The downy hair that forms on a baby in utero is called lanugo; the soft spot on its head, the fontanelle. A pregnant woman is called a gravida, and the dark line that appears on her belly and traces a path down from her navel is the linea negra. The moment an expecting mother first senses her child move within her womb is the quickening. The rupture of membranes is the breaking of waters. A child’s final descent into the birth canal is known as the lightening. The cervix ripens. The baby crowns. We call the birth process labour, the same word we use for other strenuous and gainful work. At the end, a child is not extracted or removed but delivered. And when it ends badly, we choose stillborn, a tranquil and sympathetic word, rather than something clinical and cruel.
Poets must have conceived the language of birth. Only they could justify these metaphors, these end-vowels, this rich and musical lexis. For all its lyricism, though, birth’s vocabulary lacks the words for a man who is, or will be, a father.
My brother. Taller than me and thinner. Greyer hair. Since I learned his name I imagine him more often.
About a month before my first child was born, I discovered my brother was buried in St. Mary’s Catholic cemetery and that his name was Sandro. I knew my mother miscarried twice before I was born, and I knew both were boys. Until last year, though, she never told me their names or that the Grace Hospital buried Sandro in St. Mary’s. She named the second child Marco but no one granted him a burial. My mother doesn’t want to imagine what the hospital did with him.
My father and the priest at the Italian church arranged a funeral for Sandro. My mother, 20 years old and heartbroken, didn’t attend the service. No one did. She told me Father Lino brought her the tiny crucifix that lay on Sandro’s coffin. She kept the cross but never visited Sandro’s grave. “I couldn’t do it. Maybe one day I’ll go.”
Years later, my mother signed up to sponsor a child from overseas. When she opened the package from World Vision and read the card inside she began to cry. The child chosen for her was named Marco. His birthday was the same day in September of 1969 that Sandro had been due. This Marco was born in Peru and looked like he could’ve been Italian. He could’ve been my mother’s son. “I felt God was telling me that he was taking care of my boys, so I should take care of this one,” she said.
Sandro and Marco died without living, yet I’ve always pictured them slightly older than me. My big brothers. When I was 10, I imagined them in their teens. Sandro would have just turned 40 when my son was born, and that’s how I picture him now. Taller than me and thinner. His hair a little greyer than mine. Since I learned his name I imagine him more often.
I rode my bicycle to St. Mary’s to look for his grave. A woman at the Municipal Cemeteries office gave me the coordinates to his plot—Lot 42, Block 5, Section H—but I found no marker there at all. I called the cemetery office again to ensure I hadn’t made a mistake. A city clerk checked the records and confirmed that Sandro is, in fact, buried in that lot. So are about 20 other babies. Lot 42 and many of the nearby plots are unmarked mass graves for stillborn babies. “This is what was done in the ’60s,” the woman on the phone said. Then she told me she was sorry. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect this. I hung up the phone and surprised myself by crying.
The women who collect semen don’t smile. Not the receptionist who took my requisition form, and certainly not the stern nurse who handed me my clear plastic vial.
Since my wife, Moonira, didn’t get pregnant immediately after we started trying, and since she is a worrier, and since she was 36—old for mothering, according to the books she reads—Moonira wanted to confirm both our fertilities. She insisted the techs at the Diagnostic Semen Laboratory count my sperm. I didn’t object. After the humbling legs-aloft examinations Moonira endured, and would yet endure, masturbating into a cup was the least I could do.
A grey, vinyl-covered chair occupied one corner of my collection room. In another corner, on a counter, a spray bottle of disinfectant stood beside a roll of paper towels. A sign reminded me to wash my hands, to clean up after myself, and to inform the receptionist if I spill any of my sample. I sat on the chair and pulled a magazine from the rack hanging on the wall. It occurred to me that I’d not held a porn mag in my hands since my early teens. Babysitting my cousins meant long sojourns to the upstairs washroom where my uncle hid, poorly, his under-sink stash of Hustler.
