Significant Details

I meant to do this sooner, but since you were born the days and nights have been a bit of a blur. In conversation I’ll reference something as if it just happened to find out it was a couple of days before. So between this jumble of memory and the fact that today marks your first week with us, I thought it would be a good place to start with these letters by writing out what I remember about your birth. Hopefully by the time you’re old enough to read this I’ll have stumbled across the trick of consistency with my writing output, but for this moment, even though my best intentions are to keep up with these letters, I’m not sure how well I’ll do. I almost didn’t write today, and even though I’m exhausted and in desperate need of a nap myself (you and your mother are currently passed out upstairs) I know that if I don’t start these letters today the time might slip away completely.

So here goes.

You started your arrival early morning Sunday the 23rd. Your mother woke me up just shortly after her water had broken and we decided to go into the hospital, even though steady contractions hadn’t come yet. As we drove through the empty midnight streets we joked back and forth about still not having a name for you and that even though we were making the trip we knew we’d be sent home again until your mother was further along. The parking lot at the Foothills was empty. It’s about the only time of day it’s ever that quiet, so we got a decent spot. We walked in through Emergency and as we were heading down the corridor towards the elevators I turned around and saw a tall, handsome  guy dressed up as Thor prowling the waiting area. Red cape, breastplate and all. He cut a dashing figure, and it made me relax knowing that the God of Thunder was nearby in case we needed him. Fun fact: your mother still does not believe this actually happened.

Once upstairs we got the reception we expected. Professional but not too concerned. Contractions hadn’t started yet and you were still a long way off. When your mother went to the bathroom she was discreetly asked by the nurse there if she was in an abusive relationship. She came back joking about it, because there’s nothing farther from the truth, but it made me ask another nurse later on how common it was. It’s not, as it turns out, but it’s a sad statistical reality that a woman is most likely to be abused by her partner when she’s at her most vulnerable while pregnant. I’m not sure why I mention this. It sticks out in my mind as a sobering detail, even though it didn’t have any bearing on what we were going through.

We were sent home, like I said, and told to come back in twelve hours. We went home. We slept. We ate. My parents came over to pick up the dogs and we had a little sit down before we left for the hospital. It didn’t strike me that when I came back I’d be coming back as a father. You’d think it would have, but it didn’t. I was excited. We were still joking around about names, going through a list of potentials, trying a few out. We still referred to you as little baby No-Name.

Once we arrived back at the Foothills (now in the afternoon, so the parking spaces were nowhere near as choice) we were admitted into a proper delivery room with an amazing view of the city. Fall doesn’t last long in Calgary. It seems the leaves are yellow, red and brown for a week or two before they’re all blown down and the branches stick out skeletal towards the sky. They hadn’t fallen yet when you were born. The view was breathtaking and I ended up getting some good pictures. The sky was clear and the temperature was warm. There was a cleanness about the space.

You were induced, which was not the way we had hoped you’d arrived. We had a plan. We’d made a wish list. And while practically nothing in the delivery went according to plan I still feel it went well. You were never in any level of distress that seemed dangerous (at least as it was communicated to me), and while the delivery was painful and difficult for your mother, nothing ever felt as life-threatening as I was afraid it would be. But yes, you were induced, which meant we ended up electing for pain medication, which in turn led to intervention in the last few, critical moments.

I want to take a moment to talk about your nurses. Over the course of the night you had about four or five of them, and all of them were professional and excellent at their jobs. Seriously, I could not have asked for better care for you and your mother. They made us feel at ease and well taken care of, and if I were recommending places for children to be born, I couldn’t give the Foothills a higher recommendation. I also want to mention that your grandmother, my mother, was there with us almost every step of the way, and that also was a great choice. Having been a nurse, she was a great mediator between Tara, myself and the medical professionals. She understood the culture and was calm throughout.

I was also calm throughout, which is not what I was expecting. I was expecting fear, to be honest. A lot of it. But it takes a long time, the delivery process, and fear doesn’t do well in tests of endurance. Fear has poor stamina. It’s a sprinter. But however well I may have behaved during your delivery, the grand prize will always go to your mother. She was amazing. There’s no other way to describe it. In a situation where she had thought she would curse and potentially buckle, she rose to every challenge. If a nurse suggested a different position that might be more painful but more beneficial to your delivery, she took it. She went the distance in a very real way, and having known her for a good number of years now I can safely say I’ve never been more proud. She made a difficult process look easy. You couldn’t have asked for better.

