A Father’s Path

valjean

Catherine turned over in bed, reaching sleepily for Vincent. Not finding him, she sat up quickly and saw him in his chair, head down, hands crossed under his chin. She felt tears welling in her eyes. "The nightmares again?" she asked gently.

He rose, shaking his head slightly, and joined her back in bed. Folding her in his arms, he murmured, "Don’t worry. I know they are only dreams. Shhhhhhh, now, don’t cry."

He rocked her slowly, cradling her pregnant belly tenderly. Pressing her face against his warm chest, Catherine struggled not to sob. "Paracelsus was truly evil!" she said. "His lies have poisoned you. You know his story of your birth was a horrible, horrible lie! I never believed it . . ."

Unwillingly, as one, Vincent and Catherine flashed back on the painful memories:

The terrible image of Paracelsus’ body across the table in Father’s chamber. Vincent’s words: "It is not safe to love me, Catherine." "I was born in blood."

Vincent kissed the top of Catherine’s head, held her close, sighed deeply. He rarely revealed his fears to her, especially now with the birth so close. "I may never be completely free of that time, Catherine," he said softly, his voice full of resignation.

Roused to protection, Catherine pushed back from his embrace facing him squarely, fiercely. "Vincent! We can’t lose our faith in our love, in the magic of our child . . . we love each other! We’ll face anything, everything! We’ve already proven that." She was shaking, sobbing.

Ashamed of burdening her, Vincent swept her up in the bed covers. "Yes," he said, as much to himself as to her. "We’ve proven that . . ."

* * *

Peter had responded to Father’s message for a consult. The two doctors walked through the tunnels together to the Great Hall where they could have some privacy. As Peter lit candles, Father pulled two chairs to the table. "So, Jacob, how are the expectant parents?" Peter asked as they seated themselves.

"Vincent’ll be board certified in obstetrics if he reads any more medical textbooks!" Father responded. They shared a laugh, then fell serious.

"The pregnancy’s . . . accelerated," said Father. "She should only be at 27 weeks, judging by Vincent’s time . . . uh, ordeal . . . in the cavern. But she’s full term by the fundal height. Fetal heart tones are strong. Everything seems normal, except that she may deliver any time now - "

Peter leaned forward, concerned. "Do you want me to admit her?"

"Can we take that chance?" answered Father. "With Vincent’s child?"

Peter frowned. "Does Vincent know?"

"They both know," Father replied. "Catherine and Vincent both understand that this pregnancy is . . . extraordinary."

"Well, old friend," said Peter, gripping Father’s shoulder warmly, "You know I’ll help in any way I can. They – all of you - are a very special family!"

Suddenly, Samantha’s young voice was heard shouting urgently from outside the Hall. "Father! Vincent says come quick! The baby’s coming!"

Father and Peter almost collided with Vincent, carrying Catherine in his arms at the entrance to the hospital chamber. Mary, dressed in a surgical apron, greeted them in a no nonsense matter, directing everyone into place, calling instructions to her companion, Lena, who was training to be a midwife.

"Set up the cradle, the tub and the basin. Keep that water hot! We’ll wrap warm stones in flannel for her feet if she needs them. Now let’s see, scissors, twine to tie up the cord, oils for massage, bathing cloths. We keep a catheter just in case – Father will insert it if necessary. Bring the clothing for the baby and a change of clothes for the mother. Where are the diapers?" Lena jumped to follow Mary’s directions.

The birthing bed was prepared with padded headboard and draped with clean sheets. The linen was placed on the bed in alternate layers with canvas, so that each layer could be pulled away as it was used. While Mary turned her attention to Father and Peter scrubbing and gowning, Vincent climbed onto the bed, sitting upright against the headboard, his knees drawn up and set apart, forming a birthing chair with his body. Catherine settled between his thighs, reclining her head against his chest. They were both dressed in soft cotton nightclothes and warm socks. Vincent performed light massage along Catherine’s swollen belly as she concentrated on her breathing. Vincent pressed his lips against her ear. "I love you," he whispered. "I love you both."

Peter positioned himself at the foot of the bed. With his gloved hand, he performed an internal examination. "She’s already at seven centimeters," he said.

