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Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Strange Kind of Daddyhood

Last night, I was Kevin’s date for his grade-school reunion at a fancy-ish restaurant on northern California's rugged coast. This was Kevin's night, not mine: his core group of mostly Hispanic buddies from Catholic school looked up and shouted "KEEVVV!!!" when we walked in fashionably late. These were the old friends he threw spitballs with from the back of Sister Bernice's classroom, shot baskets with, bumped heads with in Pop Warner football, loitered outside the convenience store with in hopes of scoring porn magazines from the immigrant artichoke farmers. I spent much of the evening sitting back, munching thoughtfully on my plateful of crab cakes and roasted artichokes, and just plain listening with amusement to these childhood tales while Kevin did the talking on our behalf.

As with any group that hasn't seen each other in twenty-some-odd years, there was a lot of leaning into the table and summing up the key details that had helped shape the full-fledged adults that these former grade-schoolers had become: marriages, deaths, births, graduations, job status. When inevitably asked: "So what have YOU been up to since age 13,” the version Kevin spun out was that we're a couple of non-church-going, world-traveling college teachers with one dog.

No kids?

When someone asked that reasonable follow-up question, Kevin took a swig of beer and said, simply: “nope.” Verb-tense-wise, it's a perfectly accurate answer: nope. We don't have - present-tense have - kids. I wouldn't say I have a grandfather either, given that both of mine are long gone. And Kevin certainly isn't the type to lower his voice and gratuitously clarify, “Well, we had a son, but he died as a four-month fetus, and another son after that named Zachary, but he was stillborn two years ago.”

No way, Jose.

As the night progressed and the fourth round of strong cocktails came out, the conversation moved beyond mere superficial life summaries, and the deeper tragic, more grown-up dirt began to emerge.
I'm talking about the tear-jerking events that carve us into wiser, more weathered people than the children we were in 5th grade. One example was Sana, the woman sitting across from me: single. No kids. Mother died young of breast cancer when she was 16. Sister died later as a homeless druggie in San Francisco. Everybody nodded and said, “ohhhh. I’m so sorry.”

As it was, Kevin's own story of grown-up dirt never did come up.

But with everyone talking about their kids, their tragedies, marriages and non-marriages, their jobs, their achievements, I felt his grade-school friends should know - and would probably find it interesting if they knew to ask: Kevin did father a full-term baby son who died.
Maybe two, depending on what you call baby - but definitely one. Doesn't this fact of his past make him much more of a complex person than mere kid-free, lanky white dude in jeans and flip-flops with a beer in one hand, other hand resting on brunette wife's knee - the way he appeared last night?

I wanted there to be a place for him to talk about his brief and surreal experience of fatherhood, a way to give this more complete picture of his life loves and losses, his history. But the thing about stillbirth and miscarriage is that there just isn't always a smooth segue, a comfortable and natural opportunity to bring it up, as with born-living humans who developed into thinking, talking people who are known by others. Who would think to ask Kevin, "how's the baby?" when nobody even knows there ever was a baby in the first place?

So it went untold, that piece of Kevin's life, buried beneath like a cherry pit in the ground. He didn't think anything of it, but I drove us home with my brow slightly furrowed, bothered by it, then bothered that I was bothered by it.

* * *

The last bit of Sana's story was that as she sat there holding her dying, still-young mother’s hand, her mom told her not to worry.
She was going off to be with the two babies that had existed before Sana, she said; both late miscarriages from several decades ago.

"I love those two babies as much as you, and it's their turn to be with me now," her mom told her.

I'll admit - this part got me, and I felt my voice catch a bit, tears prick just barely at my eyes.
How amazing, how powerful, that on her death bed, her mother would remember two miscarried babies of all things - that those little children-to-be would be at the forefront of her mind at a god-awful, cancer-ridden, terrifying time on the brink of death.

