December 21, 2011 / Praxis
In this Advent reflection, Tom Ryan wonders whether we really want what Advent prepares us for.
May 14, 2018
You arrived, as babies do, in a rush of fluid and blood. The nurses responded, as they do, with a rush of skillful movement. The doctor lifted your reddened body and placed you on your mother’s breast. Nurses checked your airways, placed a cap on your head, and toweled you off in a blur of deft practiced motion.
And I fell in my own rush of emotion, kneeling at your mother’s side, wrapping her head in my arm, weeping as I whispered into her ear. The nurses swarmed, and you lay screaming and gasping your first breaths of air. Theodore Jerome.
Hours later, I brought your three-year-old brother to meet you. Samuel approached with giddy bright eyes. He petted your dark downy hair, using the gentle touching we had practiced. Then he noticed the buttons and switches of the fetal monitor, the IV pole on wheels, and the bed that tilts and whirs. These strange devices were just as exciting, in their way, as a new brother. Three times I told him not to climb on the bed, and three times he could not resist.
Now Sam and I are sitting in the courtyard outside the hospital cafeteria, eating ice cream in the late afternoon sunlight. He is calm, playing with his spoon, dipping his finger into the chocolate swirl and wiping it on his shirt. My mind wanders to you and your mother in the room, wondering if you need help. I realize that my time with Sam will always be different now. He’ll never again be my only responsibility. I feel a surge of affection for this boy with quiet intelligent eyes and sticky hands.
During Sam’s first year of life I found myself jotting down notes, trying make sense of the new experiences that flew at us with such unimaginable speed.1 I realize now that I will be taking notes during this coming year as well. My great fear is that I am sleepwalking through my life, missing the important parts because I am tired and worried and distracted. Writing eases those fears by prompting me to pay attention. And attention seems to be the crucial task. I write not because our lives are exceptional but because they aren’t, because I trust that others will find something of their own experience in these stories. I write in pursuit of what I don’t understand. And I write about what I don’t want to forget.
We stand at our church before a sea of faces. During these blurry first weeks, these people have brought us meals and wine and hand-me-down clothes. Now they promise to nurture you and show you that you belong to a body larger than yourself. Our pastor speaks words of blessing as we gather up front with other families with new babies. You sleep in your mother’s arms. Sam hides behind me and then tries to climb on my shoulders.
Our pastor carries each baby to a member of the congregation to symbolize our shared commitment to one another. As she places you in the arms of a friend, Sam says in his finest three-year-old whine, “He’s ourbaby. I don’t want to share.”
Those within earshot laugh, and I beam with pride—his brotherly instinct already setting in. Surely there’s more to big-brotherhood than protectiveness. It delights me that I get to watch brothers firsthand, something I’ve never done before, having no brothers myself. As a child, I’d observe my father and his five brothers with awe, watching them argue and tease and jostle and laugh at family gatherings. Now I get to live with real live brothers.
I’ve been taken lately by the connection between familyandfamiliar. We live so utterly close to each other, we are so unavoidably familiar with each other’s speech and smells and tics and movements around our small house. We know how to make each other laugh and how to make each other furious. Sam’s “Mama” and “Dada” are so reflexive that he sometimes gets us mixed up: “Mama—Dada—Mama, I need my hedgehog.”
At home, I listen as you feed with your mother, noting your grunts and exhalations and noisy breaths, contented and voracious at once. Your small mass in Hannah’s arms. You are just learning to look at us, to make eye contact, to distinguish our faces from the ceiling fan.
In the bath, you react to the yellow-ducky face on the washcloth, your eyes transfixed, your arms flapping in excitement. You take short sharp breaths, which we have learned to mean that you are excited. We know that so many things are going on inside of you. We are waiting for them.
We are in the airport, barely beginning a long journey home. First there’s a three-hour drive, and then there will be a cross-country flight, an airport tram, a shuttle van to the remote parking lot, a drive home, all with suitcases, a diaper bag, a backpack, two car seats, two boys. But now we are stopped by a TSA agent who pulls Hannah aside, you cradled in a carrier on her chest. We have forgotten to empty the water bottle that she uses to replenish from the constant dehydration of breastfeeding. The agent tells her to go through the line again. He won’t let her pour out the water. He won’t let me drink it. We look at the endless line behind us.
She agrees, but I am livid. While Sam and I wait, another agent asks where we are headed. With measured breath I tear into him. I tell him what I think of his job. I tell him what I think of low-level bureaucrats making life harder on my wife and children. My voice is cool but furious.
If I weren’t a clean-cut white man, my words might have gotten me detained—or worse. I am not proud of this. I am not proud that Sam hears. The stress of holiday travel, the nighttime wakings, the diaper changes in gross airport bathrooms, some difficult news from our family—it had all built up, and I was taking it out on this man who had no power to modify rules.
He turned and walked away, not interested in a pointless confrontation.
