Knock, Knock, Knock. I sat in my soon-to-be son’s room knocking nails into his crib and thinking. There’s something they never tell you about becoming a father. As soon as I found out about Angela’s pregnancy, I swelled with all kinds of new emotions. Terrified of all of the things that came with being a father. Apprehension towards raising the child, fear I wouldn’t be a good enough father. I suddenly burst from within as she showed me the positive test.
We tried for two years, and after what felt like an eternity of failure, we did it. We were going to have a little boy. Braden. As soon as she told me I started thinking of all kinds of things I never considered before. The dangers of our home and how easily it would be for a little one to be hurt, or worse. We purchased our home out in rural New York the year after we married. Moving from an expensive apartment in the city to an expensive four-bedroom house out where the trees replaced the people and the bustle of everyday traffic was silenced by the rolling wind and the sound of windchimes my wife hung on our back patio.
The house itself came to us as a jumbled side project. Condemned years before, my father’s company purchased the land and worked to restore it. We ended up buying it from him in the middle of the process, so when we moved our few things into the home we found it filled with an air of unfinished work. The basement still lined with the dust of shattered concrete from a halted expansion.
In our kitchen there was an unfinished counter, nails and tack jutted out from the corners of the paneling. A trap for a child who wanted to turn our kitchen into a race track. The checkered flag could have so easily been a nail threatening to mar his beautiful face. I couldn’t bear the thought. Our home was filled with all manner of traps laid out. So I began working. By the eighth week of her pregnancy my list finished and by the twenty-sixth, the minor dangers removed. I replaced the siding on the walls and the broken floorboards. By the thirty-fourth week, the house was nearly finished.
Then, I worked more steadily on the things Braden would need when he arrived. I was building his crib when Angela came in to tell me she went into labor. The whole thing so surreal. I was going to be a father and I didn’t know what any of it meant. So, I hammered together a crib for our boy and did the only thing I knew how to do.
“I promise I’ll love you with a light brighter than every star in the sky.”
I shifted the crib and double checked the legs, making sure they would hold my son safely.
“I promise I’ll hold you when you’re hurt, my darling little boy.”
My father called one last time to prepare me for the duty of fatherhood that morning. We spoke for three hours or more, telling me all about the things he felt. How he gave my childhood home a complete makeover before I arrived. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Of course, I’m exactly like my dad. Before I came he told himself he was prepared for anything and that he would manage whatever problems would surface. Then he actually met me, and a fearful love came over him.
That’s why I started promising my little boy things. Dad told me he did the same thing. He lamented being afraid of letting me down and afraid he wouldn’t be a good enough father. I never thought it, though. He was amazing. Especially as he coached me through Angela’s pregnancy.
When everyone has their first child, I’m sure their parents will do the same. To say there is no handbook for being a parent is an understatement. It happens and you learn as you go. “It’s the hardest job he ever had.” My dad said. Most rewarding one, too.
“I promise I’ll never look upon you with disappointment, I’ll encourage every move.”
Talking to the crib might seem strange, but I had always done it. I spoke to the things I worked on. A trait I think I picked up from my father. Ever the craftsman. Working in carpentry since childhood I suppose I learned even the nuances of my work from him. Every project he worked on he did so with someone in mind. My mother, me, my brothers. He would speak to the project as if it were the person, he worked on it for. Like I said, the apple didn’t fall far.
I situated the crib in the corner of Braden’s room just before Angie stepped in. Still thinking about my son, and the duties I’d soon have. She reached the end of thirty-eight weeks. I’d finished everything on my to-do list as her thirty-ninth week began.
“I promise I’ll brace your back in the times you’re afraid of what the world can do.”
I remembered my father’s promises to me and used them as my own promises to my son. Becoming a father is the most terrifying thing, and I hadn’t even had my baby boy yet. But he was on his way.
“My love.” Angie burst through the door of the bedroom holding her stomach. “He’s coming.”
I guided her downstairs and outside, into the car and we left for the hospital. I didn’t have a clue about how it all worked, despite the hours of videos Angie made me watch to try to educate me. I waited patiently, stepping out every so often to get coffee and talking with her about all the things we would need once Braden arrived. Talking to her made me feel better at that moment. I was comfortable, knowing I would be able to be a good father for my son as long as I had Angie to support me. The hours flew by while we spoke, I couldn’t tell you how long we were in there. It could’ve been ten days or twenty minutes. Everything sort of blended together.
When the doctor arrived he introduced himself and shook my hand and it was like I was speaking to them in the midst of a dream. He situated himself with my wife lying on the bed and Braden started to come. As they checked her body, and his, they told me something was wrong, his neck had gotten tangled up by the umbilical cord. One of the nurses escorted me out of the room and the doctor assured me he saved babies from worse before, that I shouldn’t worry.
I wasn’t worried.
