I was really frightened to have my first child. There are a few reasons for this. Probably the biggest was that my Dad wasn’t around much when I was kid. He left my mother when I was about eight-years-old, and I never really felt capable of being a father because I’d never really had one. But there were smaller reasons, too. For example, I didn’t really like kids, or pets, or anything that was dependent on me. I didn’t like anything that couldn’t crap in a toilet, or keep from drooling, or make it’s own meal. I didn’t like anything that was desperate for attention or didn’t know that it was inappropriate to fall on the floor and kick and scream in a public place, or spill milk in the back seat of a car. Frankly, the thought of having a child sounded irritating and I didn’t have the stomach for it.
I also worried a lot about money. I didn’t know the exact figure of how much a child would cost, but I assumed it was a lot because people kept telling me so. Many parents had told me variations of this simple axiom: Kids are expensive. But they never put a figure on it. They never said, “Your child will cost X amount of dollars.” How do you define expensive? Was it in the thousands or millions? I just didn’t know, so I tended to estimate on the high side. It was my assumption that having a child would cost me an unknown, astronomical amount of money, which was well beyond my earning potential.
So after Mel and I married, I tried to put off having a child as long as I could. In fact, at the time I’d have been happy never having kids. Sadly, however, I only lasted about two years. I think this is a testament to my wife. She has a way of convincing me to take huge leaps forward in my life through a combination of compassion, withholding sex, the silent treatment, and moments where she just stares at me, her soft eyes never blinking, her face a mix of irritation and understanding that seems to say, I will break you. It’s a clever mix that works every time.
My first son, Tristan, was born at 2:07 PM on March 20, 2007 in the American Fork, Utah Hospital. I was twenty-four. He weighed five pounds, fifteen ounces. According to my father-in-law, he was not much bigger than a prize trout. There was no labor. Mel had been suffering from preeclampsia during the last weeks of her pregnancy. Her face and neck were swollen and her feet ballooned up so much she had difficulty putting on shoes. Our doctor decided to perform an emergency C-section. I never anxiously paced the hallways of the hospital for hours waiting for the baby to come naturally. From start to finish, the whole process took about thirty minutes. It really is the most efficient way to have a baby.
|Tristan: Prize trout|
I’ve never been anywhere as artificial as a delivery room. It pinged and popped with machines and sensors that I assumed were somehow essential to the process. It smelled like bleach and everyone, Mel and I included, were dressed in the same green scrubs and wearing the same white mask.
Mel was awake during the process. Across her chest was a green curtain that was about five feet wide and rose about five feet from the bed. Her stomach and legs were on the other side. This was to keep Mel from seeing what the doctors were doing. I don’t handle blood well, so I took advantage of the curtain. I tucked in next to Mel and held her hand. The doctor had given Mel an epidural about thirty minutes earlier and it had gone to her head. Her eyes drifted shut occasionally and she kept smiling and repeating, “We’re having a baby,” in a high pitch, slow and sloppy voice.
After about ten minutes I heard a baby cry. It rose above the pings and beeps of the machines. It out-voiced the doctors and nurses. It was louder than I expected, and I jumped when I first heard it.
“Daddy,” the doctor said, “Come see your little boy.”
I stood and looked around the curtain. Reaching out from a large wound in Mel’s stomach was the head and arms of a screaming bloody baby wrapped up in what looked like a tentacle, but I later realized was the umbilical cord. It was, hands down, the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen. It reminded me of the scene in Alien when that monster jumped out of John Hurt’s stomach while they were having dinner on the space ship. I sat down feeling queasy.
“What’s going on?” Mel asked.
“You don’t want to know,” I said.
I was the first to hold Tristan. As Mel was being stitched, the nurses swaddled him tightly in a light blue blanket that had a print of teddy bears dressed as doctors. They placed a green stocking cap on his head, and coated his eyes with petroleum jelly. His cries had been sharp and high and fast, but once he was placed in my arms he rested peacefully, his breathing soft and slow.
All that peeked out from the blanket and cap was his small face. It was not much larger than an orange, and his eyes were pinched shut, lips gummy and pink. He didn’t have many features yet, but I could tell immediately that he had my nose. I’ve never really liked my nose. The nostrils are too large and the angle is too sharp and greasy so my glasses slide freely. It is a big British nose that I received from my maternal grandmother. It is one of my most distinctive features, and now it was Tristan’s. I told him I was sorry.
Once the doctors were done, I handed Tristan to Mel. Her eyes were glossy, brown hair loosely pulled back, face makeup-less, swollen, and weary. She smiled, eyes half shut, and held Tristan tightly, her right hand patting his little bottom softly. Then she looked up at me and began to cry.
Mel’s parents and my mom greeted us outside the delivery room. After Tristan was passed around, after the smiles and hugs and congratulations were exchanged, I settled down for a long night in a big green vinyl chair that I nearly slid out of every time I fell asleep. By 4 a.m. I’d slept less than an hour. Tristan didn’t know how to eat. This was something I’d never considered. I assumed that a baby would come into the world with this basic skill, but I was wrong. What else would I have to help teach him? To sleep? To roll over?
The nurses left the baby in the room because after trying for most of the evening, they couldn’t pacify him. Tristan was hungry and crying and he was like that most of the night. I wondered if this was what being a father was like. Was I going to be up all night, every night, for the next several years? How was I to care for him and still make it to school and work? What had Mel gotten me into? I was completely exhausted and Tristan was less than one day old.
“Why won’t he sleep?” I asked. “What the hell is wrong with him? Is he broken?”
Mel looked at me. Her neck and cheeks were still swollen. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m so tired.”
Around 5 a.m. I was holding Tristan while Mel slept. He was awake, swaddled in a blanket. Tristan and I looked at each other for some time, eyes locked. It was a stare off. I was trying to make him blink, or something that might lead to sleep. I wanted him to know that what he was doing was unacceptable. I wanted him to know that it was time to sleep. I tried to give him the same look that Mel often gives me. The one that always makes me cave. I even whispered to him, “Go to sleep. I want you to go to sleep. I am your father and I am telling you to go to sleep.” Then I gave him the silent treatment. But nothing worked.
For nearly thirty minutes he’d been quiet. This was a record for his first night. The sun was coming up, and it was just light enough in the room for me to see his smooth face and dark eyes. During all his struggling and crying Tristan had managed to work his right arm loose from the tightly wrapped blanket.
“Listen, Tristan.” I whispered. “We’re in this together. You need me and I need you. We both need sleep. You know it and I know it. So I’ll make you a deal. If you go to sleep right now I will teach you how to use the toilet.”
He reached up and gripped my right index finger with a wrinkled pink hand and we shook, making a gentleman's agreement. His whole hand was not much bigger than the tip of my finger. We looked at each other for a while. It was so late. It was so early. It was quiet.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but I remember sleeping deeply. When I awoke, the sun was up, a nurse was in the room, Mel was asleep, and Tristan was peacefully sleeping in the hook of my arms, his hand still gripping my finger. I remember feeling like I’d accomplished some great feat by getting Tristan to fall asleep for a few hours, and all it had taken was my index finger. Regardless of how much money it took to raise him, how many diapers I had to change, how many times he threw a fit in a department store, somehow with the simple grip of my son’s small hand, I knew that everything was going to be okay as long as I held him, cared for him, and loved him. It was an amazing experience.
During the excitement of having a baby, I hadn’t taken the time to realize that I was now a father. One of my biggest fears was happening and I was still alive. And Tristan was still alive. I was still a little scared, but there was a new feeling that I hadn’t expected: Hope.
|Tristan and Dad: Day one|
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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University.