I’m pretty sure our fourth son, who wears a circular radio transmitter attached to the side of his head by way of a subcutaneous magnet, will not use the burr-head haircut his older brothers gladly sported between the ages of five and twelve. It’s not that the little guy, Theo, would mind. He’s unselfconscious about the thing he calls his apparecchio, the external part of a cochlear implant, which also has surgically installed cranial and trans-cranial elements. But Nicoletta, the boys’ mother and my wife, likes the way Teíto’s silky brown hair partially hides the half-dollar-sized disk and the dark gray crescent of a capsule (tiny microphone and micro-processor) hooked over his left ear. If he had that Marine cut, the device would be too obvious, she says. On that small head, “It would jump out at you and become the first thing you see, and the defining thing about him.” As usual, she’s right.
Bruno, Joseph, and Tobias, who as I write this are nineteen, eighteen, and seventeen, were all happy to sit on a stool once a month or so throughout their elementary school years (GW Carver in Miami), and even into middle school, to be shorn by dad with his trusty electric clippers. It’s the haircut I’ve given myself for the past few decades because of its simplicity, and in those days when the big guys were small, there was nothing wrong with being like pop. Everyone says all four of our sons are good-looking, a handsome mix of mom’s Italian and my mongrel American WASP. They have pleasantly shaped skulls. So a closely cropped hairstyle, or non-style, didn’t look weird. Even as little boys they seemed to appreciate the absence of hassle it entails.
Who knows if Theo, who is four-and-a-half, will want a burr-head when he’s an adolescent? Most of the kids you see walking around these days have wires attached to their noggin anyway, buds stuck in their ears. Maybe in a decade Theo will think it somehow hip, in a Robocop way, to flaunt his technology and be way up front about his deafness.
Which really isn’t deafness anymore. Thanks to the implant, he hears quite well, at least with regard to the spoken word.
That’s what this marvelous contraption was invented for — to allow its user to perceive language, to “hear” human verbalization, to learn to understand what people are saying and in so doing develop the capacity to speak and become integrated into society. The method both approximates and circumvents the (here un-functioning) biological components of natural audition, an astounding process common to all mammals in which physical signals — vibrations — run through the ear and the timpani and the cochlea. There, miniscule hair-like cilia cells convert the message into low-grade electricity and pass it on to the acoustic nerve, for relay to the gray chunk that relates that info to the myriad other sorts of perception, instinct, thought, etc., flashing along the convoluted cerebral circuitry.
In Theo’s case, the mic behind the ear picks up sounds, prioritizing language, and the processor produces a code that travels on the four-inch wire to the transmitter for “broadcast” across the centimeter or so separating the disc from the receiver glued into a depression scraped into the skull and covered with scalp. The radio-wave step is necessary because there’s no way to have a watertight physical connection between components on opposite sides of the protective sheath that is our skin. The embedded receiver catches the transmission, processes it again, and shoots the data along another wire through a tiny hole drilled in the cranium to the inner ear. This metal thread, encrusted with electrodes, winds through the cochlea, where auditory cells are stimulated electrically and the message hops the train of the acoustic nerve.
Theo was not born deaf. He began losing his hearing at around sixteen or eighteen months, by which time he was saying “mamma” and “ciao.” It took Nico and me a while to realize what was happening. After a period of having to call him with an ever-louder voice, then of his not turning around even if his name was shouted at his back, we had a preliminary check-up of sorts with an otolaryngologist acquaintance whose two grammar-school boys were doing an hour a week of playtime-cum-English lesson with Bruno. Sonia, la dottoressa, came over and we engaged in the empirical procedure of sneaking up behind an otherwise engaged Theo and whacking pots with spoons and clapping lids like cymbals. Yes, Sonia said, he definitely is at the least very hard of hearing.
But this story is not about Theo’s yearlong gradual slide into deafness, or the way that condition has been virtually overcome with amazing modern technology and the expert medical attention provided by the Italian national healthcare system. I have to back up, because right there after saying he wasn’t born deaf I really do have to say that Theo came close to not being born at all.
It was early December of 2008. I was fifty-five and Nicoletta was forty-four. She had always been clockwork regular with her periods, but over the previous year or so they’d become sporadic. Her sister Federica had had an early onset of menopause and Nico suspected she was headed down the same road. She got a bit lax in the taking of her nightly birth-control pill, sometimes just traipsing half-asleep past the bathroom to bed from the couch where, after a demanding day of teaching graphic design at a Fano’s Adriano Olivetti High School, she’d conked out watching TV. Our sex life was considerably toned down compared with the days when we’d produced three children in the first three years of our marriage. In any case, and despite that early demonstration of perhaps uncommon fertility or biochemical kismet attending our union, the idea that she might become pregnant again had receded in her mind to the edge of the realm of impossibility. I wasn’t worried about it either, and certainly wasn’t asking her every night if she’d popped her pill.
So as she rolled through the middle part of middle age and I waltzed into its farther region, and as that fall morphed into winter and Nicoletta’s period didn’t come, and two weeks of lateness stretched into three and four and five, she seemed eminently unconcerned. “Verranno, verranno,” she said, if I inquired as to what was the story. (“They’ll come, they’ll come,” le mestruazioni being a plural noun.)
