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Unexpected; Baby Pictures; Bad Connection; Again; 9-1/2 Weeks; Name Game; December 18th


Unexpected

My wife Jill and I are expecting a baby, and so far I feel fine. My back aches when I bend over to pick up my socks, but I think the pain is caused by my chair at work. My temperature is constant, although sometimes I wake up chilly in the morning if Jill has all the blankets. I have hangnails. My gums are strong. I'm retaining little of anything, including water.

So far this pregnancy seems tougher on Jill. She says she's hungry all the time. Her body feels cold even as she sweats. She dreads the night she won't be able to roll over. Parts of her body ache for the first time since adolescence.

"Oh, yeah," recalls her mother, who remembers almost nothing, when told about the pain.

"Your body's working hard," her cousin tells her. The same cousin, mother of two, says the stuff about this being a wondrous experience for the body is baloney. "I thought it was just weird," she said.

That's an honest comment. Much as I'm looking forward to dancing at my child's weddings, I don't believe I would ever have had a baby on my own. But, as couples are in this together, I'm starting to think of the pregnancy as "ours."

"Oh?" says Jill. "I find that interesting, in that I'm the one who's going to blow up like a watermelon. I'm the one who's going to be constipated. I'm the one who's not going to be able to roll on my side and have to lie there, praying for a few minutes of unconsciousness."

"I'm the one who's going to have to live with you," I say.

The road to pregnancy was twisty. We were blessed just as we quit our jobs and are about to move to a different city. And the city is New York, where prospective landlords prefer that one husband and one wife and one baby have at least one job between the three of them.

Before any of this fell on us, however, Jill pushed for the baby. We did the shots, the check-ups, the consultations, the tests in dark rooms and the other things in dark rooms. Something worked, because one of our last check-ins with the doctor contained the word "positive," now Jill can't stop eating, and I get no sympathy.

"You have no idea what it's like," Jill says to me.

"You won't have to go through pregnancy," says a friend.

"Get off the phone," says my sister.

I feel this is going to get rougher on the father, particularly one that people suspect doesn't have the cigars armed and ready on their launch pads. A co-worker said that his wife also supplied most of the motivation to produce their daughter; he said he didn't tingle until he laid eyes on the little girl. He seems to be tingling now. He calls the little girl "Sugar." I liked the girl, too. Unlike some co-workers, she never cries in the office.

I'd like a girl like her. Or a boy like the kid on "American Gothic." I'd like a kid who will still watch "Seinfeld" until almost the 22nd century. A kid who years from now will stop the car at a pit beef stand on the way to his or her second wedding.

Otherwise what's the point of our being pregnant? (Spring, 1998)

Baby Pictures

Want to see pictures of my baby? I do too, so I take a look at this screen that’s about the size of my first TV, which was also black-and-white and made by General Electric. Unlike that TV, this screen shows ultrasounds, a gray pyramid of my wife's insides. In the corner of the screen is the GE logo. Bringing good things to life, the heartbeat looks like an insistent computer cursor.

The doctor says he or she is about two centimeters long. He or she is shaped like Australia. He or she looks expensive.

Jill and I have come to the doctor’s office to look at the screen. Jill is under a sheet. I’m sitting in a chair. The doctor is talking to us, offering suggestions we intend to take on the walk home, such as “One hot dog is fine.”

We have a guarded, respectful attitude toward childbirth. We don’t want to know the sex of the baby, for instance, the surprise of which we consider one of life’s unmissable water slides. On the recommendation of doctors, Jill will have a c-section; she says they can take the baby out through her nose if they want, as long as there’s a gallon of anesthesia and a squad of doctors present. I get to be there, too; Jill said I can bring my Gameboy. At least I think that’s what she said.

For us, this has been a two-year haul through an infertility system built when the boomers finally decided to have kids. We’ve endured much associated with the clock ticking on wannabe parents: appointments and probes, shots in the belly and shots in the dark. We’ve done private things with public instruction. Things that ended in our bedroom with Jill saying: “We have to do this! We have an appointment!”

In those two years we’ve also noted how the less a parent talks to their already-born kid, the more the kid seems to scream in the candy aisle. We notice how boomers buy for their kids the way you buy vanity plates for a vintage car. How boomers want every element of the day planned, right down to the back seat of the minivan. How boomers want every risk removed.

“There’s risk in every relationship,” Jill says.

