Becoming a Grandfather
April 18th, 2010

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Written May 2001

I will never forget the birth of my son, Ocean. It was in 1973, and he was born into my hands, in a log cabin I had built. It was a moment, for me, of true spirit, a moment in which the intimate met the infinite.

I do so wish that more men could have the opportunity I had that night — to be fully present and involved with the birth of their children. I believe we’d have happier and more bonded families, deeper and more fulfilling father-son and father-daughter relationships, and fewer dead-beat dads. As well, if more men got to witness the miracle of birth, I believe we’d have far more respect for women in our society.

Ocean and I have been incredibly close ever since. One perceptive family friend says we are “twin souls.” You couldn’t say anything that would make me feel more complemented.

For thirty-five years, Ocean’s mother, Deo, and I have been lovingly together, and we are privileged now to live with Ocean and his wife of 7 years, Michele. We share a home, eat all our meals together, work together, and are deeply part of each others’ lives. So when Michele announced last summer that she was pregnant, we knew we would be sharing the joy together. What we didn’t know was how much sorrow, and how much challenge, we would also be sharing.

Right at the outset there was an ominous potential to be confronted. Michele’s father is a hemophiliac, and she is therefore a genetic carrier for this serious blood clotting disorder. As a carrier, her blood clots slowly, and this can be an issue in cases of surgery or other major bleeds, but the larger issue has to do with her children. Any male child born to Michele has a 50% chance of being a hemophiliac.

Ocean and Michele decided to have a test (CVS) that would reveal the genetic status of their baby-to-be. The first thing we learned together, at the initial ultrasound, was that she was carrying identical twins! Learning you are carrying twins is probably overwhelming to any parent in any circumstances, but in this case it was made even more impactful, because this of course doubled the stakes in terms of the hemophilia. Being genetically identical, the twins would share the same status. If one was a hemophiliac, they both would be.

Over the next month, the test results came back in stages. The next thing we learned was that the identical twins Michele was carrying were males. This took the challenge we were dealing with to a whole new level, since it meant there was now a 50% chance that the twins Michele was carrying were both afflicted with the genetic disease.

Waiting the next few weeks was almost unbearable. Because we were all tense with suspense, we chose to be especially tender and caring with each other, and it was, in its way, a time of great love and beauty. During this time, both Ocean and I both had dreams that said the babies would not have the genetic defect and would not be hemophiliacs. These dreams were comforting, but we were still on pins and needles until the test results finally came back, telling us, in fact, and with 100% certainty, that the baby boys developing in Michele’s womb were not hemophiliacs. We all cried with relief when we found out the happy news.

Celebrating with joy and infinite gratitude, we prepared now to settle into what we thought was finally going to be a normal twin pregnancy (insofar as anything with twins can be called normal!). Michele was remarkably healthy, and was planning a home water birth, no small endeavor with twins, but she had located two extremely capable and experienced midwives who were up for the challenge, particularly since we live only five minutes from a hospital, and had a very fine and loving obstetrician who said he would meet us there if things didn’t go as we hoped. How wonderful we felt! How joyous and excited!

Twenty-eight years earlier, Deo and I had been pioneers, having a home birth when very few people did so. I have written extensively on the power, importance, and safety of natural birthing. And now Ocean and Michele were going to take it another step. If things worked out, they would be among the very first in this country to give birth to twins at home in water.

But things did not work out that way.

On New Year’s eve, with two and a half months to go before her due date, Michele suddenly and inexplicably found an enormous amount of amniotic fluid pouring from her vagina. Her “bag of waters,” the amniotic sac surrounding the babies, had ruptured. The arrival of her babies was now, suddenly and terribly, imminent.

A week later, she was in labor. Now there was no possibility of a home birth, or even a normal hospital birth. This was a full scale medical emergency. None of our local hospitals were equipped to deal with babies born this premature, so we had to go to a hospital some distance away that was set up for the most severely premature births.

I was in the operating room with Michele and Ocean as the boys were born, vaginally, and held her as she sobbed in agony as the tiny little fellows, barely three pounds, were immediately taken from her and subjected to an overwhelming barrage of medical interventions. They could not breathe, swallow, or suck, on their own. She was not allowed even to see them for hours. Miraculously, even in the pain, Michele kept her heart open through it all.

