June 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
The day I learned of the existence of the man I love more than any other in the world, I was on deadline, it was hectic and thrilling, with me, the formerly F minus English student volunteering as the technology editor on the Daily Planet Almanac being published as a school project at an alternative high school where I was “teaching”, high in the Santa Cruz mountains. On the other end of the phone, incomprehensibly choking out words between sobs was an old girlfriend of mine. When we had met, I was a 19 year old convalescing from a motorcycle accident, too broken to complete my junior year studying sculpture, lost and confused. More a groupie than a girlfriend really, who within a few minutes of meeting me was giving me head in the back of my car. A coke-fueled party girl was just about what doctor gonzo would have ordered at that point in my life, but having more sex than I imagined I was capable of, wore thin much faster than I expected, and her woefully unenlightened stance that began to glare as the testosterone wore off, had me spending the next couple of years trying to chase her away. She learned very well in that time that I was a soft-hearted pushover who would fold at the mere hint of her suffering, and here she was, a year or more since I had last seen her, suffering for all she was worth. She was obviously really in trouble, and despite my anger and disgust, I managed not to hang up on her.
Eventually I pieced together that she was in the hospital, bleeding and pregnant – 5 months, so it was long past having her nth abortion. She had told them her boyfriend was coming to pick her up, and how soon could I be there. I was furious with her but concerned for the baby she was carrying, and I reluctantly agreed that in a couple of days, once the galleys were proofed, I would come and get her.
I took a room next to hers in the Hard Times Hotel, an old Victorian converted to a rooming house in an area of San Francisco we called Pacific Depths, and agreed to be her birth coach. I would keep her hepatitis at bay, feed and care for her and the fetus, and try to make sure it got out of her unscathed. Despite her cavalier attitude about her surprising fertility, I assumed she would give this one up for adoption like the baby she had when she was 17, whom she called Phaedra after the Nancy Sinatra song, and of whom she kept a single crumbled snap shot.
Pregnancy, it turns out, is quite a powerful drug in itself, and she quickly cleaned up her act, busying her self nesting and preparing to actually become a mother. I was moved and impressed, and my anger turned toward respect and sympathy. I read Frederic Leboyer’s Birth Without Violence and bawled my eyes out at a lecture he gave. We studied Bradley and Lamaze, I watched her grow strong and confident, and began to like her more than I had since just before that first time I came in her mouth on the day I had met her. So much so that I painted a life sized mural of an Orca family, mom dad and baby, on the wall above her bed and started to wonder if I might actually stick around. But remembering all the insanity in her life, I steeled myself that my deal was just until I got him (we knew by then it was a boy) out of her.
San Francisco General had just opened an alternative birthing center, and as her contractions quickened we checked in with our midwife, who informed us that, already 10 cm dilated we would give birth right there in the cramped examination room, not in the cute little birthing room with its bean bag chairs, macramé plant hangers and brunt orange curtains, as we had planned. She screamed obscenities and begged for drugs for about half an hour as she clawed at my arms, which made me feel pretty relieved that my contract with her was just about to expire. But then, they handed me this tiny little person, and I looked into his gentle eyes, wide with wonder, fixed in an adoring stare at mine, and was hopelessly smitten. Shit, what was I thinking?
I can’t believe that I thought I would be able to walk away once he was out of her body. He was even more fragile and in need of me there in the air, wobbling head bobbing above the tile floor or slipping around in the sink. But looking at her nurse him, I could not help but try and make a family just like the one I had painted on her wall.
We got a bigger place, and for a couple of months it was all Norman Rockwell, her clean, sober and devoted with me working at a hip little garage in the City. But then, sadly and slowly, she started to come down off the mommy hormones, and began to get antsy. She was going stir crazy she said, she just needed a night out she said, and with a promise to be back in time for his early morning feeding, she got all dressed up and out she went. He was a great baby, always bright-eyed and happy, and my love for him grew every day. But that morning when he awoke hungry as he always did just before sunrise, and she wasn’t there, he was really pissed off. All my bouncing and dancing, my running the vacuum, my singing and begging were futile in the face of his hunger, and finally, in desperation, I put him to my breast. He latched on and sucked with all his might, calming himself, and for a few moments we were at peace.
The sensation was strange and painful, tickling, tingling, burning, itching and actually sort of embarrassing, but he was finally contented for a few minutes, and I let him have at it. As the sun rose and he realized that my teat was just some tiny arid and cruel joke, he started into another furious tear. Thankfully, just as I was cursing her with a fury uncommon to me, she arrived – boobs bursting, milk running down her thighs and I thrust him into her arms where he quickly settled into his usual milk stupor, and exhausted, fell contentedly asleep.
