is how I feel when I fly over water at night—out of control, beyond the help of a higher power, and reliant on nothing but faith I’ve whistled up out of nowhere.

 

********

 

I push the plate of lamb chops aside and set the bowl of cereal on the counter. I’m no longer hungry; not for food, anyway—it’s something else I want, something I’m having a hard time identifying. Gracie is hungry, and I’m hungry. She did come out of it, just like everyone said she would. Our daughter is home with us, gaining weight—but in many ways I’m still back there in the NICU, a spirit haunting the waiting room.

I snap off the overhead light, then wrap up the chops and open the refrigerator door— the fluorescent interior light bathes the kitchen surfaces in soothing lunar shades: ultramarine, cerulean, bondi blue. I’m tempted to remain here, where things are being shown, if only for a moment, in the kindest light. In a little while I’ll have to come up with something for Jessica to eat—I want her to eat well, which will help Gracie get the nourishment she needs.

A simple syllogism that keeps playing its logic in my head:

Major premise: I’m cooking for Jessica. Minor premise: Gracie gets all her nourishment from Jessica. Conclusion: When I cook for Jessica, I’m cooking for Gracie.

Eventually Gracie is fed, rocked, and gentled off to sleep, and Jessica joins me. We watch a movie that makes us laugh, but my attention is divided. I realize what it is I’m hungry for; it is a lack of reassurance that has left me famished. But reassurance is in short supply these day, and it will be left to me to supply my own. Caring for my daughter—cooking for her—helps me cope. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that when I cook for Gracie, I’m caring for myself.

And I’m doing it poorly. In this situation you don’t make delicate lamb chops, not if you’re wise to the new timing—you make lamb shanks, or braised veal, or short ribs, or a chickpea stew. You make something that can cook away all night, if need be. I must adapt, or we’ll all do without.

Soon I’ll have to learn to cook all over again.

 

_________________________________________________


1 This turns out to be a position that fathers-to-be find themselves in regularly. Throughout the many weeks of the pregnancy the father is often, much to his dismay, reduced to following stage directions—and he finds himself, paradoxically, in a key role that has virtually no lines.

2 And here I didn’t exactly earn votes for the title World’s Greatest Husband. This class was important to Jessica and, precisely because it was so important to her, I should have attended cheerfully and without complaint and in fact made a point to tell her that I believed in her and was here to support her—but instead I grumbled about the quasi-new-age aspects of the class, the paltry snacks on offer for pregnant women who were skipping dinner, the hours-long commitment, etc. & etc. In a nicely symmetrical come-uppance, the class turned out to be of great benefit to me: we had planned to hire a doula to help us through the birth, and when Gracie arrived early, before we’d had a chance to locate a doula, it was exactly the practices I learned in this class that allowed me to help Jessica through the delivery.

3 Though I should qualify—although in the first few months I saw no evidence of the baby in my wife’s belly region, I did see dramatic evidence that her body was going through remarkable physiological changes, viz., that this author’s wife, at the late first-trimester period of pregnancy, suddenly blossomed into a striking Playboy-bunnyesque build, one sharply arresting in its perfect recollection of many of this author’s latent adolescent desires, but enough about that.

4 An outlook surely informed by the fact that I am the son of a doctor and a trained nurse, and have developed a engrained trust for modern medicine and its practitioners.

 


While in college, I tutored the following subjects for two years: Anatomy & Physiology, Biology (general and Advanced), and Microbiology. Yet there is one area I was never made privy to: the timeline of the umbilical cord. Going into the last weeks of childbirthing class with my wife, I suddenly find it psychologically incommoding I never learned that following labor and delivery, the umbilical cord is not cut all the way down to the bellybutton.

Yes, all the way down to the bellybutton.

Maybe you’re like me and didn’t know this.

Or maybe you aren’t.

Suddenly, I feel like the dumbest person on Planet Earth for not knowing this.

For the last 36 weeks, I have been a bit scared of having the honor of cutting my baby’s umbilical cord.

“Who needs scissors,” I told my wife when she was around 24 weeks. “I’m using my teeth. Look at these incisors.”

Then I grabbed the air with two hands as if I was holding an invisible rope and started gnawing.

Humor comforts me in times of the unknown.

Note to future dads: Your wife probably won’t find this amusing.

What if I didn’t cut far enough and my baby had an outie? I remember back in the summer days of my youth thinking that kids at the pool with outies looked funny.

Or what if I cut too close and my baby has the ultimate innie, a three-inch deep crater that will collect lint for all eternity? All this time, I’ve been terrified I would cut the umbilical cord much too close to my baby’s stomach and cause some nightmarish infection, thus subjecting my first born to weeks of antibiotic treatment and various hypoallergenic ointments 3x a day.

