Notes to my son.
Originally published in River Teeth, Spring 2015. (Subscribe here; River Teeth is great, and it’s named after an excellent David James Duncan essay.)
We returned from the hospital, our family, and immediately I shrugged the bags off my shoulder and set to work unpacking dirty clothes. I’ve always had this compulsion to unpack right away, always in a hurry to restore order. Then I turned to watch your mother. Unshowered, still exhausted from labor, she lifted you from the car seat into her arms. “This is our couch,” she whispered, walking softly. “This is our kitchen.”
You won’t comprehend any of this for months, you shriveled, squinting creature. You haven’t even learned to hold your eyes open. Yet Hannah paced the house, letting the familiar squeaks in the floor comfort herself, if not you. I stopped to watch–the laundry could wait. She showed you the nursery, the crib, the artwork still leaning against the wall where we meant to hang it. I have known her as lover, friend, traveling companion, comforter. As she opened the back door to introduce the garden, I saw her anew. I didn’t need another way to love her, but there it was.
Four in the morning and you’re wide-awake. In your two weeks of life these are the widest and brightest I have seen your eyes, gray-brown and less cloudy by the day. Your large pupils dart up, down, left, right, for a moment maybe locking into mine, perhaps a flash of recognition. But no, you stare with the same intensity at a blank spot on the ceiling.
You are swaddled in my lap, jostled by the bounce of an exercise ball, unfazed by the steady womblike motion. Go to sleep, my darling boy. You scrunch your brow into a pink ridge of concentration, like you’re thinking hard at some riddle I can’t fathom. You suck hungrily at my thumb. Swaddling, bouncing, sucking–the books say these things should calm you. So much for that. You’re wired and show no sign of slowing. I’m exhausted. I’m also content to cradle and bounce you forever.
I want to be in two places. The first is right where I am, sprawled in the backyard with my beloved and you, our drowsy child. We are lounging away the afternoon in the shade of a Japanese maple. You lay swaddled, your wispy brown hair catching flashes of sunlight between the leaves, your eyelids surrendering to the call of a nap. We’re fortunate to have this space behind our small rental home, enough room to spread a blanket between the maple and the wisteria vines. We’re even luckier to have this time of family leave from our jobs, a few holy weeks to focus on caring for you and little else.
Except I also want to be at my desk, tapping out a story I’ve wrestled with for years without knowing how to say it plain. Just lately I’ve begun to see how it coheres, and I’m impatient to get it down while I have this rare time to sit and write.
Everyone says to savor this time. Everyone says it flies by fast. Including my wise partner, who dangles a bookmark above you now that you’ve awakened, helping you learn to focus your wavering eyes. I am torn as usual. I jot in a notebook beside you, one eye on my family in the yard, one eye attending to memory and imagination. I’m trying to live in both the moment and the mystery, the body and the mind.
I have heard people ask your mother a question several times lately, always with the same phrasing: “Do you like being a mommy?”
For a moment she struggles for an answer, then eventually says, “I like being Sam’s mom.”
There are wiser voices than mine that can speak to the tangled web of gender, self, career, vocation, and motherhood. Yet I can’t help but say that I enjoy hearing Hannah’s answer. I like that she speaks not of abstractions but of you, the particular grunting person who has entered our home.
Your mother cares deeply about her job. She cares deeply about her craft of writing poetry. She would not call it a calling, but I will. Last night we went to a poetry “concert”–Hannah and three friends reading their work, interspersed with music from our friend’s band. She read funny, inventive poems inspired by video games. The band responded with trippy-loopy improvisations.
You searched the studio for smiling faces, then wailed when the drums startled you. I took you out to the sidewalk and missed much of the show. We paced the block to calm down, then I changed you on top of a newspaper box.
I’m kidding myself if I think this is anything like a mother’s sacrifice. Missing readings and dirty diapers are annoyances–they’re not the sacrifices of pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding. And yet I’m glad to lose something. I’m glad to encounter limits to the incredible bewildering freedom of being a white American male. When all you’ve known is personal freedom, there is a strange liberty in devoting yourself to something beyond yourself.
Sam, I can’t sing. For years I tried to hide this deficiency. Then, in the starlit night of a summer camp forest, I learned to do my best and let my off-key notes drown in the swell of my fellow counselors. Now that our family worships with Mennonites, lifelong a cappella maestros, I’m even more lost. I cast about for the melody while basses, tenors, altos, and sopranos whirl around me.
But you don’t know any of this as I bounce you to sleep on the exercise ball in your room, singing to you. You watch with wide brown eyes and giggle when you’re supposed to be dozing off. I call up all the camp songs I can remember, trying to calm you with barges slipping through the night, the jolly swagman waltzing, Froggie gone a-courtin’.