Finally, on a cold, gray, drizzly day when the three church bell towers arrayed across the centro storico were discernible only as shrouded sentinels from our apartment balcony, a kilometer away, I announced that I was going down to Pierini’s (our local pharmacy), to buy a pregnancy test.
We’d been living in Fano, a charming city of 50,000 on the Adriatic coast, for only a few months. We had moved here from the inland town of Acqualagna, where we’d spent our first two years in Italy (for me and the boys, at least) at the rebuilt ancestral family farmhouse on twenty hilly acres of woods, fields, and orchard. During that bucolic and mildly rigorous stretch (the house was heated only by stoves and fireplaces, and we wore two sweaters and knit caps inside during much of the winter), I eased out of a three-decade career in daily journalism, the foreign correspondent phase of which had seen my innamoramento with the pretty Italian artist who’d come to El Salvador to teach a semester of design at la Universidad Matías Delgado shortly after the civil war ended. And hers with me, per fortuna.
By the time we moved to Fano, where Nico worked and Bruno was starting high school, my wife and I had set up a little publishing house. We were putting out a magazine of kids’ (middle-school-aged) short stories, poems, and illustrations. Our project, called Scarpe Cotte, was unabashedly modeled on Stone Soup, the brilliant Santa Cruz, California publication that had delighted our boys, along with many thousands of other young people around the English-speaking world, during our nearly nine years in Miami.
It wasn’t as if Scarpe Cotte (Cooked Shoes) was a runaway success. But we were enjoying its production, dealing with creative kids from up and down the peninsula as well as with generally stimulating adults involved in aspects of the exposure of young people to the craft of writing, mostly teachers and librarians but also authors of children’s books and public officials in the cultural sector. We knew that, as is the case with Stone Soup, the longer-term success of the enterprise would depend on the degree to which it was used (and subscribed to) by middle schools, and that obliged us to delve into the world of Italian bureaucracy. The educational model in Italy is very different from America’s ultra-local administrative system. Here it’s centralized and national. Both frameworks have their strong and weak points, but suffice it to say that our visits down to Rome for dealings with Education Ministry officials were for the most part hikes into a bog.
Even so, we were showered with praise wherever we presented our project and product, because it really was a beautiful thing, a worthy emulator of Stone Soup in its own small way. And all the congratulatory recognition had us feeling good about ourselves and our work, and the work of the talented kids who were the contributors.
Nico also was enjoying being back in the full-time professional world after a near-decade hiatus while the three boys were little, interspersed in its later stage with part-time teaching in Miami. She’s an exceptional teacher, and is recognized by her students and peers as such. It’s fun for me (not to mention for her) to see her current and former charges, during a Sunday afternoon stroll along the corso downtown, call out to her, “Buona sera, prof!” with a big smile as we pass.
Overall, our decision nearly three years earlier to pick up and move from the United States to Europe was working out pretty well. The main reason we’d come was so our sons, who already were Americans, could also become full participants in and beneficiaries of their mother’s culture, a particularly rich one. It was something of a “now or never” moment in that, though Nico had made sure in Florida that they’d learned decent Italian, none of the boys, then twelve, ten, and nine, had ever written in that language or had any formal instruction in the intricacies of its grammar, which is a subject of emphasis throughout elementary school here. Bruno was about to start seventh grade, and that seemed to us like the last point at which he could be dropped cold-turkey into the Italian public school system and be expected to catch up.
The big idea was that the boys would somehow come to combine the good things from both sides of the Atlantic, from the New World and the Old, and it seemed to Nicoletta and me, at that point in late 2008, that things were proceeding just fine. Bruno, Joe, and Toby were not and still are not some enlightened miracle hybrid. But they’re good guys, and they enjoy the uncommon condition of being thoroughly bicultural. In an American context, they’re indistinguishable from U.S.-raised kids, yet if you see and hear them fooling around with their friends on the beach in Fano you would think they were born and raised in Italy.
I came back from Pierini’s with the kit. Nico went into the bathroom and peed on the stick, then brought it out. We were standing in the part of the living room with our dining table of polished pine set before French doors giving onto the broad fourth-floor terrace, where we take many of our meals between late spring and early fall. A pink-fading-to-white speckled orchid (a horticultural hobby Nico picked up in Coral Gables) was in splendid bloom on the table.
Sometimes a minute can seem like a long time. There as we huddled, shoulders touching, it started to show, a pale lavender strip that flushed unbelievably yet implacably through violet into full-on purple, trumpeting like the crescendo of a Maria Callas aria the news that, Yes, folks, Yes Don Pardo: Nicoletta Spendolini, daughter of Livio and Elvira and formerly of Fossombrone, Le Marche, was indeed knocked up.
Our marriage wasn’t one you’d have bet a lot of money on at its outset. Nicoletta and I were from different cultures, neither of us spoke the other’s native language, she’s a credente Catholic and I’m a barely agnostic Episcopalian, and we wed only four months after we’d met in a place that was homeland to neither. That’s not a lot of time, or the best way, to really get to know someone. And it’s true; we didn’t know each other very well when we got married.
