Allan Steinberg

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

A cliché is just a cliché until you’ve lived it, I guess.  Then it becomes life.  Your life.  My life. Words get transformed into joy or sorrow or regret; into tears or laughter; into the faces and voices and images that fill our dreams or nightmares. In a way, then, it’s like our lives are a long journey through a land of old sayings. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to live out mostly the good ones (Laughter is the best medicine), or the ones that teach us and strengthen us and console us without leading to disaster (It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all).

The birth of a child takes us deep into the forest of clichés: “The miracle of life,” “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,” and the one that taught me the most about human life—something sad and beautiful, both—“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  When my daughter was born, or was trying to be born, I was lost in the very heart of the cliché woods—right there in the “birthing room,” doing the full Lamaze, as it were, sharing in the “great miracle of life.”  Twenty hours of premature contractions and false labor and deep breathing gave an existential truth to the words “labor of love” and to God’s original Biblical curse, “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Hour after hour of “OK, push, push, good, good.  Now breathe, breathe,” in a sterile room with ghost-white walls and piercing fluorescent lights leaves little time for joyful contemplation.  Add to that, the mother-to-be strapped and harnessed to a metal chair-bed like something the Marquis de Sade might have invented, while the father-to-be alternately sits beside her or paces up and down like a devoted coach cheering on a losing team, and the extent of God’s punishment becomes clearer.  And that’s before you begin to factor in the cost of that giving birth and then raising a child in this dangerous and uncertain world.  So, it’s not surprising that after that first full working day of “hard labor,” the wonder and joy and togetherness had grown weary and stale.  And the confident and cheerful, “Push, push, breathe, breathe” had become instead, “Push, goddammit, push” and “You push, you bastard.”

There were a hundred other clichés we elbowed our way past on that day of “false” or “extended” or “protracted” labor:  all the “No pain. No Gain,” “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” little inanities that had seemed so much more substantial the evening before.  Only once, during one of those blessed “contraction cessation” periods, did I even begin thinking about the baby itself, or herself, my daughter.  We knew it was a she because some months before, by the “miracle of modern technology,” we had seen the somagraphic image of her, hairless and seal-like, floating tranquilly in that primordial inner sea, tethered by the umbilical cord like an astronaut floating in space. What must she be thinking, seeing, feeling, I thought fleetingly:  light at the end of the tunnel, the whole world shaking and trembling like a massive earthquake?  What would she make of the sudden draining of that warm and secure belly-pond, as the nurse with a weary and hollow optimism had called out, “Her waters have broken.  It won’t be long now”—converting the medicinal, “the amniotic sac has torn” into the more Biblical-sounding expression.  No wonder all our human lives we live in uneasy fear of the dark, of tomorrow, of salvation.  We’re born in a storm and live out our lives awaiting the next one.

But all the horror of the labor and delivery pales in the actual presence of “the delivered.” Nothing in the greeting card, saccharine sentimentality of expressions like “new life,” “the baby,” or the “precious little one,” prepares you for the grotesque, slimy, misshapen ugliness of what actually emerges into that unforgiving white light.  Anyone who still can’t believe we’re descended from apes needs only to be there, right there, in “the birthing room.”  A giant, hairy, wrinkled, slime-coated, dented head atop bowl-legged dwarf-legs doesn’t even begin to suggest the simian—no, the extraterrestrial—appearance of a human infant.  Twenty hours of push and breathe, of waters breaking and blood flowing and then this:  something Hieronymus Bosch might have sketched on a particularly troubled night.

The nurse, whatever she was thinking, held the pumpkin-headed ball of hair and slime up to me and said (the way a decapitated person might say, if the head could still speak, “Well, at least they left my body alone”):  “Who does she look like?”

“I can’t speak for her family,” I said, barely able to look at the woman nearly passed out and quietly sobbing below me, the thing’s mother, “but we don’t have any orangutans in mine.”

The nurse seemed genuinely shocked for an instant, but then managed a brittle little chuckle, the way we do when we’ve just heard a lame joke we don’t quite get or don’t want to.  But I tell you I didn’t really mean it as a joke.  In fact, for a brief moment in time I was thinking of the possibility of alien impregnation—the kind you get in the B-horror films.  I even began trying to think back nine months: Had I gone out of town?  Had anything odd happened in the house, the yard, the nearby woods?  Had there been any UFO-type sightings reported in the news?