Boomers have made an industry out of knowing as much as possible when producing a baby. Peer inside, eat flawlessly, with no hot dogs, and no cursing lest the fetus hear you. We mock how boomers have bled the fun from something that’s been happening for generations in caves and cabins and fields and lot of other uninsured places. Consider the magazine called “Fit Pregnancy,” which Jill picked up the other day. One ad trumpets the “fetal phone.” You use this device to jump-start your baby in life by placing one end on the mother’s tummy and the other end on your common sense, and chatting away.

I’m not sure Jill and I have anything to say to our kid yet. Maybe “Hi I’m your daddy” or “Hi I’m your mommy,” as if the kid wouldn’t figure it out soon anyway. Maybe we could talk about the end of “Seinfeld.” I’d be tempted to whisper a curse word and see if my kid still gets into college.

I think there will be time for talking later. Screaming and cursing too. Because there’s risk in every relationship.

But there’s a little less in Jill’s and mine now, as we look at that insistent little cursor on the screen, and at Australia. (Early Summer, 1998)

Bad Connection

My wife Jill and I have a baby on the way, and I'm realizing that I have connected with kids twice in my adult life. In 1991 I cradled a month-old boy, one of my sister's platoon, and told him he would be proud someday because his dad was in the Gulf War. The baby agreed, if falling asleep indicates agreement.

Then there was the time I visited a friend who was teaching at a weird school in the woods of Maine. These schoolkids would plunk themselves unasked on your lap and talk to you just like strangers on a stuck subway. Except for the lap part. And you could talk back and they seemed to understand.

Still, one's on the way. To my house.

"But when you look into that little face..." Jill says. Her words trailed off.

I've looked into plenty of little faces: babies, kittens, hamsters. Members of only one of those groups lock their eyes on mine and find me wanting. The little face disintegrates, first cracking between the eyes with a spreading furrow. Then eyelids squeeze shut, lips gape, and fingers clinch into won-ton-sized fists. Then, the howling.

Not all of them howl. Once I said "hello there" to a one-year-old in a drug store, and he looked at me as if he'd never ever let me sell him a car. Another time I accidentally piggy-backed a one-year-old into a wall: When I let her down she didn't cry, but clapped her head and stared at me with twin blue barrels of outrage, as if when she got old enough she'd punch me right in the mouth.

More typical is what happened last Thanksgiving when I visited Jon, an old high school friend. Seems like only yesterday Jon would spot somebody wearing his pants too low and make a joke that usually contained the word "crack." Now that sense of fun lives on in Ben, Jon's own little kid, who got his father to spend most of a holiday afternoon trying to head him off as he darted for the highway. Jon caught him every time.

Also present was Jay, another friend from high school, a cool guy I remember because he held a trumpet in the senior portrait. Now he has a nice car, a good job in Washington, the handshake of presidents, and a way with kids. He scooped up Ben and piggy-backed him -- crash-free -- through and between the low pine branches without a scratch on the little face. If I'd tried that, Jon's day off would have ended with his son and wife screaming in the back seat, his knuckles white on the wheel as he sped to the emergency room. Not to mention all three of them wanting to punch me in the mouth.

A month after that, I learned Jill was pregnant.

"You'll be a good father because you have to be," Jon said.

I called my sister. "Your baby will bond with you because it has to," she said.

Have to. Has to. I'll repeat that to myself that first day home with the baby. The crib, the blanket, the fresh talcum, the fresher poop, the clink of the mobile of animals on which I constantly bump my head. Jill and I will be all smiles, Mom and Dad Goofus on their first patrol, gazing at the howling thing.

"Watch him-her-it for a minute, OK?" Jill will say, and leave the room.

And I will, because I have to. For the rest of my life, I will have to. I'll be thinking stuff like this when I'll notice the kid looking at me, and one of us will marvel, "You're the father?" (Early Summer, 1998)

Again

Jill is 16 weeks pregnant and moving steadily through the phases of this wonder of nature: hundreds of dollars in new clothes; heartburn that snaps her upright in bed; constipation; and what she terms "melting" ligaments. Also like last time, I feel fine. My back hurts a little.

If all goes well, and let's hope it goes well, the child will be born around the end of the year. "Do you think this is a good idea?" Jill says. "I just hope Alex isn't too shocked."

Funny she should say shocked. Last time it was week 29 when I arrived in Jill's hospital room two years ago and she looked up at me. "Well we're having a baby," she said that Sunday morning. "I just hope the kid isn't too shocked." How about that?

