Pain Is A Gift, And Other Notes From A Terrified Father During A Seven-Week-Premature BirthS

When the baby cried, I knew it wasn't gonna die. They had just pulled my son out of my wife and whisked him over to one of those fancy hotel pans that you put newborns in, and there was a brief moment when he said nothing, which you don't want. You want the baby to cry. You want confirmation that the child can take air in its lungs and then blow it back out. You want the baby to cry the first time. After that, you want it to be quiet so you can get some goddamn sleep, but the first cry matters. The first cry means it's gonna live. So it cried, and then I did. I cried and cried until it felt like my face was gonna split open. I yelled out, "He's crying!" to my wife, and after that everything was all right.

I have three kids now, and I don't necessarily subscribe to the idea that the day your baby is born is automatically the happiest day of your life. You're not happy every waking moment of a child's birthday. Quite the contrary. Rather, it's the most intense day of your existence, by a healthy margin. It's one of those days that doesn't get left on the cutting room floor. And because it's such a blindingly serious occasion, it's hard for me to remember things cleanly. It's like being concussed and then playing the rest of a football game. You never know what hit you. You have to go back and piece together all the moments. Nothing is linear. Here now is my best attempt at piecing it all together.

*

First off, bedrest. Bedrest is fucking awful. If you're unaware of the whole bedrest phenomenon, well then consider yourself lucky. Because bedrest is sweeping across this country like a goddamn bedbug infestation. Women are getting pregnant later and later in life these days. When you get pregnant later in life, you run a higher risk of having something go wrong. Turns out God WANTS your ass to get knocked up at 18, because He's a backward redneck. If you run a higher risk of having something go wrong with your pregnancy, chances are your doctor will consign you—CONDEMN YOU—to lying in bed until the baby kicks down the front door. Most of the time, as was the case with Mrs. Drew, the bedrest is warranted. Although I'm sure plenty of doctors have prescribed it casually just so that touchy parents don't going suing everyone the moment something goes haywire.

Anyway, bedrest destroys the entire ecosystem of a household. If you're a working woman, you can't work. If you're a stay-at-home mom, you can't mom. Plus, your other kids don't understand why you have to stay in bed all day, so they come up to the bedroom and use the fetus as a trampoline. If your husband or baby daddy works, well then he's fucked because he has to cover for you or find someone who can. There should be insurance for this shit. There should be a policy that explicitly rewards you two months' salary and a fetching Norwegian wet nurse the second you and your wife get fucked over with bedrest. I know so many women who got tagged with bedrest that it feels like a miracle any time a woman I know makes it all the way through a pregnancy on two feet.

My wife went into contractions late one Sunday night and I had to take her to the hospital. There, the nurse looked her over, checked with a doctor, and calmly stated that Mrs. Drew needed to go on bedrest. And then, as she went on about "being admitted" and all this other shit that I didn't hear because I was screaming silently to myself, I realized that they weren't even gonna let her leave the hospital.

"Wait a second," I said. "Are you saying she has to stay HERE?"

"Yes."

"Ho. Ly. SHIT."

My wife cried, and then I cried, and then we both took turns making each other cry some more.

My wife was due to have our son on May 23. Instead, she went into early labor on April Fool's Day. You don't need to be a math whiz to know that's quite a head start. The average baby needs 38 to 40 weeks in the womb to properly gestate. Ours was 32 weeks. (I was later told by a nurse in the NICU that they have tended to babies as young as 23 weeks. Any babies born before that aren't resuscitated, he explained, because they are ensured of "unfavorable outcomes," which is the greatest catchall euphemism ever for death, mental retardation, and/or permanent physical disability.) That meant at least six weeks of hospital bedrest. Like every other man on Earth, my first thought was, "Well, how much is THAT gonna cost?" Oh, and the baby was in grave danger. But still ... FULL INSURANCE COPAYMENT. I knew the health of everyone was top priority, but all I could think about was being condemned forever to the goddamn poor house. Bedrest is the worst.

*

They put my wife in a hospital room and hooked her up to all kinds of IVs and fetal heart monitors and roughly 9,000 other measuring instruments, all of which bleeped and farted all night long. One of the amazing things about hospitals is that, despite the fact that they are supposed to heal people, hospitals have NO interest in patients ever getting a good night's sleep. EVER. They happily leave emergency alerts and PA systems blaring in your room all night long, with people marching in and out (sometimes to deliver needed meds, sometimes for much more trivial bullshit) so that your stay in the hospital is about as restful as sleeping in a tent on a fucking glacier.

*

You should try going to take a piss with all that shit attached to you. There's an IV stand you have to wheel with you everywhere you go, otherwise the IV will get ripped out of your skin and you'll gush blood all over the floor and drop to the ground with a blood pressure level of 60 over 20. This happened to my wife. It was unpleasant.