All because I cut the umbilical cord too close to the bellybutton.

And it would be all because of me.

Her dad.

Her hero.

The man she would grow up idolizing and compare all men to who ultimately could never measure up .

Or at least this is what I like to tell myself.

Then I learn the real story: that after I cut the cord—not all of it, just some of it—a clamp is placed on the leftover upright noodle and remains clamped until a week or so later when said umbilical cord dries up and falls off.

“If you’re lucky,” our childbirth instructor said, “You’ll go to pick up your baby after a nice, long rest and you’ll see the umbilical cord lying there in the crib.”

Just lying there?

In the crib?

Like a fat earthworm that has baked in the hot sun?

Shouldn’t someone have sent out a mass e-mail to all expecting parents that along with taking your baby home, you also take home part of the umbilical cord?

Look, I’m not grossed out by this.

Actually, I am slightly.

But why is it I didn’t know this?

When I told my mom that Allison and I were expecting she didn’t tell me about the umbilical cord.

Neither did those Biology textbooks.

Then again, we never did get to the very end.

Science is sort of like history in that regard. You never get to the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, nor do you get to the nitty-gritty in concern to the timeline of the umbilical cord.

Whereas I’m the youngest of two children, my wife is the oldest of four. She knew this already. Maybe all women do. Maybe this tidbit of information is something all women receive when they get their ears pierced.

Allison’s youngest sibling is nine years younger than her.

“I remember when I was a kid, Emily [her sister] and I would go into the nursery each morning to see if Carrington’s umbilical cord had fallen off yet,” she said to me while we were eating some 80/20 Angus Beef hamburgers I’d cooked up.

“What do you mean you’d go in and see if the umbilical cord had fallen off?”

“It dries up.”

“What do you mean by ‘it dries up’?”

“It dries up and falls off.”

“Falls off?”

“Yeah, falls off.”

“The umbilical cord?”

“What did you think happened to it?”

“It stayed at the hospital . . . with the placenta.”

So let this be a lesson to all you expecting first-time fathers out there. When you go in the nursery to snatch up your baby for a good rocking and see what appears to be either a turd or a chewed up cigar in the crib, Red Auerbach has not returned from the dead and been watching over your baby at night. That’s your baby’s dried up umbilical cord stump.

And let this also be a lesson that I am apparently not the right man to talk to in regard to tutoring you for any Biology class, especially Anatomy & Physiology.

As for me, I guess it’s about time I get some shuteye. As the story goes, there isn’t much of that in my near future. But it’s all gravy.

Here’s to first time knowledge and dried up umbilical cord stumps.



Childbirth is a topic I do not often address in a professional capacity as doing so violates my well-founded resolution against discussing my reproductive organs on the internet, yet now that I am pregnant with my second child, the topic is once again at hand. I underwent a natural, drug-free labor with my first child and now as I prepare once again to do this stupid, terrible thing, I feel it’s my duty to council other young mothers on the hidden benefits of natural birth. (Note that some women find the term “natural” offensive, arguing that all childbirth is “natural” whether accomplished through chemical means or eased by medical interventions, but let’s be clear – after 200,000 years of human development, childbirth is still hideous and unnatural for everyone, epidural or no.)

Midwives, bloggers, and documentary filmmakers are quick to tout the many benefits of unmedicated labor, from faster recovery times to psychotic oxytocin-induced highs. The facts and figures I will leave you to parse on your own, but personally there are no data about the risks of fetal monitoring that will cheer me up when I feel like every bone in my torso is being simultaneously broken from the inside out. Let alone promises of spiritual awakening or a feeling of elemental connectedness with all forms of life.

Why then subject yourself to needless suffering? I offer the four hidden benefits of unmedicated childbirth: Machismo, Spitefulness, Superiority, and Something to Do.

One woman of my acquaintance dismissively suggested that women who refuse to take proffered medical assistance are “just doing it to be macho.” Well, yes. Of course I did it to be macho. Obviously. The last time I got really drunk I challenged my husband (who outweighs me by nearly 100 pounds) to an arm wrestling contest – I am all about macho. And needless, meaningless suffering is the core of machismo. I also happen to have been born with a high pain tolerance and I don’t want to let it go to waste. Bragging about one’s pain tolerance may be immoderate, but it’s really more an inborn physical trait than a finely cultivated element of character. In reality, I’m a coward about every other thing in my life—I have never had the courage to tell off a bully, send back an order, or ask for a raise, but you want to pull out one of my teeth? Bring it.