I probably wouldn't remember that statement, except that by June 1998 I had written almost weekly about pregnancy, largely to myself, hoping to capture the humor of expecting your first child. At that time we figured the doctors were behind us, having emerged from the appointments and pins-and-needles of infertility. Pins and needles for Jill, who wanted a baby, and for me, who didn't necessarily want a baby.

"But, as couples are in this together," I wrote, "I'm starting to think of the pregnancy as 'ours.'" Jill replied back then that she found that "interesting," in that she was the one who was going to blow up like a watermelon and be unable to roll onto her side "and will have to lie there, praying for a few minutes of unconsciousness."

"'I'm the one who's going to have to live with you,'" I said. Funny stuff, but that line looks to me now like the pure blue sky before the Challenger lift-off. A memory erased by what came after.

We go to the doctor this afternoon for the latest sonogram. Maybe we'll learn the sex. The fewer surprises the better, because someday we'll be into weeks 30, 31, maybe even 35, that we didn't have last time. Weeks when, again let's hope, Jill is bigger and crankier. Those biggest, crankiest weeks never arrived in 1998, replaced by a crucible of plastic and wires, tubes and nurses' cracks. Doctors who seemed to revel in throwing up their arms, who dared not open their armor to a sliver of hope. Relatives and friends who were not only unsure of what to say, but even of what to ask. Jill and I spent most of the time in pain or numb. I felt betrayed. "It will all be a bad memory someday," a co-worker told me.

Every pregnancy needs a doctor; we have a new one. Jill says he's raised an eyebrow about the treatment she got during the last pregnancy. Those doctors were the first of the white coats that I distrusted, the first doctors I learned to look at the same way urban poor look at the police. This new doctor has put Jill on a drug to fight blood clotting, which he thinks may have affected Alex's growth in the spring of 1998. I have to give Jill a shot every night. I gave her shots last time, too. Odd though, going to a doctor to discuss a kid other than Alex.

I call Jill about this pregnancy. She says there were two things she missed last time: Paring her wardrobe and organizing, or what she calls "getting the box ready for the kittens."

"And you know," she says, "it's kind of silly, but I missed having a big stomach. It's what- STOP! STOP IT!"

Alex has discovered the water in the toilet bowl. "You hear that splashing noise and you don't even have to wonder what it is," Jill says. "Okay, somebody's going in the crib ..."

Alex is taking our house apart. Recently he got his first time-out, after slamming the stereo cabinet. Jill reports we got our first dirty look in a restaurant the other day, when he was making a ruckus and bothering other diners. "And that's the whole point of it," Jill says. "That's the thing you don't realize in your first pregnancy."

That's one thing. I could be funny in our first pregnancy. Cocky funny, stemming from apprehension more than fear, with a foundation in the certainty that hospitals are on your side and everything may be expensive but it will come out all right. Now that certainty seems like a bad memory, cockiness a green misjudgment. I don't know what to feel, except hopeful that before the end of this year I don't have a big reason to be shocked. (July, 2000)

9-1/2 Weeks

Jill can't bend now. "You try bending with a little monkey hugging your stomach," she says, referring not to Alex - who is trying to trod her stomach down - but to Alex's baby brother-to-be, who is due in 9-1/2 weeks, in December. "Try it with raging heartburn and having to pee every five minutes," Jill adds. "But I don't want this to come out like I'm complaining, because I'm not. I want it to be another 9-1/2 weeks. I'm not complaining. Do you think I'm complaining?"

We're entering the phase of pregnancy we missed with Alex: backaches, leg aches, need of a sturdy heave off the couch. ("Don't say 'heave,'" Jill asks.) At 26 weeks or so, December Boy is already bigger than Alex was at birth. By this time in the last pregnancy, Jill was days away from being thin again, our firstborn just days away from the lights and plastic of the NICU. By this time in the last pregnancy, a ride down a dark side road was about to begin. This time we may explore the last weeks of a pregnancy full in the sun, with no more than the normal human thrills and dangers. Nine-and-a-half more weeks? Yes, please.

It's not that Jill started out with a 1950's rosy glow of impending motherhood and slowly turned into Carla Tortelli; she loves her maternity clothes from ebay, for example. She's just tired. Every night after Alex drifts off, Jill and I get into bed. Every night Jill seems to bulge a fraction more onto my side. Every night, she wiggles and moans. "Rub my back," she pleads. She tries to lie still, but soon she's pitching like a ship on a swell, left and right, left and right - "I can't get comfortable!" -- until at last December Boy himself rolls over and compresses her bladder even more, and she must pitch herself upright and stagger to the bathroom. Luckily, an upright position makes it easier to relieve her heartburn.

