My darling

Today is the sweet spot. The day between my birthday which was yesterday and my wife’s, which is tomorrow. It being a Friday normally would mean that we would be knee deep in a satisfying meal tonight but as it stands we are not.

Instead we’ve been spending time shuffling between hospital departments, paying for stuff, waking up incrementally throughout the night because of the need to feed, paying for more stuff, out the car, in the car, alarm rings after alarm rings. as Netflix drones on in the background of our confinement centre room, mostly unwatched. This is the new normal, at least for us, at least for now. Why?

Because our baby girl was born last Sunday.

I’ve always been a little detached about celebrating my birthday. Yes, you were born on that day. But is it something really worth celebrating by anyone other than yourself? The answer felt like a no before Sunday, but since then, I would say a big yes. Witnessing the process that led to our girl being born made me feel like for someone to have been birthed into this world, it would’ve taken a Herculean effort and force to will it into being.

Mainly because there is a plethora of things that could go wrong within the course of the months or years leading up to the pregnancy, the nine months of pregnancy and the hours leading up to the delivery. It’s a journey with many complicated and moving parts and shifts that requires various people of diverse skillsets making the right decisions at all times just to facilitate the birth of this life.

In many ways, I can now see why there is a special heartbreak that parents endure when they see their child wasting or throwing their life away meaninglessly – It was not easy to produce their life. That labour of love creates a special bond between parents and child. It is important for parents to not foolishly throw that bond away in the name of college majors, career paths and life partner choices. It has to be protected as sacred. This is something I will remind myself of everyday. To work hard to maintain that bond.

Our journey had a few bumps along the road, namely the scare we had in September. But ‘worrying’ is the main product one procures as soon as one decides to become a parent. Our last scare just before her birth was the worrying underdevelopment of her femur. The only comfort the doctor could offer us initially was, ‘Oh, looking at you guys, I wouldn’t be too concerned.’ Thanks doc. So we plunged ourselves into worry and concern. My wife analysing each printed report after a visit with a fine comb, studying trends and graphical movement. As it turns out, we had nothing much to worry about because her femur is fine. I mean, I don’t know if I can guarantee she will have a future on a fashion runway but we can always pray and hope. I am adding this along to my recent prayers to God about blessing her with the ability to walk to the toilet on her own (zero diaper change goal baby, come on!), sleep when we want her to (notably when mummy and daddy wants to watch Netflix) and being a David Bowie fan.

Okay jokes aside (not joking about Bowie), God has really fulfilled his end of the bargain throughout these months. We would pray to Him for something different for her every night. ranging from her having good hearing to her having a compassionate heart. Although programming for the last few weeks leading to her birth was a rerun of ‘femur length’ constantly. If prayers were cumulative, we should be expecting some Miranda Kerr legs on her right God? Just kidding (also not kidding).

We’ve had a relatively easy pregnancy. My wife was still out and about doing morning walks and yoga days before her first contractions came. We’ve had scares certainly but God allayed each of them in spectacular fashion. He’s blessed us with good doctors, nurses and friends, gosh what friends we have. Constantly supporting us, encouraging us, checking up on us and giving us stuff. We have enough breast pumps that I probably can be subbed in as well. I did warn our baby as she was crying yesterday that if she continued crying I may have to offer her my boobs. She stopped for a moment.

And yes, just like that she’s out into the world now and in my arms.

39 weeks suspended in a flurry of animation within my wife’s womb, hearing every conversation we’ve had with each other (understanding probably very little of it), bouncing to the steps of our weekend walks, sampling a tasting menu of the food we’ve consumed and just like that, the last page of pregnancy was turned and a new life steps into this world last Sunday at 8.00am.

I’ve written and processed a lot about being a father. In the grand scheme of roles that we assign to ourselves in this life such as ‘son’, ‘husband’ or ‘friend’; ‘father’ was never one I was particularly wedded to, mostly brought about by fear of being a lousy one and also never being with a partner who could awaken that collective desire until I met my wife. Yes, it is a collective desire. At least it should be.

In the course of trying to lull her to sleep last night by singing to her and having a conversation with her, I referred to myself as ‘daddy’. It still felt a little surreal. I’m a father now. Yes, I am a father now. And there is no turning back.