The magazines at the clinic failed me. Thoughts of previous donors gripping the pages with their left hands doused whatever ardour the photos were meant to inspire. I didn’t bother with the TV bracketed to the wall. I suspected a perpetual loop of pornography would greet me if I switched on the set, but sitting back and watching movies seemed too much like leisure. I was here to work. To labour. Besides, I didn’t want to touch the remote. Instead, I closed my eyes and consummated a high school crush.
I produced a sample in good time, “deposited” it into my vial and screwed on the yellow cap. I didn’t spill; just the thought of having to admit this to the receptionist, or having to talk to her at all, trued my aim. Still, my offering didn’t please me. It didn’t look like much. I held the vial up to my eye to discern its volume from the graduations on the outside of the container. I read from the bottom of the meniscus—another high school memory—but the numbers were small and difficult to read. I didn’t know what qualified as a normal volume anyway.
I sprayed and swabbed the couch and left the room. I put my vial in a plastic basket on the receptionist’s counter alongside semen from other patients. I resisted the temptation to compare the volume of my vial with the others. I didn’t want the receptionist to catch me ogling another man’s sperm.
Moonira and I discovered she was pregnant before the fertility doctor had the chance to tell me my semen results. On the way out of her office, I waited until the very last moment to ask the doctor, “By the way, how were my numbers?” I wanted her to think the question had only just then occurred to me.
She said they were good. That was all I wanted to hear.
I learn that the word “diaper” is also a verb, as in “it’s not my turn to diaper the baby,” and that modern parents don’t just buy diapers but “diapering systems.” Moonira and I choose the ridiculously named bumGenius brand whose washable diapers and adjustable liners cost $20 each. I list our bumGenius needs on a baby gift registry and am shocked when people actually buy them for us.
We inherit a second-hand crib which I assemble in the room that used to be my office. A few months later, consumer watchdogs declare the crib’s “drop-side” design to be infanticidal. Friends and family hand us down a bassinet, a glider and plastic bins heavy with onesies, rompers, receiving blankets and other items I’ve never heard of. We receive two infant car seats, three rubber giraffes named Sophie and two copies of Goodnight Moon. The receptionist at the radiology clinic wraps a CD of ultrasound photos in ribbon and coloured paper and sells it to us for $20. My mother buys us a Valco stroller, and my mother-in-law gives us a onesie that reads “All mommy wanted was a backrub.” Moonira and I aren’t sure her mom understands the joke.
We enroll in a weekly prenatal class. Among the facts we learn from our instructor, a lively Argentinean woman, is that sexual intercourse can induce labour. “Baby comes out the same way the baby goes in,” she says. We learn about the stages of labour and learn to fear the one called “transition.” We learn poetry-deprived terms like meconium, a baby’s first poop, which is greenish-black and resembles the opium-paste it is named after; and perineum, which should be softened with canola oil lest it tear. The women in the class stiffen at the word “tear.” We watch videos of unattractive couples sweating, panting and pushing. These videos made me nervous from the moment we signed up for the classes, and I watch the screen from behind my hand. The moment of delivery is not as gruesome as I suspected. I feel a strange sort of voyeurism, though, watching strangers on television squeeze out their slimy, umbilical-tethered progeny.
Most classes conclude with the dads-to-be fetching mats and therapy balls from a storage room where dozens of life-sized dolls are piled in plastic rubbish bins. We practise massage and comfort positions meant to ease the pain of labour. One session ends with a dozen women bent over tables or straddling their chairs, quietly moaning in the half dark as their partners caress their backs and murmur in their ears. I whisper a joke to Moonira about how the scene is vaguely pornographic, and she scolds me for not taking anything seriously. She doesn’t realize I am scared to death.
I put my vial on the receptionist’s counter alongside semen from other patients. I resisted the temptation to compare the volume of my vial with the others. I didn’t want to be caught ogling another man’s sperm.