Having a second child doesn’t change your identity like the first. Instead, it raises the stakes. There are now two future men looking to me for a model of manhood. It’s my job to show them that true strength means rolling with punches, withstanding pressure, knowing what matters and what doesn’t.
I pray for the strength to do better next time. Hannah arrives from the security line and we head to the gate, our arms full.
It is a dark Sunday morning, the city sodden under gray drizzle. We have dragged ourselves to church, where I am trying to listen to the story of the wise men, those inscrutable mystics who crossed deserts to worship at the feet of the infant Christ. I can’t imagine finding such clarity of purpose in the stars. I can’t imagine finding it anywhere.
I didn’t expect to write so much about church in these pages. Like the airport, it’s a place that seems to expose something essential about our condition. Just before we are invited to receive Communion, you yelp to demand your own meal, so Hannah stays in her seat to feed you. The symbolism strikes me as uncomfortably apt: Hannah isolated while the rest of us step forward to receive our sustenance. It has been a difficult few weeks, blanketed by heavy rain. I reach the front and ask our pastor to bring the elements to you. She carries the bread, and our friend Pat carries the cup. However meager this food, however awkward the exchange as Hannah holds out her hand and you snorfle at her breast, it is a small reminder that we are not alone. The rain continues; the bad news continues; you still wake us with your screaming every night, but in this moment we are fed.
On your brother’s first hike, we stumbled onto a black bear not twenty feet from us, scaring us to the bone and then snuffling away through the undergrowth, leaving behind only a story.
Today, on your first hike, there is no such excitement. It is a wet, gray morning in the foothills outside Seattle, the damp chill turning to drizzle. Low clouds scud across the valley, and we trudge along in the undergrowth, moving at a three-year-old’s pace. Sam clutches his mother’s hand and negotiates rocky steps. You ride in a carrier on my front, warm in your fleece bunting, quietly watching the canopy of hemlock, cedar, and fir.
Sam is more interested in the idea of breaks and trail snacks than in covering any ground. “This would be a good place to sit,” he says at every cold, wet boulder. A steady stream of hikers passes us by, their dogs startling Sam. After forty-five minutes and perhaps half a mile, we pick a rocky outcropping and stop for animal crackers before turning back.
I think about the overnight treks Hannah and I used to make deep into the backcountry. It’ll be years before we can do that as a family. Today we are barely out of the suburbs, the drone of the interstate always within earshot. So many of our conversations end with “maybe when the kids are older.” I am constantly thinking of things I can’t do. Spontaneous camping trips, international travel, stopping for drinks after work, sleeping late on the weekend, sleeping through the night—it all has to wait. This sense of constraint weighs heavy on my mind. Like the February fog it blocks the view around me, and I lose sight of the staggering gift of these days, which is foolish of me. This may not be the season for wilderness backpacking, but I can watch Sam pick his way up boulders in his bright green rain boots, asking about bears and tigers, working up his courage to greet passing dogs. I can watch you riding on my chest, your enormous cheeks bouncing along.
The liturgical calendar calls this season between Epiphany and Lent the period of Ordinary Time. There’s probably a deeper theological meaning to it, but I just like the sound of that phrase. It seems to affirm the rhythm of things. There’s a time to celebrate and a time to rest, a time to work like crazy and a time to muddle along. It’s OK to have a season without grand epiphanies, a season without intense spiritual reflection. Here’s to the rhythm of ordinary days and slow hikes without destinations.
It’s a late afternoon on a late-winter Sunday, rain pittering ceaselessly since morning. You’ve barely napped, which means I haven’t rested since your nighttime feedings, which means we’re both groggy and cloudy headed. You’re not angry, exactly. You keep grunting and yawping, sudden noises that keep me from drifting off. I shuffle around the kitchen straightening up, too tired to focus on anything. You lay on your play mat and reach for the giraffe that dangles above. What are you so excited about that you won’t sleep? I look over, and you squeal at the attention, kicking your legs and thrusting your belly. I am glad that you want my attention. It’s just that you want so much of it.
You sit teetering on a backyard blanket, practicing your motor skills by grabbing my toes. I keep a hand on your back to steady you. You see my glance and drawl your preverbal laugh, your arms flapping in excitement. You reach for the blanket and try to stuff it in your mouth, then a fistful of grass. I kiss you under your chin. Ahhhh, you drawl, your head lolling back.
It is a gloriously warm Saturday afternoon. Even better, we are free to be still and enjoy it. We are off work, and the chores can wait. We are lucky to have this yard behind our small rental home. In the garden, overwintered vegetables have returned to life, collard greens shooting up to monstrous feral size, the rosemary bush sprouting gangly new branches.
Hannah lies beside you, reading. Sam motors around the yard, inventing a game with a garden hoe and bike pump and soccer ball, issuing a stream of commentary and only occasionally demanding that we listen. You reach for the wisteria vines dangling above us. I love the way you live in the sensory world, noticing the way blades of grass tangle and dance in the breeze, the way sunlight shakes through maple leaves—all the things I have lost the ability to see, until I see them through your eyes.
