Ten little fingers. Ten little toes. Two little eyes squinting back up at him. Correction, tentiny fingers, ten tiny toes, two tiny eyes. Tiny. There was no other word. Ok, sure, there wasbeautiful, amazing, awe inspiring, all that. And all that was true. But he had never planned ontiny. He had planned on little, or bouncy, orhealthfully chubby. Never had tiny come into the picture.
Fear had never been a thought he’d planned on, either. He’d planned on excitement, and at the most some nerves, but never fear. Fear had no place in a situation like this. So…why was it the main thing he was feeling right at this moment? Everyone else had settled down. The doctors and nurses had stopped hovering and were now just going about their business cleaning up. Maddie had drifted off to sleep in exhaustion. The baby himself was comfortably swaddled and content in his warm blanket, enjoying being protectively cradled in Henry’s strong arms. Henry knew he should be basking in the glow of new fatherhood right at this moment…but all he could feel…was fear. It hadn’t happened the way it was supposed to. Shawn wasn’t supposed to be born for another month.
‘Don’t worry, Mr. Spencer. Yes, it’s early, but this happens often enough. The baby will be fine.’
Not that those words had done anything to make him feel better. Shouldn’t labor happen sometime in the middle of the night, when all was quiet and there was no traffic on the road?! Coming to terms with his wife saying ‘It’s time’weeks early, then have to drive her to the hospital at the start of rush hour was NOT what he had planned on in the least. No, an early labor couldn’t be considered normal. If it was, it wouldn’t be considered early, for heaven’s sakes. Still, he had almost been convinced that this might just be okay after all. Almost. Then it all started happening.
‘Crap, it’s breech.’ Came the initial alarm. Those words had not been in his mental script, either. And what the hell was ‘breech’ anyway?? What it meant was another doctor and two more nurses suddenly involved while his wife was increasingly in more and more pain. No, this wasn’t normal. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. The urgency to get the baby out was all wrong, for one thing. And all of a sudden, the early labor was a concern to the medical staff involved. Baby coming too soon. Baby not positioned how it should be. A birth that was being all at once forced on them, and not happening naturally at the same time.
And the worst of it was how all he could do was stand to the side and let everyone else do their thing. No control. No ability to even lift a finger to help safeguard the lives of his wife and child. The endless days and hours he put in, every single day, protecting the lives of countless people out there, and he could do nothing for his own family. Not his idea of feeling useful in the least bit.
Please…let it be okay…please don’t let anything happen to it… He caught himself pleading for the safety of his baby. No, it wasn’t an it. It was a baby boy or baby girl…he just didn’t know which just yet. He and his wife were still engaged in a frequently playful battle over which it would be. It was a battle that was supposed to continue for another month. And now…he felt like he was in danger of losing this baby before ever finding out whether he had a son or daughter. All those dreams, all those plans…they couldn’t possibly all end like this.
The efforts and fight for the baby’s life continued as the labor progressed. A couple co-workers stopped by, smiling and expecting good news, then muttering somber words of support and hope in the waiting room once he explained their situation. If only he could just call for backup. That always seemed to make things better at work. That’s how things went. His wife’s doctor had already called for backup, but the scene was far from clear. All the backup in the world would only be able to stand back and watch, and hope for the best. Hope that it was good enough. He often said that good enough was not good enough. Well, today it would have to be.
He wished the rest of the ordeal had passed by in a flurry of activity, but unfortunately, every painful detail was seared in his mind as it happened. The delicate procedure of birthing a baby feet first, trying to balance speed with necessary gentleness to avoid injury…guessing at what was fast enough or gentle enough. Henry didn’t know whether to hope for it to be over as quickly as possible, or…anything else. It was all he could do to try keeping track of everything going on while simultaneously trying to be present and supportive of his equally fearful and now suffering wife. All those years of training to remain cool in the heat of the moment remained intact only for the sake of his wife, but inside, he could feel himself breaking.
‘Children are resilient little buggers.’He remembered a co-worker giving him friendly advice a few weeks ago. ‘Especially little boys, or as my wife calls them, noise with dirt on it. You’ll see. They can get scraped and bruised and keep going like nothing happened. You’ll only see them crying for band-aids if there are popsicles in the freezer.’ It had made him feel better at the time, making him realize that girls were just as tough, based on his experiences with female co-workers. It was the moment he realized that he truly didn’t care whether he ended up with a girl or a boy. So, children were resilient. But what about babies? Early babies? Breech babies?
The flurry of activity continued as he held Maddie’s hand, whispering encouraging words to her every chance he got. Doctors and nurses barked orders back and forth to each other, hardly anyone looking directly at them more than once or twice. Was that a good or bad sign? Were they just too busy making sure that things didn’t turn tragic, or was it their way of avoiding eye contact with parents soon to receive bad news? He couldn’t even handle the questions running through his head, so he blocked them out, forcing himself to focus only on his wife. Keeping her strong should be helpful to the baby too, after all. He could only hope.
‘And here we are!’ Suddenly the flurry of activity paused for just a moment. Henry looked towards the doctor, who now held the tiniest little person he’d ever seen. He watched in amazement as the doctor literally handled the baby in just his two hands, turning him face up to get a better look and assess the baby’s status.
