ReelThoughts: June 11, 2010

"Welcome, Michael"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


This entry, which is part narrative and part rumination, will likely come across as indulgent. So be it.

Michael Robert Berardinelli was born on May 12, 2010. The evening before he emerged from the cramped but safe confines of his mother's womb, I was sitting through a screening of Robin Hood, one in a series of 2010's disappointing would-be blockbusters. On the trip home, I was thinking less about the movie I had just seen - to be honest, it didn't deserve much in the way of introspection - and more about the expected events of the next day. Sheryl was scheduled for a C-section at 11:15 am - a form of birth necessitated by biology and geometry. Reduced to the simplest terms, it was "baby large, Sheryl small." Rather than risk a shoulder injury to the baby or an emergency C-section mid-delivery, Sheryl had decided to plan for the operation. One of the benefits of a scheduled C-section, offsetting the fact that it's surgery, is a degree of certainty regarding date and time. But the best laid plans of mice and men...

I arrived home at 10:30 to be greeted by the pronouncement that Sheryl thought she was having contractions, and had been having them for more than two hours. They were mild and widely spaced, and she wasn't sure they signaled the onset of labor. Her pregnancy had been defined in part by frequent so-called Braxton Hicks contractions, so this could have been more of the same. Two hours later, there was little doubt. Labor had apparently started around 8:00 pm; the C-section was not scheduled until 11:15 am - even considering the slow progression of most first births, it seemed unlikely she was going to last.

When she went to sleep around midnight, having ascertained that the baby was determined to arrive on May 12 one way or the other, the contractions were mildly uncomfortable (but not yet painful) and eight minutes apart. It didn't take long for her to doze off, but I lay sleepless in bed next to her, listening to her rhythmic, regular breathing. This was the last night like this. Tomorrow, I would be in the bed alone, hopefully with a recuperating wife and healthy son in a hospital 10 miles away. That was the future I wanted to envision and, if I was to play the odds, that was the most likely one. There were, however, others - darker possibilities flitting around the edges of him awareness. And a desire not to dwell upon them did not banish them from my consciousness. Having seen Splice the day before certainly didn't help.

Anxiety is a curious thing. I'm not prone to fits of nervousness and, although I am often able to face extreme circumstances with unusual calm, some of the oddest things often put me in a state of near paralysis. Weddings, for example. There's something about them that causes me to seize up. Airplane flights, too. I am not terrified of the actual flight, but the entire process causes me sleepless nights. Once I get on the plane and am seated in my assigned seat, I'm fine. Until then, however, it's a dry mouth and a parched throat. That's why I have driven to Toronto for the past three film festivals. My anxiety about flying, coupled with my anger at the growing disdain of airline and airport employees, reached a critical point in 2007. I may require therapy before I can set foot on another plane.

Lying in bed, unable to sleep, I felt like I was about to embark on an international flight the next morning. The arms of Morpheus weren't only elusive, they were out of reach. My mind tried to bring order to the chaos. I was certain Sheryl would awaken at any time and inform me it was time to go. She woke up a couple of times to use the bathroom (one curse of pregnancy) and inform me that, yes, she was still having contractions and, no, they weren't yet unbearable. That changed by five o'clock. By then, she had gotten about four hours of fitful sleep, which was four more hours than I had gotten.

We timed her contractions. They were between five and six minutes apart. So, as she had been instructed, she called her OB/GYN and was informed that she should go to the hospital. As she showered, I should have eaten something, but my appetite (never large at the best of times) was non-existent. A plate of my favorite food could have been placed in front of me and I wouldn't have touched it. By six o'clock, we were in the car and now the contractions were painful. While I was driving 35 mph in a 30 mph zone, Sheryl snapped, "Can't you go any faster?" I was momentarily reminded of scenes in movies and TV shows in which a cop pulls over a car with a pregnant woman speeding to the hospital and proceeds to provide her with a police escort. But reality rarely plays like the movies and I wasn't interested in testing this.

The hospital was a surreal experience, with the nurses and doctors buzzing around and the contractions showing vividly on a monitor. Then again, when you're sleep-deprived and it's around six in the morning, anything out of the ordinary is likely to seem surreal. The original plan upon admission was for Sheryl to be given a spinal then whisked into the O.R. for surgery. Things didn't work out that way; another woman giving birth at that time encountered difficulties when she couldn't push the baby out and the resources originally prepared for Sheryl went to her. Unable to wait for the spinal due to the pain from the escalating contractions (which were now two-to-three minutes apart), Sheryl opted for an epidural. After that, she wasn't exactly comfortable, but at least she didn't think she was going to imitate John Hurt from Alien every 150 seconds. For the record, she never spewed profanity at me, nor did she attempt to do me bodily injury. Of course, we never got to the point where I urged her to "push" while babbling annoying words of encouragement.

Eventually, she was taken into an operating room and I was parked in a chair outside the door awaiting my opportunity to enter and witness the event. My chief memory of that time related to how cold it was. I was dressed in short-sleeved scrubs and my teeth were chattering. I was offered a blanket by a nurse, which I accepted. Later, I heard someone make a call to maintenance and complain that the temperature was 65 degrees.

