Becoming Dad

By Benjamin Jackson

My daughter Emma was born in the last cold days of December, 2001, unmoving, unbreathing, unable to live without immediate surgical intervention. The very first thought I had upon seeing my very first daughter for the very first time was that I hoped I hadn’t made a terrible mistake in allowing the suffering she was about to endure.

Flash back to Veteran’s Day of the same year – my then-future-but-now-ex-wife was pregnant, and all indications were that all was well with the pregnancy. I had been spending most of the meager salary I earned as a bookstore manager stocking up on newborn diapers and what now seem like ridiculously naive pregnancy books. I was gaining more weight than she was, but was pretty ok with that. It was a good day off, until I received the news which changed my life.

“I’m having contractions,” she said. “No you’re not,” I said. “You’re only 27 weeks along. It’s gas, or Braxton-Hicks.” See, I had read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” I knew about these things.

“The doctor said to come to the hospital. Take me there, or I will have you killed.”

In the interest of self-preservation, I brought her to the hospital we had chosen near our western Massachusetts home. This was fortuitous, as her contractions were just three minutes apart when we arrived. After two days of her receiving an IV of “don’t have a baby yet,” they were ready to send her home. However, an ultrasound was required. Just routine, they said.

Begin “Hallmark channel” cliché: the ultrasound tech started running her probe over the gel-covered belly of my not-yet-ex-wife. The gel was warm – almost too hot, I thought, as some had splashed up on me, glistening and blue, but the tech didn’t seem to notice. She was too busy dropping her jaw, then her probe, and running out of the room.

“She probably has gas,” I said. I still thought I knew things. In the next few minutes, I would learn exactly how much I didn’t know. Six doctors crowded around the ultrasound screen, me jumping up and down in the back like a little kid at a parade, trying to see. Words in a language I didn’t understand tumbled out of their mouths, a free-form poetry jam of fear and confusion. Goiter, undifferentiated mass, immature-malignancy-benign-cyst-alfafetoprotein-amniocentesis. Daddio.

The next hour/day/weeks were a blur of white coats – a world-class medical education delivered sotto voce in maddeningly calm tones. Cervical Teratoma they said gravely. It comes from a Greek word, they said. It means “Monster Tumor,” they said. You have some options, they said.

There was the pediatric surgeon who assured us that even though he had never seen anything like this, it was “no big deal,” he could fix it. There was the obstetrician who could only see his name in the medical journals when he looked at the image of my daughter on the screen, and who treated me as an obstacle to his fame. There was the luckiest salesman in the world, in the hospital by chance that day to sell his 3-D ultrasound machine.

Bed rest was the immediate cure, and a terror-filled monotonous routine began to build. Even days: sit in the hospital room. Watch TV. Worry about my daughter dying that day. Odd days: sit in the hospital room, get an ultrasound, see how unbelievably quickly the tumor had grown in just two days, worry about my daughter dying that day. Every hour brought the appointed day of my daughter’s birth and very likely death closer to hand.

After a week of this, it was back to work or the insurance would run out. Day one back was quaking hands and jumping at the phone’s every ring. Day two was much the same. Day three was anything but.The phone rang, and it was a white coat.

Two hours later we were in an ambulance to Boston, and could hear the screaming of the obstetrician robbed of his fame nearly all the way there. A new set of white coats, a new set of probes, a new set of pictures and tests were awaiting us. These white coats at least treated us like people and not meal-tickets.

The fetus, they said, (as soon as the first white coats found the tumor, my not-yet-daughter stopped being called Emma and reverted to “the fetus”) will need immediate surgical intervention when it is born. I could approve this surgery – it probably would not work, but it might. If it did, “The Fetus” could be horribly disfigured and/or disabled beyond the point of survivability. It could have life-long problems that could prevent it from living a happy or productive life. It could also be just fine.

Or, they said, I could ask them to do nothing, and the fetus would die within minutes of birth, still under anesthesia and with no suffering.

We had three weeks to wait and decide. As the tumor grew, so did my daughter. It was a balancing act – deliver the baby when it was strong enough, but before the tumor got too big to be survivable. Thirty three weeks was the chosen gestational age. It was weeks of more hand-wringing and hospital food. A decision had to be made.

I approved the surgery.

On the appointed day, I stood in the hallway outside the operating room in Boston. My daughter had just endured the first of dozens of surgeries to come, passed me by as she headed to a new operating room for the second. When I looked through the sea of surgeons and saw her for the first time, I saw a child. I did not see a fetus.

I wondered then if my decision was right, or if the decisions I made would screw-up my daughter for life. It turns out, as she barrels into her teenage years, that parenting is a continual state of asking oneself that very question.

Category: Nonfiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student