Saturday, August 29, 2015

The 14 Comedies My Kids Will Need To Watch to “Get Me”

One cool thing about my kids growing up is that the older ones are finally ready to appreciate the finer things in life, like the many ridiculous and essential comedies that shaped their dad’s strange view of the world and sense of humor.  

Recently I sat down with my eldest for a movie night, after convincing her she just had to watch Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. It was touch and go. She laughed at first, but fell asleep halfway through, right about when Sir Robin’s minstrels meet their fate (Yay!). We tried again a few nights later, and she made it to the end. She professed to love it. I figured she was humoring her old man.
A few days later I cut myself slicing vegetables, and she told me it was just a flesh wound. I laughed and smiled deep within – while I bandaged my finger.
Finally, I had someone else in my house who knew the answer to the age old question: What is the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
I realized, watching that movie was about more than simple father-child bonding – it was showing her a bit of who I am and why, and it was adding her to a secret world of quotes and quips of which only my siblings and select friends are members.
It got me thinking about the many movies my kids need to watch to truly “get me” -- me, as in their dad. Not all of these movies are appropriate yet. But here’s the list, anyway. It’s likely a similar list to that of many other dads of my vintage:
1.       Monty Python’s Quest For the Holy Grail

2.       Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

3.       Airplane

4.       National Lampoon’s Vacation

5.       Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

6.       Steve Martin’s The Jerk

7.       The Three Amigos

When they’re a little older

8.       Sixteen Candles

9.       Naked Gun

10.       Blazing Saddles

11.       This is Spinal Tap (you knew it had to be 11)

12.       Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

13.       Mel Brooks: History of the World Part I

14.       Austin Powers

I’ve decided to make these movies a requirement of graduation from my house. So before any of them go off to college and out into the cruel and funny world, they have to watch all these fine films. Preferably with me. If not, they will be suspended over a pool of sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. … Or, ill-tempered sea bass, depending on what’s available.

What comedies would make your list?


Monday, August 17, 2015

The Heartbreaking Good Fortune of Returning to Work

This is a note to all the husbands (and wives and partners) of a parent who spent a few years at home, working or just parenting, while looking after the kiddos, only to return to an office job once those children grew. Please support them. Because, it’s a heartbreaking transition returning to work.

I know, because I just did it. And it’s hard. Really hard.

Our family’s story is a bit unique, as everyone’s is, I guess.  For the past five years, since just before our fourth child and only son was born, I’ve worked from home as a consultant, freelance writer and adjunct professor. The work went through ebbs and flows, making me extremely busy at times and not terribly busy other times. My wife’s work-from-home job (I know, two work-from-homers is not exactly normal) was far more structured, requiring her to be at her desk or on conference calls all the darn time. Meaning that, for the past five years, I’ve been the parent of record.

A random and typical photo of my kids,
representing the last five years -- and the future.
I’ve been the one in our house at home watching after the kids when they’re not at school, making bag lunches in the morning, grocery shopping in the afternoon, playing in the yard after school, and preparing dinner way too late, pretty much everything but the laundry – which is a whole other story -- and working a close to full-time as possible myself, fitting my career in on the fringes of life. When I wasn’t working or tending to kids, I was usually driving them places: to pre-school, to playdates, to parks, to day camp, to birthday parties, to soccer practice. If they had someplace to go, Dad’s was usually driving – sometimes while on a conference call of my own.

I remember one time pacing in the front parking lot of a Chuck-E-Cheese, on a particularly tense conference call, while one of my daughters, her friends and all the other parents in attendance partook in the festivities. They probably thought I was a jerk, but I was just trying to balance my career and my family. And, for the last five years, I’d been able to do that while mostly being at home. Not too far from my kids.

It wasn’t always that way.

During the first seven years of our child-rearing experiment (our oldest daughter was born 12 years ago) I was the part-time parent; A weekend warrior. I worked 40-, 50-, 60-hour weeks well away from home, and fit in the parenting around the fringes, usually seeing our growing number of kids during their awful bedtimes or on the weekends that always felt too short.

Back then, it was my wife who bore the primary parenting responsibility, while balancing work and family from her home office. She was the one who made all the tough transitions, from full-time worker, to maternity leave, to part-time worker, to maternity leave, to contract worker, etc.

