To Eva, On Your Marriage

Soon you'll walk down the aisle with a dancer's grace, your hand looped through my arm, and the minister will ask who gives this bride away. I will obey custom and your firm instructions by saying "I do," yet I can't give you away, for you aren't mine to give. You belong only to yourself, and to the power that created you, so beautiful and bright, out of sunlight, food, water, and air.

For me to claim ownership of you, as fathers since time out of mind have claimed ownership of their daughters, would be like a twig on a great oak pretending to have made all by itself the newest bud. You're a sprout of the whole tree; you're the daughter of Earth. Yes, I contributed my share to your making, passing on my genes through an act of delight. But this joining with your mother to set you in motion gives me no right of possession, for the biological memory carried in my genes stretches back, unbroken, through the countless inventions of eye and hand and backbone and brain to the first flicker of life in the primal seas.

I knew you, darling, while you swam and kicked in the small sea of your mother's womb. I knew you from laying my fingers and ear to her taut belly. I knew you from the shining in her eyes and from the catch in her breath when you moved. All that summer and fall of 1972, while you waxed inside her like a secret moon, she and I took long swaying walks every night after supper, brimming with tenderness and anxiety. By the short days of December, we began our walks after dark, so we kept to the lighted streets, not wanting to stumble. Mom was determined to hold out for the full nine months, which would end in January, because in that month Bloomington Hospital would begin allowing fathers into the delivery room, and she wanted me there. I was there, from the earliest pains right through your birth, holding her feverish hand, reminding her to take shallow breaths, mopping her forehead with a damp cloth, murmuring to her steadily all night, then babbling ecstatically when you arrived near dawn.

Nothing I had imagined beforehand prepared me for the sight of you, so perfectly made, so intent on life. Every inch of you pulsed with energy, hands groping, legs churning, and your skin glowed furnace red. I trembled. When your body convulsed for a gulp of our difficult air, I gasped. The sound of your first cry echoed through my bones. I wanted to shout. Maybe I did shout, because the nurses looked at me appraisingly, as if to calculate my need for a sedative or a straitjacket. No matter how old this miracle, no matter how many times it had been repeated through the generations, it was brand-new to me. You were the first baby ever born, my heart was sure of it. The birth of the universe could not have been more thrilling.

You were utterly fresh, every toe and finger and eyelash and cell an unprecedented wonder. Done up in a turquoise cap and gown like a refugee from an asylum, I sat in the hospital chair, my feet planted on the floor to make a solid lap, my back tense with responsibility, and for the first time, I held you, so fearfully small, barely six pounds. My hands, cradling you, seemed clumsy and huge. Wondering, I bent down to feel your breath against my cheek. You smelled of apples. After a few minutes you started to whimper, so I handed you gingerly to Mom, knowing that only she could satisfy you. I stroked your fuzzy head while you nursed. How avidly you sucked, even before her milk began to flow! No monk in the rapture of meditation could have been more devoutly focused on God than you were on your mother's breast.

When it was time for you to go home, the nurse handed you to me while Mom lowered herself gingerly into a wheelchair. Only your drowsy eyes and tiny dollop of nose showed from an opening in the pink blanket--the inevitable pink blanket--in which you had been wrapped against the January cold. As I clutched you to my chest, a wave of worry swept over me. These experts in babies were actually going to let us take you out the door, as if we knew how to rear a child. What training had we ever had, except watching our own parents carelessly as we grew up? At least my watching had been haphazard; I can't speak for Mom's. Oh, sure, we'd read books on babies, but that's like reading manuals to learn about sex. It seemed outrageous, that a hospital would turn over a creature so tiny and precious and new to a pair of rank amateurs. Yet no one blocked our way as I pushed the wheelchair, with you in Mom's lap, down the tiled halls to the entrance, then out to our waiting car, its engine running and the heater on high. An orderly followed to fetch the chair. I half expected him to demand you back, but he only waved and wished us luck. I gave one lingering look at that haven of experts, and away we drove.

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