This month, I finished the developmental edit, meaning that an editor who specializes in story structure and such things has gone through the story and found the story arcs and themes and told me how to connect them to each other, deepen them, and polish those scenes. This is quite different from “writing from your heart” because memoir readers are expecting a novel that really happened, and you’ve got to provide it.
We also settled on a new title, Please Cry: A Father’s View From Outside the Incubator. That’s got the right amount of personal involvement, it contains an implied question — why’s this guy want his kid to cry? — and “Please Cry” is very short, which seems to be the current trend for title finding. The noun “view” is a little too plain, but I think this is good enough for proposals. When I find a publisher, the title might get changed, but I’m ok with that.
Ok, enough preamble. Here’s the new opening to the book:
Monday, April 16, 2012, 10 p.m.
Gestational Age: 21 weeks, 4 days
Antepartum. No one wants to come here, and no one wants to leave. This wing of the hospital is also called the high-risk pregnancy unit. We are here to save our son. Miri is having pre-term labor. At 21 weeks, our son cannot be born and survive.
This room in the antepartum wing is dark as the sun set several hours ago on this spring day, and the lights are off in the hope we can sleep. I am lying on a guest mattress in the corner of the room, still in my day clothes, the rough waistline of my jeans pressed uncomfortably against my skin. Miri is lying immobile in the hospital bed on the other side of the room, although I cannot tell if she is asleep. Through the window, several dark-glass skyscrapers are visible and a little bit of Elliott Bay, a small, busy harbor with freighters and ferryboats surrounded by buildings and green hills, peeks between them. The windows glow in the buildings as the lights turn off and on, but the view still seems like a poster taped to the hospital window, which is double-paned and thick and cannot open. I feel the urge to hide from it, even though I am already invisible.
I wish I could be somewhere else with Miri, so I think about another long, quiet night in a different city. It was a Saturday-evening service in an old wooden church built in the 1880s that had somehow survived all of San Francisco’s earthquakes. The Saturday evening vigil was not typically well-attended. Often, there was no choir, just one person reading the hymns that are usually sung.
That night, though, there was a choir of two women. Their voices were steady and pleasant, and they sang the hymns to the day’s saints in an orderly fashion and chanted the psalms. The service usually had a number of abrupt stops that made me worry about the structure of the service — both in sympathy to the person reading, and in dread of what might happen to me if I got that job, but with these two singers, I forgot about all that for the two-and-a-half hour service.
This old church stood about a mile and a half from Raphael House, a homeless shelter for families that also provided living space for the staff members. I lived in a small room on the third floor with painted cement walls, a bookshelf, a small refrigerator, a brown chair easy chair, a bed and space for little else. The neighborhood, colloquially known as “The Tenderloin,” was no place to go for a relaxing walk. Anyone standing still on the sidewalk was generally up to something — either involved in the drug or sex trade, or more innocent panhandling.
Elbow room and peace were in short supply for me, so a long service in an empty church was a welcome respite. At the end of the service, I came over to the little elevated square of floor on the left side of the church where the two women stood. One was in her fifties and had curly hair, and the other looked to be in her teens but acted more like she was in her twenties as they discussed where to put the service books as they were cleaning up. The younger one had shoulder-length brown hair and a broad smile. I reached forward and shook her hand to introduce myself. I looked her in the eye, which was easy since she was six inches taller when standing on the choir stand. I felt less self-conscious about my height as I told her about how I had come to San Francisco to work at Raphael House after finishing grad school a year earlier. She told me her name was Miri and explained that she had come to San Francisco three years earlier to teach high-school biology at a K-12 school run by the church, and took a second job at a veterinary office. I began to feel my ears get a little warm with this pretty girl there who wanted to talk with me. I had been single for a while and sometimes visited a monastery on weekends.
“My eventual goal is to be a zookeeper,” she said. “There’s a training zoo in Spokane that rescues tigers and lions, and in a year, I’m going there.”
I heard that and made a conscious effort to keep a smile pasted on my face as I nodded. “Oh no,” I thought, “I grew up in a house with too many dogs, and now my children are going to grow up with lions everywhere.” Then, I thought, “Why am I worried about a future house? I’m getting way ahead of myself.”
I asked her what brought her there to the old church, known as “Old Cathedral,” and she explained that she usually went to the church three miles to the northwest known as “New Cathedral,” but tonight, her parents were visiting from Boise. Her father, a priest, was a good friend of Old Cathedral’s priest, so all three of them came to help at the service.
“You sang really well. It was nice to have actual music at this service,” I said.
She laughed and said, “Really? I felt like Mom and I were pretty unprepared.” Her mother was choir director in Boise, she explained, and they usually take more time to organize the music books and do a little bit of rehearsal.
“Well, it’s been great to meet you,” and I paused, thinking maybe I should ask for a phone number, but then I saw the two priests and her mother right there with us, “and I’m sure I’ll see you at church again. I sometimes go to New Cathedral, too.”
I started the mile-and-a-half walk back to Raphael House, and thought, “Lions? Why am I worried about lions when I’m just chatting with her?” I tried to forget about it as part of my usual tendency to overthink things about girls.
A couple of weeks later, I got a message from Miri on OrthodoxCircle, an on-line social network that had started up that year. She said, “I think we met at church a couple of weeks ago.” She had gone back to Old Cathedral several times in hopes of seeing me, but I had traveled to Seattle for a bike ride. I looked over her OrthodoxCircle page and discovered that she had grown up watching and reading much of the same science fiction as I had. After a few more messages, I called her up and asked her if she wanted to have dinner with me at Raphael House and then go to the Asian Art Museum. She said yes without any reservation in her voice. “Wow,” I thought, “she said yes, without any of the usual ‘prove you’re worth it’ stuff that girls give you.”
The night of the date, there was a concert of Pakistani music at the museum, and after looking at paintings for a while, we went and listened to it for 20 or 30 minutes, most of which I spent staring at her hand and her wrist, trying to build up the nerve to hold it. I was afraid she would retreat, and I would get yet another version of the “let’s be just friends/I’m not ready for that” speech. I could feel my heart beating in my neck as I examined every crease on the back of her knuckles. I rubbed my hand against my shirt to make sure it was dry, and I wondered how firmly I should take her hand — too light, and she’d think I was tickling her, and too firmly and she’d think I was annoyed and telling her to stop chewing gum or tapping her foot. (She was doing neither, but I thought she thought I thought I would be telling her that if I clamped or yanked on her hand.)
Eventually, I decided that this girl was either going to leave my life or not, and I needed to do my part for the “not” angle, and I picked up my hand, moved it three inches to the right. I took her warm hand in to mine. She smiled, gave my hand a squeeze, and then nestled her elbow with mine. It was the last time I wondered how she felt about me.
We started dating each other, and our first commitment we made together was to buy a kite. We went to a kite shop in Chinatown, split the cost, and then went to the reliably windy Ocean Beach to try it out. We could not get it to fly, and after about 30 consecutive crashes, Miri said, “I think we have a special-needs kite.”