The pain in her transitions is something I never thought of when I was the one working an office job full-time. I imagine, most working spouses of homebound parents likely don’t think about the transitions either. If anything, we’re a little jealous of the whole arrangement.

But I can tell you, it is hard. It’s hard to go from a stay-at-home mom, or stay-at-home dad, or a work-at-home-parent back to a nine-to-fiver. It’s hard to think that your time at home with the little ones is really over. It’s hard to watch your little baby turn five, and know that those years went by in a blink. It’s hard to think that all those hours, days, months, and years, where you sat on park benches and on a practice sideline, begrudging being around your children all the dang time, that those times are now over. And you’re back at the water cooler. Commuting. Working all day. And living for weekends that are simply too short.

It is hard.

Here’s a confession: the morning that marked my return to the office routine, I sat down after my shower on the closed toilet in our bathroom, with a towel, a t-shirt, and a toothbrush, and I cried.

Me. A grown man. A grizzled veteran dad. I cried. Heck, I bawled. The end of this era hit me. My time at home was over.

I thought about that fact that some of my kids didn’t remember the days when I wasn’t around. And I knew some of them might not remember the days when I was.

Yep. I cried.

(By the way, If my current boss reads this part, I don’t want them to mistake that sadness for regret about this new job. In truth, I am grateful, both for the chance to work from home for the past five years and for the opportunity to return to the workplace.)

I know I am lucky. Lucky I have these wonderful kids and a wife who still professes to love me. Lucky to have a good job when so many others–moms and dads–struggle to get back into the workplace.

But I do regret that time has traveled past me so fast, that my children have grown so quickly, and that I can’t seem to slow this world down no matter what drastic steps I take to do so.

To everyone who is at home with the kids, parenting full-time or working from home, I say, find a way to appreciate what you do have: Time. Time with your kids. It is the most precious thing we have.

And, to everyone who lives with someone who made the sacrifice of staying home for the kids' formative years, only to return to the work routine, know that it is harder than it looks. So support them.

Many moms (and dads) who've done it already know this: but it is a heartbreaking good fortune, returning to work.
No parent should underestimate how hard and fortunate it is.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sometimes, You Have To Actually Turn the Car Around

I relearned an important lesson this week: With kids, sometimes you have to follow through on all those threatened consequences.

If you keep telling them you’re going to turn the car around if they don't behave, and never actually turn the car around when they continue to act like … well, children, they will learn that the car isn’t going to get turned around no matter what they do.

This may seem obvious. It's straight from the parenting 101 books that I failed to read when I first started taking this experiential course in child-rearing a dozen years ago. 

But, I’ve been told lately that I’m not very good at this whole follow through thing. 

It’s not like I go around making threats to my kids. Sometimes they act like insane little monsters, and the fear of sanctions is the only way I can think of to get them to behave. So, threats happen.

Take, for instance, a dinner out I had on a recent night with two of our kids and their grandparents.
My wife is out of town with our two middle kids visiting her sister, so I have responsibility for our 5-year-old boy and 12-your-old daughter for the week. My parents, fresh back from a summer trip to Michigan and Canada, called and asked if we wanted to have dinner at a neat little seafood place.  

Sure, I figured. Why not?
What I didn’t figure was that, after a week with his father’s later bedtimes and lack of disciplinary follow-through, the 5-year-old boy would be primed and ready for his worst restaurant behavior in recent memory. 

Usually, with his middle sisters around, he just blends into our family’s typical restaurant commotion and acts kid-like but within acceptable parameters.
No such luck for our evening at the quant little seafood place. He was standing on the booth seat, under the table kicking people, blowing bubbles in his chocolate milk, dribbling water out of his mouth, then spitting water out of his mouth, and screaming “What?” at the top of his lungs like he was shocked to hear something as a way to humorously add to the adult conversation. It wasn’t funny.

I warned him several times that if he didn’t act better, we would leave the restaurant.