Finally we came to the end. I’m not going to go into too much detail. We can talk about this when you’re older. Some intervention was necessary and all of a sudden everything moved really fast. The pain went from manageable to unbearable and the last five minutes, that last dash, was terrifying. Your mother was scared. She was tired and scared and the last five minutes were so painful that it broke me just watching it. I held onto her, I supported her with the other nurses, the doctor, my own mother, and I tried in my own futile way to make it easier for her and you.

And then you arrived. Despite charting your progress through the nine months of pregnancy, listening to your heartbeat, watching your movements on the monitor, you did not become real to me until I saw you. I didn’t think I was going to watch, but I did, and I’m so glad that I chose to. After feeling the need to sleep creep up on me during those final hours, I woke up in a second. I was crying, probably shaking. And you were here. Shortly thereafter, your mother and I were holding you.

I thought when I began writing this first letter I would go on to talk about your first week, that somehow I could get your birth out in fewer words maybe. But the rest can wait. If I wait too long before publishing this, I’ll go back and tinker too much and you’ll never see it. I’m sure I’ve missed something. Maybe I’ll remember later. The important beats are there. The significant details.

Actually, wait. There’s two more.

The first: after getting you and your mother settled in the postpartum wing, I had to drive home and get some sleep of my own. The adrenaline of watching you being born was wearing off and I was crashing fast. I needed to sleep but I needed to drive safely home. It was a struggle, but I managed it. On the way home an odd thought struck me. I’m not sure if it was the first inklings of what it’s like to be a father (one week in and I’m still not sure I feel like one), but it stuck out and continues to do so in my memory.

You may discover as you grow up, that I have this underlying belief that things should be fair somehow. Hopefully you never notice this. Hopefully I do not pass it along. It’s a remnant from childhood and has done a lot to add to my discomfort over the years. But driving back from the hospital I realized in a very real way that the world was not fair, and that the world’s opinion towards you, that little baby you, was utter indifference. Not hostile, just indifferent. And that the only ones who were ever going to fight for you, to help you, were going to be us. Family. That this was the job now. That very little else could be depended on. That, like Carl Sagan says in his Pale Blue Dot speech, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us…like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.

Which is a downer, to be sure, but it rattled me. The night sky was clear above me and I could see all the stars. I thought about this, about what it meant for me, your mother. What it demanded of us. And while a part of me is not sure I can do this, the better part, the greater part, is going to do his very best to be the help to you that cannot come from elsewhere.

And the second: that bit of business about your name. If you had been a boy we would have had a name for you picked out months ago. It’s still there. Solid. Built to last. But a girl’s name, for us, was trickier. How was it decided? In the middle of things, as it happens. During the delivery. Your mother was going through contractions and I asked about the name and she told me. Tessa Simone. Tessa, because we like it, and Simone, because it was the name of one of her grandmothers. And I found myself unable to argue. That was your name. Being male and going into a delivery room populated solely by women is a strange feeling. It very much feels like intruding. I did my best, but there were things going on that I felt that, no matter how hard I tried, I’d never be a part of. The nurses were, you were, your mother was (hell, even my mother was), but I had to stand a little apart from. And out of that wash of emotions and experiences and connections that I couldn’t firmly understand came your name. A day after you were born your mother thanked me for letting me name you that, which seemed a strange thing to do. It was your name. Like you, it came out of that room. There was nothing I was going to do to change it.

And with that, I’ll pull this first letter (of many, I hope) to a close. You’ve been with us for a week but it feels like you’ve always been here. Your current favorite activities are eating, sleeping and farting. You are really good at farting, as it turns out, which proves to me that you’re more my side than your mother’s. Let’s see if we can keep these letters going, shall we?

Love,

Dad

p.s. Here’s my favorite picture of you with your mother, taking in your very first week.

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Bad Weather Moods, Friends and To Kill A Mockingbird

I was in a bad mood going into Theatre Calgary’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Something had crawled inside my head a day ago and hadn’t left. Nothing particular or specific, just that pervasive sense of (boring) cynical negativity that makes me no fun to be around. I ask weird questions when I’m in this space. It’s clear by looking at me something’s wrong and I’m just not myself. But these moods are like weather, and I’ve found that just waiting until it passes is the best thing possible.

I was not looking forward to the play.

