Michael had never been one to do anything rash under pressure, he generally handled it better than anyone. The day before he robbed a bank and was arrested by the police, he didn’t sleep fewer hours than usual, didn’t toss and turn with restless excitement or go over his plan one more time. On the contrary, Michael was calm, confident: he knew the plan like the back of his hand, and what he didn’t know was tattooed on his back. Michael’s mind was too pragmatic for him to lose his cool very often.
But becoming a father wasn’t exactly something you could plan ahead for.
To begin with, Sara’s water broke five and a half weeks before the scheduled date of birth. Right as they were getting in the car, ready to meet Lincoln and Sofia for brunch (Brunch, Lincoln had made the word sound ridiculous on the telephone, can you believe these two ex-convicts are having a Sunday brunch, Mikey?) but right now was not the time to get distracted.
One second, everything was fine and according to plan, and the next amniotic fluid was spilling on the sidewalk, down Sara’s legs.
It felt to Michael like his heart was a meteor dropping all the way down to his stomach. In utter paralysis, he stared at his wife, his hand frozen on the handle of the car door. Michael used to think shock would feel like chaos, but it was just as if there were a giant snowfield of emptiness where his brain should be. This was too soon, too soon to be safe. Sara wasn’t eight months pregnant yet. He’d read somewhere that a premature birth could lead to long-term health problems.
“Michael,” Sara called, strangely calm – he realized, she was trying to calm him. Her hands were reaching for him through the air, her thin fingers stretched, making the sort of gestures you use on tantrum-throwing children. “It’s all right.” She spoke with loud-and-clear articulation. “We’re going to get in the car. You’re going to drive me to the hospital.”
It struck Michael this was what she must sound like when she handled patients. Desperately struggling for a reaction, he managed a strained, “Uh-huh.”
Then Sara was sliding in her seat, making a joke about how she hadn’t even got some inside the car and chuckling nervously, which was more than her husband could do at the time being.
During the drive, Michael’s inertia morphed into overly talkative panic, yet he was somehow able to convince himself every word was meant to reassure her.
“Thirty-two weeks isn’t too bad,” he said, the driving wheel between his fingers like a stiff slippery snake. The cars rolling on the other side of the street and the shops and signboards all giddily flashed him by in a surreal carousel. “Maybe it’s not even due to complications. It’s only ten more minutes to the hospital.”
“I know,” her voice was the smooth, near-professional tone she used when she was serious. Not scared. It had been the same tone when they’d exchanged their wedding vows.
Michael couldn’t help but steal glances at her, although it was difficult enough to drive safely even with his two eyes on the road. Her eyes were open wide, their coffee-beans shade dark with comprehension at the immensity of what was about to hit them. Her calm threw Michael into a greater panic than anything else might have. If she’d been shouting his name in agony at how much pain she was in, if she’d been crying this was all a big mistake, he’d be too busy keeping her together to watch as his own usually composed self burst to pieces.
She isn’t scared, Michael realized, spying on that strange look of acceptance in her eyes, of preparation. She isn’t about to become a mother. She’s already a mother.
Sara had been in labor for two hours when Michael finally abided by her suggestion that he go out for a few minutes, get some coffee, stretch his legs. You can get me a granola bar from the vending machine, she’d added, because she must have known he wouldn’t take his eyes off her for thirty seconds unless he was doing something for her.
Michael sighed, throwing two dollars fifty into the machine for a Twix bar – no granola in sight – and for a second, he felt all right, breathing normal air, mechanically punching in the numbers, thinking of how when he was little, two dollars fifty would buy him over two pounds of ground beef which amounted to two meals for a family of three, and now two dollars fifty was a four-inch long chocolaty biscuit.
So, it must show, whatever scare he was going through, if Sara had wanted him out of the room. Relax, she’d told him, looking perfectly calm herself, as if he were the one about to push a slightly premature baby boy out of his body. It wasn’t even as if labor wasn’t going well. Sara looked fine, just a little tired in her hospital shirt, nowhere near the apocalyptic exhaustion he’d expected of a woman giving birth. Her contractions were slowly – very slowly – getting closer, but she said the pain wasn’t terrible. Her slight wince when a particularly big one hit her was actually shy in comparison with the livid look on his face. She made the sort of jokes he was supposed to make to get her through the pain. All the while, the nurse looked at them with arched bushy brows, and he felt this frown said, Well, he’s going to make a lousy dad, and how was he supposed to deny that?