Only one problem with my threat: I was trapped in the interior of the booth, and I was hungry. I guess that’s two problems. But, it’s not like threatening to take him out of church when he acts up, which I always follow through on because who wouldn’t rather be walking around outside a church than inside it doing Catholic calisthenics on hard, wooden benches. Sit. Stand. Kneel. Sit. Stand. Kneel. That’s an easy follow through. But I really didn’t want to leave the restaurant and my soon to be arriving crab-stuffed baked sole. (Apparently, my sole is more important to me than my soul. But that’s not the point).

So, despite repeated threats to go to the car that evening with the misbehaving boy, we didn’t leave. His behavior never improved, though we survived, and later that night he fell asleep, finally granting me peace.

It served as a perfect example of me not following through on a threatened sanction, and I knew it. Thank goodness my wife wasn’t there to witness the affair.

Anyway, I resolved to do better next time.

That next time arrived sooner than expected, when two days later I picked up the boy and his sister at the separate day camps they attend in the mornings and decided to take them to lunch.

As always, the kids picked Panera. Those grilled cheese sandwiches must have kid crack in them, I swear.

Consider this a warning to everyone, if you kick me in the
shins you will not get a grilled cheese. ... I mean it.
We arrived just after high noon. Like every Panera in the lower 48 at that time of day, there was a long line of people waiting to order overpriced, small portions of fast casual goodness. So good, I usually leave still hungry, yet noticeably poorer. 
Waiting in line, the boy kept trying to jump up and grab my neck. I’m tall enough that he had no chance. But he kept at it. 

“Stop that or we’re leaving.”
Then he started pushing his big sister.
“I’m warning you, boy,” I snarled.
Then he kicked me in the shins.
That was it. I grabbed him firmly by the arm – not too firmly – and told him he’d been warned and now we were leaving.
Then we left. We actually left.

“I’ll listen! I’ll listen!” he wailed as we walked across the parking lot to our car. He was certainly expecting us to turn around and go back into Panera. But I kept right on going; into the car and back to the house.
He cried the whole way. 

I made him a much cheaper version of a grilled cheese at home and, after his fit died down a bit, he ate it.

Of course, leaving Panera for me was about as hard as leaving church -- an easy threat to make good on. It was also easier to enforce with just two kids in tow. If I’ve got four hungry kids and a hungry wife, I’m not likely to drag all of them back to the car because the boy is acting up. There’s too much potential for collateral suffering.

Years ago, I remember leaving a grocery cart full of stuff and walking out with one wailing child -- who happens to now be twelve. But in the time since, I must've softened to the point where I developed a no-follow-through reputation.

Not anymore. 
I don’t know if this one bit of follow through will work to curb future bad behavior. But it sure seems to have had an impact. He’s mentioned the episode several times since. I think he's still shocked that we actually left. 

And, if I have to make the threat to leave again and he doesn’t listen, you can bet I will make good on it. I just hope it’s at Panera and not a quaint little seafood joint.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Facing Fears (and Gaining Friends) In the Name of Humor

What possessed 15 dads, most of whom can’t sing a lick or dance very well beyond the occasional “sprinkler” move, to get on a stage in front a few hundred friends, family, and neighbors on a recent Spring night and generally make fools of themselves? Did I mention that some were wearing princess dresses?

So, why exactly would grown men act this way?
The answer’s quite simple. But the impact is kind of profound.
I heard about this annual school event, called “Dad's Night,” from one of the few friends I’d made over the years on my many trips to open-houses and other parental events at the local elementary school. He’d participated in Dad's Night the previous year and convinced me to attend an informational meeting last Fall to learn more.
What I learned: Dad's Night is an annual skit show organized, written, and performed by willing fathers whose kids go to our local public elementary school.
A skit show? I thought at the time. As in, on stage?
For the record, I really don’t like to be the center attention. It may sound weird coming from a guy who regularly puts his soul down on paper – or on transmittable digital bytes – to be broadcast to the world (at least conceivably).  But it’s true. I hate it.
Worst of all, I hate the thought of being on a stage in front of people. It’s just not my thing. I’m much more a behind the scenes kind of guy.
I'm the Elsa that looks more like Fiona 
But, they say life begins where your comfort zone ends. I read that recently. It may have been a poster with a kitten on a tree branch. Not almost falling off the tree branch; that’s a “Never Give Up” poster.  But just a kitten on a tree branch, ostensibly branching out, I guess.  Or maybe it was a guy clinging to the side of a cliff with just a few carabiners separating him from certain death.

