Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Memo to My Son

Today is the 26th birthday of my son, Patrick Michael. When I type 'my son' or 'my daughter' (when speaking of his sister, Michelle Alison) or 'my wife', Sigrid Katherina, I smile, not because of a pride of possession mentality but because I am truly the most fortunate person on the planet.

If we've not met, count your blessings-I am NOT likable. Take my word on this-and be assured I could send you a list of folks who could attest to this fact, and that this list would vaguely resemble the census in size and scope, helps underscore my point. Being not likable makes it a difficult stretch to be lovable, and yet, my wife, an otherwise sane and logical person, could not possibly be
married to me for over thirty years, but has. Our two children are the result of her ability to make someone into something they feared they never could be. She not only raised two children, she transformed a self-absorbed obliviot into an Approximate Dad. Considering what she had to work with, she done good.

I was afraid to have children--the actual, 'here's a small human to take care of and worry about for the rest of your life' portion of the program seemed more daunting to me than I could ever handle. I didn't have a lot of happy experiences being on the receiving end of Dad and Lad interactions. As a matter of fact one of the better days of our lives together was when my father got up early to say farewell the day I traveled to the
MEPS station to join the Air Force. We were able to pretend for that moment that we had a bond, surety or otherwise.

When Sigrid shared with me she (and we, by extension) was pregnant, it was the early winter of what had been a rough year. Having successfully placed half a world between us, I discovered more guilt and anger when my dad died that Spring than sorrow at his passing. Nothing that went on during the funeral (I still remember the undertaker referring to my father's widow as 'Mom' and almost snapping his head off), at the cemetery or during the wake at their house in the middle of nowhere (where well-meaning parents of former students kept taking me aside to tell me how wonderful my father had been with their child when their congenital mutton-headed idiot had needed help. 'Bastard!' I wanted to scream-'that's great, because he never found the time for us here at home!' but didn't, because shouting to wake the dead is only an expression and he and I had had
nothing to say to one another in life for too many years. Why should the afterlife be different? And thanks, again, to all of you who told my Mom or one of us, 'if there's anything we can ever do...' because there sure as hell was, and plenty, and you sure as hell didn't do anything but make yourselves so scarce I thought you'd entered Witness Protection. Not that I was much better. Maybe that's why we're still so tight to this day, eh?).

Sigrid went into labor in the middle of the morning and we drove across town to the
Offenbach Stadtkrankenhaus. German physicians in the early Eighties were pretty much an unknown species to me (Sigrid's frauenarzt was cool enough-I still have the black and white Polaroids of Patrick in the womb, ornaments clearly visible) and I was to them as well. Their luck came to end with my son's birth and they were pretty good sports about it. As Sigrid's labor continued and the contractions shortened and the delivery preparation's tempo quickened, I was asked where I would be during her stay in the geburtsaal, and I assured the doctors, 'right there with her', which surprised them. 


I attempted to explain in what was better than decent German (I thought) that I had placed the order and had every intention of taking delivery. Maybe my German wasn't that good-it was like playing to an oil painting, no smile, no nothing, gar nichts.


When Patrick was born, after what's considered a spontangeburt (for the male doctors who can NEVER experience pregnancy, in their opinion, the childbirth was accomplished without labor. Sure it was-from your lips to God's ear, Herr Arzt), Sigrid looked she had just run a marathon and was utterly exhausted. I watched while the midwife cleaned up my son and, as she swabbed off the blood, he peed on her. Crying, basically blind, totally helpless in an alien world, he was my son and I laughed out loud maybe in amazement but more likely in joy and thankfulness for what I had just witnessed. 


The mid-wife placed Patrick Michael on Sigrid's chest, for mother and child bonding and my disappointment knew almost no words. At that moment, I was so jealous of the woman I loved. I asked as politely as I could if, after she had 'had enough of holding him', if I could, and was stunned when she picked him up and fixing me with a stare that bordered on a glare (leading me to suspect that the geburt wasn't quite as spontan as the wizard in the white coat had thought-and just because it was spontan hadn't meant it was schmerzfrei) handed Patrick to me, saying 'I've carried him for nine months, it's your turn now.'


Patrick Michael was, and is, my deal with God. From the moment I held him, I no longer cared what happened to me-and egotist that I am, that's saying something. I know, your children are beautiful, and smart and talented and handsome and sorry-they're not my children and my son and my daughter are the absolute best not only in the world, but in the history of the world (there's a barn behind a hotel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (I think), that might want to argue that point but no chance, sorry). I walked him around that delivery room for the next two hours or so, singing I've Been Working on the Railroad (the drum and piano would have cluttered the delivery room) and really working those Fie-Fi-Fiddly-I-Os, making up in volume what I lacked in pitch. 


I don't know why I sang the song--I'm shaking my head in bemused bewilderment as I type this. It seemed like a good idea at the time-actually, it was a perfect idea.


And point in fact, I've gone on for way too long--Patrick was born faster than I'm telling you about it. In many ways, his first twenty six years seem to have sped by at that same clip. He and his sister, have overcome the handicap of being my children, mostly because they've had the good fortune to have the love and devotion of my wife as their Mom. And, yeah, he's made me crazy, angry, frightened, delighted and every emotion in between--because that's what children do.


And as long as you remember to make sure they always know that sometimes they will do things you will not like, but that you will always love them, they will be able to do anything, even leave you when they grow up to be adults of their own. There'll be the moments in the living room watching the ballgame when words aren't needed as you both reach for the pretzel rods. 


Other times, there will be phone conversations that start out about one subject and become all that and that infamous bag of chips. And your eyes will fill with tears as you watch them end the chapter of their childhood and begin to write their own novel as the life you always wanted for them finally begins. And it hurts, and maybe the keyboard blurs as I type this because it's really warm and my eyes are perspiring-yeah, that what it is I'm sure. Sorry if the folks you work with razz you today for having a dotty dad-you knew that long ago.
Happy Birthday, Patrick! Love, Dad.

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