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I can't help noticing that most folks have plenty to say about virtually any topic. Which is a damn good thing for the careers of Oprah, Dr. Phil, Dave, Jay, Conan, Charlie Rose, and my Aunt Sylvia's Backgammon club. But sometimes we encounter people, experiences, or events in life that are either so beautiful, so horrifying, or so awe-inspiring that we face them, tongue-tied, literally having no words to describe our response. Like when we watched the news coverage of O.J. in the slow car chase, or Michael Jackson dangling his baby over that balcony, or Charlie Sheen spiraling out of control. Ooh, that shook me to the core. Which was the first time I realized I had a core. Now, scarcely a day goes by in which I don't examine my core. Of course, I close the blinds first. But I digress.
Anticipating the birth of my first child, I realized that this was going to be one of those tongue-tied situations. And I didn't want that to happen. I didn't want to be known as the guy who makes his living with words, yet who, when experiencing the birth of his child, stood there like Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners," stunned and clueless, babbling, "hahmeneh-hahmeneh-hahmeneh-hahmeneh..." I respond that way to enough things in life without it also happening when my first child is born.
I wanted to respond meaningfully, honestly, poetically. I wanted to be ready. I wanted to find the words to replace the "hameneh"s. I decided to prepare myself for the situation, using the process of elimination. I'd first make a list of the things I didn't want to say -- things like, "Wow, did that really come out of you?!", "Is that a placenta in your womb, or are you happy to see me?" and "Hey, what gives? The kid looks just like our mailman!" No, the delivery room probably would not be the place for my insightful, razor-sharp, Faulknerian, Hemingwayesque wit.
So I turned to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, to see what history's greatest minds had to say about birth. I found things like, "The dew of thy birth is of the womb of the morning." I knew I couldn't say stuff like that. I didn't even understand it. They'd laugh me right out of the delivery room. And the baby would be laughing right along with them. Years later I'd be walking down the street and pass one of the delivery room nurses, who'd wave to me and call out, "Hey, 'Dew of thy birth!'" And I feel humiliated enough in the normal course of the day without adding that to it.
I checked with my male friends with kids, asking them how they responded during their baby's birth. One said he cried. And then his wife slapped him, called him a big pussy, and told him to get ahold of himself. Anyway, you can't count on tears. The last time I remember crying was the day I received my first mortgage bill. I cried openly and unashamedly for hours. And I continue to cry monthly, each time I write the check. Occasionally, I cry so much that I slap myself, call myself a big pussy, and tell me to get ahold of myself. That's when I start examining my core. But you know that already.
Another friend said he screamed with triumphant joy. But I had already done that during conception. I didn't want to repeat myself. A third friend solved the problem in an interesting fashion -- he had Lakers tickets and chose to attend a game while his kid was being born. He was probably shouting, "Go, Kobe!" as his child was emerging. He's lucky he wasn't married to Lorena Bobbitt -- you know, the woman who sliced off John Wayne Bobbitt's "Little Elvis."
I started thinking back on other peak experiences in my life, and what I had said as they occurred. When I was three, several bullies cornered me on the playground, threatening to beat me up. I was terrified. Thinking quickly, I responded, "I'm telling!" After they finished giggling and beating me up, I realized the value of being better prepared for certain situations. Naturally, I thought of things I should have said to them at the time, but it was too late now. Things like, "You guys like Jewish pastries?" and "How 'bout I pay you protection money and lose every shred of my self-respect?"
But the next time the bullies cornered me, I was prepared. I had researched it carefully. I told them straight out, "Violence and injury enclose in their net all that do such things, and generally return upon him who began." And deep inside me, I knew, even as they were beating me up again, that they were impressed by the fact that I was three and quoting the Roman philosopher, Lucretius.
But I didn't learn my lesson. Every one of my peak life experiences after that, I let slide by without saying something momentous to mark its passage. Even the night I lost my virginity, about two years ago, I made no memorable remarks about love or beauty or passion. Oh, no. So now, for the rest of my life, my memory of what I said at that once-in-a-lifetime juncture, will be, "Come on, my parents won't be home for another three hours!" Smooth.
As my wife's ninth month approached, I turned to the arts. There was that Paul Anka song: "You're having my baby -- what a lovely way to say how much you love me." If it made me gag, what would it do to a woman in intense labor?
I walked through the art museum, studying painting after painting of Madonna and Child, hoping to be inspired. The only insight I got was the thought that I could live a very comfortable life with the money I'd get from selling one of these things. I think the guard read my mind, because he never took his eyes off me. Nor was he impressed with my offer to split the money with him. "You've got to start thinking out of the box," I told him. I'm a giver.
I even turned to television. I remembered Norm, on "Cheers," philosophizing, "It's a dog eat dog world, and I'm wearing Milkbone shorts." Which had nothing to do with a birth, but I thought it might lighten the tension afterwords. But I didn't want to lighten the tension; I wanted to say something memorable, something meaningful, something that would make a philosopher say to himself, "I'm not worthy."
Finally, I decided to go to the source -- women themselves. One told me to just go with my gut feeling. But if I did that, I'd no doubt run screaming from the delivery room in terror. Another told me to compliment my wife. But saying, "Nice job, babe," was what I told her when the lasagna turned out well. Even my mother got in on the action. She suggested saying to my wife, "He's beautiful. He looks just like you." But that's assuming that the kid would emerge looking beautiful and not like a combination of a Cabbage Patch doll and Ed Asner -- in which case I'd be forced to say something about shaving its back. And the remark might not be taken as a compliment.
The day of reckoning arrived. Labor proceeded smoothly. Trying to erase my pain, I asked the doctors if I could be given the same drugs they gave my wife, but they gave me some mumbo-jumbo about hospital policy. Another instance of The Man trying to keep us down. I made a mental note to send another contribution to the NAACP.
In the delivery room, I remember coaching the breathing and the pushing, supporting her back. I even did the breathing with her. And not to brag, but I only blacked out twice. Finally, our son appeared. He was so tiny and so amazingly perfect. His eyes weren't yet open, but he turned to me anyway, with an expression on his face, as if to say, "Well...?" The kid wasn't even a day old and already he's giving me pressure. These kids today, I swear.
I felt as though all eyes were upon me. And then it hit me. I had just witnessed a miracle. I was now a father, responsible for this tiny, wondrous person's life. The nurse asked me, "Do you want to help give your son his first bath?" I said, "Yes." And there it was. That's what I ended up saying -- "Yes." And suddenly it occurred to me that there was absolutely no need to say anything else. It was clear that for some mind-boggling, awe-inspiring situations, having no words is all right. You're allowed to just take in the experience. "Yes" is just fine. Not, you understand, to diminish any of the worthy contributions of Paul Anka.
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