In any event, you get the point. “Life begins where your comfort zone ends.”
For me, the border of my comfort zone lies somewhere between the closed curtain and the open stage.
Still, as I thought about our local Dad's Night, I figured I could at least help write some of the skits.
Besides, it’s tough for dads to meet other dads through their kid’s school. Women are far better at bridging that divide and making friends with the moms they see at pick-up and drop-off. For dads, even those like me who do a fair share of picking up and dropping off, it can be very tough. Many of us just don’t see each other often enough to gain a familiarity. Even when we do, it can be limited to head nods at the annual curriculum night, or handshakes at the school carnival.
Befriending other school dads has always been near impossible for me, and I imagine for many other dads. Because of it, I’ve never really looked forward to school events, filled with awkward head nods and occasional sports banter.
If nothing else, I figured this experiment would give me a chance to actually meet and get to know some other dads.
So beginning last Fall, I started attending Dad's Night planning and writing sessions every few weeks to talk about what exactly we were going to do in the Spring show.
It proved a nice escape from the house – I work from home, mostly, which is not as awesome as it sounds. And in the process I started to get to know this strange and funny group of guys. (Not an insult. I like strange and funny, and aspire to be both).
As winter crept by, the writing sessions became weekly rehearsals. At one point, in my naiveté, I’d hoped only to write. But as a rookie, I was quickly pulled fully into the production and even given lines – at least in the skit I wrote.  I ended up even volunteering – along with a few other guys -- to wear an Elsa dress for a Halloween skit and a few other scenes just to reduce my chances of getting more lines.
For a few months, each Sunday evening we gathered and laughed and worked out the kinks in our show. Occasionally we grabbed a beer after our meetings. Only occasionally.
As Spring grew closer, the nerves set in. Restful sleeps were broken by images of a Middle School auditorium filled with parents and kids that sounded like a field of crickets as my lines were delivered. I wasn’t alone in my fears, and found that several other dads shared the phobia. Some others didn’t and seemed to thrive on the thought of being up there. But most of us were scared.
As show night loomed closer, our weekly rehearsals became daily ones. Anxiety grew. And I got thinking: what the heck are we doing? Why are we subjecting ourselves to near certain humiliation and potential doom?
Then, two days before the show, it became clear. It happened when my third grader, who battles a level of shyness herself, came skipping home, proud as could be, that her dad was actually going to be in Dad's Night. She was practically a celebrity in her class because of it.
So, why would 15 grown men get up in front of their community to potentially make fools of themselves? The same reason we do most silly things: to make our kids laugh.
Show night came. And we danced. We sang. We dressed as Elsas. All in front of a packed house (it was a school auditorium, but I wanted to say that). I got most of my lines right. And there were no cricket noises – except that one joke I wrote. But otherwise, it was a success.
To put it mildly, we rocked it. My kids haven’t stopped laughing and talking about it yet, and it’s been a few weeks.
The bonus: Well, it’s as one of the other dads said, when you go through something intense and stressful with a group, it can create a unique bond.
By exiting my comfort zone and entertaining my kids, I also got to know this great group of strange and funny guys. Now, I’m one of them.
And I’m looking forward to the next school gathering, complete with a lot more head nods and sports banter.


 If your children's school doesn’t do something like Dads’ Night. It should.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Learning Lesson From A Little Boy