It made me stare pensively the motel ceiling that night as I tried to fall asleep, thinking about Kevin, about how fatherhood fits in with his history; about our son Zachary himself, floating around somewhere in space. It made me wonder who I'll think of if I'm ever in the unfathomable predicament of consciously dying; if I'll think of Zachary, of the fetus before him, or be instead hoping desperately that there are bacon, coffee, white wine, French food, and decent people to hang out with in the afterlife.

What's more, it made me feel bad that Zachary, our pregnancy with him, hadn't even gotten honorable mention at the dinner table that night. I wanted suddenly and desperately to be able to e-mail him directly. I'd start with Hey Kiddo, and then I'd tell him:

You may have noticed that you didn't come up in conversation at tonight's reunion gathering in which everyone was spilling out major details about their lives. It wasn't because you were not a major recent detail in your father's life, or because your father's spooge was not involved in your creation, or because in the final hours of your life he didn't press the side of his face against my belly to feel your last slow kicks, or because you aren't thought of every waking day by both of us, or because he isn't a tender-hearted man who loves you and me both fiercely.

It's because he'd rather keep you inside of him, safe and protected, and only bring you out among the most special select few people who he really, really knows and trusts. Not a bunch of grown-up kids he threw spitballs with twenty years ago and is only seeing for the first time in two decades. What makes them so special that they should get to hear your story? Take it as a compliment, that your dad has high standards regarding what he discloses to whom, and that he isn't whoring you out to any old gossip-mongers (believe me, I do enough of that).

I hope you're drinking your milk and eating plenty of green leafy vegetables up there.

Love, Mom

I think he would've gotten the point, probably even rolled his eyes at my usual over-thinking. "It's FINE, Mom," he would've called out over his shoulder, already distracted and disappearing out the door to play T-ball, or whatever they play up in infant heaven.


Being Me said...

Simply breathtaking post. Do you ever tire of hearing how incredibly well you express yourself about your son and your history? I would imagine not.

You have just, in one post, unworked the knot I've had in my belly for the past 5.5 years regarding why my husband doesn't take my daughter "out" and flaunt her around like I do. I mean, I thought I knew - I guessed it was akin to how you've put it in your letter to Zachary. But, man, seeing it in your words is such a BINGO moment.

Thank. You. IMMENSELY.

Michelle said...

This brought tears to my eyes. My husband is the same way. A private person, a man who does not talk as freely about what we have lost as I do. He carries it with him. I get glimpses of it sometimes but I think you nailed it right on! Thanks!

*~*Lis*~* said...

Wow - it's Sunday, I wasn't expecting to cry tonight.

I see this a lot with my hubs, he'd rather not talk about all the BS we went through and the road we had to take to get our kids. It's hard for me when he just says "yea twins run in her family" rather than talk about it. I mean I don't usually go into details with the nosey moms at the playground, but I have no problem telling family and friends about our struggles and losses.

I thought he just didn't want people to think his boys didn't swim, maybe it's more than that.

(P.S. - his boys do swim, it's me that's got the "problems". just in case he follows my links!)

Pundelina said...

You made me cry with that beautiful letter you wrote.

Kahla said...

I'm not even sure what to say, that was such a heartwrenching, loving post. (((HUGS)))

Heather said...

It's nice to be able to sigh and realize that my husband is not an incensitive freak who is ashamed of his dead son, but maybe that he feels like his son is too special to share with just anyone.

angie said...

Blubbering mess, I am. Thank you. So incredibly beautiful I am mostly speechless, and still crying. With love.

sharonvw said...

Oh Mon! Yet again a beautiful post and one which so many of us can relate to. My losses were early but still I feel the need for W to be able to acknowledge them to his friends, instead his pain & loss is simply ignored and I hate that. I too have that feeling like I must go around telling everyone what a man he is, how many babies he's conceived lest someone think he was less of a man because of my shit!

Amy said...

Don't know what to say but that your post touched my heart. So much of what you said has been experienced by me, by hubby, by many of us here. When to share our babies and when not to?

I love the letter you composed to your son.

Love and peace

Tina said...

