My son turned 1-year old today. That is hard for me to believe. As with any big occasion looked back upon, it feels like the day he was born was only 2 months ago, and 20 years ago. Time never settles into the shape we expect.
This afternoon for lunch, I went to the cafeteria of the hospital where my son was born. It’s only a block from my office building, but not on my usual route to and from work, so I rarely go. It was strange being back in that building, eating adequate pizza and lazily scrolling through my iPhone photos, when in that same place a year before I’d been in a state of severe shock.
People say the day your child is born is “the happiest day of your life,” but June 11, 2014 wasn’t so much “happy” as it was the most emotionally intense day of my life. The birth was not without complications and there was a moment, in that blood-slick OR, where I was holding my son for the first time and also watching doctors frantically swarm around my wife, and felt overwhelming joy and overwhelming terror at the same time. When things had stabilized and we returned to the ready-room, I passed out in a chair from sheer emotional exhaustion.
The hours and days after that were a long, slow blur. I lived in a constant haze, trying to master the various skills of caring for a new baby (diaper changes, swaddling, soothing, feeding) while existing on little-to-no-sleep. Happy as I was to finally have a healthy baby here and in my arms and my wife’s arms, I felt lost and adrift, my life utterly changed and unrecognizable. I’d walk by my office building on the way to grab lunch and feel like I’d wandered into some half-forgotten memory. Did I once work there? What happened to that life? I even missed my wife terribly, even though we spent all day together in the same room. Our marriage, that had once been about us, was now about this strange new wrinkly person who shat black tar and communicated primarily through banshee shrieks.
But like on merry-go-round slowing its spin, the blurred, discombobulated world gradually retook its old shapes and colors, only now with a baby in the picture.
The first two months were rough, because my son, like all newborns, existed only to eat, poop tar, and cry. He didn’t make eye contact, didn’t laugh, didn’t do ANYTHING. He’d smile sometimes, but only because he’d farted. I loved him fiercely, but I couldn’t tell you what about him I loved other than he was here. I never knew what to do with him, other than hold him, and wonder if I was holding him the right way.
One year later, I absolutely love spending time with my son. He crawls, he giggles, he babbles sounds that are the ancestors of words, he holds his hands over his eyes and pulls them away and smiles and waits for you to say “peekaboo.” He eats watermelon and raviloi and mango and French toast with gleeful abandon. He tilts his head sideways and smiles at you. He grabs your face and pretends like he’s going to kiss you, but then gently bites your nose or steals your glasses instead. He hits the music button on a toy and bops in place, the beginning of a dance. He’s delightful. He’s a joy.
It’s still hard: when he’s sick, when he’s fussy, when I’m tired and he’s full of energy and ready to crawl around the apartment at top speed, when he wakes at 3:30 AM and refuses to go back to sleep. But it’s wonderful, too. Sometimes I go to bed and realize my mouth hurts from smiling so much.
The second night of my son’s life, he refused to go to sleep in the little bassinet in the hospital room. He’d cry unless I held him, a common problem the night nurse called “Second Night Syndrome.” So I held him on a pillow in my lap the whole night, grabbing a few minutes of sleep here and there when my wife woke to feed him.
Across the street, in the medical school building, a man in an office stayed up with us, typing away on a computer. I have no idea who the man was or why he was working so late, but I’ll be forever grateful to him for (unwittingly) providing a new, overwhelmed father a small helping of company and light in those deep hours.
During that long, quiet night, I finally relaxed a bit and just enjoyed holding my little son. I looked down at his sweet, sleeping face and smiled–and then he smiled back. It was only because he had gas, but it was a start.