I yelled at her, I scolded her, I pleaded with her, I begged her, and she timidly promised it would never happen again, but of course it did. The pediatrician said I would probably produce milk, most men could, likely colostrum at least and that it would be good for him. I tried, but that let-down feeling was so intense and weird, my boobs felt like they were starting to grow, and I realized humbly that I just wasn’t that enlightened. So I got some formula and the next time she disappeared for a couple of days, I began to wean him.
I moved us back to LA where my family was and her junkie pals weren’t, but she found new ones. She would go off on benders, disappearing at times for weeks, coming home weak and yellow with a hepatitis flair up. I would then take care of both of them, he who so deserved and appreciated it, and she who I grew to resent more with each round. Finally, I told her if she left again, she should not return, and she didn’t. When he asked, weh-wiz mommy, I could finally answer, and say, she has an apartment in Hollywood, and that helped him.
I bawled my way though Kramer vs Kramer, and dove unabashedly into single fatherhood. But as far as the world was concerned, I was nothing to this little guy who was now the love of my life. He had made me a father, and somehow, the open sore left by the sudden death of my own father when I was 12 was mostly and miraculously healed. In many ways I selfishly cherished my difficult role as a single dad, and was petrified that I might somehow lose him. Lawyer after lawyer told me my choices were to marry her, (no way) or have her relinquish her parental authority, (no way) so that I could adopt him. He knew nothing of all this. I was his dad, that’s all he knew, and for then, I felt that was all he needed to know.
I was doing video editing for a lawyer working on Rowan and Martin’s lawsuit against their Laugh In producer, George Schlatter (which they won). Since I often had my son with me at these sessions, this lawyer sometimes brought his girlfriend, who was a family law attorney herself, along with her 9 year old son. She and I chatted like a couple of moms at the park, and I eventually shared my parenthood problem with her. One day, she excitedly announced that she had solved it: the Uniform Parentage Act. It was mostly used to enforce paternity in the days before DNA on dead beat dads who had held themselves out as fathers, but then, absent the romance, wanted rid of its product as well. There was no reason she explained that I could not use the statute to say, hey I’m holding myself out to the community as this child’s father and get a judge to declare as much, which he did. We agreed that in payment for her and her boyfriend’s work preparing the case, that she would baby sit for me while I did a valve job on her lovely old 1950 Alfa Romeo Giulietta spider. I cherish the worn and yellowing carbon copy of that court order to this day, and bet that evretyingme she drives that little red roadster, she thinks of Lan and me.
But my son was still in the dark. I had no idea how, when or if to explain this strange relationship to him. I was terrified that it might alienate him, or make him feel insecure, and so, when he was about 6, I found a family therapist, and he and I began to have sessions in the home of a wonderful woman in our neighborhood, a single parent herself, who agreed we needed to handle this revelation carefully. Shortly after we began, her 16 year old son was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was not really able to imagine troubling her with what now seemed like my petty dilemma, but she asked that we continue, that it would be a comfort to her to continue her work with us, because unlike too many of her patients, ours was a problem not full of pain or dysfunction but one borne only of deep, healthy and mutual love. My son and I came to feel a bit like parts of her family, and I suspect we continued seeing her long after our path had become clear to all of us. Her daughter delighting in playing with my cute little son, as she and I shared our love for our kids and the sorrow of our losses.
Finally she blessed my confession and he and I took a ride into Griffith Park, as I had so often done with my own father, and parked at Bee Rock to watch the sunset. As I began reciting my script about where babies come for, he became sullen and turned away from me, I was scared and confused, but prepared, and so continued, even as I became more frightened at his stiffening fear, which seemed so inharmonious with the deep love I intended to share with him. Suddenly, it occurred to me as I watched the terror rising in the reflection of his face turned so stalwartly away from, that he already knew what I was about to tell him. I could almost hear her spitting out in some paranoid crash: “You know, he’s not even your real dad”. I realized that what he thought was unfolding may have been his worst nightmare, that this man, the only solid reliable thing in his life, had discovered this dark secret, and that I too was about to reject him. That I too would too abandon him like his mom had. And so I shifted gears, and jumped straight to proclaiming my love. I abandoned my script and explained how I had not intended to be his dad, how if he had been some fussy baby, some angry little man, I may have left him to his mom. I was realizing for myself, in that moment, that it was he and his beautiful spirit, so apparent even on that first day in that stuffy little exam room, who had saved me, who had loved me and drawn me into his world of beauty and innocence, and I saw, in his reflection in the side window of my truck, the frightened scowl he had been wearing grow into a huge grin. He did not turn to face me right away, but I put his favorite tape, Laurie Anderson’s Oh Superman into my cassette deck, and stoked his head, until he climbed out of his car seat and into my lap as we cried and laughed together. Oh superman, oh judge, oh mom and dad, mom and dad… here come the planes.