“This is not a joke!”
“Yes it is.”
“No, I’m not fooling around.”
“Why not?”
“Because this is serious.”
“No it’s not.”
The boy is four years old. Four and a half, as he’s quick to correct. Yet we still struggle mightily with how to discipline him. He literally thinks everything is a joke. And I am using the word literally as it is supposed to be used.
We aren’t rookie parents. He’s our fourth. Of course, we’re not the best at all aspects of parenting (ahem… bedtime). But we aren’t new to our struggles. Figuring out how to get him to take us seriously – to take anything seriously – is a great challenge.
“You lost dessert when you took your pants down at the table.”
I actually said that to him after dinner one day recently. In the middle of our meal, sometime after the prayer and before his sisters scattered to the wind, the boy mooned the table. As the girls all laughed, including his mother in a seriously-suppressed sort of way, I told him that it wasn’t funny to moon the table.
“Then why is everybody laughing?”
A fair question. One I didn’t have an immediate answer to. But it got me thinking, again, about the great trouble we face with him. How do we get this little guy to realize that life isn’t all one big joke?  And just as importantly, why exactly do I have to teach him that?
Our boy turns five this summer, something he’s been looking forward to since he turned four. He’s a great kid, he tells you he loves you, says thank you and sorry at appropriate times, and offers hugs without request. He’s smart, calling out the answers to his older sister’s math problems as she tries to figure them on paper.  He’s fast, too. Super fast, as he likes to say. (He’s actually normal speed, but thinks he’s like a rocket; don’t tell him otherwise).
But when it comes to discipline, he’s kind of like Peter Pan probably was at four. He just doesn’t get it. When I go to put him in timeout, it invariably becomes a game of chase, with him laughing and squealing and letting out a guttural  “AHHHHHH” like PeeWee Herman being chased by a friendly bear.
This all matters because in a few short months this boy of ours will go to kindergarten. Full day no less.
It’s time for him to grow up.  Yet … I don’t want him to.
It makes me wonder where all the time has gone. And why the heck it’s gone so fast. And how it all seems like such a blur. I remember the first time we put a kid on the bus to go to Kindergarten. My wife bawled. I didn’t. I stood stoically and watched. Then I went to work. When the next two got on that bus when it was their turn, my wife cried again. I didn’t.
When he gets on the bus, I think am going to. I know it. Not because he’s the baby, or the boy (I don’t think like that), but because he’s the last.
For the past 12 year we’ve had little ones who needed us each day, to take care of and feed and clothe and wipe. For a good part of that, we’ve worked, sending them to the sitter, or to pre-school, or to some camp for half a day.
Always we hoped that we’d get to the point where one of us could stay home and just be the parent. It never happened.  And soon, they won’t need us to. As my wife muttered after she filled out the kindergarten paperwork for the boy, it’s gone.
People told us to cherish it, like we tell other parents to. But did we? Did we? Heck, I can barely remember all of it.
I know there’s a lot more parenting left to do, and a lot more time with our little people before they go off to college. But if it’s anything like the last 12 years, it’s going to fly by and become a blur.
And that’s why it’s so hard to teach this boy that his antics aren’t funny. Because they are. And I want them always to be.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Dad and The Trampoline

