My son Joshua graduated from high school yesterday.
Even as I write those words, I feel equal parts pride and devastation. It seems like only yesterday that we were going camping with his Boy Scout troupe in the mountains outside of Chengdu. It seems only yesterday that I was watching him play on the playground with his little sister. It seems like only yesterday that he was laying beside me at bedtime reading Dr. Seuss.
But time works that way, doesn’t it? The more you want it to slow down, the faster it goes. And now time has delivered me a high school graduate, who is about to embark on his own life, largely independent of the rest of us. I know he’s ready for it. I know that I’m not. And I know it doesn’t make a hill’s bit of difference that I’m not, because that’s the way time works.
In honor of this change in our lives, I want to post something I wrote shortly after he became our first born. Eighteen years ago everything changed for us much like everything is about to change for us again. Eighteen years ago we welcomed Josh into our world, and soon we’ll be hugging him goodbye as he makes his way into the wider world.
As I said, proud and devastated.
Credo: The Birth of Mr. Peanut
He looks at me. He’s only minutes old, so I know that he doesn’t really know what he’s looking at – probably all he sees is a big nose with eyes. Maybe that’s why he cries. But, he’s here – in my arms. I’ve waited for this moment for the eternity of the last nine months, and it’s hard to believe, but he’s here.
Months earlier, we’re home from Kazakhstan, walking down East Main street in Louisville, Kentucky. She wants tomato juice. Needs tomato juice. Will go crazy if she doesn’t have tomato juice. And then, after I’ve run down to the corner market and returned with a bottle of tomato juice, she gulps it down and then vomits. That’s when I start to suspect that he might be on his way.
The doctor rubs some clear goopy looking substance on her belly. It takes me a few moments, but I finally see him for the first time, realize that he is actually there, and that he looks like a peanut. “He looks like a peanut,” I say to the doctor. “Is that normal?”
Not long after, we’re back in Kazakhstan. It’s ultrasound time again. We sit in a dark Kazakh hospital corridor that overflows with women who all have to pee. Desperately. By doctor’s orders. I don’t recall having ever felt so empathetically uncomfortable in all of my life. I have to pee, too, but I don’t dare.
Our number is called and we’re ushered into a dark room serviced by two unsmiling ultrasound operators who are so unpleasant that it seems like they also have to pee but cannot. They spread the goop and there he is again. A bit larger, but still a peanut. He’s amazing.
“You have to calm down or you’ll miscarry,” the ultrasound operator says coldly, interrupting our wonder. Miscarry? We’re stunned! everything has been going so well. She’s eating the right things, exercising, taking care of herself. How is this possible?
“Don’t worry,” our Aussie doctor friend tells us later. “They tell all the women that they’re too uptight, and that they might miscarry.”
“If they let the women pee, they might not be so uptight,” I say, frustrated. That settles it. We have to give birth far away from this place. I start to strategize how.
Meanwhile, we talk, Peanut and I. Actually, I call him Mr. Peanut, even thought I don’t know for certain that he is a he. I tell him how much I look forward to meeting him. He answers back with a series of kicks that demonstrate his brilliance. How many other unborn children have mastered Morse code? I play music for him. He taps out that he is partial to Celtic music, and I gladly oblige.
The email arrives. Our church leaders in America have denied our request to leave Kazakhstan for the birth.
“Did you see that footage of the woman in Africa who had her baby in a tree during a flood? Women have been giving birth in all kinds of situations since the beginning of time,” they tell me. “Have faith.”
But in Kazakhstan the statistics are horrendous. Abysmal infancy mortality rates, tragic mother mortality rates. I have faith, but I am not willing to gamble with the lives of my wife and child. I’m resolute. I don’t want us to have a baby here.
“What does she want?” my friend asks.
His wife is also Kazakh. They had their baby there. Everyone is fine. Others are pressuring her to stay out of some sort of national pride. She is from Kazakhstan. If she wants to give birth here, I realize, then I need to support that decision.
We’re in the taxi, on the way home from the maternity hospital. We’ve toured the facilities, met the doctors. We’ve seen the dark communal recovery room that holds, what? Ten women and ten screaming newborn babies? We’ve seen the crimson grime on the floor of the delivery room. We’ve witnessed the impatient and unpleasant demeanor of the hospital staff. We’ve been told that under no circumstances are visitors allowed, including the father, for several days after the birth.
