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Words by Rick Hartwell
Image by Claudio Parentela
*Editor's Note: This was previously published in Jumping Blue Gods.
I’m contemplating the give and take of birth as I look down at the pail under the delivery table. It is not centered and the blood and birth fluids seeping from my second wife miss the mark and splatter on the linoleum floor expanding in an ever-widening lake that reflects the bottom of the delivery table and wife together.
I’m supposed to be looking at the mirror above the delivery table slanted so the mother can watch her own delivery. But this I don’t notice until after the birth of my third child. No one mentioned this before. Father-husbands rate low priority in this environment of antiseptics, fluids, and small talk. No survival value I assume.
The music in the background is early-sixties and the doctor carries on his jabberwocky with the nurses ignoring my silent pallor and the moans then screams then sighs of the new mother. I can’t recall what was on the tape merely that I was supposed to like it and be lulled and soothed by it. It’s hard to be soothed and lulled staring at the bloody floor and sparkling pail.
The doctor’s telling Sally not to push. He doesn’t yet have gloves on and he’s holding back the head with the back of a sterile, bare hand as Sally is torn and he is gloved on his off-hand. He switches to his gloved hand and the nurse washes down the bloody right. This too mixes on the floor and thins the blood already there. Sally begins to shake and I begin to think the episiotomy is a bit late.
Joshua is delivered and the only thing Sally is really concerned with is the exact time. I guess when you’ve been through it before you remember to account for the important details. Of course I don’t remember this, but I do remember her nearly breaking the fingers on my hand squeezing so hard.
The nurse takes Josh away to clean him up and APGAR him and all, and the doctor turns to stitch up Sally from the torn delivery. I sit stupidly by waiting for my turn to be useful, but knowing it may be years, if ever.
* * *
Joshua and I have joked many times since then that he is Errol’s kid. He is brown haired and doesn’t look a whit like me.
Errol was a therapist for Joshua’s older sister and Sally was infatuated with him. This is probably a lousy joke, but it has allowed Josh and me to meet on common ground when we both agree he acts like me. So much for nature over nurture. He’s mine even through the days he doesn’t want to be.
Errol was killed in Big Sur by a woman driving with a cat in her lap. Dr. Suess would probably have had fun with that, but the senselessness of this has stricken Sally many times, while I just wonder what could have made it more sensible ever. Joshua says he never knew him, so he has no opinion, but I wonder . . .
* * *
The doctor pats Sally’s leg and says something comforting I’m sure. I’m wondering why women are in love with their obstetricians? Vulnerability? Nothing to hide? What?
I’ve now discovered the mirror as he’s stitching her up. I’m excused from the room by the doctor. The nurse escorts me out. I guess this is too gruesome for fathers so they must be sent away along with the newborn.
I’m not allowed to follow Joshua immediately, so I take the elevator down one story to the family waiting room. Hordes of in-laws and out-laws are there so we all can now take the elevator back up one flight to the baby-viewing arena. This, too, becomes a conversation I have blocked from memory; sensory overload.
Before the elevator door slides open I can hear the screams of a new baby. I somehow know they belong to my third-born. I don’t know why. He has been washed and weighed, measured and laid to rest in a Plexiglas container with a blue nameplate. He obviously has no intention of resting.
* * *
I read this to Josh at eighteen and again he confirms he has no opinion; this time neither on the writing or the content. He’s too busy playing on the computer and swearing in order to hear the sound of his own voice. Still! Some things change and some things remain the same across the centuries between birth and adolescence. Why does his birth still affect me with such force? John’s was that of a first-born and eagerly awaited by his bedridden mother after losing one child after eight days and then another, miscarriage, and yet another still after one day only. With Sally, my second wife, Jaime’s birth was merely a travesty, and Justin’s was lost in my inebriated fog. I just realized Joshua was not the third-born, but the fifth, or perhaps the sixth, depending on your point-of-view or who’s counting. Significance? I have none to offer, but numbers fascinate some, so there they are.
* * *
John was taken away by his mother, or left by me, again depending on your point-of-view. And Jaime, the girl, was so different and helped create the hinge between my stint in the Army and the return to the real world. Before John, Sean was a bad memory of my falling out with god -- notice the small “g” please. Nathaniel was a bad memory of my falling out with Esther, my first wife. And Justin is the fog before they all became individuals.
To mothers, all babies must appear as individuals immediately. Why else become so incensed at hospital ineptitude in pediatrics? For the rest of the world, the other half, we must wait for the individual to emerge before the baby stories become cute.