Our son, Chris, is about to turn 26. He came home for a visit last weekend. This means both lasagna and Kentucky Derby Pie were on the menu, a new pack of Lebanon Bologna was in the fridge, and a box of ‘Gushers’ was in the pantry. He brought along his girlfriend, Lindsey. This of course means something, well… significant. Chris, if at all possible, does not commingle his family of origin with any other aspect of his life. Ever. He moved out of our home three years ago, then out-of-state altogether last May. As life sometimes works, he moved from Mechanicsburg, PA to Fort Lauderdale, FL to meet a girl from nearby York, PA. He also found his smile, which by most family accounts, has been missing since the 9th grade. It is unclear which came first, Lindsey, or the smile; but like the chicken and the egg, it really doesn’t matter. It is wonderful to see his happiness as he contemplates his next move in life.
Chris was born on March 22, 1985. He arrived late, and without operating instructions. I was about to turn 26.
Getting pregnant didn’t come easy for us. When we finally got the news, we celebrated. After imbibing seven Long Island Ice-Teas at a classic 80’s fern bar in Virginia Beach, I decided I needed to share the news. Since this was before cell phones (gasp!), I shared it the old fashion way; with my head and shoulders sticking out of the passenger window, at the top of my lungs I proclaimed, to every house, business, car and pedestrian along the way , “I am virile! I am virile!”“ Yes, we were excited to be pregnant. This would possibly be the first time I would embarrass Chris. It would most certainly not be the last.
Around 5 months later, In the middle of one January night Leigh awoke to quite a ruckus. I was hanging over the side of the bed clawing madly at the floor screaming, ”Come back! Come back!”
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“THE BABY! IT”S GETTING AWAY!” I yelled!
I’m not entirely sure, but there may have been alcohol involved at some point earlier in the evening.
We didn’t know what we were going to name ‘the baby’. For that matter, we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. We did agree that any child of P. and Leigh McB would be a C. McB. We settled on Christopher or Caitlyn. As the March 11 due date came and went, Leigh was, as one friend would say, “As big as a house”. In a spurt of magical thinking designed to trick nature into a delivery, we decided that if “the baby” was born on St. Patty’s Day, and it was a boy, he would be named Sean Patrick. March 17th came and went, and Leigh grew to be as big as a ‘bigger’ house; the “C. McB” was back on the table.
Finally, after two full days of coaxin’ and Pitocin, he arrived at around 4:30 PM.
As he came into the world, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. His head reddening, I watched as the doctor gently slid one finger between his neck and the cord just as I instinctively knew that is what I would have done. I’ve never forgotten this contemporaneous collision of instinct and action, providing my first shot of confidence I could be a parent. There would be many other collisions along the way, of course, which would cause me to question whether or not I should be a parent.
Freed from the cord’s choking grip, Chris screamed, Leigh cried, and I beamed. The delivering doctor passed me scissors to cut the cord. I paused, consciously aware I was literally about to sever the cord of life that had kept him alive and healthy to this point, and assume the responsibility for his care and protection. My heart raced. I cut. I thought I was ready, but I was scared. In my fingers, it felt like I was slicing through a piece of warm surgical tubing; in my heart, I felt both exhilarating joy and knee-buckling fear. As Leigh struggled with epidural shakes, she could not hold Chris. I did. For the first 10 minutes of his life, I held him against my beating heart, swaying, and leaning over for Leigh to see. “Hello Christopher Sean, we’ve been waiting for you”.
I would not always be the father Chris needed, but on the day he was born, I was.
Embarrassing Chris seemed to come naturally to me. I remember his first soccer game. I showed up just in time in my suit and tie, standing with Leigh and the other young parents along the sideline. I didn’t really know anything about soccer. As I watched the gaggle of 6 and 7 year olds form an amoeba like mass around the ball, slowly moving back and forth, wondering what in the hell they were doing. Then suddenly, there was a break out. Chris! My Chris was kicking the ball down the field toward the goal! Like the gentle nudging that told me how to move the umbilical cord away from his neck, instinctively I was transformed from a quietly ignorant dad into a rabid parent-fan. Yes, I was one of those. I charged down the sideline in my suit pants and dress shoes, my tie flapping over my shoulder, waving my arms like a crazed pit boss at a NASCAR race, urging him toward the opposing goalie….”GOAL!” He scored his first goal in his first game!
I immediately began planning my retirement based on his proven athletic ability. Before he was even congratulated by his teammates, I already had him coming out after his junior year and signing a big league contract with an enormous signing bonus. The endorsement contracts alone were off the charts. I would never have to work again! After all, I would argue, he can always go back and get his G.E.D. later in life. Ah yes – cheering loudly and projecting boldly. It’s just a gift I have.
This was the beginning of a long career of youth and high school sports that included soccer, basketball, baseball, and wrestling. We attended nearly every game he played in. It was a lot of games over the years.
We can also mark milestones by the sporting events we attended as spectators. We had a few memorable ones, including his first Army-Navy game at old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and the autograph session at the Redskins training camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle. For his 16th birthday we traveled to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse for the NCAA Eastern Regional Basketball Finals weekend; and in his freshman year of college, we watched his Pitt Panthers on their way to winning the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. The third row seats behind the bench at the Philadelphia 76’ers game with two school buddies is a standout as well. This past December while visiting him in Ft Lauderdale, he took me to a Miami Dolphins football game in whatever the name of Miami’s stadium was that week. Every event is as special and treasured memory as the others.
There have been countless moments along the way when I realized Chris has grown more than I could ever have imagined. Leigh and I traveled to London where Chris was doing an internship as part of his semester abroad. I was stunned and humbled as he guided us around historical sites, museums and eating establishments, navigating the foreign customs with an ease and grace that inspires me to this day. How did he grow from that little boy kicking that ball into the goal, into the confident, graceful man today?
It’s a funny thing growing old. Reflecting back on the exhilarating joy and knee-buckling fear I felt as I stood over him ready to cut his umbilical cord, I could never have imagined how boundless the joy would actually be, and how manageable the fears would become.
As I sort through the mix of grief of losing the wide-eyed little boy getting his first autograph or scoring his first goal, and the gleeful anticipation of his next move, there is only one nagging question that really comes to mind.
Why am I still working?
Happy Birthday, Chris! I love you and thank you for being the boy you were, and the man you are becoming.