But if she wants to stay, I will support that decision.
She’s quiet. Finally, she turns to me. “I don’t want to have the baby here.” It feels like she’s lost something in the admission. Like a defeat. We get home, and thirty minutes later she realizes that she left her purse in the taxi. We try to track down the taxi, but we never do. She’s sorry, but after all, it’s just a purse that has been left behind and she has other purses. There are more important things in life, she says.
Time passes. She seems to glow. I know that they say that about pregnant women, and it’s cliché, but it’s true. As peanut grows, so does her radiance. I find her swollen belly to be incredibly attractive.
Kazakhstan is behind us now, at least temporarily, and we’ve settled into my grandmother’s house in Virginia. We attend Lamaze classes together. What an unusual mixture of people; new parents, equally anxious couples like us, a couple of couples who have had so many children that you wonder why they bother with the hospital at all. “Knowledge is power”, the old saying goes. I’m not sure I feel so powerful. In fact, the knowledge of what’s coming has left me feeling pretty powerless. Will she be okay during the delivery? Will I be ready to do my part? Will peanut evacuate the premises easily, or come out fighting?
Come out fighting, it turns out. We’ve been in the hospital now for over a day, trying to coax Peanut out. In that time, we’ve seen other couples come and go, including one woman who screamed from the room next door, “Lord, just get it out of me!” My wife and I look at each other. “I don’t think she took a Lamaze class,” she says. I laugh.
She hasn’t slept well, awakened every hour by the nurses and the midwife who want to make sure that she and Peanut are doing okay. I’ve had a bit more sleep, but every time they come to wake her up, I wake up, too, wondering if it’s time.
I’ve never seen a person as strong as she is during this whole process. She works so hard to help peanut make his great appearance, but he stubbornly refuses to cooperate. At one point, she bounces up and down on a big rubber ball, trying to bounce Peanut out. She is so exhausted, she asks our midwife for help. “Breathe with me,” she asks. Our midwife, who knows of our faith, but doesn’t share it, misunderstands, and thinks she has been asked, “Pray with me.” And so, also exhausted, she prays. You can feel God’s presence in the room, as if He is saying, “Don’t worry. Just keep bouncing.”
We’re now at twenty-seven hours since the water broke, and just when I’m beginning to think that he will never come, Peanut starts to make his entrance, or exit, depending on your perspective. The centimeter count starts to go up quickly, and people appear from nowhere, working hard to welcome him into the world. But everything stops when our midwife says that there is a problem. Peanut’s head is turned the wrong way. He’s stuck, and they need to get him out quickly, because it’s been so long since the water broke. I barely remember them talking about this in the Lamaze class, and my heart skips a beat as I try to reason out the implications.
When I hear our midwife say that they need to call in the M.D., that they might need to do an emergency c-section, my heart stop beating. I comfort and encourage my wife, feeling helpless to do anything else. I see the concern in my widwife’s eyes, and an unspoken message passes between us. Peanut has started to slip from my hands. But in that moment it occurs to me that he was never really in my hands. I might be his flesh and blood father, but it was time for me to let go and allow him to fall into the hands of his heavenly father.
In that act of letting go, the helplessness fades away. Just keep bouncing.
I stand frozen in the middle of a blur of activity. The MD has arrived and pulls out something that looks more like an instrument of medieval torture than a device of twenty-first century medicine, and he uses it to turn peanut’s head. Almost immediately, Peanut starts slipping through. I hug my wife as she delivers her final eviction notice push to take Peanut from the familiar into the frightening; from the safe warmth of the womb into the scary brilliance of the world. I can understand that one of the first things that he does is cry from the shock of it.
They clean him up, and hand him to me. I take him to her, and pause for the briefest of moments. He’s looking at me. He’s only minutes old, so I know that he doesn’t really know what he’s looking at – probably all he sees is a big nose with eyes. Maybe that’s why he cries. But, he’s here – in my arms. I’ve waited for this moment for the eternity of the last nine months, and it’s hard to believe, but he’s here.
Love you, Josh. Just keep bouncing.