This is what happens when Michael Ian Black makes you cry.
As I write this, it is a week before Father’s Day, and eleven days before my daughter’s fifth birthday, but I listened to an uncharacteristically candid and serious essay by Michael Ian Black on his father, and being a father, and I’m feeling this now. As a handful of women will attest, I have a bad habit of blowing my load a little early (that, by the way, is relevant to this writing, self-deprecating as it may be). This is how I feel here and now, and I want to get it down.
When I was seventeen or eighteen, I had an annual check up at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. Lollapalooza was the day before, and my friend (you know who you are) was waiting in my car with two semi-runaway girls coming down from LSD. I was the babysitter; I have never tried acid, and after that night, I am completely comfortable with that.
I asked my doctor, Brad Warady (a great man who saved my life on countless occasions, and who I miss) if I would ever be able to have children. I don’t know why I asked this; it was not a pressing concern, as most teenage boys don’t strive and hope for parenthood. It was simply a question, out of nowhere. I was told no, or at least not very likely. Transplant patients are put on heavy doses of steroids that tend to have a list of side effects. Stunted growth (check), mass amounts of body hair (check), uncontrollable Hulk level hormonal rage (check and check), and, yes, negative effects on a growing boy’s inner boy parts. Fatherhood was just not in the cards for me.
Let’s flash forward fifteen years or so. I was married in the fall of 2008, but my ex-wife and I had been together for some years prior. As many couples tend to do, condoms and birth control weren’t widely used. We were monogamous and nobody had cooties; it just didn’t seem needed. There was never a pregnancy scare, and I don’t think we thought about it too much. After all, I had been declared as sterile as a CDC clean room.
As soon as we were wed, however, my sperm, being the good Catholics they seem to be, decided to work. Maggie was pregnant, and I was shocked and overjoyed. The prospect of being a dad was very, very bright. I had been an acting father to Maggie’s son, Ethan, for several years. His father had not been in the picture, and he was a good kid who deserved to have a dad. I wasn’t great at it, but I tried. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was impatient and unsure. The achievements that I would put on my resume are that I taught him how to ride a bike, tie his shoes, and know all of the characters from Star Wars Episodes IV-VI.
He does not talk to me anymore, and I miss him. I understand; post-divorce relationships with stepchildren are awkward and fragile. His father is back in the picture, after a decade of absence All cynical, better-late-than-never jabs aside, I’m glad he’s made that choice. Ethan is a brilliant, creative, and wonderful boy, and he deserves a dad. I’ll be around when he’s older, and I’ll always give him my time.
Long story short, Maggie miscarried shortly after the first trimester. Our first ultrasound did not register a heartbeat. The techs rushed us from the room with no explanation, but something was clearly wrong. Maggie was worried, and so was I, and nobody was giving us an answer. In a rare moment of assertiveness and dominance, I demanded answers, now, to ease our tension. It was pretty attractive, maybe, my sudden alpha male status, and if not for our worry and grief, I probably would have gotten laid that night.
Sadness, loss, and uncomfortable procedures followed. There was a genetic abnormality and the body’s quality control center stopped production. I couldn’t help but think that was my fault. My boys were fucked, even the semi-functional ones.
A year and some months passed.
Maggie was pregnant again in the fall of 2009. We were happy, but cautious. There’s only so much heartache either parent can take. She took oversized vitamins and pills, I read The Caveman’s Guide to Fatherhood. Fingers were crossed, eggshells were stepped upon. When that heartbeat came through on our first ultrasound, rabbit quick and strong, there was relief and tears. I fell immediately fell in love.
Aside from Maggie’s sudden desire for Japanese hardcore pro-wrestling, the next six months were standard, regular issue, baby developing months. We opted to not know the sex, but I’m fairly certain little girl was always in my heart. Jack Adam was the boy name (because Jack Kirby would be awesomely nerdy), Willow Emily for a girl (Willow was my dog’s name, from junior high, named after George Lucas’ magical epic, Willow, and when asked why I named my daughter after the dog, I recite Indiana Jones’s final line in The Last Crusade, “I loved that dog.” – also awesomely nerdy). Her second ultrasound looked like the Predator. I spent the first ten minutes of her life telling her that I loved her, that she was beautiful, and that I would always protect her. I missed the afterbirth, but asked for a doggie bag.
Her mom and I didn’t last. Shit happens, but it’s better to have two parents separate and happy rather than two parents together and seething with rage. Maggie knows what Willow means to me, and she has been an incredible ex-wife, supportive and flexible with my time and occasional hardships and disabilities. Willow is surrounded by people who love her, and that is what truly matters.
I’ve never seen evidence of a kind and benevolent God. My dad never passed a football with me, or taught me how to fix cars, or anything along those traditional and cliched fatherly roles. I was angry then, and I probably wouldn’t have let him, anyhow. He did do this; on my thirteenth birthday, he gave me a Playboy, a VHS copy of Heavy Metal, and plenty of personal space. He also never told me what to believe. It was up to me to research, observe, and draw my own conclusions of a higher power. The Bible, to me, seemed utterly unrealistic, completely contradictory, and, at times, sowed seeds of hate, mistrust, and arbitrary rules. Likewise, the world seemed like an untended shop; nobody was paying attention, let alone caring, what we humans did to each other. It’s ok, I’m not upset or angry or immoral. I see the randomness of the universe as a series of incredible strokes of luck. I see the existence of us, humanity, you reading this on a magic electric box filled with limitless knowledge, me in this air conditioned room with juice somehow pumped into a shiny pouch, as the result the exploding of stars, the combination of chemicals that needed to be just right, of a long line of chance, infinitesimally unlikely luck, and survival. This is far more beautiful and awesome than some deity snapping their fingers and making something from nothing.
But, sometimes, I look at my daughter. I watch her grow from a lump of crying, shitting, eating pink flesh to this human being with humor and creativity and such personality. I think of how unlikely she is, and how lucky I am,and sometimes, just sometimes, I think maybe. Just maybe….