birthday wishes

Delivering a baby at home was gross I thought when I was 16, and I imagined the neighbors cringing at labor screams….”


by jeremiah o’hagan



Yesterday, the youngest of my four brothers turned 13, the last to become a teenager in what used to be a house full of boys and one mom, before we started moving out. Now, it’s a house full of less boys, still corralled by Mom, who, if I think about it and despite my forgetfulness, is a tremendous woman. So is my youngest brother tremendous, even though before he was born I sat on the cold cement step to the back patio, long phone cord pinched in the sliding door, and told my friend I was angry at my mom’s belly. It was taut and round again – again! – despite the fact that she was 45 and my dad fought with her and we were poor and all of us brothers shared one bedroom, the master bedroom, given up by my parents because it was bigger, barely. Big enough, at least, when that last child came along, to sandwich a crib between two sets of bunks, where the older four of us laid still and wide awake at night while my parents argued or my dad blasted rock-and-roll from his stereo or our newest brother cried. We had learned to love the music because it heralded a night of no voices clashing from the living room, just my dad’s whistle, loud and long. He could whistle forever, lips pursed and powered by the same lungs that shook the house on other nights. What do you do with that when you’re 16, not even sure how to fend for yourself, and there’s another brother in your future? But he was born anyway, dropped in the hall of our house and caught by the midwife. Midwives were cheaper. They offered a more personal level of care, too, my mom said, and they delivered babies at home, which was more comfortable. Delivering a baby at home was gross I thought when I was 16, and I imagined the neighbors cringing at labor screams, imagined my own ears ringing, nowhere to go, no way to not hear and not see the mistake my parents had made.

But now he’s 13, cheeks and stomach round, and he refuses to wear a belt, just as I used to refuse. He’s endlessly hitching his jeans with one finger through the empty rear loop as he bends to grab a book or a Cheerio or a guitar pick he dropped. Bending with one hand behind his back, finger hooked, leg out for balance and shirt tucked around tummy, the other hand grasping the pick, smiling, such agile sausages for fingers. They move so fast seconds later, dialing the reverb on his amp or sliding along the guitar’s slender neck in search of chords. He’s good, real good for a one-day-old teenager, and I can’t fathom my parents’ house without the sound of his black electric guitar. He cried when he got it, tears of disbelief and happiness and maybe of joy and debt and love, too, toward my dad, who yells less now and bought it for him and later helped him pick music to play. Neil Young and Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The other four of us know some of the songs from the nights we spent wrapping bedspreads tight around us, pretending to sleep. But we don’t recall all of the songs he plays because my brother brought new music to his guitar, too, coaxed sounds we’d never heard before, and yesterday, in the silence after I hung up from my phone call to wish him happy birthday, I grew suddenly scared to think what would have happened all those years ago when I shivered on the step and clenched my teeth in the phone, what would have happened if I’d gotten my wish?

Originally published:
Issue Sixty-Eight
April 2014


Jeremiah O’Hagan lives in Washington state with his wife, Tamsen. Together, they have four kids, two dogs, a ton of adventures, and occasional misadventures. Most the misadventures get blamed on the dogs.

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