It started with two blue lines.
Two blue lines resulting from bodily fluids reacting with a chemical strip.
Melinda came into the bedroom, beaming, pushing this piss-soaked stick into my face.
“Look, look,” she said.
I had seen this exact scene play out in countless romantic comedies and sitcom plots over the years. It was the one where I was supposed to whoop and cheer, or jump on the couch with my motorcycle boots and yell “Have Mercy!” like Uncle Jesse.
But it didn’t feel like that.
“Are you sure?” is what I asked, scrutinizing the quality of the test’s injection-molded body. “I mean, isn’t this a Safeway brand test?”
Melinda frowned. “So?”
“I mean, how certain can you be about something that comes in a two pack and lives next to yeast infection suppositories and economy-sized tubs of strawberry-banana lube?”
I had a point, it seemed. So we did the adult thing and scheduled an appointment with the lady parts doctor.
I was aware places like this existed. My female friends had supposedly gone to them for years; once, I’d accidentally happened upon a few bizarre, gyno-related videos on the interwebs with my browser in Incognito mode. But knowing about something and experiencing it are two entirely different things, as I came to find out.
After signing in and watching Ellen interview a 7-year-old rapper/entrepreneur about his desire to become an SNL cast member on the waiting room television, a nurse ushered us to an exam room. Melinda retreated to the bathroom to pee into a cup, which meant I was left to my own devices. The only things decorating the taupe walls were two posters: one, a diagram of a large-breasted Asian woman sporting a cross-section of an upside-down fetus; and the other, a blown-up drawing of the female vulva with labia resembling a set of curtains from a high school auditorium.
Melinda came back and noticed me transfixed by the posters.
“Those doing anything for you?” she asked.
“Not particularly,” I said.
The nurse came in and told Melinda to take off her pants and cover herself in a drape, which as far as I could tell was a sheet made of construction paper. “The doctor will be in shortly,” the nurse said.
We sat like this, Melinda half naked under a paper blanket and me staring at a cartoon clitoris, for nearly 30 minutes.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why is our appointment at 2:40 if the doctor can’t see us until 3:15?”
“Welcome to the gynecologist’s office,” Melinda said.
The doctor finally arrived, no doubt waylaid by some ovarian emergency. She was blonde and young enough to appear excited, but old enough to give me the sense she knew her way around a c-section.
“Hi there,” she said. Congratulations?”
That’s how she said it. Her voice went up at the end, like she wasn’t sure, the way you’d say someone’s name if you were meeting them on a blind date. “Congratulations?”
Melinda and I looked at each other. Was that it? The confirmation we were looking for, that we were bringing a human into the world?
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked me.
“I’m not…sure how to feel,” I said, still not certain what I was being congratulated about. Surely it wasn’t for the life of my first child. That type of congratulations requires cigars and balloons; at the very least, a sentence that ends with a more confident piece of punctuation.
The doctor saw the confusion in our faces and she panicked. “Oh no, I mean…I’m so sorry.”
And then we panicked.
“What are you saying?” Melinda said.
“I just thought…oh gosh,” the doctor said. “The notes in your file said you guys were trying and so I thought…is this not a congratulations moment?”
“No, we are trying,” Melinda said. “Was the test positive?”
The doctor let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, yes, it’s positive. I just thought maybe the way you reacted that it wasn’t good news.”
Once again, the moment where I expected to be overwhelmed with fatherly emotion sputtered in front of me like a deflating balloon. Have Mercy moment it was not.
Okay, so the first appointment didn’t inspire any new dad sentiments in me, but I felt pretty confident the second appointment, where we’d see the blood of our blood on a sonogram for the first time, would be the ticket. I’ve always been more of a visual guy anyway, I reasoned.
We sat down in a darkened exam room and Melinda put on the construction paper blanket again. The tech came in and glopped a bunch of jelly on Melinda’s belly — presumably strawberry-banana flavored — and described what she was going to do. There were lots of words I didn’t understand, but I did catch the word “trans-vaginal” in there at some point, which I knew immediately to mean the tech would be utilizing that wand that looked like a billy club with the phone cord attached to it.
The belly one only lasted a second, and the tech pointed out a bean-sized blob on the screen I assumed to be my child, but learned it was actually the gestational sac. Then she pointed out the yolk, and I realized I was not many steps removed from looking at an x-ray of someone’s continental breakfast.
The real fun began when the billy club came out, because there were now way more blobs on the screen.
Now, I’ve seen enough x-rays, MRIs, and CAT scans to understand the resulting images all have some level of abstraction, but this was the Jackson Pollock of exams. You could have told me I was looking at a Hubble Telescope image of a galaxy and I’d have believed you.
The tech didn’t seem deterred. She made measurements, pulling a virtual ruler from one amorphous clump of pixels to another, annotating screenshots with text like R Ovary and L Ovary. The whole time, I stared over her shoulder, thinking there’s no fucking way you see anything on this screen.