After the pre-op preparations were completed, I was ushered into the operating room and allowed to sit by Sheryl's head and hold her hand. A blue drape obscured everything blow her chest from her sight. Since I was sitting, I also couldn't see beyond it, although it wouldn't have been difficult for me to stand and take a peek. My brother-in-law had done this a couple of months earlier when my sister underwent a C-section, and he had helpfully described the view as "a horror show." Based on that description, I was reluctant to satisfy my curiosity. Sheryl was more intrigued than I was - understandable considering it was her body and she could feel the prodding and poking - but no one was going to pull back the curtain and permit her to watch. Watching oneself undergo an invasive medical procedure probably isn't the best approach.

When the moment arrived, I was asked if I wanted to stand up and observe; I accepted the offer. The scene was more sedate than I expected, and not at all the "horror show" I had steeled myself to see. The incision looked raw but, considering the amount of flesh that had been sliced open, there was surprisingly little blood. The baby was pulled through the opening with relatively little fuss. He was struggling weakly and his color was bluish - something fairly normal, I believe. The umbilical cord was clamped and cut, he was swaddled, and he was then placed in my arms. Sheryl was also briefly given a chance to hold him (difficult considering her position) before I accompanied him to be cleaned and made more presentable. Sheryl informed me that after we departed, she fell asleep while they were stitching her up. When I rejoined her a little later in the recovery room, she expressed a favorable opinion of the entire C-section process. That impression slipped considerably after the epidural wore off.

It may come as a surprise to some that my initial experience seeing and holding the baby was not transformative. This may be because I have a tendency to hold myself aloof from life-changing events. The birth of a child is a small miracle, and it takes time to process the emotional fallout. Most people I have known experience a form of "love at first sight" when their child is born. With me, there was an element of awe but it took spending a few hours with the sleeping baby by his mother's side before I connected with him. And I don't think the full enormity of who Michael was occurred to me until we brought him home. As much as I tried to help during Sheryl's hospital stay (bungling many of my opportunities in the process), I was really little more than an observer. I could worry about jaundice and latching problems, but I couldn't help with the feeding, couldn't alleviate my wife's discomfort, and couldn't prevent the nurses from interrupting her naps to take her blood pressure and temperature. The baby's existence didn't become real and personal until he came home. Then, suddenly, the division of responsibility became closer to 50/50.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about gazing at an infant in a crib, especially if that baby's upbringing has been entrusted (at least in part) to you, is wondering where life will take him. Who will he become? Will the world know him or will he pass namelessly into history like most of us? The years stretch out ahead of this child; imagination takes over, constructing a fantasy of what the future might look like. Such musings may feel substantive in the moment, when all things seem possible for this tiny person still gaining his bearings, but they are ultimately fragile and subject to rapid evaporation. Most people, great and small, have been looked upon by parents wondering similar things. We can chart our own lives to a point but our children are their own people and the best we can do is provide love, stewardship, and guidance. Did George Washington's father think his son might be instrumental in founding a nation? Did Adolf Hitler's mother fear the atrocities for which her child would be responsible?

In the normal course of things, Michael will be connected with me until I shuffle off this mortal coil. He, even more than my writings, represents my legacy. My words are static; they have no power to change or evolve. That is not true of a son. Someday, perhaps he will be standing in a place very much like the one where I'm standing now, observing his baby moving its arms and scrunching up its face - a universal experience that connects all parents. At times like this, one wonders about existential things like predestination and whether free will is an illusion. We like to believe we have control, but that's a myth. Control over little things, perhaps, but not over big things. We can accumulate wealth and power and bask in fame, but all that will matter very little if a massive asteroid comes calling.

It's not that I didn't think about these things before I had a child, but I didn't consider them as often or in quite the same way. Contrasting the vastness of the universe with the seeming insignificance of one tiny life is a mind-boggling undertaking, and a blow to the self-centered ego. I can understand why so many people for so many years have used a variety of religions to codify such things. Yet Michael's existence forces a metaphysical consideration of cause-and-effect. His being is predicated upon a specific series of events; take away one - such as the random e-mail that introduced his mother to me - and he would not be here. I'm not a believer in God or Fate, but the implications of Chaos Theory are daunting.

Often, I hear fathers and mothers remark that the day of the birth of their son/daughter was "the best day of my life." Recently, a sports star, winning a championship trophy, was asked how he felt. "Along with the day I got married and the birth days of my children, this is the best day of my life." Sometimes, this seems like an obligatory refrain. For me - and hopefully this doesn't make me sound callous or cause Michael a burst of righteous anger if he ever reads this - May 12, 2010 was not the best day of my life. It was certainly among the most important and momentous. And it was one I will never forget. But the best? No. Michael's birth represents a watershed moment, but the thing that stands out most about the hours before and after his birth is exhaustion. My appreciation of him has grown since then, but I was too stunned in the moment for the impact to filter through the tiredness and anxiety. I'm sure there will be plenty of "best days" to enjoy with Michael; I look forward to them with eagerness and optimism.


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