"Active labor," Mary advised Lena quietly. "Should be a few hours now."

Suddenly, Catherine cried out, pushing herself up against Vincent’s thighs, her feet on his feet. She was panting, beads of sweat forming across her forehead. Vincent braced beneath her, reaching down to hold her behind the knees, as the baby advanced in the birth canal.

"Transition!" said Mary, recognizing the stage of labor immediately. "Catherine, you won’t have as much time for your breaths between contractions now. Pace yourself, my dear. Lena, bring those foot warmers, she’s getting chilled. Vincent, keep up the massage, it helps her focus."

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhh! I need to push!" cried Catherine, squirming on Vincent’s lap.

"Not yet!" warned Peter.

"Pant, now," Mary instructed. "Easy . . ."

Vincent held Catherine’s limbs along his own, conspiring with her towards the birth of their child. Amniotic fluid gushed out onto the bed as Catherine grunted and gasped for breath. Her belly collapsed over the child, outlining the little body. Vincent could not tear his eyes away from the form. With Mary’s guidance, Lena stripped the first layer of linen from the bed.

"I have to push now!" Catherine shouted. She dug her fingernails into Vincent’s arms. He relished the sensation of it. The scent of her body had never been stronger or more feminine. He felt as one with her.

"Now! Now! NOW!" Catherine yelled with an intensity that surprised all of them. She and Vincent seemed to meld. They gathered themselves as one body, bearing down with incredible power. Catherine’s cry was a lusty call, answered with Vincent’s roar in unison as their forceful sounds filled the chamber.

Peter worked intently. "Mary, suction," he said abruptly, though the midwife was already there with a bulb syringe. "Watch the cord!"

Catherine felt another urge to push and she and Vincent contracted one final time. "A boy!" cried Lena, as the glistening little body surged out into Peter’s waiting hands. "A beautiful boy!" Mary exclaimed. "A son!" said Father, tears in his eyes.

With love and exhaustion, Vincent and Catherine beheld their newborn son. He was perfect in every detail. Tiny fists waved in the air as he set up a hearty wail which had everyone laughing and wiping tears.

Lena brought Father the pieces of twine and Father tied off the umbilical cord in two places. "Here, Vincent," said Mary, handing him the scissors. "Cut the cord." Vincent’s steady hand belied his inner commotion as he cleanly snipped the thick blue ribbon. There were cheers all around. "Three vessels," said Peter, "all’s well."

Mary bundled the newborn and handed him to Catherine. "Vincent! He’s beautiful!" she said softly, cuddling him close. Vincent wrapped his arms around his family. "You humble me, Catherine," he whispered. "The strength you possess is beyond any power I could ever know."

"Now the placenta," said Mary. Lena joined Peter in place to deliver the afterbirth while Mary began a firm massage to Catherine’s abdomen. "All intact," said Father, as the placenta was expelled with a small gush of blood. Lena quickly pulled away another layer of bed linen.

"Now let us have him, my dear," said Mary, reaching for the baby. "Only for a moment!" she added with a smile as she noticed separation anxiety on the new parents’ faces. "Father and Peter need to examine him more closely and he needs his first bath."

"Catherine, let me make you more comfortable," said Lena, sounding confident and mature. Vincent forced himself to leave the bed so Lena could bathe Catherine with soft cloths wet in warm, scented water.

Vincent stepped outside the chamber, feeling suddenly at a loss. All dread and fear had been displaced by an indescribable joy. He felt like laughing and crying and running and screaming. He wanted to dash through the tunnels and plunge into the waterfalls. He leaned against the rocks of the tunnel walls, tears streaming down his face, his chest heaving with ragged breaths. Nothing had felt like this to him, ever. He felt condemned and redeemed, obligated and liberated. He walked a few steps, then fell to his knees, panting, clutching at his heart. "Thank you, thank you!" he murmured as he collapsed upon the tunnel floor.

* * *

"Come in, Samantha!" Catherine called to the young girl hesitating at the entrance to their chamber. Samantha entered, holding something behind her back, smiling shyly.

"I would have brought it to the naming ceremony, ‘cept it wasn’t completely finished," Samantha explained. "It’s a baby carrier! I made it!"