In my bid to grow into the role, I fashioned a daily project to talk and interact with her while she was in the womb. I would sing her a song I loved every night and give her one fun fact about the world she would soon be born into. Since September, I’ve sang a total of 165 songs to her and delivered 160 daily cool facts to her, every night. I was going to say without fail but there were fails, a day or two where I was ill and probably one where I was too sleepy. Daddy is not perfect.

I mostly sang to her in our bedroom but I did croak her a possibly painful version of ‘Across the Universe’ in a hotel in Taiping, a strategically selected ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ up in the cool heights of Cameron Highlands and delivered a thankful version of Wilco’s ‘My Darling’ to her in the hospital delivery room, 7-hours before she made her life-changing entrance into our lives. I sang her a total of 104 Beatles songs and 61 songs by a range of artistes that were important to me from Cure to Springsteen to The Flaming Lips.

Throughout the days I also gave her really cool facts about the world, like how dogs sniff good smells with their left nostril, that turkeys can blush and that the tiny pocket in jeans was originally designed to store pocket watches (I especially loved this one).

These sessions were my favorite moments of those days. I’ve really had the time of my life these past 6-months doing them. But nothing could prepare me for the 14-minutes that led up to her birth into this loud and disorientating world. To say those 14-minutes represented the most beautiful and jaw-dropping thing I’ve ever witnessed and experienced in my life is to put it very, very conservatively.

I went into this process as I always do with anything that’s important – numbskully optimistic but also blockheadly clueless. To be fair, the data I was given to crunch so I could form an idea of what a delivery experience would be like was so wide and diverse, I might as well been told that it’s like walking around a mall with a bag of doughnuts in my hand while being chased by a pink unicorn.

There are mentions of the mother being able to walk around. She will be able to eat whatever she likes. That she will be on drips. That she will be hooked to a machine that measures baby heart rate and contractions. That she will be able to watch TV. Bounce on a birthing ball. Shoot a machine gun. Swim in the ocean with sharks. Okay, just kidding. But only about the sharks. There are probably some parts of the world where the wife may empty a clip into the husband in the process of giving birth.

So yeah, I had no idea what it was going to be like.

Doesn’t help that Tinseltown has done a lot to gloss over the birthing process, so this Latchkey kid learned nothing from it. It’s often represented by a sudden belly ache experienced by the mother (they occasionally show the water bag bursting), a mad dash to the hospital and the inevitable coach/pep talk by husband or doctor leading to a single push which results in a baby that often looks like it’s been nursed and bathed for months and if given a chance, could probably walk to the nearest parlor and order herself an ice-cream.

What films don’t tell you is that the water bag doesn’t always break, contractions don’t come just before a birth but sometimes, days even a week before and that single push that results in the baby coming out is the open goal tap-in at the end of a 54-pass move. Oh sorry, football analogy. Let me try again, it’s basically the last kahuna push after many kahuna pushes that’s been happening possibly for the last 2-hours. We can see how that doesn’t exactly translate to a tangy watch.

My wife’s contractions came deep into Wednesday night, four days before the eventual delivery. In hindsight, I realised I was being very insensitive to her when I suggested if a contraction basically feels like a terrible diarrhea. “I guess, if you needed a reference point,” was her answer when the right one would be to boot my head through the nearest window. No, seeing what my wife went through for four days, I can concur it is not like a terrible diarrhea. A terrible diarrhea does not render you incapable to move or speak when it comes. This was something else.

Our family and friends suggested inducing the pregnancy after two days of contractions but my wife said no, “What if she’s not ready to come out yet?” I can only draw a parallel with me being asked to throw the thrash after I am showered and comfortably seated on our couch with the TV remote in my hand. “Okay, let’s wait for her.” But in 24-hours, the pain had gotten unbearable and my wife agreed to induce on Saturday night.

Civilization may have attempted to dress up the birthing process in clean air-conditioned rooms and plushy pillows but the truth is, it remains as primal an experience as it did thousands of years ago. There are strange-looking discharges, a lot of writhing in pain and well, blood. I was standing next to my wife comforting and encouraging her, two-feet away from the action and I still got blood on my shorts and hands. There was blood on the floor and on the sheets over the operating equipment.