I had been before. My oldest friend, Aaron Conrad, is in it, and I’ve tried to see all of Aaron’s plays since he started acting in high school . I have to claim bias up front, but the truth is it’s always easy going to Aaron’s plays. Have you ever been friends or family with an artist (of whatever discipline) where you go out to support them but when it comes right down to it you just can’t get your head or heart around what they do? You’d never tell them to their face, of course, but the fact is that you just don’t dig their stuff. You wouldn’t engage with it at all if you didn’t know them. Those kinds of people? That’s not Aaron for me. What I’ve always appreciated about his work is that he’s good at what he does, but more importantly he’s invested in getting better. You hear it in the way he talks, whether it be about a specific role or about the profession in general. It’s always enlightening listening to actors talk about their career. They feel it more than the rest of us do, I think.

In Mockingbird, Aaron was playing the part of Boo Radley. It’s a small but integral part, and from what I understand he got the role primarily because of his excellent (again, bias) work as one of the (I forget the name) mental patients in last year’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While I had problems with that staging of Nest, what Aaron did was impressive, and I can see why someone seeing his performance there could have found a way for him in Mockingbird. Whether or not that’s the case, I’m not sure/can’t remember.

So it’s a shame that I wasn’t looking forward to it. That the mood had come on that made me resent even stepping out the door when all I wanted to do was go back to bed or spend a quiet night at home not thinking about anything in particular. It’s not the attitude that you want to come to a friend’s work with. In addition, I was starting to suspect that my feelings for last year’s Nest were going to repeat in Mockingbird. I had been told that reviews for this production were mediocre. I was prepared for a difficult/bad mood evening.

I forget how much I like theatres. The actual structure of a theatre. It’s a good idea. When I walked through the smaller hallways and doorways with my mother and sister (who I had come to the play with) we emerged into a large open space that is specifically theatrical. The levels of seats. The tall ceilings. The boxes where the audience mills about the edges, giving the room a depth that would be lost if we were all in the same plane. I looked over at the stage and saw that it was set up like a courtroom, with jury seats where members of the audience could sit. And in the middle of this courtroom stood a tree. A large tree with branches that disappeared upwards out of view.

My first thought was that, if you were ever to have a museum to trees, this was how you’d do it. A large theatre with a tree in an enclosed space, with the tree almost standing in as performer. With roots and dirt for stage. There would be something remarkable about going through hallways and small rooms and coming into a theatre with a tree inside, a massive living, green tree that you would sit and stare at.

My second thought was that the stage was too small. My dread deepened. I couldn’t imagine how the play could work in such a small space. I didn’t like the idea of the audience on stage. It didn’t speak to me immediately (the absolute sign that it will not/cannot work, of course). I sat in my seat and watched the audience get settled. Like last year’s Nest, I found that most of the audience were middle-aged and older. There seemed to be a few younger people here and there, but my first read of the crowd was older. I started to look up the levels and saw people talking, interacting, and something happened that made me relax just the littlest bit. I think I heard someone say before that there were 600 seats in that theatre. If every seat were full that would mean that there would be 600 men and women sitting down to enjoy a performance, a fiction, that was unique in its presenting. We’d sit in the dark and have a relationship with the people on stage for a couple of hours. If the play was good, we’d laugh, we’d cry, we’d have something to think about. Made me realize that it wasn’t just the architecture of theatres that was a good idea. Theatre is a good idea. 600 people all thinking different thoughts with different histories watching the same performance that is interactive is a good idea.

It’s not big revelation, I know, but it started me down the path of getting out of my mood. Sometimes the simplest stuff does. Depression, when it hits, is like being told you’re not just someone else entirely but believing it entirely. It’s like dreaming and not remembering your waking life. And then something happens and you remember. You follow the path out, if you can, and for the next two or three hours that’s what I did.

The play was great. The characters from the book came alive in the performances. I came to understand and appreciate the idea of the jury/audience and the play between the two and by the end of it I couldn’t see how it could have been any other way. It struck me that To Kill a Mockingbird could come across very easily as heavy-handed if you didn’t do it right. It’s very on point with its message, with the questions it is asking, but even though I saw those center stage what saved it for me were the characters and the performances. I cared about these people and I found myself thinking throughout what the message and questions meant for me. I was thinking a lot about courage, and what it meant to start when you knew you were going to lose but starting anyway. Which led me to think about a lot of other things.

And Aaron, of course, for what time he was on the stage, shone.

It’s good to have talented friends. It’s better to have families who put up with sudden mood shifts. And it’s a great thing that we, as a species, came up with theatre. Or fiction. Or music. Or domesticated dogs, for that matter. Architecture. The whole lot. Sometimes it’s a book that rescues me from a bad day. More often times it’s my wife. But yesterday it was a play. And it was a very good play indeed.