"Samantha! Thank you!" said Vincent, unwrapping the gift and holding it out for Catherine to see. It was a sling device, made of macramé and denim. The baby’s name, Jacob, was embroidered along the edge.

"I’ll be glad to baby-sit anytime!" Samantha offered enthusiastically.

"Thank you so much!" Catherine responded (wondering why she would ever need a babysitter as she would never be leaving her son).

Vincent pulled Samantha into his embrace, drawing her near to mother and child. "Samantha," he said solemnly, "I will depend on you to help young Jacob with his studies, especially his reading."

"Definitely, Vincent!" Samantha replied, taking her tutoring responsibilities very seriously. After hugs all around, Samantha skipped happily from the chamber.

Vincent climbed into bed with his wife and son. "There’s a wisdom and a strength in him," said Vincent, as baby Jacob gripped his father’s thumb. "He’s magic, fearless. I thought my life was complete when you came Below to be with me. I never dreamed there was happiness beyond that . . ."

Catherine kissed her husband and opened her gown to suckle baby Jacob. As they reclined on the bed cushions, she began to hum the melody of a lullaby.

Sleep, my pretty one . . .

* * *

Baby Jacob was six months old when Rolley returned to Tunnels, seeking Father’s attention for a gunshot wound and suffering in narcotic withdrawal. The community welcomed Rolley into their care; Vincent most of all; Mouse especially happy to have the grand piano in use once again. Over time, Rolley began to assimilate back into the community, taking work assignments and dwelling in one of the lower chambers.

One hot summer’s evening, Rolley entered Father’s chamber. Father was sitting, talking with Mary. Sweat glistened on Rolley’s dark face. "Father," he said urgently, "I need your help with something."

A small bundle was in his arms and Rolley pulled back one corner of the shabby blanket to reveal a tiny face. "Rolley!" Father exclaimed. "A baby! Where . . . how . . .?"

"He’s mine," Rolley said softly. "I mean, I think he is . . . I mean, I don’t care if he is . . . he needs help . . ."

Father drew back the wrapping carefully, visualizing the infant. "Rolley, this child should be in a hospital, under special care! He’s emaciated, looks premature. I fear . . . he may be . . . near death!"

Rolley drew back from Father’s touch. "I can’t take him to no hospital, Father," he said. "For one thing, I got no legal claim to him. And besides, I’m pretty sure he’s got . . . drugs in his system. They’d take him from me. You gotta help us, Father!"

The old doctor look perplexed, shaking his head and stroking his beard. "We’ll have to start an intravenous. Probably in a scalp vein, he’s dehydrated," he said, as if talking to himself. "How to feed him? I suppose I could insert a nasogastric tube. Oh, dear, he’s a very sick little boy." Rolley relinquished the baby to Father who began examining him more thoroughly.

"I’ll send for Peter," said Mary, hurrying from the chamber.

"Rolley, you say, he’s your son?" asked Father.

"Well, I was living with this woman, Denise," Rolley explained nervously. "She was an addict, but she had been through rehab. She was doing all right for a while. When she found out . . . when she knew she was pregnant, we made big plans together. We were gonna get a place, get jobs, try to have a good life . . ."

Rolley wrapped his arms around himself, lowered his head. "I don’t know what happened. She went back with this other dude she used to know, I lost touch with her. Then, after I had that trouble in the liquor store . . ."

"You were using again. You were trying to rob that store. The owner shot you," Father reminded gently. "It’s what brought you back to us."

"Yeah, that . . ." Rolley admitted. He paused, remembering, then continued, "I got a message from one of the Helpers at the men’s shelter that she . . . Denise was . . . dead. They took her out on a stretcher. I couldn’t help myself. I went to her apartment. Father, it was a mess there! No electricity, trash everywhere . . . I went into the bedroom – and there he was – in a laundry basket on the floor by the bed. Just laying there – I thought he was dead! Then I saw him breathing. I couldn’t think of anything except to bring him Below."

"I figured Vincent’s baby is here, you can help this one, too," Rolley went on. "He’s so little . . . he just looked like a chance to me . . . like a chance for me." Rolley reached out to touch the infant’s tiny hand. "Baby Chance," he whispered.

