I love to write. Seriously. But, my husband is great at it. Below is one of his stories, true and honest. These words tell the tale of a man becoming a father... MY man becoming a father to our children. I love it. I hope you do too.
The Day After by Mark Friesen
My first child was born at 9:30 pm on March 22, 1997.
One night later, I became a father.
Now don’t get me wrong, that child was mine, all mine. He was mine from the moment his red-tinged crown crested in front of my eager eyes. He was mine when I hesitantly cut the umbilical chord - nervous that I’d somehow find a way to mess up this simple fatherly rite of passage. And he was mine when his raspy little cries of protest on the examining table faded as I leaned in close to comfort him, while a team of specialists poked and prodded him out after his far-too-dramatic entrance into this world.
Nadia had urged me to follow him to that examining table in the moments immediately after she had given birth. “Go with him, Mark. Go comfort him”, she had pleaded with a little catch in her voice, since she clearly couldn’t go herself. And so I had. But once there, I had to stay a maddening distance away as the green-coated and white-coated specialists did their thing. As I squinted and stared through the bright warming lights at the little guy lying naked and alone – so fearfully and wonderfully made - I wanted to reach out to him and hold him tight, but for now, I wasn’t allowed. Barring that, I felt the urge to share profound words for posterity, words that would be remembered and reminisced about in the years to come. Isn’t that what fathers do? I’d found words of prayer throughout the long day, beginning with the nighttime contractions at home and continuing through the long drive to the hospital. I’d found words of prayer when the monitors had signaled late decelerating heart beats and unproductive contractions. I’d found words of prayer when my wife’s dream of a fully natural childbirth had been interrupted by epidurals and pain meds. I’d found words of prayer when the doctor had stood behind me shaking his head next to his cart full of instruments of extraction rather than of birth, the sight of which had caused Nadia to deny him their use by pushing our son into the world against the odds. I’d found words of prayer this whole long day. Now I needed words of welcome and commemoration.
If only I had some.
I had nothing. No words of wisdom. No words. Nothing.
I reached into my memory for something to say … anything … and found, for some reason, lines from a board book that my wife had encouraged me to read over her bulging belly these past few weeks.
“In the great green room
there was a telephone,
and a red balloon,
and a picture of
a cow jumping over the moon.”
The relevance of this book at this moment was debatable, but there were no other words in my head, and, besides, the rhythm of the words was comforting, even if I was unsure who was actually being comforted, the crying baby or the nervous first-time daddy. As the familiar words came tumbling out, a wave of emotions swept over me as I looked into the rapid-fire blinking eyes of a little one whose future depended on me. Me - the guy reciting “Good Night Moon” to a newborn baby who couldn’t understand a word of it.
There was a gap in front of the table now, and I slid in, taking my place at the foot. Reaching across and placing my right index finger into his little grip, I looked down at my first-born son as Noah Layton Friesen, all 8 pounds 5 ounces of him, stared up at his daddy and stopped struggling against the busy doctors still poking and prodding his little body. And for that moment, my whole world stood silent and still, save for the quick rising and falling of his little chest, the raspy sound of his breathing – in-and-out---in-and-out---in-and-out, and the unplanned and perhaps unwitting reciting of a classic children’s book in a voice that sounded strangely like my own, only quieter, softer.
Goodnight cow jumping over the moon”.
If there is ever a moment when a man truly becomes a gentle man, I thought, this is it. I stood there completely smitten and awed as I stared down at the tiny little guy who was my son. My son. Those words and that moment lingered on for what seemed an eternity, as the book in my voice neared its end.
Goodnight noises everywhere.”
And then the spell was broken by another voice and I became an afterthought. My newborn son turned and stared across the room toward the true center of his new universe. His Momma.
She could hardly stand it now, lying spent and exhausted a mere 10 feet from her newborn as a doctor prepared to deliver the placenta and readied her for stitches, all the while her husband stood staring at her baby, reciting a board book from memory. From my vantage point across the room, Nadia was lying in the middle of a war-zone, a crash-site, a M-A-S-H unit, but in this moment, we both ignored the mess and the organized chaos all around. I was lost staring at my son, and she was lost waiting for her baby. She called Noah’s name again and began talking calmly to him as he stared toward the voice he had heard echoing all around him these previous weeks and months.
