By Ryan Clark
SCENE 1: Everything gray
The smell – it’s metallic and cold, but with a dash of something else, different, changing, like mothballs, like Grandma’s basement, like bad meat loaf, like old flesh, withering.
I know that smell. It’s a combination of old bodies and bad food and mechanical devices made for keeping the frail alive. Sometimes they work. Eventually they don’t.
The rooms are filled with large beds with metal guardrails and televisions attached to the wall. There are remote controls with various dials and buttons. They can control the TV or call a nurse. There are long trays, like a table on wheels, which slide over to present the occupants of the room with the meal of the day – tasty tapioca with a mystery meat substance.
Everything is gray, or some form of it, from the curtains to the tile on the floor. The walls could be white, I’m not sure. Maybe beige. All I remember is an absence of color – absent from the decorations in the rooms and absent in the faces of the patients.
And when we come, Mom and I, to visit my father, we wade into this colorless, foul-smelling abyss, where patients cry out in pain in the middle of the day. Once a week we travel here to his room, where he sits in a bed, his muscles working against him, his immune system failing. He struggles to speak, to smile. He cannot eat on his own. He cannot control the arbitrary motions of his body. We come here to visit him, every Sunday, for a few hours.
“Hi Daddy,” I say as we walk into the room.
He tries to smile – I can tell that much as I peer over the protective metal rail that keeps him from falling out of bed. I see his face. His brown hair is mussed and sweaty, and his lips curl up a bit as he tilts his head and tries to look my way. He hears my voice. I am his only child.
I am six years old.
I wonder if he knows who I am, if he knows I am here, talking to him. Mom says he does.
My mother tells me Daddy is suffering from MS – multiple sclerosis, and in time it will make him too sick for us to come and see him anymore. It attacks his body, and it will win.
That makes me sad. But in another place, in a place I don’t want to talk about, I feel good. Because I don’t like it here. I don’t want to come back.
I don’t want to touch the walls. And I don’t want to see the gift shop anymore. I don’t want to see the gray floor and I don’t want to hear the other patients crying and moaning.
I want to go home. We have just arrived and I want to go home.
A little more than an hour later, we do just that.
A few weeks later, Mom comes home early from work and tells me we won’t be visiting Daddy anymore. She says he is gone now – in Heaven – and he’ll be watching us now.
That makes me feel better. A little.
SCENE 2: Live in the moment
We lose another point. Jeff, our back hitter, screams profanity as he lets another serve go off his forearm. I watch the volleyball bounce into the crowd.
Not far away from where the ball lands, I see my family – bunched together in the tiny gymnasium with the parents of all the other guys. My grandpa is visibly upset, arms folded in disgust. My grandmother can’t seem to look at the court, fearing the worst. My mother is clapping and cheering us on, no matter the odds, and my stepfather – well, he doesn’t know exactly what to do. He is up, away from the others, pacing down the sideline.
No one has seen our team play like this before. We do not play like this – ever. We have not lost one game all season – we are undefeated – and we have beaten this team twice before already. This is not how our high school careers are supposed to end.
“Timeout!” coach calls from our bench.
We trudge over, heads down, sweat sticking like glue to our jerseys.
Coach is tall and lean and bald – the kind of guy you want on your team, or in your foxhole. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and a big shiny whistle around his neck – and all of these things actually make him look tougher.
We sit down and he stands in front of us. His face shows no expression, and for what seems like days he is quiet.
“So,” he says in almost a whisper. “So.” We look at him and at one another. “You guys have worked pretty hard this year,” coach says. “Pretty damn hard. No losses at all. Now it’s all about how you want to be remembered.”
“Do you want to be remembered as the team that never lost – that is, until the championship game?”
We shake our heads. No.
“Do you men want to be remembered as the best collection of high school volleyball talent the city has ever seen?”
“Yes,” I say and they turn to look to me. “Get the ball back. Get it back and this is over.”
Coach looks to me, then to the team. He nods. “Get back out there. End it.”