We legally sealed our bond in August of 1993 with a family-only justice-of-the-peace ceremony at my parent’s house in Wesley Chapel, north of Tampa. It was only my family in attendance — my parents and my two brothers and their wives and kids — because we wanted to move forward expeditiously. Nico preferred to present this big step, to her widowed mother back in Italy, as a fait accompli. She was going to tell her, and her sister and other relatives and friends, when she went back in a few weeks to deal with her employment situation (she’d taken a leave from her Italian teaching job to come to El Salvador) and to organize a church wedding and reception for the Italian side.
Also, she was pregnant.
That’s another factor that, had a handicapper been calculating probabilities of a durable marriage when we tied the knot, might have worked against an optimistic prognosis. But it wasn’t a shotgun deal. The fact of her having conceived our first child was not the reason we decided to get married. We had decided to wed, and had informed my parents that we were flying up from San Salvador to do so, before we even found out. The relatively few people we’ve told this to may or may not believe us. We don’t much care either way.
We spent five days with my folks, lounging around their pool and the lanai. Nicoletta, via gestures and laughter and my translation, got acquainted with her parents-in-law and brothers-in-law y las concus (concuñadas, a great Spanish word describing the relationship of women who are married to brothers). We didn’t have anything resembling a honeymoon, but we would go out in the evenings after supper to stroll around the bordering golf course and putt on the luscious greens that were like velvet in the summer dusk.
We went back to El Salvador, had a big hard-drinking salsa-and-cumbia-dancing wedding party with the local and international press corps to which I’d become so attached over the previous six years, and with Nico’s colleagues and students from la Matías Delgado. Then she flew back home on the return portion of the open Aeroflot ticket (by far the cheapest available fare) she’d purchased before leaving eight months earlier on her Latin American adventure, taking an insane San Salvador-Managua-Havana-Shannon-Moscow-Milan route that included a two-day layover in the Russian capital, where she was greeted and accommodated and coddled by my old friends and colleagues from The Associated Press.
I followed a week later, to meet the family and help arrange the nuptial festivities. During those first days in Italy with my bride, I was seeing a new side of her. Not that she was another person entirely. But she was acquiring big new facets from my perspective as I watched her in action. She’d come to El Salvador to teach a semester of design and illustration right after that small but big-hearted country’s brutal civil war. She’d studied Spanish for only six weeks, but intensively, before leaving for Central America, and although she made rapid progress with the language, it was still a tentative one for her at first. The linguistic limitation probably had contributed to a perception of her — by me and by her colleagues — as a person you would not describe as boldly assertive. Although in whatever tongue, Nicoletta would not come off as shy or retiring or lacking resolve; after all, she had signed up as a young woman to go alone across the sea to teach in an underdeveloped, conflict-beleaguered nation whose language she spoke haltingly. She is no wallflower, is what I mean to say.
Still, at some point in those first days we spent together on her turf, we went into a bank in Fano where she had an account and some financial stuff to resolve, and she was being attended to by a churlish teller with an I-can’t-be-bothered attitude. Nico, without shouting but raising her voice, laid into the woman with an eloquent reproach, demonstrating a take-no-crap aspect she had never been obliged to evince, or was incapable of demonstrating, in El Salvador. As we walked out of the bank I was feeling impressed anew by her character but at the same time muted and humbled by the swift illumination of my ignorance of this side of her, and what surely were other unknown elements of the personality of the woman who was my wife.
A few days later, we were in Turin, visiting Roberta, a dear friend of Nicoletta’s from her university days. Robi’s mother is a skilled dressmaker. She had always liked Nico, and had made the generous offer to make her bridal dress — from a design sketched by la sposa, a wedding gift of exquisitely tailored coarse silk and linen. I was finding it possible to communicate rudimentarily by speaking Spanish slowly and throwing in a few Italian words. Even so, dinner that first night at Robi’s house, with her parents asking me things and conversing, had left me feeling woefully inadequate. I wasn’t understanding much of what they said, and felt dumb.
Later that first night, after a stroll through the handsome riverside park in that big pretty city, Italy’s Detroit, we were on the sofa bed at Robi’s house. Nico was in dreamland but I could not join her because I was being gnawed by the treacherous sly beast of doubt. I was reviewing my actions of the previous months and asking myself if I’d made a mistake in marrying this woman — someone who’d never listened by her own choice to the Allman Brothers or The Band and was not much into rock music anyway, who didn’t know who Bernard Malamud or James Baldwin was, who’d never dropped acid, and who never slept naked even on the hottest nights. What the hell was I doing here in Italy, which was proving more foreign to me than I’d imagined. Was I ready to confirm my vows in a ceremony that, to Nico, would be the real and true consecration of our commitment to each other?
My wavering did not last long. A stronger and better part of me delivered a sharp slap to the slacker portion, demanding to know what sort of a man would I be if I backed out of all this now. And I realized, with a rush of almost giddy joy, that I didn’t want to retreat. I was reinforced in the conviction, at the time not much more than an intuition, that I had been enormously fortunate. I had found, or had been found by, a magnificent woman, one who was the embodiment of my chances for a life more full and rich than the one I had been leading up to then. And who would have my child. I dove in.
We had a lovely wedding celebrated by Nico’s priest friend in the thousand-year-old Romanesque Abbazia di Naro, south of Urbino, before the bride’s extended family and her jubilant friends from all over the peninsula. Then a great party.
