Whenever I offer the underbelly of my elbow to a nurse, I am forced to make a sheepish admission: "I'm a fainter." I have taken face dives for all sorts of reasons on three different continents and have perfected a vast swooning repertoire. Just the thought of a syringe sets a goofy smile on my face, my vision narrows and I have time for exactly one exit line. My standards are: "Here I go," "I'd better sit" and "No, I feel fine."
Perhaps my most celebrated swoon occurred when I saw something vaguely bloody on the family television. In my attempt to run away, I succeeded in crumbling against the wall in such a way that my face, on its way to the floor, hit the light switch and plunged everyone into darkness with me.
At times I've thought myself cured. To celebrate one such victory, I decided to donate a pint of blood. According to my girlfriend, Ruth, who tagged along to witness my bravery, I dove into unconsciousness with such abandon and moaning and flopping around that some of the other donors spontaneously stopped bleeding. After cracking out the smelling salts, the nurses suggested that I never give blood again. If I had to be of service, they insisted, I should just "come hand out cookies."
I was struck by Ruth's tenderness during that excursion into blackness. She showed such warmth while I fought my way back into existence, such patience when I puked in the parking lot, that as soon as the uncontrollable trembling had stopped, I knew I was in love. She had everything I was looking for in a woman: The ability to put up with me.
One year later we were married -- without a blood test. Several years after that, she was pregnant. My problem -- the very thing that had drawn us together -- threatened to separate us during the birth of our baby. I had nine months to overcome a lifetime of being a wuss.
My first stop was an elderly acupuncturist. Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking. A friend had found him useful for depression, and I thought it was the blood, not the needles, that pushed me over into darkness. I owe that acupuncturist an apology.
He had succeeded in installing only two needles in my ankle before I blanched and sank helplessly into a stupor. Even when conscious, I'm pale; unconscious, I must have looked like a corpse on his table. He panicked and began an "emergency procedure," which entailed jabbing a large needle into my upper lip. The pain did indeed wake me long enough for me to notice him stabbing my face, but this was insufficient incentive for me to remain conscious. I ducked back under, causing him to redouble his efforts. We might have seesawed like that for hours if he hadn't had what looked like a mild heart attack.
In desperation, I went to a psychotherapist who specialized in phobias. He had me list the disturbing things I thought I would encounter during birth and rate them, on a scale of one to 10, as to how likely they were to make me pass out. He observed a narcissistic trend in my list: My wife's screams of agony rated only a six, while the smell of iodine was an eight. It seemed that, in addition to being a fainter, I was also a selfish bastard. My therapist assured me that the fainting was curable.
He prescribed a treatment of gradual exposure to the sight of blood. At first I was to look at my veins, then I was to touch them. And so on. My progress was fair. In no time, I could strum my arm like a blue-stringed guitar. But the due date was bearing down, and twiddling with my veins was a far cry from enduring an actual delivery. I needed to speed up my progress.
My next assignment was to watch a birth video, but the selection at my local video store was limited. I cobbled together what seemed like an approximation of the event: "Exercise For Moms To Be" and "Shocking Brain Surgery." Who knows what sort of kinks the clerk thought I had -- especially when my wife returned the tapes within an hour. We would see a delivery tape in our birth class, she admonished me, and it would look nothing like brain surgery.
Unfortunately, the birth class was far from reassuring. Our instructor, despite herself, betrayed misgivings about the usefulness of such things as fathers. She hinted that, more often than not, we are worthless. True, some fathers end up being inspiring coaches, but the rest of us are lucky if we can stay out of the way. I got the feeling that she thought father-coached births, like leg warmers, were an artifact of the '70s -- something that should have been put away as soon as people had come to their senses.
Relying on the father is a bit like learning to sky dive by jumping out of a plane strapped to a "coach" who has never jumped before and who doesn't even have a parachute of his own. His purpose -- if he doesn't faint -- is to say things like: "You're doing a great job of falling," "Deep breaths, deep breaths" and "I think you should pull the thingy now."
My wife must have got the same feeling. Immediately after the first class she suggested we hire a professional birth assistant.
I was all for bringing in the professionals. I didn't care that, in terms of importance, on the salad of our birth I would now be a crouton. It didn't matter: I had cleverly guaranteed my spot in the birth limelight. That was the brilliance of my whole fainting problem. Although Ruth had to go through the agony of birth, all I had to do was remain upright, and I would be a hero.
It has been five months since the birth now. I write this with my son cooing and pooing next to me. In a second he will start crying and I will do anything to make him happy. I realize now that when it comes to getting attention, I am a rank amateur. My son, Isaac, has humbled me. The whole birth has humbled me. It was the sort of birth that causes women to lie to each other, to give only a tepid smile when asked how it went -- because if the real story ever got out, no one would ever get pregnant again, and the species would die out.
Did I pass out? As it turns out, my strategy was exactly wrong. Passing out would have been a good idea. Through Ruth's harrowing 36-hour labor, not once did I faint, sleep or even blink. And I tried. I hyperventilated. I banged my head against the wall. But, thanks to all my stupid therapists, I was firmly rooted in the world and able to relish every moment of this impossibly protracted and arduous labor. Ruth was amazing. Isaac was amazing. But next time I'm just going to hand out cookies.