Friday, April 06, 2012

Circle In The Dirt

Early Moments with My First Son

(Written in June 2008 after the birth of my first son)

Today my son, Patrick, is ten days old. Since I know time accelerates quickly, and that before I can even complete this draft these initial days and nights will be all but forgotten, I have a notion to record some of my earliest observations of him in the nascent moments of his life.

My wife and I also have two daughters, and in either case I marked their births and impact on my life in different ways. But for five years I have lived in a family of females, little and full grown, and this time around there is a vaguely familiar and somehow nostalgic tone. My son has arrived! I find myself searching for words as I contemplate the tiny face of a man of the future.

He squirms and grunts restlessly nearby, even as I write this. It’s as though he is as out of sorts as I am, wondering what to make of his existence. He was born large, over ten pounds, and that is how he looms: foreshadowing the front-row seat he will occupy in the arena of every future choice I will make as his father. He will be there watching, taking everything in, wanting to know how a man guides his own through the pitfalls of this world.

My daughters yearn for my love and affection, in all forms; this much is abundantly clear to me after five years. My son will covet these things too, no doubt, but he will probably experience a cultural pressure to compress his need for them under layers of stone. Closer to the surface will be a thirst for my example: he will want to know what being a man is. If I am successful in the rest of my life, he will want to emulate me; if I fail, he will want to redeem me. Either way he will have his trajectory marked in some way by the arc of my life. I know this because I too am a son.

In each of these first ten turns of the clock, I have been fortunate enough to have had at least two or three hours alone with just my son. As new parents know, newborn babies don’t do a whole lot. Much of the time that I have spent with Patrick so far has consisted of me giving him a bottle, cleaning off his lower half, cleaning off my upper half, and either holding him or watching him sleep.

I became reacquainted for the third time with the notion that new babies don’t know what time of day it is. Therefore they are frequently wide awake in the middle of the night, looking around, discovering what lies in store in this world. These are the moments I want to write about.

When I have Patrick late, for now, I first swaddle him in a blanket, in an attempt to mimic the way they wrapped him in the hospital. Sadly, this is something I’ve never been able to do properly. Like those roll-up croissants you make in your own oven; they always look perfect when assembled – as long as someone who knows croissants does the rolling. I give him one or two ounces of formula from a bottle. He chugs it happily, sometimes with his eyes open, sometimes with them closed or at half-mast. Then, after he burps, unless he is truly exhausted, he spends time simply staring at me.

Perhaps there is a reason beyond the physiological that newborns do not smile. One forgets the potency of the infant’s drill-bit stare into his or her parent’s eye in their earliest days. After all, the child has been thrust into an environment far noisier, more expansive, and more treacherous than their former residence. Like any of us who have been transplanted abruptly from one world into another, these little persons are simply looking for a friendly face.

So my own son stares at me and he does not smile. He shows neither recognition nor affection. Scientists say that he is not capable of doing so yet, and I have no reason to believe this is not true. Still, in those moments in the middle of the night when Patrick is awake and I am awake, and our faces – our eyes – are no more than three inches from one another, I notice that his expressions are by no means neutral.

He occasionally furrows his brow ever so slightly while studying my face. A tiny corner of his mouth curls slightly here and there, the ghost of a smirk. Faint, wispy eyebrows suddenly jerk up or ruffle momentarily as if being strafed by some ill wind.

Then there is the color of his eyes – dark, dark, wet blue, like a vacuous deep sea, calm for the moment, but concealing so much beneath the surface that a father can be sure he will never be able to identify, let alone understand, all that resides there.

In short, it looks to me, sometimes, like he’s measuring me up. It’s beginning to dawn on him in some primitive way that I am the man that will mark his life. You, his eyes ask with incredulity, are my father? Are you sure you’re up to the job?

It brings to my mind freshly a distant period from my life – something I would normally prefer to leave in my wake. Sixteen years ago, when I was a younger man, just coming out of college, I entered the United States Army in order to fulfill my end of a scholarship I had won that financed my education. Within one week of graduation I was shipped off to Fort Benning, Georgia, to begin Infantry training. The course lasted about fourteen or fifteen weeks, and trundled through all sorts of combat-oriented skill training, from individual tasks and weapons proficiency to squad- and platoon-level tactics.

