After the three of us got off the phone Saturday afternoon, Grammar and I dug out my parents’ ancient <quote-01>croquet set<quote-01> from the third-most disastrous corner of our garage and set out into the newly sodded front yard. Conch has always wanted to put a little fence around our corner lot for her imagined future grandkids and “barely leash-worthy” canine companions. Remember, she thought Ben—our hulking Australian Cattle Dog-Dalmatian mix who very much resembled a full-grown Jack Russell terrier as a puppy—would be just a bit bigger than your dog, Wuck. So last summer she pulled the trigger with the same contractor who converted our upstairs deck into what is now Grammar’s room. He said in August that he’d be done by Halloween; I doubt he’ll be done by this Halloween. Still, the wall—minus the promised wrought-iron—is mostly in place, and two weeks ago we got the go-ahead to re-sod the yard.
The first night the lawn was in, Grammar let out an “Oh!” worthy of Christmas morning before sprinting to the Monterey Pine at the center of our yard and circling it a good seven times.
<quote-02>“I’m king-a-th’whirl!”<quote-02> he shouted. “Whee!”
We’ve been watering the lawn incessantly—as you must the first three weeks—so the ground squelched beneath the balls of our feet and between our toes as we played our makeshift version of the garden game. The day had been typically cool and gloomy earlier on, but later in the afternoon the sky began breaking up into individual clouds, allowing for a few minutes of concentrated warmth here and there. In between two such moments the air was briefly like mist, making—in my mind—more natural sense of the slush below. And as I gripped my mallet, I found myself transported to July nine years ago, to the fields of wet grass beyond the cabin in Acme, Washington where we spent your bachelor week, Hoke—<quote-03>comfortable cool and bare feet<quote-03>—and to the lawn games before your wedding reception—that marvelous summer day filled with love and play, <quote-04>sunshine and rainstorms<quote-04>. Just for a moment, mind you, but the optimistic and carefree feeling of that time was with me unmistakably.
I was writing the bulk of <quote-05>Tetherball Chimes<quote-05> that year—the first eight stories in the first eight months—and had been basking in the afterglow of my full-ride acceptance to CGU since February. I knew I wouldn’t get any writing in at the cabin, but I did have Kristen bring my laptop with her when she and Conch flew up for the wedding; we did the whole Seattle-Victoria thing afterwards, and I figured I’d find time then to regain any momentum lost to our revelry. I remember staying up late in a lovely bed and breakfast in downtown Seattle, wrestling with a sentence in Andy’s story, a chocolate croissant and a can of Coca Cola in front of me at the head of an endless dining-room table, the rest of the houseguests long asleep. Was I kidding myself that I’d publish an impressive debut novel, that I’d leverage my scholarship into some prestigious creative-academic position? Probably. Are we kidding ourselves now that we’re crafting something worthwhile? Maybe. I mean, what an absurd time to be optimistic about anything.
And yet, it feels so good to hope.
We hoped for a lot of things, Kristen and I, sitting together on the floor of that medical plaza classroom, a cheap yoga mat beneath us for comfort. I remember us arranging and rearranging sticky notes scribbled with potential delivery-day fears. They were—from least to greatest—as follows:
8) SEX. We could have gone either way on this, hence its position on the bottom of the list. We had names picked out for both sexes and had gone entirely gender neutral otherwise; Baby Murph, regardless of genitalia, would be sporting a yellow Kauai chicken onesie on its way home from the hospital. Honestly, I would have been overjoyed with either, but I’d have wanted to give it another go <quote-06>if we’d started with a girl<quote-06>. Ask me someday to see Grammar outfitted in his never-to-be sister’s muumuu.
7) PAIN MEDICATION. The specifics have all but left my brain, but at the time we had a definitive understanding of the stuff we’d request when the time came. Still, Kristen had this vision of herself popping the kid out with as little help as possible, probably something close to Rachel’s primal scream-and-squat. About thirty hours in she caved. She was so hilariously high in a matter of seconds, it seemed, that I started filming her for posterity:
“Why did we wait this long?” I ask her through my own absurd laughter, giddy at seeing the anxiety leave her face for the first time in two days.
