The Education of a Parent
By David Weinshilboum
Fourteen years ago, my son’s life almost ended before it began.
The whole birthing process started out harmlessly enough, very much like the scenarios you’d see on those Learning Channel shows. There was a lot more waiting around than tension: wait for the Pitocin to kick in (the drug that expedites labor), wait for the cervix to dilate, wait for the doctor to give the “push” signal.
It was all going fine until the boy’s head came out. I waited for the shoulders and arms to slip out — just as I’d seen on T.V. But it didn’t happen. Instead, I heard doctors and nurses throwing about jargon. “Shoulder dysplasia,” they said in voices that were bit too hurried. In layman’s terms, my son was stuck. He couldn’t get his shoulders through his mother’s hips. The coloring on my son’s face turned gray; the doctor wiped a forearm across his forehead.
The doctor breathed heavily through his surgical mask, the powder blue tissue rippling out from his face. He made eye contact with me. “We may have to perform an emergency C-section.” His eyes looked uncertain.
“But he’s out,” I responded.
“We may have to push his head back in,” the doctor answered.
Even without the doctor’s eyes, I knew this was a dangerous maneuver, one that, if not performed flawlessly, might kill my son. I could tell that the doctor was about to ask our permission to perform this procedure, could already sense his words, “This is a risky procedure, but in my expert opinion…” Before I could continue my reverie, I watched the nurse leap on the bed and straddle would-be mom. The nurse began compressions around the hips, apparently trying to create room for the boy to “escape” the womb. The nurse’s movements were swift, violent.
The boy jutted his arm out, a hand reaching out to the world. The doctors unwrapped the umbilical cord from his neck and within seconds, the rest of his body oozed out. The doctors wiped him off and held him up to me. The boy stared at me, dark eyes glimmering. At that moment, I fell in love with the boy —Alex. He was a creature so frail that he couldn’t hold up his own head, yet he owned an atavistic determination so strong that he allowed me to become a father.
***** ***** *****
About the time Alex was five, his mother got sick. Really sick. There’s no need to get into details other than to say it was serious, as virtually all two-week hospital stays are. Prior to this incident, I was a confident part-time English professor at the community college level. I was a competent and patient. I was a primary caregiver. I was a present father.
But after I first saw Alex’s mom in the hospital, a part of me just shut down. Stopped. The whole ordeal felt too ominous: work, parenting, explaining mommy’s predicament. I thought about calling in sick, a thought that a few weeks before was anathema to me. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
Then I picked up Alex from daycare. We went home. He asked about his mom. I answered awkwardly. I made a microwave dinner and we went to the park. I watched him pull himself up the slide, hand over hand until he would reach out and grab the handle atop the structure. After few minutes of rambunctious park play, he looked up at me and asked about his mom again. I told him that I’d be both mom and dad for a bit. The boy nodded matter-of-factly and went back to play.
The boy was five, I know. But he was calm, rational. It’s as if he could handle it. I figured that if the 5-year-old could manage, the least I could do was fake it.
I threw myself into everything, eschewed sleep. I never missed a class and taught the hell out of those students. And every day after work, I drove fast, almost too fast, in an urgent quest to reclaim my boy. We were a dynamic duo, us versus the world. We ate ice cream for breakfast and watched SpongeBob Squarepants to excess. We would go on drives to find dragons; on one occasion Alex swore that he saw one — if only I had turned my head in time! We were unstoppable.
His mom recovered; life went back to normal. After the incident, a lot of people told me, “That boy sure was lucky to have you around.” The reality is that I was lucky to have that kid.
Alexander’s resilience has always been a thing of beauty. When he was eight, his mother and I had another child. Suddenly, the Alex-centric universe shifted. I’ll never forget the day Alex was at the hospital to see his brother. His mother was receiving care from the doctors; I was holding the baby. Alex asked me to play. I told him that he would have to wait, that I was caring for his brother. Alex nodded, walked into the bathroom and cried. Five minutes later, he walked out of the bathroom ready to tackle this newly minted world of compromise.
Next week, Alex turns 14. Like most kids his age, he exudes “teen-ness.” Under all the bluster is a thoughtful young man with a sardonic wit, someone who is still teaching me a thing or two about parenting.
His brother, now five, is on the spectrum, which means many days Alex’s needs still take a back seat to his younger sibling’s behavioral issues. I try to touch base with Alex, really talk to him at least once a day — not an easy charge given the teenage mindset and my other responsibilities. Some days, I fail; I fall asleep as I put his young brother to bed. Other days, I am the overextended parent, too tired or self-absorbed to properly see or hear my eldest son.
But my love for this kid is a fierce thing, one that transcends my many shortcomings. After the bad days, I tell myself I will do better. On the good days, I can sit down next to this man-boy and extend a hand, a trick he taught me the day he arrived in this world.
David Weinshilboum is a professor of English at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. Every weekday after work, David races across the causeway to Davis so he can spend time with his boys, Alex and Merret. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.