Early on in the course there was a training block on hand-to-hand combat. This is the only time I have ever engaged in anything close to fisticuffs in my entire life, aside from the usual schoolyard scuffles as a boy. I am neither aggressive nor particularly competitive. It simply isn’t in my nature to solve anything by means of fighting, and I lack the ability to hold my own very well in a brawl. Yet I like to think that if the time ever comes when I must physically defend myself or my kindred, I will do it, or go down in the attempt.

Anyway, one morning during my training the instructors carted a big group of us to a large pit filled with dirt and wood chips. It was well before dawn, but this was Georgia in the summertime, so it was already hot and humid. I can still see the sheen of sweat on the faces of the men, revealed in somewhat foreboding manner by the headlights of two or three Humvees they had parked in a circular fashion around the pit. There must have been proper lighting available, but I think this little touch was psychological.

For the first hour or so, some self-defense expert from one of those units nobody is supposed to know about barked at us through a megaphone, and we paired off to try out various punches, kicks, blocking maneuvers, and everyone’s favorite, ‘takedowns’. It was painful and exhausting, but of course you could not show weakness. Then they assembled everyone and said that it was time for them to ‘evaluate’ us on what they called our ‘physical courage.’

One of the sergeants drew a large circle in the dirt and chips with the heel of his black combat boot. He ordered all the men to gather ‘round. Then he called for ‘volunteers’ to square off in combat. A few guys in my training platoon who suspected that I was weak shoved me forcefully into the middle of the circle.

You can predict what happened next. There was a trainee named Manges, a man in his 30s instead of just out of college, who had already served in Infantry units before. He had been through special Ranger training and even actual combat, in Grenada in 1983. He’d won a medal for valor. Physically, he was also over six feet tall and muscular. I am 5’9”, and that includes the combat boots. He stepped into the circle, and the men howled like dogs.

I fought against Manges, having no other choice, and I lost. It wasn’t this bloody battle of the sort depicted in movies – we weren’t allowed to punch the face. But the side or the back of the head was fair game. They stopped our fight when Manges pounded me so hard just above my left ear with the ball of his hand that I fell down and didn’t stand up again. It wasn’t the proudest moment of my life, but I lived on to fight – or not – another day.

I recall this unflattering episode not for the fight itself, but because of what happened right before. Manges and I circled one another, right there in the dirt. I was grimy and sweaty and so was he. He stared at me right in the eyes as if to tell me that I was a virus for which he was the antidote. I stared back, trying not to waiver, because I knew that it was a moment that I had to ride out, to the extent that I could.

No one told us to circle each other first. It just happened. A classic confrontational square-off; the only one I have ever engaged in before or since. Until certain moments over the last ten days, that is, when my own son stared me in the face, and I suddenly realized that it looked and felt to me a little too much like that unhappy morning from my past.

What is this? I thought to myself while Patrick’s eyes bore into mine. Is my firstborn son really challenging me this early? Is this just some base male dread surfacing, some submerged fear of inadequacy? Is it just because it’s somewhere between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. and I am tired and making things up? One thing is certain: these early moments didn’t quite feel like the father-son bonding experiences I had always imagined I would have. Patrick just stared on, well into those passing hours.

Reflecting on this, I feel that while I cannot be sure that I have the answer he is seeking, I recognize that there is a question in his eyes, some great wondering involuntarily coursing through his blood. The puzzle for me is how to respond.

I have been pondering it, and if I could get away with answering him in writing rather than to his face, my response might go something like this:

Son, the day will probably come when you find yourself underwhelmed by my physical strength, or what you may perceive as my ‘toughness.’ I do not begrudge you the right to question your father. But you will never be unimpressed by the strength of my love for you. For it is my right to claim you forever as my son. Thus, if one day I scratch a circle in the dirt, it will not be to confront you. Rather, it will be to gather you in, along with your sisters and your mother, into whatever place our family marks out as our own. And whatever that impetus is in the marrow of our male bones that makes us circle one another as strangers, when it comes to you I will harness it and apply it in reverse. I will enfold you into myself, and confirm for you, blood of my blood, that we are not strangers, and never will be.

We two, father and son.

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