Of course I didn’t do it entirely out of machismo. I also did it out of spite. In fact I had been somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing until person after person kept telling me I couldn’t do it, that I would crack after an hour and start begging anyone at hand for drugs. Those of you who embark upon the natural childbirth course will soon learn that drug-free labor is one of the few goals in our society that people have no compunctions at all about shooting down instantly and viciously. Conventional politeness would suggest that when someone confesses a personal goal to you, you refrain from immediately scoffing at them: “Medical school? Man, you don’t stand a chance in hell;” “Ask her out? Good luck, buddy.” But tell your best friend, your mother-in-law, or your gynecologist that you’re going to try to have a baby naturally and they’ll laugh right in your face.

Like Marty McFly, there is no better way to get me to do something than to suggest I can’t do it. It’s not mature, it’s not admirable, but spite animates me in a way that courage or compassion could never hope to do. Once my (former) obstetrician had told me that 95% of his patients who claimed they were going to go natural caved, I was hooked – I would have sat right there in the doctor’s office smiling as I tore off my fingernails one by one just to show that smug jerk who was a quitter.

Base machismo and petty spite are joined by the third hidden benefit of unmedicated childbirth, a lifetime of smug superiority. Giving birth naturally means I can now scoff at every other instance of pain in any other person for the rest of my life. My sister has a headache? My coworker has a tooth pulled? Please. My husband could get caught in a bear trap and I’d be there saying, “Pfft! Bear trap? You don’t know pain.”

Of course, I didn’t do this unprepared, and this is the fourth benefit of natural childbirth—it gives you something to do. In my case, that meant a Bradley-style birth class where on eight consecutive Monday evenings we gathered in the desolation-grey conference room of a hospital in downtown Los Angeles and learned how to rock, roll, crawl, and respire our way to calm in the face of crisis. The class was enjoyable largely for the opportunity it afforded me and my husband to make fun of the other couples on the way home, but for those who want to save the $300 allow me to share the secret of the class with you now, for free. The secret is, breathe deeply. No matter what the question, the answer is to breathe. And there is only ever one way to breathe. Deeply. Whether in childbirth or free diving, the answer is never, ever to breathe in shallow, convulsive, hysterical pants.

Even when not in class, I approached pregnancy and labor like I was training for a championship bout. There were stretches, drills, breathing exercises, special teas and tonics to drink. I did Pilates and spinning classes, went running, did squats. I doubt any of these things helped at all, but it gave me a way to combat the gestational blahs and kept me occupied during what is essentially one very long, very slow, very boring opening act. I liked to imagine myself doing all these things as a part of a movie training montage, and when, after months of metaphorically wrapping my knuckles and jumping rope, I walked into the Labor and Delivery room to deliver my first daughter, I had the hard glint in my eye of the down-on-his-luck prizefighter at the end of the last act.

And yes, I nailed it. But rather than rest on my laurels, I went right back out there like a champ and got pregnant again. Now the only question is how to top myself for this next birth. Just skipping the epidural no longer seems like enough. I need to find a way to have it hurt more, last longer – maybe something involving exploratory colon surgery or unnecessary tooth extractions. Whatever it is, though, I can promise you I will spend the rest of my life gloating over it. And that’ll show them.

The front desk nurse is smiling again.  Third Chicklet-gummed flashing in the past few minutes. She breaks her stare from an issue of Us Weekly to watch while I squirm in my chair. She smiles. I smile back. If she only knew the reason for my occasional shift in weight from cheek to cheek was so I didn’t crap my pants she wouldn’t be smiling so wide. Well, it’s been almost a half hour.  I’ll admit it, I’m nervous. Regular people get butterflies in their stomach in tense situations. I get butterflies but they all put the fluttering on hold to deliver swift kicks to my rectum until I have to find the nearest porcelain pot.

I bet she smiles at every guy. We must all have that same look on our face. The glassy gaze of “how the hell did I end up here?” that stares at a flat-screen TV showing Sanjay Gupta discussing the proper treatment of rosacea. The TV doesn’t get any other stations, I already asked. Honestly, we all know how we ended up at this point. Even those of us that slept through sex ed. In my experience, the class wasn’t very conducive to sleeping. It was my first class of the day, I sat in the first seat of a row and videos of grown men dancing in dick costumes and singing about sperm is must-see TV. 

