At around 9 o’clock this past Saturday night, I found myself lying on the bed, sobbing uncontrollably. I should have known it would have that kind of an effect on me, but I didn’t expect it to feel so much like pain. The aching feeling in my chest was almost unbearable. The best way I can describe it would be “grief”… but without the accompanying feeling of despair. I did, however, feel an overwhelming sense of loss. Only, I hadn’t lost a close friend or dear relative… I had lost something else. A “thing” that I didn’t even realize had existed until it was gone. Perhaps that is why I couldn’t immediately explain what had happened as my wife, Lindsey, sat on the bed beside me asking what was wrong.
Last month, Lindsey reminded me that we would be switching our son’s nighttime routine when he turned one year old. Apparently, the experts say that it is best for a child to be weaned off a bottle by the end of their 12th month. At this point they should be eating solid foods and getting the necessary amount of milk via sippy cup. At the time, he was 11 months old. I knew that would be a difficult transition for both of us because every other “milestone” in his life had come with the expected mixture of sadness and joy. But, with a month to prepare, I didn’t give it much thought. I was busy with work and with church and with everything else and -after all- we had already started to decrease the number of bottles he received during the course of the day; which had been a welcomed relief from all the work it took to wash & reload everyday.
About a year ago, right before our son was born, my wife and I were having dinner at her parent’s house one evening when her uncle stopped by for a visit. He sat with us as we finished our meal and began to chat with me about what it was like to be a father. His children were already grown and had families of their own. He had missed parts of their childhood because he had served in the military as a young man and spent many months at a time away from home. He began to tell me that, while he was home, he would gladly volunteer to help his wife out with some of the nighttime feedings that “most men sleep right through.” He described how much he cherished that one-on-one time with his children each night as he would give them a bottle and then rock them back to sleep. He said that, if he could give me any bit of advice as a father, it would be to take part in those nighttime feedings… even if it meant being tired the next day at work.
Now, I had been given a lot of “advice” from many people since we had announced that we were going to have a baby. However, for some reason, this particular conversation stuck with me. Perhaps it was because I recognized that I was talking to a man who, having been away from his children for long periods of time, knew what it meant to appreciate the moments that mattered. Perhaps it was the sincerity in his voice as he reminisced about those memories he had with his children.
Needless to say, when our son arrived, I volunteered to take on half of the night time feedings right from the beginning. This included the 11pm feeding, the one that would eventually get pushed back earlier and earlier. As our son gradually began to sleep for longer periods of time, it evolved into the “last bottle of the day.” It happened so slowly that I didn’t really take notice. By the time he was 4 months old, our nightly routine consisted of daddy changing the diaper, putting on the PJ’s, and cradling him in my arms as I sat in the glider we keep in the nursery. Mommy would heat the bottle, bring it to me -at just the right time-, and hurry back to other parts of the house to take care of all the loose ends she had left hanging during the day as she cared for our son while I was at work. As I held his bottle -eventually, he would start doing that part on his own- we would rock slowly in the dim light listening to a lullaby or softly singing a hymn from the old hymnal I kept in a pocket on the side of the chair. It was during this time that I would pray for him. I would pass the time asking God to protect him, bless him and -ultimately- bring him to a saving faith in Jesus. I would thank God for giving him to us healthy and strong. Through tears I would tell God that we recognized that he was a gift and that we acknowledge that he doesn’t really belong to us. I would beg God to make us into the kind of parents we needed to be to raise this little boy into someone that could be used to bring Him glory. When he fell asleep, I would kiss his little bald head, swaddle him tight and lay him gently into his crib for the night. Usually, Lindsey would sneak back in for one more peek before going to bed and we would stand over his crib with those stupid new parent grins on our faces as we watched him settle into sleep.
This had gone on for months… up until Tuesday night last week. That night, I gave him his bottle like normal and went to bed. The next day, he spent the night with Lindsey’s parents because she had a doctor’s appointment early the next morning that she couldn’t bring him to. Then, he spent Thursday night with my parents because it had been a while since they had seen him. On Friday, we noticed that we were out of formula. One week before his 1st birthday. I was at work when Lindsey called to say that she was stopping by the store to pick up another container. We realized that -at $30/container- it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to buy something, that would last a few weeks, just to facilitate what we were planning to stop by the end of the next week. So, we made the decision to stop his bottles early. After all, it’s just a developmental thing… and he was always a “big” boy. That night, as we were preparing him for bed, it hit us. No more bottles. The sippy cup of “regular” milk he had had at dinner was the last thing he would be eating before going to sleep.
