It’s odd how something so small can change everything

by Brian Clarey

Five years ago today I became a man.

We were in New Orleans back then, my wife and I, and she was not strictly speaking my wife ‘— we were nearly two years from the day when we would take our vows. I was a freelance writer back then, but mostly I made my living tending bar at a 24-hour joint in the Garden District. And I was about to have my first child.

Jill was big with the baby. We declined to learn the sex of the child ‘— it didn’t really matter, not to us, not back then, and the knowledge wouldn’t have alleviated our fears any. And fear loomed large for us back in those days before she got her degree and before I had 40 published pieces under my belt, and the fear stemmed mostly from uncertainty. Where would we go? What would we do? How can we take care of this child when we can barely take care of ourselves?

June 7, 2000 was the day, before 9-11 and Enron, before the Red Sox won the Series and a couple of days before our bundle was due. We drove under the oak boughs that arched across Prytania Street on the way to the doctor for her last checkup, the noonday sun streaming through the canopy. We drove a Jeep back then, a champagne-colored ragtop, and we thought Prytania would be a lovely name for a girl. It was hot like Louisiana in June.

The doctor (a good man named Lazarus, I remember) laid his hands on Jill’s belly and furrowed his brow.

‘“Breach,’” was all he said.

We shot across Prytania Street to Touro Hospital, where they wheeled Jill off to prepare for a C-section. A nurse ushered me into a waiting room and instructed me to put on scrubs and wait. ‘“We’ll come get you when she’s ready,’” the nurse said. I got dressed and sat there by myself for a long time. Or so it seemed.

My woman was being anesthetized somewhere down the hall. My friends were all working or passed out on their couches. Some were probably still out partying, even though it was just about lunchtime. My parents and hers were thousands of miles away and I couldn’t reach any of our relatives on the phone.

For the last time in my life, I felt alone.

The C-section was terrifying. My woman was lain out like someone crucified, with tubes in her arms and a blue-green cap on her head. I sat with her behind a curtain that blocked the lower half of her body from our view.

Some advice for prospective fathers who find themselves in an operating room for a C-section: DO NOT PEEK OVER THE CURTAIN. Trust me on this one. I still have a lingering image in my head, perhaps hyperbolized by time and imagination, of the doctor describing a wide arc with his scalpel and loosing a sheet of blood. My wife’s blood. He was covered in it. And it got worse from there.

I tried not to look and I tried not to listen to anything but my wife, bound to the table and certainly with reason to be more scared than I. I have no recollection of what I said to her as they wrested the child from her uterus, but I remember the doctor shouting, ‘“We got a boy.’”

A boy! We had a boy!

There he was, in the nurse’s arms and screaming at the top of his lungs (something he still does with some regularity). My wife craned her neck on the table to try to get a look, but the doctor told her not to move ‘— she still needed to be sewn up.

But what about me? Do I go to the nursery with the baby or hold my wife’s hand as they try to repair her body? I held the little guy in my arms and our eyes locked. Something in me changed, both softened and hardened at the same time. I looked to my wife and we both knew instinctually the right thing to do. I left the operating room and walked my baby boy down to the nursery. He was scared by the lights and the noise and by the strange hairy dude with the familiar voice looking down on him. To ease his fears I sang him a Lionel Richie song, ‘“Easy Like Sunday Morning,’” my own fear for the moment chased away.

His mommy named him Beckett and two weeks later we brought him to Greensboro to start the rest of our lives. Save for occasions like this, we don’t look back.

Little Beck is not so little anymore. He starts school in the fall and we got him a home video game system for his birthday, so I probably won’t see him again until he’s a teenager and asking me for the car keys. He’s entering a new stage of his life, just as I did on the day I pushed my fear aside and walked with him down the hospital corridor singing Lionel Richie, of all people. And even though he’s only five years old, he’s taught me more than anyone else on this Earth.

Happy birthday, Beck. Daddy loves you.