Four days after the birth of my son, I watched a pair of New York City paramedics slide my wife down our narrow third floor stairway on a backboard at two in the morning, holding this new, helpless life in my hands without any idea what to do with him.
He survived, we survived – my wife had contracted a staph infection after her Caesarian section and had to be brought back for a brutal course of antibiotics – and I smuggled our child just a few days old onto the New York subways to nurse from her during the day, and eventually she came home and everything returned to normal.
But I could never completely get rid of that feeling of helplessness, of panic and fear I had as I watched her go. I felt as if I’d been put out to sea on a boat, the sails swelling with a wind that wrenched all control away from me.
That feeling came back at full strength a little over five years later as I stood in a hospital room watching a nurse plunge a syringe of insulin into my screaming son’s arm so he could eat lunch. His diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes set me adrift again. I had no idea how to handle the charts laid before me, the complex math that was now required to keep him healthy. Needles had always terrified me; blood makes me faint. These waters are dark, and at swim are creatures from nightmares.
I had never pictured myself as a father, nor imagined myself as capable of the responsibility for another person. When my wife and I decided to have a child, it wasn’t the culmination of a long-held desire; it just felt right, so we did it.
Any seasoned sailor can tell you this is madness. To set to sea with no maps or charts is insane. But that is what parenting is. We can dimly remember what our parents did to us, but each day with a child is a new set of struggles, no matter what your circumstance. No amount of planning makes it any easier. There was nothing that could have prepared me for my son’s diagnosis.
It’s hard sometimes, as a father, to shoulder the weight of parenting. Our culture casts mothers as nurturers and protectors at home, while we hoist spear and contend with the outside world. A father’s job is to ensure certainty and stability for his family, to calm the waves and keep the boat whole.
But when your child has a medical condition, those distinctions blur. All hands are on deck, and everybody needs to be able to do the job. So I stuck my finger with a lancet in front of him, squeezed out a drop of my own blood. I took the wheel, and started teaching him how to navigate these waters himself.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely comfortable handling his diabetes – having his life so obviously, so directly in my hands. I don’t think it’s possible to. But I know that I can do it. I’ve come through the storm and we all survived.
We may not be any nearer to shore. But our sails are full, our hull is strong, and our skies are clear.