August, 1980. It was a record setting summer. 42 straight days of triple digit heat in Dallas, Texas. No matter that we lived in Oklahoma at the time. It was no cooler “up north.” Records were set all across this part of America in the summer of my son’s birth.
Rhonda and I were married on January 2, 1978. Young and very much in love. Almost 2 years later we found out we were pregnant. I was completely unprepared.
The fear of unpreparedness is a special kind of fear. Steve Farber calls it, OSM! There’s a reason he was the first person I followed when I jumped on Twitter years ago.
Steve described OSM as the feeling the ski jumper gets as he attempts his very first jump. I’ve never done that, but I was once a first time dad and I can’t imagine anything scarier.
Like Red Forman, chastising his son Eric for flirting with his cousin, I feared a web-footed child or some other freakish thing. I was honestly worried about the physical well-being of the baby and my wife. I don’t remember being fearful of much else, although I’m sure I was worried about money. Who isn’t?
Every doctor visit made me a bit more easy that things were progressing well. During the rest of the winter and into Spring Rhonda did well.
Then summer hit.
The heat came rolling in stronger than normal. And around here, normal summer heat is HOT. When people back east or up north say, “Man, it’s hot today. We’re in the 90’s” – in Texas and Oklahoma, we laugh. That’s a cold front in the summer for us. We commonly say it because it’s true, “It’s 105 in the shade.” And in West Texas, there is no shade. I pity those poor folks.
In the summer of 1980 the heat was unbearable even in the shade. Nothing was green except our envy of cooler climes.
Rhonda was entering the 9th month of her pregnancy. Miserable doesn’t quite properly describe it. Swollen ankles and feet. I even had to get wire cutters and cut her wedding ring off her swollen fingers after we were unsuccessful in prying it off.
Then the pains began. On a Saturday in August, 1980. We drove to the hospital and my web-footed fear amped up. Now, I’d have been thankful for just a web-footed oddity. I was worried about much more. Don’t ask why. There was no logical reason for it other than I was a novice dad without a clue. I feared for my wife’s life. I feared for the new born baby’s life. Shoot, I feared for my own life! As far as I could tell, none of us were going to make it out alive.
The pain and vomiting began. I never saw it, but back in high school I remember kids describing Linda Blair’s performance in The Exorcist. At any point I fully expected Rhonda might sit up in bed, turn her head completely around and kill me with fire that would shoot from her eyeballs.
I had played football and seen (and heard) knees torn. But I had never seen this level of pain before. And I had never felt this level of helplessness either.
Like a dutiful klutz I kept a cold wash cloth on her forehead. Boy, that’s quite a remedy for inscrutable pain, huh? A cold wash rag! Well, it was the best I could do. That and hold that stupid little hospital blue plastic barf container that is shaped to curve around the side of your face. It’s not the color or the shape that fails so much. It’s the capacity of the stupid thing. That, and the fact that it’s open exposing the bile that comes from an exorcism, or birthing a child.
The hours went on. Rhonda refused pain medicine, a decision we were both regretting with every passing hour. The hours clicked by with the pace of those larger vehicles that transported the Apollo missions to the launch pad…moving inches every half hour or so. “How long can this go on?” was the question on my mind. By now Rhonda was completely out of her mind.
Guys, if you’re not yet a father, let me explain something to you. When you’re wife exhorts you to enter the delivery room with her, refuse. I did. Of course, my wife had enough sense to not care – or even want me in there. She didn’t want me holding a cold wash rag on her forehead at this point. She likely just wanted me out of the room and her life at this point.
So when IT was time. They rushed her back to the delivery room. We were into hour 17 of labor. Hard labor. I went to the waiting room to chew what little was left of my finger nails. I was now working on the cuticles. Next stop, bone!
Hoyt Axton may have sung about working your fingers to the bone, but I was gonna chew mine to the bone!
Early Sunday morning, August 17, 1980 around 6am (I may be off, but that’s the best I can remember given my state of prettification) we were no longer a couple. We were now three. We had a son!
I just thought I was out of the woods until I saw him for the first time. A nurse or somebody strolled by and showed him to me. He was red as a beet, but that wasn’t the surprising thing.
I was the father of a Conehead. A beet red Conehead.
I had no idea a human could survive in such a state, but there he was – my son. The Red Conehead. No, I wasn’t ashamed. I was too astonished to feel anything, but relief that this nightmare was over. Months of tortuous weather including Spring tornado season in Tornado Alley, followed by weeks of “will-this-ever-end” summer heat and now, my child will never be able to play football or hockey or any sport requiring a helmet because he’s a Conehead.
I didn’t know his head would take on a normal shape. Nor did I know how long that would take. Amazing. Both his skull’s ability to morph and my ability to be clueless.
I said it then and I’ve said it since, but it bears repeating. I had never loved my wife more than at that very moment. And I can’t fully explain that. Maybe other dads out there can understand it. I suspect you can.
The pain. The suffering. The sacrifice. The months of travail followed by hours of pain strong enough to make you puke – it all humbled me like nothing ever had. Nothing had even come close.
I was reduced to a small, insignificant puddle of muddy water in the floor.
We named him Ryan.
After a few hours I went home, cleaned up and dressed for Sunday morning worship. At church I’m sure folks congratulated me, but I confess I don’t remember anything about it other than going. I was mentally and emotionally spent. And feeling more helpless with each passing moment. Feeling totally unprepared to begin a journey as a father. Feeling not yet grown up enough myself to make this trek.
But there he was. A son. Born to a 23 year old version of me. And a 23 year old version of my wife.
Here we are 33 years later standing tall as proof that idiots can raise wise children. He’s a middle school assistant principal with street smarts, ambitions, skills I can’t imagine possessing and a family of his own. Thirty three years ago I thought we were all going straight to Remulak.
Instead, we wound up in Dallas/Ft. Worth. All of us.
That was just the beginning of the story, but for now – that’s all you need to know even though there’s so much more to tell.
• Like how bad his temper was (is) when he loses at sports. We like to focus on how competitive he is.
• Like how badly I felt (still do) when I popped him with a rolled up towel during horseplay, but it really hurt him ’cause it worked better than expected.
• Like how sad I was to sit with him on the front entry to our house in Oklahoma as we closed the door and headed to Dallas.
• Like how I love to watch him skate (still). Ice or roller hockey, it doesn’t matter to me.
• Like how we spent years together involved in hockey, including a 4-year stink at UTA.
• Like how amazed Rhonda and I were to get him out of college, successfully…with a degree.
• Like how my heart almost broke when he told me he was leaving to move to Missouri.
• Like how my heart mended when he told me he was moving back home.
• Like how we felt to see him get a Master’s Degree.
• Like how proud we are to see him excel in a career that suits him perfectly.
• Like how it feels to hold his children like I once held him (and his sister).
• Like how it feels to know he’s a phone call, text or 2-mile ride away.
• Like how it feels to worship at the same congregation then, and now.
• Like how proud I am to be his dad.
Happy birthday to my son, Ryan.
I love him very much!
• He’s also on Linkedin.
• Scroll down and watch the video slide show at the bottom of the post. I’m one lucky man!
The song is “How Lucky” by John Prine. No, I’ve not lit a cigarette, but I have considered the question, “How lucky can one man get?”