A year ago this evening, we had just attended the Mystics' second-ever home game, all those accomplished daughters restoring joy to professional basketball, and we walked from the dark night into the unnecessary glare of a Rite Aid. We bought a pregnancy test kit, the cheapest one, and read the directions when we got home. In a few short minutes, as the little red line became sharp and indelible, I went from a state of fuzzy, hypothetical musing to knowing I was going to be a father.
That was a year ago, I say again, but I no longer grasp what a year means. Becoming a parent has warped time. Some minutes stretch into their own amazing eternity, filled with hard work and wide-eyed hyper-awareness. At other moments it feels as though existence is charging forward with remorseless velocity.
The time warp appears to be retroactive. I have a vivid memory of being 4 years old and pestering my father with the same question. "How old are you?" He would look up at the ceiling as if he had to think very hard, and then he would say: "I'm 29." I couldn't believe what a long time on Earth that implied, and--applied to myself--how impossibly distant in the future. My life seemed to stretch endlessly before me, as if there were plenty of time for everything and no rush for anything. Until, without warning, I was 36 and my wife, Susan, and I were standing in line in a Rite Aid, filled with nervous hope, and a sense that the future was here.
This impression that time is out of control is probably why, of all the advice the birth professionals gave, one tip that really stuck with me was the wisdom of keeping logs--of sizes and symptoms, times and intensities, pounds and ounces. A log raises the hope of retrofitting a satisfying precision onto what felt like a chaotic enterprise teetering on the edge of disaster and madness. Similar logs are found in museums of great maritime catastrophes.
According to mine, the contractions began at 1:07:45 a.m. The first one lasted 55 seconds. The next one was 65 seconds, then 15 seconds, then 40 seconds. In the margin of the log, I scrawled, "Is it beginning???" Soon the contractions got more regular, then they became more frequent and more powerfully painful. The one at 4:41:20 lasted 40 seconds, which felt like a week to Susan, and we left for the hospital.
The birthing room was disguised as a mid-priced hotel suite, with lampshades and paneling. When the midwives determined the time was at hand, the panels opened and stadium lights and shiny metal equipment unfolded out of the walls and ceiling. We'd gone from the Holiday Inn to a starship infirmary. I was Breathing Coach Man, Massage Man, Cold Washcloth Man, Panicking Future Dad Man. Susan worked, the midwives soothed, and we all joined the headlong rush into our future.
At some point I was dispatched to move the car. We had parked it where it would foul hospital traffic when morning came. All agreed it was necessary for me to go do this, now. But I was made to understand that the price of tarrying too long would be dire. My wife said something like, "Miss this baby and die."
I ran outside and wheeled the car to the back of the hospital. I was about to dash back inside, when I felt the need to pause. I wanted to absorb this moment.
My non-child-rearing friends say that to become a parent is to "go over to the dark side." You're never the same after, they say. I used to express the identical opinion, as one by one my peers became fathers and mothers. The signs were predictable. They became gooey. They stopped listening to music. They jettisoned the bad habits that once made them singular. If they were writers, they started writing pieces about their kids.
Before that mysterious force claimed me, I wanted to slow things down, reassert control if only for a moment so I could feel what was happening before I was unalterably transformed. I knew just what to do in a situation like this. Standing in the parking lot of the hospital, I got out my log.
"6:25 a.m. Baby about to be born!" I wrote. "We're at a threshold. I'd like to be able to stop time to comprehend it. So happy and amazed."
All right, it's a little inane, worth more as a physical artifact than a profound statement. It's a message in a bottle from Mere Adult Man to Omigod! I'm a Dad Man.
The sky above the city was just beginning to lighten when I ran back inside. Sixty minutes, a thousand breaths and pushes later, this wet chirping thing joined the human race.
"She's so beautiful," my wife said over and over. I couldn't speak for fear of totally losing it.
Her name is Lily. She's a little peanut. She has blue almond eyes. Her gaze is like a tractor beam, capturing and drawing in all who stray into its path. She has a mischievous flirtatious shy smile. She has almost no hair.
What she does have is a kind of rusty fuzz on the middle of her head. She looks not unlike Curious George. She has helped us to stop time. This is the nature of new babies. Not because they help you live each minute to the fullest, but because each minute is so overwhelmingly complicated that clumsy new parents can hardly be self-aware enough to call it living at all. In the beginning, even breast-feeding requires two adults and four hands. Days and nights, according to the log, pass like this: "1:58 a.m.--left breast, 9 minutes, hiccups. 2:15--sleep. 3:14--right breast, 11 minutes. 3:36--bowel, left breast 7 minutes. 3:58 sleep."
The statistics are like coordinates of an uncharted country. Ultimately, however, the attempt to stabilize the world fails. Time slips.
The other day I was lifting Lily out of her car seat, and I suddenly flashed forward to her dotage, at the end of the next century. I pictured her grandson helping a tiny, bent old lady with pretty blue eyes out of her armchair. The grandson is a new father, and to him it seems like only yesterday that he was a child asking his father's age. Now he is visiting from out of state to show Grandma Lily his new baby girl. And Lily's grandson never met me, has no clear idea who I was--as I have only the mistiest notion of my great-grandfather. Time is short, then I will be gone, then forgotten. And of all the things I did in my life, only one will matter.
CAPTION: The author with his own father, back when life stretched endlessly before him. Now he's a father himself and time itself has warped.