“I don’t know,” she tries to say through tears of relief, shaking her drooping head and joining my giggling. “Iowa mo” is what she gets out.
“Ok. I love you,” I tell her, cackling now.
“Alms tire,” she tries.
“You are tired,” I confirm. “Do you think you’re gonna be able to sleep now?”
Her eyes and lips are closed in a smile.
“Good night,” I say.
“Night,” she says perfectly.
6) LONG LABOR. This is a tricky one. From the time of our blood-pressure scare Thursday morning to the moment I first laid Grammar on Kristen’s chest, we were at the hospital sixty-four hours. None of these hours, however, felt anything like traditional labor. She never had anything like the contractions you detailed in your last letter, Hoke. Some machine told us she was having them, sure, but they never produced the promised primordial agony. Kristen’s was a different kind of torture: the never-ending cramping from the Pitocin and misoprostol, the thrice daily manual checks of her cervix, the blown-out vein where the first IV had been, the twelve-hour stretch when she couldn’t pee because of the Foley catheter. “What’s a Foley catheter?” you ask. Sometimes a Foley catheter—the standard “indwelling urinary catheter”—is used to manually soften the cervix when drugs won’t do the trick. Basically, two flaccid balloons—one shoved into the cervix and the other left at the point of entry—are inflated with water to bump against each other for twelve hours, <quote-07>wearing down whatever remains<quote-07>.
These were the physical slings and arrows. Worse, though, was learning after each new degrading round of induction that she was not progressing at all—no dilation, no effacement, nothing—just another wave of fruitless abuse.
All around us, other couples arrived and left, arrived and left, each newborn cry another belligerently probing finger between her legs.
5) EPISIOTOMY. The good news is that she escaped this surgical incision. The bad news is that this was her preferred surgical incision.
4) CONFINED TO BED DURING LABOR. Kristen had visions of stalking the hospital hallways like <quote-08>an Amazon preparing for battle<quote-08>, stretching and panting, posing and whooping. She’d literally trained for labor; like, she hired a personal trainer to round her into baby-having shape.
The farthest she ever ventured was the bathroom, a wheeled array of bags, tubes, and monitors in her clumsy wake.
3) DELAYED BREASTFEEDING. Our second genuine win. The kid ate immediately and well. It was a small, good thing.
2) EPIDURAL. Ah, the horror stories. The labor will take forever. You’ll be paralyzed for life. You’ll shit yourself. Kristen was determined to do without—Amazon warrior and all. Guess when an epidural becomes mandatory?
1) CESAREAN SECTION. Kristen has horrible blood pressure, so we were never good candidates for anything but a hospital delivery. Literally every time we went in for a check-up, I’d have to spend fifteen minutes in the waiting room calming her down for the blood-pressure reading that began each appointment. Her numbers were so technically worrisome in the last months of her pregnancy that we kept an hourly log, sending word to her obstetrician whenever successive readings reached a certain threshold. I don’t know that either of us was ever as anxious about the numbers as her doctors were—her maternal great-grandmother and grandfather both had famously atrocious blood pressure and lived into their nineties—but we kept a watchful eye, nonetheless. For that reason, I’d always go with her to ensure that her readings stayed out of the danger zone at these check-ups. And to ensure that I was at my most calming, we always scheduled these appointments for the afternoon.
For whatever reason, though, Kristen had to reschedule her final check-up, and when she couldn’t get the afternoon slot she requested, she decided to take a Thursday morning appointment and bring her mom with her—just a routine look-see, after all, the calm before the storm. In retrospect, she probably <quote-09>should have gone by herself<quote-09>, even canceled, because her mom spent the entirety of their half-hour wait barking at underlings from her cellphone, slowly driving Kristen to the brink of complete exasperation. When—on the heels of her mother’s work-day drama—the nurse’s assistant took Kristen’s blood pressure, it was through the roof. They told her to get back in the car and drive across the street to the hospital, that she was in immediate danger of having a stroke.