It’s been over an hour. Good thing I did 75 mph here from work so I didn’t miss out on any of this waiting. I’m always on time but I got caught up at work. Most times I’m early. Annoyingly early. Early for school, early for appointments and even early for dates with her. I’d circle the block for at least twenty minutes to waste time.  I always wondered what would happen if she peeked out the window to see my car doing laps around the neighborhood like a pace car at Pocono Speedway. Would she mention it during dinner after a couple of glasses of courage? She never mentioned it. I started showing up earlier and earlier. I’d watch her race around the apartment getting ready. It all happened last week.

How did I get here? Everyone said it was incredibly hard to get pregnant. Turns out one of us is incredibly fertile. If I’d paid more attention in sex ed, I would have known that the pulling out method isn’t an effective form of birth control. Next thing I know she is peeing on four pregnancy tests screaming “I’m not ready for this!” I was screaming on the inside, “Those things were expensive, stop wasting them all!”

I hate a doctor’s office even if I’m not the one getting prodded and needled. I hated school just as much but given the choice I’d pick a medical exam over algebra class. To get my mom to keep me out of school involved life-threatening ailments. My ace in the hole was a headache. She couldn’t prove I didn’t have a headache. A couple winces in pain and some squinting sold it. Close the eyes in bright lights. It was can’t miss. The first few times. After the third time in a month faking head issues, Mom freaked and wanted to know the cause of the problem.

First it was the general practitioner. Prognosis negative but try the dentist, he said, maybe the headaches were coming from incoming teeth. My mouth caused my mother’s headaches so there might be some correlation. The teeth aren’t causing the brain pains, he said, but I was going to need braces. Let’s schedule that appointment. Did you try, he asked, getting his eyes checked? You would think at this point I’d fess up to the headache scam and save myself from another doctor’s appointment and one less piece of hardware for kids to pick on when I returned to school. You. Would. Think. My vision was one notch below a mole with 20/20. I needed glasses. They would be ready the same day I got my braces put on. Hours of crying into a mirror caused a real headache.

My eye doctor’s office was in the same building as this office. Exact same floor. On the way to one of my visits I asked my mom what an “obgyn” was as I read the names on all the office doors. She explained it’s the place ladies go to have their parts looked at and to check on the baby when they were pregnant. Like a mommy mechanic. I wanted to ask if they used the same type of lifts when a 300-pound woman walked into the office. A couple months later, mom’s obgyn left a message on the answering machine and I thought I was getting a baby brother. No dice.

I miss that eye doctor. He retired years ago. I haven’t been able to find a competent one since. My insurance now mails vouchers for glasses and eye exams. The only name I recognized on the list of optical shops that accept these vouchers was Sears. During my last visit for glasses, the tech thought I was the son of God. I usually just go by Chris but when filling out documents and forms I have to use my legal name. Computers tend to shorten the name to fit into designated spaces. According to my driver’s license, I am Christoph. I’ve seen Christophe, Christo, Chri, and once my name was changed to Chris Li to save room. When the Sears tech asked if my family was religious, I was at a loss for words until he said it was a guess with my first name being “Christ.” The medical voucher christened me Christ Illuminati.  If I were Christ, would I need glasses and vision coverage at Sears? 

While the nurse smiles, the women waiting just stare. Maybe it’s because I’m looking and wondering if it’s just a check-up or she’s got a case of rotten crotch. Men don’t go to the doctor when they feel fine and they certainly don’t go for routine check-ups. It’s not how it works in the world of penis touching and prostate exams. A doctor visit means something is wrong and you don’t go unless it’s urgent. A man doesn’t get his junk fondled by medical staff unless he is banging a nurse. Relax ladies, I’m just as eager to get out…

A side door opens and another nurse calls her name. This broad looks miserable. No gum flashing. I’m following close behind and staring at her uniform. She has blood on her shirt. It reminds me of a high school friend that worked after school in a uniform store for police, firemen, EMT’s and nurses. The work was fine but the stories she heard made every shift a depressing day at work. Men and women buying new uni’s because they got blood, excrement or brain parts on their favorite outfits. All of the stories, while told second hand, were depressing yet fascinating. The miserable nurse in the happy-faced scrubs shoos us into the last room on the left. I decide it best not to ask in this case.

“Please lie down on the table and bring down your pants.”

“Isn’t that how we got into this mess?” The machines chirped to replace the crickets. There is nothing worse than being the only person in the room that finds a joke funny. It happens more than I care to admit.

The nurse lifts her shirt to just below her bra and pokes a microphone-like stick into her belly button. She giggles. While she is ticklish this sounds more like a nervous laugh. The nurse moves the stick in circles like my car in the minutes before our dates.  We watch the nurse’s every move. It finally dawns on both of us to watch the screen. Nothing there as far as I could see. Maybe all four tests were wrong.