I walk back out and take my spot on the back row. I adjust my elbow and knee pads and look to the scoreboard – down three points. And to top it off, if we screw up in any way, we give up the last point and lose the game and the tournament championship. It’s an odd situation for our team. We haven’t faced anything like this since last year, when we won 22 games and lost seven. We made it to the playoffs then too, but lost, and this season we are the best team in the city. We have speed, height and a deep, talented bench.
And we have the best server in the league. Me.
Growing up it took me a while to find my best sport. I can’t hit a baseball or a golf ball very well. I can’t swim very far or fast. I can hit a jumpshot but can’t really dribble. But there are two things athletically I can do well: throw my body around, which works well in football and volleyball. Our high school football squad is terrible, so that left me with one choice: I became a volleyball player. While I’m not very tall, I worked hard to develop a serve that – if done correctly – few could ever return.
I did nothing flashy when I served – no jumping, no throwing the ball high in the air. I was quick when I worked, gently tossing the ball up with my left hand and slamming it hard with my right palm. The trick occurred in the way it came off my hand and the trajectory it took across the net to the other team. Through no real effort on my part, when I served, the ball sailed hard and fast just above the net to the opposite side of the court, spinning in ridiculous ways I never really intended.
But that’s what it did. And if a member of the opposing team tried to volley it back over, that special spin would cause the ball to go completely out of bounds. Fast.
Still, most of the time the serve came so fast – and just an inch or so over the volleyball net – that defenders had trouble seeing it, getting to it or finding the courage to try and return it.
I don’t think about these things on the court. I try to focus. Our timeout is almost over. I bring our six players into a huddle. We know that if we can return their serve and gain a point, I’ll be serving next.
“Jeff, shake that shit off, man,” I say. “If it comes back your way, you got it, right?”
He looks at me. He’s nervous. But he nods his head yes.
“I know you do. No worries.”
I look at the rest of them. They seem determined. And I realize something. There is a detail more important – a fact we are all missing. We are all seniors. All of us on the varsity are playing our last few points. In just a few minutes, our careers together will be over.
“Guys,” I say, “let’s enjoy this. We’ve only got a few more minutes. Let’s make em count.”
At once they all know what I mean. I see them change, right then, realizing what must be done to make all our sweat and effort count. I feel it, too, and I smile. I love this game. I love it. And I love that I’m out here with my brothers and that we have at least a little bit of time left.
The referee blows the whistle and both teams get in their stances, knees bent, weight on their toes. It’s a game point, which means whoever can’t volley the ball back over in three hits will lose the match.
Across the net I watch from the back row as a kid named Porter waits to serve. Porter and the other kids on his team are from Eastern High – from the city’s ritzy East End. Their uniforms are cooler than ours, pinstriped with their names on their backs. We are from the South side, the working-class neighborhoods. We are the blue-collar kids.
Porter throws the ball high in the air – he likes to show off when he serves – and he slams the ball with his right hand. We all know where it’s headed – directly for Jeff, who’d bobbled his last chance. As the ball floats his way again, our team holds its collective breath. Jeff moves instinctively, ready to try and return it. And then I see it.
“NO! OUT! OUT! OUT!” I scream.
Jeff glances at me and then falls to the court as the ball sails over his head and harmlessly out of bounds.
It’s the break we need. Point for us.
Two to tie. And now we have the ball. I have the ball.
The referee throws me the ball and I hold it against my hip. I look over to the crowd again and see my family cheering me on. I feel good, and I take a deep breath. Of course, I think, there is one missing out there. I think how my father should be here. He would love it. He would be cheering the loudest – because Dad was an athlete too, I’d heard. He did it all – point guard for the basketball team and safety for the football team. He was small, but he was tough. That’s what people told me.
I think about him from time to time. I remember to tell myself that I never know how long I’ve got in this world. Hell, my Dad’s father died of a brain aneurysm before Dad was ever born. Then Dad died just after he turned 30. How long do I have? I have to take advantage of every opportunity.
This was one of those opportunities.
I decide to pick on Porter. The referee blows the whistle, and my first serve finds his forearms. He tries to return it and it bounces off him and out of bounds.