Ocean later movingly described the courage and love that we tried to bring to the situation:

“Birth is an awesome experience under any circumstances. Michele and I have always looked forward to it as one of the truly profound and defining moments in life. Under different circumstances, we would have loved to be at home, surrounded by candles and chanting, and perhaps in a warm tub. But here we were, in an operating room at one of San Jose’s biggest hospitals, with only my Dad and one other dear friend allowed to be with us, nine weeks earlier than planned, with a cesarean-ready obstetrician and with nurses poised to whisk the babies away to the intensive care nursery at the moment of birth. We did our best to make even this into a sacred experience.

“It’s relatively easy, we realized, to manifest love and a sense of the sacred when you’re surrounded by them. But the real test of our courage is to bring the power and depth of our souls forth in the moments of greatest challenge. To shine our light even brighter on a dark night. So here we were, so far from what we had hoped, deeply grieving, yet opening to the awesome power of birth. Michele was magnificent, and I felt so utterly in awe of her strength, courage, commitment, and surrender. I felt so moved by her experience that it became my own, and it was as if each contraction was also inside of me.”

After the birth, we were told that the babies almost certainly would live, but we were not allowed to touch them for many hours. We were also told that they would require many months of hospitalization, marked by massive and sustained medical intervention. We also learned that there was a 25% chance that they would suffer from a severe and permanent disability, such as blindness, deafness, or cerebral palsy necessitating a wheelchair.

What happened during the next weeks is almost impossible for me to describe. It was one of the most astounding things I’ve ever seen. Ocean and Michele spent virtually every single waking moment in the hospital, holding their babies, giving what is called “kangaroo care,” providing maximal skin to skin contact. Deo and I did all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and other backup, and spent as much time as we could with them in the hospital. Our whole goal was to leave the babies alone as little as possible, and to provide them with as much love, even in this situation, as conceivable. Most nights we stayed in the hospital until well after midnight.

There we were, in the midst of the neonatal intensive care unit, in a scene that looked like a cross between a science fiction and a horror movie, barraged by the loud noises of monitors going off incessantly and the agony of sick and premature infants crying, holding our little babies, singing four part harmony lullabies, and praying, with every breath, for the wellbeing of our little ones, of all the babies in the nursery, and of all the babies in the world, premature or not. Often, we would read aloud to each other the letters and e-mails of support that had been sent to us by our friends and extended family. Often we would read them over and over again, each time gaining renewed strength and becoming more centered in the power of love.

I wish I could say that the hospital nursery was set up to encourage parent-child bonding, but that, regrettably, is not the case in most U.S. hospitals. Parental presence is tolerated (even verbally encouraged), but not really supported. We were not allowed to eat in the nursery (a big deal when you hold a baby for six hours straight, especially if you’re a lactating woman producing two quarts of milk a day), nor to use the telephone or sleep over with our babies. This despite the fact that repeated studies have shown the profound benefits to premature babies of time with their parents. And who needs studies to know that love between parents and babies makes a world of difference?

During this time, Ocean described what he and Michele were experiencing in a letter to our extended family:

“At times, it has been unbearably painful to leave them there every time we visit, to be consistently poked and pricked for tests, and to be surrounded by machines and constant false alarms. But we are realizing that this technology is very literally saving their lives, and rather than being the antithesis of our love, is actually an expression of it. I told our babies yesterday: ‘All these beeps and pokes and funny machines are actually your guardian angels in disguise. They are an expression of love for you, in an unexpected form. If you can see your angels in this, you can see them anywhere.’ And they are my angels, too. I am so grateful that our beautiful babies will live, and thrive. That they will come home to us, albeit not for a while, with healthy bodies and intact spirits.

“This has been one of the great lessons of parenting, right from the start. We have been asked to love all we can, with everything we have, and surrender. Our children come through us but not from us; they are our children and yet they are also and even more fundamentally children of God; we give them everything we have, and leave their destiny to the hands of a higher power. Sometimes, things go well, sometimes they are more difficult. Our task as parents is to love unconditionally, and to bring forth the highest and best we can, regardless of the circumstances we are given. We do not control what life brings us. We do choose how much love, intention, and purpose we bring to the choices we make. That’s where our power lies. That’s where we live from.

