Birth and Baptism

It was three years ago today when my husband saw his second son born. My husband’s pregnant girlfriend was due to deliver their baby sometime around the middle of June, so I’d made plans for Elihu and me to be out of town during that time. The wait was over.

As my husband had not officially moved out of our house, and as the couple had no place other than that of her parents, I had begun to make peace with the idea of starting over far across the country, closer to my own family, and leaving our marital home to the two of them and their new baby. Just a few years before I’d left my beloved Evanston, just outside of Chicago and moved to the rural town of Dekalb so that Fareed, Elihu and I might start our life anew. Now, without my husband, I had no reason to stay in that small town. I packed for a week’s vacation and took Elihu to the place that would soon be our new home. My son and I were far away when Charlie was born, three years ago today.

A friend had insisted we come and enjoy her family’s beautiful pond anytime we cared; they were all away and busy during the daytime, we would have the dock and water all to ourselves. On that sunny, warm June 12th, 2008, I took Elihu to the pond for an afternoon of pollywogs and distraction. While he had little idea how his own life was changing, I did, and that day was heavy with a strange, sick brew of feelings. It seemed I was living in a dream. My husband was about to have a new child. The child that had blown the lid off of everything.

My comprehension about it all was primitive. I could still not understand this. I’d lived through nine months with Fareed still living in our home; each day I was dreading the event that he himself awaited with great excitement. Such a queer mix of things, I could do no more to keep myself sane than to leave town and come back after the babe had been born. Here I was now, with my son, on a hot summer’s day, toes dangling off the dock in the cool water of a country pond while almost a thousand miles to the west something was changing. Here, my son was busy with nets and buckets, scooping up pond life, unaware of how his own life was changing in that very moment.

The sun and sparkling water gave me some relief. Elihu had taken an interest in the fishing gear there and for a time my energy was spent helping him bait and cast, and making sure that he didn’t hurt himself accidentally on the hooks. I was on vigilant watch against mishaps for a half hour until he lost interest and contented himself again with the net. I sat back in the Adirondack chair and looked out over the white pines that rimmed the water. I watched my son play, and thought to myself that in spite of our having been a family til now, Fareed had shared very little time with the two of us.

Most of my memories around Elihu did not include his father. Instead my memories were mostly just the two of us. Walking around our Evanston neighborhood, riding the bike on the lakefront, visiting friends, together at rehearsals, radio shows, performances. I had Elihu with me all the time, everywhere. I’d always felt this was a time of waiting. Waiting for our new life. A life in which I would set aside my gigs and projects to raise a family. A life in which Fareed would tour less, stay home more, enjoy our company. Now, it seemed, it might be just Elihu and me, alone, forever. My heart couldn’t bear this.

Here Fareed was, embarking on the familial journey with someone else instead of us, his real family. How could this be happening? We’d moved to Dekalb just two years ago in order to start over, but not like this! I tried to drink in my surroundings, to buffer myself against the constant barrage of thoughts. I needed to breathe, to separate myself from the pain. It felt like nature, water, air and light were the only things that could help me. The lakeside day was so bright and hopeful, it was oblivious to our loss. It was a day of contrasts that I could not comprehend.

My thoughts were interrupted by a huge splash. I needed not an instant to think, but sprang from my chair. The pond water was a dark amber, tinted by the tannin of leaves, and it obscured even bright objects only inches below the surface. As I looked down I saw the top of my son’s head descending through the water, its shape disappearing in the dark. I threw myself down into that darkness, grabbing blindly for my baby, finding him as fast as I could, then pushing him upward, my legs sinking to the knees in the silty bottom. If I’d been rescuing anyone other than my only child, I don’t know how I’d have gotten purchase enough on the ground to push him into the air….

But this was my son, my life, my everything. Somehow I lifted him above the water and again another foot upwards to the dock. I myself sank back down again after I’d set him on the platform, but in a rush of adrenaline I lifted myself up and onto the dock beside my Elihu, who was scared, but thank God, crying and alive. I held him against my body, I rocked him, I tried to soothe him. I held him as I’d never held him before.

We sat for awhile, waiting for our hearts to stop pounding. The horrifying image of the dark water closing in over my son played again and again in my head. He might well have died. Yet he didn’t, I had saved him from that. I’d given birth to him once, and today in some way, I’d given birth to him again. He was alive, I was alive, it was ok. And once again, it was just the two of us. It seemed the universe had demonstrated in the most acute way that we two were starting over. We had emerged from the water somehow changed.

As I drove up to my parents’ house my cell phone rang. Fareed’s tone was matter-of-fact. While he was not overtly rejoicing in his news, his mood was light and upbeat, different from the somber tone he’d used all those months as we waited for this day. I could hear in his voice a guarded excitement about his new life. His new son had been born about forty-five minutes earlier and he had just wanted me to know.

But then he went on to tell me details about the delivery – things I didn’t want to know, couldn’t possibly share delight in – while I sat in my car, still wet from the pond, dazed, trying to integrate what had just happened here with what had just happened there. As Fareed continued to talk, my mind began to piece together the last hour. It seemed that nearly the moment the new baby was born, my son was tumbling into the water. As the newborn took his first breath of air, my son struggled for the same. I sat, unmoving, stunned by the metaphor that had been placed so clearly in my path. This was a day of emergence and change. It was a day of cleansing and rebirth.