This afternoon, resisting a nap, you cooed along with me, baaing your agreeable monotone over and over, joining me in making a joyful noise unto the Lord. Your mother heard our discordant racket from the other room and laughed.
“I finally found someone who can harmonize with me,” I said.
Child, in our Auto-Tune celebrity culture, you’ll be told to leave singing to professionals. Ignore this nonsense, even if you inherit my lack of ability. It is right and good to sing out loud. Sing stadium songs, hiking songs, drinking songs, lullabies, hymns–you may need all of them. Sing in praise, wonder, courtship, grief, fury, confusion, gratitude. You will feel all of these things, and music will help you find your bearing. Keep your voice alive.
Child, you wear us down. You were up all night demanding food, wailing from the depths of your round belly. Your round face and chipmunk cheeks flushed red with anger. We took turns crawling out of the warm bed, staggering down the hall to lift you and offer a bottle. Twenty minutes later you woke again in need of a burp. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I would like to say the frustration fades away when I see your soft pink face. I would like to say it all feels worthwhile. But the fact is we are dog-tired. Love is no substitute for sleep.
In the morning, after fifteen minutes of your loud grunting, I shuffle into your room and peer into your crib. Your whole body leaps in excitement, such as it can. You fling your arms and kick your tiny legs in spastic celebration, you thrust your well-fed belly, you smile. You greet me with a gladness that surpasses my weary comprehension. I don’t know where you get it. I don’t know why I receive it. I only try to imitate, learning from you.
You spent the night red-faced and raging. Despite our weariness, or perhaps because of it, we have dragged ourselves to church this drizzly Advent morning. We are hoping to be reminded we are not alone, but we miss half the service for a feeding and diaper change. As we return to the sanctuary, the congregation gathers up front, passing around musical scores. You are your usual restless self, squirming for a view of the entire room. I’m told often that you have my eyes. I notice it mainly when you act like this–alert, tense, hungry to see and know everything at once, willing it all to reveal itself to your dark wide-eyed gaze. You crane your neck toward the crowd.
Then the singing begins. It washes over us like heat from an oven. Your head grows still, your body relaxes. You search the mass of bodies for the source of this sound.
It rises from every mouth. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all flesh shall see it together.
The music calls me to attention as I hold your solid weight. The word flesh takes on new meaning this year, as your mother and I learn to anticipate your every need, to clean every square inch of you and watch you grow into your own body. As we listen I imagine ancient crowds gathering to hear Handel’s Messiah, men and women in heavy coats inside vaulting cathedrals, infants like you wrapped in blankets, both confused and calmed by this strange harmony. You cannot grasp the meaning of these words. I think you already grasp the meaning of the music, grace taken flight, falling on us like sunlight on a rainy morning.
Each day we leave home in the dark and return in the dark, spending too much of our lives at our jobs, away from you. In the morning I carry you down icy steps and try to strap you in the car seat without pinching or bruising you. In the late afternoon, when the northern sun is long vanished, we make our tedious journey home through traffic. When you become uncomfortable or hungry or bored in the back seat, you scream. Child, I love you with every cell in my swelling heart. But there is not much worse than sitting in rush-hour traffic listening to you cry.
At home, I unclip you from the portable cage of your car seat and set you on our bed. You sink into the down comforter and watch me change out of my work clothes. What’s more, you sit up. You slump back, propped against pillows, but still, you’re sitting, a feat you couldn’t do four weeks ago. Since I have your attention, I waggle my tongue, roar like a bear, duck below the bed for peekaboo–anything to make you smile. You laugh like a toothless drunk, your eyes closing slightly, your head lolling back. You have the thin wispy hair of an absent-minded professor–you came into this world with a full pate, but your head has expanded and your hair has not kept up.
Soon your mother arrives and we continue our play, diving onto the bed to nuzzle and tickle you, blowing raspberries. We shake the cobwebs of the commute from our heads and ease into the evening.
It happened for no reason. It happened because we were both underslept and worried about your struggles to nap. It happened because, despite the bright leaping joy I’ve known this year, there is still a small, mean part of me that wants to hurt when I don’t get my way.
Whatever the reason, I grew angry with your mother for a simple miscommunication. I narrowed my eyes, hardened my voice, and hurled jagged little knives, unwilling to unclench that cold fist inside.
You grew quiet sitting on the floor, pawing at your toys, tasting and investigating them as you do. I didn’t notice your awful, damning silence until later. You didn’t cry, didn’t look upset, didn’t even look directly at us much, but I realized later you were taking it all in, your two protector-providers casting hurtful words at each other.
Oh, son, I’m so sorry. You will be safe. I won’t let this rage stake its claim on me. Won’t let it dig its rutted tracks into my heart. There are some grooves already, I’ve been down this path before, but I don’t want to become an anger-choked man. I am learning to breathe deeper, to let go, to try to be a bigger man. For my sake, for Hannah’s, for yours.
