During the last month of my wife’s pregnancy with our second child, she and I began to work our way through a stack of restaurant gift certificates we’d accrued over our five years in Philadelphia. We knew that once the baby was born we wouldn’t have much time to go out and that by the end of the summer we’d be packing up and moving to Michigan.
The culminating event was a night out at Vetri, sponsored by my brother who’d gifted it to us this past fall for serving as the best man in his wedding. Vetri enjoys a reputation as quite possibly the best Italian eatery in America: you have to call ahead a month to the minute to have any chance of reserving a table; there is no menu per se—all patrons are served a meal assembled at the chef’s discretion that costs more than we spend on groceries in two months; the food was described by people we knew as profound, the type of experience you’re likely to remember for the rest of your life.
So on a Thursday night two weeks before her due date Caroline and I arranged to have a friend babysit James and we slow-walked down Spruce Street to an awaiting 7:30pm table. As we approached the entrance to the restaurant we paused; it’s worth stepping lightly into a life-changing experience.
In general I’m not very comfortable with experiences that come loaded with the expectation that you’ll feel any certain way in response to them. Among the Himalayas, in front of the Taj Mahal, and as I waited for my wife to turn down the aisle on our wedding day I was trailed by the idea that these were some of the greatest experiences that life has to offer. If the experiences underwhelmed, would it mean that the world is a less magical place than it’s made out to be? Or, maybe more distressingly, would it indicate that for some reason I’m not able to appreciate what magic there is?
When Caroline and I left the restaurant three hours later we were of the same mind about the food: It was certainly very, very good, but maybe there’s no combination of ingredients on earth that can equal the hype and price of Vetri, at least not in our tax bracket and with our taste buds. We went to bed that night stuffed but not permanently altered, and with our last restaurant gift certificate expended, we settled down to wait for the arrival of our second child.
Two weeks later Caroline went into labor. Her contractions began mildly just before bedtime; by the time we woke up the next morning (or rather I woke up; she didn’t sleep much that night) they were coming hard and fast and Caroline told me that really, we needed to go to the hospital right now. We called a friend to come watch James who was still asleep in his crib, we packed an overnight bag, and we headed off on foot to the hospital 12 blocks away. Every half block Caroline stopped to lean against a light post or a building as she grimaced through a contraction, while passing pedestrians snuck a glance at this clearly anguished woman and wondered if maybe they shouldn’t offer to help or hail a cab.
No experience comes weighted with greater emotional expectations than the birth of your child. It is the crowning moment of a life. As Caroline prepared to deliver James two years ago I remember an odd moment of self-consciousness: there were a lot of people in the room—midwives, nurses, in-laws—and I was the dad and what if I didn’t react the way I was supposed to? It was a silly thought to have at such a moment, but what can I say, it was there.
Her labor with James had taken all day but this one progressed much faster. We’d been at the hospital for only a few hours when the midwives told Caroline it was time to push. I stood on Caroline’s left and her mother stood on her right. A midwife lined up at center and urged her on. Little by little the head came into view: first as a spot, then as an arc, and then as the unmistakable round of a newborn child straining towards life. Out he rushed, screaming, wailing, wet and blind.
Together we wept because it was the only thing we could do.