Joe Stracci spent 5 weeks at home with his daughter, just long enough to learn everything and nothing.
If I told you that I remembered my first thought when she was born, I’d be lying. I think about it now, five months later, and all I’ve really got are the base elements of memory, separate and distinct fragments. Sounds—the electronic chatter of the machines in the O.R., the voices of the people involved. The fact that a nurse was breaking the chops of the surgeon was a port in the storm; I thought: well, she probably won’t die. People don’t joke if someone’s about to die. I can still hear the practiced calm in the voices of both the midwife and her student. The midwife had a slight Midwestern-twang to her speech; the student—nasally, New York City Jewish overtones.
I do remember the feeling of the moment. It felt like surging, after twenty hours spent living in three-minute intervals, forward. I remember blankly comforting my wife even though I had no basis for my comforting, as I didn’t know what was happening, my words having no heft beyond the sounds that left my mouth. We were positioned behind the same blue curtain.
I also remember how slowly they pushed the incubator down the hall once she—the other “she” in my life, now—was out and being taken to the N.I.C.U., and thinking: “She’s probably not going to die. They wouldn’t be moving this slowly if she were dying.”
The best I can do now is look at one of the few pictures taken of me during that week in the hospital. I was—I am—the photographer. My influence is in every picture—the composition, the post-production, the dissemination.
But I am in almost none.
But I am in this picture. I had been told to wait outside of the O.R. as they prepared everything, an everything that I knew included a transverse cut into my wife’s abdomen. I was given a papery bodysuit to step into and zip up, the result of crossbreeding a painter’s coverall and a hospital gown. A paper cover for my head (elastic band). A cover for my mouth (strings to tie). The hot smell of my own breath. The pants were baggy (better, I suppose, for the short to deal with excess than for the tall to deal with exposure) and I remember scolding myself for wondering if I looked stupid.
In a cart next to me were our bags—clothes, pillows, a sweatshirt with a clump of lilac torn off the plants that grow in front of our house in one of the pockets. A birth plan that had been abandoned hours before.
They said that they would have me bring the cart to the room my wife would be taken to after the birth, which I took as another good sign: they wouldn’t reserve a bed for someone about to die.
But they forgot about me.
And so there I was, a camera hanging around my neck (the camera I’d bought specifically for this moment, and for the moments after), just—waiting. Civilians passed. They gave me that look that everyone gives each other in hospitals, the look that says “You’ve got pain too, huh?”
At some point, I noticed my reflection in the sliding O.R. doors across from me. Took one picture. Took another. Both while holding the camera at chest level. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen myself (water tubs, birth balls, decels, epidural). I disappeared when the doors slid open. Hospital staff, but not to collect me. Our almost-but-not-quite emergency cesarean section, or maybe somebody else’s, was just their next half hour of work. I was back when the doors closed. I disappeared when they opened again. More staff. Back when they closed.
And then I disappeared when they opened again, and it was the midwife, and the midwife motioned with her hand and said, “They’re ready for you.”
And then I left our cart in the hallway and stepped through myself, where I’d been only moments before, and emerged on the other side the father I am now.
I married a woman who on Monday, April 8th, 2013, two hours after an almost-but-not-quite-emergency cesarean section, performed because of worsening chorioamnionitis, instructed the Recovery nurses to bring her down in a wheelchair to the N.I.C.U. so that she could begin breastfeeding her daughter.
You’re not allowed out of bed yet, they cried.
Well then starting pushing the bed, she said.
Inside our room in the N.I.C.U., I heard the doors open to the unit, the staff-only doors, and I knew it was her. Then I heard her voice. It was Danielle and she was decidedly not dead.
(Keep in mind that once the little one was swaddled and toasting in her warmer, I’d run up to Recovery to make sure Danielle wasn’t dead; found her sweaty and shaky, but alive. My bulging eyes told her that something was wrong with the baby, which of course, wasn’t the case.
I had been moved to tears several times already by the sight of Luna’s tiny mouth—tiny lips smacking apart, exposing a tiny tongue, nature informing her through tiny electronic pulses from a tiny brain to tell whoever was around hey, hand me a breast, would you?—and in response to Danielle’s gentle demand of are you sure everything is okay?, I blurted out something along the lines of, “it’s just so obvious that she needs her mother,” and started crying again.
