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Just weeks into the experience of parenthood, I seem to experience a fresh epiphany about every other day-moments of clarity, addicts call them, in which the camera lens of life is screwed sharply into focus and the afflicted suddenly realizes what path he must take.
I'm having a moment of clarity now, alone here in my kitchen at night, where I'm spooning and spooning cold cereal. This is dinner these days: standing at the kitchen window with a bowl of breakfast. I'm nettled by problems with sleep, and with timing, and with other things. The hour is late enough that even the pointillist panorama of New York, a city I've called home for fifteen years, seems almost subdued; York Avenue, five stories below, is nearly deserted, and taxis streak by only occasionally. Summer is barely hanging on, having exhausted itself with hot September. The scene appears tranquil to the naked eye, but it's really not-if this kitchen were the galley of a Boeing jet, the FASTEN SEAT BELTS sign would be blinking right now, directing all passengers to buckle up and prepare for terrible turbulence. I've ruined dinner, blackened it to the pan-the haze hanging below the ceiling is the proof. My wife, Jessica, and I were going to eat six pristine lamb chops an hour ago, but as we sat down at the table our -weeks--old daughter, Grace, gave a cry of hunger from her room-and I looked up with the troubled expression of a picnicker who hears distant thunder.
Just weeks in, and I'm already a worried dad. The big questions seek me out after midnight and apprehend me at the moment of sleep. There in the night I face down my fears about Gracie's low birth weight and, one at a time, put them in the proper perspective-the next morning, though, the fears are always somehow revived, renewed, reinvigorated. Our daughter was born light, far too light, and whenever she delivers a cry of hunger we snap to attention. So an hour ago we abandoned dinner, and just now I blackened the chops trying to reheat them. I'd thought this would be a simple process of applying the flame, the necessary heat, but things moved much faster than I expected and quickly evolved into a Larry, Moe, and Curly scene of the highest order. As I heaved the window open, fanning the smoke out into the night, I wondered if it was possible to be mad at a kitchen implement. But no, it's hunger itself that I'm mad at-I was hungry for those chops, and now I'm having a bowl of breakfast instead. There was a time when I thought of hunger as a useful, instructive thing-not just physical hunger but hunger for things like success or romantic love. The idea was that the wanting could teach you things about yourself, about your various prowling appetites, and perhaps I was right in that, because tonight's hunger has propelled me into a moment of clarity, with all of its dreadful data about my situation.
Here is what I'm slowly coming to understand: What is broken in the kitchen is broken elsewhere-the problem would appear to be that life no longer moves according to my schedule. If you're a writer or a cook, timing is crucial; if you happen to be both, as I am, you're finished without it. I used to have it, this timing, in the kitchen and on the page, but now it's gone. I'm a beat behind in everything I do-I go around half the time feeling like an actor who belongs in a drama and finds himself instead in a comedy, where the jokes are all at his expense.
I've felt this way for weeks-since September 9, 2007, when I surfaced from a deep sleep around 4 a.m. and found Jessica standing over me in the pale bedside light. Marriage has taught me a few things, among them that you should be worried when your pregnant wife wakes you at 4 a.m. by standing over you with the lights already on.
My confusion resolved itself quickly enough when Jessica told me in no uncertain terms that she hadn't slept one minute all night and added that she was pretty sure our baby was on the way, showing me startling evidence to the same. (I'll not describe it here but rather note that the condition "bloody show" is very well named indeed, and as bracing as two strong cups of coffee to see. Google it.) I slapped around on the floor for about ten minutes, searching for my clothes, and we phoned the obstetrician. The baby, if she came today, would be five weeks early. At our latest sonogram we were told that the baby's weight was just north of four pounds. In most cases an obstetrician encourages a couple to remain at home until the woman is through early labor, but the fact that we were five weeks early, combined with other unusual conditions of the pregnancy, was enough to cause him to tell us to come on in, and right away. There were no cars out so early-we hunted down a cab, and the driver seemed to understand everything with a glance. He thundered through intersection and along crosscut, around hairpin and down avenue. Jessica was in that trancelike state women achieve when the biological imperative asserts itself; that is, she was an arresting example of female -can--do. If there'd been any time to stop and think, I suppose I would have panicked, but I was fully occupied by the events unfolding around me, and anyway, I was still shaking off the anesthetic effects of the martini I'd had at dinner the night before. We swept past the sleepy hospital admitting desk and were fired skyward by the express elevator to the birthing floor, where an IV was inserted into the back of Jessica's hand. At this point Jessica's blood pressure swirled upward, and I heard a staffer in attendance use the word preeclampsia. A monitor strapped over Jessica's navel, which measured the contractions she was experiencing, began delivering data to a printer beside the bed-this immediately began drawing rolling ocean swells, and for a moment the illusion was complete: I imagined that this was indeed an ocean liner, and here were the heavy seas, with their attendant queasiness. But then the IV began to do its work, Jessica's blood pressure eased, and the printout swells subsided into barely noticeable upticks.
That's it? I asked, and the attending doctor repeated my question in the declarative.
Four brief hours at the hospital, and our fortunes had turned.
During the cab ride home I was electric with the cherry high of someone who has been granted a reprieve-every other block I felt the urge to seize the cabbie by the shoulder and say, "That was a close one, wasn't it?" Now I had time to prepare for this thing I hadn't been prepared for. I helped Jessica into bed, seared a grilled cheese sandwich for her and watched her eat, then pulled the covers up to her chin and drew the curtains. After offering a heartfelt plea that she rest, and rest well, I stepped into the shower.
What a still moment that was, standing blameless beneath the roaring showerhead, nodding to myself, arms crossed, eyes closed, breathing deeply through my nose and reflecting on the near miss of a -five--week--premature birth. Close, Keith, I thought, so close, too close, and then hollering Jessica ran into the bathroom and leaped, fully dressed and exultant, into the shower with me.
