Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Maslow were important thinkers in the tradition of radical individualism upon which our country was founded. They both understood that it isn’t a conditioned, rote (i.e. brainwashed) good citizenship but rather individual peak experiences that bring people most fully into the brotherhood and sisterhood of human life.
These peak experiences can come from either end of the emotional spectrum, from sorrow or joy, from a great loss or a great gain, whatever awakens us out of the mesmerism of daily life and reconnects us with the strangeness and vulnerability of our existence.
Maslow, who coined the expression, had his first “peak experience” when he held his firstborn child. Ironically, although I hadn’t heard of Maslow at the time, so did I—21 years ago this winter, when my son was born.
The night my wife went into labor, it was unusually cold, well below zero. I remember, because several times in the night I went out to start the car to be sure it hadn’t frozen up.
It wasn’t till the next evening, however, that her pains became consistent and the doctor said to come. In the waiting room, I was the typical first-time father, pacing, looking at my watch. Sometimes I’d go into my wife’s room to time the contractions with her, but she was starting to not want me around. Now and then a nurse would come in to check her dilation and give encouragement.
I assumed everyone knew what they were doing, so I went back to the waiting room and paced and looked at my watch some more. Unfortunately, I had just been reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, at the end of which both mother and baby die in childbirth. So my imagination was getting active in a dark way.
A couple of friends who knew how long my wife had been in labor tried to reassure me, but I could see some alarm in their faces too. Heading into the third night, the doctor came to me with his concern as well. My wife wasn’t dilating enough, and he’d given her a shot to relax her.
“But if that doesn’t work, we’ll have to do a Caesarean,” he said. “I need you to sign some papers.”
“Can you do one this late?” I asked, wondering why they hadn’t done a Caesarean for Catherine in A Farewell to Arms.
He assured me yes, and the wait was on again, to see if the relaxer would take. Finally I saw two nurses wheeling my wife by the waiting room toward delivery. “Come on,” one said. “We’re going to have a baby.”
I sat at my wife’s head, and mirrors were adjusted behind the doctor so I could watch the delivery. The room was electric with doctor, nurses, mother, father, unified in concentration. “Push, honey, now push hard,” and at last the head appeared, then the body, the slap, the cry.
Someone said “it’s a boy,” but I didn’t entirely hear, for I had gone into a strange trance, it seems, as if disembodied, watching the whole scene, including me, from the ceiling. The nurse had to tap my shoulder to bring me back, where I discovered her placing a bundle in my arms. “My God,” I whispered, “it’s a baby.” I knew my life would never be the same again.
For the third night in a row, I didn’t sleep, maybe a catnap or two in a chair. Now and then I would float down to the nursery to peer through the glass at the new miracle, and to make sure he was still breathing.
In the morning, assured that mother and infant were doing fine, I left to attend to some things at home. I wasn’t entirely sure I had closed the door two nights ago when we had rushed to the hospital, and it had been so brutally cold, who knew what might be frozen inside.
When I walked out of the hospital, I was shocked by the change of weather. Although midwinter, it was 70 degrees out, and the city was gleaming in sunshine. As I walked to the parking lot, I felt as if my feet still weren’t quite reaching the ground.
On the way home, driving up a freeway ramp, I saw a man, a hobo, sitting on the other side of a drainage ditch, throwing up. First I drove on past, as would have been my normal practice. Yet, at the top of the ramp, without really thinking about it, I slipped my van in reverse and backed down to where the man was still vomiting. Such was his distress that he didn’t see me get out of the van and cross the ditch. He jumped when I asked him if he was all right.
“Oh, I’ll be moving along,” he apologized, wiping his mouth, thinking I was the law, I suppose .
I could see from the purple vomit that he was probably a wino. I pulled a $10 bill out of my wallet. “Here, take this,” I said. “To help you get where you’re going.”
He looked at me cautiously, as if he suspected a trick. “I don’t like to take what I don’t earn,” he said.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m a father.”