Matthew and Meaning
This is one of my first and favorite web posts. It was written at what was obviously an emotional time for the country — but in addition to the shock of September 11th, we had the joy of the birth of our son Matthew on September 13th. Our emotions were all muddled, like preschoolers muddle paint; bright and bold and dark and murky.
I thought as I publish my first posts, I’d add this one.
Somehow, someway, Matthew turned a week old yesterday. Watching him grow fills me with a sense of disbelief. I am waiting for him take his things and leave one morning, with a wave goodbye and a thank you for the milk and the diapers. I am expecting someone with a clipboard and bad uniform to show up at the door and repossess him. We’ll hand him back with a sheepish apology.
But no one comes to claim him. The astounding nature of the miracle that is a baby starts to sink in, slowly, and over the days I’ve become more willing to admit that he is here to stay. This is our baby.
It’s hard to accept. A sense of self-preservation kicks in when I look at him - “Don’t get too attached. He is fragile, and fragile things have a tough time in this place.”
Or maybe, more accurately, I am the fragile one.
This is the first definition of parenthood I’ve come to learn: An overpowering desire to control your love and hopes coupled with an overpowering inability to do so. I give in to the emotion with the dim suspicion that the other path is the path of the recluse. Not that I have any choice in the matter. He has me by the heart.
The past week has been one of new distractions and tasks - changing diapers, taking baths, watching his mother during feedings. In a week we’ve developed a new routine.
We’ve added other tasks to our routine as well. Scouring the paper in the morning for good news. Conducting seemingly endless vigils with Tom Brokaw. Repeatedly reviewing new bits of information. Connecting with family and friends many times a day to confer about the latest turns of events, conversations that on the surface are about news but at their core are about anxiety. The need to ask “Did you see that?” as a way of saying, “Will you ask me if I saw it?”
Will you ask me if I’m okay?
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Jeanie and I were sleeping in the guest bedroom. Guest bedroom is a bit of a misnomer - it is our everything room, with my keyboards and our office and a spare bed that happens to be much harder than our bed and thus much more comfortable to a woman in early stages of labor. My father-in-law woke us up with a phone call. Even in the confusion of early morning that was normal enough - everyone wanting to know how the baby was coming along.
“Turn on the television. They’ve bombed the World Trade Center.”
That was our introduction to the new world.
Like most everyone else, we watched in shock throughout the day. We saw the same stories and the same footage over and over, but couldn’t turn away. We watched in the hope that somehow the footage would end differently. It didn’t.
Midway through the day, Jeanie and I turned to each other with a selfish prayer: “Please God, don’t let our baby be born today.”
In a day when many prayers were squelched by fire and steel, ours was answered.
The next day, even as we went to the hospital and began labor, we watched the news for reassurance and hope that, sadly, weren’t forthcoming. I will never forget talking with the anesthesiologist about collapsing buildings as Jeanie received her epidural. I will never forget bringing an American flag to the hospital — a nurse came to the room not to inquire after Matthew’s health but to ask “Where did you get the flag? Are there any left?”
Matthew’s birth and the terrorist attacks will forever be linked in my mind, because they are linked in reality. I sit with Matthew on my lap watching MSNBC. I receive emails from friends who thank me for the meaningful news, as if I had some role in its delivery; several people call in tears to say that his birth was the one bright spot in a dark week. I run to the store to buy diapers and notice that all the news magazines have just been released. I buy all of them without thinking.
A week later I am still in shock, still transfixed by both turns of events. It is a feeling of experiencing two shades of the same emotion: Both defy description. How can you explain one life? How can you explain thousands of deaths? I watching him breathing and I watch the towers collapsing and I can’t describe either one. An overpowering desire to control hope coupled with an overpowering inability to do so.
Last night Matthew and I watched the President speak. I look at my baby, illuminated by the glow of late-night television. He opens his eyes and grabs my hand. He is here to stay. He is life; he is renewal; he is purpose.
What has the world become? Is there a way to find meaning in this?
In this moment I understand what our friends have said. In this moment I look into Matthew’s sleepy eyes and I find my answer.
But as I turn my attention back to the speech, I listen to the President’s words and I am struck by a second, more troubling thought:
If we have found our meaning in Matthew, where will Matthew find his meaning?
And I realize my own new purpose, and the new obligation of my generation.
Because this is a question that Matthew is counting on me to answer.