The next serve is perfect. Porter dives, hoping it will go out of bounds. It does not. We tie the game, and the fans – as well as the guys on the court, jump up and down and high-five. Our team is alive. The championship is ours for the taking.
By rule, a team must win by two points. With the score tied, I needed to serve two more times.
I was ready.
The team huddles and each member tells the others how much fun he’s had over the past four years. “I love you guys,” I tell them. “As much as I don’t want this to end, I want to win. So I think we need to do it right now.”
The referee blows the whistle again and I serve it up. This time it is not perfect. It lobs over without much force, allowing the Eastern kids the chance to bump, set and spike. A tall kid named Webster smashes a spike right down the throat of our defense.
But Jeff saves the day. He gets an arm on the spike, popping it up into the air. I’m able to knock it back over the net, right into the area where the East End kids started celebrating. They recover too late, and the ball falls to the floor.
Another point for us. The crowd erupts, and I’m filled with an elation I can’t place. My heart is pounding. I feel like my heart and my head will explode. I take another deep breath. One more serve to go. This one has to be better than the last.
I think of Dad again, and how I wish he were here to see all of this.
The referee blows the whistle and I tell myself one last thing – live in the moment. I want to make this count.
I serve the last point of our careers, the point that will forever define us, and the ball comes off my hand hard and true. We watch it as it flies an inch above the net, heading for Porter’s corner, spinning this way and that.
We are ready for a return, if they can manage it.
And afterward, when the ball falls away, when we score the last point and the crowd comes on to the court to congratulate us, when the team erodes into a sea of hugs and smiles and laugher, I go and grab the game ball.
Alone for a moment, I can’t help but try and take it all in. I look at the scene – the hugging, the laughter and the trophy presentation. Through it all I can only think of one thing.
This one’s for you, Dad.
SCENE 3: The sound of a broken heart
The smell of grass and gasoline fills my nose as I wipe sweat from my face. I am cutting what I am sure is the world’s largest front yard, it must be at least a football field long, and I am fighting the monotony of the merciless one-sweep-after-another boredom that cutting grass provides.
I mark my progress by the lines in the grass – half of the yard is finished, trimmed neatly. Half is still knee-high, ready to be chopped so I can please my neighbor and collect on the 30 dollars he has promised. The sun is angry – and it burns my neck and arms. It makes me tired and thirsty. But I keep on. I need the money if I am going to pay to take my car away to college. I need money for gas and insurance.
Sometimes I cut two or three yards a day. The money adds up quickly.
While I like the money, there are things I do not like about this job – the heat, for one, and the boredom. The constant loud roar of the mower is irritating. I’ve also grown to hate the smell of freshly cut grass, which is a shame, others tell me. These others tell me that freshly cut grass is one of the world’s most wonderful smells, like the smell of cookies right out of the oven or something. I tell them they are crazy.
As I cut I wonder if bakers of cookies eventually grow to hate that smell, as I’ve grown to hate the smell of grass. I wonder if those bakers have friends who are appalled at the thought of them hating that fresh cookie smell, and I wonder of the bakers sometimes wish they could smell something else – anything – to get that scent from their nostrils.
Then I wonder about my own nostrils, and how when I cut grass I see all of these things flying up and around my face, things like bugs and weeds and pollen and dust and other stuff that cannot be good to breathe in at all. I do not think my nosehairs are tough enough to keep all of these things out of my lungs. I wonder if I should be wearing a hospital mask, like doctors who perform important surgeries on television? Should I pull it on before every mow, and in very dramatic fashion, ask an imaginary nurse for the gas can? “Gas can,” I would say, holding out an expectant hand. And the imaginary nurse would then give me the gas can. “Oil,” I say, and again, she would hand it over. “Thank you nurse,” I would say.
I sigh. I have completed another two passes. The yard is flat, which is nice, but it is so long. I push on, as is my nature. Do not stop. Do not pass Go. What’s the fun in stopping, right? Must. Keep. Moving.
