The poetry of a son's birth

January 23, 2001|By Stephen Vicchio

We move between two darknesses, and the two creatures who might enlighten us about them, the baby and the corpse, fail to do so.

E.M. Forster,

WHEN SOME MOMENTS of joy arise, they are so large, so all-encompassing and so full of meaning that a single human body seems incapable of containing it all. The joy flows over the borders of the heart. It fills up the chest cavity, brimming with grace, until it pours freely from the eyes.

My second son, a boy named Jack, was born a few months ago. One moment he was a contorted blue face straining between the doctor's hands, the next, a breathing human being with a birthday and a Social Security number. He swam to the surface and then emerged looking like a 1930s newsreel of a triumphant swimmer of the English Channel.

My biologist friends tell me the 23 chromosomes my wife and I each contributed to the making of this boy might have combined in 8.4 million different ways. Looking at him now gives me the feeling of winning the strangest, most sacred kind of lottery.

A moment after the birth, I was invited to cut the umbilical cord. I placed the surgical scissors between what looked like two plastic jumper cables and watched as blood spurted over my cutting hand.

A nurse carried the boy to a warmer where she took his footprint. By then, the boy was fiercely red and wrinkled, his scrotum the size and color of a small ripe plum.

A moment later, he began to wail in sharp, quick terror.

Robert Frost speaks of birth as mounting the earth bareback, with no riding lessons. In the Talmud, ancient rabbis suggest that babies come into the world weeping and with their fists clenched because they wish in vain to hold on to the safety from which they've been expelled. The overhead lights and sounds from the hospital corridor suggested this was, perhaps, a less than hospitable place.

A nurse finished swaddling the boy and then placed a blue knit hat, about the size of a small teacup, on his head. He waved his free arm and it is then I began to notice, the curved pinkie of his left hand, and one small dimple on his right cheek, tiny replicas of his mother's. Then, a moment later, the nose like his cousin in Arizona; the cleft in his tiny chin courtesy of his father's side of the family.

The day before my new son came into the world, I had a dream. In it, there was a small but fiery sun beating in my chest. When I held my hand to my breast, it felt warm to the touch, like the inner stones of a hearth.

In the dream, when I opened my eyes light came from them. It was not the scary kind found in alien movies. It was more like two small green beacons. I stood on a beach looking out to sea. I knew somehow I was to bring a ship of some kind to safe harbor through focusing my eyes on the horizon. I was, somehow, to be a human lighthouse.

An elderly man with an Italian accent approached me on the beach. He asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he handed me some twigs and a fist full of feathers. Then he said: "I think you will be needing these." A moment later, my wife awakened me. It was time to go to the hospital. Her contractions were painful and only four minutes apart.

Nine months ago, to the day of Jack's birth, my wife and I traveled to a retirement dinner for a courtly Italian professor of architecture at the University of Virginia. My son was conceived that day.

In the afternoon of the day of his making, before we attended the party, I bought a book of Chinese verse at the university bookstore. A moment ago, with baby Jack sleeping on my chest, I reread the opening lines of one of the poems: "The job of the father/ is to provide roots and wings."

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His latest collection of essays and stories is "Pieces of an Examined Life."

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