“Aren’t they almost done?” she asked me, growing frustrated with the delay to be with her baby.
Finally they were, and I bundled him in his blanket and hat and brought him to her, and he lay on her chest and melted into her. She pulled his hat up an inch or 2 to check out his hair, then looked up at me and smiled. “He looks just like his daddy”.
Yeah, that was me all right. His daddy.
I was smitten, I was his daddy, but it still seemed so surreal. I had been unnaturally calm throughout the birth process, but now I felt unsure. Was this what being a father felt like? Could I really do this? Would I really know what to say, what to do, how to lead? I should feel excited, I thought. Ecstatic. Instead, I felt nervous, apprehensive, like a skier approaching his first black diamond run who hesitates at the top - wondering if he’s really up to the task, suddenly afraid of what he’d been so excited about on the long ride up the mountain.
I’d had plenty of time to prepare for this. The nursery at home was ready, the crib assembled, the car seat in place. I’d attended enough birthing classes and pretended to read enough books that Nadia had placed on my night table that I really was confident that I knew what to expect when expecting. Now the moment had finally arrived, and the thought and responsibility was daunting. I was somebody’s daddy. I looked down at my son and wondered what he would think if he knew that the big man who had been the first to hold his little hand was so clueless about what to do next.
A short time later, we were transferred to a room in the maternity wing, and while Nadia slept the deep hard-earned sleep of the first time momma in the big reclining hospital bed, I tried to catch some z’s on the cot provided in the rooms for the new dads. “Cot” is too kind a word – picture a rock-hard weight bench but harder, thinner, shorter, and far less comfortable – this was clearly the insurance company’s way of getting you to WANT a shorter stay. There were signs all around promising a new and more modern maternity ward in the spring, and yet today, the day after spring’s official start, I was on a cot, circa 1952. But sleep or no sleep, the time sped by. I spent much of the night getting up to check on the baby’s breathing in the crib across from me, then getting up to bring him to Nadia for each initial attempt at nursing. I would sit with him afterwards, waiting for the rewarding sound of a burp as I patted him over my shoulder.
The next day started early and was filled greeting visitors who stopped by … our parents, friends, pastor, family members. There was a lot going on and a lot to do, but it still felt like I was living in someone else’s dream, watching over someone else’s baby. The setting in the hospital added to this surreal feeling since this routine was not reality, unless we were heading home to someone else’s large house full of servants and cooks. Hardly. But here I had no decisions to make, and no real responsibilities other than doing what Nadia asked me to do, what the nurses prompted me to do, what the baby needed me to do. And since there were a host of people willing and excited to meet the needs of my wife and baby, this left me with exactly one responsibility as the daddy – I was baby Noah’s personal body guard whenever he had to leave our room.
There had been stories in the news recently about babies who were switched at birth, about babies kidnapped out of maternity wings by strangers. Although there were new and elaborate security procedures all around us – including automatic alarm systems attached to matching bracelets worn by myself, baby Noah, and Nadia – we had agreed that the baby would never leave our sight at the hospital. So I dutifully placed Noah in the push-cart every time he needed to be checked out, and on the afternoon of my first full day as a dad, this meant going with my son to his circumcision.
Excuse me … his what???
As the nurse announced matter-of-factly that it was time – for me – to bring Noah to his – uh - procedure, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a newfound sense of confidence in the security procedures of this hospital, clearly the Fort Knox of the nation’s maternity wings. Surely I wasn’t really needed behind the pushcart anymore! Surely our son would be safe with Nurse Nightingale here for a few short minutes. Surely we would love ANY child we brought home from this place, even if there was an understandable mix-up by these very nice people. I looked over to Nadia to announce my decision, to hold my ground, to be the MAN.
I stood and cleared my throat.
