Standing in the driveway on that crisp November morning, as my nine-month-plus-five-day pregnant wife, Meredith, and I prepare for our trip to the hospital, I turn to her, straight-faced, and say:
“So … do you want to drive or should I?”
Eleven years into marriage, you’d think I’d know my audience by now. My wife, who is mentally preparing to undertake one of the most complex tasks a body can, knows better than to encourage me.
“You know, why don’t you take shotgun,” I say.
“Good idea,” she agrees.
I smile. Today is the day we will meet our daughter — our “grand finale” child. We’re nervous but ready too. Our son and daughter are with the neighbor, the dog is fed, and we even remembered to turn off the stove.
As we drive to the hospital, Meredith turns to me and says, “Listen, you have to make sure I stay calm in there. But you can’t tell me to stay calm.”
“Because that would piss you off?” I ask.
“So … just make sure you stay calm without using words that might help you to do that?”
“So a code word maybe?”
I mull it over. “How do feel about ‘starfruit’?”
“That works,” she agrees. Ahead of us, the hospital comes into view.
My palms sweat, my heart gallops.
Starfruit, I remind myself. Starfruit.
• • •
Five and a half years prior, the last time we made the drive to Mayo Clinic Health System’s Family Birth Center in Eau Claire, was to meet our daughter Eleanor. She was born one late May afternoon in 2014, and within hours, was shown great hospitality by her 2½-year-old brother Henry, who drew her enough original art to fill the Guggenheim.
We were all so happy and healthy that I knew not how best to express my gratitude. Basking in the glow of new fatherhood, I reached for the nearest piece of paper, upon which I scribbled a few lines of support and solidarity for some future father. Then, I tucked that half-sheet into the thin pages of the Book of Job in the Bible in the meditation room at the end of the Birth Center hallway. I hadn’t selected Job for any scriptural reason; the page picked itself.
Five and a half years later, as we reenter the Birth Center, I find the floor exactly as we’d left it — right down to the free saltine crackers and all the coffee we can drink. As Meredith unpacks her suitcase, I excuse myself to fill her water bottle. But along the way — I can’t help myself — I make a quick detour to the meditation room.
I wonder if the note is still there. I wonder, too, if I was always the future father I was writing to.
I reach for the Bible, then flip to the Book of Job.
The note is gone.
I am only a little disappointed. But glad, too, by the prospect that some other father may have found it.
• • •
From 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., Meredith and I maintain our holding pattern in the delivery room — we read books, watch television and listen to a few tunes from the Van Morrison mixtape some previous parents left in the ancient tape deck. Nurses come and go, the midwife comes and goes, but most of the time, my wife and I are alone.
“I can’t remember the last time we had this much quality time together,” I joke.
But it isn’t a joke. Between work and meetings and boards and pick-ups and drop-offs and birthday parties and soccer practices, a moment of shared quiet is the rarest thing in the world. We are a perpetual motion machine; I say this with little pride.
As the sun sets over Half Moon Lake, I make the mistake of momentarily halting my channel surfing on a cable news network. The caterwauling from the talking heads raises my wife’s blood pressure to dangerous levels. It raises mine too.
In the weeks preceding this moment, I’d grown occasionally despondent at the prospect of bringing yet another child into what often feels like an irreversibly broken world. Climate change, social upheaval, political unrest — you need only be paying a little attention to get a sense of the various cliffs from which we hurl ourselves daily.
But as I glance at my wife in her hospital bed, I am reminded of the hopefulness, too, that springs forth from the birth of a child.
Maybe, I think, this girl will be the one to push us back from those brinks.
• • •
Amelia arrives just before the snow does — 10 fingers and 10 toes and bearing all the hope I could hope for. It’s all Meredith’s doing. She’s supported by her sisterhood of nurses and midwife, all of whom circle her bed to create an aura of calm that all the code words in the world could never manage.
I know nothing of that wellspring from which my wife drew her strength. I only hope my daughters will know it too. And that my son might find his own fortitude. And that collectively, they’ll fight to build a better world than the one they have no choice but to inherit.
Seconds after her birth, my daughter undertakes her first act of life: a bowel movement.
“Oh you,” my wife weeps, reaching for her child. “You are so … gross.”
The sisterhood breaks into laughter. I laugh, too, between tears.
• • •
Before leaving the Birth Center for the last time, I scrawl a second note to a future father, tucking it once more between the pages of the Book of Job in the Bible in the meditation room at the end of the hall.
I disclose the note’s location to our nurse.
“It’s ready and waiting,” I say, “you know, in case some future father’s looking for a little strength.”
She promises to guard my secret tight, but to reveal it, too, if necessary.
Satisfied, I take one last lap around the Birth Center, stopping to admire the shimmer of the snow-covered leaves surrounding Half Moon Lake. If I crane my neck, I can just make out the beach where my family and I have burned countless summer afternoons chasing minnows. And the bike trail, too, that leads us to an ice cream cone at the end of a long ride. I can’t wait to show Amelia all of it: the beach, the bikes and everything beyond.
Returning to our hospital room, I find Amelia strapped and snoozing in her car carrier.
“Well little girl,” I say. “You ready to meet your world?”
Meredith and I peer down at her and then back at each other.
“Starfruit,” I smile. “Starfruit.”
Next Saturday: Patti See tells us about the spirit of Christmas, Chippewa County style.