I wasn’t ready for that. I panicked a little bit because I couldn’t remember the last bottle I had given him. He had stayed with grandparents the previous two nights and my week was a blur. It was then that all of the conversations we had had with other parents came rushing back to our minds. We had been told on numerous occasions that you usually don’t realize that the milestones in your child’s life are reached until after they are gone. You don’t think “this is the last time I will swaddle him” until a few days later when you realize he hasn’t needed it. You don’t think “this is the last newborn diaper he will wear” until you run out and replace them with the next size up. You don’t think “this is the last time he will sit in the Bumbo” until you are storing it in the attic for the next child. As the realization settled in, we spent the rest of the evening in a state of melancholy. Honestly, I didn’t like the idea that all those other parents had been right about it. Secretly, I had harbored the thought that it wouldn’t happen to me like that. Deep down, I harbored a small hope that he wouldn’t be able to go “cold turkey” off the bottle…
The next night, he began to cry about an hour before bedtime. We had been busy working in and around the house all day preparing for his birthday party the next weekend. Because I wanted to take full advantage of the daylight, dinner was coming a little later than normal… so we assumed he was crying because he was hungry. He cried all the way through dinner and wouldn’t drink the milk in his sippy cup. As I prepared to put him to bed, I came to the conclusion that he either wanted a bottle or was cutting a tooth. In all likelihood, he was cutting a tooth. But I used it as an opportunity to make the “last bottle” count. I tried to convince Lindsey that he was crying because he wanted a bottle. She wasn’t buying it. She wanted to give him some baby Tylenol to help with the tooth pain (he was grabbing his mouth and chomping hard on this pacifier… that, combined with the weird poops he had been having, were sure-tale signs that he was, in fact, cutting a tooth). I didn’t want my selfishness to prolong his pain, so we gave him the meds. However, I poured the leftover milk into a bottle anyway. Lindsey conceded… but only because I think she could see how desperate I was to give it to him one last time.
I grabbed the bottle and -as a last second thought- a GoPro camera and carried him into the nursery. We sat down on the glider, one last time. He turned around to face outward and settled his little back against my chest, one last time. I handed him the bottle and he quickly grabbed it with both of his little hands, one last time. I kissed his little bald -now slightly fuzzy- head as I held him in my lap, one last time. As he drank, he swirled his little feet against my legs in pure enjoyment, one last time. He leaned back against me and scooted forward to get a better angle on the bottle, one last time.
I reached over and grabbed the camera. I don’t know why I felt such a strong urge to take a picture. I just wanted to preserve the memory of it forever. I didn’t trust my mind to record all the little details of it like I wanted them to be remembered. I held the camera as close to my point of view as I could and snapped a few shots. He looked up at me once to see what I was doing… I’ll cherish that one forever. I put the camera away and held him tightly. There was only an ounce left in the bottle and I needed to soak it in. There are so many things that a picture can’t convey.
As I sat there trying to cement all of it into my brain, I felt the tears coming. That terrible sinking feeling that comes with the grieving process began to settle into my chest, forming a lump in my throat big enough to choke an elephant. I know now that the flood of emotions that began to roll down my cheeks originated from the part of me that knew what was happening before my mind had been able to recognize it. I was losing the “father/son” ritual we had shared since we first met. This was the part of my day when I could make up for all the time I lost while being away at work. Without this time, how would he even know who I was? How would I show him how much I love him? When would this little ball of energy ever sit still long enough for me to hold him like this again?
He finished his bottle and tossed it aside as he always does. I caught it as I always do. I traded him his pacifier and he settled back against me. My chest began to shake as I tried to hold it all in. I didn’t mean for him to feel it, but he did. He turned his head and looked up at me. Through the tears I could see him look me in the face. Inquisitively, he uttered one of his little sounds, “buh?”. Then he did something he has never done. He turned himself around in my lap and nuzzled his head under my chin. He tucked his arms under his chest and pulled his knees up into my belly. It was as if he knew. As I wrapped him in my arms, I lowered my face onto the top of his head and whispered “thank you.” I don’t know if I said it to him or to God. Probably both.
He fell asleep and I placed him in his crib as I had done almost every night for the last 12 months. I stumbled into the bedroom and collapsed on the bed beside his wonderful mother. Overcome with sadness and gratefulness, I cried myself to sleep that night… something that grown men are not supposed to do. The first “last bottle” was hard for me. I’m sure there will be many more of these nights as he grows up. Although I do not think I can do anything to make them less painful, I’ll do my best to make them just as meaningful… and I’ll never forget.
“Children are a gift from the lord; they are a reward from him. Children born to a young man are like arrows in a warrior’s hands.”