Fifteen years later, I am pregnant with my first child. I tell my dad one evening over dinner. It is just the two of us; I’m visiting him while my mom is out of town on business. He is delighted to hear the news, I can tell from his expression, but he doesn’t say any of the usual things: “Congratulations,” or “How are you feeling?” or “When is the due date?” He smiles, tells me he is pleased, and wants to know if I’ve already told Mom. I have. He goes back to talking about his acid reflux, and the subject is closed.
The next morning I find him eating the breakfast his caretaker has fixed for him. His usual: a slice of walnut levain bread and half a can of sardines, a bottle of warm beer. I fix myself a bowl of muesli and sit across from him. He tells me he didn’t sleep well last night. “I was thinking about things that kept me awake. Including… what you told me.”
I smile. “You mean about the baby?”
He nods, smiles too.
“You mean you were thinking about it in a good way, right?”
“Oh yes,” he says. Then he heads in a direction I’m not expecting. He begins to talk about what a wonderful thing it is when children are “wanted.” He reminisces on a time in the early ‘90s when there was a remarkable trend documented in the newspapers, a sharp and consistent drop in crime rates around the country. “And this was correlated with, you know, the abortion decision in the Supreme Court, some 18 years earlier.”
“Roe v Wade,” I say.
“Yes.” And he makes this little face, almost like a satisfied pout, which means, Pretty impressive stuff, or, You can’t argue with that.
Then he asks me if I ever read the novel Effie Breist. I tell him I think so. “I remember it was a German book you really liked, and you urged me and Bina to read it when we were in high school. I think I did, but I’m not sure. In any case I don’t remember anything about it.”
He recalls the plot for me: Effie Briest is a well-to-do young woman, pregnant with her first child, when she hires a young maid, Rosvilda, to work in her home. Rosvilda has a young child of her own. She turns out to be a good maid and a devoted servant. The two women become good friends; Rosvilda sticks by Effie’s side after Effie’s husband throws her out of the house for some past infidelity. Gradually Effie gets to know her maid’s life story, so different from her own: When Rosvilda became pregnant as a young girl, out of wedlock—here my dad begins to cry, has to collect himself and blow his nose before continuing—“her father, who was a blacksmith, when he heard the news, he came after her with a hot iron. He attacked her.” He makes a jabbing motion in the air with his right hand, to demonstrate. “Which, of course, is frightening to any young woman, but especially to a pregnant woman, you know, who has a baby inside of her.” He shakes his head and blows his nose again, and I have this distinct thought: He really is capable of empathy, of putting himself in someone else’s shoes, even someone quite different from himself, and feeling deep compassion for them. And yet he seems so incapable of that sometimes with his own wife and daughters.
“So, anyway,” he concludes, “It is a good thing when children are wanted and everyone is happy about it.” He smiles mischievously. “I, at least, will not be coming after you with a hot iron.”
We both laugh over that. “Well,” I say. “I guess that’s a good start.”
As I’m driving home that afternoon, Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Boxer” comes on the radio. It’s a song I used to listen to over and over in college; it used to make me cry. And it happens this time.
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him til he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains….
As I listen to it, it seems exactly as though it is about my dad: all the physical blows his body has taken over the past twelve years, and how he keeps doggedly going on, insistent, stupidly stubborn. I see this image of him in a ring, bloodied and beaten and old, hanging as he does, almost bent double in his weakness, being knocked down over and over, and still struggling, hungry, back to his feet, to take the next blow.
And in the same moment I am thinking about being a mother, and the love parents feel for their children. I have my hand pressed to my belly below my seatbelt, and I feel the weight and the hope of this coming child, and I am crying for this reason, too.