Leonard Pitt never got the opportunity to raise a child from birth. Until his grandson arrived and changed everything.
My son Stephen walked into the house one day and told me that his girlfriend was pregnant. I hit the roof.
“Stephen, are you crazy! How’d that happen? You studied safe sex in high school. You even taught it to other kids. Pregnant! You mean you didn’t use a condom?”
“It was the heat of the moment,” he said.
“There’s always heat of the moment,” I said. “That’s no excuse!”
He sat in stony silence. I railed.
You can’t do this. This is terrible! You’re driving into a brick wall.”
This went on for days.
Stephen is my adopted son. He came to live with me when he was almost nine years old. Today he is 28. I raised him alone. His mother is my first cousin who I hardly know. He was taken away from her for reasons of gross negligence. Like many adopted children who lived through rough early years, Stephen has issues. He was profoundly unready for fatherhood. His girlfriend Viva is wonderful but at 22, and a grad student studying to become an opera singer, and with school debt, this was not her moment either.
“There’s no happiness here,” I said. “Go ahead, have the baby. But you’re not going to live with me and don’t come to me for money!”
I argued for abortion or adoption. Viva saw the light and began arranging for adoption but then changed her mind. I walked around with a cloud of gloom and doom hanging over my head.
When Viva went into labor I made sure I was at the birthing center with Stephen. No matter how I felt I wasn’t going to miss this. Viva wanted a natural birth and was in a shallow pool of warm water being guided into motherhood. But the labor went late into the night and I had a lecture on Paris to give the next day so I went home to get some sleep. Unbeknownst to me things got complicated and Viva had to be rushed to the hospital for a C section. By the time I got there Miles was six hours old. We knew it was going to be a boy but ten and a half pounds!
I took one look and my heart stopped. I had never seen a newborn before. In pictures and movies, yes, but now it was for real. And my blood. Love at first sight does not describe the feeling. I could barely catch my breath. I was a goner. I gazed in wonder and astonishment at Miles Millan Pitt.
They ended up living with me and I gave them money.
Stephen and Viva were slow at first to understand how much I had come around. So I told them straight out. “This is the greatest gift that has ever been made to me in my whole life.” To make the point more clear I reminded Stephen of something he said to me a couple of years earlier. “Lenny, how can I ever repay you for all you’ve done for me?” Now I told him, “Stephen, debt paid.”
Because I never raised a child from birth I had no idea what I had missed. Now so many things I never understood, and did not know that I did not understand, suddenly made sense. Here at the tender age of seventy I was discovering things that everyone else knew all about. I felt like I was living life in reverse.
For example, now I understand what people mean when they say, “Oh, I’d never travel or move to so and so place. I don’t want to be that far away from my grandchildren.” Of course. And that’s only the beginning. Every day at this young age is a day of growth, change and discovery. Who would want to miss that?
That first moment I laid eyes on Miles changed my life. Another one of those moments came at eight weeks, and like the first one I didn’t see it coming either. Miles was still a little blob. His head rolled in all directions, his eyes wandered. I held him in my arms and talked to him, cuddled, cooed, and told him how much I loved him. One afternoon I was talking to him softly when all of a sudden his head stopped and he fixed his gaze on me. I froze. Wide eyed, he looked straight at me. And he held the look. This was the first look of his life and it was on me. He kept looking at me. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind. Strangely, I thought of the downfall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and all the orphaned children I saw in the news who were thrown into cribs to be left unattended and how this isolation would handicap them for life. And this made the present moment all the more important.
I swear I could see Miles’s brain growing, knitting, coming together right in front of me. He looked at me for what seemed like a long time. I knew I had to hold that look for as long as he wanted, that I had to be silent and must not look away. This was his moment. He had to be sated in his first look. He had to be in control. I had to let him know the beauty and intimacy of his first look. Then his head snapped and bobbed away. I was breathless.
Some loves are so deep that we are unalterably changed. That’s how I felt. Each of us has a shape to our emotional life. All of our personal experience combines with who we are in our genes and comes together into an individual signature shape. I had never thought of this before but I did now. And the reason why is because I could feel the shape of my emotional life change. Truth be told, I’ve become a mushy puddle of tears. I’ll choke up at anything.
Viva is a grad student at San Jose State University, about an hour south of Berkeley. Stephen is Mr. Mom. She has class four days a week which means every Thursday night they drive to Berkeley and stay til Sunday night. When they drive away I admit I do experience a moment of relief. The next day, Monday, my big teaching day keeps me busy and I’m fine. But by Tuesday things don’t feel quite right. By Wednesday I’m in serious DMM mode (Desperately Missing Miles). Thursday I’m lost. When they finally arrive Thursday night sometimes Miles is already asleep but it makes no difference. Miles is in the house and all is well.
