Sunday, February 17, 2008

Happy Birthday

I am one to look for foreshadows and omens, and I thought I'd found the one I needed for the birth of our daughter in the the last movie Mandy and I saw last week, "Children of Man."  It's a bleak-future action movie, with Clive Owen and, inexplicably, Julianne Moore and it's full of tricks and turns and thrills, and it willfully never lets any of its characters actually speak its own obvious premise: The world is rational, Godless, cold and lost, but even so, childbirth – and only childbirth – is mystic and Divine.

I left the theatre thinking that, as last-week-of-pregnancy omens go, I'd take it, even if it ran a bit heavy on cruelty and despair.  If you need a Sign, you take what you can get.

But then, in the final hours, we got a better one.

The TV in our hospital room was on a closed-circuit channel which spent the day playing helpful reminders about washing hands and discharge procedures until, deep in the middle of the night, somebody threw in a tape of "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Coal Miner's Daughter is
  • a) probably Mandy's favorite movie
  • b) surely the best movie ever made in and around Nashville
  • c) the unrivaled Gold Standard for on-screen southern accents
  • d) the finest movie ever made about love and the American Family.

Through the guileless Sissy Spacek, we watch Lorretta Lynn leave her family in Kentucky as a young girl, and live a long, turbulent and ultimately happy life with Moonie Doolittle, aka Doo, a role swallowed whole by Tommy Lee Jones.

There's country music in there, but it's not really the point. The point is the role of family in finding happiness.

It was a perfect way to get ready for Judith Francesca White, who was born at 11:42 Nashville time after 24 hours of labor and 20 remarkably brief minutes of final pushing. You can call her Jude, since Mandy is determined to.

There's a long list of emotions and declarations you're supposed to have and make on such a day, but other than delight at the sheer newness of it all (which felt shamefully consumer-ish when it hit me), I didn't take any emotional roundhouse kicks to the skull. I didn't cry or faint and remain baffled to the point of outright doubt that anybody would ever want to pass out cigars to their buddies after such a day, like they'd just closed a big merger or bombed Iraq.

But I'll tell ya who WAS blown away: Jude.

I watched her arrive, and I was expecting to see something gross or gorgeous or crying or spastic or shriveled or conceivably even dead, but what I didn't expect was to actually see her face, and to see on it the single most unmistakable expression in all of human facial expression: the What-The-Fuck-Just-Happened? face.

And you can quote me cognitive brain function stats and lecture me on the dangers of projecting adult (or just selfish) emotions onto children. I get the whole, "you think she's smiling at you, but really she just has gas"-thing.

But my daughter could grow up to be The One and choose the red pill and wake up in the Matrix with cords sticking out of her back and she won't be half as surprised as she was to be born this morning. I was watching her face as the doc rolled her over, cord still on, to clear her airway. Trust me: she absolutely could not believe that just happened. It didn't go away when they cleaned her up, when Mandy and I got to hold her, or when I took her to the nursery. She just looked around, obviously thinking:


So from that moment on, I was utterly absorbed in considering the moment from her side. And that's when it all became terrifying.

Because I thought, 'wow, you just learned about "cold" "bright" "loud" and how to breathe in about 10 seconds! What a learning curve! Everything else from here will be EASY!'

Only, it won't be.

Today she was born, and wrapped in blankets with blue and pink animals and a little hat and a cute dress-thing we bought here (red flowers all over it), she's perfect. She's everything she can be, everything we want for her.

Tomorrow morning, the pediatrician is going to come see her for the first time, and ruin it.
What he's going to do, essentially, is give her a report card. Responds to verbal-Check Plus. Cries to painful stimulus-Check, Skin tone-Needs Work. The first of 10 million little exams, reports and scores that will tell Jude that she's good at this, but not at that.

Well, I've spent the last month applying to business schools, which make you spell out in excrutiating detail, over vast essays, what you are good at. To do so, you have to first get a very clear understanding of what you're NOT good at, and steer your essays away from those cliffs. And in order to know where the cliffs are, you have to think back to times when people told you that you were no good at something.

In short, applying to business school makes you catalog and relive all the times you've ever been told you suck. It is a 3-month journey of relentless self-doubt.

And Jude gets her first taste tomorrow.

Not really, of course. What really happens is I get MY first taste for her tomorrow. And its true that the pediatrician might say something scary – any one of hundreds of those baby-disorder lottery words – but he'll probably say that she's 100 percent healthy and in perfect shape with no problems, and while you're here, Doc, just what the hell is that supposed to mean?

Cuz it could mean, "no blood in stool and clear lungs." Or it could mean "she will be elected by 7 billion voters as the first Global Prime Minister at age 35, having cured AIDS and all strains of loneliness in her late 20s. Unless you, first-time parent, screw it up for her between now and then."

What REALLY happened today was that while Jude sat there mystified and bewildered at being born, I was nearly paralyzed thinking about how I was going to ruin it.

Starting from the moment your kid is born (or at least from the second your pediatrician signs off on it) your kid is a Nobel Prize winner. But it's up to you to keep the rocket on that perfect straight-up trajectory. Each little wobble decays the apex just a bit, and the earlier the wobble, the worse the decay.

With the slightest hiccup, you lose the Nobel, and settle for a Sakharov Prize or a Pulitzer or a maybe just a Fields Medal (lousy Fields Medal…). Then something else goes wrong – wrong 6-month day care? – and suddenly they aren't even getting a Rhodes Scholarship and the wheels are coming completely off. If you allow just a few glances at prime time TV anytime in the first 12 years, they're a crummy Salutatorian in an inner-ring suburban high school and one more wobble away from an Intervention episode.

And the earlier, the more magnified the effect. In the first week – hell, first years – the slightest of slip-ups is the difference between the 52nd President of the United States and being in rehab by 14.

We're dealing with a slippery slope here!

And I haven't even gotten into chronic diseases and driver's licenses and internet porn and consumer debt and the current make-up of the Supreme Court... How did we ever find time to invade Iraq and cure polio and break up the Beatles with all these anti-baby death-forces massed in every direction!

Greatest Day Of My Life? Are you friggin' kidding me? Do you even know what the Fed is hinting about inflation? DO YOU?

And then Jude burped. Just a tiny one. Breathing's hard if you've only been at it for 15 minutes and no one has bothered to show you how (particularly not the moron looking at your expecting to see facial expressions) and your fingers are the size of sunflower seeds but still have perfectly formed nails for some miraculous reason. That's another one I was also totally unprepared for.

So she'll figure out breathing, the pediatrician will introduce her to performance evaluations (actually, she already has one: AGPAR between 8 and 9. Perfect score is 10. Damn. So much for the free trip to Norway), and we'll go from there.

And someday soon – not real soon, but maybe 12 or 14 years down the road – we'll sit down together and watch Coal Miner's Daughter and she'll be old enough to sing some of the songs, which are great, and understand about Family and Happiness and then the train station scene will come on and Loretta's dad will lean down and hold her as the train pulls up, and tell her that he ain't ever gonna see his little girl again, and if Jude picks that moment to glance over at me, it might be her turn to see that expression that just says:  "What the fuck just happened?"

No comments: