The Big Baby Boy At Atlantic City Medical Center
He was 11 pounds, 5 ounces when he was born; his birth was deemed "life-threatening;" 14 years later, everybody's good
The doctors said his head size was "off the charts."
It all seemed kind of funny. Then they warned the worst: Normal delivery could kill Tommy, and my wife.
The only choice the doctors gave us was the date. The C-section had to happen in March, they said. The last week, just before Easter. In the OR, at what was known then as the Atlantic City Medical Center's mainland division, in Galloway.
Just pick the day, we were told.
When we sat down to eat what would be our last meal, on March 23, 1998, on the day before his birth, we sort of knew we'd get through this. Or, at least, that's what we coached ourselves into believing, because we coached ourselves through a lot of things before.
The doctors warned us enough, we thought. We weren't stubborn about anything. We were committed to nothing. The one thing we did know: Natural child birth was fine for others. Just not for us.
"Just give me the meds," my wife said.
Still, as we munched on Wendy's chicken sandwiches and fries on the White Horse Pike in Absecon, surrounded by the darkness of warm spring's evening sky, doubt creeped in. In my mind, at least.
This was to be our first child; could it be our last?
My family had seen tragedy. Should we prepare for more?
Even the food gave me the creeps. Is this what we should be eating, fried, greasy fast-food, just hours before the biggest event of our lives?
Fourteen years later, and just this past Tuesday, this boy, the same one we feared we'd never see, was walking, and smiling with others, carrying a thick mane of blonde hair on his scalp that was tucked tightly under his eighth grade graduation cap.
He wore a tall graduation gown that ran down to his shoes. His shirt collar was a little wrinkled, but the shirt made him look, overall, formal and dignified. His slacks seemed a little too big. But it was the cap I worried about the most.
Would it fit?
I watched, and I marveled at how the occasional breezes did little to move the cap from its perch. His thick hair bunched under it, and kept it in its place.
Last year, I wrote a book about my family, called "A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family From Generations of Mental Illness." I spoke of the few tragedies, but the rare triumphs of a family - my family - that suffered through generations of self-destruction.
I wrote about boys and girls, men and women who often felt out-sized in a world that, to them, seemed too big.
I kept Tommy out of it, for the most part. I sought to protect him against a world that can be cruel, and unforgiving. I saw him as defenseless in a family that, in order to break this chain of self-destruction, needed a miracle.
I worried about him before he was even born, and wondered before we headed to the OR:
How do we stop him, and whatever children we have after him, from continuing this chain of tragedy?
Even if we were to get through the birth, would we get through the next week? How about a year? Or even a decade?
Ultimately, we would come to learn that the true miracle is this boy, this young man who once seemed so vulnerable, but now is so strong, solid and proud. Two months away from high school, he is a survivor who has already lived a life that many could find too hard to live.
In a family where generations would die because of suicide, alcoholism or some other self-inflicted wound, Tommy would find a way to cope, to dream and to deliver. And, in many ways, to teach us to be better parents and people.
For Tommy, life would never come so easily.
Even when the he first gave him life, on March 24, 1998, the doctor marveled not at Tommy's birth, but at his size.
"HOO-AH!" the doctor yelled, just as my wife lay on the table at Atlantic City Medical Center, now known as Atlanticare Regional Medical Center on Jimmie Leeds Road. She only had a thin sheet to protect her from the cold, dank room, but nothing to shield her from the noise.
She recoiled, and shivered slightly, as she was subjected to the doctor's whimsical barks of surprise.
"I can't see him!" she protested, lightly, wanting to know that this baby was surviving OK, and hoping that those off-the-charts measurements were never worth a damn.
"HOO-AH!" the doctor said, again and again, still channeling Al Pacino when few cared to hear it.
But the marveling and the gawking would continue. In those first months, friends and family would visit, and prop him up on their knees, awed as much as the doctor was by the size of this boy.
They'd see his baby shirts grow too small too quick. They'd stare at his head with the sea of pale hair.
All the while, even as others would tickle him under his arms, or make the funniest of faces, Tommy would never smile. Not until he was about three months old would he crack a grin.
For all his size, however, as Tommy moved through his toddler years, he would grow more in pensiveness than he would in fearlessness.
Tommy was often the last to jump on the monkey bars. And he would do it only when everybody else was off of it.
At picnics and parties, he had to be coaxed into playing the same games he loved to play with his mom and dad. But baseball was not baseball when it was with someone else.
As he grew older, he would learn to adapt. But even then, at age 9, 10 and 11. he would struggle to keep up with the size of his body.
He would play baseball, eventually, and hit balls that would bang against the outfield fence, or clear it entirely. But then he'd strike out, and he'd want to crawl back inside us, just as he almost did on that day OR, back down in Galloway, when he screamed his raw lungs off in that cold, dank room.
We would push him to keep going, only to watch him retreat more, into some place where he seemed out-sized, even if his physique would out-size most everybody else.
With age and maturity, however, came adjustment. Tommy would everntually adapt. But we would adapt, too. In many ways, we'd learn more from Tommy than he would from us.
We would learn that he would like soccer, and those sharp, snappy reflexes that often served him well as a batter, or as an infielder, would serve him better as a goalie.
We would learn that he likes video games, and that he can master them, much more and much quicker than he would when he was waiting to use the monkey bars, waiting for the last kid to jump off.
We would learn that he could make friends, and that he could make a lot of them. But he doesn't make them the same way we did, when we were young, when we had barely an Atari computer and video pong to show off.
He has a headset an an X-BOX that connects with friends in his hometown, and even those who moved away. Since he's been on that, he's gone to dances he never used to set foot in. He goes to people's houses he never was friends with, no matter how nice and smart they were. He's going to parties that he wouldn't dare getting near.
We would learn that he could find friends, smile, and laugh on his own, so long as you gave him the space that would allow him to get there.
Happy graduation, Tommy.