Have you ever tried to be squeamish with your wife after watching her spend hours and hours in agony before pushing a watermelon-size baby out of a grape-sized opening in the most sensitive area of her body? I was the man, though, and there are times to put your foot down and take a stand. I cleared my throat one more time for emphasis and looked deep into my wife’s eyes as she lay on that hospital bed with tubes coming out of her arms, with the beeping monitors forming the backdrop behind her. She raised her eyebrows, and I stood up straight and tall and confident … and stepped quietly to my position of honor behind the push-cart.
“Yeah, THIS should be fun”, I mumbled under my breath, followed by a louder “Nothing honey” a second later, and guided my son out the door, two paces behind Nurse Cratchett.
I reached down into the cart as I was pushing and took hold of Noah’s little hand. Looking into his innocent eyes, I was no longer hoping for an event that would be remembered for posterity.
“Sorry little guy”, I murmured. “Don’t hold this against me, okay?”
I knew one thing - heading towards a front-row seat at a circumcision doesn’t make you feel like a father either. And I’ll bet my own father never felt the need to do such a thing.
Of course my father never had the CHANCE to do such a thing. I remembered his stories about the old days when his own children were born, of the days when men weren’t allowed in the delivery rooms, when expectant dads really did pace in the waiting rooms like in the old movies. My youngest brother was born on a Sunday, and my preacher father had driven his fully-in-labor-wife to the hospital, with all 4 kids in the back seat of the family Rambler. Instead of settling down in the waiting room with the other men, however, he had climbed right back into the car with his 4 children and driven to church where he preached a full sermon and shook hands with the whole congregation, before heading back to the hospital and the waiting room with the pacing dads-to-be.
Now there’s a man, I thought. I wondered what he preached on that morning - whether the Sermon on the Mount was interrupted by an inexplicable little cow jumping over the moon. Nah, not my dad. My dad was born to be a father. Born to be the man.
I shook my head. There was no way my dad was at my circumcision. But then again, he wasn’t at my birth either, and that trade-off wouldn’t be worth it. So Snip-Snip (doctor), Scream-Scream (baby), nearly Faint-Faint (me), and I was back in the hallway, walking the push-cart slowly back to our room, limping slightly as I tried not to imagine what my little guy was feeling, blissfully unaware that there were 2 more sons in my near future with first day precedents firmly established.
That better have earned me some Father Stripes, I told myself, but still, I was really only following orders, doing what was expected, and I still didn’t really feel like a father.
That evening, Nadia was exhausted and hurting and in dire need of sleep, and baby Noah was cranky and irritable and crying constantly. No mystery there, I thought, and my respect immediately went up for Abraham in the Bible, who had been circumcised as a grown man, with neither precedent nor pain meds. A man among men, I thought. Father of his people indeed.
Baby Noah needed to be comforted and Nadia needed to sleep. That left me pushing the cart again, since those clearly useless security regulations forbid you from carrying your own baby outside your room, presumably due to a tragic case of the dropsy’s by a large number of butter-fingered first-time fathers. Sure, they’d allow me to stand by as a stranger placed sharp instruments against my son’s most private parts, but let me walk with him in my arms? Too Risky! I headed toward another wing where I could hold him and rock him to sleep.
Only he wouldn’t sleep. He simply cried.
I held him in my arms. He cried.
I rocked him slowly. He cried.
I talked to him in a soothing voice. He cried.
I sang to him a comforting lullaby. He cried. Louder.
I prayed for him to find sleep and for me to fight sleep, praying with open eyes so as not to tempt fate and that tragic case of the dropsy’s.
You guessed it. He cried.
I sang every single lullaby that I could possibly remember, and then sang them again.
He cried and cried some more.
I tired of old songs and made up a new song for Noah, as if hearing his own name would somehow be comforting.
He cried some more, but it looked like he was wearing down. As was I.
Finally, sometime between his circumcision and his first day of kindergarten, my little son fell fast asleep, too exhausted to cry anymore.
I pushed the cart wearily back toward our wing, past the welcome door with the mocking picture of a wide awake and smiling baby, with words of the prophet Isaiah painted alongside. “… and a little child shall lead them”, it said.