I regret that statement now, since Danielle wanted nothing more in the world than to be with her too. What I said came more from a place of amazement—here were the visual cues I had spent nine months reading about and I wasn’t in a position to respond to them.
True to form, Danielle just smiled, and comforted me, and told me that it was okay, that she was going to be fine).
I got to see them meet for the first time (outside of our first moments as a family in a frantic O.R.) and nobody in the room (two Recovery nurses, one N.I.C.U. nurse) could move because they had jammed an enormous hospital bed into the space, because that’s the kind of woman I married.
You don’t argue with my wife. You just fit the bed into the room.
I married a woman who would do that same Recovery-down-to-N.I.C.U.-and-back shuffle for five days, several times a day, for the baby’s feedings, back up for her feedings, and for pain meds, and for nurse’s checks. Danielle ditched the bed by early that morning (at some point, we had hospital hamburgers, which I remember as one of the best of my life), ditched the wheelchair by Tuesday morning for a steady hand on the I.V. pole, and on Friday, when she was discharged, and I heard her voice entering the N.I.C.U. again, I exhaled for the first time in five days, even though I would now have to spend the next three nights in the N.I.C.U. sleeping either on the linoleum floor, nestled amongst every towel in the closet, or sitting in the chair (both setups had their pros and cons) because I wouldn’t be alone in this anymore.
I married a woman who, once she was home and healing and feeding, had an edema develop, probably because she moved around so damn much (well then start pushing the bed!), and had to keep her wound dressing fresh because she had fluid leaking from her like cars running their air conditioners at gas stations. And when the doctor told her (because my wife is a midwife, doctors always speak to her the way they really want to speak to all of their patients—the bitter truth wrapped in detached laughter, wrapped in a series of knowing head and hand movements) that the best way, the quickest way, was to just squeeze the shit out of the thing and keep it dry, Danielle took his advice to heart. On several occasions, I walked into the bathroom and saw the woman I married pressing down with interlocked fingers on her abdomen, a lazy Heimlich maneuver, a thin line of rosy fluid jetting out from a tiny hole in the middle of her and into the sink.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that we used the same wastebasket for her medical waste and for the baby’s waste.
I married a woman who frazzled in the weeks after because we had a baby who loved to yell, at times cranky and obnoxious (like her dad), almost from birth. And I’d come home from work and she’d hand her to me, and even though I was busy and juggling a few jobs’ tasks and commuting and getting fat because the gym is the first thing to get moved off of life’s Must Have list once you have a baby, everything would stop and nothing else mattered. Exactly how they’d said it would be. I’d sit and try and figure out who this little person was and why she was in my home.
I married a woman who needed to go back to work after three months because her job is important. As a midwife she helps women, and by extension, their families, through the same process we had just needed so much help to get through. And I get downright stupid and smirky when I think of the little lady we’re going to unleash on an unsuspecting world, primed and ready to enact change after having studied under the woman that I married.
When we found out that It was a girl, I was worried. Because it’s harder to be a woman in this world. And because I didn’t know how to teach a woman how to be woman. Everything I know is about how to be a man, and even there—not much.
But I realized soon that we’d lucked out. A little boy growing up to be like me—there’s enough men like me in the world.
But the woman I married?
The world could use a few more women like the one I married.
And so when Luna would piddle when her diaper was off, yowl to get your attention and then grin when she got it, or jab you with a fingernail, we’d think: here she comes.
The following is reproduced from a spiral notebook, on which, in the top left corner of the yellow cover, is written in my wife’s handwriting LUNA NOTES. Inside the cover, a couple of emergency telephone numbers. The first page, back and front, is an outline of what a normal day in Luna’s life consisted of when she was 3 months old. The book was for my mom to use as a guide while she watched Luna the week my wife went back to work, which was also my last week at work before spending 5 weeks at home with the baby.
That week ended and my five weeks began. I was on the clock. That morning, I decided I would record as much as possible (the original plan was to take copious notes every day). I’ve edited for coherence only in the most extreme instances and for punctuation/formatting consistency.
