I sat in the surgical waiting room, having earlier tied a backless gown, size small, on my young son and kissed him repeatedly.
The day was cold, grey, and marked.
While health is never to be taken lightly, what marked the day was not that my son was undergoing the surgeon’s knife yet again. Nor was it that he would be lulled to sleep by a man whose scrubs label read “Dickies” and whose lanyard said “Sand Man.”
The surgery on his hand had been carefully considered; the surgeon purposefully chosen. We had full confidence in the team assisting our son. Just minutes after the procedure began, a first report came from the operating room: Our son had been whisked to sleep by the aptly named anesthesiologist who stroked his head and inexplicably, but nonetheless comfortingly, spoke of hair products.
So what then marked the day? We had arrived in a place we did not intend to go.
We had descended to the depths of parenthood.
I had been anxiously anticipating my son’s surgery. Not because of the procedure itself, but because of the hours in the waiting room. After countless hours at doctor’s offices with my son, I felt a perverted kind of relish at the idea of forced, uninterrupted time in which I could do the things that needed to be done; boring nagging little things like calling the pharmacy to transfer a prescription and responding to email.
It wasn’t just the bank of time that had beckoned me. You have reached a Point of No Return when you count eating with your spouse in the hospital cafeteria as a date. While the name “Friendly Café” doesn’t readily convey upscale dining, our receipt suggested it was one of the nicer meals we’d shared in quite a while. If you measure the quality of the date by the dollars spent, only The French Laundry – or an airport – would have been classier.
How had it come to this?
Ten years earlier, one of my friends was the first in our group to have a baby. Over lunch one day, she revealed that she’d asked her husband for a full night of sleep for her birthday. She was, she said, going to spend the night in the guest room to ensure her eight hours of bliss. The rest of us looked around the table furtively. This was motherhood? Reduced to asking for sleep as a gift?
For years, my husband and I carried on kid-less. Long work weeks would be followed by Sunday afternoons on the couch. I’d lounge at one end with a book, my husband at the other, watching back-to-back sports. The sublimeness of those days was a glory we were too blind to see.
One year, as Father’s Day approached, parenthood became a topic during a work lunch. Given that there were few fathers among us, we questioned the object of the celebration. One co-worker admitted that he’d told his wife he’d like to spend the holiday grilling a steak – from start to finish –by himself, on the back patio. He concluded his wish with a forlorn “maybe with a beer,” as if this exceeded more than any one person could reasonably hope for or expect.
As the would-be griller left the room, a fellow father clasped him across the back. The words “good luck, brother” remained unspoken but hung between them; it was the kind of camaraderie you expected from soldiers in battle, not fathers on diaper duty.
After they left, those of us with no kids burst into mutual appalled laughter. The man who had once been familiar now felt foreign. Who was this working professional by day who dreamt caveman-like dreams of meat and fire at night?
Slowly though, the tide changed. As the years crept past, the numbers of us remaining without a baby in the baby carriage dwindled. The ratio of adult to child shifted, and then, thanks to multiples, sunk.
My personal landscape evolved until my backdrop one day became a hospital room so drab it couldn’t be called beige.
Our lunches were now routinely rushed. We had no time to eat leisurely; those sixty minutes were for making doctor’s appointments, buying birthday gifts, paying bills, and for one colleague, catching up on T.V. We were a people racing against a clock that never stopped.
My personal landscape evolved until my backdrop one day became a hospital room so drab it couldn’t be called beige. My husband and I sat hunched over laptops tapping away, glancing anxiously at our phones as the hours added up.
Finally, the surgeon came in. “It went well,” she said. We thanked her, profuse with gratitude and dizzy with relief. We were taken to the recovery room, which was thick with a fog of tubes, stiff blankets, and vomit. Then, less than 12 hours later, our little boy bounced back like one of those small rubber prizes found at the bottom of goodie bays. When he stilled to a rest, we held him tight, reverent at this recovery and simultaneously dismayed by an energetic boy so quickly himself again.
Parenthood is convoluted, complicated. Children fragment and fracture you. The part-selves you divide into never equal a whole again. Some days the parts join to make more than one person, more often less.
This, whether you like it or not, is the gift.
Life arcs and bends, it ebbs and flows, the future becomes the former, time speeds and then slows, reconciling the strands of life.