In my son’s baby scrapbook there’s a blank page with the heading “Baby’s First Outing.”
My wife Kait gave birth to our son Uriah 20 months ago. Along with the joy of being a new parent came equal amounts of dread. In the early days Uriah’s life on Earth thoughts banged around my head of the incalculable number of things that could go wrong: I imagined holding him and getting my foot caught on the corner of an area rug and he goes flying out of my arms, or I'm unknowingly feeding him a bottle of rotten formula that causes his skin to become green and scaly, or I'm playfully tossing him into the air but I've forgotten about the living room ceiling fan whirling in the danger zone overhead.
So, for the first 2 weeks of Uriah's life he was kept safe and sound in his bassinet while his nerve wrecked Dad simply stared down at him.
But one can only stare at a baby for so long before things get a bit dull for all parties involved. For Kait and I that time was about one month. We figured it was time to get little Uriah out of the house. We decided that baby’s first out would be to…The Monroeville Mall. What baby wouldn't love to hear one day that his first time out of the house was to a corporate facility that housed a mock Mister Rogers neighborhood, an expansive zombie wax museum, and a Payless Shoe Store? For me the allure was that a trip to the mall was relatively low risk.
We dressed Uriah in his tiny dinosaur hoodie, with the row of green spikes on the hood. Then we strapped him into his Graco baby seat, which is built like a Sherman Tank. I settled in behind the wheel of the Hyundai Elantra. Kait sat in the back beside the baby seat.
And off we went.
We live in the Greenfield neighborhood, next to Squirrel Hill. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of town, the on-ramp to 376 there is a steep decline to a stop sign where you have to stick your head out the window and look BEHIND you like a dog, and wait for a gap in the cars passing at 60 mph and then gun it and weave into traffic. Nerves had already taken hold of me on the short drive from our house to that on-ramp. I'm going about 15 mph. I'm putting my blinkers on a half mile ahead of time. Basically, I'm driving like it's my driver's test and a sneering instructor with a red pen and a clipboard is riding shotgun.
After an unscathed first leg of the rip, we arrive at the ramp. Now, I've managed this ramp probably a thousand times in my life without incident. I patiently wait my turn while the vehicles in from of me pull one by one on to 376 East. Occasionally I glance into the rearview mirror to observe Kait playing peek-a-boo with Uriah. How adorable! Eventually, my turn to ease toward the stop sign arrives. I roll down the window and stick my head outside to gauge the oncoming traffic behind me, and I wait until a chance to pull out. When I do I gun it. But when I snap my head forward to take stock of the rapidly approaching Squirrel Hill Tunnel, I see we're careening toward a black minivan that I hadn't noticed was still waiting on the ramp ahead of me. In that moment it's not my life that flashes before me, but Uriah's. And it's just a month of lying in a bassinet and being stared at.
The collision is barely a fender bender. But my wife immediately explodes. "My car!" she says. "The car? What about our baby?" I reply. We’d taken so many car rides alone that she momentarily forgot we had a newborn with us. "Uriah! I swear Matt, if you hurt my baby…rah, rah, rah." She tore into me. Her chastisements flood my ears so rapidly that I can't decipher the words.
I exit the car and approach the driver of the van, who is also bitching at me. I apologize and tell her I screwed up, wasn't paying attention, and so forth—just a longwinded way of saying "my bad." Meanwhile cars are beeping and driving around us on the ramp to get onto the highway. Eventually, the other driver settles down and forgives me, and drives away. I return to the Elantra, and the firestorm within. By this time, my wife is on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. Now, Kait is taking turns between berating me and describing the baby's condition. "He looks okay but I can't tell…Oh my god Matt, if you hurt my baby…Send paramedics right away…You idiot Matt, if you hurt my baby…"
I have no choice but to pull on to the highway and get off the next exit literally 50 yards away. We end up right back in Greenfield. Meanwhile Kait is still unloading on me "The dispatcher said we aren't supposed to move the car because the baby's neck might move. If you hurt my baby..."
I pull to the side of a residential street only about 5 blocks from our house. While the verbal bombardment continues I lean back and get a good look at Uriah. He seems to be sleeping peacefully.
We wait along the road while the evening gets darker and darker. Finally, a cop car pulls up behind us, red and blue lights flashing like crazy. My neighbors in the surrounding houses are drawn to the flashing lights and start walking onto their front porches to check out the scene. I get out of the car again and approach the cop who is talking into the receiver on his shoulder, as they do. I only catch the words "situation" and "back-up."
After a little longer the paramedics arrive, red and white lights flashing like crazy. More neighbors peer out their windows or mosey on to their porches. Kait is still in the back seat, crying and rubbing Uriah's cheeks. I'm just standing there on the sidewalk watching, and hoping to shrink to nothing.
Finally a fire truck shows up, red and white lights flashing like crazy. Within seconds, cops, paramedics, and fire men mull about the Elantra. People are starting to line the streets as though they are expecting a parade. This is a major neighborhood event now. I honestly half expect the KDKA news helicopter to come hovering overhead.
At this point I'm just another onlooker. It's pretty dark now. I peer through the Elantra's back window. One paramedic shines a flashlight on Uriah while another places his calloused stout finger on Uriah's smooth scrawny neck. "Heartbeat normal," the paramedic says. A third paramedic places the cold business end of a stethoscope on Uriah's petite chest. "Breathing normal." The whole time Uriah remains asleep. I'll never forget his tiny face, disappearing and reappearing in all the flashing red, blue, and white lights. The row of stubby green dinosaur spikes atop his head are coming and going too. The poor dude has no idea of the commotion around him. He looks just as he had while sleeping in his bassinet the month before this giant mess.
In that moment I never felt smaller. Never. One month into being a parent and on our FIRST trip out of the front door I'm already convinced I managed to give my baby whiplash, or worse. And whole world within two blocks knows that the distraught guy lingering about the Elantra is the one to blame.
I snap out of my trance when the first cop on the scene approaches me. "Mr. Bower, your baby seems perfectly fine. Please sign the medical report and we can all go home." I smile and nod and I sign the report. He tears a copy from his clipboard and hands it to me while bidding me a good evening. Then he begins to walk away, but stops and turns around and says, "Hey. When I first got here I mean to ask you about the driver of the other vehicle? The dispatcher said your wife was ready to kill up the other driver." I said "No. She wanted to kill me."
Once the flashing lights dimmed and the onlookers disappeared back inside their homes I drive my family straight home. Once back inside the living room and under the comforting glow of the floor lamp, I hold all 9 pounds of my still sleeping son in my arms. For the first time I feel as though he is safe right where he was.
If you open Uriah's scrapbook to the page with the headline "Baby's First Outing", there isn't a description of a nice night at the zombie wax museum or Payless Shoes, there's a copy of a medical report.