The joy and pain of family life.
I come from a long line of people who got married young and had lots of children. It was the thing to do, and it created something beautiful. All four of my grandparents are alive today and five of my eight great-grandparents were alive when I was born. I have rich and distinct memories with most of them. I’d sit in great-grandma Nair’s lap and stare at her shiny blue eyes while everyone else’s was shut during prayer. She would wink back and smile. Great-grandpa David was calm and quiet, but when he spoke, the entire room listened. We would hold his hand and ask for a blessing. “God bless you my little son,” he would say. My mom’s mom’s mom, my great-grandma Benedita, was the last one of my great-grandparents to pass away, just a few years ago. But she never really got old. Her sense of humor was young and vibrant, edgy even. Each moment with them molded me and spoke deeply of who I am. I desperately wanted the same reality for my children. What I didn’t realize is how difficult it would be for that to come true.
Early in our relationship, Joanna and I often talked about having kids. We both wanted to stay in Michigan so that our children could grow up around their cousins and grandparents. And who knows, maybe they would even get to see their great-grandparents from time to time. But we didn’t want children right away. We wanted to wait as long as possible before having our first so that we could travel, enjoy each other’s company without too much chaos, and build a solid foundation before bringing kids into the family. We wanted to sleep in on Saturdays, start a business, finish our education, party late, be young. We had our plans. We had our dreams. But that was all about to change.
We got married in a mild Summer afternoon in 2009, and a year later, we decided to get off of birth control. Not because we were ready for children. Not at all. Birth control was just a drag. The side-effects weren’t doing anyone involved any favors. We would love an alternative and we found one: natural family planning. No pills, no meds, no awkward little packages to open. Just learn your body’s rhythm, take your temperature every night, and voilà, you’ll know exactly when to have sex to avoid pregnancy and exactly when to have sex to get pregnant. People swore by it. Why not try it?
We found a class nearby and signed up. It was on Saturdays, it was early, and it was dull. Not really the ingredients for an experience worth waking up for every Saturday morning. More often than not, we were late. In fact, we were so late for the last session that we just totally skipped it. We assumed that we had the whole thing down anyway.
We dove in head first. No pills, no condoms. Just listen to your body…
We were so confident in it that I started bragging about it. I mentioned in a conversation with my cousin who had just had her second baby that “Yeah, we’re doing this natural family planning thing. It’s totally cool.” She laughed at me. I mean, she threw her head back and laughed out loud. “You are totally getting pregnant soon,” she said still laughing. Whatever. I figured she was just jealous. Why listen to the woman with two kids about pregnancy, am I right?
Well, it turns out that skipping one of these classes is not like skipping your last Foreign Film Studies class of the semester. There was some pretty important nuances we missed out on. Here’s the thing: natural family planning is beautiful and it works! But, you have to be fully engaged in the little details for it to go right. We weren’t. Not a day after my cousin laughed in my face, Joanna dropped the bomb. “Baby, I think I may have missed my period.”. Hmm… No, let’s not panic.
We went to the store and we bought those “+” or “-” signs pregnancy tests. Joanna did her thing, and we waited. The horizontal “-” sign showed up first, clear as day. I will never regret this moment more, but I immediately jumped for joy and celebrated. Woo-hoo! Kid-free! Take that birth control! Take that doubters! We hugged and hopped around like little kids who got out of doing chores. And then we looked at it again. Was that a vertical line appearing on the screen too? It was too blurry to be for sure. Back to square one. Back to the store. This time, we spared no expenses and got the “YES” or “NO” test. No more doubts, please. Joanna re-did the test and this time we got the clarity we wanted. “Y-E-S”. We held each other in the same tiny bathroom we were partying in just a few hours ago, and we sobbed. Game over. Plans out the window. Trips cancelled. No warm-and-fuzzy feelings and no emotional connection with this new blob of cells. Just a paralyzing shock. Disbelief. Eventually, Joanna found enough strength to make her way to her computer and comforted herself by looking at expensive trendy strollers online.
The next 9 months were filled with changes, tears, smiles and wonder. But with it came more surprises. For decades Joanna’s father, Henry, was winning a battle against Hepatitis C. We never thought about it much. And yet now, it had become unavoidable. By the time Joanna and the baby entered the third trimester, Henry was in dire need of a new liver. We were just getting used to the reality of not traveling the world together before having kids, but we weren’t ready to embrace the idea of not having one of our parents around. Each day of that summer was a question mark. But Henry made it.
Our daughter was born in a very early Summer morning in 2011. The labor went beautifully and Joanna was amazing. Our baby girl was perfect. Her name is Myla, which means Mercy. Her middle name is Hope. Henry came to the hospital that day, held Myla in his arms and prayed a blessing over her. And exactly 24 hours after we rushed to the hospital to have Myla, Henry was rushed to the hospital too. A liver that matched Henry’s profile had suddenly become available and they had to drive down there immediately for the operation. What are the odds that both of those events would happen in the same 24 hour period? A granddaughter born to see her grandpa’s smile and a liver suddenly available for him to go on with? What if we hadn’t skipped that class? What if we were aimlessly traveling through Europe, sleeping in until whenever we felt like it? What if the liver donor hadn’t passed? Myla Hope’s name seemed prophetic.
Henry lived another three years after the transplant. Long enough to see Myla learn to walk, talk, yell, run. Long enough to dress up like a monkey to her birthday party and teach her how to make silly sounds. Long enough to read her books and pray many more blessings over her.
Our second child, Joah Rock, was born on a very snowy Winter night in 2014. Henry came to the hospital to see him too, this time with a mask over his mouth so he wouldn’t catch any infections. Mask or no mask, he laid his hand over Joah’s head and prayed over him. For the next 6 months, Henry survived, holding Joah, rocking him to sleep, still making Myla laugh. Pops was sick, but he was there.
Henry passed away in a sunny Summer morning in 2014. Our hearts sank, but we were unexpectedly ready. A few nights later Joanna and I sat together in our living room couch, embracing each other, both of our children sleeping in their rooms. We couldn’t believe Henry was gone and that all of this had happened at once. Strangely, in that moment, I felt closer to my legacy and my great-grandparents than ever before. They had lived through moments like this too, hadn’t they? How could I have missed it? They watched their children grow older and themselves grow frailer. They wore all the joy and pain of life in their countenances. When they smiled, their wrinkles would move out of the way, squeezing together to make room for a moment of happiness. Maybe we would learn to love our new unplanned present too. Joanna and I wept some more, held each other’s hands, and thanked God for this perfectly disastrous and beautiful life.