Life and death

I like to joke that I’m pushing 70.  It makes my mid-fifties feel more middle-aged and less geriatric.  Yet my 70s will be to my younger kids what middle age will be to most of their friends:  The age of their parents when they’re leaving high school.

The family, March 2014

Clint, Yvonne, Jez and me, March 2014

It’s the central tenet of what makes a “geriatric dad” different than the rest of them, and that’s mortality.

It’s also the reason I haven’t written in this space.  It’s not a “fun” topic.  It’s a very daunting one, and it bluntly reads like this:  I’m not going to last long enough to be a great dad to Clint and Yvonne for nearly as long as I’d like.

It’s a dark but undeniable perspective on what is the otherwise joyous project of parenthood.  At this moment, I can’t understate how buoyant it is to be a part of life’s milestones for these two kids.  There is nothing more exhilarating than shaping a young life for the better, watching those traits emerge that you know are directly the result of your and your partner’s influence (with, perhaps, a bit of help from our DNA — nature v. nurture is a whole ‘nother subject).

Clint will be four in November.  Yvonne will be two in October.  Yvonne’s use of language, all but nonexistent a few weeks ago, is hilariously emerging from her tiny adorable mouth.  Every day with her seems to mark a developmental breakthrough.

Clint’s growth has become more subtle on the day-to-day, but it also reveals glimmers of sophistication that are eye-opening in a kid not yet four years old.

Plus, there’s the love thing, a two-way street that is also a whole ‘nother subject.   It’s also another reason I haven’t posted on this site.  It’s terribly important, but I’m not sure I can write about love.  But I hope to give it a shot.

Being a dad to these two kids is a moment-to-moment management challenge, but it is even more rewarding than I remember it from the first time I did this in the 80s.  At this moment, my age is irrelevant because I have no health issues and abundant stamina.

And then you do the math.  I do it all the time, and so do my friends.  It’s the proverbial elephant in the room when the dad has the gnarly grey hair and jowly face of a young grandpa.   It’s a face that’s certainly appropriate for the dad of Bill and Leigh, my kids in their 20s.  It’s more complicated as the dad of toddlers.

People frequently have children because they want to enrich their own lives, but ultimately it’s not about the parents.  It’s supposed to be about the kids.  The dark issues surrounding my age are about the degree to which I will be able to do for them what my parents did for me.  It didn’t end when I graduated from high school.  My mom and dad were great parents to me after I left the nest.  They were also much more fun once they stopped disciplining me and we grew much closer after I reached full maturity.

The math tells me I may shortchange Clint and Yvonne in that aspect of my job.  And yes, I knew that going into the project.  I justify it because the world is better off with Clint and Yvonne in it, even though their dad isn’t likely to be around as long as he’d like.

And there’s really not a damn thing I can do about it, except try to make it a quality experience for as long as I can.



Prince Buster

Though I’d never do it, I can understand the temptation to give a grandiose name to a new offspring.  Nicknames are inevitable.  Some folks simply choose to embed them into their legal appellations.

For example, my nephew’s name is Khalin Tiger.  “Khalin means King, which he is,” explained my sister.  I know a couple of people who put King into their offspring’s name, with nothing more than regal motivation.  One of Jez’s cousins has a son whose middle name is Danger.  Again, the reasoning seems self-evident:  This kid needs a badass name, erego we will name him Danger.

Makes perfect sense to me.  It’s far better than Strange, which was the middle name of Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

Attending to Prince Buster's throne

Clint has a pretty traditional name, but our latest nickname for him is Prince Buster.

It’s a name with multiple meanings.  Prince explains his frequently-commanding presence.  Typically, it’s benevolent.  But he has his occasional moments of tyranny.  Buster is an old-school male nickname, something my dad used for me occasionally.  It’s also a noun that describes what Clint does, from time to time, to my balls (figuratively, of course.  He does it to his mother, too.  It’s OK.  It goes with parent territory).

Prince Buster is also, of course, “the King of Bluebeat,” a Jamaican trailblazer whose music helped launch popular ska and reggae in the 1950s and 60s.  He wrote stuff like “One Step Beyond” (covered by Madness), “Whine and Grind” (covered by the English Beat) and “Gangsters” (covered by the Specials).

Until my daughter Leigh grew to nearly six feet tall, I called her “Squirt” for much of her childhood.

If I phone the wife during the day and she reports on the activities of “Prince Buster,” it’s an instant signal that the offspring is having an especially rambunctious day.

Prince Buster may not stick.  Odds are, it won’t be long before his mother and I opt to simply call him Clint, his given monosyllabic name, which has its own badass quality.  But it’s less descriptive than Prince Buster.

Instant cousin

Clint is the baby with the giant head

Clint has a somewhat unexpected cousin.  Not only a first-cousin, but one who is a mere seven weeks younger and lives one zip code away.  This is the most exciting thing possible.  And the story contains no small amount of drama.