Michael turned back to find his short-of-breath brother running to him through the corridor. Lincoln’s skin looked very red against his white tee-shirt. He was running with such speed Michael half-didn’t expect he would be able to stop, and in a flash he was next to him, grabbing his shoulder with a large, slightly sweaty palm.
“Jesus. What a day. Sofia went to get LJ, they’ll be here as soon as possible. Where’s Sara? Everything all right?”
“Everything’s going fine. The doctors said it might be a long time, but –”
“But they’re both okay?”
It took Michael a moment to realize who he was talking about. Sara and the baby. Two distinct individuals.
A frown barred Lincoln’s forehead, still showing beads of perspiration. Had he run through all five flights of stairs? That’d be much like Linc, calling the elevator then waiting two or three seconds and deciding waiting was just out of the question. “You don’t look okay, Michael.”
Michael lowered his eyes, seeing no point in denying. Before he’d thought of stopping himself, the Twix bar was crushed to crispy pulp in his right fist.
“What if I’m not ready, Linc?”
“Ready?” Lincoln repeated obtusely. His eyes took on a serious air as he grasped his brother’s meaning. Suddenly, there was a shift in his whole posture – he straightened up, stopped smiling. It was rare enough for him to take on the older-brother part. “Mike, you’re never ready for a child. They just come and you learn along the way.”
“But what if –” There was a nasty weight in his throat, shameful, tasting of juvenile tears. Michael hadn’t thought he could feel that young ever again. “The baby was an accident, you know that.”
“So are plenty of babies. So was LJ.”
“Right, and I’ve never even thought of being anything but thrilled about it since I found out. At the time, we were so busy being on the run, hiding from the law – it just felt like rising a child as a free citizen would be more than enough.” For some reason, it didn’t feel embarrassing to admit this, that he was plainly, undeniably afraid of becoming a parent. “Linc, what if I’m bad at it? I mean very bad.”
“I know what you mean,” Lincoln answered, oddly calm. “You mean dad bad. Aldo Burrows bad. Michael,” he sighed, “please listen to me. I know you’ve never seen much of him when you were a kid, I know you may think you haven’t the faintest idea of how to be a father – but just humor me for a minute. Do you think I thought I had it in me to raise a kid? Answer me that.”
“No, honestly. Because you have all the parent-quality I lacked when I was in my twenties, you know. You care about others, Michael. And if you’re half as good a father as you are a brother, you’ll be beating worldwide records.”
The sterile whiteness of the walls and floor made Michael feel like this whole conversation was a dream. If it wasn’t for the feel of the plastic-wrapped crushed chocolate bar in his fist, he might have actually believed it. It’s the small details that let you know this is really happening, the little things you wouldn’t have thought of dreaming about.
“Come on,” Lincoln chuckled, slapping him on the shoulder. Maybe he was also trying to make this moment more lifelike. “In an hour, two at best, you’ll have so much love for that little guy you won’t believe we ever spoke about this.”
It was actually six more hours before the baby came out. By then, Sofia and LJ had stopped by and gone back home, and Michael had told his brother to head back as well – he didn’t need to look at Sara’s face to know they were reaching the stage when this was going to become a private moment. It was everywhere, in the air of that small hospital room, in the restless agitation in Michael’s chest.
He felt it’d be inappropriate for there to be another witness to their child’s birth than a doctor and the two people that had conceived it.
By the time Sara was told it was time to push, Michael found she still didn’t look scared. He himself didn’t think it was how he felt anymore – the past six hours had swept away all anxiety and doubts, had actually made his own self feel out of focus. His eyes and soul were on his wife and she looked healthy and beautiful, and he didn’t see how loving her child would be anything but simple.
Then her face was bright, beaming with effort, her eyes closed, her hand readily holding his. There were moments like this every other day, when Michael fell in love with her all over again, each time was as heart-stopping and life-changing as the first and he was overcome with the need to tell her. This was not the time for it, of course, but Michael could do little to stop it from happening.
Watching Sara give birth to their child, with her jaw and eyelids clenched tight, he saw her again as she looked on the day he met her in Fox River, and he had never thought this was what marriage would be like, loving one same woman anew every day of his life.
“I can see the head now. Just a last one. You ready for one last push?”
Michael could see now that he was. Squeezing Sara’s hand a little tighter, he kissed her temple and saw her smile with the corner of his eye.
“We better be,” she exhaled, a blend of exhaustion and joy.
“Ready when you are,” he replied.
“That settles it then.”
That was the end of that, and a few minutes later, something new and softly crying and wide-blue eyed had begun in its stead.