*

Hospital beds are also designed so that physical affection is essentially impossible. There's a giant rail on either side of the bed, with machines parked flush against them, so every night I went to kiss my wife good night, I tried to lean over the rail next to the machines and get my lips somewhere in the vicinity of hers, but it was impossible. It was like trying to kiss the bottom of an oil drum. HOSPITALS DON'T CARE ABOUT ROMANCE.

*

The day after my wife was placed on permanent bedrest, they performed a high-risk ultrasound on the fetus and told us there were some irregularities. Various syndromes and ailments were thrown around. We took in this information matter-of-factly as it was being dispensed by the doctor. It wasn't until the doctor left that the devastation began to set in. I imagine this happens quite a bit. The doctor can't sugarcoat things. He has to give it to you unvarnished, then leave you to begin dealing with the resulting waves of anguish. The other problem is that doctors can tell you only so much. If they don't quite know the problem, they can only theorize what might be wrong, and so we were left with many theories about the baby, many of them bad. My wife cried, and then I cried, and then we both took turns making each other cry some more.

It's amazing that, even though the world's seven billion or so people are all unique, there are things that virtually all of them MUST have in common at the anatomical and sub-anatomical level in order to survive. You have chromosomes in your body that map out specific instructions for how your body must be built. You must have two eyes and two ears and a mouth. All your internal organs must be present and connected in a very specific way. Your brain can't be located in your feet. There are a million things that have to go right in order for you to be a functional, working human being. I was very much afraid that my son would not have those million things go right.

And I had terrible, awful thoughts. I thought to myself: This was a mistake. We took a gamble having a third kid and now we're gonna pay. Maybe it would be better if he didn't survive all this. I even thought about the long-term cost of caring for the child, which shouldn't have mattered to me but did. I hated myself for having all these thoughts, but there they were: selfish and ugly. I went home that night to care for my other two kids while my wife remained in the hospital and I tried engaging with my kids but failed miserably. I just stared into space while they dicked around with their trains and computer games. I wasn't there at all. I wasn't the strong family center they needed. That night, I curled up in my bed and wept into my pillow, saying, "Please be OK," over and over again. My heart felt like it was dying inside my body. Every other bad day I've ever had seemed hilariously banal by comparison.

And then I thought about something Stephen Colbert said to The New York Times Magazine back in January. The real Stephen Colbert, not the TV persona he's created. The real Colbert lost his father and brother in a plane crash when he was a child, and this was his explanation for dealing with his grief:

"I'm not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so." He added, in a tone so humble and sincere that his character would never have used it: "She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that's directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain—it's that the pain is actually a gift."

I'm not a religious person. I don't believe in God (although it struck me while I was lying there that sometimes you have to believe in God if you want to keep going), but that kind of made sense to me. If you love something so much that the idea of losing it could bring you to a whole new dimension of suffering, well then that love is a blessing.

*

When you're in the hospital for a long time, you get a lot of nurses. Hospital nurses are essentially like blackjack dealers. Every time you get one you adore, the shift changes and you never know if the next one will be OK or a heartless bastard. We had one nurse who was incredibly sweet, who actually switched shifts to help my wife multiple times, and then I thought about those medical dramas where the nurse or doctor forms a bond with some affable patient. That patient always ends up DYING. So that freaked me out.

*

I took my kids to visit my wife every day. On the way, my oldest kid kept demanding I change the radio station to whatever station was playing "Stronger" by Kelly Clarkson. I hate you, Kelly Clarkson. Once we got to the hospital, all the kids wanted to do was run up and down the hospital hallways, get fruit snacks from the vending machine, and push all the buttons on the fetal heart monitor.

There was an outdoor garden at the hospital, and once a day they let me and the kid wheel my wife out there to get some sunlight and take in fresh air. One day, we wheeled her down (my kid demanded to push) and I saw a half a pack of cigarettes lying on a bench alongside a lighter. For some reason, I thought that was awesome. We were in this little oasis designed to heal, but someone was clearly like, FUCK THIS, I'M SMOKING. I don't smoke, but I damn near grabbed the pack and lit up. The garden was adorned with a large number of flagstones dedicated to people who had died in the hospital. And so here we were, in this very peaceful environment, rolling over all these reminders of grim death. I was not soothed.

*

They had a contraction monitor hooked up to my wife and, as with every child, I took to staring at it, watching the numbers zoom up, and then saying to my wife, "Hey look! You're having a big contraction!"—only to have her grimace in agonizing pain and look at me as if to say, NO SHIT, ASSHOLE.