Monday, 7/15 – Day Zero
7:30am: Woke up. Drool on my pillow. Sunny. L.D. wants out.
7:30-8am: Prepared to make the trip—to the living room. Listened to podcast. Made coffee.
8:11am: L.D. going hard on some blanket. Will be wanting milks soon; I can tell. I’m just in-tune with her. Already.
8:19am: Time on tummy.
8:37am: Catch myself staring at L.D. in fear; think of quote from ‘Mystic River.’
8:39am: Look up ‘Mystic River’ quote; realize it’s totally inapprop; decide against posting it.
8:45am: Whimpering. Something is wrong. L.D., on the other hand, is fine.
9:00am: First feeding. Takes until 9:15am. 5oz.
9:17am: Down for nap.
9:27am: Actually sleeping.
10:25am: Wakes up. Burps twice. Walk outside. Look @ flowers.
11:13am: I try and read a 3rd PANK story (she was quiet for 2). She realizes, throws a fit of shit.
11:39am: Surely, every clock must be malfunctioning at once, b/c I’ve certainly been doing this for six or seven hours. Read two books. In one, monkeys repeatedly suffer concussions at the hands of a negligent mother (5 Monkeys). In another, a tale that makes the case for divorce (B/C Your Daddy Loves You).
11:42am: Luna crying for only the 2nd time. Clean. Loved. Time to feed?
11:52am: Started bottle; started to pass out with 3oz. left. Manages to maintain Vulcan Death Grip on my nipple and chest hair.
12:14pm: Halfway there. Actually, not really. In crib, supposed to be napping, laying awake, sucking thumb, playing w/ blanket, taunting me w/ her eyes.
12:18pm: It hits me that I’m also responsible for preparing dinner tonight. Obviously this is (and has been) impossible. I will try and figure out how and who Danielle has been paying to take care of this.
12:31pm: Bottle + vitamins finished. And now for the na—fuck, she’s awake.
12:35pm: Between frantic, hurried bites of grapefruit, I manage to put her to sleep. Sleepsack—employed. White noise—blaring. Rubbed forehead w/ one finger. Paci—Maggie Simpsoning. All efforts to wean her off of such comforts to sleep? Abandoned.
12:37pm: Hundreds of tweets unread, RSS feed full, and there is a fine film of baby accessories on every surface.
12:41pm: Need to regain my composure, exercise and shower before L.D. wakes up—who the fuck am I kidding. Where are the pretzel bites?
-3 thai plans
-3 thai crucifix
-4 thai crunches
-face crush: IIII
-gorilla swing 1: 2 mins.
-gorilla swing 2: 2 mins.
-gorilla swing 3: 2 mins.
1:17pm: Exercise complete.
1:57pm: Showered, brushed teeth, changed cat litter. Holy fuck, it’s 2 o’clock.
1:58pm: I’ll begin to make lunch now, which means LD will surely be up shortly.
2:00pm: Going—okay? Still 2 more bottles (including the Coma Bomb aka the 6 oz. bottle) in the fridge. Still need to edit and read and eat lunch. Listened to a bunch of podcasts. I don’t see how leaving the house is possible.
2:57pm: Enjoyed an espresso. Almost want to wake her up at this point, purely out of guilt over how much time I’ve had to myself today.
3:30pm: Finished bottle. Happy just—sitting? Cooing? Eating blanket? Something must be wrong.
3:40pm: Nope—still just fine.
3:41pm: Forgot to mention—she seriously loves podcasts. For real. #MyKid
4:04pm: I—finally—use the Rock ‘n Play. Feeling pretty good about that.
4:05pm: We decide that Bernardo is silly b/c he does silly things. Next problem? Why blankies are so blankety.
4:17pm: Made cup of coffee. L.D. watched. Got a little spicy when she realized I was only making one mug. Blamed my not being able to give her some on Mama.
4:18pm: Realize I’ve had a burp cloth on my shoulder since—well, I can’t remember when, actually.
4:25pm: LD falls asleep in the Rock ‘n Play. No paci or white noise. #BabyWhisperer
4:56pm: LD stirring. My reaction is, “Oh, no,” but I realize that, plus and minus-wise, I’m deep in her debt right now. She can destroy me if she so chooses and really, we’d end up even. This last hour or so can be a doozy.
