The football was old, and its leather alternately softened with age and hardened, crackled with wear and use and the dampness of its home in the garage. But as Jake took it in his hand, he didn’t grip it as he was taught on the high school football field, folding the laces into the bend of his second knuckle and curling fingers gently but firmly around the pigskin. Instead, he took it and laid it in the crook of his arm, one end of the cone held gingerly in cradling fingers, the other nestled into the crook of his elbow. And he began to rock it. It was a slow, gentle motion, like the swell of the sea on a clam lake on a July morning. And in that instant, the football was not a football, but his first born child, born just hours ago, and held for the first time.
He remembered that feeling, coming as it did after hours of labor and culminating with a ceasarean birth. She had been the first to hold the child, as was her right, after the work she put into bringing him into the world. She held him on her bare chest, touching him gently to keep him positioned at he simultaneously rooted and took in this new world. He had cried only once on entering this strange realm, where the light was white and yellow and not at all tinged red, not filtered by blood and skin and muffled by layers of skin and tissue and wrapped within the ever-present and comforting regularity of an external heartbeat.
By all rights, he should have been terrified. He had every right to scream and howl for being ushered in so unceremoniously—hours of movement and increasing constriction, enveloped by an arms-reach universe that once provided for all his needs, and now seemed determined to bind and move him against his will.
But on release, on being born, he was neither angry nor resentful, nor even afraid. He looked curious. He took in every blurry shape through eyes that had not, by any scientific standard, yet learned to see. This fresh explorer in a world he never made took it all in, and sought more.
The baby craned his head toward the familiar sound of his mothers voice, and moved it at an odd angle to try and look behind him for the newly unbuffered sound of his father. He swiveled in motions that were at once slow and jerky, robotic and uncertain, but with intent. He moved in directions this new neck, with its new and untested muscles, would allow, trying to see, to take it all in, even as the nurses bundled and wrapped, poked and prodded, and made to take him away.
His job as father, from that point, was not to hold the child, but to shadow him. With a final squeeze of his wife’s hand as they took her away to recovery, he moved to follow this fresh life that would share his name, just brought into this world,
The football brought it all back. Because that was the way he had learned to hold his son , the first time he was able. They called it “the football hold,” with the back of the infant’s head held gently in hand, and the forearm supporting his back. Stubby, fat-laden legs straddled each side of the arm at the elbow. A second hand held and steadied the bundled mass against the arm. And with the baby thus held, the father could gently rock the infant by swaying the arm, a living cradle of fleshy warmth and comfort. That was how it was described to him, and what he had practiced with the hard rubber dummy he’d held in birthing class that reminded him of the actual football for which the hold was named.
But the real thing had been quite different. The first time he held the baby, their baby, their son, it was nothing like hard leather. It was soft, and breathing, and so unbelievably light. It seemed fragile, and so delicate. He barely dared touch the infant for fear of bruising him, like an over ripe tomato whose flesh might melt and bruise and break under the pressure of tactile contact.
But Jake took the baby. The nurse handed the baby to Jake that first time gently, but with a practiced certainty that only someone who had handled many babies could manage. She moved in such a way that her hands both held the baby and also moved Jake’s hands into position to do the same. For a split second, they both held the infant. Then it was Jake, alone.
And Jake took the baby with a fear and trepidation that only first-time fathers can know. He held the head, the skull, the fragile vase at the core of this small things being. He felt the weight of the body on his bare right forearm, imagining he could feel the baby’s tiny little ribs and spine even through the layers of clothing and blanket that surrounded it. And he held his left hand atop the baby, just over the ribcage, further imaging he could feel each impossibly tiny structure of its breastbone. And Jake felt him breathe. And breathe again. And on the third breath is when Jake himself remembered to do so, as well.
“It’s called the football hold,” the nurse said, her smiling eyes darting back and forth protectively, between father and son. No dropped baby’s on her watch. “Because you’re cradling him like you would if you were running down the fifty yard line.”
Jake looked up and smiled, tearing his eyes from the baby’s puzzled, searching face for the merest fraction of a second, before returning. In another life, he would’ve corrected her, jumped laughingly on the premise that anyone would run down the fifty-yard line. You run across the fifty yard line, toward the opposite teams goal. That kind of verbal error, one which spoke to a lack of knowledge about a sport he was so familiar with, would not have been allowed to pass. But that was another life, where things like football, and the lawn, and what kinds of books you read and where you went to college were important. This was a new life. And there was only one thing of tantamount importance in this new life. And he was holding it in his arms, in the football hold.