by Brad Parker and Jerry Parker
For 234 mornings, ever since that June summer morning in 2018 when my wife Danielle told me she was pregnant, I awoke eager. Eager to be loving and loved by our soon-to-be, first and foremost addition. Eager to see who I would become as a father. Eager to live our next chapter.
About two months before our daughter Skylar was born, Danielle and I received a gift from my older brother Josh. It was a collection of poems that my father, Jerry, had written before Josh was born. The poems elegantly described our dad’s first journey into fatherhood. There was a handwritten note from my dad at the beginning of the collection that read: “Tell Brad that it was just a fluke he was lastborn. All I say in your poems applies to him as well.”
In October of 2017, just about a year before Josh sent us these poems, my dad suffered a severe stroke. He lost control of his left arm and leg, his vision was compromised, and his brain was permanently damaged. While he is stable today, he is not the same.
Today, his poems serve as artifacts of his flowing stream of consciousness as an eager young father, beautifully describing the changing world around him. Now that I’m a new dad, reading his poems has helped me develop a deeper knowing, love, and connection with both him and my amazing mom, Susan. I can also better relate to the new parenting experiences he recalled, and the precise words he so intentionally chose in his poems.
When I think back to all the big and small, joyful and scary moments of my and Danielle’s experience, I can better imagine my parents in action – following their intuition, leading with their hearts, telling their little baby boys that everything was going to be okay. Telling us that we were loved. Laughing and crying. Celebrating my first Father’s Day this year brought me back to my dad’s poetry.
The first time I read these poems, just a couple months shy of Danielle’s February due month, tears welled in my eyes. Maybe it was the connection I felt to my dad as a scared but excited new parent. Maybe it was mourning the fact that his brain no longer had the power and capacity to dance and wrestle with words to describe his thoughts and feelings anymore. Reading the poems, I felt his love, his fear, his hope. I could almost imagine having a conversation with him, sharing my insecurities and vulnerabilities, him responding poetically, after a few seconds of quiet pondering. His voice is in these poems. His heart. His insecurity, and the wisdom that comes with it. There was an opening letter, dated mid-March 1981, before the actual set of poems in the anthology. The letter announced Josh’s birth to friends and family, and it closed with this:
One last favor to ask of you [the reader of these poems], would you please struggle hard and well to budge this old world a bit more wonderful? Joshua is such a tender little flower — I don’t think war, violence, crimes, prisons, unwanted children, unemployment, poverty, ignorance imprisoned in illiteracy, corruption, apathy, laziness, greedy exploitation that drives the poor mad, the 7 deadly sins, and the innumerable lively ones — in epidemic proportion — are the proper soil (manure?) for his blooming.
I read this and had a stark realization – I would be Skylar’s “gardener.” I would be responsible for helping her grow – helping her navigate and make sense of this sometimes unfair and unjust world. I would be responsible for helping her learn to think for herself, act for others, and understand her privilege and responsibility in this world. I would be responsible for helping her blaze her own path, and when that time came, to let her go and explore it. Let her go and find herself. That was a big realization.
I am incredibly lucky to be sharing my life with my lovely wife, Danielle. She’s the best. She’s also a planner. Danielle had all the baby books and the bookmarked blogs.
She signed us up for a variety of classes ranging from childbirth 101, an all-day boot-camp for anxious new “gardeners” like us, to breastfeeding 101, to “Becoming Us,” a class where we focused on our relationship, and the love, learning, and growth that was just around the corner when our newest family member decided to join the world. I felt prepared, and lucky that Danielle had encouraged these learning opportunities for us.
By the second trimester, placing my hand (or ear) on Danielle’s growing belly became a nightly tradition after work. When I did that, the world stopped. There was no work stress, or thoughts of looming deadlines or things to do. There was only that present moment, and a mere wall of flesh (and an anterior placenta) separating me from our little growing flower.
My dad wrote a poem called “Fishing for a Touch” about just this:
I wait… in eager
patient loving calm
my hand hook-curved
on the wave of flesh
with the tides of breath
below, in the amnion sea
the little fish sleeps
but stirs before I slumber
slowed, rounded, water-muted grace
“A bite!” my sweet wife whispers
Holy wonder! I feel it!
The cold and wet Portland fall days in the second and third trimester felt long. While Danielle and I could hardly wait to meet our little one, we were also filled with anxiety.
Did we have everything? Were we ready? Was the baby healthy? How bad was the morning (should be called all-day) sickness? Were those intermittent, rhythmic ripples that we felt in her belly actually baby hiccups? Or were they something we should be worried about?
With Danielle being 35, and thus classified as a “geriatric mom,” we were nudged to consider testing for Down syndrome, spina bifida, and a few others that we were at a higher risk for.
Dad wrote about his fear of birth defects and disorders, too. This is from his poem titled “Third Trimester.”
O we want to see you bare
trace your every wondrous contour
with eyes and fingers that love and marvel
but also travel slow with fear…
we want to tune our ears to all your sounds
breathe your scents and baby oil’s sweet anointment
cheek up your satin-skinned springyflesh
come out, little one
into the cradles
of our aching empty arms.
if you come with extra fingers
we will make you a flute with extra holes
for higher, sweeter, deeper reach
if you come with Down’s
we will learn to lift up your spirit
with music and myriad sounds
that voice can make that are not words,
to lift you up with art’s colors, shapes, textures
with touch’s spate of possibilities
I, unlike your mother, am so wordsome already —
I could learn to love you special
in the silence of your wounded brain.
If what we have felt to be kicks
were strongarm flails to make up
for spina bifida’s forever quieted feet
we will do extra hula hands and puppetry, and dance fingers
on many instruments to make exultant music.