This is how I was awakened hours too early from my last night of childless sleep in my own bed, to hysterical tears and rage. This is how our seventy-three-and-a-half-hour journey to Grammar began, with Kristen in a hospital bed, a blood-pressure cuff buzzing to life every five minutes, us trying to get five healthy readings in a row so they’d let her leave.
“We induce now, or we induce tonight,” the doctor said. “If it were my wife,” he persisted, “I’d induce now.”
“Cool opinion,” I remember telling him, pissed that her own obstetrician couldn’t be bothered to show up. I could see in Kristen’s face that she needed to press the restart button, to go home and pet her kitties, to eat a cheeseburger and take a nap, get in a good foot massage. I’d felt from the beginning that her whole team of doctors had been too quick to dismiss her family history of high-blood-pressure nonagenarians, to dismiss the many indicators of a healthy pregnancy because of the single unhealthy one. “We’ll see you at midnight.”
“I won’t be on tonight,” he said.
From the start, Kristen wanted to avoid a C-section more than anything. She had a multitude of reasons she’d found compelling, and all of them went down a slot when she watched the video Andy took of Ashley’s, of her guts in a plastic tub next to the operating table, of the doctor shoving them back in.
After the second day of failed induction—I think she’d dilated two centimeters with 15 percent effacement by Saturday evening—her doctors and nurses started throwing the term around more freely. It was then that she agreed to the Foley catheter. Toward the end of those twelve excruciating hours, she was running on nothing but discomfort, each new torturous sequence of sadistic bells and whistles bringing her closer and closer to accepting her fate.
On Sunday morning, a kindly labor and delivery nurse—an older woman in her late-fifties probably—spent an hour with us getting Kristen used to the idea of the procedure. She had had one, she said; her daughter had had one. She listened to Kristen’s fears and hugged her tightly more than once. She was a lot like <quote-10>your mother at her best, Hoke<quote-10>. And she was exactly what Kristen needed in that moment, a tender and knowing voice with a fresh perspective. We knew, after all, how the morning report would go, how all of them had gone: another half a centimeter, another 5 percent—nothing. Really, at that point we were hoping for another dismal pronouncement, a clear sign from the heavens nudging us toward the operating room.
It was, therefore, a shock when yet another doctor—still not Kristen’s—remarked that she was now at least four centimeters dilated and probably 40 percent effaced. It was by far the most either of those numbers had budged since we’d arrived. It was cruel, almost, the doctor telling us that she was willing to let Kristen give it one more twelve-hour shot, that the baby was in great shape and “in no apparent rush.”
Kristen looked to me with renewed anxiety; we’d just resolved ourselves to the knife.
I looked to the kindly old nurse.
“What would you do if she was your daughter?” I asked her.
“C-section,” she said with a nod, her hands on her hips.
I could have kissed her.
I remember then a flurry of orderlies and hospital gowns, a sudden rush of commotion and, lastly, a period of waiting all by myself. What did I do? I don’t remember. Text our folks? Probably. Check the night’s pitching matchup? Maybe. Ryu pitched seven scoreless innings that night at Citi Field. Jansen struck out the side in the ninth. <quote-11>Were you there, Wuck?<quote-11>
As for my experience of the procedure, there’s not much to relate. From the moment I entered the operating room, I felt at ease. The doctors and nurses were chatting about their weekends, about television shows; this was the usual stuff of their workweek. They joked and listened to music. It was nothing for them, and I took my cue accordingly. Kristen, of course, thought she was dying a handful of times and that every momentary silence meant that the baby was dead or deformed or something. To be fair, hers were the guts in the tub. I remained at her side, <quote-12>contentedly behind the sterile curtain<quote-12> erected between the crown of her belly and our faces. The whole thing took five minutes maybe, and, being relegated to handholding and assuring nods, my memories are mostly aural.