Jez’s brother, Chris, and his partner John have been trying to adopt a baby for about 18 months.  They signed up with an agency.  The put up a web site.  They got a lot of nibbles from moms who, for various reasons, were pregnant but didn’t want to keep the child.

Typically, the moms would contact them, string them along a bit, then flake off into oblivion.  Occasionally, they’d try to extract cash from Chris and John:  “Well, I can’t afford prenatal care.”  “I’m about to lose my home.”  “I can’t pay my cell phone bill.  It’d be a damned shame if I was homeless and unable to call you to tell you to come pick up my baby.”

Chris and John had learned to stay skeptical when a potential birth mom called, while at the same time, treating her like long-distance royalty.

Chris and John had gone to Maryland for Christmas.  They had tickets to travel to Africa in late December.  They were on the brink of making the international flight when a birth mom sent an email to John.  Because the sender and subject were cryptic, John didn’t immediately open it when he spotted it on his Blackberry.

John and Chris ate dinner.  During some after-dinner downtime, John browsed through his Blackberry and had the “eureka” moment when he read the woman’s message:  I just had a baby.  Come and get her.  The text:

  • So i delivered yesterday and have come to the final decision that placing [the baby] for adoption is what i want to do and you guys are perfect for her. I will talk with your agency as soon as possible so that you can come get her tomorrow. She is perfect and beautiful with a head full of wild hair. Weight 7 pounds. If you guys have moved on and found another baby i understand. i never questioned placing her for adoption it was just a hard process for me to face.

At that moment, flights along the east coast were jacked up due to snowy weather.  Chris and John found a flight to Nashville, then drove to Ehrlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, where the mom was about to be discharged.  When they arrived, the mom was firm:  This baby is all yours.

That afternoon, the hospital discharged the birth mom.  The adoption paperwork hadn’t been completed, so the birth mom kept legal possession as they exited the hospital building.  Then they headed to separate vehicles.  Chris and John walked to their SUV with the infant.

Sara, John and Chris

They had help from their friend Shannon, who had driven their SUV from Decatur to Chattanooga.  She equipped the vehicle with a car seat.

Chris and John were allowed to take possession of the newborn, but weren’t allowed to leave Tennessee.  State law requires an extended in-state transition, and allows a birth mother ten days to change her mind.

Chris and John and the infant checked into a hotel suite.  They made an appointment to see a pediatrician.  They crash-coursed in the care and feeding of an infant.  They got plenty of advice from other mothers, including Chris’s sister.  They talked to  lawyers in Tennessee and Georgia.  And they counted down the days.

Friday, they brought home their baby girl.

They named her Sara Grace.  Shannon had returned to Decatur and spent an abundance of time fixing up the nursery and taking down the Christmas tree that was slowly petrifying in their living room.  Jez contributed our co-sleeper, which is a bassinet constructed to sit alongside the parental bed.   Clint has already outgrown it.

We visited John and Chris over the weekend.  Their proper, well-appointed Decatur dude bungalow is suddenly filled with the trappings of parenthood.  And at center stage, sleeping most of the time, is Sara Grace.

Sara Grace is tiny and beautiful.

The legal minutiae of adoption continues, but Tuesday the birth mom’s window of revocation closed.  Chris and John began celebrating their status as the parents of Sara Grace. 

It’s a great day.

Test of wills

Parenthood is a lifelong test of wills.  OK, it’s more than that obviously.  It’s fun.  It’s an adventure.  It’s rewarding.  I know that.  But on a day to day basis, it’s a test of wills.  And it begins at a very young age.

Like all infants, Clint cries.  Sometimes he howls.  On rare occasions, he does so almost inconsolably — at least for thankfully finite periods of time.

Mostly, I can figure out what Clint wants when he cries.  The primal needs are examined first:  Positioning, the need for food, posterior hygiene.  Beyond that, it becomes a guessing game.  Following that, I have to determine whether it’s in my best interest — and his, of course —  to knuckle under to his infantile tyranny.

I know two things.  One, he’s too young to be manipulative.  But I know the time will come when he begins to test his parents.  It’ll happen after he and his parents have established habits.  If our habit is to jump up and find a way to soothe the complaining infant, we’ll carry that habit into an age where he comes to realize that he can make things happen by pestiferous behavior.

But I also know that God, and His good buddy Darwin, have crafted high-volume infant vocals to inflict maximum discomfort on human ears.

When the child rips a deep-lunged bellow, his mother responds with instant panic.  As the “experienced” partner, I consider it my role to immediately consider the option of denying.   Whatever he wants — as long as it’s not a safety issue — is often best ignored, at least at the outset.   This makes me appear to be distant, unconcerned and cold.  I’m not.  But I find a certain amount of chill to be an effective parenting tool, particularly as we develop habits.

However, it’s an ineffective marital tool, made even more so in circumstances wherein the infant and the mother tag-team the father.

Parenthood is a lifelong test of wills.  Marriage is a lifelong compromise.