“We need to go to the Obstet Lab,” the nurse said brightly, breaking my frantic efforts at recall.  She was holding “the baby” up to me, now wrapped in some white towel-like cloth, and cradling its slender, rubbery neck with her palm.  “You want to carry her?” she asked, with the forced cheerfulness of someone holding a ticking time-bomb.

“No, that’s all right,” I blurted out, aghast at the thought of holding whatever it was she was holding.

The nurse gave me a sharp look—one bordering on anger or disgust or bewilderment.  The old conspiracy of women, I thought.  ‘We know that half the genes are ours; we carried it. But you’ll never know for certain, will you?’  And right then it hit me:  I had been out-of-town nine months ago.  Gone for a week. On business.  Perhaps they had been watching from a distant ship, waiting their chance.  A kind of Martian version of Rosemary’s Baby. One-by-one, plant the seed.  Wait until they had grown.  Let the poor dumb human raise the thing as his own.  Bear all the misery and expense.  And then one day have the mutants rise up and take over the world—prepare it for the full invasion.  Hadn’t they made a movie about it already?

I was thinking all these thoughts as we walked slowly out of “the birthing room” into the long corridor that would take us to the Obstetrics Lab, to the “Preparation Room,” where, the nurse chattered on, they would weigh her and measure her and put the silver nitrite in her eyes, or some such thing.  I barely heard.  I was thinking that here, surely, in the Preparation Room, the horrible truth would emerge.  The nurse there would see something alien.  Would sound the alarm.  The police would be called.  The FBI.  The Men-in-Black.  Will Smith himself.  There would be questioning.  Torture.  Truth serum.

“I have to go now.  Here. You hold her like this and then turn left at the end of the corridor. The nurse will be waiting for you,” a voice said, again breaking my reverie.

And then I felt the weight of something in my arms, something alive and breathing and moving.  Something somehow mine. The sudden weight of her in my arms, the physicality, the gravitational pull—all combined in that instant to turn the abstraction, the “it,” “the alien,” into my daughter—for all her simian appearance.  If the mother ship came for her now, they’d have a fight on their hands.  They’d see what human resistance and courage and devotion were all about.  And just as I was thinking all this, I came to the end of the corridor and turned towards the Obstetrics Lab.  And my heart froze.

Standing in the narrow hallway, directly before the open door of the Preparation Room, his head nearly scraping the sign protruding from the top of the door frame, was a man dressed all in hospital white, like an orderly, except the sleeves had been cut off at the shoulders to reveal two massively muscled arms crisscrossed with dozens of terrifying tattoo-shapes:  death-heads, and jungle-animals, and coiled snakes.  He was maybe six-three or four, with thick, shiny, flat-topped hair and a long, handle-bar mustache—mostly black but with some streaks of grey that made me realize he must be early middle-age, maybe in his forties.   And yes, I knew right away that he was a Hell’s Angel biker and that he would try and snatch my daughter from me and run off with her to sell on the black market.  I’d read in the paper not long before about some such thing—a market for healthy Caucasian babies for the rich and sterile or foreign.  It all came together in an instant—the man, the tattoos, the wide-eyed drug-crazed grin.  He would grab her, race down the hall, jump on his motorcycle and take off with her.  Somewhere down the road there’d be a van waiting.  He’d hand her to the driver, get his wad of money, slip out of the hospital clothes back into his jeans and black jacket and be just one more hog-riding bad-ass heading down the road.  Where the van with my daughter would go I didn’t have time to picture, because just then the man took a step towards me, those big muscled and tattooed arms beginning to reach for my daughter.  Instinctively, I began to crouch and shift my weight and so ready myself for a karate kick to you-know-where.  The man was bigger than I, but I had grown up in a tough neighborhood and had taken my share of judo and karate classes, and muscles don’t mean everything when you’re fighting for the life of your child.

Then, with surprising speed and grace, the man was right beside me, his grip tight on my wrist, forcing my hand to move higher up my daughter’s slender neck.

