My son is coming.
I am enormous. Elephantine. I brace myself against the Civic’s ceiling as I have a contraction in the front seat. My husband lets go of my hand when the contraction subsides. “You should have seen the face of the guy in that car.” My husband prides himself on staying calm. Most of the time, it’s helpful. The desert mountains are orange and black with wildfire, disturbingly close. Also disturbingly beautiful. First rain in weeks expected tonight. It feels portentous. Gray sky piles up, clenching its forehead. Thunder rolls on cue.
When it’s not helpful, it’s infuriating.
My son is not going to resent me getting an epidural.
My son is responding to the nice Asian doctor nearly my age who we like because she talks about going through this herself. We don’t like nearly as much the pasty, gap-toothed, Republican-seeming nurse who makes clear she’s also been through this plenty of times herself. It is a world of women on the Ob-Gyn ward. The nice Asian doctor reaches inside of me and touches my son’s head and the heart rate monitor changes. Do you hear what I’m saying? They are having a relationship. My husband is talking about the things we learned in the granola-y Tucson birthing class that we mostly went along with. Mostly but not entirely. When the instructor took a phone call, my husband stepped back and spiraled the practice baby doll across the room to me; the other parents-to-be gasped audibly.
My son is not progressing. My son is bradycardic. The nice Asian doctor’s face tightens. My son’s heart rate drops precipitously low. The nice Asian doctor reaches inside me and rubs my son’s head in the birth canal and his heart rate perks up again, but we no longer joke about it. The doctor tells me I have only a few pushes left before forceps. Push, she says. Push, my husband says. On the one hand I am numb from the epidural; on the other it hurts like hell. Push.
My son is beautiful.
Good Lord Almighty my son is beautiful.
I am not someone who believes in beautiful babies. But I’m talking objectively here.
It was all worth it. Everything is worth it. Don’t you see? Everything.
My son is enough to believe in God. I mean, really, really believe.
My son is.
My son is perfect. Literally. Perfect 10 on the APGAR. His first standardized test.
My son is latching on wonderfully. I am letting down. My son is sucking from my nipple.
I am a natural. I was made for this. I’ll see your cradle hold and raise you a football hold (ha!).
My son is David. David is my son. After my husband’s beloved grandfather. Something I could give him. David, Dave, Davey. Is my son. D! Little D-man. Little Man. Big Man. Boo Boo. Davidilicous. Booger. Bugidabugidabugidaboo.
My son is sleeping. Has there ever been anything more remarkable?
I could describe the reddish face, the mushed, upturned nose, the chapped lips, the puckered brow. I could catalog every wisp of black hair, the perfect little wrinkled toes. I could Melville a whale chapter ten times as long as all of Moby Dick. My son is sleeping.
My husband is a natural, too. Also. In addition to. As well. He takes off his shirt and nestles our son against his spare kindling chest and you can see the deep pleasure in his bony shoulders. My son falls asleep. They both fall asleep. Sure, my stitches hurt and my entire body is leaking who knows what from regions who knows where and I can’t imagine taking a shit. But I want to sing Whitney Houston songs.
Is there anything cuter than meconium?
My son is coming home with us. We are driving and my son is in his brand new regulation rear-facing baby seat fastened securely into our ten year-old Honda Civic with a stick shift and 145,675 miles and a turn signal jerry-rigged into the steering wheel with a cardboard coaster. Inexplicable other people drive inexplicably. Unaccountable other people drive unaccountably. My husband laughs. Thank you, thank you, for laughing.
“We had a baby,” he says, “we didn’t get retarded.” Part of our humor when we are alone together is to be purposely politically incorrect. Only when we are alone together. I glance at Davey and my husband laughs again.
My son is home with us, my son is home with us, my son is home with us.
My son is awake at night. My son is asleep in our bed. My son is nursing himself to sleep. My son is two hours of sleep at a time. My son is such unmitigated joy.
