I snip the bloody umbilical cord, this jelly snake, and my first thought was will this hurt her and the baby? What do I know? And mama, just suffering here, a woman much smarter than me who I can't live without, whose bloated belly and body is so familiar I could make constellations of her tiny scars and freckles.
The mama at once weeps and laughs and the midwives beam and the room in the hospital baby delivery ward smells of shit and antiseptics and everything spins and I am dizzy.
Is this how religion should taste?
I could not escape the grim thoughts and scenarios in the hours leading up to the delivery, the childbirth deaths of millions and millions of vulnerable mothers, the maternal mortality through the centuries, pre-germ theory—the puerperal fever and the unwashed hands—the eternal sadnesses in plow fields and beneath trees, in squalid worlds. How stuck babies died too, before someone invented forceps, pulled out piece by piece.
Little Rickie was stuck in mama. A wild heartrate elevated her danger of duress, lodged for painful, excruciating hours in mama's birth canal, shoulder wedged against mama's pelvic bone, the top of her thin-haired head visible in opening of the heavily dilated vagina.
A last-call doctor strolled in with, I swear, the air of a saint. The confident interaction of his presence restored calm to the room. Yet his hands were big, to me like catcher's mitts. He took a seat at the front of the delivery bed, jammed forearm-deep into mama, bypassing Rickie's lodged shoulder. I chose in that moment to focus on a single bead of sweat rolling down his forehead. Mama's hand was crushing mine.
Against her wishes, my wife was on an epidural now for some of the pain, in high-risk delivery because her 6-year-old son Reece was born via emergency cesarean. Her lower region squishy anatomical chaos, and there was no imagining the primordial ooze away, today or ever. There was no way to ease her suffering.
After some tense minutes of maneuver, the doc and mitt unhinged the baby's shoulder inside, and Rickie finally slithered out, sunset yellow and blood red, slick as larvae. I tried to calcify my shock into something controllable.
How did I get here, a frightened thing whose chronological age stood in sharp contrast to his emotional age of 14? I type out a few words and hang around, waste oxygen, feel stupid, useless and, in a practical sense, not really needed. No boobs, so I can't even feed. And how I was even allowed to witness, to be gifted, much less father, a moment so profound in its ugly beauty?
Also, you don't understand the full power of the female until you watch one give birth. An entire controlled universe built into a woman, shutdown once the baby arrives. The umbilical cut severed the oxygen and nutrients to Rickie, forever liberating her from the weird little vessel within, allowing her into to a brand new, complicated fucked-up universe, which I occupy. But that burst of freedom. Watch, listen.
That was four months ago, and I'm one lucky son of a bitch. A feeling not lost on a gazillion other dads, and the gazillion fatherly platitudes, to be sure, and do I have to feel so, um, manly?
We have these little picnics at Palo Verde Park in Tucson, a few blocks from the house I grew up in. It's a mythical place to me. When I was 5, I'd watch my big brother play little-league baseball there, the determined faces of bigger boys and bullies seemed immune to the kind of anguish that festered within me. A park I wasn't otherwise allowed in, the very park my big sister saw my mom making out in a car with a man who wasn't my dad. We come here now, evenings, toss a football around, ride the slides, eat burritos, while Rickie lays on the blanket facing the sky, reaching up into the air, her hands graceful as butterflies.
I don't mention how the park fills me with sadness of my childhood, and traces of my own father and mother, who are both dead. But my wife Maggie knows, it is that unspoken semantic between a married couple in love, amplified from constant study of one another, flesh and bone and touch informed by the melancholy haze of memories.
How I wish my parents weren't dead. How I wish I could ask them how you negotiate a world no longer inside your flawed head, where the internal and external of others are now involved and counting on you, when you are still short the tools to help anyone, including yourself? Where was the open window I could fly into for safety? I am sure they would've had plenty of good answers, particularly concerning that stuff.
Addicts seek out and abuse the different dopamine delivery systems, as I did for years, faking senses of normalcy. First the championship bike racing and its druggy endorphins, the fronting of rock 'n' roll bands and the easy hide-behind-personae-so-as-to-not-engage-in-reality, the daily booze and no place to live, and the coke, the meth, the porn, and I should be dead.
In a way, and maybe it ain't healthy, but Rickie is like that dopamine stream. There was no quasi-religious enlightenment when I first held Rickie after snipping the cord. Her life brought something else, an inner lift so great, so obviously primal—nature has its way—a feeling of love so pure and natural to yank me from inertia, to render any false toxin-high irrelevant. I struggled to allow myself to accept it, yet never once feeling deserving. Didn't want a baby, at first; I'm now in my 50s; hey, Peter Panic. A child's rhythms are as beautiful as they are frenzied, it is all them, and it tires me so quickly. Who wants to bring a baby into this spiraling world? Was already father to Maggie's other, a 6-year-old stunner named Reece, who can't get enough of the Peter Pan book I'm reading him, over and over.
The baby drool and the vomit and the poop. They are mine. That's me, the shit, and it is love. At least the shit stains don't exist in a dirty cinderblock duplex, like some I've camped out in when I had nowhere to go, with the dog crap and hoards of filthy diapers, the dad in jail and his broken toddlers, with the black mold creeping across the bathroom walls, and the meth mom skittering her days making lines from circles, from the TV to the by-the-minute phone to the cigarettes to the Mickey's Big Mouth to the next-door dealer. No, our house is nice, it is beautiful, it is like a womb, with its books and music and art and toys and healthy food. I don't want to see anyone but Reece, Rickie and mama Maggie. But sometimes I have to. I have to write, and write my paid work. I try to be grateful each day, as was once hammered into my skull in so many AA rooms in L.A., Phoenix, Tucson and Detroit. The gratefulness, it is underrated and overlooked, it is abused and shot full of holes by references to some god. Not for me. I try gratefulness hard because it is what I have.
Here come shifts inside, identity shifts, the black dog of depression, as always, nipping at my heels. Those daily, late-afternoon thoughts of suicide, always when the sun angles down into wretched metallic light. I don't want to infect my family with that stuff, and as far as I can tell, I haven't, and it is waning. They see that light and they see beauty. What teaches are not rules, what teaches is a way of being.
This is more than a shift in identity because that word suggests you have some control. This rises from someplace different, that primal, chemical thing.
As Rickie Lee Jones once sang, this is the last-chance Texaco. The song plays in my head during the simplicity of a Palo Verde Park evening, inspires the calm my younger brother Stuart was talking about four years ago as we were about to jump into the Pacific Ocean with his two children, when he uttered a simple truth I was only hearing for the first time. He said, "Dude, this is what it's all about."
These people, Rickie, Maggie and Reece, are eager for understanding and surprise, their heads crammed with curiosity. Getting sober had nothing on this challenge, and sobriety never felt so soothing.
I can't sleep and Rickie and mama (and sometimes Reece) are in bed beside me, how it is every night now. The darkness cradles their sleep, their chests rise and fall in a perfect syncopation. One exhale a tiny snore, the other louder, a cadence as tender as a balladeer's beat. My circular thoughts fall in line with the exhales and I can't help myself from a song, an unbridled gush of love, a melody to match mom and daughter's breathy rhythms: This ain't some funeral, man/These are the best days of life/So dry your eyes you little idiot ... Tra-la-la-la-la. I sing softly the melody and words to mom and daughter's rhythms.
I remember years ago similar late-night songwriting in bed after no-sleep, four-day crystal-meth suicide rides. Ramones-speed words of death and flight over the thunder in my chest felt in my toes, in my hair. My heart attempting to escape my body, and the screams within.
Oh, man, yes. Yes, the heart did wrench itself free.
Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.