And I am Hers

Keeping an appointment with fatherhood

We could hear her screaming from the other end of the hall on the maternity ward at the Saint Vincent's Hospital in Billings, Montana. "Help me! I'm not kidding! Help me!" she was yelling. She had been on the unit for five whole minutes, her husband had not even finished checking her in, and she was already giving birth. My wife and I had been there for eleven long coffee-drinking contraction-counting hours and still, it was all happening too fast for me.

Now, my wife will tell you, as many women will at times like this, she was the one needing the break. While I'm hardly one who would want to take anything away from the birthing experience, a person can only drink so much coffee before they have to go. And, I had to go.

"Hurry," was all Sarah, my wife, said.

I couldn't help but wonder as I left the room, looking at Sarah as she stroked her stomach with her hands, her head back, her eyes closed, as she breathed with those slow, sturdy, measured breaths, had my father gone through any of this? Was he there when I was born?

My father certainly wasn't there, as either a guiding force or an active participant, as I grew from boy to man. He decided early, I guess, that fatherhood was not the job for him. He drove a semi-truck and considered himself a sort of land sailor.

To hear him tell it, he had a girl in every city and town. He was a real man, making babies across the country and then moving on. He'd never be trapped in the rut of accountability.

I, however, was going to be a father. A father who would have had no model for the job if it hadn't been for Mr. Baker. He was my best friend Tommy's dad. He worked five days a week, sometimes six, loading crates for L and M Transfer company in Atlanta, Georgia. After his eight- to ten-hour day, he'd coach little league football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the summer. His teams seldom won, but every kid played. I suppose that was why so many nonathletic children like myself enjoyed playing for him.

"Did the contraction just start?" I asked as I returned to the room where my wife labored.

"Of course it's a contraction, asshole!" Sarah informed me. She didn't get the question right, but it didn't seem like the time to point this fact out to her.

"These contractions are hurting like hell. Do you think you can get someone in here?" she asked.

Sarah was contorting all over the bed, and my attempts at back rubs, breathing techniques, and humor were not helping. So, at her insistence, and with the total lack of nursing personnel in the room, I agreed to check on the baby's progress--my being an Emergency Medical Technician and all. She was crowning--our baby's head was visible and trying to push its way into the world--and Sarah was right, it was time to get a doctor in there.

"Doctor J says how's it coming?" our physician asked as he entered the room. He spoke the way he dressed: bright yellow shirts, orange pants, and blue ties with green dots. Between the third-person speech and the clown outfits, I never felt quite comfortable with him. Sarah, however, loved him.

"She's crowned, Doc," I said.

"How do you know?" he asked.

"I peeked," I said. I figured he had a right to know.

He peeked, too, and with a pat on Sarah's knee and a wink, he said, "It won't be long now."

"It won't be long now," I repeated without the slightest trace of a smile. We were going to have a child whether I was ready or not. Was I capable of being responsible for a life other than my own? God, what if my child was like me? My mother would think that was sweet justice.

When I was sixteen and only in the tenth grade, because of many violations of family rules and acts of violent disrespect, my mother evicted me from her house. She'd been raising four children on her own since I was five years old. Being the oldest, and perhaps the toughest child she had to deal with, I had pushed her too far in my disrespect and after a really long night, she had shown me the door. I was homeless, and found myself sleeping in laundromats, cars, or not at all. It was having an effect on me. I don't know what I would have done if it hadn't been for Mr. Baker.

He came out on his porch one evening while I was visiting Tommy. He walked over to the steps where I stood next to his son, lit his pipe with slow deliberate puffs, shook the match out, and leaned against the post. After a long pause, he said, "I've been talking to your mom."

"Yeah," I said.

"Seems you've been having trouble at home."

I didn't say anything. I just stood there staring at him. I could feel my teeth pressing against each other and my neck muscles tightening. He and my mother had been talking about me. That wasn't right. At least that's how I saw it back then.

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