I was standing there, like a man seeing a UFO, eyes and mouth gaped when the doctor suggested the use of forceps and proceeded to access these two things that looked like cricket bats (at least to me at the time) and within seconds, he pulled out our baby  girl and dropped her on to my wife’s chest, caked in blood. The next few seconds were a mingling of panic, relief and excitement as they stuffed a tube into our girl’s mouth to get the excesss liquid out all while she screamed and cried, like she was dragged rudely to a party she did not wanted to go to. Well, she was.

And now she’s here. An autonomous being with her own personality, wants and moods. She is now a part of the tapestry of the world. Her story will be embedded into the story of the world. Her life will now become intertwined with the lives of others. There is no reversing this process. She isn’t going to be climbing back up into the womb after a week. She isn’t going to dissolve into stardust after a year. There is no return policy.

It’s done and our lives will never be the same again.

And why would we want it to be what it was before after seeing her, hearing her and smelling her? She is the most beautiful thing we’ve laid our eyes on and the mere gurgle from her causes both our hearts to feel like it wants to explode with love, joy and contentment. We want this life, not the one before anymore.

A lot is often made about the sacrifices one would have to make to raise a child. There are tons. The sleep is the first to go. The TV binges. The lazy weekend afternoon on the couch. Korean BBQ (at least for a while). But all these things just shade into the background as me and my wife cheer on each successful latch by her like we’ve won the World Cup. It’s like your life gets re-orientated and refurbished into something new. It’s in the same space, but things do not feel nor look the same anymore. And that is really very okay.

I sang her Wilco’s ‘My Darling’ on the night before she was born and I sang it to her again two nights ago, trying to put her to sleep. I teared, with joy, at the meaning of it all and how life will be from now on.

I can’t wait for each day to happen.

Go back to sleep now, my darling
I’ll try to keep the bad dreams away
Breathe now, breathe easier
And I’ll think of all the right things to say

Because we made you, my darling
With the love in each of our hearts
We were a family, my darling
Right from the start

Grow up now
Please, don’t you grow up too fast
And be sure
To make all the good times last

Because we made you, my darling
With the love in each of our hearts
We were a family, my darling
Right from the start

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We’re expecting our first child!

Yes, cue the confetti cannons, fireworks display and tears of joy, all of them worthy of this moment of pure elation from two individuals who became one and are now excited to be a three. That saying, this was a 3-0 win where the score hardly told the whole story. Though I must preface that while this was certainly a backs-against-the-wall, huddled in, hard fought victory, it was not won thanks to a ricochet off the derriere of a defender and two goalmouth scrambles but by a sparkling hat-trick in second half extra time by the Big Guy himself. The story? Here goes.

It started on a fairly inconspicuous morning on September 2. My wife had her usual Kiwi breakfast and me my cup of coffee. We had taken the day off for our first trimester scan. The morning was bright. We had the confetti cannons loaded, ready for launch that weekend to happy smiles from family and friends. The pregnancy had been smooth thus far – a little nausea and a sudden taste for sweet drinks aside, my wife was checking more good boxes than a heavyweight champ.

I went into the scan much like how I’ve approached most important milestones in my life – certain of the best, unaware of the worst. That’s not to say I am a raging optimist, but I will concede that I can be as thick as a concrete slab on occasion. To be fair to me, in this case I was urged on by how well the pregnancy has gone thus far. My wife on the other hand is not me. She had strongly considered the possibility of the worst but hopeful that things will be okay. This is as close to a winning hand as my wife would allow herself to have in most circumstances. I took that.

On hindsight, the events leading to the scan were mostly blur and hazy. What I remember earliest was sitting next to my wife as the doctor tried coaxing our baby into a clearer position. The ‘Nuchal Translucency’ scan is to measure the clear (translucent) space in the tissue at the back of your baby’s neck to assess your developing baby’s risk of having Down Syndrome and some other chromosomal abnormalities, as well as major congenital heart problems. She was running through a list of things that she could see during the first part of the scan. Limbs, check. Brain development, check. Spine, check. Go baby go.

Then, some silence. Followed by more silence. Keep going doctor, baby is doing well right?

Right?