I bounded not once but twice on the trampoline, hoping to get the height and momentum needed to flip my body forward on the next jump over the edge and into the pit of foam cubes.
That’s just what a random five-year-old kid did on the turn before mine. And it looked easy enough.
Besides, I’ve been known to do forward flips off the diving board with regularity, if not with grace. How different could it be?
Once the kid before me cleared the landing area, and the teenager with the whistle signaled it was my turn to go, and my daughter watching gave me a supportive “whoop,” that’s what I set out to do – a forward flip. Yes. It was decided.
Yet somewhere between my second bound on the trampoline and the final launching one, all the courage I had mustered sprung right out of me. Rather than a final bound and a flip, my frightened legs absorbed the momentum like old shocks, and I stuttered cautiously to the edge and lamely fell face first toward the waiting foam.
I imagine there’s a moment growing up when a kid realizes their parents aren’t super heroes; when it dawns on them that the person they’ve held in special regard all these years is just normal, and not even terribly cool.
If it hadn’t happened already, that moment certainly occurred for my eldest daughter as my uncoordinated, hulking mass of trepidation gingerly leapt over the edge of the precipice and landed awkwardly in the pile of foam cubes. 
No height to my vault. No gracefulness. No flip.
Of course, she would tell you the moment she realized my failings had happened much sooner. And many times over.
Pink-panted blur in the middle is our 7 year old.
The boy is the one literally bouncing off the wall.
Still, that particular display of my mortality and well-earned humility on our family’s outing to Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park certainly put an exclamation point on it.
Our family found ourselves at the trampoline park during the kids’ recent February break – a traditional week off in the middle of winter when most upstate New Yorkers high-tail it for Florida. We, as usual, did not. Instead, we bounced.
Luckily for us we live in a place where people would go insane if someone didn't design and build lots of indoor entertainment facilities -- like the indoor ropes course at Canyon Climb, or the 26,000 square foot kids' play arena at Billy Bees, or the field o' trampoline at Sky Zone.
The trampoline park, built inside a cavernous rectangular space that used to be a Hechinger’s, is divided into sections: a general bouncing area with many small squares for individual jumping; three “dodge ball courts” for specific age groups and private parties; a basketball dunking section with two hoops; and then the infamous foam pits. You pay per person for passes to the whole park in 30 minute increments, and are required to wear specific trampoline “SkySocks” with sticky bottoms – which you can buy for two bucks.
There are lots of safety rules, like only one person per trampoline square and no double flips (no worries there). All bouncers are divided by age, so that little kids are only jumping around other small people, which makes sense but can create some logistical challenges for bigger families.
It can also get crowded quick, so it’s a good idea to call ahead on busy weekends and over the holiday break.
For the most part, the kids liked bouncing around the park (and that they got to keep the brightly-colored orange socks we had to buy to enter). Not exactly “Disney ears,” but certainly a useful addition to the sock drawer. Hey, you never know when you're gonna need trampoline socks that match absolutely nothing you own.
It was fun for all. Though next time we’re bringing a friend for our oldest so she has someone her size to bounce with – or they can just pout and roll their eyes in unison.
No matter what we do, I’m going to avoid the foam pit of disappointment. 
Then again.  Maybe I’ll try to redeem myself. How hard could that be?
Yes. It’s decided. I will do a flip … next time.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Lucky Seven

Today is our wee Sadie’s birthday. Our creative, zany butterfly-trapped-in-person’s body of a child is lucky seven years old.
To put it mildly: she’s a personality. As my sister describes her, she’s what you might imagine Tina Fey was like as a child. Sadie's hilarious, and so in her own world. She can draw better than any kid I’ve ever met, and does a mean robot dance.
Me: "I want to take a picture for your birthday."
Sadie: "How about one with me drinking apple juice."
Me: "Sure?"
Celebrating her birthday also reminds me of what I was doing when she was born. Seven years ago I was working on the toughest campaign I’ve ever been a part of, a special election in February in Upstate New York.
But it was most memorable to me for one thing that happened – and it involved our then three-day-old little girl.

I wrote about it a few years back, as I tend to do. The story has lived in a file on my computer since. Here it is:  

It was February 12, 2008. I was in the basement, lost in my work world, editing a press release on yet another subject, when I heard a scream.

“She’s not breathing!”
The words were being yelled by my mother-in-law. She was frantic.
“The baby’s not breathing!”
When the scream registered, I moved without thinking. I bound up the basement steps and burst into the living room, my mother-in-law was holding three-day-old Sadie in front of her. The baby’s face was deep red, and she looked like she was on her way to blue.
Frantically, “She’s not breathing.”
She handed her to me.
“Was she drinking, spiting up, anything?”
I took the baby, and quickly swept my finger through her mouth to remove any possible obstruction. Nothing.
“Call 911,” I barked to my wife.
Then I flipped her quickly, but gently, onto my forearm with her face down in my upturned palm, her legs up my arm. She was so tiny. I patted her back to see if anything was lodged. Two pats, and nothing was there.
I turned her back over. She was still dark red. “C’mon, breathe.”
I held her up right, close to my shoulder, looking into her face. “Please breathe! Please!” I pleaded.
I caressed her back, and begged and begged her to take a breath. I didn’t know what else to do.
Time was ticking, and I knew it. I thought, this is what it’s like to hold a child that is dying. No, she can’t be.
“Breathe, my Sadie. Please.”
Then I felt it, and saw it in her face. She took in one tiny breath. It was a struggle. Then she took in another.
“She took a breath,” I announced in relative relief. She was still struggling.
Her color was returning to normal, but breaths were hard to come by. I walked in circles in the living room, past the windows, as her labored breaths continued.
A police officer arrived first, and came through the door as I paced in tight circles, rubbing the baby’s back.
When the ambulance pulled up in front of the house, the baby’s breathing was almost normal again but not quite. The breaths weren’t deep or regular. It was like she forgot how.
The paramedics came through the door, a large man and a small woman, dressed in blue. They took her from me, and began asking what happened. My mother-in-law and wife described the scene, as I continued to pace the same circles.
I looked into the next room and saw our two other daughters, age two and five (at the time), huddled under the dining room table, hugging each other in fear.
I coaxed them out from under the table.
“Is everything going to be okay, daddy?” the oldest one asked, looking shaken, scared and lost.
I didn’t know the answer.
“I hope so, dear. I hope so.”
The paramedics placed a tiny oxygen mask on our baby and asked my wife and I to go with them.
They radioed in as we walked behind them to the awaiting ambulance. “Infant child in respiratory distress.”
We climbed into the ambulance, numb from the last several minutes. Sadie was too small for the stretcher, instead the women paramedic held her, keeping the oxygen mask in place and watching her breathe closely. My wife was shaking, and looked white as ghost. I’m sure I looked the same. We’d only left the hospital the day before. And now, we were returning the same route in the back of an ambulance.


