Saturday is Archer's second birthday, and I can't believe it. I mean, I can because I've been with him every day since he joined us here in life, save a weekend at grandma's. I understand, like all human beings, the bittersweet march of time.
But that doesn't mean it's still not a little jarring. I've tried to temper my shock by marveling at how Arch has become more mature lately, engaging with us and the world. That makes me feel good and brings me back into the present moment.
From the very beginning, Archer has made us stop and take notice. He's the greatest surprise of my life. Nothing that's surprised me in the past — or will in the future — can match the day we found out he was with us and the day we found out he was, in fact, a little boy.
The whole experience of having our first child, Ella, in February 2009 was incredible. Erika's long pregnancy gave us time to revel in the journey, and the birth was something I will never forget. The first few months after that were a tilt-a-whirl of emotion: At times I felt I was as close to insanity as I'd ever been, and at others I felt the deepest connection to my wife, my parents and brothers, even the hard-faced people on the 82 bus.
We wanted more little ones, sure — at some point in the sort-of-near/sort-of-far future. There was no rush. We we're going to give our little lady all the love and attention we possibly could, stroll her around in her stroller, take her to swim classes and art classes and the whole trip. I loved being a dad, though I needed to work on pulling my weight around the house. Little did I know someone was about to give me a big assist in this department.
In late January 2010, Erika approached me with that time-honored reality check men generally don't enjoy receiving. I shrugged it off and went back to concentrating on the exciting run the Saints were making to the Super Bowl. Then one day she bought a pregnancy test. I was beginning to get nervous but still believed it was a false alarm as she went in the bathroom and closed the door.
Some minutes passed and she came out, a stunned look on her face. Not good.
I am not proud to say I reacted this way, but I know I am not the first man in human history who's done it. After she got another blue cross from the second tester, I went into our little office. I sat down on the futon and put my head in my hands. Things just got real, as they say.
It took me a day or so, but I collected myself and declared I was all in. We wanted two anyway, right? We're kicking butt with Ella, right? We're strong, dedicated, responsible people and we can do this. Right?
Erika had already steeled herself to the task. Our kids would be born 17 months apart — much like her and her brother. I felt tremendous guilt for what she was about to go through. But if anyone could do it, she was the one. She was the healthiest person I knew and worked out at the gym within a week of Ella's birth. Still, it was going to be a hard damn slog.
Her pregnancy with Archer was more a sprint of survival than a long, wonderful learning experience. It was messy at times, with work and one child already in the mix, and we couldn't have done it without Grandma Angel, that's for sure.
Erika grew, and it was apparent something bigger was in her this time. Where Ella swum about in the womb like a fish, this baby moved less occasionally but more powerfully. It sat heavily on Erika's sciatic nerve, sending her to physical therapy for the pain.
Like Ella, we wanted to know the gender of our fetus. All the old moms and grandmas said it would be another girl. The tendency of Erika's side, with its many ladies, would win out. I actually wished for this, too. I'd been steeped in the Male Trip growing up with two brothers. I wanted something new. I wanted to be the father doling out dollars to my teenage daughters before they went to the mall.
We sat in the X-ray room awaiting word, and the ultrasound tech did the requisite dramatic pause when she'd determined the gender. I looked at my watch. Another girl, sure. Let's get this over with.
"You're going to have a little boy."
I was floored. The smile on my face grew. I don't know if Erika noticed. My pre-rehearsed happy resignation at being the only guy in the house for the rest of my life melted away. A boy. A son. My son. Wow.
I didn't have a lot of time to contemplate what this meant — the complex, much-maligned question of How a Boy Becomes a Man. Thankfully I was able to shut that out of my mind because it seemed like before we knew it, the water had broken and we were off to the hospital. But I did feel the inkling of that special call: father and son. Baseball at dusk, guitar lessons, advice about girls. It was my turn to help another dude out in this big, confusing world.
Archer's birth was small and intimate — just Erika and me. It was also exciting and more than a little intense, he was so large. Erika performed heroically, and I even guessed the correct birth weight: nine pounds. By the evening of July 21, 2010, he was in his little plastic bassinette at the hospital and Erika was sleeping. It seemed like just yesterday we'd been there for Ella.
What a whirlwind two years — more than anything we could've predicted. I felt like I'd won some kind of strongman contest. I'd never lost my cool (well, almost never): in the delivery room, during the breastfeeding problems, the layoff scares, kid sicknesses, inlaw crises. I was steady, strong and solid — a million miles away from the younger version of myself, so self-indulgent and listless. I felt I had attained the highest possible calling, biologically and spiritually. I had become, truly, Dad. Capital D.
I want to describe the difference between having one child and having two or more, but I can't really do it justice. It's more work, more stress, more everything. It tests you in ways you cannot anticipate, as an individual and as a couple. Dad — Capital D — now has to lend much more of a hand around the house and not watch sports at night. With our jobs, childcare juggling and just the minimum necessities of food and cleaning, the schedule has permanently filled out for years to come.
For long stretches it feels like a grinding, featureless repetition that provides no respite and constantly reveals your failings. But in the other moments, it's the most amazing thing: to have two beautiful children with my beautiful wife and embrace this fundamental human experience, bringing new existences into the one and only thing we know, life, and sharing all it has to offer.
So what about that new existence — maybe not as new as some in our extended family but still so very much at the beginning of it all?
I can only think of Archer as he is now: big, really big. In height and weight. And beautiful. His handsome little face and incredibly large hazel eyes with large black pupils. He has the best hair of anyone I've ever seen, a shimmering, thick head of reddish-brown. And his smile is wide and toothy, stretching from fat cheek to cheek. He's truly a specimen. Sometimes Erika and I look at him in wonder of his energy and strength. He simply couldn't be contained. He had to join us.
We like to joke he'll be playing for the Bears in 20 years, but Arch isn't all toughness. He has a wonderfully sweet nature and likes to cuddle and sit on our laps more than Ella did at the same age. He loves music and sounds in general and will sit for a long time playing on the toy instruments and talking books we have in our living room. He also loves to run around naked and air-dry after his baths and climb on (fall from) everything.
He's a handful, for sure, but he's our handful — a gift from nature, as is Ella. People ask us if they are twins, with their brown hair and fair complexion. I sometimes think we should stop, they're so perfect as a pair, friends for life. To have more would somehow throw off an invisible balance. I don't know. For now, I like this. The four of us.
I frankly might pass out if you start talking about five.