March 9, 2002
Attention to Detail

When it came time to paint the second nursery, I knew exactly what I wanted: bright green walls, accented with red and white furniture and bedding.

"It looks like a Christmas tree," my husband complained, when I showed him the dog-eared magazine clipping I'd been carrying around for the past seven months. Exasperated, I explained to him that this wasn't Christmas green, forcryingoutloud. This was a bright, lively, hopeful green ... the color of new apples in springtime.

"It will give the room a cheerful energy," I said, quoting directly from American Baby Magazine. "Plus green will work for either a boy or a girl." (Subtext: You won't have to paint it again in three months.)

We'd already had a similar argument, a year and a half earlier, when we were getting ready to paint the first baby's bedroom. Before Daughter #1 was born, I'd requested he paint her nursery a cheerful (and gender-neutral) yellow. "I want it to feel like the sun is always shining in this room," I said. He wanted to paint the room white -- mainly because money was tight, and we already had a couple of gallons of leftover Glidden outside in the carport -- but my mind was made up, and he knew it, and he resignedly tucked the Sunshine Yellow color sample into his wallet. I was hoping he would get the nursery painted before the baby arrived ... but he procrastinated, as was typical, and the baby and I had been home from the hospital for a week already before he finally got around to borrowing money from his parents and buying the paint. He painted on a Sunday afternoon -- drinking beer and watching the football game on a portable TV as he worked -- while our newborn daughter and I camped out on the living room sofa all day. When he was finished, he dragged me down the hallway to take a look. When I saw the baby's room, my heart sank. Instead of the warm sunny color I'd requested, the walls were the color of watery lemonade.  "Do you like it?" he asked, and I said yes, it's lovely. But I hated it. He doesn't pay attention to anything I ever I say to him, I thought.

For the next few years, every time I looked at those anemic yellow walls, I felt angry and unappreciated and resentful.

Now, as the days before my second due date dwindled away, he was procrastinating once again. It was maddening. However, I was determined that THIS baby would have a finished nursery to come home to. After relentless nagging and endless blistering screamfests, he finally borrowed some money from his parents and bought two buckets of cheap hardware store paint. The label on the paint can said "Thistle Green." It wasn't exactly the color I was hoping for -- it looked suspiciously darker than the magazine clipping -- but I figured it was close enough. 

Besides, time was running out.

He painted the room on a Saturday afternoon -- drinking beer and watching pro bowling on the portable TV while he worked -- while our one-year-old and I camped out in the living room all day. Once he finished painting the room, of course, I realized that the color was all wrong. It was dark and drab and depressing -- it reminded me more of camouflage on the battlefield than of apples in springtime -- and for the next two years, every time I looked at those walls, I hated them and I hated him and I was sure, more than ever, that the man never paid attention to anything important.

      *      *      *      *      *      *

He called my office early yesterday afternoon, just after I'd gotten back from lunch.

"Is this Terri Rafter?" he asked.  (It was strange to hear him call me by my new married name ... although probably not as strange for me as it was for him.) When I replied that yes, hello, it's me -- after twenty years he still doesn't recognize my voice on the phone -- he reported that he had just gotten home from Daughter #2's arraignment and was checking in, as requested.

"Tell me everything," I said flatly.

Well, he said, he had to get up at 7:30 a.m. to go to the courthouse, which was kinda rough because he's working this killer night shift ... and then he had to sit there for four hours before they even got to Daughter #2's case: he was starting to think that maybe he was in the wrong courthouse, and he was just getting up to leave when ...

Yes, fine, I interrupted him. How did she look? How did she sound? Did he get to talk to her? What were the charges against her? When is her trial date? Are we going to discuss another rehab?

She looked OK, he guessed. They were separated by a wall of glass. The sound system was turned down low,  and he didn't wear his hearing aid, so he couldn't hear much of anything that was being said. No, he didn't get to talk to her personally. No, he's still "not sure" what the charges were -- and no, he didn't ask anybody -- but he thinks her trial date is the 20th.

"They let her go," he said. "She was released on something called personal re ... recog ... recogit ... "

I felt the familiar slow clench of impatience building. "Recognizance," I said. Jesus H. Christ on a dead hearing aid battery. I was about to ask him why he hadn't just approached a guard or a clerk to get more details about the case -- how hard can that be? -- but he wasn't finished telling the story. When they brought Daughter #2 into the courtroom, he said, she stopped and looked through the glass at the people sitting in the 'audience.' It was clear she wasn't expecting to see any familiar faces, least of all family. When she spotted her father sitting there, though ... she smiled and burst into tears. 

"I think she was really happy to see me," he said softly.

I felt my heart contract. The man may be a lot of things: incommunicative, inattentive, occasionally unreliable, maddeningly unplugged from the world. But he was sitting there in the 'audience' when our daughter was brought into the courtroom.

And I wasn't.

      *      *      *      *      *      *

A couple of weeks before the second baby was due, a routine doctor's appointment revealed that he/she was in the breech position ... little head tucked just beneath my ribcage, little legs and feet in my pelvic area.

The first pregnancy and birth had gone off without a hitch  --  Daughter #1 had arrived exactly on her due date, no less  --  and I was naively expecting this second pregnancy to be similarly glitch-free. So it was a shock to suddenly hear Dr. Heffron talking to me about "surgical options." An attempt to manually turn the baby around in utero didn't work: further ultrasounds revealed that she had one leg bent at an odd angle and tucked behind the other.

"Maybe she's going to be a gymnast," joked the doctor.

I wasn't amused. I'd never had major surgery before, and in spite of all my reading and research and pseudo-sophistication, I didn't know very much about C-sections. The horror stories I'd heard from my sister-in-law didn't help, either ... gruesome tales of blood and stitches and little yellow babies cooking under heat lamps for days after their birth. I was profoundly upset by the whole idea of being peeled open like a Walla Walla Sweet.

More than that, though,  I was worried about the baby. My children were my life: even the ones who technically hadn't made it into the world yet.

I tearfully relayed the news to my husband when I got home from the doctor's office. He never accompanied me on my prenatal visits, during any of my pregnancies -- my mother-in-law always took me -- and he was utterly disinterested in details of obstetrical exams and fetal development. So I gave him The Reader's Digest Condensed version. The baby is upside down. (Or, rather, the baby should be upside down but isn't.) They can't turn her around. They'll have to operate. It's going to dangerous and it's going to be expensive. I'm sorry.

I wasn't sure how much of this information he absorbed. I was never sure of things like that. His impassive reactions to everything made it impossible to tell if he understood what you were saying, or if he was rebuilding that lawnmower engine in his head again while you were talking to him. I remember he walked off and spent the rest of the day outside in the carport, crushing beer cans for the recycling center. I sat in the peeling leather armchair all afternoon, with one baby in my arms and the other doing jumping jacks beneath my ribcage, and I listened to the shkreeek shkreeek shkreeek sound of the aluminum can crusher until I slid into an uneasy afternoon nap. When I woke up, a couple of hours later, the living room was growing dark. The noises from the carport had stopped, and the little house was bathed in complete silence.

Or nearly complete.

From down the hallway came a muffled sound I didn't recognize ... and couldn't identify. Mystified, I gently lifted the still slumbering one-year-old from my lap and eased my cumbersome self from the armchair. My butt and legs had gone numb while I slept. Gingerly, I limped down the hallway to locate the source of the mysterious noise. What I saw there literally took my breath away.

There was my husband, standing in the doorway of the new baby's nursery-to-be, looking at the freshly-painted green walls ...

... and crying.

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