Miles has brought me many gifts. Things I could never have dreamt of. Now when I see a woman walking down the street with an infant, imagine, I’m the one who strikes up a conversation with her. “Baby time! How old? Sleep through the night?” I find it all fascinating and would be perfectly happy to sit in a circle of women and talk about babies. Crazy, but true.
Miles began crawling at about six months and that was exciting. But something far more exciting was in preparation that I could not see coming.
Every night as Miles goes to bed mommy and daddy bring him into my study so I can give him a kiss good-night. But one night was different from all other nights. He was eight months old. I went to give him a kiss and out of nowhere he leaned forward and reached out to me with open arms. I melted on the spot. And it made sense. Knowing how to crawl he had more directed movement in his arms. He was learning how to assert his desire through his arms and there I was a recipient of his newly learned knowledge of how to manifest his desire.
At thirteen months it occurred to me that Miles was like a being from another planet who had fallen into my lap. He knows nothing about life down on earth but is open and hungry to learn everything. And it has fallen to me to show him what life on earth is all about.
Example: My house has jasmine and lavender all around. I walked out the front door one day with Miles in my arms and I thought, “Wait a minute. He’s never smelled a flower!” So I plucked a sprig of fragrant jasmine, held it to my nose, inhaled deeply and gave out a big ahh! I put the jasmine in front of his nose. He didn’t know what to do but the fragrance was so strong that he took it in and smiled. I smelled it a second time with a big ahh! I held it to his nose. He turned away. I smelled again. Held it to his nose. Now he leaned in, smelled and let out a big grin. Lesson learned.
A week later we were in the garden standing at a lavender bush with jasmine growing all over it. While I plucked a jasmine sprig Miles reached out and pulled off a tip of lavender and surprised me by putting it right up to my nose with a big smile. As I let out a big ahhh! so did he. I held the jasmine to his nose. He smelled and with an ear to ear smile let out a big ahh! He then took his lavender tip and placed it delicately back on the bush.
People tell me that Miles is lucky to have me. I say I’m lucky to have Miles. He has taught me so much.
One thing I have learned. When a child has their focus on anything, no matter what it is, do not disturb them. Miles sits playing with the plastic top of his bottle trying to figure out how the devil it fits over the nipple. He tries to put it on, drops it, picks it up, tries to fit it on the bottom. That doesn’t work. He sucks on the nipple for a bit, tries the cap again and gets it over the nipple but can’t push it on to secure it. He keeps trying. Remarkably he does not grow frustrated and give up. He spends a long time trying things out. Do not disturb! Give him the pleasure of focusing.
When I’ve got Miles in my arms, either sitting or standing, and he gets fidgety, I realize how little it takes to calm him. Often all it takes is a slight turn of my body, even a shift of weight. These changes, small to us, are big changes for him and do the job. If I’m standing I’ll step to the side and turn a bit and all is well.
Any time he reaches out to touch something that is almost within reach, a tabletop, a window, a door, I can feel his body, I can feel his desire and how important it is for him to have that touch. And I make sure he has that touch. And I can feel his satisfaction in completing this tiny desire. When he’s on my lap I make sure he has something under his feet so he can push with his legs if he wants. I can feel what that means in his body, how good it feels, how that contact and pushing nurtures his physicality, hence his person.
Part of my job is to be attentive to what interests Miles and to nurture that in him. One evening at about three months old, I sat with him on my lap in front of the computer as I searched around on Youtube for some music to watch. I came upon the great pianist Murray Perahia playing the 3rd movement of the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata. I clicked it on and to my astonishment Miles became engrossed and watched for the entire six minutes without getting bored or fidgety. We did it again the next day and he sat just as quiet watching it all the way through. And we have done this everyday he is at home with me. Since then we have broadened our horizons and now include a seventeen-minute video of The Chieftains, which he loves. And of course the ultimate, Elmo! He loves his Elmo songs. I’m too old to have been brought up on Sesame Street or Elmo but I’ve made up for lost time and have put in many hours watching the same songs over and over again, and funnily, with Miles on my lap, I do not get bored.
Socializing a child is critical, I know, and I’ve taken this to heart. Every day for the last hundred years or so I’ve gone to the same café near my house. The distance to the café is not great and I’ve always felt guilty for not walking there. But now with Miles in the stroller I walk up there everyday singing to him along the way in English or French. The café, coincidentally, is called The French Café. He knows everyone there, the
baristas, the customers, and has charmed them all. They will all come up and start chatting out of the blue. I’ve tried to decipher his charm. Is there something I can learn from him? Is it the diaper? Should I try a diaper with just a little bit showing over my jeans. Or is it the drool?