Next thing, like a movie with choppy editing, I found myself sat at her desk as phrases such as ‘Below 3 is normal and your baby’s is 3.95’, ‘Down Syndrome’, ‘Turner’s Syndrome’ and ‘blood test to see what we are dealing with’ started washing over us like a bucket of cold water in winter. The conjunctions and verbs did not matter. Those phrases are like zombies, and you want to keep them as far away from your kid as possible. Here they were, right in the same room as our baby and we were powerless to do anything.

It’s interesting. When you are served with the worst news possible, words become the least valuable commodity in that exchange. What said more than her assurance that she has presided over cases with these readings where it came back all okay (“1 or 2 cases”) was the prolonged silence as she combed the scanner over our baby. The skip in her voice as she relayed what her recommendations were. That painful millisecond of eye contact she avoided when she said the words ‘it is more likely to be Down Syndrome than Turner’s’.

We were told to take a blood test that will confirm or rule out the possibility up to 99%. The ultrasound scan only provided an accuracy of up to 70%. Let me try and put this in language that makes sense to me. 70% is a pretty decent score. I would spend my valuable weekend afternoon watching a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 70% without question. The numbers were really against our little one.

We would need to wait 10-days for the results. Yes, 10 days.

Both of us experienced the moment quite differently. For me, it was like being invited to a high tea but unknowingly ending up in a shark tank as the day’s feed. For my wife it was like seeing her car crash happening in slow motion but being assured that there are air bags but being told at the last moment that, “Sorry miss, your model doesn’t have air bags.”

We were distraught and dismayed naturally. My wife took it worst than I did mainly because I could retreat into a fight or flight survival mode, a state of mind that had served me well during the more distressing seasons of my existence. I can best describe it as strapping a bullet proof vest on my emotions and preparing to take heavy fire. My wife had mostly lived a charmed existence up till this point, something I’ve always appreciated and valued because it tempers the more cynical sides of me but it did not serve her as well during this crisis.

That saying, compared to my more challenging seasons in life, this one had different taste of poison to it. It’s one thing to contend for one’s own life with some cards to play, it’s another to contend for the life of a helpless being with a pretty bad hand. The more accurate depiction is that we had no hand, no cards left to play, we were flayed out in the sun, awaiting our fate. We turned to binges of ‘Midnight Diner’ and ice cream (Inside Scoop’s ‘Cempedak’ and ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly’ the chief comforters) to soothe the days over, to distract us from a 50/50 fate with vastly different repercussions.

Terminating the pregnancy, if we were given the news we did not want, was of course not an option. Even removing the obvious Christian reason, I was never going to do it. Not after my little one raised its hand and waved during the ultrasound. Once you accept a wave, you can never take it back (I have since considered the possibility that it was not a wave but a gesture representation of The Beatles’ 1970 hit ‘Get Back’).

There was really nothing much to do but pray. I don’t want to say this like ‘it’s the last girl in the tuition class who is single so you ask her out’ kind of thing but that we were desperate for a miracle and God was really the only one who could provide it. We prayed as soon as we opened our eyes in the morning and prayed just before we shut it in the night.

Our close friends literally cried with us and called us every day to pray for us, prayed with us and encouraged us. They prayed prayers of comfort to war cries for a miracle for our little one. They did communion with us. They had calls with us to just catch up to get our minds off the wait. They recorded prayers and sent them to us. They sent us articles and stories to encourage us. They contended for a miracle for our little one. Our close friends formed a wall around us and protected us from all sides. We are so grateful for them.

Our families prayed with us. My in-laws very sweetly invited us over, uncharacteristic during this pandemic mainly because my wife was not vaccinated so they preferred to keep a distance, and awkwardly suggested a prayer session with my father-in-law penning his prayer down in a notebook. If you don’t know them, I will tell you this – it was an amazingly sweet gesture. My mom went nuclear positive and started suggesting doctors make mistakes all the time and medical machines are never always serviced properly so readings can be wrong. In hindsight, I wish I had the faith and positivity of my mom because as ridiculous as it sounded to us at the time, she was not far from the truth.

I was hopeful, my wife did not dare hope. I tempered my language, toggling between a very niche space of not giving into despair and putting on the complete cloak of hopelessness when speaking with her. My wife asked me how can I so easily have hope. I told her that if you’ve been in enough hopeless situations, a little hope is better than not having any at all.