I trudge behind the mower and wish I did have an assistant to help me – like a nurse – maybe one wearing very little clothing. A bikini. A thong. I wonder why every nurse has to be so friggin hot. I think back to my last physical, nearly a year ago, just before volleyball tryouts, when I sat in the little room, stripped naked aside from the thin paper sheet that ties in the back. And at that moment, the nurse walked in.
Green eyes. Blonde curls. Perfect smile. And I knew her body was amazing underneath those scrubs. I started thinking about all the things she could do to me in that little room.
I tried to stop myself. No. Don’t. Stop!
And, of course, I couldn’t stop – I got a boner.
I could not hide it. The nurse smiled at me, then looked down, saw the boner, and looked away quickly, startled, faking a cough into her hand. “I’m sorry – I, I need a tissue,” she said, leaving the little room, shutting the door behind her. I looked over to the counter, where three boxes of tissues were stacked up on one another.
The memory could be my most embarrassing moment, I think as I finish up another row of grass. I look back – just another four or five sweeps to go. Not bad.
As I make a turn and let my mind wander again, I notice something out of the corner of my eye. An ambulance, lights on. I assume the siren is wailing but I don’t hear it over the growl of the mower. I stand motionless, wondering where the vehicle will go. I watch as it turns on my street, past my house, and pulls into a driveway two houses down from my own, just a few hundred yards from where I am standing. It’s a simple red-brick ranch, with a long porch and a white door.
I watch as the paramedics rush to that door with their bags and supplies. I shut off the mower.
I don’t know those neighbors. I only know they are older, in their 60s, and they are quiet. Sometimes I see them sitting out on that big porch.
I stare for a long time at that white door. Many minutes pass, and I think about that couple sitting on the porch. I’m brought back to reality when another vehicle makes its way passed our house and follows the same route as the ambulance. It’s a gold sedan. But instead of pulling in the driveway the gold sedan parks on the street. A younger man, possibly in his 30s, gets out of the car and runs to the white door.
It opens before he reaches the porch and the old woman emerges. I see a cloud of white hair and what looks to be large eyeglasses. She throws her arms around the man and holds on tight.
I hear her speak.
“He’s gone!” she says, and I can hear she is also weeping. “He’s gone.” Her voice lets the words trail off in a wail. She continues to weep into the man’s shoulder, and as she does, I watch as the paramedics come back out of the house. They are getting a stretcher, so they can go back in for the woman’s husband.
I stand there for a while longer, and I listen to the poor woman’s wailing. At age 18, I have dated girls. I have dumped and been dumped. I have felt what I think is love, though I am not sure.
But in this moment, I think I know what it is like to be heartbroken. Death breaks your heart. I heard it happen to the neighbor down the street. And again I wonder, as I so often do, how many hearts will break when I die. I hope not too many.
It takes a lot of effort to fire up the mower and finish the job. And this time, as I make the last few sweeps, my mind doesn’t focus on anything. I just can’t get that sound out of my head.
He’s gone, she said. Gone.
SCENE 4: How much time?
“Turn it up,” she says, and I’m surprised at her request. I do it.
She doesn’t love music the way I do; it doesn’t touch her soul, doesn’t churn her insides like a good rollercoaster ride or take away her breath like a Caribbean sunset. But she asks me to turn it up, so I do, and I’m pleased she’s reacting this way.
I reach down and set the volume to high – then I sneak a glance at her in the passenger seat. She closes her eyes and leans back, raising her arms above her head as if she’s flying. She sticks one arm out the passenger side window, and she pushes against the muggy summer wind. Her long dark curls drizzle down her back and around her face. I have to look back to the road, but I take a snapshot of her in my mind – her dark skin standing out against her white tank top, which reveals just enough to tantalize me. She glows in the moonlight, her face content as if in a dream, her lips pulled back into a satisfied smile.
“Cal-i-for-ni-a,” the man on the radio sings, “I thought I should see . . .”
We could be in California, I think. We could be anywhere and it wouldn’t matter. With her, I feel alive, like the world is mine. I look ahead at the curves of the old tree-lined country road and as I drive I think about my life, about my fears.