The emergency room bed looked gigantic with a three-day-old baby in the middle of it.
Cords as thick as her fingers ran away from her feet and her hands to machines and screens, letting out piercing beeps and drawing jagged lines. A green line, a blue line and white line all crossed the screen together, jumping and bouncing to separate but in sync rhythms.
Everything looked normal, said the doctor. She was tall and attractive, with long curly red hair and serious, attentive eyes. Other doctors and nurses came and went, seemingly at her direction. Running tests and awaiting orders.

The room was small, and sterile, with the beep every second or two drowning out the noise from the busy emergency room hall outside, and the chatter from the nurses’ station within a few feet. I guess they like to keep newborns in the ER close to the nurses. Our older daughter would’ve called it a money spot. But it didn’t feel like money.

My wife and I sat and watched our baby, watched the screens, and listened to the sounds of normalcy. The beeps and the blips were steady and reassuring, but we were consumed with wonder and worry about what had happened to take our baby’s breath away. We hugged, and cried, and tried to absorb it all.  

The doctor asked repeatedly how long it lasted. I counted out in my head all the actions I could remember. Mother-in-law noticing. 10 seconds, maybe. Scream registering, 6 seconds. Climbing the steps, 4 seconds. Taking baby, 2 seconds. Sweeping the mouth, 2 seconds. Back compressions, 3 seconds. Holding her upright and begging her to breathe, 18-20 seconds. It was for less than a minute, we guessed, but at least 45 seconds. Maybe more.

She asked what shade of red Sadie had turned. She wanted to know if it was blue at all. I knew what she was getting at. It was dark red, not blue. Maybe a little blue around the lips. But the rest of her face was dark red, not blue. That was good.

She called it an Apparent Life Threatening Event – ALTE – stressing that was a description, not a diagnosis. The cause was unclear, and could be a number of rather mundane and ordinary things.

As time passed and the beeps stayed steady, the activity in our little emergency room ebbed. Nurses came less often, and the doctors focused on other patients. Was it nothing? A one-time incident? Were they going to give us a clean bill of health and send us home with a baby, who not that long ago, forgot how to breathe? How were we supposed to just leave? Go home. Live normal.  

Then in a moment, it changed again. One beep became sustained, the lines on the screen dipped, her heart rate dropped, the baby went limp on the bed. The redhead doctor and two nurses were at her side before I could even stand up from my chair. She turned red. Then took a small breath. And then another. The doctor hovered over her closely, as she slowly remembered how to breathe again.

ALTE number two.

The doctor turned to us, even more serious than before.
“We’re going to admit her.”
She was uncertain what had happened, just then and before. There were a series of potential causes, some very manageable. They would need to do tests.

“Keep us here as long as it takes,” I replied.