My son is falling asleep in the jog stroller and my husband is happy, getting his exercise and being outside and fathering at the same time. He delights when women stop him to give advice.
My son is rolling over. In the middle of the dining room table at Thanksgiving and then not again for another two weeks. What a ham! My son is crawling. Well, my son is scooching with his shin out in front of him perpendicular like he’s in pigeon pose. We tell people he keeps the poured cement buffed. Always the same leg forward. This is the funniest thing in the history of funny things ever. Really, he wears through his pants.
My son is content to scooch. In no hurry to walk. My son is slow to walk. Late.
My son is walking! Ten glorious wobbly steps across the kitchen to the dog’s bowl. He plops down on his diapered butt, sinks both hands in the dog’s water and then applauds his achievement.
I was not a woman who even knew I wanted children. I was not one of those women. But then there was my son. It was entirely elemental. Some things you cannot argue with—or, I suppose you can, you can make up all sorts of logical sounding arguments about socially constructed hegemonic epistemologic essentialism. And then there is my baby boy. My body is the only thing that sustains him through nine months of pregnancy and the first six months of his life. The singular only thing. And nourishes him for another two years after that. My breasts. These tetas. Not to mention soothes him when he’s upset and puts him to sleep and enables him to have healthy adult relationships for the rest of his life. This Trader Joes dried mango imported from Mexico, all sweetness and goodness stuck on the molars in my mouth will be my baby boy.
My son is up to date on all of his vaccinations. My son has the usual cuts and scrapes. My son is Buzz Lightyear bandaids and the incredible healing power of boo boo buddies. My son is “To Finny And Yond.” My son is sick, just the right amount. A handful of scares because we are first-time parents. But no scares. We have a dog, good for allergies. My son is sinking both hands into the dog’s thick Chow-German shepherd fur. My son is pulling her tail. But she is a good dog. When I nurse, she lies protectively at my feet.
My son is birthdays. My God is he birthdays. I never even liked birthdays. I made fun of my husband for making a big deal out of birthdays. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My son is talking about it all year, counting down days for more than a month. It used to irritate me, how my husband made a big deal about everything, Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Chanukah, St. Patrick’s without a drop of Irish. I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. My son goes absolutely nutso crazy for those chintzy $3.00 supermarket mylar balloons. The bigger and chintzier the better.
It must also be said that my son is SUGAR. We try to be good. Organic dairy. Apples and grapes, the dirty dozen. Grass fed beef. Free range chickens, eggs that are touched only by the hands of virgins. Brita everything. But what can you do? The first time he has ice cream, a piece of cake, milk chocolate. Revelations all. This also seems elemental in a way that shouldn’t be denied.
My son is yetmeh for oatmeal, tar for car. My favorite is titty tat for kitty cat. My son is “Ta! Tee! Toe!” all the time, marching the apartment arms extended overhead. “Ta! Tee! Toe! Ta! Tee! Toe!” for no reason that I can fathom.
I don’t want to say that we are better at this than other people—that would be hubris and bad karma—I don’t want to suggest that we even think that way. But we are—more thoughtful. Not that we’re comparing—we’re not comparing. We bring things for him to do while we sit at the table. We find ways for him to run when he needs to run. We don’t—resent our child for being a child. Even during the exhausted times, the not going out times, the all-consuming times. My husband is—it sounds so boring—nice. In a way that is gritty, nearly obstinate. Exhausted, under deadline, even sick, other things might go, Lord knows opening the mail, wiping the counter, putting away his dirty clothes all go, any so much as neutral opinion of himself often goes entirely, but nice he remains.
I had a literature professor in college who declared that you could tell how much parents love their children by how much time they spend with them. Out of all the words spoken in all the hours of four years of classes those are the ones I remember. What book could we have been discussing? If he was right then we love our son most. He sleeps between us in our bed until three, on a crib mattress on the floor of our bedroom after that. He goes to work with me for nearly two years. We never get baby-sitters. What I mean is, it barely even occurs to us.