We returned to Central America for a stretch, then spent nearly nine years in the United States, my country. We had a good life in South Florida, and were happy. We had three kids, one right after the other. I was an editor in Miami for EFE, Spain’s international news agency. Nico spent much of that period mothering, but also taught some and plied her skills as a freelance grafica and illustrator. She learned English (a process that, because she spoke Spanish and we lived in Miami, took a good four or five years). She loved NPR and the U.S. public library system and America’s diversity and tropical gardening and Thanksgiving dinner. She even came to appreciate the esoteric drama of baseball as her boys progressed through Little League. But eventually, she and I decided we wanted our sons to expand their minds and horizons in a way that would have been impossible if we’d stayed forever in the U.S.A.
Together we made another leap of faith, similar to the plunge we’d taken thirteen years earlier when, without knowing each other very well, we got married. We sold our house in Coral Gables and moved to Italy.
There we stood, flabbergasted, staring at a plum-striped stick. My initial reaction, verbally, was the single word “Wow,” uttered softly, with an air of defeat.
Nico, gone pallid, said: “Non ci posso credere.” I can’t believe it.
This was the diametrical opposite of the scenes of joyful exclamation, of hugging and jumping up and down, that had attended the pregnancy tests signaling the gestation of our first two sons. In the case of the tadpole that eventually became Toby, I’d reacted in a way similar to the annunciation of his brothers. But during my little jig of glee, I noticed that Nico was not all that exuberant, and asked her, “Qué te pasa, corazón? No estás feliz?” She said, with a wistful smile: “I guess I’m happy. But I thought maybe there’d be a little break before the next one.”
Now the Fano newsflash took place in an atmosphere of melancholy. How had we let this happen at this stage in our lives? I had no sense then, that rainy afternoon, that Nico’s sadness might be of another nature or have another root. Because there was no dilemma. She knew, as did I, that there was only one reasonable course of action. We already had a beautiful family with three children who had satisfied magnificently all the parental instincts of us both. She was on the outside limit of child-bearing age; the house’s three bedrooms were all filled up; we slept through the night and could take off by ourselves for a weekend on a whim, or travel around Italy promoting Scarpe Cotte, leaving the boys behind to briefly fend for themselves. If to everything there is a season, this certainly was not the season for us to be bringing another infant into the world.
Abortion has been legal in Italy only since 1978. The passage of the law is considered a watershed in the slow march of this Roman Catholic nation into modernity. The law is a pretty good one on paper, allowing a woman to request termination of a pregnancy simply because she has so decided, in the first trimester. The procedure is carried out in the hospital at no charge as part of the country’s admirable system of universal public health care.
We did some Internet research regarding norms and requirements that same afternoon. Nico got an appointment for the next day with her gynecologist. When she got back from that visit, which confirmed the home-test result (the do-it-yourself kits have been virtually infallible for years), we talked about how to proceed. “DeMarchi [the gynecologist] said I’m at nine or ten weeks, and we’ve got up to ninety days, so it’s cutting it a little short,” she said. She was referring to the legally stipulated need for a visit with a public social services officer who explicitly spells out options, and the required seven-day waiting period prior to the termination procedure.
As is the case in much of daily Italian life, a divide exists between the law and reality. The biggest impediment to actually getting an abortion in Italy is the fact that most ob-gyns avail themselves of legislation that allows them to decline to terminate a pregnancy for reasons of conscience. Due to the waiting list for the relatively few willing local practitioners, our prospects for having the procedure in Fano were nil.
That caused us some consternation, as did our visit with the social services representative, an imbecilic woman who not only refused to fulfill her duty to help us do what we’d decided to do, but spent much of our encounter wondering aloud if it weren’t already too late to move forward and poisoning the office’s air with insinuation and mention of the “baby’s” beating heart. I finally told her off in my (at the time) not-quite-fluent Italian, saying we hadn’t come to hear moralizing and demanding that she spare us her pap and sign the goddamn paper. Which she, huffing, did, and we left.
Luckily, there are also a lot of great folks in Italian society who understand how frustrating things can be in the realm of officialdom. Nico found on the Web what looked to be a promising women’s center and clinic in Ascoli-Piceno, a two-hour drive to the south. She dialed the number. I was there, so I heard her explain the situation: that she was a forty-four-year-old woman with three older sons and this was an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy and she needed to schedule the procedure for sometime in the coming ten days, max. The woman on the other end was professional and sympathetic and reassuring and said, “Certainly, signora, come down with someone accompanying you on Thursday at 10:00 a.m., bring your documentation, and we’ll take good care of you.” Thursday was six days hence.
We went about our routines, Nico teaching and me going through stories and poems and illustrations submitted as candidates for the magazine’s next issue, writing e-mails to kids whose stuff we were going to use, making sure we had releases from their parents, that kind of thing. Nicoletta’s condition and Thursday’s appointment were two elephants in every room, pachyderms that accompanied us to the supermarket or on an afternoon walk through the centro. We held hands even more than we usually do. I was trying to be as supportive and warm as possible, without becoming burdensomely heavy.
At one point, it must have been Tuesday, we were walking through the cavernous complex of garages beneath our apartment building. I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her to me and said, “I know this is difficult for you, corazoncito. But I’m certain that once Friday arrives, what we’re going to feel is a great sense of relief.” Nico nodded and snuggled closer.