“We’ve got a lot of hair.”
“Whoa, that’s a big head.”
They lowered the curtain in as dramatic a fashion as they could muster; the doctor who minutes ago gauged the width of my wife’s tardy cervix with her fingers now held my baby boy aloft by his neck and rump, a length of purple cord not unlike a slender turkey neck trailing from his middle to where he’d been summarily plucked.
“It’s a boy,” she cried, resembling actual excitement. The others cheered.
My first impression of him was <quote-13>that he was ugly<quote-13>, that his nose was directly between his eyes like a wailing chimpanzee’s. As he himself stopped wailing, however, I realized that his features were all in proportion, cute enough. Two nurses flopped and flipped him beneath something like a heat lamp, pricking him too, and rubbing firmly his rubbery legs and feet. He never seemed fragile, not like other newborns I’d been around, and when I carried his swaddled body over to Kristen’s post-op face, I didn’t feel that I had to be gentle, that I might break him. He was as sturdy as his umbilical cord. They’ll prepare you for its surprising consistency in whatever classes you and Sarah attend online, Wuck, like snipping through just defrosting skirt steak with cooking shears. His head was so big that the de facto newborn beanie kept squeezing itself off. I must have cared for him immediately, in a way, but he was still a stranger to me in those first hours.
Kristen, of course, had known him intimately for months, loved him profoundly already, greeted him with the tears of someone surprised by a long departed loved one’s sudden physical presence, like, “My God, look at you!” When able, she clenched his little naked body to hers like reclaiming a piece of herself, like regaining her sense of smell. He tucked right into meal number one, as I mentioned above. He knew what he needed in every atom of his being, knew he was home.
Then it was a parade of parents and friends and nurses and consultants. I remember sending you all photos on The Dodger Thread, trying to frame his enormous bean in the most flattering light.
I hadn’t slept longer than twenty minutes in seventy-eight-and-a-half hours, so when the proverbial dust finally settled in our recovery room, I fell dead with sleep for hours. Conch and Pat were <quote-14>there at some point<quote-14> during this time and helped Kristen in her initial slog to the bathroom. In their collective telling, a literal bucket’s worth of blood and viscera slopped to the floor when she first rose. I was unconscious to it all.
When I woke—wholly disoriented—our room was dark. Slowly my bearings returned to me. I remembered this new recovery room, remembered I was a father, remembered the placement of my son’s clear plastic hospital crib toward the center of the room. I eased onto my feet as quietly as I could and made for it. When I found it empty, I tip-toed to Kristen’s bed and found them both asleep, her head slumped onto her left shoulder, Grammar asleep in her arms. She’d been nursing him in the football position, but now his head lay on her breastplate, cupped tenderly—almost impossibly so—by her left hand. I imagine she brought him in for a little kiss on the forehead before lowering him to that spot. It felt wrong almost to be spying them there in the darkness, an interloper to their unfathomable bond, like gawking at those forever embracing lovers mummified in Pompeian ash.
The first time I spoke with you in person after you had Abram, Hoke, was during Wuck’s bachelor week. We were all getting settled in our Brooklyn AirBnB—claiming beds and throwing on jerseys in preparation for our trek into the Bronx—and for a moment Tom and Pat stepped out of the room. I was curious about the experience of parental love, the exact color and quality. I figured if anyone could capture it, you could. You told me you felt like you were in love. You missed him like you missed your first crush over summer vacation. It sounded pretty wonderful—miserable too, I guess, but wonderfully miserable.
“That’s the best,” I said.
“<quote-15>It kinda is<quote-15>,” you replied.
Alone in that early morning hospital room, looking upon my wife and son as I once did Michelangelo’s Pietà, that’s the moment I fell in love with Grammar—and with my wife all over again.
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