We are attachment parents—with a sense of humor. I swear.
We remind ourselves that a lot of it is just luck. Blind, dumb luck. My son is the embodiment of luck. We remind ourselves to say this and feel gratitude, as if that could karmically protect us.
My son is going off to school. My son is saying goodbye at the classroom door. My husband and I are both there, of course. My son is wide-eyed at all the other kids but not afraid. My son is telling me not to cry. My son is telling us about his friend Pearson and his teacher Megan and the class’s bearded dragons, Stewart and Colbert. My son is a big boy.
My son is kindergarten and first grade and soccer and swimming in the swimming pool until his lips are blue and his limbs are puckered and shaking. My son is jumping off rocks into the lake and walking home by himself from the park because we try to be free range parents a little, too.
To think that people have been parenting for years before us.
My son is happiest in the motel pool. Our destination is irrelevant. The number of stars is irrelevant. The pool makes him happiest. My husband used to resist, in a hurry to make “good time,” but then he realized. My son is so happy swimming we cannot bring ourselves to teach him proper strokes. “Watch this. Watch this.” His head flops from side to side as his arms flail so wildly he looks double-jointed.
And then my son is sick.
Really sick. This is how it happens. My son is playing tennis with my husband. My husband loves tennis and my son loves playing with his dad. My son wants to run as fast as he can and hit the ball as hard as he can and though my husband would rather teach him tennis, this is what they mostly do. I tell my husband that if he enjoys playing, he will eventually want to do it correctly. That is what I always say: eventually.
It is only coincidence that my husband is with him when it happens. And not me. I repeat this to myself over and over: only coincidence.
They have just arrived at the court and my son is jumping up and down, jumping up and down, as he does when he’s excited, and then, to hear my husband tell it, he crumples. Like a marionette whose strings have been cut. And rather than cry out immediately, he lies silently legs akimbo for a too-long breath. Then he wails. That his leg is broken is obvious immediately. My husband scoops him up and lays him across the back seat of the Civic without buckling him into the regulation booster seat and doesn’t call me until they hit the long light at Campbell. What my husband doesn’t say at the time is that it is the femur that is broken, the big upper leg bone that shouldn’t break. Not from nothing. And my husband, who somehow knows these things, knows already that it is serious. I mean, more than broken leg serious. Maybe I hear it in his voice. But I won’t know it for several hours. There’s no reason I can’t hold this against him.
My son is being x-rayed when I arrive at the Emergency Room. My son is nowhere to be found. Nobody knows anything. So many goddamned people not knowing a goddamned thing.
Finally I text my husband and he comes out to get me.
My son is on painkillers. He smiles at me like I’m the best surprise in the world, pepperoni pizza for a stoned guy. I want to crush him to me, to squeeze him into the baby I nursed to sleep. I take his hand and he smiles bigger. What a nice surprise to see you here, Mom.
Things are already happening.
This is the doctor. This is the nurse. This is the other doctor. This is the specialist. And technician and technician and technician. I want to be the educated mother. The caring, smart, respectfully assertive mother. My son’s advocate, but not obnoxious mother.
My son is sweet and playful, I want to take each of them individually aside when they come into the room, I want to tell them, Davey likes swimming and baseball and earthmovers, any kind of heavy equipment really, and the color turquoise (the word, too), and oh my God, French Fries.
My son is being taken for an MRI. My son will need to be sedated. “Even more?” The machine is loud and claustrophobic and he needs to hold still. The general anesthesia is for him. “What about the radiation?” An MRI doesn’t use radiation, the doctor explains, but just then I understand that the doctor is beginning the process of telling me that I have more serious things to worry about. Bigger fish to fry. The least of my concerns. My husband already knows. He explains things to me, but just translating. He’s so motherfucking patient.
What more do you want me to tell you?
