I had no idea what fatherhood was going to be like. I attended the birth classes and read the books, but the words made no sense to me. It was like reading about a place I had never been. Why was it that people didn’t have time to shower or even go to the bathroom after they had the baby? Why couldn’t they sleep? What was it about the baby that was so time-consuming, so life-consuming? Couldn’t you just rock the cradle with your foot and use your other foot and two hands to type and read and so on? Couldn’t you sleep through the baby crying, if you were sleepy enough? What was the big deal?
Emily, my wife, has told this story better than I can, but here’s my version. In the months leading up to our son’s birth, struggling to come up with a proper name for him, we started in private to call him “Yuri.” It was a nice Russian name — I was born in Russia — but it was also an unrealistic one: as Emily, the top punner in our family, pointed out, “Yuri” would turn too easily on the playground into “urine.” We couldn’t do that to our unborn child.
Two weeks before he was due, we had our now-weekly appointment with our midwife. We were doing a home birth (not my idea), which meant that in the last couple of months before the mother was due, the midwives — Karen and Martine, taking turns — came to our house for check-ups. They didn’t bring a lot of fancy equipment, but they did bring a stethoscope, and at this appointment as at previous appointments the midwife, Karen, put the stethoscope to Emily’s stomach and listened for little Yuri’s heartbeat. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh-pause-swoosh. We all heard it. Karen checked the stethoscope and put it to Emily’s stomach again. It was the same. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh-pause-swoosh. Our baby’s heart was skipping a beat. Literally skipping a beat.
One of the things that had made me anxious about the home birth was that by definition the people involved were a little on the hippie side of things. They didn’t trust hospitals to do the right thing when women in labor showed up. And, yes, women had been giving birth at home for thousands of years, but how did that go for them? I kind of liked the new technologies, and I was by nature a nervous person. One of the reasons we chose Karen and Martine was that from the first time we met, they were very clear about the risks. In this instance, as in every other instance that we dealt with her, Karen did not mince words. “You need to see a pediatric cardiologist right away,” she said.
“Right now. Today.”
Our health-insurance situation was not great. Karen got on the phone with a pediatric cardiologist she knew, in Union Square. “Do you take Metroplus?” she asked. They did. Karen said we’d be there in 40 minutes.
I hate taking cabs — I hate it because they’re expensive and also because, when you’re in a hurry, they always get stuck in traffic. Google indicated that it would take the same amount of time to take the subway as it would to take a cab, and so ten minutes later we were standing on the grimy platform of the Classon G stop: Emily, eight and a half months pregnant, and me.
Nothing in my life up to now had prepared me for this. I knew nothing about hearts, or infant hearts, or, for that matter, anything. I had studied literature in college, like a fool. I began to say something to Emily about Yuri.
“THAT’S NOT HIS NAME!” she said.
I shut up. That was indeed not to be his name.
Half an hour later we were at the cardiologist’s, and half an hour after that the very kind doctor explained to us that what Raffi — as we ended up calling him — had was harmless. There were a million things that the baby’s body needed to do as it transitioned from the womb to the world, and sometimes temporarily there were glitches. In the vast majority of cases, they resolved themselves without any intervention. Raffi’s heart continued to miss a beat for the next eight days, and then throughout Emily’s labor — swoosh-swoosh-swoosh-pause-swoosh. The minute he was born, the missing beat evaporated; it was replaced by an actual beat. Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh-swoosh-swoosh. It was over. We saw the cardiologist one more time, and then never again.
But after that moment on the G-train platform, I understood much better what it was all about. It was about life and death. Our baby could die. And in fact babies do die, all the time. That’s why you couldn’t take a shower, as it turned out, or get any sleep. Because you were afraid your baby would stop breathing. Or his heart would stop beating. And if you missed that moment, if you were asleep or in the shower, you would never, ever forgive yourself.
It was a rough couple of months, and then we got used to it — to living with a person whose death would be far, far more devastating than our own. That’s what parenthood is like. You get used to it. And then, after a little while, you forget how difficult and terrifying it was, so that, in some cases, you can do it again.
A little while after Raffi was born, I was talking with my father about his missing heartbeat, about how it turned out to be part of a natural process of preparing to get born.
“Now that you mention it,” he said, “when Philip” — my younger half-brother — “was born, his lungs hadn’t adapted yet, and we had a few months of hospital visits because of it. But it was all fine.”
I was mildly incredulous. Knowing that information would have prepared me for something like what we went through! “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I said.
“I have to say,” said my father, “I’d forgotten all about it.”