That’s what I wanted to say, but I knew it would be insulting. Instead, I said: “I’m fascinated you see something on this screen.”
The tech said nothing. She was silent before, but this silence felt way more awkward.
“Jesus Sam,” Melinda said. “She’s a trained technician.”
“No, I get that,” I said. “I’m just saying it’s incredible you see anything at all.” The tech grunted and continued taking measurements and screen shots.
When she finished, she looked up from the machine. “Now for the main event,” she said. “We’ll take some pictures of baby for you.”
“So this is the part where it’s like you work for JC Penney and you’re taking family portraits,” I said.
This comment, too, fell flat.
But you know what? I stand by my comparison, because the tech spent the next two minutes twisting the billy club this way and that, trying to get an optimal picture of my kid. EXACTLY LIKE A PHOTOGRAPHER AT JC PENNEY.
When she captured an image that was to her liking, she drew an arrow to a tiny white spot on a black background and wrote BABY in yellow Courier New font.
“Do you want a printout, or do you want us to text it to you?” she asked.
“You want to text us our first picture of our child?” I asked.
Again, Melinda and I looked at each other. “What the hell,” Melinda said. “It’s 2019. Just text it to us.”
“That way we can put funny Snapchat filters on it,” I said to the tech. “You know, like dog ears or sunglasses.”
The tech gathered up her things with haste. “Anyway, congratulations,” she said, and sped out the door.
In the lobby, Melinda’s phone buzzed. We put our heads together and looked at the Mark Rothko painting with the word “BABY” emblazoned on it.
“Well?” Melinda said.
I told her I was happy, that it was amazing, but I lied. I didn’t feel like jumping in the air and yelling Have Mercy. I didn’t feel anything.
By week 11, I realized the Have Mercy Moment was a thing of legend, no more realistic than the fact that Peter Griffin could ever lock down a hot chick like Lois. I sat in the office waiting room, cynical, watching this couple fawning over the (printed) picture of their new little blob. They were that annoying yuppie couple, the kind that pretend to like craft beer. Dad wore cargo shorts and a Washington Nationals t-shirt, his crew socks pulled halfway up his calves. Mom wore a t-shirt from a 5k she ran once, as if running three-and-a-half miles is some feat of athleticism worthy of commemoration.
We went through the same routine: the paper sheet, the unnecessarily long wait in the exam room. A doctor we hadn’t met yet came in and introduced herself and told us she wanted to listen to the baby’s heartbeat.
Sure lady, whatever you want to do.
The doctor pulled out a device that looked slightly — only slightly — more professional than a Sony My First Microphone.
She pressed it into Melinda’s stomach, searching for a heartbeat. The sounds from the speaker were like radio transmissions broadcasted from another planet; distant and watery and vaguely eerie.
These were the type of jokes that ran through my head and entertained me for about 90 seconds, until I realized it wasn’t that funny the doctor hadn’t yet found the kid’s heartbeat. I scanned her face for signs of concern, but if there was something wrong, she had a good poker face.
“Oh, you’re being a stinker today, aren’t you?” the doctor said to Melinda’s stomach. “You’re going to make me get the sonogram.”
The doctor left to get a machine, and I busied myself in my notebook to avoid eye contact with Melinda so I wouldn’t telegraph to her I was a little concerned.
The doc wheeled in the sonogram machine and pressed the sensor to Melinda’s belly, coaxing it all the time to move so she could get a better look.
The watery splatter image was way clearer than the last time. I could see a head, a body. It might be an alien, it might be the mailman’s but it was a baby alright.
The only thing was, the screen was still, empty, haunting.
Minutes passed as the doctor pushed and prodded at Melinda’s belly with the sensor, each angle showing no signs of life.
My heart rose in my chest and I pushed down an urge to vomit, my eyes glued to the screen, so I wouldn’t have to see the panic I knew would be on my wife’s face.
And then, out of nowhere, the kid did a fucking flip on the screen, turning over the same way I do in the middle of the night.
“Finally,” the doctor said. “Thank you!”
Words can’t describe the relief, the joy I felt. Seeing that little shit do a somersault in my wife’s belly drew a lump in my throat and tears to my eyes in seconds. Melinda and I both managed to keep it together until the doctor said her goodbyes, but we collapsed into each other’s arms as soon as the exam room door closed.
And I realized then, that those last five minutes were a microcosm of all the things to come. The joys, the pride, the heart-stopping fear. Those are the emotions that make parenthood one of the most agonizing, horrifying, and ultimately rewarding gifts available to us in this life. This was my little preview of what the fuss is all about.
Maybe it wasn’t delivered the way I expected it, or the way Uncle Jesse portrayed it on Full House, but I got my Have Mercy Moment. And I look forward to all the moments to come.
Baby Boy Hedenberg, coming April, 2020.