It is all happening so fast and there are stretches of interminable waiting. There are forms. There are so many forms. My husband would like to read every word of every form. His parents are lawyers and it’s the right thing to do. Thank God this passes quickly. At one point we are discussing amputating my son’s leg. That is the hopeful option. The next days and weeks are all this way.
Ewing’s Sarcoma. A rare bone cancer. Stage IV. Already metastasized. To his lungs. To his pelvis and collarbone. Which is to say that there is no point in amputating his leg. Chemotherapy and radiation. It’s not clear there’s any point to these either. Gruesome side effects. His beautiful sandy brown hair another small fish, least of our concerns.
The seriousness hits all of a sudden and in waves and like a slow-rising tide that will not recede. And even when I do manage to sleep, it doesn’t go away, though it hits again in the first moment after waking. Concurrent with consciousness.
It is a rare manifestation of a rare disease. The nice cancer doctor—the renowned specialist with the gentle face and the tired, beseeching eyes and always three rogue eyebrows—says this, over and over again. As if it should reassure me. A rare manifestation. But not for us. We are the 100%.
Maybe the doctor is telling me so I can tell the other parents who stiffen like we’re contagious. They should embrace us. What are the odds of two statistical anomalies in a small group of people?
My son is losing his hair. My son is beloved (I think he always was, I think, but I don’t really know) and other kids at his school are shaving their heads, too. Other incredible kids at his incredible school are raising money for cancer research.
My son is an object of pity. How could he not be?
My son is a favorite on Ped-onc. Probably everyone is. The work these people do. They act like he’s a troublemaker, a stinker, a card. They bring him silly hats and teddy bears. They bring him autographed baseballs. They read the box scores of yesterday’s game so they can discuss. They make every occasion a special occasion. But I know their reasons.
I don’t want to act like there aren’t moments of real hope. Good results, improvement, tumor shrinkage. Or at least tumors staying the same. There are moments of real hope. Weeks even. In retrospect, these are the worst. My husband tells me I can’t think this way. I can think any goddamned way I please.
Contrary to what I once thought, my husband’s kindness is not indefatigable. How could I ever really have believed that?
Why do I feel the need to test it so?
Why do I thrum with—relief? pleasure? —when he breaks?
What would you think of me if I told you that there are times that I feel a fury toward my son so strong that it borders on hatred?
I think of the school shooting mothers. Maybe it’s better because they have someone to be angry at. So many people. This country. Or maybe it’s so much worse. Maybe it’s worse because it’s sudden. Or maybe it’s so much better. I didn’t even want to say goodbye when he went to his first day of school.
I think of the mothers who watch their children starve. Good God, this world. Is it really possible that the same planet houses billionaires and mothers who watch their children starve?
I think about the shooter’s mother, too.
My son is losing weight. His eyes are sallow and jaundiced.
My son is in pain. Do you understand? He is just sitting there, crying and trying not to cry for my sake and he is in pain. We all know that feeling, when our child is in pain and there’s nothing we can do. It is a universal feeling. Across cultures. For us it is days and weeks. For us it is months.
There are so many people around us, overflowing with generosity. My friends from the school. My husband’s friends from the university. Nothing they won’t do. All of our young parent friends.
The incredible people of Ped-onc.
The generosity of it’s not my family. It’s not my kid. It’s not me. We are so utterly alone. I am so utterly alone.
My son is so fucking alone. Is there anything as isolating as pain?
My son is often on morphine. Often, he is barely my son.
My son is the subject of endless sympathy cards. Countless lasagnas. Some truly shitty casseroles.
My son is still remarkably upbeat when he is not in pain. We take him swimming every day. Twice a day sometimes, morning and afternoon. Our older friend with old Tucson money lets us come and go from her backyard pool in La Colonia. The best gift ever. She sits with us on the tiled pool stairs and we watch him having fun and she doesn’t feel compelled to speak. This is a gift, too. And then my son’s port gets infected and we can’t do this anymore either.
