“Five minutes or so. Anything less than that and they need to haul tail to the hospital,” Dad said staring across the table. A strange intensity had began to burn in his eyes; he shifted in his seat, hands curled before his mouth, legs flexed and eager to run — if the situation so demanded — the hundred-fifty miles back home. Mom continued to nod at my brother’s electronic voice, now rising and falling over the receiver like a roller-coaster scream.
“Yeah . . .,” she laughed. “Uh-huh . . . right. Well, ca . . . sure. Just call if anything . . . right, sure.”
Then she ended the call, pressing the little red button and reaching for her wine glass. My mother allowed the alcohol to swish and twist around her mouth, savoring the subtle flavors of the pinot before answering any of our questions. Dad’s face had alternated between several shades of volcano red and oxygen-deficient blue before spitting out the necessary question . . .
“Well?” he asked.
Any other day my father plied his trade as an above-average man of business, captaining a company whose hands installed air-conditioning, pipes, and furnaces to homes from Philadelphia to South Carolina; commanding a legion of working men, former academics, tradesmen, and thieves; saving the lives of pool-deprived women and children melted by fierce summer heat. The man’s whole constitution, which has weathered recessions, depressions, and the egression of the 1983 Colts, had crumbled at Pat’s phone call. The businessman had been reduced to a simple grandfather, staring at my mother while she counseled my brother over the phone. Dad’s eyes glowed with excitement and nervous energy, his mind a tangled labyrinth of cogs, chains, and compressors, spitting and exhaling plans and scenarios none of which — while isolated this far from home and hospital — he was capable of controlling.
“We should be home,” he said emphatically. “If she’s having the baby tonight, we should be there. Home. With my grandchild.”
“They’re only six and seven minute contractions. Could happen tonight or simply be a false alarm,” Mom shrugged. “Just have to wait and see.”
Good God! Within the next few hours, I could be an uncle!
“Still . . .” Dad muttered. “If they need help, we . . . I want to be up there when it happens. Make sure everybody gets to the right place.”
“Mike,” Mom said with that frustrated warning tone she displays to children, worried husbands and other predators. I compare it to a snake’s rattle which if ignored can lead to heart attack, paralysis, and other marital maladies. “How the world has continued to revolve without your intervention is beyond me. Pat and Tiff will be fine. Have to learn to do this on their own anyway. Without grandpa’s intervention. It’s probably just a false-alarm anyway so just finish your soup . . .”
In fact, my niece, Kelsey was born at 6:34 the next morning. No one got any sleep that night; it was like Christmas all over again. Every click of the shutters or sudden hum from the vents send me scurrying from my bed and sneaking into my parents room for news. Mom would just whisper ‘hospital’ and fall back asleep.
Dad drove us home the next morning, closing the 150-mile gap just under two-hours, a an impressive feat considering he was fueled solely on sunflower seeds, iced tea and parental concern. Otherwise the long drive west along route 50 was unremarkable. We somehow managed to avoid the various speed traps, slow-moving U-haulers, and the occasional old lady peering just above her Camry’s steering wheel. At the hospital Dad and I arrived just in time to see the baby wheeled out from Tiff’s room in the pediatric ward.
“More tests,” the nurse said hurriedly. I was happy to note that Kelsey looked nothing like my brother, who as my mother always explained was a very ugly baby.
“All my children were beautiful at birth,” she would say to Tiff when the couple had been dating for a month or so. “Every last one was just gorgeous, except for Patrick. He always looked a little . . . funny. ‘Course Murph dropped him off the changing-table when he was two or three. That may have had something to do with it.”
Dad and I invited Pat down to the cafeteria for lunch, allowing the recent mother to get some sleep. We after all had business to discuss concerning the role of godfather — a well-coveted title in our family. Nearly all the siblings had thrown their names into the ring and considering my age, experience, and good-standing in the community, I stood a good chance of over-coming the various brides and campaign promises (Sean, the farmer, had already offered a pony upon her fourth birthday).
