Tsunami by Tony Black

It’s supposed to hit you like a tsunami, isn’t it? Instantaneous and enormous – BOOM! Done. A switch flicked: a binary distinction. You were childless, now you are a father. You’re handed the child, and this is it: the moment. That moment.

“In that moment I knew…”

“From that moment on…”

“That was the moment…”

But how had you felt, then? Tired? Relieved? Concerned about your wife? All of these things, inter alia. And the alia?  Did they include an overwhelming, all-consuming, and unconditional love? A love above and beyond all other love, for the miracle you hold so tentatively in your arms? They did not. The alia did not include that. So is the switch broken, then? Is there something wrong with the switch? Is there something wrong with you? Because, where is the tsunami? What happened to that?


* * *


And now it’s a week later and you’re home, all three of you. It’s hard work being a father. Day is night, night is day. Neither means much. And there’s science involved: one corner of the kitchen has been transformed into a laboratory in miniature. You have sterilising equipment, measuring spoons and cups, powders, potions, salts. The parental alchemy of transforming crying into sleep. It’s hard work.


Because the baby cries a lot. At first it’s little more than a mewl, tiny and distant. Over time, however, it develops and grows. Into something fuller, richer, louder. But here’s the thing: the thing you didn’t know, that no one told you. He cries out, but he doesn’t cry. There are no tears. He can’t cry. His little tear ducts remain underdeveloped. Or clogged with amniotic fluid. Or both, possibly. Most babies don’t cry actual tears until they’re 3-12 weeks old. Your book tells you that. Some don’t cry tears until they’re two years old. You think this is odd. Odd that it happens, and odd that you didn’t know.

You’re not sure now what you feel. You love the child, of course you do. But you also love your wife, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, some friends. So that’s not unique for you, loving him. That’s not special or extraordinary. You love lots of people.  But isn’t this love supposed to be different? More….intense? Unqualified? That’s not what it feels like. That’s not what you feel.

Are you worried about this? You’re not sure. You think you should be, but there are so many demands on your emotions right now you find it hard to become too concerned. It’ll come, you think, although the actual basis for this presumption does not make itself apparent. Things change, tides turn.

You feel disengaged, somehow. Adrift. You tend to the baby, try to meet his needs, insofar as you can discern them. But it’s as if someone else is doing it, not you. There’s a remoteness there and you can’t seem to break through it: to reach out, touch, be touched.


* * *


The baby was one month old yesterday. Your wife still doesn’t seem to notice anything. How could she? She can’t see inside you. She can’t see what you feel, can’t know. You’re not hiding it from her. You’d welcome the opportunity to talk about it.  But your wife still doesn’t seem to notice.

And the baby? Do you think the baby knows something is amiss? They’re supposed to be super-intuitive. What is the baby thinking when he looks up into your blank face? Is he confused by your disinterest? Grieved by your apathy? Apparently not. He smiled for the first time yesterday. You felt…gratified. Pleased. You did not feel proud. You did not melt. You just watched.


* * *


Seven weeks, four days. It happened this morning: the turning point which, in truth, you had begun to suspect may never arrive. That moment. It was 4.23 am. Or possibly 3.42, or 2.34. One of them. The baby wakes and shortly thereafter so do you. You follow the sound of the crying as your eyes adjust to the gloom. An empty bottle by the Moses basket indicates your wife has been awake when you slept, and that the baby couldn’t be hungry. The bedroom floorboards are chill under your feet. Unusually, your wife continues to sleep deeply. You lift the baby from the basket and hoist him onto your shoulder. The crying abates but soon returns, louder and more urgent. Faster, sorer. You cradle him in your arms and move to the little pool of soft light thrown out by the nightlight. His face is contorted and red. His eyes are darkened slits as his mouth gapes and a raw rasping cry fills the bedroom air.

“Shush now wee man, shush now. Daddy’s here. There, there. Daddy’s here.”

You know he doesn’t understand, you just want him to hear. To pick up on the soothing tone, the calming cadence, to breathe in your scent. Recognise you. Daddy’s here.

And then you see it, sparkling amber in the nightlight’s glow. Slowly rolling from his eye, leaving a glistening trail on his fleshy cheek. A tear. His first tear. It is extraordinary. Your own eyes prickle, a gorgeous ache, until you feel on your own cheek the same thing, and this is the moment: the moment you learned that two tears can be a tsunami.


This story first appeared in the inaugural issue of The Incubator. A. Joseph Black is from Carnlough, County Antrim and writes short stories and flash fictions. Over thirty of his pieces can be found online, in literary magazines, and in print anthologies. Two of his short stories have been published as chapbooks in Australia. In 2017 he was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and was runner up in the 2018 Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award.

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