This wasn’t uncharted terrain for me. Both the women with whom I’d had long live-in relationships before getting together with Nicoletta had had abortions. One was my first real girlfriend. We were in love and stayed that way for nearly six years, but this was toward the beginning of our story and she’d just turned nineteen. My Argentine compañera, with whom I spent five years between Buenos Aires and New York, was unequivocal about not wanting kids. She got pregnant twice, and flat out nixed the idea of remaining so. So I’d had the experience of being the steady partner, escort to the clinic, home nurse for a couple days — the piddling shit the guy is supposed to do. Nicoletta had had an ectopic pregnancy when she was going with a French guy after she graduated from university. But that was a circumstance very different from the one she was facing now.
We almost always get up before the three boys, who leave to ride their bikes to school at 7:50 a.m. On Wednesday, the day before our scheduled trip to Ascoli, we rose earlier than usual. We were milling about the kitchen as the sky grew lighter outside; preparing the screw-together moka for our coffee, getting cups and small plates from the cupboard. The things we do every morning, although Nico hadn’t switched on Radio Rai 3, which is usually her first morning move. We’d been going about this routine for a few minutes when she went to get the milk, or stracchino and, there with the refrigerator door open and her back to me she said: “I don’t think I can do it.” Those aren’t many words, but she wasn’t able to get all of them out before she broke down in sobs.
Nicoletta sobbing is one of the worst things I can imagine happening in the world, at least in our little world, and I went to her with a lump already in my own throat and we embraced. She continued crying with her face buried in my shoulder.
“Non posso,” she whimpered.
That was it, for me. I knew immediately that what we’d arranged was not going to happen. But I wasn’t thinking about that, not at all. All I was thinking about was finding a way to somehow alleviate my wife’s anguish. That’s all that mattered to me at that moment, that she somehow become un-devastated.
“Vabbene, vabbene, amore mio,” I said softly. “Non ti preoccupare. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it.”
A minute later, when she’d stopped crying, we sat down at the table and Nico summed up how she’d come to this conclusion. “I know this little thing inside of me is not Bruno or Joseph or Toby. And I know this is not rational, but having the intervento would feel to me like I was hurting, not so much l’embrione, but Bruno or Joe or Toby.”
Well, obviously I couldn’t ask her to do that. Really, when it comes to this deal of having a baby, we men can’t ask our partners to do, or not do, anything. It’s up to them.
“So we’ll have another kid,” I said. I guess I still thought it was half-crazy. No, let me rephrase that. I knew full well it was more than half-crazy. But that didn’t prevent me from chuckling, once, when I said it.
The way we’d met and married, having two of our sons born at a tiny clinic in a provincial town in Central America, giving up my good job in the States and moving to Italy, launching a magazine in the era of dying magazines — all of these things Nico and I had done together could have seemed impractical or ill-advised. “It’ll be one more adventure among our other adventures,” I said.
My acquiescence, and even more so my snippet of a giggle, made my wife’s face, streaked still with tears, glow. We laughed out loud.
Isn’t that picture a sweet one? The intrepid couple, worldly and mature, and maybe even nearly wise, hugging and smiling in reluctant celebration, but celebration nonetheless, of the prospect of a come-lately child? A bit saccharine, but almost downright admirable, right?
No, not right.
It wasn’t phony or faked. My emotions were genuine. But they sprang exclusively from my love for my wife and had nothing to do with the prospect of reiterated fatherhood, which meant that this poignant little tableau unfolding in our kitchen was in no way a step toward happily ever after.
I, as a husband, don’t come off badly up to this point, I realize. I might even give the impression of being a pillar of solidarity. And although steadfastness and reliability manifested themselves over the following two years, those qualities were undermined by recurrent bouts of revision, reproach, suspicion, and agonizing debate with myself as to whether I was indeed the good husband and father I’d imagined myself to have been during the previous fifteen years, or if that had all been fraudulent and maybe I was, at heart, pretty much of a scumbag.
Because even though my wife had decided she wanted to have this child, my love for her and my dedication to her were not sufficient to alter the substantial fact that I, the father, did not want it. Her wanting it did not make me want it, notwithstanding my willingness to go along. Which isn’t anything remotely noble in any case, because it’s nothing more than admission of the simple reality that the decision was not mine to make.
We told the boys that same evening as we were sitting down to dinner. They didn’t believe us at first, but then they all laughed and assented. All three of them were genuinely pleased by the idea of an infant sibling, which amounted to something of a boost for us both.
Christmas and New Year’s came and went. By the end of winter Nico had a little pancia showing under her sweater. She looks younger than her age, and so many Italian women wait until their mid-thirties these days to become a mother that her pregnancy to outward appearances was unremarkable. Everybody knew by now, and the arrival of this fourth child of ours had been discussed and commented upon among family and friends, generally with humor and subdued astonishment and also fairly common expressions of admiration for our willingness to return to a stage involving all the effort that an infant requires.
The pregnancy wasn’t a tough time for me. I glided through that early phase, feeling I’d come to terms. We learned in the fourth month that it was another boy. I’d seen a lot of these sonograms, and spotted the nutsack myself before DeMarchi said anything. It was all the same to Nicoletta, the baby’s gender. She was happy it was a boy, for the way that rounded out our streak. But she would have been happy if it were a girl, too, for the novelty. I guess the fact that it was another male made the prospect slightly easier for me, less challenging, in that I had that drill pretty well down.