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Letter to my Unborn Daughter

It was the night of December 13th, 2007, and I had resolved that day to ask your mother out for the second time in our somewhat tumultuous couple years of knowing each other. I was on good authority that this time was going to go better than the first, but I was still nervous. It’s always a little scary to extend yourself, even if you’re certain. And let’s just say the first time had not gone so well for me. But it was more than that. Asking your mother out felt more like proposing than the actual proposal itself ever did. I was certain she was the one for me, and that if she said yes that night then everything else would follow. Marriage. A house. Schnauzers.

You.

Just before I left the house that night I caught myself in the mirror and the strangest realization came over me. These were, in all likelihood, the last few hours of my single life, and while my single life hadn’t been anything remarkable (or very enjoyable for that matter) it did feel like the end of something. It took about a minute, whatever I did, thinking that thought, then I was off. Out the door and into the car and driving off towards the best and most rewarding relationship of my life.

I’m glad I took that moment. It sticks out in my mind. And before you arrive (any day now) I felt it was right to take that moment again before everything changes. Because shortly everything will, and the person who is writing this won’t be the same as the guy you see every day. He’ll be a father. Your father. And for your whole life you’ll never really be able to meet me as I am in this moment. It will be, quite literally, before your time.

I’m not really sure what to say.

I’m not sure all fathers feel this way, but it has been my experience that the pregnancy part of having children is a work of science fiction. Unlike your mother, I haven’t been directly connected to you. All the information has been filtered and mediated through machines. When I heard your heartbeat for the first time it was through speakers that sparked with distortion and static that made it sound like background radiation from space. A sound amplified from a great distance. And when I saw your face for the first time…well, I didn’t even see your face at first. I saw your skeleton. Your organs. I saw your little heart beat. Black and white through an ultrasound that brought to mind looking at ancient or alien fossils underwater, the white light from the surface colouring everything in different levels of gray. I could feel you kick and move through walls of flesh and muscle, that movement that so quickly brings up images of the monster from Alien. But in each instance I have met you only indirectly. You’ve been the person I’ve heard so much about at a part, the girl who is constantly in the next room over. The neighbor I hear rattling around next door in the middle of the night.

Suffice it to say, it hasn’t been what I expected.

But what did I expect? Honestly, I think I expected to fall in love with you the moment I heard you were coming. I expected that feature film level of excitement. The shaking hands as I called my parents, as I told my friends. I expected to talk to you daily and with growing enthusiasm as you developed, relating to you as the person you would become through our (mostly one-sided) witty banter. I expected laugh track accompaniment. Music, too. I expected to immediately and magically become a father. Whatever that means.

But that’s not what happened. While there’s been periods of excitement a larger portion of time has been spent nervous and, more than a occasionally, a little scared. Nervous about what kind of father I would be. If I could keep you from making some of the mistakes I made. Or would you even like me? Scared that something will happen to you. That I might not get to see you at all. That you might not be healthy. That the world can be a terrible place and would try to hurt you or take you away. Like some sort of survivalist nut job I’ve kept myself up at night thinking of worst case scenarios, both epic and mundane, trying to puzzle out ways to protect you from that. I’ve had countless conversations with future teenage you. Hoping you’ll listen to me. Hoping I’ll listen to you and say the right thing.

It has at times been pretty overwhelming. When I try to hold it all in my head at once, all the possibilities and dangers of the future, I have trouble catching my breath. It’s just too much. I have to go outside. Take a moment. And when I do that I invariably look up and see the stars (somehow, it’s always the stars) and it’s in that moment when I’m closest to you, when I feel like I understand what this is all about. Because this past nine months has been a science fiction for me, and when I look up at the night sky I feel like I can see your arrival. That straining, sputtering glimmer of a satellite. The last child of some dying planet. Heading to Earth. Looking for home. It’s funny, because when I was young I wanted nothing more than to be Superman and I’ve grown up and found myself Jonathan Kent with all the incredible responsibility that entails.

And it’s suddenly all fine. There’s no nervousness. There’s not even excitement. There’s just the simple, certain knowledge that you are heading this way and I will do my very best for you with the time that we have together. And I hope that time is long and healthy. I truly do. I hope that your mother and I can raise you to be the woman none of us even know you can be yet. So that one day you’ll get back in your spaceship or step off the ground and into flight and have a whole world of adventures out there. And when you do  I’ll be the one in the distance who will smile and think, ‘that’s my girl’.

So this is me. The me you’ll never meet, the me hasn’t seen you yet. And I’ve found while writing this that while I thought it would happen after you were born that I love you already. That I am scared for you and hope for you. That I’ll always have your back, whoever and wherever you are.

I’ll see you soon.

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