My only first-hand experience with childbirth before 2012 had been in my garage as an 11-year-old. I sat with my dad’s dog, whose name I don’t remember because there had been so many. She was in labor with her first litter and as I stroked her head to keep her calm, I kept repeating what any caring and sensitive child of 11 would say to a dog giving birth in the family garage, “Good girl, c’mon girl, you can do it girl”.
So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that when I used the same lines during my wife’s labor, “Good girl, c’mon girl, you can do it girl,” my left hand rightfully received a crushing squeeze and I was given the worst side eye of my life.
There had been expectations with childbirth, like I expected to be ready to support Regina having taken several birthings classes with her. No one warned me that I shouldn’t try to calm and comfort her as I would one of my dad’s many Blueticks.
But any uncomfortable missteps were soon forgiven as we witnessed the best of humanity in the form of baby with a mop of brown hair, blinking eyes, ten fingers and ten perfect long toes like my own.
We all have expectations or at least things that we have grown used to. The sun rises and sets. Your parents will always be married. Santa Claus is real.
My mom was always home from school in the summers as she was a teacher, which was good. She and I were the two in the family of three that were most alike. We could have easily passed as siblings when viewing our first grade school pictures and we have always communicated in a similar fashion. Mom would take me everywhere, from places that I wanted to visit (K-Mart), places I did not want to visit (the fabric store) and to my grandparent’s house up the road within walking distance. We would talk the entire summer on these rides and walks much how I now talk with my own son. The only gap was when my dad came home because then it was time to hear about his day at the mill.
In the summer after second grade, Mom had begun laying the clues out to help me deduce that there was no Santa. As a teacher, she had seen the torment that came from being the child who held on to myths too long. In the midst of drawing and talking that summer, I looked up and bluntly asked if there really was a Santa. Mom gently replied, No, your father and I are your Santa.
Proud that I had put the clues together correctly, but still a bit exasperated, I then said “Great! I guess you’re going to tell me there’s no Easter Bunny either”
She smiled and playfully asked if I still believed in the Tooth Fairy, to which I replied with only an eye roll.
Unbeknownst to me, Mom had been married before. Instead of finding out by accident by her family, she decided to get in front of a potentially upsetting discovery. She started dropping clues again in conversations, so that I could unearth and digest this new news more easily. It was about a man. As Santa was real and then he wasn’t, this new man was non existent and then he was.
I don’t quite remember the details of the exact evidence she presented, but I put things together quickly enough and asked her the question that I was led to.
“Mom, were you married before?”
Yes, she gently replied.
I dared not ask any further questions in fear of what other truths might be waiting to wrestle me away from my completely comfortable world. My concrete foundation was beginning to feel rickety. But in that moment, a seed of wonder and doubt had been planted.
- Do I have an estranged sibling?
- Siblings? Plural?
- How would that work?
- Mothers usually get full custody.
- Oh, no!
- Mothers usually DO get full custody.
- Is the man in the backyard my real father?
I walked with my heart in my head to our backyard kennel, thinking this could explain things. I love my Dad, but even at ten, I felt a bit disconnected from him. Maybe, biologically, I wasn’t his. I saw Dad and nearly cried thinking that he wasn’t “mine.”
A day before my 30th birthday Dad shattered his leg in a horsing accident. His recovery was slow, so I moved home to help physically take care of his collection of animals instead of mom, who was still working at the time. His hygiene became somewhat lacking due to being immobile and due to a mounting depression.
I came into our living room one evening and noticed him reclined on the couch, his unadorned feet hanging off of the armrest.
“Dad, do you need me to cut your nails?”
“No, I got it,” he said.
I had first noticed his neglected toe nails, but then I could see his long, slender, pale white feet. Toes that could hold a pencil. The round bundle of muscle below the ankle that almost appeared blue because of their closeness to the surface. If my feet had a mirror, then these would be their reflection.
Dad had my feet or rather I had his.
And this is when any question or insecurities about my heritage as a child fled my mind. My father and I are dissimilar is many ways. And although I have not followed in his footsteps with how I view the world, when I look at my own feet, it is a literal reminder that we are bound together.