It’s only appropriate, I think, that he came into the world six years ago today, 30 minutes after midnight, in a maelstrom of chaos.

While his impending arrival was expected, the expeditiousness of it certainly was not, and all of our plans for a mid-January birth went out the window the moment my wife stepped through the door on a Wednesday night and felt her water break, six weeks early. I was in the middle of putting Weekend together, in fact, back when it was a freestanding entertainment section, when I got the call.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a statement made with such calmness and deliberate measure send me into such heart-fluttering alarm: “I think my water just broke.”

A quick trip to Blount Memorial confirmed that, yep, that gush of liquid had indeed been amniotic fluid and, despite our preparations for a natural delivery, we would be delivered, post-haste, to the University of Tennessee Medical Center. I think we both were slightly puzzled, given that she wasn’t having any contractions — or any signs, really, that a baby was on the way.

By the time we arrived in Knoxville, however, they had begun. Most of that night is a blur, but I remember calling family and pacing the hallway while they got her ready for a C-section … the scream of agony from the other side of a prep room door as the epidural needle found her spine … the squelching sound on the other side of the curtain as the doctor plunged his hands into my wife’s body to retrieve our son … the “Walking Dead” joke she cracked as he was pulled from her, delivered through gritted teeth and a stream of tears … the sounds of his first cries, loud and strong despite his diminutive size.

He came out screaming, and he spent the first week fighting, sealed behind the Plexiglass of a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit incubator, a feeding tube running down his throat, a chest tube for a pneumothorax that plagued his underdeveloped lungs and sensors and wires across his torso and feet. Those first two weeks were frightening ones, and I wondered often, sitting in that familiar waiting room, whether the challenges that met him upon his arrival would follow him throughout childhood … if he would be small and sickly and prone to many a visit to the pediatrician … if he would always be pale and quiet and bookish … if the primitive places of memory would forever remind him that his quarantined existence meant his first week on Earth was without a single embrace or parental touch.

Looking at him now, I marvel at how wrong I was.

He’s tall, so tall for his age. He routinely ranks in the 95th percentile in height, and while he only turns 6 today, he’s been at least 4 feet tall for the past few months. He’s skinny, of course, and when he removes his shirt, you can play the xylophone on his rib bones, but the only sign of his stay in the NICU is a slightly puckered scar where the chest tube once was. I try to tell him that he’ll need to come up with a good story to explain it when he’s older — a shark attack, or a knife fight — to impress potential suitors, but he just rolls his eyes and ignores me.

He’s learned early on, you see, that his old man is prone to practical jokes. Maybe it was the holiday season that I tried to convince him Christmas had been moved to April, or maybe it was his fourth birthday when I told him all birthdays were canceled for the next three years … but he has a hard time taking me seriously. Which is well and good (most of the time), because it means our lives are full of laughter and love and mischief, and the torrent of giggles that pour forth from him when he’s tickled is a joyous sound, indeed.

Given his rocky start, I’m so very grateful for the boy he’s become, and the blessings of good health that have been bestowed upon him. Aside from annual well-check visits he’s been to the doctor twice in life, and only been prescribed one round of antibiotics. I still can’t get over our good fortune in that regard: I know some children who have been on more rounds of antibiotics than years they’ve been alive, but Cullen’s immune system is almost superhuman, it seems. I credit so much of that to his mother, who was so determined to feed him breast milk instead of formula that even when he couldn’t and wouldn’t latch due to his time in an incubator, she insisted on pumping for two solid years.

She gave him a fighting chance, I have no doubt, and between nature and nurture and his own determination, he’s grown into a fiercely determined, wildly curious boy with an imagination big enough to deserve its own ZIP code and a flair for the dramatic that will one day win him an Academy Award, should he decide to pursue acting. His long, curly hair flies behind him when he’s on the swing, screaming to be pushed higher, and he is every bit one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys when he tromps inside on summer evenings, bare feet blackened from dust and dirt, hair a tangle of nettles and leaves, mud and peanut butter smeared to his face like war paint.

I marvel at the miracle of his existence, and I give thanks for the six years the universe has allowed me to be his father. He won’t always be my wild child, my Lost Boy, but today … his sixth birthday … I will remember his beginnings and celebrate everything he’s become.

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at

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