Father felt pangs of love and regret as he recalled the promise and desire in Rolley as a young musician and the loss of that future. A loss to the entire community. The grand piano was still in the lower chamber for him, though Rolley had only played it a few times since he’d been back Below.

Lena entered the chamber, alerted by Mary about the baby’s arrival. "Let me bathe him and wrap him up," she said, reaching for the infant. "Thank you, Lena," said Father as he handed baby Chance over to her.

"Rolley, sit down here with me. I want to talk to you." The two sat together and Father said, "If this baby is addicted to narcotics, he’ll have problems with his nervous system, digestion and breathing – he’ll be at risk for crib death – dying in his sleep." Rolley sat with his elbows on the table, his head in his hands. "He looks like he weighs about five pounds," Father went on. "If he’s been poisoned in the womb, he could have seizures, tremors, infection, low blood sugar." Rolley’s head dropped lower.

"He’ll need constant holding and rocking – I’ll see if Peter can get us some paregoric – addicted babies are often lethargic, it interferes with their nutrition. He may experience sleep disturbance." Father reached out to touch Rolley’s arm.

"He may even have long term difficulties, Rolley, like mental retardation and hyperactivity. He’ll need so much help . . . to reach his potential."

"Like me," said Rolley, raising his head, tears on his face.

"And like me," said Vincent, who had been standing in the doorway. Catherine, with baby Jacob, stood right behind him.

"Father, what was it . . ? Three days I cried without stopping?" Father nodded, smiling sadly, fondly. Vincent walked over and gripped Rolley’s shoulder firmly. "To deny opportunity, deny hope, is a great injustice," he said. "You know we all love you here, Rolley. We’ll all help."

Lena returned with baby Chance in clean clothes and wrapped in a blue blanket. His tiny wizened face peeked out from the blanket folds, his lower lip quivering.

Catherine shifted her own child in her arms to reach out towards baby Chance. "Can I feed him, Father?" she asked, her voice full of concern.

"He’s probably too weak to suckle at the breast," answered Father, "but perhaps we could feed him your milk in the nasogastric tube." Rolley turned a gaze of gratitude upon her.

Mary returned. "Peter’s coming Below," she said. "He’ll assist with the procedures." She held out her arms for baby Chance. "Let me have him, Lena. Rolley, we’re going to help him. Try not to worry."

"Thank you . . ." Rolley said, looking forlorn. Lena held out her hand to Rolley, smiling at him. "Let’s go to the kitchen," she said. "I bet you haven’t eaten today . . ."

After their meal, Lena and Rolley stopped by the children’s play area to pick up little Cate, and walked slowly back to Lena’s chamber. "Light the chafing dish, we’ll have some tea," said Lena. "Let me put Cate to bed."

Rolley set the teapot to warm and relaxed on a floor cushion, waiting for Lena. She joined him a few minutes later, poured tea for the two of them. "I never knew my father," she offered, "and I don’t know Cate’s father. I lived in the streets, by the streets. My mother went to prison when I was 14. It was Vincent, Father, Mary, and the others who taught me how to be a mom."

Rolley shook his head slowly, remembering. "When I was about three, I was watching TV in this slum apartment my mother and my brother and me lived in. Some man stuck his head in the doorway, and said, ‘Is that him? He ain’t much!’ I think that was my father . . ." A tear rolled down his face. "My life has pretty much been a waste . . ."

Lena took Rolley’s hands. "Having my baby, and being here with all the others, has taught me that you can turn your life around, Rolley. You can . . ." she said. "Hey, look!" she said brightly, "you can have this - " She drew a paper bookmark from a book on her bedside table. It was outlined in gold print and featured the image of Saint Joseph. "The patron saint of fathers," Lena said.

* * *

Over the next three months, baby Chance and baby Jacob grew in strength, size, and favor among the Tunnel community. Rolley was frequently sleep-deprived due to his long hours walking with the fretful Chance, but he never complained, and he seldom allowed any other community member to take responsibility for the baby. Everyone became accustomed to seeing Lena, Cate, Rolley and Chance together and before long, Rolley was performing on piano for small groups, baby Chance usually strapped securely against Rolley’s chest or back as he swayed over the keys.