My husband sounds a lot like yours. I have never thought about it this way, but I think you are right. He only wants to share the love he has for our daughters with selected people, and I guess I get that. Thank you for sharing that perspective. And what the mom said as she was dying??? Wow, I hope I am at peace and thinking of my girls when it is my time to go.
Thanks for another great post!

Rachael Taylor said...

I couldn't hold back the tears when you mentioned Sana's mother going to meet her babies. I've feared that my heart will forever ache for the babies we've lost. And the more I hear, the more I know it to be true.

I also so much want to believe there is an afterlife, but can't quite put my faith in that belief anymore. It's such a romantic ideal, but I fear that's all it is - an ideal. I do hope I'm wrong though when the time comes.

And I completely understand the need to want to share the news of the tragedies with everyone you meet. You want them to know that you're made of the kind of "stuff" that can endure that kind of tremendous pain. You don't want it to define who you are, but it does alter who you become. But at the same time, you don't want their pity, and you don't want to appear "crazy"; although I'm sure that's one of the ways it alters us, or at least me! ;)

Anyway, my husband is the exact same way. He is very private with his emotions. I would even be as bold as to say he keeps them from himself. He only shares the news on a "need to know basis", and provides as little detail as possible. I just think that's the way most men are.

Ya Chun said...

It's tough, to bring it up. Especially when he already kinda said no.

But, the validation of not being just a goof-off with no 'responsibilities' is certainly desired.

sorry. These kind of things are extra difficult now.

I guess thinking someone is waiting for you might not be a bad way to go.

Hope's Mama said...

Yep, our hubs seem to be one and the same. While he keeps quiet, I'm out there telling anyone and everyone I can. Shop assistants, yoga teachers, neighbours, neighbours' dogs, etc. But I get his response though, and your husband's. I know he wants to keep her close, inside, and to himself. She's too precious to share, and so is your boy. Your letter got me all teary. Fantastic post.

Reba said...

i am proud of myself for getting this far:
"I hope you're drinking your milk and eating plenty of green leafy vegetables up there."
before i burst into tears.

your writing is just amazing, or at least, this editor thinks so.

Molly said...

This post made me cry too. It's very beautiful in many ways. Thank you!

Mendy said...

I've been crazy busy and have had little time to catch up on my blogs. It was so lovely to read this post and your beautiful letter to Zachary. Brought me to tears.

amanda said...

Just beautiful.

m said...

Where to begin? I struggle with this. I know M. does too. What to say when you run into someone from another part of your life? It seems to be happening so much lately. My first impulse is to scream, "well we were great for a while and then our babies died and now we are, for the most part, pretty fucked up, but other than that, yeah, same old same old." Obviously, that's not what comes out.

And so I worry, I get concerned that we come across as these totally carefree, babyfree by choice, urban dwellers when there is nothing further from the truth. There is so much MORE than that.

But who wants to hang out with someone with 2 dead girls perched on their shoulders hawking over you to make sure you don't say or do anything inappropriate? Because you know and I know us dead baby mamas are VERY sensitive lot.

I am torn between speaking their names to everyone who can hear and the basic, straightforward answer, "no, we don't have any kids." And keeping the rest of the story safe within my heart and mind. The Goldenbach Post story and its subsequent comments feels like both a warning and a reminder that if you put your stuff out there, beyond this little piece of the internets, you can't expect people not to come on back with their own thoughts on the matter, and those are ones you might not want to hear.

Lani said...

awesome post. chris says that also- its a privilege for people to know about silas. i like everyone to know everything and have a hard time not sharing. but every situation doesn't call for it- how do you bring up a dead baby unless someone asks? its just soooo complicated all the time.

Karen said...

Oh, my. Bless your heart. I'm in tears. My husband also avoids saying we lost our baby in May (our other children announce it though) - first time it gutted me. Appropos to say that, but it's true. I think men just don't want the fuss. I say, "We are raising four and have one son waiting for us in heaven." My husband said he doesn't want to dump our grief on a total stranger and so he just says what they want to hear - but I feel it's denying our boy. Ah, me. I love your blog. (((hugs)))