The swaddle

Loaf of Challah (L), and Clint (R)

The swaddle is an amazing thing.  One of the best things about a properly-executed swaddle is that it makes the infant look like a loaf of Challah bread.  My sister Christina baked the loaf on the left; the wife delivered the bun (on the right) from her own oven.

My sister made the bread with utter disregard to the stylings of the swaddle.  When it emerged from the oven, Jez and I noticed a similarity, and a camera was produced.

Before November 2010, I’d heard the term swaddle used in the Biblical sense, and nowhere else.

“The angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). 

But this month I learned that the swaddle is a technique used to wrap and, more importantly, give comfort to a newborn.  I don’t know how I raised two newborns in the 80s without being hip to the swaddle.  It probably would have saved his parents a lot of grief — not to mention, our un-swaddled newborns.

(Update:  I’m informed by the ex- that she swaddled our 80s newborns regularly, and that I’m a dumbass.  OK, she didn’t really say that.  But she kinda did, and I accept the characterization as accurate.)

Essentially, the swaddle is the neonatal version of a straitjacket.  The child is laid on a cloth.  The arms are pinned to the side, and the cloth is wrapped around him to keep him immobilized.  The theory is that it mimics the tight space of the womb.

It took me a full week to perfect the swaddle.  Nurses at Piedmont Hospital tried to teach it.  It looked easy.  But I didn’t really figure it out until I grasped the fact that the swaddle was designed to immobilize the child’s limbs.

I didn’t master the technique until watching the DVD of “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” made by a pediatrician named Harvey Karp, who clearly learned his TV stylings from Fred Rogers.  (My 80s infants loved them some Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.  Consequently, I did too.  So that’s not a put down.)

Karp’s video demonstrates the swaddle, which legions of Youtube uploaders have mimicked.

There are now, on the market, specifically designed bits of cloth designed to maximize swaddling capability.  Our friends Tally and Brad gave us one.  Its design closely mimics that of an old-school straitjacket, minus the buckles.  We use it regularly.  Its camouflage print makes it all the more fetching.

Many people take comfort from Scripture.  I take mine knowing that the baby Jesus was, in all probability, like any other newborn, a howling banshee who needed the occasional swaddle.

Can’t get enough

“Are you getting any sleep?”

It’s the question I always liked to ask parents of newborns.  I’d ask based on my own experience with newborns.  It’s well known they like to eat regularly, regardless of the hour.

I’m writing this at 4:40am.  I’ve been up nearly an hour.  I’ve concluded that my best shot at getting out for a morning run will come between now and the next feeding, likely to take place about 6am.

Barry White, Soul Legend

“Are you getting any sleep” is somewhat equivalent to “do you come here often?”  It’s an unclever conversation starter.  It’s the question new parents answer over and over again.  Last year, I interviewed the Convention and Visitors Bureau president in Augusta, a guy named Barry White.  I resisted the urge to joke about his name.  Instead, I asked him how many would-be comedians instantly start in with “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” upon introduction.  “Constantly,” he said, unamused.

Though less annoying, the “sleep?” question is just as obvious.  The answer is:  It’s sporadic, especially for the breastfeeding wife.

Barry White, Augusta

Clint begins to yammer for chow like clockwork, every two to three hours, day and night.  Because she has the built-in equipment, Jez handles all the feedings.   I’ll irregularly roll out of bed to handle burping, diaper changing and rocking-back-to-sleep duties.

The interruptions don’t seem to affect my stamina the following day.  However, Jez’s 24-hour joined-at-the-teat regimen is exhausting, just to watch.

Like most old guys, I find that I need less sleep than I used to.  If I’ve gone to bed early — it was 9:30 last night — I’m perfectly comfortable rolling out of bed at 4am, especially if it leads to a cup of coffee followed by a run through the neighborhood.

Which I’m gonna do now, before the boy wakes up again.


Elizabeth grew up across the street from my house in Decatur.  As a teenager, she babysat for my young children.  As a married woman, she popped out six children with head-spinning speed.  She learned her seventh, a boy,  would be born around the same time Jez and my son was due.  I learned this from her mother, who still lives in the house across the street.

Pregnancy had become routine for Elizabeth.  This one wasn’t.

She learned from an early ultrasound that her son was likely afflicted with Trisomy 13, “a chromosomal malformation that is not ‘compatible with life,'” as Elizabeth writes in her blog.

Elizabeth comes from a proudly pro-life family of Catholics.  Her only option was to carry the child to term.   Her blog documents her journey, from the medical uncertainties to the mental trauma she and her family faced as the pregnancy played out.   When her son was born, her brother Joe — a priest — was on hand to administer a delivery-room baptism — just in case time was of the essence.

Jedidiah Joseph Arendale was born November 5, three days after my son.  Wednesday, on his thirteenth day of life, Jedi died.

From Elizabeth’s blog:

everything happened so beautifully- his birth, the thirteen days he was with us, and his death. i am just so thankful for the whole experience of him.

I never got to meet Jedi.  I regret I will be unable to attend his funeral Friday.

But I’ll hold my own baby a little closer.


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