If your palate, not your spinal cord, is cleft
we will learn to kiss your scar
without wincing, with gratitude
for deftly straight-sewn stitches
Have I ever written such a poem
with warm tears in my eyes
silent sobs breaking in my swollen throat —
to you — all our love already
as you’ve grown, still are growing
in your mother’s good dark
all our love growing vaster
in the hour of your birth
all our love growing with you always
as you grow up with us together
in this miracle of surprise — this world.
Month nine arrived. At 37 weeks pregnant, Danielle had been out running errands when she suddenly experienced extreme swelling in her feet, which prompted a call to the doctor. The doctor requested she get her blood pressure checked that day, and the Costco pharmacy confirmed that her blood pressure was alarmingly high. The doctor calmly and assertively suggested we make our way to labor and delivery to be monitored right away. Impulsively, we brought our hospital bags, which were actually already packed thanks to the baby classes. Danielle was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia upon arrival at the hospital and was induced less than 12 hours later.
While the pregnancy classes had prepped us for 20+ hours of active labor, Danielle’s was two and a half hours long. We had heard stories about much longer ones for first timers. While 150 minutes of active labor may be significantly less than average, that didn’t mean it was any less intense for Danielle. Her contractions started immediately after induction. Each contraction was a little more intense than the one before, with less time between them to prepare for the next. I remember watching that monitor closely, that little green line intermittently rising hand-in-hand with Danielle’s increasing pain and labored breathing. At 2 hours of active labor, Danielle had the sudden urge to push. Despite the nurse’s initial skepticism, she checked and quickly determined that Danielle’s body was in fact ready to deliver. I think back to that January night – helping Danielle breathe, and laugh, and realize the immensity of her own strength and power. It was the most important job I’ve ever had.
Many ask what my favorite part of the birth experience was. It’s not an easy question. The only other moment I could compare Skylar’s birth to would be our wedding day. My favorite moment from that sunny, summer day in 2012 was seeing Danielle walk out from behind an oak tree and down the aisle towards me. The July sun shined, the humid Chicago air lingered, and the wind romantically blew her veil westward. Seeing her for the first time, in her wedding dress, walking toward me and our future together, was my favorite moment. Some of our friends shared a close-up photo of my face the moment Danielle stepped in to view. The look on my face is one I couldn’t replicate if I tried. The picture truly spoke a thousand words. So, my favorite part of the birth? Of course seeing Skylar for the first time, but perhaps more importantly: seeing Danielle see Skylar for the first time.
I remember it was about 8:30 pm, we were approaching two and a half hours of labor. I could read it in the eyes and voice of the doctor – we were nearing the final push. I placed my cell phone face down on a side table and hit video record. Now when I replay that video, the scene opens with a pitch black screen and crisp, clear audio. Danielle’s final push, her moan of sheer pain followed by relief, the cheers of the hospital staff, my breath being taken away. A few seconds after that magical moment, I grabbed the phone without looking and aimed it towards Danielle’s face. To my pleasant surprise, the video somehow captured the first moment the doctor brought Skylar to Danielle’s chest for skin-skin contact. Danielle’s eyes and smile were as bright and wide as the sun. That was, and still is, my favorite moment.
My dad wrote about that moment. Being there with my Mom, and the first time he saw his firstborn:
I, who had stood by your mother’s side for the duration
stroking, massaging, comforting, encouraging, nursing
stood before you touching your mother’s face
my arm around her shoulders
my mouth stopped quiet with wonder
my eyes full of you…
if I’ve ever felt prouder/humbler
if I’ve ever loved life, this world
your mother, myself, you so much
if I’ve ever been so determined
to budge this world a bit more loving —
I cannot remember.
Dad said it perfectly.
Skylar was the beginning of a new chapter in my relationship with Danielle. In addition to loving and supporting one another, we became the gardeners of our new and most precious flower. Our new life is full of daily doses of amazement, humility, learning, weeding, and a love that exceeds the capacity and weight of even the most descriptive of words. We look at each other in awe, in shared wonderment and looming anxiety, wondering how to be the best parents we can be.
Wondering how we somehow created this beautiful, curious little being. Wondering how, when the time comes, we can encourage Skylar to bloom in her own unique way, and travel her own unique path. Even if that means moving 2,000+ miles away from home like we did.
Bringing Skylar home from the hospital actualized our new reality. She was all ours. We were now on our own, in our new home for three (four with Winny the cat). There was no nurse to show us (again) how to best swaddle her, to share that her heart rate was just fine, to monitor Danielle’s blood pressure. It was our family, our home, our next chapter.
On the day my parents took Josh home to their brick apartment on the northwest side of Chicago, my dad wrote about what he hoped home would be for their firstborn. But he wasn’t talking about a house or apartment, or a street, town, or city.
to the larger, free-er womb of home
may it be a sacred place
where your spirit deepens, widens, soars
creates potently from joy’s sheer surging
then snuggles into safe warm rest
our spirits, too — likewise moving out alone
returning to each other to savor the sharing
a sacred place, too, for you to bring, heal hurt
scream rage, cry bitter tears with dignity — our respect
(life, like birth, dear son, will have its bruises)
may home be a place where you can count on us mostimes
to share a smile or a ponder or a smoking indignance
a place where we can help you… perhaps to gather courage
to loose love in action vigorous, or to conquer fear
with fine tenacity that outlasts your tears
to learn to captain competently the mostly private
miracle of your soul
Welcome — come well, sweet baby!
Come live with us and be our love
and although your mother adores you sorely
and your father fears he dotes
we promise to help you free in small degrees
to go as well as you came.
Welcome — come well, sweet Skylar. Come live with us and be our love.