Her water had broken.
The warning shot had revealed itself to be the report of a starting gun.
We stood in silence for a moment-facing each other, hands clasped, like a couple about to recite a marriage vow. Even the most vivid memories tend to fade with time, but decades from now, when Death appears in my doorway and beckons with a bent finger, this is the image that will burn brightly in my mind's eye-Jessica standing fully dressed in the shower, clothes dripping, wet hair plastered to her face and neck, and the waters that had protected Gracie for the first -thirty--five weeks of her life now swirling around my bare ankles.
Here comes the future, at 140 heartbeats per minute.
I have a funny relationship with pain. The experts say that pain is trying to tell us something, that it is delivering a distress signal from a body part that is being misused and that we ought to listen to that signal. For that very reason I don't mind small amounts of pain-I'm strongly resistant to taking aspirin, cough medicine, allergy medicine, and other such palliatives for headaches, scrapes, burns, cuts, and so on-but I just can't stomach the bad stuff. When it comes to the -big--ticket items-knee operations, cavity fillings, -room--spinning migraines-I immediately cave, jettison all principles, and request as much painkiller as possible, and the sooner, and stronger, the better. Were I faced with the prospect of eight or more hours of labor, I would surely arrive at the hospital pretranquilized, all but holding out my arm and slapping the vein to offer the doctor assistance. Jessica, on the other hand, has always been a believer in using aspirin and other painkillers to ease the discomfort of everyday headaches, sore muscles, cramps, and so on-which suggests that she believes in using modern medicine to ease pain. I was surprised, then, to learn that she planned to scale what is considered by many to be the Mount Everest of pain: to push a baby out with a -drug--free birth. Upon hearing this news, my first thought, selfishly, was to fear that in this extreme circumstance I would be placed in a position that any husband deeply dreads: that of feeling essentially useless.1 There were a number of logical fallacies we employed to mitigate my (and Jessica's) fear about meeting this challenge. "It's temporary," she would say, referring to the pain, "it's temporary," and I would nod my head and say, "Yes, it's temporary," thinking, But, Jessica, this is a very long temporary, lasting hours (or even, God help us, days) instead of moments. Nevertheless, we stuck with this line of logic, to great success. "It's temporary," she would say, and I'd nod my head and repeat the phrase back.
We would discuss this matter of painkillers nightly, sometimes more than once a night, and we even took a -weeks--long class on how to survive a -drug--free delivery.2 Through the early stages of this, there remained an element of unreality about the whole thing, which helped tamp down the urgency of the discussion. Many first pregnancies, after all, don't begin to show until some time during the second trimester, which means that even as you're having these hard discussions about things like painkillers, the whole enterprise at times seems almost theoretical, as if you were being rooked by a slew of doctors and -baby--gear vendors trying to separate you and your wife from your last dollar. The doctors, these men and women dressed in long white coats, all busily poking columns of blood test results, a tax audit's worth of facts about height, weight, bone length, and fetal age, and the occasional sonogram photograph, keep telling you that a baby is on the way-but for the first five months you study your wife's belly region and see no obvious evidence that any of this is true.3 I remained silent through much of the -drug--free delivery classes, thinking, Well, it's her call isn't it? But I also remained silent because a significant part of me believed that this would all resolve itself when the first wave of contractions hit and Jessica, duly startled by the size of the pain, raised her hand to call for an epidural and perhaps even a martini on the side to hold her until the anesthesiologist had done her work. I had this opinion because this is the way I would have come at the birth-so I was doubly ashamed by my -self--assured outlook when Jessica devastated all parties involved by seeing her way through labor without so much as an aspirin to blunt the edge of the contractions, even though near the end of it the pain was so intense and went on for so long that it caused her eyes to roll up until the whites showed and forced her to grip me so tightly about the waist for support that she threw out my back.4
Seemingly all at once, with the fury of a tornado that had gathered for hours and then dropped out of clear blue sky, here was the moment of birth, and here was Gracie, born at four pounds-her skin alarmingly gray. Just seconds old, the obstetrician held my daughter aloft with a single hand, then carried her over to the heat lamp, where an attending staff member rubbed her dry with a towel, her color rising now, the staff member suddenly sweeping past me, taking Gracie out of the room in a cart, things already moving faster, and Jessica didn't bother to remove her oxygen mask when she lifted her head and said: "Go with her." Then down the hall, through the double doors and into another wing, this one as harshly lighted as an interrogation room, Plexiglas isolettes lining the walls, each occupied by a tiny baby, and I thought, Ha ha, very funny, joke's over, the NICU is where Other People's children go.
But I was now Other People, one of those persons whose misfortunes you talk about in hushed tones, and the joke was on me. The unreality of the moment was scored by a sort of electronic symphony, alarms sounded by individual heart rate and -blood--oxygen monitors. Gracie now had one around her foot. The alarms are false, a nurse said, grasping my elbow for effect, no need to worry, it just means the baby is shaking the cuff and the machine isn't getting an accurate reading-but later that night another baby's alarm went off, and this time a pair of nurses seemed to materialize out of thin air at either side of the isolette, one with her hand inside going about some sort of complicated business with a baby the size of her palm. When I got it, when I realized what was happening, it was like being dashed with a bucket of cold water: the baby's heart had stopped, or its rate had grown erratic. The nurse was giving it CPR. I watched the nurse bring the baby out of it, my heart in my throat even though it wasn't my kid, and I reflected that if you'd asked me before Gracie had arrived what emotion I thought I would have experienced in such a situation, I probably would have guessed sadness.
From the Hardcover edition.