There is no word in English equivalent to "widower" but pertaining to the death of a child instead of a spouse. I realized this today when my wife asked me over lunch if I viewed myself as the father of one or of two children. I replied that, firstly, that was an incomplete question because it depended on what one really wanted to know but, secondly, if I had lost an only child, there is absolutely no question that I would still define myself as a father. That's a role that defines you for life.
Why ask such an oddly morbid question? Because it is eighteen years ago today that I saw my son for the very first time and three months ago today that I saw him for the very last time.
I woke up this morning in Washington, DC, (this post was started Easter Sunday, April 8) where I met him eighteen years ago in a hospital that has long since closed. I was not there when he was born, though I arrived that evening. I had gone to a convention in Las Vegas, having asked my wife's OBGYN about the wisdom of going. He replied "She's not due until July fourth. Go." I was awakened by a phone call from home saying something was wrong and asking me what to do. I told her to contact two of her best friends and speak to them, then go to the hospital, and I'd get myself to the airport and get myself home somehow.
This was the latest stage in a long, miserably drawn out process involving fertility treatments, giving up when the next stage involved daily injections that still wouldn't get us to even odds; then attempting domestic adoption, with ads in the papers, the assumption of open adoption, and attending monthly support group meetings at the adoption agency solely in order to stay in their good graces. Fertility treatments and those support group meetings had one thing in common: a monotonous monthly raising of hope followed by the inevitable monthly smashing of hope, watching all the other couples get babies (including one on my wife's birthday), and finally getting The Call, then going to meet the birthmother only to have her miss the meeting because she'd given birth a day early and elected to keep her baby. Going through a process like that, you understand what it means when friends become pregnant and you want to just share their joy but it's difficult because of what the news reminds you.
At first, the fall-through seemed like just another blow, but within a couple of months, we discovered that it was in fact a lucky break, because my wife was pregnant.
That is perhaps the happiest news I have ever gotten.
But back to eighteen years ago:
I was at McCarran Airport, at the ticket counter talking on the agent's land line to one of the two friends, and the last thing I heard before I headed for the gate was that my wife's water broke.
In those days, some airplanes had phones built into the back of the seat in front of you. You swiped a credit card, spent an arm and a leg per minute, and made your call. Under the circumstances, I did, and the same friend at the hospital informed me that I had a son and that he looked complete. After I hung up the phone, I pressed the flight attendant call button.
"Could you please find out where we are at the moment?" She headed up to the cockpit and returned in a moment.
"We're flying over the Grand Canyon."
I thought about saying something to someone but, for some reason, I elected not to. I kept the news to myself, landed at National Airport (I still have trouble calling it Reagan because of what he did to the air traffic controllers) and grabbed a cab downtown to meet my son.
They put me in a gown and had me scrub my hands for what seemed like ten minutes, then took me into the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). There he was, in an isolette, which is what they call incubators now - a clear plastic ventillated box that is temperature-controlled.
There are three things I remember about seeing him.
The first is his size. Maybe size isn't the word; he was 3 lbs. 5 oz. Lack of size fits better.
The second is all those wires, plus he was wearing a hat to keep his head warm. There were wires all over the place, including one on his tiny finger that included some sort of bulb such that his finger glowed bright red. That one was for "sats," which indicated how much oxygen was saturating his blood.
The third was his actual appearance. There's one thing you probably don't know about premies this early: their fat hasn't come in yet. That means their features are more defined than they will be later because fat obscures features. We've all heard comments about how much a baby looks like someone in particular but, because of baby fat, that's stretching it. As my wife says: All babies look like Winston Churchill.
Not at three months early. Wires, hat, and all, if someone had set up a sadistic test for me and sent me into a room of a dozen preemies and said "Pick out yours," I'd have sweated bullets until I came to my son, at which point I'd have burst out laughing and said "OK. I get it. You promised it wouldn't be hard but I didn't believe you. I don't need to look at any more of them." I don't look like my parents to anything like the extent that my son looked like me.
Nothing about the process was easy or painless, not getting to the pregnancy, not getting through the pregnancy, not the birth, not getting the news a day or two later that those shadows on his head sonogram weren't shadows, not the nurses visiting the house checking to see if he was meeting his milestones just to find he was falling further behind each visit and in fact never hit most of them at all, not the first half year of still being attached to wires and oxygen at home; none of it. And that's just the early parts; surgeries, scares, seizures came later. We dealt with it all.
It didn't need to be easy or painless, though; it was, after all, parenthood. It just needed to be gratifying. Gratifying it was. When he first smiled at different things and we became aware that someone was actually home; being proven right was a wonderful thing. I saw parents of other kids my son's age who had cerebral palsy but were barely responsive or not reponsive at all; I have no idea how they did it. When he fooled around with communicating with me in different ways, whether it was learning Morse code and speaking in dots and dashes (he never finished learning all of it but he got pretty far), or throwing in phrases he'd picked up in other languages, or spelling things, it was cool to see his mind work. It was fun to watch him ham it up, even if he did it during services, sometimes especially when he did it during services. It was gratifying to hear him say if I took him to McDonald's that we should pick up something for his little sister so she wouldn't feel left out, even though he mostly found her annoying. It was really cool to hear him tell me the name of a pitch; he seemed to have perfect pitch, which I don't have, though I can hear musical intervals as well as anyone I've ever met but I still need a reference pitch. It was fun to spell words to him at hyperspeed - being a New Yorker by upbringing, I can speak very quickly, and I can spell at speeds approaching an auctioneer, but as fast as I spelled for him, he'd understand it in real time; I can't interpret incoming letters at anything like the speed I can say them, but he could. It was amazing to watch him go through his Bar Mitzvah, jaw-dropping really - I'd been with him through every step of learning and studying because I had to be, but it never dawned on me what it would look like when the whole thing was put together, when for all practical purposes he led a service in another language from memory.
My son gave me a major gift, though unintentionally. I was pushing forty when he was born but, as old as I was, he still managed to give me my adulthood.
As exhausting, frightening, expensive, worrying, and all-consuming raising him was, and these were true far more than with typical parenting, where all these adjectives apply to begin with, raising him was infinitely preferable to not raising him, which is where I am now. He's forever frozen at 17 years 9 months. He wanted to vote, but those three months are forever insurmountable.
I never forget that he's gone, at least when I'm awake. I don't expect to see him, hear him, any of that. I don't experience that momentary relief followed by crushing disappointment. I don't expect to see him.
I just want to.
A note to myself, July 1, 2013, 1:33 AM EDT:
The first photograph I have of my son is with a hat but when I first saw him in the isolette, now that I recall, he wasn't wearing one. It was his head that was covered in wires, and it was in part the shape of his head that made him look so much like me. He was warm enough in there; it was when he came out to be held that he wore the hat.