A moment, 21 years ago

T.A. Barnhart

Today, Alex, my older son, turns 21. A momentous day, both for the child and the parents. Let me tell you about the first few minutes of his life, or, more accurately, what I experienced in his first few minutes.

He was born on a Thursday in Santa Rosa, California. Charles M Schultz, creator of Peanuts, lived in Santa Rosa; he loved hockey and built a rink there. You can drive by it and see Snoopy on the building. Kate Wolf lived and died there; Kate was one of the great singer-songwriters in folk music. Many performers were, and continue to be, influenced by the beauty of her work. (She died of leukemia, as did Steve Goodman, another of my favorites, also before Alex was born.) Alison and I had moved to Santa Rosa from San Francisco, where we had been married, thinking that in Wine Country, I'd have a better chance in the specialty food business (I was a cheese specialist, another long, boring story). It didn't quite work out, but it wasn't a bad step, either. It's just what you do when you're trying to figure out how to do your lives right.

Summer comes early to Santa Rosa, so Alison got to enjoy the "heavy" part of her pregnancy in heat of eighty degrees and more. At the time, I was working as the paid volunteer coordinator for Sonoma County Nuclear Freeze (remember them? and SANE?) This was the height of Reagan's popularity; we were in San Francisco in 1984, one of the few places in the country to vote for Mondale. So in Santa Rosa, in March 1986, we were out collecting signatures expressing citizens' outrage that he was doing his best to start World War III (remember? We really believed that, and I think we weren't too wrong). Five days before our first kid was born, my wife (now my ex) was out in near-ninety heat trying to get people to say they didn't want Armageddon (people should not forget: Reagan scared the hell out of a lot of us; his belligerence did not trivial).

But early Thursday afternoon, March 27, 1985, her water broke; and off we went to the hospital. Her labor was "only" two hours; the brevity of her labor was offset by its intensity. If the body is gonna shove that thing out that fast, it has to work frikkin' hard to make it happen. There is, of course, no easy labor. Alison had two hours of labor, and I did what I could to get her through it, and then delivery took another 45 minutes. I'm not particularly fond of my ex-wife these days, but anytime I remember what she went through that day, what she did to bring our child into the world, I realize I owe her a debt I'll never pay.

But then this:

Alex emerged, and he was blue and totally still. He did not move. He did not breathe. He lay there in the doctor's hands, and he was entirely still. It was horrible. I fell into this black hole of despair; later, in remembering what I felt — I remember it vividly even now, twenty-one years later — it was as if the earth stood still. As if time had stopped. My child, motionless, unbreathing, still. My child....

The moment, though, was just a moment. A second, perhaps less. Because, of course, he was perfectly fine. He lay in the doctor's hands for a moment, took a moment to gather himself, and then he got on with his life. He squirmed, he squawked, he made faces. The doctor gave me the scissors to do the honors (it was like cutting through a soft sausage with tough skin). And after the doctor took the initial measurements of his health (perfect) and shown him to Alison, the nurse "papoosed" him quickly in a small, soft blanket.

And she handed my son to me.

As bleak and terrible as the first second of his life had been, the next few minutes were that wonderful. I held him in my arms, smiling as happily as I ever will in my life. I walked around the birth room, talking to him, and just blissing out. He was quiet, probably stunned (I'm not sure how "WTF?" sounds like in a newborn's head, but I'm sure that is what he was thinking), and we just started the process of being father and son.

Later that evening, I gave him his first bath. Two nurses helped me; he was uncommonly handsome from the moment he was born. His brother, nearly three years later, was more typical, non-descript, hairless, tiresome. Alex had loads of soft, dark hair, and he look more finished than newborns usually do. He looked older. At less than two hours old, he was already attracting an unfair number of female admirers. Using the foot pedals that controlled the water, and trying to neither drop, drown nor bash in his little head, I washed him clean; dried him; diapered him for the first time; and wrapped him tightly in the "papoose" style that calms infants and which I would never again manage as well. I felt an amazing combination of peace and giddiness (and this helps me understand why, in Zen teaching, activity and non-activity are considered the same thing).

He and Alison spent the night in the hospital, and the next day we all went back to the apartment. I, of course, stopped getting any sleep at night. Because my brother is almost ten years younger than me, I knew how to do a diaper; Alison didn't. So I'd get up in the night and change his diaper, she'd sort of wake to feed him and then I'd put him back to sleep. Lucky me. But the times during the day when I got to hold him, or carry him around, just being with my new baby, my child, was the most amazing thing that had ever happened in my life.