We had just sat down to eat, when Tiff called Pat crying that the baby had stopped breathing. The doctors had rushed the baby to the neo-natal clinic, explaining that the baby had come down with pneumonia. What followed was a strange collection of days: my niece locked away in an observation box, my sister-in-law slept at the hospital, my brother juggled between work, hospital and his new house. Frankly, I’m surprised how well he managed to stay sane then. Pat always possessed Job’s patience, adjusting his smile to whatever crises were thrown in his path. The doctors allowed parents and grandparents into the neonatal ward; the rest of us had to watch from a close-circuited TV screen, which was prone to flickering and dying suddenly. Most of us decided to wait at home for news. My Mom and Dad visited Kelsey daily.
I visited the hospital the following week, after the doctors agreed that the infection had run its course. The baby still suffered from a slight case of jaundice; a phototherapy blanket wrapped around her small body gave off a slight purple glow from the plastic crib. I remember alluding to the X-men and something about mutant powers (Kitty Pride or Storm). Tiffany just shook her head and let me hold the baby anyway.
She was beautiful. It has been some time since I held a newborn. It’s been nearly fourteen years since Bree was that small, sixteen for Kevin. A few of my younger cousins were that age only three or five years ago, but it still feels so long ago.
As I sat there I contemplated my new role as uncle. Not a whole lot is written on the subject so I want to take a moment and discuss the job as I see it. Most avuncular tasks revolve around — but not limited to — corrupting the soul of the child. Infecting the child with excess sugars, dirty jokes, and exotic curse words are the typical stratagems. My uncle Brian had a fondness for public humiliation: pants-ing us at the local supermarket and interviewing female classmates during my 8th grade graduation: “Kristen, Murph dreams about you at night. Does that excite you? Or make you want to hurl?”
And then there’s the rest of the family to consider:
Katie would offer Kelsey her first hair dye (pink or green); Kevin would teach her to drive as soon as she’s old enough to reach the pedals (twelve or fourteen); Sean will buy Kelsey her first cigars (maybe chaw as well); her father would show his daughter how to steal cookies from grandma at Christmas; Ryan will let her play with power tools (“Cut me a three-inch piece of plywood, hon.”); Charlie will teach her to shoot BB guns (against snakes and future boyfriends); Shannon will model boxing techniques and counter-throws (“Today we learn how to take a punch”); and Brigid will advise Kelsey on the best boutiques to utilize her father’s credit card.
Clearly there’s not much ground left for me to cover. Hell, even Mom will offer some modest instruction on bar-tending and mixed drinks. By the time that she’s old enough for high school, my niece will be a total mess . . . without my help at all.
Then again, if Kelsey should be exposed to gaming, cosplay, and . . . heavens forbid, classic poetry, I don’t think either Pat or Tiff would ever forgive me. Storytime with Uncle Mike might feature a few Shakespeare plays, some laudanum-inspired verses by Cooldridge, and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come – a modicum of graphic novels until she learns to read. Basically any suggested literature scribed by drug addicts (they do write the best stuff) or comic geeks (awesome imaginations) should earn me some infamy in my brother’s household.
By her seventh birthday I’ll have her addicted to Naruto and practicing Harry’s Accio spells in the hallways. At thirteen we’ll visit her first Otakon, clad in seifuku and wielding six-foot Styrofoam blades. When she’s twenty-one, I’ll cry as she walks down the aisle to that song at the end of Princess Bride.
Trust me, Pat will return the favor. No doubt my own kids will be football stars, which will force me to take remedial lessons on long-bombs, Hail Marys, and meaning of cross-checking (which I’m fairly certain has nothing to do with football at all). Of course, as a father, I would try to learn the whole system of plays and terms; that would be my job. And if the kid were to become infatuated with golf, well . . . I might have a few stories of my own to pass alone . . .