I don’t remember what I’d done to make my father tie me up in the garage. He stood me against a metal support post, pulled my hands behind me and lashed my wrists together. He would pour a new concrete ﬂoor that week, and I recall the smell of dry cement and a heap of gravel in the place where he usually parked his orange Chev Malibu. I would inherit the car when I turned 17. At the time, though, I was 4 years old.
I waited until he climbed the stairs back into the house before trying to escape. He hadn’t tied me tightly and I didn’t need to struggle long before the knots unravelled. When I felt the rope drop against the back of my bare ankles, I knew he tied me loose on purpose. Despite his threats, he hadn’t intended to keep me bound to a pole in the garage all night long. I remember feeling indebted to him for this shred of mercy, and thankful he didn’t switch oﬀ the light.
I last spoke to my father 13 years ago at the Calgary airport. I was departing for a year-long trip to Africa. I wanted to volunteer abroad, to ﬁnd stories to write and to get away from my dad for a little while at least. I said goodbye before boarding the plane and he cried like he would never see me again. While I was in Ghana, he hit my mother for the last time. They were divorced by the time I returned. I’ve never felt more relieved.
I listen to our baby’s heartbeat at the prenatal clinic, and remember the time my sisters and I urged my father to quit smoking. He looked down at us and said that cigarettes were all he had worth living for. I look up at the ultrasound screen, see my baby’s nose and forehead. His tiny glowing bones. And I think that all I want is to be a good dad.
Moonira moans and cries a little. Her face tightens like a ﬁst. When the contraction passes she opens her eyes and says to me, “I want an epidural.”
I laugh out loud, not because I don’t empathize, but because we’re standing in our condo. “I’ll check the spice cabinet,” I joke, “but I think we are fresh out of epidurals.”
We are not supposed to be having a baby today. Our due date comes a week from now, and yesterday Moonira’s doctor said she showed no signs of delivering early. Moonira felt mild contractions through the night, but we assumed these to be a sign of false labour—another term we’d learned—rather than a signal our baby was en route. Moonira even went to work this morning. Now, as her pain surges and the pace of her contractions quickens, we realize this might be it.
Our prenatal classes taught us not to rush to the hospital at the first sign of labour, an error many first-time parents make, because staff won’t admit a woman until her labour hits the halfway mark. Heather, our doula, advised going out for dinner at this stage. “Once she’s in the hospital, Moonira won’t be allowed to eat. So you might as well enjoy your last chance for a good meal together while you can. Besides, it’s fun to freak out the waiter by telling him you’re having a baby.”
Moonira’s labour, though, hurtles forward too quickly for last-minute dinner dates. Terror shines from her eyes each time a contraction crashes through her. I call Heather. She is driving to Lethbridge for a doula convention but turns the car around on the highway.
She tells me I need to help Moonira breathe and focus through the contractions. I stand in front of my quaking wife and try to get her to look into my eyes when the spasms come. She won’t listen to me. She can’t. I lose her to the pain each time. I coax her into the shower where the hot water might slow down her contractions. Moonira leans against the tile, her back bent. Her neck strains and stiﬀens. I stand outside the tub and watch the body I’ve loved for eight years turn to fury. There is nothing beautiful about this.
The water oﬀers no relief. I call Heather again and she tells us to go to the hospital. As I drive, Moonira wails between her whimpering in the backseat. Every bump rattles her, and I can’t decide whether to drive very fast or very slow. For a moment, I forget where the hospital is. I ask Moonira for directions, but she cannot answer. She trusts that I can get us there, that I can handle this much at least. Arriving feels like victory. I deliver Moonira into more capable hands than my own.
We check in just after seven in the evening. The details of the following hours blur into each other and defy chronology in my memory. I cannot remember what happened when. At some point, a doctor—or maybe Nikki, our nurse—attaches Moonira to an IV bag filled with antibiotics. Later someone else taps Moonira to an epidural analgesic. The doctor breaks Moonira’s water. Someone wraps a belt of sensors around her torso, and places an electrode on the baby’s scalp. A machine narrates Moonira’s contractions on white ribbon that curls out onto the floor. I watch our baby’s heartbeat on the monitor, grow anxious at each rise and fall, and realize I love someone I know only by cableborne biometrics and foggy ultrasound scans.