One by one those aspects of her body that Jill thought were solidly hers are moving beyond her control: walking, the bathroom, consciousness around 6 p.m. As her stomach swells, so do the unprecedented questions. Can you give me a hand up? Can I put my feet on you? Can you cut my toenails? I can't reach them anymore. "I'm pregnant!" Jill explains.

I don't know what this means, not really. I give her a hand up ("Don't say 'heave'...") and let her put her feet on me. I mean to bring home flowers more often than I actually bring them home. I have to keep biting back the word "waddle." I make dinner now and then, but then Jill usually gives Alex the bath.

With almost a month and a half to go, I speak too sharply and feel like a heel. Sometimes I speak softly and still wind up feeling like a heel. Like last night, when she displayed no interest in whether the Yankees make it to a third straight World Series. Jill has never had any interest in sports, not even in the championships. I know this. Still I asked why, green and stupid as a groom, and this on a day when people have been pestering her about Alex not verbalizing and December Boy maybe not moving enough.

"Well," Jill replied, "why don't you have any interest in the art season?" There are art seasons? I explain that I was just noticing. "Look, you're going to have to walk on eggs with me for a while," she said.

In the last of couple days, she seems to have turned some kind of corner. Later last night, as I finished checking my e-mail, she appeared in the doorway of the study after swigging that evening's second glass of tomato juice with Metamucil. "I've been moaning for 10 minutes," she said. "Did you even hear me?" You know, I didn't. And if I had, what could I have done? For the next 9-1/2 weeks, I will try to notice nothing. I will listen for moaning harder and tread my eggs. I imagine I'll stumble a lot in those weeks. But it's not that long a time, and it sure beats the alternative. Need a hug, sweetie? "Is that the best you can do?" she said, and I think her eyes began to brim.

"You know, you might just think of pregnancy as a time when I can say anything and you can't say anything," she said, then she doubled over in loud laughter.

Later still I rubbed her back in bed, and told her that anytime she wanted me to do that all she had to do was ask. I hope she does ask, because I don't know what I'm doing. Again. (October 2000)

Name Game

We've been kicking around names for the new baby. I like Samuel or Adam. "Will make people think of beer," Jill says.

Jill's suggestions that I have shot down include Jamie, Admiral, and Fox. Fox is too TV trendy. Jill's friend Karey pointed out that Jamie depends on how the kid pulls it off. "A little Jamie is one thing, but it might not be so good for an adult..." said Karey, which incidentally is not a consideration, though a good name. Aunt Julie suggested Joseph, which I liked because it sounds good with Stimpson and was the first name of a great coach in the history of the Washington Redskins. Jill and Aunt Julie also want to call the new boy Admiral, but that's more of a nickname.

Jill dug up a site called urbanbaby.com, which, like those lottery computers that will pick for you if you can't imagine five numbers, will help you name your baby. This site tells you the most popular boys' names according to Manhattan neighborhood.

On the Upper East Side, the most popular names include Bailey, Blair, Brewster, Dustin, Troy, and Walker. Dustin would work if my last name were Hoffman. Troy is out because it's the name of a great quarterback in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. From downtown come Alejandro, Andreas, Beckett, Connor, Damien, and Dante. My friend Jon (also a good name) used to make a joke out of mangling the movie title to "Damon: Omien Two!" Dante would work if my last name were Inferno.

I e-mail Jill that the Redskins have an outstanding cornerback named Bailey. Bailey it is?

Bailey it is not, she e-mails back.

Other popular Manhattan names include Carson, Shane and Cooper (too Western), and Harry (too book trendy). Other names that just don't do it for me include Jared, Theo, Gabriel, Gareth and Julian. Fine names, but no. What is a "Gareth," by the way? Oliver's out because that musical is too long after the song "You've Got to Pick a Pocket Or Two." Ian has too many syllables for too few letters.

Quentin reminds me of "Dark Shadows". Sebastin, I think, is spelled wrong, and I don't want to have to explain it to strings of teachers in the future. Leonardo makes me think of the Titanic, Palmer of pro golf. Simon makes me think of those famous musical Funkel brothers, Simon and Gar.

From the Upper West Side come Ash, Caleb, Darren, Drake, and Fox. Caleb I like because of "American Gothic." Simeon's out because I had a boss of that name once. Zachary would work if my last name were Taylor. I thought we covered Fox? Besides, Alex seems to like Fox for himself. The new guy ought to get used to that.