Because this café is not a hip place where only young kids go, the whole gamut of life is present there from infants to the very old. And it is important for Miles to see that whole spectrum of life. And there is a good share of dogs too, which he loves.
Down the street The Cheese Board is a carnival of food and fun. Peeking behind the counter to watch the baking: the kneading, pulling, cutting, sprinkling, is endless fascination. Children love verbs. They understand verbs. Verbs are physical and this is their language. And the live music in the afternoon is a big addition to his enjoyment
Walking to the café is not the only thing Miles gets me to do that I would never do on my own. I have also taken him for walks along the edge of the Bay so he can get a view of San Francisco in the distance, so he can see the huge body of water, the ducks, the waves. It is never too early to embed this experience of what I call hands-on geography onto a young mind.
I understand Miles will not remember any of the things we do together in these early months and years. This is normal. What does count in these early months and years, though, is the quality of the relationship. A relationship of love and support will create a young person with self-confidence, intelligence and an optimism about the future. A fractured, problematic relationship will create a young person living with insecurity and all the terrible compensations that that can bring on.
The negative side to my experience of becoming a grandfather is the fear I now live with. To date Miles has been to the ER three times. The first time he swallowed a penny. With many children the penny will pass through. With Miles it got stuck. Luckily it lodged in a way so as to not block his breathing and he quieted down. An X-ray at the hospital told the story and the penny was taken out.
Two months later, ER visit number two. One morning Mile was listless, vomiting. The clue was the blood in his poop. Luckily Oakland Children’s Hospital is a short drive from my house. We rushed over. An ultrasound gave the doctor a hunch. A real time X-ray was conclusive. Intussesception. I never heard of this. The intestine, like a telescope that should be fully extended to function, instead contracts, folds in on itself. Digestion stops, the intestinal wall weakens and blood passes through. Untreated the child can die in a couple of days. We got to the ER at 9am and the doctors took Miles in like the President had arrived. By 1pm he was on his way to full recovery. I cannot say enough good things about Oakland Children’s Hospital.
There are two possible remedies for Intussesception. One is giving the child barium to drink which is heavy enough to extend the intestine. But Miles couldn’t keep anything down so solution number two was chosen: an air enema. Air pumped into the butt extends the intestine to its full length. This done, Miles was asleep in minutes.
ER visit number three. Two days later, in San Jose, he slipped in the bathtub and split his chin open. Had Viva taken him to the ER down there Miles would surely have had stitches. Within a few minutes though the bleeding stopped and Miles was not crying. But what to do? I told Viva to drive to Oakland to Children’s Hospital and I would meet her there. This was a good choice as it turns out. In the 90 minute drive there the wound had already begun to heal. The nurse who looked at Miles thought it was borderline and was probably worth 3 or 4 stitches. We groaned. The doctor walked in and went, “What! Miles again?” He took a look at his chin. “He’s gone through enough this little boy. We’ll glue him.” And glue it was. No stitches.
So now I get to worry all the time that some new misfortune will befall us. And I realize what my parents most certainly felt when, as a newly minted twenty-one year old, I went sailing off to Europe in the fall of 1962 with practically no money in my pocket, little idea of where I was going, and no ability to speak a word of a foreign language. And I now understand what my mother must have felt when my first postcard arrived telling her I was ok, and how many times she must have read and reread that postcard, and what it was like for her and my father when I came home for my first visit a year and a half later. So many things.
Not to diminish all the wonders grandfatherhood has given me, there are, along with the worry, a number of regrets. Having Miles in my life highlights the loss of others in my family who have passed away. How my mother and father would have loved him. Moreso, I have so many questions I would have wanted to ask them. What was it like raising three boys? Did they childproof? How were we different from each other when we were little? What was I like? How did I eat, sleep? I think of my little brother Barry and how he would have loved seeing me as a grandfather, and all the notes we would have compared, all the things we would have talked about.
Most poignantly, it brings a reconsideration of so many people in my family. I think of all the love and sweetness that everyone in my family showed me, showered me with when I was that small, and now I would like to thank them. The only relative surviving of that generation after Miles was born was Aunt Ada. I was lucky enough to see her a few months before she passed away and brought with me this realization and I felt so grateful and wanted to say thank you but didn’t know how, so I doted on her like she was my mother.
Every day I think of all the things I want to do with Miles, all the experiences I want to give him. Prime of course is my desire to take him to Paris. How old does he have to be before an experience such as this can have any meaning? May the Gods grant me the years to see it happen. By the time Miles graduates high school I’ll be eighty-nine years old. May the Gods…
Originally published as a slightly different version on The Fathers Forum blog at newdadtimes.com. Hat tip to Dr. Bruce Linton for sending it our way.
All photos courtesy of author. Photo of Leonard and Miles (above) by Mark Sommer.