I push the pedal down and sneak another look – she’s beautiful, everything I’ve ever wanted. I want to tell her. I want her to know. College will be over soon. I want her to be with me – forever. But still . . .
How much time do I have?
My head is swimming. I’m not sure what I should do. And then I feel her hand on my arm, her long, manicured nails tracing soft streaks up and down, elbow to wrist. I drive with my left hand and slide my right arm on to her lap. She leans across her seat and whispers into my ear.
I look at her again, and she smiles – a mischievous grin – something I haven’t quite seen before.
I pull over and stop the car on the side of the road. The music and the muggy air and the smell of honeysuckle surround us and again she closes her eyes, letting the space envelop her. I do the same, and we breathe in as the man on the radio sings.
She leans forward and turns the radio down to a gentle murmur. Outside the cicadas chirp their own songs.
“Look at me,” she says, taking my face in her hands. I look into her brown eyes and get nervous.
“I love you,” she says, her eyes never leaving mine. “I. Love. You.”
She loves me. Yeah.
So what do I say?
And how do I tell her that none of this will last?
SCENE 5: Waveland
Oh Jesus. Oh God. Oh no.
It’s the trees. Driving down to the coast, just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the highway looks normal all the way to Hattiesburg. We pass the town and wonder when we’re going to see the destruction. Then, 30 miles before Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico, we see the trees lining the road.
They are broken, bent at odd angles, as if the whole scene is some kind of Picasso, out of order, stretching, reaching – but reaching for the ground, because they are snapped in half, pointing downward. They look trampled, mangled, like jagged, broken teeth. They are everywhere. Whole forests have been leveled. It is hard to imagine what could have done this. Something big. And fast.
The town we are traveling to is called Waveland – and it strikes me how funny that name is – funny in a tragic way.
“God damn,” Ernie says, looking to the destruction while trying to keep the SUV on the road.
“Yeah,” I say, looking out the passenger side window.
“How long did you work here again?” he asks.
“I came here right after college, right after I got married. We stayed here two years. It was my first newspaper job.”
“What was it like then?”
“Beautiful,” I say. “Old, rich homes. A resort feel. Close to the Gulf. People came here to retire.”
“Hmm,” Ernie grunts. “Ain’t nobody gonna want to come here anymore.” He sighs. “Gimme my camera.”
I reach for the camera with the long lens and hand it over. Ernie pulls to the side of the road, takes the camera and points it out the window.
“That’s come muthafuckin’ destruction right there,” he says, and he pushes the shutter button.
Ernie and I work for a newspaper in Cincinnati, and we are following a group of 13 Methodist missionaries on their own trip down to the Mississippi coast to provide relief to those affected by the hurricane.
We’re here for a story. And I’ve always loved that thrill. But this is different. There is no thrill here, no chase, no scoop. There is only death and survival. And something about this place – this place where I once lived – has drawn me back. I feel like I need to be here.
Most seem to think Katrina only affected New Orleans. Those people are wrong. Ground Zero of the destruction is Waveland, a town of just more than 7,000 before the storm. It’s located 60 miles east of New Orleans and the population was a mix of wealthy retirees, stubborn lifers and young professionals who longed for a quiet place near the water. The town has lost at least 60 people – with 49 confirmed dead. Sixty percent of the town has been washed away and another 20 percent is uninhabitable.
I feel like I need to bring this story to people in other parts of the country. If I can help at all, I have to try. Katrina did its damage here by creating a 30-foot storm surge, a wall of water that overtook land and trees for several miles inland. Whole neighborhoods were wiped off the map.
No one has electricity or running water. Only a volunteer effort, made up of churches from around the region, has been able to provide any relief for those who are still here. The volunteers set up across the street from the police department in the parking lot of a Walmart, and – with the help of other groups, including some anti-religious hippies – they have kept the locals here fed with three meals a day for the last two weeks, since the storm’s waters receded. Ernie and I live with them, sleeping in the SUV and transmitting stories and photos back to the newspaper via our wireless router. The scene is organized chaos. Between 20-foot-high piles of garbage, there are four-foot-high piles of donated supplies – some coming from as far away as California. Combs and brushes are a pile. Shoes are a pile. Children’s clothes are another pile.
