Three cosmic events took place in the summer of 1969: the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and my entry into the World. Like most other engagements in my life, I arrived late for my own birth. If I’d been punctual, I probably would have been born around August 10th. But as the month moved into its second half and I still hadn’t arrived, my parents began to get worried. My father, who fancied himself a problem-solver, decided that nature would require some assistance. Consequently, he drove my mother around for about half an hour each evening, repeatedly traversing some of the bumpiest roads in Columbus in the hopes of jarring me into the birth canal. For tactical reasons, my father favored the brick-paved streets of German Village for these outings.
After about a week of these treatments, my mother did finally go into labor, which, like my gestation period, took significantly longer than expected. For over sixteen hours she sweated and suffered, while my father complained to every doctor and nurse that he could find, insisting that something be done to expedite my birth. This continued until one particularly harrowing moment when my mother, who was not normally a very patient woman anyway, waddled over to the window of the delivery room and announced to the attending nurses:
“If you don’t take this baby from me right now, I’m going to jump!!”
Shortly afterward, I was delivered. At just under seven pounds, I was not an unusually large baby nor a very attractive one. According to my mother, when the doctor held me up to her, she immediately remarked:
“Well, we’ll just have to dress him nice.”
My father was also concerned about my appearance, especially the nearly full head of hair with which I was born. Years later, in a very tender moment, he confessed to me that he thought I had a rather simian appearance and that he suspected that I might be some kind of evolutionary missing link. Thankfully, my mother was able to convince him not to turn me over to a local university or zoo for scientific research.
Needless to say, I was bottle-fed. At my two-month check-up, my pediatrician felt a curious lump in my left side and decided to get some x-rays just to be safe. The images he got back revealed a blockage that was causing my body to poison itself. The story goes that I almost died during the ensuing surgery, through which a sizable portion of my kidney was removed. My nervous parents prayed vehemently for my recovery, which took weeks.
I continued to be bottle-fed. However, throughout my childhood, my intake of carbonated beverages was limited due to concerns that my body might have difficulty processing them. This didn’t keep me from being overweight, though my mother kept dressing me nice. The parochial schools I attended had dress codes that ensured this, and my all-boys high school required students to wear ties.
“You look nice,” my mother would often tell me as I left for school.
Despite the fact that it’s given me little trouble since, my damaged kidney kept me from playing contact sports as an adolescent. It also kept me from qualifying for military service once I became an adult.
“You can still serve your country by serving your community,” the recruiter told me. “Find some way to do that.”
A few years later, when I decided to become a secondary English teacher, his words fluttered back into my memory. After five years teaching high school, I decided to become a teacher educator, in part because I wouldn’t have to dress as nicely and I didn’t always have to be punctual. A quarter of a century later, I stress the importance of community to future educators, though I almost never wear ties anymore. The last time I did was for my mother’s funeral, more than a year and a half ago. As I bore her casket toward the grave she would now share with my father, I could almost hear her whispering in my ear:
“You look nice.”
The point of the story is, perhaps, that our lives can deal us disappointments which flower into unexpected blessings, or create a thread around which we can build our identity. As I celebrate my birthday next week, I’ll continue to keep this in mind.