by Ronnie K. Stephens

When they talk of fatherhood
I hear words like diaper and swaddle and sleepless.

Their eyes are alight with the simple joy
of tiny humans with tiny hands and tiny feet
and round bellies.

But even grandparents can’t prepare you
for this kind of vocabulary.

Neonatal Intensive Care.
Fetal Cardiology.
Pulmonary Stenosis.
Aortic Valve.
Surfactant therapy.
Collapsed lung.
PICC Line.
Art Line.

I learned the color-coded line graphs
of my children before I knew their eyes.

The green number is the heartbeat.
176 and rising.

The blue one shows oxygenation
of the blood. We aim for 100.

The white line measures breaths
per minute. Her lungs are working hard.
We want her numbers below 60.
I see 93. I see 102. I see 88.

I see chest X-rays every morning.
Echocardiograms for her sister.

Helen and Molly.My baby girls.
My daughters.

Who learned borrowed blankets
and a chorus of machines before they learned
their mother’s hand.

I don’t remember any of this
in my books. I read so many books.

On the eighth day at the hospital
I remember the word exhausted.

How it came with a smile
from a father who knew four a.m. feedings
and burp cloths and breast pumps.

But there’s no way to prepare
for the kind of tired it takes to sleep
through the siren of your daughter
not breathing.

Because you’ve heard it before.
Because you’re not a nurse.

Because the first cries your body learned
were polyrhythmic warnings
that something was wrong
and you could do nothing
to stop it.

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