We are on a six-hour flight, trying to entertain you with one five-minute activity after another. Nothing holds your attention. You don’t want to sit in our laps, let alone sleep. You want to squirm and roar your way out of this wretched stuffy tube. You claw at my neck, leaving red scratches, then lunge into the seat-back compartment, tearing the magazine cover, reaching deeper into the pocket toward who knows what filth.
How long can this go on? How can I teach you to probe the mysteries of existence–but not the wadded tissue you found beneath our seat? I’ve turned off the seat-back TV, and now I switch it back on, receiving only the free channel of ads. Luxury beach resorts, immaculate corporate conference centers, steak dinners on white tablecloths. These hold no interest to you. Then comes a commercial for a cosmetic dental center in Texas. On the left, a man’s awkward smile flashing yellow teeth. On the right, the same man post-dentistry, teeth glowing freakishly white. Your eyes seize on the screen. Your raging squirming body relaxes. Tropical beaches and tidy banquet tables mean nothing to you. But a human face, even a grotesque radioactive smile, holds your attention. A face is a real thing to you. Maybe you see a potential source of nurture, or sustenance, or play. Maybe you see simply a person–and already you know that sentient breathing creatures are what matter in life. For a blessed moment you are still.
You have learned to wave! You fix your face in concentration and jerk your arm back and forth: Hello! Yes! Hello! Great job! We praise and wave back, and your face alights, your tiny mouth hanging open with gladness.
You haven’t mastered the finer points of the gesture. Your hand faces the wrong direction, palm inward. Sometimes you wave at daycare friends as we leave for the day, and sometimes you wave at the fridge. Sometimes you wave at your mother while you sit in her lap, inches away. We smile and wave back anyway. What delights me is your desire to connect.
You have possibly learned to kiss too. At times when I’m holding you to sing before bed, you open your wet mouth and lean toward my face. Your red tongue approaches, glistening. This being a period of teething, your wet runny nose approaches me too. You laugh your waterfall laugh, knowing you’re doing something affectionate and playful. That makes me laugh. We feed off each other, and lullaby time is delayed, and I don’t mind so much that your kisses are mostly snot.
Carrots scrape against a grater. Rice skitters into a pot. The stove clicks and whooshes as a burner catches flame. I never noticed the diverse sounds of the kitchen until you began noticing them.
Now every time I cook or clear dishes, you turn to watch. Tonight you are in your high chair, your mother feeding you beans and yogurt. You scoop them into your hair, which has grown thick again, the better to store your dinner. You kick your legs happily until I run the coffee grinder, which startles you every time. I look over to see you motionless and wide-eyed.
You watch longingly as I load the dishwasher, a shiny silver cave you have tried to climb into so many times. The clatter of each dish distracts you from your meal. After you finish, your mother carries you over to the stove. I lift the lid from the rice pot so you can smell the steam billowing out.
I return the lid and see that you are watching me more closely than the pot. My every move seems to confuse and interest you. This attention you lavish on me makes my heart swell. It also frightens me, because I know I’ll let you down sometimes. I know you’ll be watching when I stumble. Mostly, though, I marvel at how you help me see with new eyes and listen with new ears. We all three of us pause to listen as the dishwasher whirs to life.
We’re at a concert at a city park, riding high on a swell of boisterous old-time mountain music. Fiddles shriek, guitars clamor, and the singer’s voice soars like a bird on the wind. You wave your chubby arms, bouncing off the beat, not even looking at the stage. It’s an hour past your bedtime. You crawl around our picnic blanket and watch the people spread out around us. You return to me and pull yourself up on my leg–your newest skill. You’re too excited to focus on any one thing for long. You make a slow four-legged dash for someone else’s dinner. I scoop you up, curl an arm around your belly, and kiss below your chin where I know it’ll make you laugh. You’re a year old, and it seems every time I’ve figured out something about you, you’re on to a new stage, waving hello to the fridge, a new person yet still the same.
Soon it’s two hours past your bedtime. You’re still bouncing and flapping your arms and grunting along with the music. You’re confused and loopy but happy. The sun dips behind giant Douglas firs, bringing welcome midsummer shade. The band segues from one of its own songs into an anthem that feels as old as the trees.
This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island.
Your mother stands to dance. I lift you toward her arms.
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.
I watch you relax in your mother’s embrace, your body growing still as she sways and sings to you. For the slightest moment, everything that matters converges–the music, the land, your energy, your peace, our love. All of it a gift, for which I can only sing in gratitude to the nameless source.
I stand to dance with you. You rest your weary head on your mother. We may pay for the recklessness of tonight when you’re overtired tomorrow. We will miss plenty of concerts and nights out because of the responsibilities you bring. That doesn’t matter right now. Tonight we’re at the show. The music goes on forever.