My son is the inspiration for a weepy poem from my writer friend who doesn’t work and doesn’t write and has full-time Josefina but is so very moved. Do you understand that I may have to kill you? It’s a shitty poem. Just poetry-wise. I think it will be ruled justifiable. Worse than all the casseroles put together, eaten and shitted out.
My son is sleeping in our room again, on the crib mattress on the floor. His pale feet hang off at his ankles. The bones are thin and jutting at the malleolus and an image flashes of snapping his frail ankle with my bare hands. I can feel the splintering bones. My son says he doesn’t mind the short mattress, but my husband goes to the mattress store the next morning and spends money we don’t have on a single mattress, not the cheap one. He walks the five blocks back with the plastic-wrapped mattress on his head.
My son is calling out in the night. A voice I don’t recognize. Alternately low and high, guttural, wild, in pain. Contours of keening. We do not wake him. What possible advantage could consciousness hold? Eventually my husband tells me to go sleep on the couch. “One of us should get some sleep.”
“No,” I say.
My husband takes his pillow and leaves the bedroom without looking back.
I hold out two more nights. My husband doesn’t argue, just takes his pillow. When I finally wake up with my cheek pressed against the velvet couch cushion, a long moment passes as punishment when I don’t remember.
My son is the reason my husband is endlessly arguing with the insurance company over the phone. Deductibles. Pre-approval. Office visits. Good God. My husband, being smart and being obstinate and staying calm, is good at this. I don’t want to know a thing about it. My husband, being kind, allows this.
My son is the inspiration for my own personal public service announcement: cry out, bitch out, scare out. Pot roast in, everything else out, every single one of your emotions, no matter how insightful, how deeply felt, out, out, out.
My son is being catheterized. Has anything ever looked so raw as his little boy penis? My son is getting his blood drawn. His finger pricked. My son is having his port reinstalled. Do you understand that none of these things are about the cancer itself?
I don’t want to hear about your acupuncturist or your chiropractor or your healer in Mexico. I couldn’t care less about your opinions on corporate farming. I will not endure the words holistic or paradigm.
Because don’t think for a second I haven’t thought about it. The fertilizer, the tomato cans, the Nalgene bottle, the BPA, PCB, DES, the mercury, the flame retardant in this secondhand couch. The smoke from the wildfires the night he was born. Tucson’s shitty water, the contaminated aquifer, the Titan nuclear silos, the sips of margarita and white wine—never more—I had when I was pregnant. We never got our apartment tested for radon. Maybe it was the trips we took to Nogales, my son wide-eyed at the commotion in his Baby Bjorn. Maybe it was my goddamned genes. Or my husband’s.
Maybe it really was our hubris and bad karma.
My husband is talking about Buddhism and the present moment and the idea that the past and future don’t exist except in our minds. My husband is talking about gratitude. For these seven incredible years. For getting to know this wonderful person. My husband is in his own personal world of torment. I know that. Oh, you know what? Who cares about my husband? He is a good man. He always wants to be. He thinks it matters. People tell me I’m lucky for that. They actually say that, lucky. I have read the articles that say we will not be able to stay together or try again.
I can’t remember ever wanting to have sex. Making love?
Fucking, however. Fucking sometimes occurs to me with such an aching, toe-curling urgency I can barely stand. But a husband hardly seems like the right person for that. Especially not a mopey, nice one.
My son is asleep in his booster seat. The weight of his bald skull lolling on his shoulder looks like it might snap his thin neck. It might not be the worst thing. My husband glances every two seconds into the rear-view mirror.
Grateful Grateful Grateful Grateful Grateful Grateful Grateful Grateful Grateful Grateful Grateful Fucking A. Grateful Grateful.
My son is an algebraic equation. The therapeutic dose is x, the complications y, the side effects z, the low blood counts are a, the possibility of infection b, the antibiotics and their side effects c and d. Drug interactions e. I’m sure I’m forgetting an f, g and h.