And if I’d not been entirely convinced before, I was then. We had been washed clean of our old life – and a new one had just begun.

Men Behaving….

Although I have a huge pile of paper on my desk and a very long to-do list, it seems that this may be a good time to write about a topic which is today in the news.

Yesterday, when I first saw the Arnold Schwarzenegger story, I was tempted to fire off a post on the subject, given that it is one with which I am intimately acquainted. And yet, I held back, knowing that I had more to say on the event than the predictable and understandable rants that one might expect. And last night, as my still-husband juggled care taking duties of his two very young boys while trying to communicate with his eldest son by Skype, once again it hit me. The situation throws the family into painful turmoil, yes, but beyond the obvious, it causes the father of the unexpected children his own kind of pain and suffering.

Many times I’ve considered Fareed’s side of this equation. It’s got to hurt to be a father who loves his child, but can’t be with him. I feel Elihu’s sadness when his father says he has to go at the end of a phone call. I also sense Fareed’s feelings of sorrow and powerlessness. Only today he sent an email expressing his concern over things that Elihu and I had recently dealt with, and while these were now history in our fast-moving life, they were yet unaddressed in Fareed’s world. As I explained, we simply cannot catch him up on everything that we experience; we can’t communicate every trauma, dilemma, sickness or difficulty – or even the tiny triumphs and discoveries. There’s just so much life that goes on. If a parent is not physically there, it’s just a matter of simple logistics. Fareed loves his son, yet there he is. Caught in the fallout of his own creation. He simply cannot be a live-in dad to two young families at the same time.

For the father who doesn’t entirely want to be there – that may be another story. And while I find it hard to believe that a father wouldn’t want to know about his children’s lives, at least deep down in his heart, I do believe that for some fathers it’s not a priority. (My own feeling is that shame, dysfunction or economics might hold some dads back from being more involved with their estranged children.)

But Fareed is, and I defend him often on this point, a father who loves his children. In fact, I can’t quite understand how he feels so deeply for his daughter Brigitta, when she hardly knows him as a ‘real’ dad, but rather as simply her biological father. I can perhaps understand his need to know her when I examine how I myself might feel if a biological child of mine was removed from my world. I don’t know that I could bear it. He once broke into tears, saying to me that he hoped one day I could meet her and accept her. I’d told him I was working on it, and I was. This is all a very, very difficult process. It’s hard on the wife who finds her world absolutely smashed in an instant, yes. It’s also an enormous burden on the father of the surprise child. Really all one can do is take a breath, and wait for the passage of time to wash mercifully over the broken hearts.

Why should I feel any empathy for these careless men? Really? Yet I do. A moment after the news about Arnold’s love child sank in, I thought ‘how much pain he must have been in all these years’. He had to be apart from a child he created, plus he had to bear the burden of that secret and keep it from his own family. What a horrible situation to be in. Yes, he, my husband and SO many other men have behaved like short-sighted, selfish asses. But look, their hearts are now broken too.

And the children? I know that I have guided my own to find a place of compassion and understanding, as I myself have tried hard to learn those things too. One of my oldest, and dearest friends is the product of an extramarital affair. This person has managed to grow into an exceptional adult – a good friend, loving spouse, and wonderful parent – and has found a way to make it work. This friend chose to close all possibility of contact with the father, and this was what worked in this situation. I imagine there are many ways to make it work. Certainly many children have grown up in a fatherless household. Our own President Obama did.

I also imagine this is a much more common occurrence than we’d think, however, if you google the subject, there’s not a whole lot of support for the single moms that result from the man’s indiscretion (believe me, I’ve searched). I remember in one such search coming across a comedian going on about what an upstanding guy he was. He was married and had no ‘outside children’. That stopped me in my tracks. There was a contemporary term for this? ‘Outside children’? You mean that it’s so common that we might just assume a regular married guy may well have ‘outside children’?? Man, where had I been? I guess all you have to do is take in a couple of Jerry Springer episodes to know that it goes on routinely, and all over. But how does it all end? We all hear the titillating tales, but soon after they’re lost in the wash of incoming news. After some personal exploration into these stories, I’ve come to realize that in the end, if you can’t afford a really good, committed attorney, the resulting single mom ends up in a far worse economic situation, whether she was the wife or the extra marital partner. And the only payoff is…. you got it, the gift of raising her child. The man may be able to pay his bills, but he must always live with the pain of being an absentee dad. The mom may now live on food stamps – but she’s there when her son loses his first tooth…

My dear friend, the one who was raised by a single mom, was in this case a child of the ‘other woman’. It puts a strange spin on my perspective; for she – the ‘other woman ‘ – was an excellent mother, yet it was the ‘other woman’ who utterly changed my life and broke my heart. So how to view this ultimately? I can’t say I’ve found an answer. I struggle with it almost daily. My feeling is that whomever rises to the responsibility of providing for the child is doing the right thing, whether that be in form of providing money for living costs, physical custodial care, or simply encouraging the child to have a healthy relationship with the now-absent parent.

No easy answer. Maybe next time try a condom. Just sayin.