The people I meet are amazing. Our first evening we notice a couple in a car. They are about 200 yards away, set apart from the piles of garbage and supplies. They look terribly alone.
I knock on the driver’s side window and I see an old white-haired woman looking out into the cool night. She turns and our eyes meet through the glass. She looks as if she’s in a trance, as if she’s seen something terrible and can’t comprehend it. In the passenger seat sits an elderly man holding an oxygen tank. In the backseat, an old dirty poodle yaps at me.
“What the hell?” Ernie asks.
We learn that Jane and Robert Vaughn get their food from the volunteers everyday. It’s an easy trip because they just walk across the parking lot from their 1978 Oldsmobile. Everything they own, including the dog, their clothes, their money and Robert’s oxygen tank are housed inside the car. Katrina took the rest.
Jane, 72, always wears her flowered housedress and sandals. Robert, 75, has to carry his oxygen with him wherever he goes. I’m appalled and overcome. I wonder how they can keep going? Every day there’s another story of another person’s will to keep living – no matter how difficult the struggle.
In what was known as the downtown, Ernie and I see nothing but carnage. Whole roads are blocked by garbage and downed trees. The world is a series of opposites: a mix of twisted metal and overturned trailers. Boats have been deposited in trees and houses have spilled into streets.
Ernie and I drive around and we debate what makes the best pictures. Every scene is dramatic.
“You notice anything else weird?” Ernie asks. A large man, he sweats a lot in the heat of a Mississippi Indian Summer. He sits down on a curb and wipes his wet forehead.
I shake my head no. “Other than the boat in the tree?” I say.
“There’s nothing alive around here,” he says. “No birds. No squirrels. No dogs and cats. Not a goddamn thing.”
I listen and look around. He is right. There is nothing out here.
Everything is gone.
We visit Fred McIntyre, a 58-year-old carpenter who decided to wait out the storm in his home. Fred has tired blue eyes and massive arms and hands. He’s wearing a backwards baseball cap that reads “Ole Miss” and he’s smoking a cigar.
Fred’s house took in water up to the second floor. He stayed in the attic until the waters receded and he was able to come back out.
“Was I saying my prayers?” he tells us. “Yeah, you bet your ass I was.”
Now his house is filled with garbage and his belongings are still drying out. On a water-soaked recliner, Fred’s tabby cat, Lizzie, sits curled in a ball. Lizzie also miraculously survived the storm. Her four kittens, born just a month ago, have not been found.
“Everyday she goes out and wanders around,” Fred says of the cat. “I don’t know how she survived. I guess she got up in a tree. But them kittens couldn’t go anywhere. So everyday she goes out, and I’m sure she’s still looking for her kittens.”
I excuse myself for a moment and retreat to the SUV, where I climb in and bury my face in my hands.
I can’t stop the tears from falling. My own life is so easy compared to what these people face. And nothing I have ever been afraid of compares to this. As these people go through hell, they keep fighting. They want to live so badly, and I feel like I can learn from them. Nothing in life is guaranteed; nothing is written in stone. Everything is a fight, and if you love life, you keep going.
These people didn’t know this was going to happen. But no matter what, they keep living.
I make a note to remember that.
SCENE 6: Future
The doctors tell me something’s not right, that the baby’s heart is beating too fast. I get dizzy. I always wondered how I would react if something went wrong. But that’s beyond all thought now – now I’ve grown used to the idea of having a little girl around. She’s a part of us now, and I can’t bring myself to think what it would be like if we lose her.
I always thought it would be me first. Not her. I thought I was always just seconds away from the end. It’s how I live – taking the risk, a mile a minute – because there will be time to sleep when I die. But I feel lucky, too – unlike others, I know my time is short.
I tend to appreciate the little things. I smell the roses. I live in the moment.