A crow drags its talons against my scalp. Sharp and jagged, the sensation registers first as pain, then as sound, then I realize I am dreaming and you are screaming in the other room. You wail at the day’s first light, these bright mornings arriving with the tilt of the earth. I look at the alarm clock: it’s five in the morning.
On the changing table, you smack your lips, pop poppop, your favorite new trick. I answer, pop pop pop, to let you know I am listening. You grab my arm in excitement, gripping with surprising ferocity. You bark and yawp. I lift you to the floor, where we grunt and snort together, trying out new noises. I give my best guttural grizzly bear snarl, and you erupt in delight. You are teaching me that words can’t convey everything. Sometimes a growl is enough.
Your wiggling rear end passes across the floor as I look down from my chair. You were on the verge of crawling for so long, heaving yourself up and flopping forward like an inchworm. Now that you have figured out crawling, you won’t stop doing it. You motor around the house, thump thumpingyour hands and knees.
You find everything we have forgotten to babyproof, pulling mail off the counters, diapers out of the trash, shoes off the rack to taste and chew. Where are we supposed to keep our shoes? We can’t set anything down. You find a laptop charger and suck the plug like a lollipop. You spot me sweeping up crumbs and race for the broom. We play a game—I sweep one side of the house until you crawl over, then move to the other side, hurrying to clean up the dust pile before you arrive. It would drive me crazy if you didn’t take so much pleasure in it.
In these notes I have been dwelling on the domestic sphere of our lives, because that’s where you live, often keeping us housebound with your sleeping schedule. There’s a place for this focus, I think, just as there’s a place for engaging with the injustices outside our door. We’ll learn about those things together in due time, and I think the practices of paying attention and listening will serve us well when we get there. When impatience and frustration overwhelm me, I am learning how curiosity can help defuse them. That’s been true as I try to understand the ugliness in our national politics, and it’s been true as I pull another muddy sneaker out of your mouth. You are exploring the world with the tools that you have, and you are learning, like I have learned from reading too much political media, to be wary of the aftertaste.
Almost every night you demand a bottle around three o’clock, and I carry you to the couch, holding your familiar weight in my lap. You can hold the bottle yourself now, and you insist on doing so, wrapping your tiny hands around the cylinder. Every few minutes you grow distracted and shake the bottle, waving it around and sending tiny droplets scattering.
Streetlights glow through the curtain. City traffic hums in the distance. If I turn on a light to read, it wakes you up even more, which will make it hard to help you back to sleep. If I leave it off, I am alone with my thoughts, which are not always pleasant at three in the morning. So I watch you to occupy my mind. Your wispy brown hair, a touch lighter than your brother’s, has started to thicken again, a strand reaching down to your eyes. You sigh and gulp and take audible breaths of contentment. All year I’ve been trying to make out words in your grunts and snorfles and preverbal noises, which are endlessly interesting to me and endlessly beyond the reach of language. Finally, now, I am content to listen in silence, accepting your ancient mammalian song of hunger and expectation and trust.
You have made your first joke! I am feeding you while Hannah reads to Sam. You take a gulp, lower the bottle to babble, and look at me for a reaction. Over and over. Then you raise the bottle to my mouth, as if feeding me. This isn’t your aimless waving and shaking. I return your grin, and you offer me the bottle again, laughing.
In a few weeks you will reach your first birthday. You are scooting around the house with the help of a plastic walker. You scream in anticipation, as if revving your engine, and then you take off, legs wobbly and spread-eagle. You bump into furniture and correct course. Sam tries to block you until I pull him out of the way. You’ll be walking soon. You’ll be running and leaping and flying.
Now we are singing a prayer before dinner, beans and rice cooling in our bowls. We make an ungainly harmony, Hannah’s graceful voice tempered by my tone-deaf effort and Sam’s enthusiastic shout-singing. We try to hold hands, but you don’t understand. Instead you hand me a cucumber slice, pre-chewed.
God is great and God is good
and we thank God for our food
Now you are dancing, swaying your shoulders back and forth to the rhythm, such as it is. This is the least danceable tune on earth, but you don’t care. We smile and sway with you.
By God’s hand we all our fed
give us, Lord, our daily bread
So many parts of religion fill me with doubt, but giving thanks isn’t one of them. This daily practice is something I dearly want to teach you and your brother. Gratitude enriches us. It wakes us up to the gifts around us. So we do it every day, together, leaning on these simple words. We cannot control our security, our health, or this fragile time we have been given. No one can. We can only bear witness: to this daily bread, these holy days.
Jonathan Hiskes is a writer and communications director at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Mother Jones, River Teeth, the Sun, Image, Books and Culture, and elsewhere. Read more of his writing at Jonathanhiskes.com.