By Frederick Fuller
I knew her name, Rebecca, our fourth child, another girl. At that moment I also knew she promised a terrible reckoning someday. Her big dark eyes riveted me. I was a bug on a display board as she stared directly into my eyes, almost scowling when I came over to the bed. Nestled deep in her exhausted mother’s arms, she continued pinning me to her display.
It was 3 a.m. on a Monday in August when Rebecca and I first met. I was acting editor-in-chief of a small-town newspaper, single-minded on the day’s edition when my wife called me and said the time was now and she and her cousin Jered were on there way to the hospital.
“Damn!” I said aloud. “This is number four. Can’t she do it without me? I’m busy.”
“What’d you say?” Alice yelled from advertising.
“Nothing,” I yelled back. Yelling was standard procedure because of the constant clack of linotypes.
I knew I’d sit in a waiting room until the baby was born because in those ancient days fathers were not to know where babies come from. We were supposed still believe in the stork. Hidden away in a room with other fathers-to-be, trapped without radio or television, and with years-old magazines geared to women’s tastes, we sat until a nurse summoned us with some inane announcement, such as, “Mr. Clueless, you are the father of a bouncing baby boy/a beautiful baby girl. You can see your wife, now.”
All mothers were wives back then, whether they were married to a man or not. Single women did not give birth in 1964. It was forbidden. If she was pregnant out-of-wedlock (whisper! whisper!), she went to a relative’s home, far, far away in another galaxy and named some hapless guy as her husband who was in Tibet on an extended business trip, living in a yurt and drinking fermented mare’s milk. But, she was never single.
Having gone through this twice before (our second child was twins), I knew what was in store. Time wasted when I needed to put the paper to bed.
Anyway, I also knew I had to be present at the birthing because my wife — a sweet woman, wonderful mother, bright, hardworking — also was more than capable of what some, such as I, would call perfidious punishment, or passive aggressive behavior. Guilt trips to extended venues where organized “lessons” were planned and executed, the pivotal word here. In addition I would do all the housework, such a cooking, laundry, cleaning, feeding baby—anything she was too “tired” to do. Mind you, I did all that anyway, but she could bear down unmercifully if annoyed. Not showing up, would definitely annoy her.
So, I called Pop, our composition manager, told him I had to leave but would be back soon; I lied because I knew I would not see the edition printed and Pop was a hard-liner, a purist, a nitpicker, more accurately a pain in the ass.
The hospital was 18 miles east, about a 24-minute drive. Glad for the 24 minutes, I passed the time pondering parenthood, particularly fatherhood. Our first daughter was three years old, and our twin daughters were about two. Both 25, we now had four children. Scary. Our oldest was a novelty. She was the first and only grandchild on both sides of the family. That she was spoiled by her grandparents is not completely accurate. Overindulged, pampered, mollycoddled, cosseted — all these and more came to mind, and to their degree of definition were spot on. For me such words as rancid, rotten, destroyed with kindness, au paired beyond reason — these have particular meaning for me because I was the au pair, so to speak, for the first five months of her life. She was boss. Enough said. (She grew up to be beautiful and today is a wonderful, caring woman of whom I am exceedingly proud.)
Our twins did not have a birth, actually; they had an opening night. Stars from the beginning, they drew everyone to them. I was surprised to find them very easy to raise. They entertained each other. Quiet described them accurately. Their cribs were set end-to-end, and when we checked on them frequently, usually they were standing and taking turns dropping toys into each others cribs. They would do that for hours.
Today, they are middle aged women, grandmothers, and the best friends I have. In fact, in virtual ways they still drop toys into each others cribs; did I mention they are close?
Back to Rebecca’s nativity. I arrived at the hospital and took my place with the other fathers. Red blooded Americans that they were, sports was the topic of conversation when I walked in. (Always wondered what “red-blooded American” meant. Are there Americans without red blood? Just wondered.) Since I was once a sports editor, I joined in and paid my two cents although I didn’t know what I was talking about since I’d been away from the sports desk for a few years. However, it’s a well-known fact that men pontificate, expounding faux eruditely about subjects they know little about because it is a pissing contest. The more men sound as if they are experts, the stronger their steams become and soon only the few, the hardy, and the brave are left at the trough. If a guy keeps silent, the other guys will think he’s pussy-whipped and eventually make him the subject of their jibes and innuendos. At least that seems the case. I was at the trough when the other guys were gone.
At two the next morning I was alone in the room. Silence is not deafening, as the old cliche goes; it booms, cracks, explodes. I neared schizophrenic, complete with voices and screams of children surrounding me. A distant snore awakened me. It was my snore.
“Mr. Fuller, congratulations, you are the father of a beautiful baby girl.”
At first I thought it was another hallucinatory voice until I spotted the young nurse standing in the doorway. I forgot why I was there.
“Huh?” came my eloquent response.
“You have a baby girl waiting for you. Follow me.”
“Again?” I muttered.
“Beg pardon?” She turned and looked at me.
“Nothing. Just delirious jabber.”
She grinned knowingly and continued to lead me along the hallway.
Hospital corridors at three in the morning are not places to be when you are rum-dumb from lack of sleep. Choruses of breathing, grunting, calls for help, beeping machines, odors you’d rather not identify, shadow persons shuffling in an out of rooms like Death Eaters from Hogwarts — I found it creepy then and still do.
When we arrived at the room where Rebecca and I would meet, the nurse opened the door and let me pass through. Her smirky smile at me as she closed the door may have been her way of warning me that my days of tranquility were completely over now. Of course, we had had no tranquility since the babies entered our lives, but when I saw Rebecca, I knew she would be the topper.
That initial meeting with my daughter was complicated by my fatigue and anxiety over what I would find when I got back to the newspaper office. My wife was burnt as all women are burnt when having gone through a lengthy delivery. And, my sloe-eyed daughter who continued to nail me through my heart was exhausted, too. Both were asleep when I left. I do not remember much of the trip home, but I fell into bed, and didn’t regain consciousness until 2 p.m.
When I got to the office, Pop was furious. He glared at me as I sort of slithered into my desk, but he said nothing. He continued to stare at me, frowning intensely, as he lit his pipe, a huge meerschaum with an apricot-colored stem.
“What’d you have?” he asked while billows of cumulus smoke enshrouded his face.
“Wife had a girl. I had heebie-jeebies, or nervous anxiety. Both appear well.”
He smiled, a sparkle in his moist grey-blue eyes. “Which appears well, heebie-jeebies or the nervous anxiety?” He took a drag from his pipe that whistled slightly as the smoke passed through.“You don’t have the vaguest idea of the heebie-jeebies waiting for you.” He tossed a proof on my desk. “Here’s the layout for today’s front page. Do the corrections and bring it to me.”
As I read the front page and blue-penciled corrections, Rebecca’s face drifted across the page, her eyes drilling into me. Pop was so right. But, she was here, I was her pop, so let the journey begin. As for the terrible reckoning I knew would come someday, we would deal with it and win. My ace in the hole? I loved her the moment I met her.