When Nico was about six and a half months along, we were just outside town at a place that makes and sells pots and planters of all shapes and sizes, mostly of terracotta but also painted and glazed ceramics, for flowers and shrubs and small trees. We needed to transplant a little spruce from Acqualagna we’d used as a Christmas tree, and we wanted to get into the spring swing of things by adding more flowers and blossoming bushes to the terrace surrounding our pad.
I was wandering down one of the long outdoor aisles where the goods were on display. Nico was an aisle over and had just called to me, “Hey Doug, come check this out,” and I was making my way around the bend to join her when she let out a little yelp. I saw her standing there ten meters away with her arms out to her sides and bent slightly forward, looking down at her bulging midriff and beyond it. Her legs, sheathed in black pants, were dripping.
“Oh Madonna santa,” she said. It wasn’t a panicked exclamation. Rather calm, really. “I don’t know whether I just peed myself, or if it’s something else.”
It was something else. Her water had broken, and I escorted her to the car as fast as we could walk together, Nico kind of waddling. I drove the six or seven minutes to the hospital, not to the emergency room but to gynecology and we found DeMarchi. He determined that she had enough amniotic fluid left, got her as squared away and stabilized as he could, and called for an ambulance.
She was rushed to Rimini, Federico Fellini’s hometown, a forty-minute drive north of Fano. Rimini’s hospital has an excellent ward for women with problem pregnancies and for delivering and caring for very premature babies.
Nicoletta spent a month there, most of the time in bed with a device strapped to her belly monitoring the fetal heartbeat. She had a funny Romagnola roommate named Mari, who’d had a couple miscarriage scares and was awaiting the birth of her second child. I drove up almost every day to visit during what turned out to be one of the hottest months of May on record in Adriatic central Italy. The boys and I ate a lot of omelets and rice and beans and pasta with Bolognese sauce, my three specialties, interspersed with better fare prepared by la nonna, Nico’s mom Elvira.
Nico did graphics work on her Mac in bed, read a lot and made a pretty quilt with stylized elephants on it for the baby’s crib. Around her thirty-second week of gestation there were indications the child was under some slight stress. The doctors figured the baby’s weight at near two kilos (4 pounds, 6 ounces), which is small but not scary, and they scheduled a C-section for noon on May 30.
I was going to drive up that morning to be there for the procedure, but was awakened by the telephone at a quarter to seven. I went to the living room and picked up.
“Ciao, amore. Buon di.” It was Nicoletta.
“Ciao, bella,” I said. “Come stai?”
“E’ nato,” she said. “It’s born.”
She’d felt her first contractions at about five, called the nurse, and within an hour the tiny dude was out in the world.
“He’s a considerate little guy. Wanted to spare me getting sliced.”
This was a new experience for me, being informed long distance that a child of mine had been born. With the other three, I was right there “at the Y” with the doctor as they emerged all slimy and blanched blue.
He came in at a couple ounces under two kilos. After being cleaned up he went right into the incubator. As is the case with most premature babies, the lungs were not fully developed (he got steroids for that) and he needed a feeding tube for nourishment.
I drove right up. Nico was in bed resting. We kissed. She was fine. After a chat with her, I was taken to the room where they had him in a toasty Plexiglas box. He was recognizable as a species of furless primate, but was very small and red and wrinkled. Maybe the fact of not having witnessed him come out of the oven, along with his not-quite-done aspect, made for a less powerful impression of him being “mine” than I’d felt with his brothers. There was, too, the slight matter of my not having been, only a few months earlier, a staunch advocate of his continued existence. Even so, I did feel a degree of happiness and pride and concern for the miniscule helpless creature who was now part of our family.
He stayed at the hospital for eleven days, the first four in the incubator. Nico was discharged after three days, and we drove up every day after that to see him. The main thing was the lung-development deal. When that was resolved to the doctors’ satisfaction, and he’d attained the two-kilo mark after a post-partum dip, and was able to suck well and long enough on a bottle of mom’s milk (directly from the breast wasn’t working), we brought him down to Fano, and home.
By the time Theo was born I’d turned fifty-six. I think most men and women of that age are coming to terms with evidence indicating they’ve probably done more than they’re going to do; that the lion’s share of their achievements — in their profession, as a parent, as a contributor to their community — is probably behind them.
Like everybody, I’d fallen short of some of what had been my ambitions and expectations. But overall I considered myself fortunate. Most of my career in journalism, especially the dozen years as a correspondent in Latin America, was a Willie Mays-type experience (“I can’t believe they pay me to do this!”). I was raised by two loving and supportive parents. I’d learned two new languages and reveled in the cultural and even psychological enhancement that entails; I’d had more than my share of romance and lived for long spans on two continents very different from my native one. I’d published a novel and I’d never had a serious health scare; I even continued to be athletically active into the middle of my sixth decade. That’s a hefty helping of providence.
But the most charmed part of my existence, my greatest stroke of luck, was la signorina Nicoletta Spendolini. Sometimes, even now, more than twenty years into our marriage, I sense the shadow of a doubt, that somehow I don’t deserve her, that she’s too good for me. Then there’s the corollary to that serendipitous union, the fruit of it: our sons.