I was a good dad. I had my faults, including never quite making enough money and not knowing how to make a marriage work. As a divorced dad, I did so much better than my father had, but try telling a kid his family's divorce is a good one (listen to Art Alexakis tell the truth about it in "Wonderful"). Over the years I had to live away from the boys, trying to make any kind of living I could to pay child support. I found work in Portland, but they lived in Eugene, and then Monroe (four frikkin' miles outside of Monroe), and finally Corvallis. When I moved to Corvallis, finally able to live near my boys again, I found an economy with no place in it for me. I stumbled my way through Alex's high school years, doing my best, watching my ex-wife's husband take too much of my place.

Alex had a rough time for a number of years, but eventually music pulled him through. He's a brilliant, gifted musician; he taught himself to play guitar reading tabs off the web. The more he played, the more settled he became. He gradually started to find some focus in his life, After high school, he worked, talked about community college and then music school. I could see his future beginning to take shape, fueled by a love of what he did so well, what he enjoyed doing most of all.

So Happy Birthday, Alex. I won't be celebrating with him, however, and this is the hard part of his twenty-first birthday. Alex isn't at community college studying music, or even at Allann Bros making espressos. He's at Fort Benning, Georgia, going through basic training with the Oregon National Guard. How he went from prospective music school student to potential surge component is tomorrow's story. Today is not for the ugly side of the story. Today is to celebrate my beautiful boy and to remember how precious he is.

  • Phil Jones (unverified)

    It would be interesting if you asked his thoughts on the recent flag and soldier effigy burning in Portland, then reported same here.

  • Sponge (unverified)

    So, was it 1986, or is he actually 22?

  • Jonathan (unverified)


    Have you ever read Tom Tomorrow? Because I swear you must be the conservative that's parodied there, e.g. "you think Alberto Gonzales should resign? ... you must love terrorists," or "you're tired of Iraqis and Americans dying in Iraq? ... you must hate our troops!"

    On the other hand, if you bothered to read the press reports about the protest march, you would find that the effigies were the work of a few people causing trouble, and they were roundly denounced by the organizers.

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    What a loving and lovely tribute to your son and really..to yourself.

    Parenting is a tough job--I'm currently parenting two teenagers. Sometimes on the most difficult days, those amazing memories of their first minutes outside the womb (and the joy at discovering that new infant) are part of what keep me going.

    I can't imagine the feelings you must be having with your child in the Guard. Just the idea that my precious son (who is 15) might somehow be sent to Iraq via the draft terrifies me.

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    OK, folks, let's not sully TA's excellent and deeply personal post with a bunch of fistfighting over effigies and protests and crap.

  • ellie (unverified)

    Thank you for sharing your story, TA. I'm not a parent but it seems like a really difficult "job" - especially when kids make tough choices. I hope remembering this birthday brings you some peace and joy in these troubling times.

  • MCT (unverified)

    A wonderful post much appreciated and admired by those of us who know the true meaning of family values....not just the phrase bandied about in political circles.

    Bravo, TA.

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    What a touching account of your parenting experience. Thanks for sharing it. It's nice to hear what moved you about your son's birth, and hear you admit to the places where you've fallen short. (we all do...) I'm a politically active type, and there's nothing as hard as parenting. It really shows you in no uncertain terms who you are -- and who you aren't. There's no glossing it over. It's brave to come clean about it here.

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    Thanks for the timely reminder, TA, that politics and war are not games but are about real families and their lives.

  • Clay Eals (unverified)

    This message is for T.A. and doesn't need to be posted, but if it is, that's fine, too.

    Good to see your touching essay. Couldn't help following it more closely because I lived in Eugene for 12 years (1969-81) and in Corvallis for a year (1981-82) and as a newspaper reporter knew those areas well.

    I also appreciate your kind, passing reference to Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. Thought you might be interested in an eight-year project of mine that is coming to fruition -- a biography of Goodman that will be published in May. Please e-mail me at [email protected] if you would like me to e-mail you a background sheet on the book. Or check my Internet site below for more info and how to pre-order, if you like.

    Clay Eals 1728 California Ave. S.W. #301 Seattle, WA 98116-1958

    (206) 935-7515 [email protected] http://www.clayeals.com


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