As the days before my son was born dwindled, the question everyone kept asking me was, “are you ready?”
That’s what they said at the beginning of every conversation, like the chorus of a goddamn Jock Jams song. Y’all ready for this?
And I answered in what I felt was as truthful a way as I could: fuck-to-the-no. How could anyone who’s spent a substantial portion of his adult life subsisting on pirated movies, Vienna sausages, and Keystone Light be prepared to parent a child?
But the day finally came, and I watched the nurses wipe the goo from my newborn son, and instead of counting down, the days began to ascend.
Melinda and I returned home over a week ago now, and I can report things are going just fine…if your definition of fine is sleeping no more than two hours at a time, your REM pattern broken by banshee wails and diapers full of creamed corn.
But of course I’m happy. Each time I put him on my chest and he nuzzles into my neck and falls asleep, I get a little choked up. “I made you,” I whisper to him. “You came from my balls.”
Of all the joys I’ve experienced in the first two weeks of parenthood, the one I’m most happy about is that I can finally tell people his name.
Melinda and I had arrived at the name quickly once we found out he was a boy. I’d given the topic thought for several years before we got pregnant, and when she asked if I had any ideas, I presented an instantaneous answer. First and middle.
“Ok,” she said, “that’s a good start. Are there other ones you’re thinking about?”
“I’m…pretty firm on that one,” I said.
“So I don’t really get a say at all?”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m a little flexible on the middle name if you have any ideas.”
And though we did end up going with a different middle name — my initial suggestion was Angelo, after Melinda’s uncle — we settled on a name that felt easy and right.
The hardest part came after, when we decided we wouldn’t share his name with anyone until he was born.
Now, I’m not the best secret-keeper anyway. It’s one of the things that made me a good journalist and a bad friend: I just NEED to be the first one to break news. But since I’d managed to keep my trap shut about Melinda’s pregnancy for an entire trimester, I figured I was up to the challenge.
What I didn’t anticipate was how fucking ruthless people would be about knowing the name.
I should’ve known better, I guess. Names are, and have always been, an important part of our culture. My entire 9th grade curriculum is based around the concept of names. We study Romeo & Juliet and examine how a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. We read Steinbeck and talk about how Curley’s wife never gets a name.
Every year, I do this project with my freshmen where they give an oral presentation on the history and significance of their names. I have them research the etymology and also ask them to interview their family about why they were given that name.
Some of the kids have really cool stories — like my student Gabriel, who was named after his great-great-grandfather, a sailor lost at sea during a storm. But I’m surprised each year by how arbitrary most of their names are. One boy told me he was going to be named Marshall and suddenly, a few days before he was born, his parents changed their minds and named him Kobe.
“Are they huge Lakers fans?” I asked.
He said his parents don’t even like basketball, but one night they were flipping through the channels and came across a Kobe Bryant interview and the name stuck.
He seemed pretty excited to be named after a basketball legend, so I didn’t bring up that whole pesky rape charge thing. I mean, at least he wasn’t named OJ.
I guess if I think about it, my name is pretty arbitrary as well. There are no Sams on either side of my family. My mom said she was inspired to give me this name because it was the name of a protagonist in the book she was reading at the time. For someone who loves reading and writing, this is a cool origin, and I was excited about it until she told me the book she was reading was a bodice ripper, one of those trashy romance novels with Fabio clutching some busty broad on the cover.
But the best name story I’ve ever heard is from my friend Tellas. The way he tells the story, his uncle Rick loved the TV show Kojak, and he suggested his sister name her newborn son after the show’s star, Telly Savalas. Only Uncle Rick was a little intoxicated in the hospital, and so the name came out slurred when he had the nurse write it on the birth certificate. Thus, Tellas got his name.
Still, we knew we didn’t want to tell anyone his name for two big reasons. 1 – Melinda felt like her other two pregnancies had been spectacles executed for the enjoyment of her family and friends, so she wanted one she and I could experience privately; and 2 – we didn’t want editorial notes on our name selection, as though this was American Idol and we were looking for feedback.
I was okay with not letting anyone give input, because frankly, other people’s baby names are shitty.
I’m embarrassed about the names my generation of parents have bestowed upon their offspring, a bunch of try-hard variations on old classics. Names like Jaxon and Zakary aren’t unique to me, they’re just misspelled. As far as I’m concerned, the letters X, Y, and Z are at the end of the alphabet for a reason.
As my son grew inside Melinda I noticed the shitty names more and more, the same way you notice how many Honda CRVs are on the road once you buy one.
When our friends Jen and Kevin gave birth to their daughter and named her Oakley, I had a fit. How do people with perfectly normal names arrive at naming their child after a brand of sunglasses?