4:58pm: Time for music and dinner prep. More coffee?
5:12pm: La Luna Diabla shows up; demands—something. I hurriedly prepare milk as an offering, fumbling around the kitchen like a member of a low caste attending to the needs of the landowning gentry. We sit and prepare and upon taking some of the milk, she makes a face like I’ve tried to feed her white, liquid shit. She appears enamored with the Apple TV screensaver (pics of herself—typical Stracci). But when I set her up with a comfortable seat in the Rock ‘n Play in front of the TV—eruption.
5:34pm: Still holding her. Dinner on hold.
5:42pm: Back in the Rock ‘n Play after a diaper change. Wet and a shart but the 18th of July Spectacular! has yet to erupt. She’s contentedly trying to consume her fingers while I have an aneurysm trying to figure out why the Apple TV screensaver still won’t update w/ the new goddamn pictures.
5:43pm: It dawns on me that on Wednesday I’m going to have to do this until Thursday. God help us all.
5:45pm: Still concerned, actually. L.D. reads my vibes (this ‘in-tune’ thing must work both ways?), begins crying. She can smell fear.
5:51pm: Example exchange:
Dad: Oh, L.D., your paci fell out? Why didn’t you say something?
Dad: *shoves paci in her mouth*
L.D.: *death stare*
L.D.: *slow, determined suck, as if to say, All I’ve got is time, big man.*
Dad: Next time just tell me you need your paci, Mom-o!
L.D.: *gives 24 hours, hotshot. Me and you. look*
5:54pm: Debating the wisdom of phoning in a bomb threat during Mama’s 24. Surely she would be allowed to go home.
Five months in, five weeks spent at home with her, and you get better at it. You learn. You react. You try and remember for next time. You correct people when they call what you did babysitting. You think you’ll never be able to do this again. You can’t wait to do it again. You force yourself to relive the moments that you just put your head down and got through, the terms you learned to use (oxygen levels, lumbar puncture, antibiotics course), because the doctor warned you that in the not too-distant future, where I write from now, that the room in the N.I.C.U, the nights, the days, marking papers in the unit break room, that it would all be forgotten, as if it hadn’t happened.
And while the memory of those moments still bottom my stomach out, I keep myself in that place from time to time, relive the tears, the new level of heartache I’ve come to understand, because I don’t want to forget.
It did happen.
So while I may not remember my first thought when she was born, I’m doing my best to get down everything since, like using a stick to scratch L.D. Was Here in the still-wet-concrete part of my brain.
In the five weeks I spent home with Luna, I learned that four ounces isn’t quite enough, but five ounces is a guaranteed puke.
I learned that the things that made her laugh would only make her laugh for so long.
I learned to point out you’ve been fed, you’ve been changed, and you’ve been loved and that sometimes, she even stopped crying.
I learned that mental exhaustion is every bit as real as physical exhaustion.
I learned that the amount of time she naps for is exactly two minutes longer than the amount of time it takes to clean up from the time she was awake, just enough time to exhale before taking a big breath and going down for more.
I learned to decipher the timbre of each cry.
I learned how to give her a bottle in such a way that she seemed to genuinely enjoy it, seemed to enjoy the time spent on my lap, as I rubbed her head and dabbed at the milk that spilled from the corners of her mouth. I learned that it still wasn’t quite the same as the breast, though, and that that was okay.
I learned to distinguish between the quality burp cloths and the crummy burp cloths.
I learned the signs. And even better, I still see them.
I learned that now that my wife and I are back at work, that I’ve begun to say what is essentially a long series of goodbyes to my daughter, and that before each one I won’t want to say it, and after each one I will regret it. And that in that moment, I will regret bringing a child into specifically this world, only to thrust her into the hands of others, and through my leaving her day after day, force her to begin to understand the basic, shitty truths about our world, our lives, our existence.
But I won’t leave off like that.
In my five weeks at home with Luna, I also learned that her smile when she first wakes up in the morning is a physical representation of something one can usually only feel—so pure, and honest, and overflowing with an amount of joy and hope that most adults can no longer fathom.
I learned that she’s got so much to teach me.
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Photos courtesy of the author