“Yeah, lead me son”, I whispered. “Lead me to bed”.
I was so tired that the tiny rock-hard weight bench felt like a king-sized 4-poster bed in a 4-star hotel, and I drifted off immediately. Sleep, restful sleep. And then the night lights came on and a nurse was shaking me awake.
35 minutes, my watch said. I’d been asleep for 35 minutes.
“We need the baby”, she was saying. “We have to do a check-up now”.
“Seriously?” I asked irritably, rubbing my bleary eyes. “Can’t this wait?”
My vision was actually working better than the rest of me - my back felt like I’d just spent the night on a tent’s bare floor, lying directly on the root of a giant oak.
No, she replied, insisting that this was an important check-up and his charts needed to be updated. I pushed back one more time and she pulled out her trump card.
“Hospital procedure”, she answered easily, dismissively.
Great. Back to the cart, and I managed somehow to keep baby Noah asleep all the way to the nursery where the checkup would take place. I winced as he screamed as the nurse began to undress him, and then placed him on a scale for weighing. She made a note in Noah’s chart before dressing him again, and then indicated that I could return him to our room.
Say what? That was it? We woke him up just to weigh him?
I was too tired and too incredulous to do anything but stare at her. She somehow did not turn to stone in front of me, so I turned the cart with my screaming baby inside, and resumed my role of singing gypsy daddy. I managed to coax him back to sleep much sooner this time, some time before he started shaving and I needed bi-focals. My 4-poster bed was a weight bench again, but I still managed to catch some shut-eye before rising to check on both my son and my wife, this time feeling like a heavyweight fighter after a very bad night in the ring.
There was a noise at the door, and I looked over as the nurse from the next shift walked in, staring down on her chart as she entered. “We need the baby”, she announced. “We have to do a check-up now”.
And for the first time that weekend, I found my voice and claimed my role.
“No”, I answered, as I turned away from my sleeping son and wife.
“Excuse me?”, she replied, before explaining to me a little more s-l-o-w-l-y that she needed the baby and that it was time to update his charts. “Hospital procedure”, she explained, pulling out her trump card and smiling.
“N-o”, I repeated, speaking as slowly as she had. “He’s had a hard night. And unless you’re about to find something life-threatening that you can’t find in an hour or two, then you can’t take him now. Once he wakes up, once he nurses with his mother, THEN you can take him.”
She pushed back, spouting more policy and the importance of consistent charts, and I held my ground.
“Hey, I’ll take responsibility for any broken policy. But I gotta tell you - I don’t really care about your policy and your charts right now.”
And then, without even realizing I could do it, I trumped her trump.
“I’m his father”, I said with a firmness that surprised even me, “and you cannot wake my son right now”.
And right there and then, something changed.
Now bear in mind that as I sat there, I had no first-hand idea what being a father was really about. I had yet to change a few hundred really stinky diapers, had yet to arrive at work bleary-eyed from a long night with a teething baby, with my dress-shirt collar full of spit-up, a pacifier in my pocket, and my office key at home. I had yet to hear first words or witness first steps or suffer through first tantrums or dish out first disciplines. I had yet to comfort my sick child, clean up after my sick child, pray over my sick child, or attempt to do all 3 at once. I’d yet to run behind a wobbly bike, first pretending to hold on and then pretending to not hold on, all-the-while trying not to run the bike into the ditch or myself into the mailbox. I’d yet to lose sleep worrying about him, worrying for him, worrying with him. I’d yet to utter “Because I said so” or “Don’t use that tone with me, young man” or a few thousand other timeless gems handed down from generation to generation that I would undoubtedly pass on as well.
I had done none of those things, and yet something changed in this moment when I said “No, you’re not taking my son”, this moment when I took actual responsibility for the little baby who bore my likeness and my name, this moment when I made the claim that – for better and for worse and for everything in between – he is my son and the decision is mine.
It was a little over a day after my wife delivered our first child.
And I’ve been a father ever since.