Because I know – probably very soon – it will end. Maybe I won’t feel it, maybe something will just pop in my head and I’ll be gone like my grandfather. Or maybe I’ll know it for months or even years, and I will suffer from some incurable disease like my father.
Maybe there’s another way planned for me – an accident, something ridiculous, even laughable. Either way, I’d heard it all my life – the Clark men die young. It’s our burden.
It’s why I was hesitant to marry, to have children. I’ve seen what widowed wives go through. I felt what it is like to grow up without a father. I did not want to put that burden on anyone else. Not me. I wanted to make the responsible decision – no ties. So when it was my time, I could go without feeling guilty. Yes. That was the way this Clark was going to live. I was going to break the chain.
But then, like it does so many times with best-laid plans, life got in my way.
I fell in love. And not only that, I fell in love with a woman who desperately wanted to be a mother.
And every time she brought up the topic, I would tell her of my fears, and she would laugh.
“You are ridiculous,” she would say. “Do you see what you are doing? You are a hypocrite! You say you need to live life to the fullest, but you’re holding back. You are afraid so much of death that you refuse to live.”
And I knew she was right. Four months later we were pregnant.
There are a lot of things they don’t teach you in your pre-birth baby classes. For instance, they don’t tell you your baby could die. Or that your wife could die. You may realize these things can happen, but they never tell you about any of them.
Only later, when we are in the hospital, when my wife is up on the bed, her legs in the stirrups, do I realize there can be complications. Only when the doctor rushes in, when he says we must have this baby now, when there is a look in his eyes that drains all the blood from my face, do I realize we are teetering on the edge of a dangerous situation. My wife’s temperature has spiked. The baby’s heart begins to race.
“You’re going to have to push for me – now!” the doctor tells my wife.
“I can’t do it!” she says. She’s crying. Six or seven men and women nurses rush into the room. They prep her for an emergency C-section because the baby’s heart is in danger. If she can’t do this now, she will have to have major surgery.
I am, of course, useless in this situation. I am trying to tell her everything is okay, and that she is doing fine and that it will all be over soon. I have no idea whether any of this is true. I keep wiping tears and sweat from her face. More doctors and nurses rush in. As I watch the door close, I see our family in the hall. They peer in with worried faces just before it shuts.
“Come on sweetie – you can do this,” the doctor says. And I repeat his words.
No, she keeps saying. No. She doesn’t want to. She can’t. She won’t.
I am scared. I care more for my wife and baby now than I ever knew was possible. I cheer her on. As the men and women rush around me, sterilizing instruments and readying a gurney, I’m praying something happens. Anything.
And it is then I realize I haven’t been living in the moment like I always wanted. Not fully. My wife is right. I have been so afraid of the future I can’t fully realize how much I love her – and how much I love this baby. I am holding back because I am afraid I will lose them, afraid they will lose me. But why? I have made it to 29 years and I have never had a health problem. I have nothing to be afraid of. All this time I’ve been worried I will pass on some horrible Early Death Gene to my daughter. It has taken the thought of being without her to realize how much I already love her.
“That’s a great push! You can do this!” I hear the doctor say. “One more big one! Just like that!”
And my wife does it. She gives him one last push, and I hear a tiny baby girl crying. And I see my daughter – eyes open, lungs open, screaming, taking her first breaths. She’s wet and little and blue.
But she’s beautiful. At once, I’m filled with joy and gratitude and excitement. My wife is tired but okay – and the baby is healthy and ready to be fed. The doctors give her to my wife and praise them for doing so well. I agree.
As my little girl feeds, I sit for a moment. I need to go out and tell our families they are okay. I need to set up our beds and try to get some sleep. I need to do a lot. But more than anything, I need to move on, move on from my fear of dying young, of passing on that gene to my kids. I need to become comfortable with my fears, but I also do not want to lose my sense of gratitude for living every day like it is my last.
I look over at my daughter and my wife. I think I can do it.
But I feel a new fear creeping in – something I never thought I would have to face.
I am a father. I try to wrap my head around the words. I am a father.
And all at once – I am scared again, this time for a brand new reason.