The battery of test lasted four days. We stayed at the hospital on the 5th floor – three floors down from maternity. Once a baby’s out in the world, they can’t come back to maternity, even if she’s three days old.
My wife slept in the room, on a fold out chair next to Sadie’s industrial looking crib, with appropriately sized wires and screens for an infant under constant medical care. The nurses were there at every moment, all day and throughout the night. But only one parent was allowed to sleep in the room. So I slept in the waiting room on the same floor in another fold out chair. I had my own television, a few coffee tables and lots of magazines to read.
After the doctors witnessed the episode in the emergency room they gave it a more descriptive name than just an Apparent Life Threatening Event: they called it Infant Apnea. Of course, this too was descriptive and not a diagnosis telling us the cause. Apnea just means a cessation in breathing. In adults it can be normal during sleep. In infants, it is more of a threat and there is usually a cause. There are many potential causes, actually. Some manageable, as they said, and some more challenging.
Every few hours there seemed to be a new potential diagnosis. And each time I was convinced this was it, until the tests proved otherwise. Epilepsy was thought possible. It could be seizures. I remembered times during pregnancy when my wife would say it felt like the baby was moving rapidly. That must be it, I thought. Then the doctors in a small room in the basement of the hospital attached little tweezers and suction cups electrodes to her head and tracked her brain waves for almost an hour. Normal. No residual trace of seizure activity. They did a CAT scan to rule out brain tumors. They ran blood work. They did a spinal tap.
I’d had a spinal tap once. It was painful. This time the patient was my tiny newborn, and I had to hold her still while the doctors probed repeatedly looking for that small pocket of fluid at the base of the spine. It took a few times as I held her firm and still and my wife wept.
Each time the doctors would analyze the results and rule out a cause. Each day new possible causes would be presented, and ruled out. And each night, I would go home to get us a change of clothes, tuck our other daughters into bed, and return to my waiting room on the 5th floor for another night.
Increasingly the doctors implied that we might never know. That after all this, we would have to go home with our child and keep her hooked up to an apnea monitor, in case it happened again. I couldn’t stand the thought. We’d be nervous forever. We had to know what happened.
Late on the third day of tests, through the process of elimination, a new diagnosis was presented.
A new doctor sat us down and told us it could have been the unlikely result of a rather common problem. Many premature babies and a few full-term ones are born before the muscle atop their stomach is fully formed. This is the muscle that closes to prevent food and acid from flowing into the esophagus. This common condition is known as infant GERD, or gastro-intestinal reflux disease.
Reflux? Really? My baby has reflux. That’s it?
The doctor continued. This condition usually presents itself in the form of frequent spit up, discomfort after eating, even what is traditionally called colic. Occasionally the reflux can be so intense that it stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs along the outside of the esophagus. When the vagus nerve becomes stimulated, it can cause a cessation in breathing as well as a drop in the heart rate. It was manageable and would go away with age.
The day’s diagnosis had arrived, and it was one we could live with. The doctor then said there was a test to make certain of the diagnosis. It was up to us if we wanted to do it.
“Do the test.”
It would require them to insert a tube up her nose and down the esophagus to measure PH above the stomach.
“Do the test.”
And the baby would have to stay in the hospital for another night.
“Just do the test.”
On the final night in the Hospital, they did the PH test. During my stop at home to get clothes, I searched the internet to learn about GERD and the vagus nerve. I ought to know better than to do that. But I wanted to know. It was manageable, but GERD and the vagus nerve were also cited for a possible correlation with SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Crap. I guess we weren’t going to be sleeping all too soundly for a while.
When the test results came back, she had passed. Or failed, depending on what result was desired. Her stomach acid was off the charts. She had an acute case of GERD, and that was causing her to stop breathing.
We were going to go home. She would need medication. She would have to be hooked up to the apnea monitor for the next few months. But we were going home. And we knew what had happened.
When we got home that evening, my wife and I took turns holding Sadie and just looking at her. The other girls wanted to hold her too. We let them.
We sat with our children on our couch, in the living room of our home, and just tried to enjoy the fact they were all there with us.  

The campaign I was working on at the time ended two weeks later. For the next few months, we barely slept as her apnea monitor and our nerves kept us up most nights. But, after a year of taking medicine, Sadie was still fine.

Each year on her birthday, we celebrate a little extra that she’s with us -- in all her wackiness.