My big suggestions shot down so far are Arthur and James. Arthur was my uncle, killed in World War II. Also a king. James is of course James T. Kirk, killed a couple of "Star Trek" movies ago and which somehow isn't too TV trendy. Jeffrey Jr. wasn't in the running for Alex and isn't for the new guy, either, because I've never liked the name Jeffrey. Too many different spellings for the same result.

I should point out that I picked Alexander for my firstborn because it's flexible. Al, Alex, Alexander. "Alexander Lee!" when he's bad. Isn't that a good name for a Confederate colonel, by the way? "'zander Lee." One-syllable names, I read somewhere, don't lend themselves to many nicknames that could reflect the child's personality. Paul and either Carl were thus out. I like Jack, but ever since JFK everybody thinks it's a nickname for John. (Jill points out that Jill is a one-syllable name, but I've never felt a need to nickname her personality.)

Max was and is a possibility since it expands into Maxwell, and there must have been a great Redskins player named Maxwell. Jill says we'll look at that little face and know if he's a Maxwell, a Fox, or a what.

"You can also tell your readers that your over-educated wife knows that 'Kai' is Greek for 'and,'" she says, "and I'm not naming my son after a conjunction." Arthur and James aren't conjunctions. Are you sure about Bailey? "Yes," Jill replies. "Besides, you named the first one." (October 2000)

December 18th

This Monday, my second son will be born. The doctor has set the time: 8 a.m. We have to be at the hospital at 6:30. Too early, too early.

I feel as if I’m getting ready for my first day of kindergarten, my first day of college, the morning of my wedding. On each of those occasions I knew that I was stepping off into somewhere a lot of others had stepped before, but it was still a huge blank. The second time around shouldn’t be such a blank, but it is.

Alex’s little-brother-to-be has a big job to erase his brother’s imprint on December 18th. Alex had a bad crash on that date in 1998. He’d been home for four days. It was an afternoon doctor’s appointment; Jill and I brought a ham sandwich for lunch. The nurse kicked over his oxygen tank and broke the gauge, and they put him on a tank that may or may not have been empty. They dived on him in that office when he stopped breathing, about fifty of them, so many I couldn’t fit in the room. The security guard told me not to block the door; I told him back that I was The Father. He left me alone, and I remember he seemed ashamed of having spoken to me. When the disaster was over and Alex was gone somewhere on life support, the bed where he’d been was littered with crumpled papers, snips of tubing, a bloodstain on the sheet beside a lone sock. Jill had eaten the sandwich.

This December 18th should more closely resemble June 14th, 1998, the day Alex was born. In some ways. Alex’s baby brother appears robust. He’s almost full term, probably about six or seven pounds, kicks his mother a lot, and seems on course to come out with all the expected magic.

Alex weighed 21 ounces, and came out 10 weeks early. He looked like a doll. Our sense of magic over him was swiftly replaced with NICU plastic and with months of wrestling with premature birth and healthcare politics. I don’t remember much about Alex’s day of birth, except a splash of Jill’s blood on the OR floor and a doctor yelling, “Boy!” And his head, which I glimpsed, as big as a tennis ball. That day ended not with relatives but with doctors, not with balloons but with a ventilator. That day kicked off an adventure that not only wasn’t magical, it wasn’t even especially natural, and we have had to devote energy to getting over it.

Whether we’re over what happened, we’re on the verge of the adventure again. People tell us we’re silly to worry. But Jill stands by the worry-now route. She figures that she didn’t worry before last time and look what happened. She just can’t believe that on the evening of December 18th we’ll be preparing to take home a new baby boy home. That has never happened to us. If it does happen this time, I hope the joy doesn’t erase too much of the memory of what happened to Alex.

And even if this time goes well, we’ll hardly be off the hook. “In one week, a bomb is going to go off in this house,” says Jill. “Do we even know how to bathe a newborn?”

We do. We bathed Alex in the hospital, and he was a lot smaller than a newborn. A lot smaller. (And this time no semi-hostile hospital staffer will be grading us. This time, the first night we spend with our son won’t be busted up by some nurse turning the neons on for no good reason at 3 a.m.) Jill calls this our last week. We’re going to spend it chipping away at our new apartment. My boss says we should buy Alex a nice gift for when the baby comes home, so we’ll probably also shop for that. Then week will be gone. And we all know what day comes next. (December 2000)

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