*

My wife was in the hospital for over a week, and when someone is gone that long, your mind can start screwing with you, teasing you with the idea that, maybe, they won't be coming back ever again. I began to fear for my wife's life, going over all the potential possibilities of what would come home:

1. Wife and kid
2. Wife and no kid
3. Kid and no wife
4. No kid and no wife

I tried to stop pondering it but I couldn't. I thought about what would happen if the dreaded fourth option came to pass, and I decided that I would probably grow a beard and become a celibate folk singer. I didn't want to be a celibate folk singer. I did my best to remember that my wife was in the hospital for a good reason, and that she needed to be there for as long as humanly possible to ensure the baby's safety, but selfishly I wanted her back sooner. Alive. The idea of spending six weeks without her was growing unbearable, especially when I thought about "unfavorable outcomes." It seems unimaginably cruel to spend weeks in a hospital and pay untold sums of money just to come home with a dead child.

*

At home, I made certain to do everything just as my wife would, and it's amazing how much influence a spouse can end up having on you once you've been married for a long time. Messes bother me now. They never did when I was single. When I was single, my apartment looked like a Mumbai slum. Now, I see cracker crumb on the floor and I go batshit. WHO DID THIS?!

The first night my wife was gone, I did a shit job. I got into a fight with my daughter. I fucked up dinner. I made a wreck of everything. And I thought that I was only going to make everything worse. I couldn't do this. But as each day passed (and with generous help from my wife's parents), I got better. I settled into a parenting groove. I established a routine, stuck to it, and gradually gained confidence. By the end, I was cruising. I came to realize that I could go the six weeks or whatever it took. I was a good enough parent to survive. I didn't WANT to, but if it came to that, I could do it.

*

After seven days in the hospital, they told us on Easter Sunday that the baby was coming. No choice. No more waiting. I ran through the hospital to get to my wife's room. If you've never sprinted through a hospital, I highly recommend it. People totally stare at you. It's awesome.

They handed me scrubs to put on for the OR. If you've never worn scrubs, I also highly recommend it. Even though you aren't a doctor, you feel like one. I want to buy a shitload of scrubs and walk around the house in them, barking out terms I learned on House. TREAT HIM WITH INTERFERON.

They took my wife away to administer the spinal block (husbands, due to fainting risk, aren't allowed to watch) and left me alone in the recovery room to wait to be called in. This was it. At the end of this day, I was going to have either a healthy wife and child, or I wasn't. The doctor told me it was time, and I walked into a brightly lit OR with a dozen doctors and nurses waiting and a big blue scrim in front of my wife to keep us from viewing the horrors below. They strapped my wife's arms down to the table, like a prison inmate about to get a lethal injection. I sat next to my wife's head and held her hand. They cut her open and began digging around for the child. All I could hear on the other side of the scrim were sounds—terrible, awful sounds. It sounded like a foley artist was on the other side of the curtain, scoring a Three Stooges clip and using every sound on the soundboard: vacuums and gushes and slurps and God knows what else. My wife dug her nails into my hand, and I couldn't bitch about the pain because, you know, woman being sliced open.

Caesarian sections are not pleasant affairs. It's not as easy as just cutting the woman open and OH LOOK! A BABY! It's not a jack-in-the-box. The doctor explained that the baby shies away from the light, so they have to reach in and find it and violently rip it out. It takes a whole lotta digging, like trying to find a quarter you lost in the sofa bed.

*

Finally, the baby came out and made his first cry. And they brought me over to him, and he was covered in blood and amniotic fluid and had vernix in the creases of his skin, but he looked fucking GREAT. His weight was good. His brain was good. His everything was good. All the selfish, terrible thoughts were sandblasted away. No regrets. Then I looked back to my wife, and she was still alive, beautiful as ever. And I burst into tears. I was wearing a surgical mask during the delivery but it got so gummed up with tears and snot that I was basically wearing a used Kleenex. And I called my mom and my wife's mom and I said, "THEY'RE ALIVE!" because that was all that mattered. He was alive. She was alive. You can deal with anything in this life, so long as you're not dead.

*

He's in the NICU now. They put him in a special incubator, and he'll have to stay there for a few weeks, but that's OK, because they gave me a wristband, and wristbands make me feel 80 percent cooler. I can waltz right past the suckers in the waiting room and go into the kickass sick-baby unit. I'm shocked CBS doesn't have a shitty hourlong drama called NICU on the air right now. I stole a swaddling blanket from his incubator and now I sleep with it every night because it smells like him. He's breathing, and he's eating, and he's peeing, and he's pooping, and everything will be all right, even if it isn't all right. Alive is what matters. Alive is everything.

Image by Jim Cooke. Photo by vhpfoto/Shutterstock.