I was always, really constantly, proud of our boys and delighted by them, buoyed in so many ways by the realization that I am their father, and so grateful to have been given the chance to play that role at a relatively late stage (I was 41 when Bruno was born). Of course they pissed me off sometimes, but those instances were, in the big picture, mosquito bites. They are great boys and are turning into fine young men.
My years with EFE in Miami were much less rewarding, professionally, than my longer tenure with The Associated Press in New York and in South and Central America. The Spanish outfit, in terms of rigor and standards, is decidedly bush-league compared with the august American agency to which I still feel an allegiance. I retained a degree of my journalistic chops and integrity by contributing to the Miami New Times, and some of the pieces I wrote there made a few waves. But the main reason I took the EFE editing job in Miami in the first place was because it afforded me a predictable schedule into which I could fit lots of time with my youngsters. I coached them all in Little League for years, shuttled Bruno all over Dade County for his soccer games, and we all (Nico especially loved this) took at least two camping trips a year, often employing canoes, with friends with children the same age as our boys. Those are my fondest memories of Miami.
I thought I had a wonderful family, almost perfect. I couldn’t have asked for more. I didn’t want any more, was the gist of it.
So after Theo arrived, I was unable to fend off lapses, intermittently for the first nearly two years he was with us, in which I told myself in interior monologues that I liked our family better the way it used to be. And why the hell did you have to come barging in, you little shit.
Later, when the squall had passed, such thoughts made me feel like a big shit. Like a bad father. Over the fifteen previous years I’d constructed an identity with the notion of my good fatherhood as a central, essential element. Can a good father become a bad father? Whatever had given me the idea that, if you’re good at something for a while, you’ll be good at it forever? Maybe I’d never really been a good father at all.
And this wife of mine. Was she really so splendid and superb? Look: a woman who’s forty-four, with a sizeable progeny already practically raised, and she gets pregnant — What’s the story with that? One of two things, right? She’s either negligent to the point of obtuseness, or has pulled the wool over your eyes. Maybe she’d gotten a tardy nostalgic whim for un piccolo bel bambin, a new bundle of joy, and, knowing that pop would not go along with the design, decided to take matters into her own hands. That’s called deceit, and it’s not pretty. I take a cardio-aspirin and a blood-pressure pill every morning, goddammit, and a Lipitor tablet every night, for chrissakes, and skip them maybe once a year. What was so fucking difficult about remembering to take your contraccettivo?
I never posed that question to Nicoletta. I never talked to her about the ugly little battle raging inside me between the good dad and the bad dad. Because I was afraid of the consequences of doing so, and because I suspected, or hoped, that this whole drama or melodrama was just a passing phase for me, one that had caught me not at my best, and that it might simply go away.
It was anomalous that I didn’t share with Nico my emotional travails. I think one of the reasons our unlikely marriage has held up so well is its foundation of genuine, enjoy-each-other’s-company friendship. I’ve got five true friends, average duration forty years, guys for whom I’d immediately give up a kidney. But Nico, besides being my bedmate and the mother of our kids, really is my best buddy, the person I most like to pal around and bullshit with.
I’m glad, now, that I kept it bottled up, or that I at least hid it from her. I could do that because the turmoil was occasional rather than constant. It came in spurts, between stretches in which I was, for the most part, the normally pleased papà of a beautiful baby boy, even if I was being taken more often than not as his grandfather rather than his dad. “Out for a spin with il nonno, are you, little treasure?” Theo heard that a lot from passers-by of all ages and both sexes as he, observing the world from his perch in the aluminum-frame backpack, waited with me astride my bike for the crosswalk light to change.
In any case, my sturm und drang were not completely repressed. I talked about it on the phone with two of those ancient homeys, both of them fathers in long marriages. It felt good to get some of that weight off my neck, and to hear their counsel. Which basically was: Hang in there, dude. You’re on the dance floor now, and you gotta dance.
That’s good advice, applicable in diverse circumstances. Because bucking up, and eschewing the poor-me bit, can get you through most of the rough spots in life. And that’s what my dilemma regarding our fourth son turned out to be: much fucking ado about little.
Babies and toddlers should not have to win over their parents. Who knows to what extent Theo picked up the periodic bad vibe from pop? There’s no denying that those miniature people are perceptive. I don’t think he was trying precisely to impress me. But along about the time, coincidentally, when he began losing his hearing, when he was steadily bi-pedal and demonstrating an uncanny aptitude for running and stepping, arms extended, along the narrow top of a low wall, Theo began eliciting in me a rising tide of appreciation of his particular gifts. At the end of his first summer on his feet, when he was sixteen months old, we got him a solid Swiss-built mini-scooter with three roller-blade wheels, two larger ones in the front and one in the back, and within weeks he was zipping around on it like a demon. Folks in the pedestrian areas downtown, the parts with a smooth surface, would stop in their tracks and laugh and exclaim in the wake of the wee racer weaving around their knees.
