Fathers and Sons

THE night Paulie was born, I paced the Nairobi Hospital's dark and empty halls. In the stretch after 3 a.m. it was cold. I had my wife Donanne's sweater pulled tight around my neck as a muffler. The only person I met was a young and friendly Kikuyu nurse. When we passed one another, she smiled encouragingly. She would tell me: "No news yet."

The halls smelled of flowers set beside the rooms and wards of the new mothers, and the night was quiet except for the crying of babies not yet three days old. They were all in the same nursery, directly across from the room where expectant fathers waited, and just when their crying ceased, the last flutterings of breath muting into silence, some baby would start up suddenly and set them off again.

As I paced that night, I thought of many things. I wondered about the day of my own birth and what my father felt.

This day there had been rain on and off all afternoon. Donanne and I had waited together in the labor ward wondering if the baby was merely teasing us or truly intended to come. We watched the clouds, monitored birds hunting insects on the fragrant, new-mown lawn, observed the black and white heavy-bodied kites soar from the tops of the flame trees, blossoming orange-red, watched the rain fall with steady timelessness.

I wondered if it had rained the day I was born. What kind of sky stretched over my grandparents' apartment on Mariposa Avenue in Los Angeles? I wondered if my father had gazed at it, uncertain then - as I was now - of what was happening and what the outcome would be. What kind of smells had wafted through that apartment? It was the day before Thanksgiving. Had someone been making cranberry sauce or stuffing in the kitchen?

Certainly in my father's case the outcome had been a surprise. He went to church the next morning and at an appropriate time in the service stood to tell the entire congregation that he had received early that morning the blessing of twin sons.

I have a fond mental picture of him, more than 10 years younger than I was when I became a father, standing in that church service. And receiving congratulations after it as I, the unexpected second to arrive, slept soundly in a laundry basket hastily converted into a bassinet.

On the night Paulie was born, 20 years ago last week, I had not thought about my own birth since my childhood. Musing about it as I paced that night in Nairobi gave me a warm sense of linkage with my family that was far away. Especially with my father. For the first time I would be related to him, not only as a son, but as one father to another.

Finally the Kikuyu nurse hurried to tell me: "You have a son." Very soon another African nurse came along, walking efficiently from the delivery room. She was carrying Paulie lightly on her arm. His head was sticking out of coarse white swaddling and his eyes were open. He looked at me calmly: clear-featured, finely formed, and alert.

I was told I could see Donanne. I ran down the hall, proud of what she'd done, bent beside the delivery table and embraced her as best I could.

"He's beautiful," I said.

"What does he look like?" she asked. "I hardly saw him."

"Just a little like my father, I think." And, indeed, at my first glimpse of him I thought of old snapshots I had seen of my father, then a sober little boy in Redlands, California.

"He's beautiful," I said again, "and perfect. And mainly he looks like himself."

Four hours later I telephoned my parents at a hotel in Chester, England, where they were on a trip. My father was shaving. I suppose he got lather in the mouthpiece. I, who did not think myself very emotional, could hardly control the trembling in my voice when I told him that the baby had been named after him.

The event of that night entirely changed our lives - and our way of looking at life. Our routine resumed, but it was a very different routine. For one thing there was less time for musings of the kind I had indulged in while pacing the hospital halls.

EVEN so, there were nights - at six months, seven months - when Paulie would stage sustained struggles against sleep. Sometimes on those evenings Donanne would suggest to me from the kitchen: `I think a little paternal pat might be appreciated."

I would go down the hall, softly open the door and soothingly call out: "Hey, hey, hey!" I would reach beneath the mosquito netting and give young Paulie a pat and a rub. Sometimes I would croak him a lullaby of original composition. Often that was enough. But sometimes my blandishments met with no success.

Then came a critical decision. Should I let him cry himself to sleep? Or should I disobey the baby book, take him from the crib, and give him a hug?

Disobedient, I would sit with him, patting him lightly against my shoulder. Or I would let him stand on my lap, slapping my chest or cheek or nose. And again I would think of my father.

When I was small, I used to have dreams about running from something across a dark, endless, barren plain. These dreams made me cry. I would wake up in bed, and my father would tiptoe into the room. He would hold and comfort me and chase the dream away.

I've been a parent now long enough for Paul - our only child - to be in college. At one point my Dad had a daughter in boarding school and two sons away at college. He was an excellent ballroom dancer, and he paid those schooling bills with the same grace he brought to a waltz. As far as I knew as a college kid, there was no effort to any of it.

When you become a parent, you get to know your own parents all over again. You get a glimpse into a part of their lives you never realized existed. If they were good parents, as mine were, you empathize with their struggles. You're grateful for their perseverance. You respect and love them more.

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