Two things happened in that moment. One, Henry saw for himself that he had a son. It was a boy! He turned to Maddie and announced the news himself, smiling wide, as if he had been granted a secret wish that even he didn’t know he had. ‘A baby boy, Maddie! He’s beautiful.’ He said for what had to be the fifth or sixth time. That was when the second thing happened. He realized, as the baby was rushed over to a separate area, that he had not heard any crying. The one who did cry at that moment was Maddie, leaving Henry torn between supporting his wife and rushing to make sure his son was okay. He’d never done this before – having to choose between the two of them. He hoped with everything he had he’d never have to do that ever again.
‘Go to him, Henry. I’m fine. Make sure he’s okay.’ He might have second-guessed Maddie’s request any other time, but today, something primal seemed to grab hold of him, sending him rushing out of the hospital room the instant her words were spoken. That parental instinct he never knew could develop so quickly was already fully formed and ready for action. By the time he reached the nursery where the medical staff was hovering over the baby, things already looked like they had settled down somewhat. The doctor was doing a lot more observing and a lot less working on the child, which must mean good news. The baby’s skin was pink and wrinkly, just like a newborn baby should look like, and he was clearly breathing by now. Whatever treatment he received had worked, thankfully.
He stood back and watched from a distance as the assessment and stabilization continued. They took his temperature, measured him from seemingly every angle, then weighed him. Five pounds exactly. Wow. Henry realized, as the baby was fed, diapered, and swaddled, that he was watching his entire life’s worth right there – weighing in at only five pounds – yet still worth more than all the gold in the world. It was an impossible feeling that he was completely unprepared for, making him feel weak-kneed just as a nurse brought the little bundle over to him.
The world dissolved away as the two of them finally met face to face, making eye contact with each other for the very first time. Henry’s mind partially focused on how little weight he actually felt in his arms. That would be hard to get used to – something so completely fragile. The rest of his attention was drawn into those tiny little eyes that appeared to be studying his every feature, just as interested in looking at him as he was in staring right back. There was a depth to that gaze, something so profound for someone so small and new.
‘Hey, kid.’ He had thought his first words spoken to his first-born would be a little more inspired. Perhaps a little more eloquent with at least an appearance of wisdom. No such luck, regardless how many times he had mentally rehearsed that first ever speech. No matter, those little eyes continued gazing at him regardless.‘Shawn.’ The agreed-upon name he and Maddie had come up with if the baby were a boy. They hadn’t quite cemented the choice officially, but once the name escaped his lips, Henry knew it was the right one. It just felt right. ‘You scared me today. You gave your mother and I both quite a shock. Don’t ever do that again, ok?’He smiled for the first time since this whole ordeal began. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, but the light in his heart was shining brighter than ever. His little boy – his son! – was finally here. Sooner than he should have been, but here, safe and sound.
He didn’t know it was possible, but his smile grew even wider as a tiny little hand emerged from under the blanket. Henry immediately reached towards it with his own free hand, unable to stop the tears of emotion when that little hand grabbed hold of his index finger.‘Yeah, kid. It’s me. I’m your dad.’ Without thinking, he placed the baby down in the nearby bassinet and unwrapped the blanket. Tiny as this little body was, he had to see all of it. Perhaps there was something to this whole ‘counting fingers and toes’ thing, after all, because he soon found himself doing just that. If he had been unable to do anything during the birth, he damn well was going to make sure everything was just fine moving forward.
All fingers and toes accounted for, the baby began wiggling and getting restless. Henry did his best to re-do the swaddle as the nurse had done it, but was no match for her years of experience swaddling hundreds of babies. Casting his instinct to ask for her help aside, he determined to meet his son’s needs himself. So what if the bundle wasn’t exactly what the nurse had done? It was too loose anyway, if the kid had managed to get an arm out of it. A few tries later, and he had something that should work. Still, the baby wiggled and let out a soft cry. Henry picked him up and held him close. That little arm continued to wriggle under the blanket, and Henry squeezed just a little bit closer. Gently, ever so gently, because this still was the most fragile and priceless thing he had ever held. Suddenly, with that extra hug, the little arm relaxed. Those little eyes met his once again, only for another few seconds this time, then closed and drifted off into a contented sleep.
Henry walked back to his wife’s room with the bundle in his arms, anxious to show her the little miracle they had been blessed with. Upon arrival, he learned she had lost more blood than normal during the birth, which had been very hard on her to begin with. She would be fine, but needed her rest. He gazed at his sleeping wife with admiration at the strength she showed, forcing herself through this labor for the sake of their child. It was the very least he could do, he decided, to make absolutely sure that he was there for them from this moment on.
…But that damned fear. Even the passage of 45 minutes, watching both his wife and child sleeping peacefully didn’t dull the fear that continued in his chest. Movement in his arms signaled a waking baby. Henry smiled down at him, but the smile was harder this time, because the fear of what if wouldn’t go away. He searched Shawn’s face for any sign of hope or comfort, and found it in the way this child would not look away from him. Such trust. Henry wondered if he was worthy of it, then determined he had no choice. He either was worthy of it, or he better make himself worthy of it fast. There would be no more what ifs in this child’s life if Henry had any say in it. He would make it his life’s work to mentor this child, and teach him to be the survivor he had already proven himself to be.
“I’ll teach you everything I know, kid.” he vowed. The little arm wiggled and found its way out of the blanket once again, those tiny fingers quickly finding his finger. Henry chuckled and shook his head, impressed at the strength of the kid’s spirit already. “I won’t ever let you down. I promise.”