I know the language I had used up till this point to describe the less desirable outcome can sound too negatively-slanted and perhaps disrespectful to parents with special needs children but this cannot be further from the truth for both my wife and me. All parents begin this journey wanting their children to be healthy and normal but the love we have for our child is not conditional at all. We took the week to process both possible outcomes. Our very human and fallible nature would of course lean towards God tying everything up in a neat bow for the two of us at the end of the 10 days but we also equally processed the possibility of us having a special needs kid.

I won’t lie, the start of the process was difficult for the two of us, owing mainly to having a metaphorical carpet being pulled from under our whole lives. We were mostly reeling from that. As the days flipped by though, we started coming closer and closer to a place of beauty about having a special needs child. I told my wife that in some moments when I think about our family in the future, our kid in that picture is a special needs child and it looked so beautiful to me. I told my wife that if God’s plan is for us to raise a special needs child then I can’t think of two people more qualified for the job.

We were encouraged by stories of people who raised a child with Down Syndrome and how the whole experience was like a positive atom bomb of happiness and love being detonated in the middle of their lives and their other children’s lives. I don’t want to sound condescending because I really am not, but I truly came to a place of such respect for people who have raised special needs children with love and hope. It’s a thing of such pure beauty in this world where the word ‘love’ is sometimes thrown around so cheaply.

But God had other plans though.

At around 3.45pm on September 13, 11 calendar days and 7 working days after we got the news and submitted for the blood test, my wife burst into my work room while I was on a work call with tears in her eyes. Fearing the worst, I haphazardly got off the call and walked up to her, intending to comfort her that everything will be okay because God has a plan when she showed me the message from the clinic that read …

“Good day, your screening blood test report is low risk. Do you want to know gender?”

And just like that, nonchalantly, we were delivered the news. No screeching ring of the phone. No dramatic build-up or necessary verbal gestures over a call. Just a by-the-way message in mid afternoon from a nurse who has probably presided over hundreds of these tests with low risk results, unaware of the week we’ve had. And with a snap of a finger, God had tied the destiny of our little one back into a neat ribbon and restored the carpet back under our feet. It was both a thing of unbelievable beauty and pristine tidiness. God is indeed good and God was indeed willing to give us that miracle. And so He did.

September 13 was in many ways a culmination of a journey that God brought my wife and me on to land us at this perfect place. From my reservations about being a father, my wife’s mental hurdles regarding unrealistic expectations of her and our slight travails during conception, God managed to bring to attention and answer each of those things for us with sharp, emphatic gestures. It’s been quite an adventure but one I am glad to report, brings about the satisfaction of a happy ending. I say this in a way that encapsulates the entire journey and not to suggest that any outcome besides this would’ve been an unhappy ending.

I think God quite wonderfully brought us to a place where we were assured that any outcome would’ve inevitably been a happy ending. We reminded ourselves that despite the scare at the scan that by all accounts our baby was developing well in all other areas and that no matter what hurdles we would have to jump, we would have provided a refuge of love and protection to our child.

I guess for those of you that do not accept stories of the miraculous without a fistful of salt, I unfortunately have no well-drawn charts, roll of citations or 10-point arguments to offer you. It’s always been a struggle of mine to explain the personal relationship I have with God in a way that satisfies a skeptic’s penchant for not wanting to believe. I know, my wife knows and our child is now well despite all the numbers and statistics working strongly against us. There is a strong emotional connection that is form between you and God when you cry out to him in despair, against the odds of the world and he answers in a way that makes it so clear to you that He hears every word.

The beauty of this miracle that God was willing to do for us is none more perfectly incapsulated than in the smile that returned on my wife’s face the morning after we received the good news. She had asked me if it was a dream, during the harrowing 11-day wait. I had said unfortunately, no. She asked me again on the morning of 14 September if it was a dream. I was so glad that I was able to tell her, “Fortunately, no.”

I’ve taken to challenging myself to sing my little one a Beatles song a day every night before we sleep until birth day. On September 13, I sang ‘The Long and Winding Road’. I had told my wife days earlier that no matter the outcome, I would sing that song on that day anyway …

‘The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door