My stance was humbled a bit once I discovered the name was a tribute to Kevin’s best friend, whose nickname is Oak. “Fine,” I said to Melinda, “but it’s still not going to stop me from calling her Ray Ban.”
One of the things my friends kept telling me is that they knew I’d have some sort of literary reference in his name. He’d be named Ernest or Holden, as if I’d ever name my kid after a guy who had four wives or a fictional shithead with a fetish for ducks. But I always knew I wanted something more anchored, more real.
There’s a scene in my favorite John Cusack movie The Sure Thing, where Cusack and Daphne Zuniga hitch a ride by pretending they’re having a baby.
The lady who picks them up asks Zuniga what they’re going to name the baby, and she responds if it’s a boy, they’re going to name him Elliot.
“Elliot?” Cusack quips. “You can’t name the kid Elliot. Elliot is a fat kid with glasses who eats paste. You gotta give him a real name. Like Nick.”
“Nick?” Zuniga says.
“Yeah, Nick!” replies Cusack. “Nick’s a real name. Nick’s your buddy. He’s the kind of guy you can trust, the kind of guy you can drink a beer with. The kind of guy who doesn’t mind if you puke in his car. Nick.”
I remember seeing that movie around 2007, when my friend Robby lent me his copy, and feeling like no matter what my future son’s name would be, it would follow John Cusack’s guidelines.
My dad, of course, had his own ideas.
“Why not something strong and Nordic?” he said.
This was the same thing my grandfather had done when my brother Ben was born. Pop had been somewhat placated by my name, since we shared our middle name Edward, but when my parents told him their second son would be name Benjamin Robert, he was disappointed.
It seemed he’d been hoping for Gustav, his uncle from Norway. Not to be deterred, Pop called Ben “Gus” for the rest of his life.
Now, it was my dad playing the same game. “What kind of Nordic name?” I asked him. “Olaf? Sven?”
He shrugged. “Gerhardt wouldn’t be terrible. That was my bestefar’s name.”
I promised him I’d do my best, though I didn’t want him to get his hopes up about Gerhardt.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Just no Dago names, okay?”
Our other kids, D&J, were probably the most relentless. Once we told them they’d have a new baby brother in April, they both angled for weeks to get his name. They claimed their friends at school were asking, and they didn’t know what to say.
We told them if anyone asked, they should tell them his name was Alfredo Marinara Hedenberg.
Seven-year-old J wrinkled her nose. “I can’t even say that, so I just won’t tell anyone,” she said.
The code name worked…at least until Christmas, when Melinda hung a new stocking on the mantle embroidered with the letter R. It took the kids .5 seconds to see the discrepancy.
“What’s the R for, Mom? What’s the R for?” they pleaded.
Melinda was hapless, so I was forced to think on my feet. “Ravioli,” I said. “The R is for Ravioli Hedenberg.”
11-year-old D was smarter than this, and he frowned. “I thought you said his name was Alfredo.”
“That’s his middle name,” I said. “His first name is Ravioli.”
For months, the kids were fine with this, talking to baby Ravioli in Melinda’s belly each night, counting down the days until they could meet him. But the night before we were scheduled to go to the hospital, they were done waiting.
“C’mon Mom,” D said. “It’s only one more night. Just tell us now.”
We stayed firm, and the kids went to bed, disappointed but excited.
To my surprise, the nurses at the hospital the next morning were almost as determined as the kids.
“Sorry,” I said, repeating to our anesthesiologist the line Melinda and I had worn threadbare over the last nine months. “We’re not telling anyone until he’s born.”
“That’s fine,” he said, “but you’re going to tell us in the operating room, right?”
Well shit, I hadn’t thought of that. In my head, I’d already rehearsed the order I’d send the birth text messages out. I felt like the sequence of the notifications was somehow significant, a ranking of important people in our lives. And now what, I was going to waste my proclamation, my implicit public announcement of this human came from my balls to a roomful of strangers? Why? Because they’d learned how to insert a catheter?
I stewed for a bit as they prepped Melinda for surgery, thinking about telling those medical professionals it wasn’t any of their goddamn business what my son’s name was, thank you very much.
But of course when the time came, and they brought him around the corner of the surgery screen, I caved.
“What’s his name, Sam?” one of the nurses asked me, all of her smile concealed by a surgical mask except for her squinting eyes.
I opened my mouth to answer but faltered, my heart choked in my throat in front of a dozen hospital workers, my wife’s blood running in rivers across the floor.
It’d probably be one of a dozen first names they’d hear that day, but they still all looked at me like it was special, like they gave a shit.
“Robert James,” I said. “His name is Robert James.”
They all cheered and welcomed my son into the world, and then they went back to work.
And when the time came for me to hold him for the first time, my Ravioli/Gerhard/Jaxon, the nurse offered him up to me.
“Are you ready, Dad?” she asked.
“I’ve never been more ready,” I said.