“I am profoundly broken open, in awe, in grief, and in love. I feel like the rain is pouring, and the sun is shining, and rainbows are filling the sky, all at the same time.

“One of the great blessings of this journey has been the awesome outpouring of love from our community of friends and family. My mom and dad have been right in it all with us, turning over their lives completely to supporting us in this tender time. Countless others have made us meals, cleaned our home, visited and sung to our babies, shopped for us, and done so much else to ease our burden and support our lives. Michele and I have been held in something of a womb of support ourselves. This has made possible the full experience of the richest, most intensely painful and yet beautiful time of my life so far.

“It is times like this that really let us know how interdependent we all are. When we fall, and find ourselves in the hands of a higher power, and then are held and lifted in the arms of our loved ones, we truly know that there is grace in the world. Our babies have a lot to look forward to, with friends like all of you.”

Finally, after six and a half weeks, the babies were able come home. As they were leaving the hospital, the head of Neonatology, the physician who had been in charge of their care, called the twins “miracle babies.” When I asked him what he meant, he said that in his entire career he had never seen babies born that early do so well.

As I write, the twins, whose names are Bodhi Sattva Robbins and River Dharma Robbins, have now been home almost two months. During this time, they have each been held close to 24 hours a day. We spend our days, and our nights, holding them, singing to them, often in warm baths with them, letting them know that we ARE here, that they ARE welcome, that anything they feel is okay. Remarkably and against all odds, neither baby shows, even to the trained eyes of neonatologists and pediatricians specializing in premature infants, ANY sign of any permanent disability whatsoever.

Since their birth, they have received nothing other than Michele’s milk. While they were in the hospital, she used a breast pump, and they were given her milk via feeding (gavage) tubes. Then they began receiving it through bottles with special nipples for premature babies, and now they are beginning to be more and more able to take it straight from the source. In one of the most remarkable aspects to this saga, Michele has not only had enough milk for both of them (extremely rare with premature twins), but has actually had extra! A friend who has a six month old son, and does not have enough milk for her little boy, comes by periodically and picks up Michele’s extra milk. In effect, Michele is feeding not two babies, but three!

I am overjoyed to be a grandfather to these two little guys who have joined us under such trying circumstances. They have incredible wills to live, and it is an honor to have them at the center of our family. The challenges have been, and will no doubt continue to be, many. But through it all we have been unbelievably blessed by the love and friendship of those who have reached out to us in caring and understanding.

I am so proud of Ocean and Michele, and so amazed by their powers of patience, dedication, and devotion. And I feel so privileged to have been able to go through this together with them, learning again that sorrow shared is halved, while joy shared is doubled.

(Update: River Dharma Robbins and Bodhi Sattva Robbins celebrated their fifth birthday on January 7, 2006. They are energetic little people who love life – and most especially who love to play, tell stories, pick wild berries, and get covered in mud. They have some very real special needs and developmental delays, as well as some exceptional gifts. They bring our whole family an abundant supply of love, exhaustion, elation, and a continuous reminder of how much fun it can be to play.)

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3 Responses to “Becoming a Grandfather”

  1. Janet says:

    John Robbins — you and your family make me cry. Tears of joy at your authenticity and generosity to the life we all share.
    I read your book ‘May All Be Fed’ many years ago and became vegetarian. Now I read ‘Will Tuttle’s – The World Peace Diet’ and became vegan.
    I am trying my best to support and be very active with this movement to bring love and respect to ALL living beings. Your own astonishing story, and the story of your family’s respect for all life and its’ myriad paths is — I feel Very Blessed to have been able to share this through the written word today. With Thanks!

  2. Emo says:

    I really think so too. I have been surfing around the web for a while this week, and its kinda hard to find anything good to read on blogs=P Maybe thats because there are too much of those around =) But your place actually keeps catching my attention=] Great stories, and cool design ^__^. Ill be sure to give it more visits from now on 😛

  3. [email protected] says:

    FYI – also sent to Nancy Sater.

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