After one such concert, the friends were walking back from the music chamber and Father suggested they return to the library for rounds of chess and cards before bedtime. "I think we’re ready for bed, now," said Catherine, adjusting the sleeping Jacob on her shoulder. "Us, too," said most of the others, embracing and waving good night before going their separate ways. Noticing Father’s lonely look, Catherine suggested, "Vincent, why don’t you and Rolley go with Father? Lena and I can put the children to bed."

"Good idea," said Lena, smiling at them. "You all go have ‘male bonding.’ Chance takes his bottle for me now and Cate is ready for nite-nite. Right, honey?" Catherine’s namesake nodded, clutching onto Lena’s skirts.

Rolley detached the baby carrier from his shoulders and helped Lena fasten it on herself. Catherine noticed the warm looks between Lena and Rolley and she smiled past them at Vincent, appreciating the love of her family.

The three men walked to the library where Vincent lit the candles and Father took down several ornate boxes containing sets of cards, dominoes, and backgammon pieces.

"What’s this?" asked Rolley, picking up a book that was lying open on the table. A woodcut illustration was on one page, lines of a play on the other.

"Oh, that?" said Father, "It’s Shakespeare - Titus Andronicus. The illustration shows Aaron, the Moor."

"A black man . . ." observed Rolley. "Like that other dude, Vincent. What’s his name?"

"You mean Othello," answered Vincent, always glad to talk about literature.

"Unfortunately, Aaron was a murderer," said Father. "The general theme of the play is revenge."

"But Aaron loved his child, a son, and wanted to raise him," added Vincent.

"No kiddin’?" said Rolley with interest, turning the pages. "So what about Othello? What was his story?"

"Theater was often used for social commentary," said Father, shifting into lecture mode. "Othello was a military general in that tragic play. Because of his African descent, he was the subject of racial prejudice. It was difficult for him to trust other people."

Rolley nodded his head slowly, empathizing.

"Here’s one you might like," said Vincent, pulling a book from the shelves. Rolley turned the book over in his hands. "Not Without Laughter," he read.

"It’s by Langston Hughes, his first novel. It’s a story about a boy who finds his place within his family," Vincent explained. "We have most of his works. He was a remarkable poet." Vincent drew several more books from the shelves and Rolley sat down at the table, card games forgotten.

Father smiled at the scene. He loved to see anyone engaged in learning. "I’ll put on some tea," he said.

Rolley turned the pages of the poetry books. "Hey, here’s one called ‘Harlem,’ he said.

" ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’" recited Vincent, leaning back in his chair, remembering the lines.

Rolley read silently for a moment, then put the book down and wiped tears from his eyes.

"We can’t let Chance’s dreams be deferred, can we?" he whispered.

Father took a seat at the table. "No, we can’t . . . and we won’t," he said.

The three men sat in silence reflecting separately upon the children in their lives: Jacob, Chance and Cate, Vincent and Devin, and all the children in the community. The tea kettle began to whistle on the fire, and Father got up to serve the tea. When he sat down again, he was pensive. "Fatherhood is a high office," he said. "Our path is . . . uncertain at times. While we don’t always make every right decision, we will always protect our children. Though - our children are not our own, they belong to the future . . ."

Vincent spoke softly, "Kahlil Gibran wrote:

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.


The Archer loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable."

"Yeah," said Rolley, looking at the other two fathers, "I get that . . ."

* * *

"Ummmmm. I’m glad you’re back," Catherine murmured drowsily as Vincent slipped into bed with her and baby Jacob.

"Me, too," Vincent answered, kissing her and wrapping his arms around the two of them.

Catherine shifted into Vincent’s embrace. "How’s Rolley? Is he afraid?" she asked.

"He’s well … he’ll get better . . ." Vincent answered her. "Yes, he has fears. We all do . . ." He kissed her hands. "We can’t know what the future holds."

"The future holds us, my darling," Catherine responded. And with nightmares fading like candle smoke, the pipes silent, and the Tunnel community safe and at rest, they slept.