“Hold her like this, man, so you cradle the head,” the Hell’s Angel nurse said, in a deep but surprisingly gentle voice.  And then he let go of my wrist and with that same hand carefully pushed the hospital cloth aside so he could better see my daughter’s face.  “Oh, man,” he said, “she’s beautiful. Beautiful.”  And there was a kind of awe and certainty and quiet sadness in the way he said it that took all of the fear and apprehension out of me, so that when he held his arms out to me and said, “May I, man?” I gave my daughter to him as if he were the father and I the nurse.

He carried her into the Preparation Room and gently put her down on this kind of examining table, surprisingly full of low-tech things like scales and measuring tapes and color charts and vials of chemicals.  The whole time he was bent over my daughter, weighing her and measuring her and gently, oh, so gently, swabbing the slime from her with these fluffy little gauze pads, he was carrying on this non-stop monolog-conversation (I couldn’t tell whether he was talking to me and wanted an answer or to himself and needed none).  “Oh, man, look at the color.  The color.  She’s a nine, man. A nine. (This, I found out later was a way of measuring skin color in relation to anemia—10 being the farthest away from anemia.)  Look at that, man.  Look at that.  Ten beautiful fingers.  Ten beautiful toes.  It’s all there, man.  All there.  The ears.  The eyes.  Oh, look at those eyes.  Six pounds-eight, man.  Just the right size.  Listen to the heart. Beating like a drum, man.  Like a regular tom-tom. Center of the chart, man. Center of the chart.”

And then he turned to me.

“You got a miracle baby here, man. Absolute miracle.”

And then he held my daughter up to me, all pink and glowing in the humming light, and I saw what he meant.  Everything was there, everything where it should be.  Fingers.  Toes.  Eyes.  Ears.  All working.  All the millions of cells doing what they should.  The heart beating.  The blood coursing.  The brain and body working together to make life, human life, possible.

“Oh, man, you got a miracle here.  You got a miracle baby,” he said again, nodding his head as he handed her to me, positioning my daughter just so in my arms that my palm cradled the back of her head, as her eyes, her grey-brown eyes, flashed open and she saw me, her father, her lucky father, for the first time.

“You got a name for her, man?” the tattooed nurse said, a pen in his hand.

“Ariana,” I said, unable to look away from my daughter.

“Beautiful, man.  Beautiful.  Ariana.  Ariana.  Two N’s or one?

“One,” I said. “It’s Welsh. It means silver.”

“Like her eyes, man. Like her eyes.”

He wrote down more things on his chart and then he went over to a machine, a copy machine, I guess, and pressed the button and after a minute a copy came out which he brought over to me.

“For your records, man,” he said.

My daughter had closed her silvery eyes and seemed to be asleep.  Who wouldn’t be weary after such an ordeal, I thought.  A tough kid.  She’ll be a tough kid, having made it out of the womb like that, having survived the storm.  And then I looked at the man, the Hell’s Angel biker, the tattooed nurse.

“Don’t take this wrong,” I said, “but you’re the last person on earth I’d ever expect to be an obstetric nurse.”

The man looked at me a long moment and then he smiled and looked down at my daughter.  When he spoke, it was in a soft voice, a faraway voice, and there was sadness in it.  A deep sadness.  What he was seeing, remembering, I could not imagine.

“I was in Viet Nam, man,” he said, softly, slowly.  “Medic.”  He looked up from my daughter to me.  For the first time, I could see that he, too, had grey-brown eyes.  “I’ve seen all the killing and maiming I ever want to.”  He paused.  “When I came back, I knew this is where I wanted to be. Right here, man.  Right here where life begins.”

Neither of us said anything for a while. Maybe he was making that transition back from the killing fields where he had been to this shiny white hospital room devoted to life.  I’d been spared the war but a lot of people I knew hadn’t been.  They’d come back scarred—body and soul.  Maybe hearing all these first breaths of life would someday cancel out the memories of all those last ones.

The nurse, the tattooed obstetric nurse with big muscled arms, looked down again at my daughter, nestled safely in mine.

“Time to bring her to her mother, man,” he said, smiling.  “You want to carry her?”

“Forever,” I said. “Forever.”

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