I look back down at her stomach to the tiny shark tattoo just below her waistline. The first time I saw it was the day we met. Reaching for a cup, her shirt drifted up just enough for me to notice the tattoo. Do you know how people in love always claim they feel like they have known the other person all their life? In our case it’s true. Well, we knew of each other most of our lives, but never officially met until that night at the gym water fountain. The first real encounter was a senior year art class. She was a freshman. We sat on opposites sides of the room and never spoke. I reminded her of that art class ten years later as she introduced herself at the gym. She didn’t recall me being in that class and there were no men in penis attire to prove my attendance. I’ve got a memory for odd details; people in my high school classes or the license plate number of a woman that smashed an ice cream cone on the hood of my aunt’s car when I was seven. 

While I’m great with details, I was oblivious to the fact we worked in the same office building but for different companies. We would run into each at work and at the gym a few more times after that night. I found out months later that her coworkers liked to watch me walk from my car to the building every morning. She only struck up a conversation to make her coworkers jealous. Throw it in their faces that she talked to Marc. They didn’t know my actual name so they nicknamed me Marc, with a C, because I looked like a Marc but with a different spelling. See how bored people are at work? She admitted all this after spending another weekend at my house.

Two years later she married Marc with a C.

“There it is,” the nurse said.

It’s tiny. It does a twist and waves at the camera. My wife smiles. I smile. Even the nurse cracks a grin.

The baby is early. Showed up and we aren’t ready.

It gets that from its dad.



I wake up before 7:00 on the morning of Tuesday, June 4, 1996 and know three things instantly: I’m in labor, I have to return the car to that awful man, and I have to go buy another car. If I don’t, I won’t have any way to get myself to the hospital. I am twenty years old.

The pain in my belly and lower back is intense and I flop over onto my knees and bounce up and down, which wakes up my roommate Tim, who sort of doubles as my boyfriend.

“I’m in labor,” I tell him.

“Are you sure?” he asks, having just spent the last week listening to me declare the same concern regularly. Tim’s on standby, as is my sister, Kim, who has a flight arranged from Kansas City. The moment she hears word that I’m at the hospital delivering she will grab her packed luggage and the diaper bag she’s had waiting, probably since the moment I agreed to let her, and her new husband, adopt my child.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I tell Tim. “I’m going to go buy a car.”

On Fear

By Erika Rae

Memoir

I must not fear. 
Fear is the mind-killer. 
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. 
I will face my fear. 
I will permit it to pass over me and through me. 
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. 
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. 
Only I will remain.

– The Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear / Frank Herbert’s Dune

It is a couple of days ago. I am driving in my Jeep down the mountain road from my house. The sun is shining. The aspens are twinkling. On the side of the road, little sprigs of wildflowers are glowing yellow and purple in the sun. With the exception of the unfortunate necessity for the use of fossil fuels, it is all very Zen.

I must not fear.

I have everything I need. Fresh air, warmth. Anna Nalick is breathing holistically through the speakers. Through the seatbelt, my giant whale belly pokes comfortably. I sip occasionally at the latte my husband made me before I left and replace it in the cup holder beside me.

Fear is the mind-killer.

I am thinking about how everything is going to be OK. In spite of the normal life troubles; in spite of the financial strains. Any day now I will face the all-consuming pain of bringing formidable life into this world and all of the responsibilities that act entails…and I am not afraid.


Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will be a ticking time bomb, or perhaps more accurately, a ticking water balloon – poised to explode dangerously without warning all over carpet upholstery mattress freshly polished bank floor …and I am not afraid.

I will face my fear.

I will be doubled over with pain, internalizing an agony so deep and indescribable that it will find its way out in the form of primal grunts and groans, well befitting a Scottish torture chamber circa 1650… and I am not afraid.


I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

At some point, I will be led to a large tub filled with warm water, in which I will be obliged to attempt to push a human being through a space the equivalent of a cantaloupe through a nostril…and I am not afraid.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. 
Only I will remain.

There will be the breathless moments in which we all watch and wait for that first cry. Will the baby breathe? Will the baby be healthy? Will the baby have the appropriate number of appendages at the ends of appropriate numbers of limbs?

I am not afraid.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Driving alone in the car, I breathe deeply of the fresh mountain air. Everything is going to be OK. I take another sip of coffee and pause in my self-congratulatory thoughts as I detect something rough on my tongue with that last sip. I reach up to extract and hold it in front of my eyes for examination.

It’s a dead spider. Drowned in sweet, milky brown elixir.

…and what do I do?

I freak out.

I am such a chicken shit.