His godfather, Charlie, bought him a pedal-less “balance bike” with ten-inch wheels for his second birthday. For the first couple months, Theo, who like his dad is on the short side, didn’t use it because even with the seat at its lowest, he couldn’t keep the thing vertical, had to incline it for one foot to reach the ground. But by the following fall, when he’d grown enough to have both sneakers planted and the bike upright, he took to it with a preternatural flair. Gaining speed with vigorous seated strides, he was soon lifting his feet to rest them on the pegs and gliding along the sidewalk and down slight inclines. Six months later, he skipped the training-wheel stage altogether, and two weeks before his third birthday (two weeks before the cranial surgery implanting his device), he was pedaling a real bike, sans training wheels, like kids twice his age.
I don’t love Theo because he’s fleet of foot, or uncommonly coordinated. Or because he’s comely and smart. I love him because he’s my son, and because he’s Nicoletta’s son. I don’t love him more than I do Bruno or Joseph or Tobias. But it’s different. Over the past two and a half years, as I approached and passed sixty, I’ve developed a tenderness for and devotion to our fourth boy that sometimes — quite often, really — feels like rapture.
Some of it has to do, I guess, with his handicap, and how stalwart he has been in overcoming it. But I’d already learned firsthand (Joe had open-heart surgery, at Miami Children’s, when he was six) that ailing kids are inherently brave in a way that comes off looking like heroism to us grown-ups. Their fortitude does have an element of innate valor, but it’s also composed of a child’s innocent ignorance of what he or she is in for.
In a way not intended by Wordsworth, I think Theo in some fashion has been father of the man who engendered him. In that he, unwittingly, taught me something. In truth, he’s still teaching me, because I haven’t got it thoroughly figured out, and probably never will. But he provided me with something fascinating to keep thinking about. You see, there were points there a few years ago when it felt to me like Theo’s coming along was about the worst thing that could have happened, because its consequences seemed to be endangering the most valuable thing in my life: my marriage. At the lowest moments of the reproach I was feeling — for Nicoletta but also for my weak and doubting and spiteful and inadequate self — it seemed to me my wife and I were in peril of breaking apart.
But what has happened over these past couple years is that the worst thing has become the best thing. Theo makes me laugh several times every day and fills me with a kind of quotidian bliss that I’m certain is rare among my contemporaries. I am in some ways in decline and half-jaded, like they are, by accumulated decades of endeavor and success and failure. But I’ve been presented by this child with a delectable conundrum, one that compels me to try to account for how it is that the direly negative can become the exuberantly positive, how what seems like a disaster can amount in the end to a glorious sort of exaltation.
Don’t get me wrong. This is the farthest thing in the world from advocacy against abortion. Both Nicoletta and I believe that recourse to abortion must be a woman’s basic right in any modern democratic society. I certainly don’t regret the abortions my previous partners had, and I know they don’t either.
What’s more, I’m certain that, had Nicoletta not balked, and had we made that trip down to Ascoli at the end of 2008, I would not have had much in the way of second thoughts. I would have carried that previously anticipated sense of relief around for a while as I got on with my life. I would have paraded merrily along thinking, if I ever thought about it at all, that I needed a fourth child like I needed a hole in the head.
So it would have been good (for me at least), too, if Theo had never been born. It’s just that, the way things turned out, it was better that he was. Life can be tricky, and marvelous, that way.
Theo still takes a nap in the afternoon. He goes to pre-school from 8:15 to 1:00. He eats lunch there, but usually meanders around the kitchen table as Nico and Joe and Toby and I (Bruno is away at college in Bologna) have our late midday meal. (Italian school gets out at 1:20, but Saturday is a regular school day.)
I like to read to him after our lunch before he conks out, and he enjoys this little ritual, too. He’s into Spiderman for socks and T-shirts and a pre-Lenten Carnevale costume, as are a lot of tykes almost anywhere in today’s small and homogenized world of merchandise. But what he most likes to hear narrated are tales from Greek mythology and the early-medieval stories of the Knights of the Round Table.
A Milan publishing house called Dami editori put out in the 1990s a series of eleven volumes for children, including the retelling of Homer’s big hits, the Divine Comedy, stories of the gods of Olympus and their earthly entanglements, the adventures of members of King Arthur’s court, and other classic fare. The imprint’s illustrations tend toward the gaudy but its text, despite the simplification, retains a fidelity to the source documents not common in most kids’ literature.
We lie there side by side on the bed and some of it goes over Theo’s head as he listens raptly to description of Icaro’s enchantment and fatal folly, or the escape of Ulisse and his mates from Polifemo’s cave. But he also retains elements of the story and, days or even weeks later, this never ceases to surprise me. He seems to have an affinity for secondary characters, whom he’ll mention out of the blue long after having heard tell of them.
Iolao and Keu, for instance. Theo refers to them once in a while, apropos of something, or nothing. The former is a companion of Hercules, a sort of squire who wields a torch for cauterizing the necks of the Hydra after Hercules — the son of Zeus and the terrestrial queen Alcmene — lops off the dragon’s seven heads (the cauterizing prevents two heads from springing from each wound). The latter is known in English as Kay, and is the brother of the dauntless Re Artú della Tavola Rotonda.
Why these un-epic, lesser figures hang around in Theo’s flash drive is anyone’s guess. Part of it probably is because they’re very cool-sounding names in Italian. But I like to think, too, that my last son has a particular fondness for the sort of man who falls short of being god-like and heroic, a natural unstrained sympathy for mere mortals with their all-too-human frailties. For guys like his own old man.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.