The cancer. I didn’t mention the cancer.
My son is a battlefield. I have the Pat Benatar song in my head for a week. “Do you realize I’ve been singing Pat Benatar?” I say to my husband. Or maybe I just think it because he doesn’t respond. We are young/Heartache to heartache/We stand. I think the song might be rare uncanny genius. I really think this. A perfect convergence of raw anger and the voice expressing it. But then I watch the video and I can’t anymore. Wait, my husband does respond. He starts to say, “Hit me with your best shot.” And that’s when he goes silent.
My son is a receptacle for other people’s stories. Heaven. Reincarnation. Come on, people. Show me one shred of evidence. One tiny fucking shred. Something so much as suggestive. I’d love to believe. Really. I am — . I am — . I am a lot of things. I am distraught and furious and bereft and incredulous and crying all the time and incapable of sleep.
My son, spindly now, even more fragile than he looks, is in the same hospital where he was born. He holds onto our forearms and wrists and fingers. His grip loosens after his eyes close. Dry paper hands, moist clammy hands. Seven-year-old fingers. Holding on. The nice Asian doctor comes by. Her face is as long as unrolled toilet paper. The mean Republican gap-toothed nurse comes by with tears in her eyes. She brings me a glass of water. My son may never come home again.
My son is home.
Poured concrete floors a reddish color I once loved. High ceilings and stucco walls, thick adobe that stays cool so much longer than you would think. An exposed air-conditioning duct painted purple. A kind of retro, artsy, warehouse cool that made us feel cool, too. Bright Southwestern tile on the kitchen windowsills.
My son is weeks now.
We tell him our stories. The time we drove off from a Western rest stop with all the DVD’s piled on the roof. How my husband sprinted back only to watch from the shoulder as an 18-wheeler obliterated all but Singing in the Rain and Finding Nemo. How we still know those two movies by heart.
My husband is the one who started telling our stories. Just launching in, unspooling long threads of words. Spinning lattices in the air like a spider, but not icky. Really, this is the best gift. My son’s pain lessens then—you can see it. His face calms. The time he gagged in the hotel pool and puked up half his lunch and the three of us kept swimming anyway, the chunky brown and orange blob of vomit bobbing in the other end. How we got out sheepishly and put on our clothes when other guests showed up to swim.
We tell the same stories over and over. The time we— The time we— My son loves stories of himself from before he remembers. The time you ate mango on a stick as a toddler in your diaper and smeared the mango all over your body because it tasted so good. I like to think it was because I ate so many mangos when I was pregnant. And nursing. The time you— This way, we fix him in place. We fix him and fix him and fix him in place.
There is something very beautiful in the spaces our words create. The rooms we walk into and inhabit together. And sit a while.
My son is days.
Then they will take him away from me I guess. From us—I need to say from us. I don’t really know what happens then. I suppose there is someone to call who comes and takes him to the next place, wherever that is. Not the hospital. A morgue? What a word. What a job. A funeral home? Maybe my husband knows how it works. I should google it. Who do I call when my son dies at home?
My son is so much smaller now.
He doesn’t seem to be in any more pain.
David. Dave. Davey. Something I could give my husband. D! Little D-man. Little Man. Big Man. Boo Boo. Davidilicous. Booger. Bugidabugidabugidaboo.
My son is hours.
What exactly is it that will leave him? These shallow breaths? They mean nothing to me. I hate the raspy sound in his throat. The chapped, peeling lip, quivering occasionally. The darting eyes beneath the lids. Now the machine works. Soon it won’t. I have always had trouble knowing the difference between this and that. My husband says it to me all the time, “This is this, and that is that.” Of course, he’s not talking about this.
Of course, of course, of course.
Honestly, I wish my husband would leave me alone with him. But he won’t.
My son is.
I have to say it. I have to. Say it.
Photo courtesy of Cody Wellons; view more of his work on Flickr