It must be near two in the morning when the doctor folds down the foot of Moonira’s bed, kneels between her legs and tells her it is time. Heather holds a camera at arm’s length over the doctor’s shoulder and snaps the sort of photos Moonira and I will never show anyone or even look at ourselves. Other technicians arrive, their faces hidden behind blue surgical masks, in case our child needs emergency treatment on delivery. When the number on the machine signals a cresting contraction, Heather urges Moonira to “push,” to “focus,” to “go, go, go.” Nikki, in her sweet West African accent, tells Moonira she is doing amazing. I don’t know what to do or say, so I press my head against Moonira’s and parrot Heather and Nikki’s words into Moonira’s ear. I feel foolish for this mimicry. There must be more I can do.
Later, I ask Moonira if she even knew that I was there. “Of course. I felt you beside me the entire time. Your head on mine. I cannot imagine doing that without you. You were the most important person in the room to me.”
“Hardly,” I say. “Between the doctor, Heather and the nurse, I was the least necessary person there. I didn’t really do
“You gave me peace. I needed to know that if anything happened to me, you would be there with our baby. That if he couldn’t be with us, he would be with you.”
I feel only astonishment. Wonder. The sight of my little boy bewilders me. I can’t believe what I see. Suddenly, there is a baby in the room. And he is mine. Suddenly, there is a father in the room. And he is me.
I attended classes and read books. I learned the mechanics of back labour and the action of intravenous pitocin. Experts taught me all about breech birth, water birth and afterbirth. Nobody, though, told me how I was supposed to feel when I ﬁrst saw my child. The classes and manuals oﬀered no instruction. I assumed my ﬁrst emotion would be joy. I thought happiness would wash over me.
But in this precise moment, when the doctor lifts my son up from Moonira’s last push and places him in her arms, I feel only astonishment. Wonder. The sight of my little boy bewilders me. I can’t believe what I see. Suddenly, there is a baby in the room. And he is mine. Suddenly, there is a father in the room. And he is me.
I am the ﬁrst to say “It’s a boy.” The words erupt from me, and when I hear myself I am surprised how much it matters that I am the ﬁrst to say it. That my ﬁrst declaration as a father announces our child is a boy. Moonira, though, is the ﬁrst to say his name. “Hello, Amedeo,” she sings to our wet and wiggling on. “Hello, Amedeo.”
We named him after my mother’s father. I’ve known my entire life that I would name a son Amedeo, and I suspect a part of me wanted a boy just so I could give him this name. I admire my grandfather. He was born in rural Italy in the 1920s. Mussolini forced him into a uniform during the Second World War, and he fought in Italy’s doomed North African campaign until the British took him to London as a prisoner. There, a Nazi bombing raid broke his back. Aﬅer the war he walked across Europe to his hometown, where he married my grandmother. They had three daughters, but he leﬅ them when they were still young girls to ﬁnd work in Calgary. He laboured for two years before earning enough to bring his family over the sea.
My grandfather is gentle and honourable and brave. He is the kind of father I want to be.
Amedeo’s middle name is Ihsan. It is an Arabic word that means “to do beautiful things.”
I will teach Amedeo Ihsan to walk and I will teach him to wrestle. I will show him the spring crocuses that bloom on Nose Hill. I will teach him to read, and together we will read about dinosaurs. We will toss pebbles into rivers. I will show him how to drive, and to shave, and to knot a necktie, and to open a bottle of wine without breaking the cork. I will carry him on my shoulders. He will infuriate me and frighten me. Make me proud and make me crazy. I will write stories for him and about him. Together, we will write postcards home from Africa where we will travel to see the Sahara. Together we will ride bicycles. Together we will do beautiful things.
Marcello Di Cintio was the Markin-Flanagan Writer in Residence at the U of C, 2009–2010. He lives in Calgary with his wife and son.