After I had left, I found myself in the waiting room, the nurse returning to assist the doctor with my wife. Out of the delivery room, I found a handful of people all waiting much like I was, for their loved ones to be finished with the hospital. In the waiting room, I met this middle-aged woman, Savannah Ioana. I remember her like a crystal-clear image in my mind. She was sitting across from me reading a magazine, hair in a tight bun and a large black shawl draped across her shoulders. I’m not sure when she arrived. She hadn’t been sitting there when I took my seat.
Her question sliced through the silent air and made me jump. No one else in the room moved.
“How can you tell?”
“Nervous sweating, mostly.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“I’m Savannah Ioana. Nice to meet you.”
She held out her hand. It was tough. Calloused from work, but gentle in an unbelievable fashion. Her touch offered an eerie comfort.
“Marshall Avenport. What are you waiting on?”
She smiled at me. “Oh, a friend of mine is pregnant. She’s having her baby today.”
I nodded at the woman, a certain sort of distance in her voice. It was as if she spoke from two places at once, the woman before me, and another version of herself calling out from down the hall, in another room.
“Same, I mean, my wife. My wife is in labor, right now.”
“I saw her when you arrived, actually. Your wife is beautiful.” She folded the magazine closed and leaned forward, a kind look about her. “I’m sure you’re nervous.”
“Terribly, but I think I’ll be okay.”
I checked down the hall, hoping a doctor or nurse would be coming any moment to tell me Braden arrived. Our conversation dragged on. Not that it was at all unpleasant. I enjoyed speaking with her, but my mind was racing, worrying about Angie.
“If you want to talk, about anything, I’m here if you want someone to listen.”
At first, I was hesitant.
“I’m just nervous. My boy has the cord wrapped around his neck, they’re trying to get him out right now.”
“Ah, I’ve seen that before. It isn’t uncommon. I’m sure he will be fine, these are the best doctors in the state, you know.”
“I know, and I trust them, I’m just nervous.”
“What are you nervous about?”
“Fatherhood. I want to make all of these promises and keep all of these things for my family. To be honest, I just want a family. Angie and I struggled with getting pregnant. Its silly, but I made this list of promises to them I want to keep. I think I want those more than anything else, you know?”
Savannah nodded, smiling at me.
I didn’t necessarily want to, but the words fell out of my mouth without dictation or reasoning. I spilled those promises to her like an endless fountain. The same promises I would soon make to my wife and newborn son.
“I promise I’ll look out for her, Angie. Times are hard for us right now, but I’m working on a second job, or a better job. I love her so much. I promise to love her more than I ever have, I mean… she gave birth to our son. The two of them are miracles in the flesh. I can’t understand what she must be going through right now.”
Savannah closed her eyes briefly.
“Pride.” She opened them to continue talking. “Angie is proud of you, for being such a strong man. I’m sure. I wouldn’t see why not. I’ve seen a lot of first-time fathers in my industry, and you are handling the stress well.”
“What industry do you work in?”
“Never mind that, let’s keep talking. What else will you promise her?”
“I’ll promise no matter how much we face, I’ll always be there for her. I am hers forever, and she is mine. She will always come first in my life, and everything I do will be for her and our little boy.”
I leaned back, looking around the room to notice the faces all changed. People stood and sat back down, and I hadn’t even seen them come or go.
Savannah took my hand and stood.
“Come on, Marshall. Let’s go to your baby boy.”
She took my hand once more and the same calm from the first time as if the world around me melted away. It felt like no one could see me or hear me, I was alone in the world with her and soon, my baby boy. My body tingled as we stepped out of the waiting room, like snowfall on my skin, but everywhere on me. She led me down the hallways, each step as if we were floating and past Angie’s room, the door wide open, and no one was inside. Savannah continued walking until we stood before the nursery window where she stopped.
I scanned through the small nametags until I found Braden, lying in his crib, swaddled in the sheets and sleeping comfortably. Tears burst from my eyes and I stepped into the room, so thankful he made it.
I picked up my baby boy as Savannah watched over us, and I held him tight. I whispered into his ear.
“Hi baby boy, I’m your daddy. Are you excited to be here?”
I paused and turned to Savannah, to find her gone.
In her place, the doctor and nurse from Angie’s procedure stood. In my hands, suddenly nothing as the tingling feeling washed away from me and I clutched my chest in desperation.
“Mr. Avenport. I’m so sorry.” The doctor stepped forward and embraced me, tightly. “I’m so sorry you lost two loved ones today.”
Outside the window, even today, I recall seeing Savannah shrouded in a bright smoke, creeping from her skin, standing on the other side of the glass holding a baby boy, wrapped up in cloth and sleeping comfortably. Beside her, my wife watched them gently bob as Savannah sang a song to Braden and smiled.
It was a nice song, I still hear it on long nights, when I can’t sleep. When I lay in bed I listen and repeat those things I promised so long ago.
“I promise I’ll look out for you.”
“I promise I’ll be there for you.”
I promise I’ll always love you.
Both of you.