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Thoughts on Finding Sleep, Before & After Fatherhood

Thoughts on Finding Sleep, Before & After Fatherhood

I. Before, in October

This is usually how I convince my body to fall asleep: I think of the first few lines of a story, or a setting, or a plot, and add some bright, distinct objects and wonder about what things would come of it. A sentence such as: 

And so she walked to the yellow door, the truth within her greater than her, and yipping out of her in anxious fingers which she pressed against other anxious fingers, nailing at nails, pressing at cuticles. 

My wife is pregnant now, due in February, and though I wonder incessantly about who the child will be and the man thereafter, my brain still looks for stories when it tries to settle itself into rest. Is this a bad thing? Shouldn’t I be thinking of what I haven’t read about mucus plugs and colostrum? How could one know? How could one begin to know? It’s my first child, and even though he’s thumped my cheek a time or two (prodded by my regular attempts at a tapping communication) he is beyond my knowing. I imagine I will only be able to feel the true shift in me when he arrives – beautiful, fragile, a perfect son; no doubt. And it’s funny that I know that. And when I write know, I mean Feel. 

A few other thoughts appear now, probably over-steeped: He will be perfect because he cannot be any other way, just as any new thing is perfect. It’s only when we begin to know ourselves well enough to act on behalf of our interests that we begin to heat off that patina of perfection and appear in our mottled coloration. See that coloration as copper heated, the bright bronze giving way to blotches of cobalt and ruby, the oil-puddle colors, and verdigris much later if our individuality should find some admiration in the world.

But regardless, to me, won’t he always be perfect? Regardless of anything at all? Perfect beyond his interests, his mistakes, his individualization, his descent from superposition cradle to name-tag mingling, phobias, 1040-EZ’s, and the shocking mundanity of 21st century life?

“Obviously,” I feel myself reply firmly when I read the question back. I go on: “Perfect only in a way a parent could feel. Perfect in a way that if he were to go, I would go. And though I don’t know how much of me would go, I know that the lopping would be thorough enough to end all resemblance of the present (post-terror) with the past (pre-vivisection). So even now, in pre-natal October, I know that I desperately never want to know, with the same fear meat might Feel if it could know the butcher’s agenda and intent.” 

Put another way, knowing that losing a thing would be the end of you (or so significant a part of you that it would make little difference) implies a kind of perfection, perfectly gloved for you (if only a damn shame for the neighbor). Sleep, wanting itself again, repeats:  

And so Elmora walked to the yellow door, the truth within her greater than her, and yipping out of her in anxious fingers which she pressed against other anxious fingers, nailing at nails, pressing at cuticles. 

Beyond the yellow door, floating at the center of my mind like the entrance to The Twilight Zone, there is a general impression of this character’s story which is normal and takes place within the world as we know it. It begins to emerge from base-coats of love, and death, and broken romance, and maybe a soup kitchen; all put down quickly, splotch-made. Then each of the pieces unfolds like origami — one of them a folded paper ladle — and then it’s origami as seen through a kaleidoscope, and that image in itself is a beautiful fractaling thing which is hard to hold onto in the mind’s eye (at least, it’s more beautiful than the words which conjure it, and certainly more beautiful than the letters on the screen before me now), and in the feeling that I have made something beautiful, regardless if it’s only for me and will dissipate into pipping, unremembered dreams, I am able to find sleep. 

This shut down sequence has changed before for lesser reasons, so I suspect it may change again when he arrives. (But whether that change will be vertical – deepening my pursuit of these little scenes or beaching them to expire with dry throats and bloated bellies – or if it will drift laterally into new spaces altogether, I have no idea.) In my teens, I had a different sequence. I would imagine the top half of a sphere, a cozy igloo lining the inside of my head. Inside, where I was, was safe and secure. There was a hardwood floor with a warm Persian rug and a big La-Z-Boy in the middle. There was no door in the walls, but instead bookshelves wrapped around them, unbroken save for a piece of art or a window (though I never settled on what to put in the windows; it seemed counterproductive to make it a view into the world à la Being John Malkovich ((after all, I wanted to secure myself from the world — not continue to be required to interact with it)) but it also seemed too eerie to fill it with some static image, like a jailer’s cheap attempt at mercy). Despite the unresolved little window, there was a complete sense of safety in that space — enclosed, surrounded by bits of self-realized identity — and I was able to forget myself entirely and, in the absence of myself, I found sleep.

When I moved to Amherst, the process became more external. I often relied on a movie called The Man from Earth. It’s a peaceful film which unfolds in a professor’s cabin (and I’m realizing as I write this that such a place might just be a more grown-up version of the previous space). The professor in question has resigned rather suddenly, and his faculty-friends have followed him back home after a too-short goodbye party. They quiz him gently, yearning to find out why he’s leaving so suddenly, especially when he’s on track to chair the department in a few years. He confides in them, tentatively, that he’s an immortal. Every ten years or so, when people start to notice he doesn’t age, he moves on. I’ve seen the movie at least 500 times, but far fewer in its entirety. I would usually fall asleep in the first 30 minutes, in the comfort of a reliable and soft-spoken friend, forever appearing in his soft 90’s grain (the way all movies ought to be filmed).

If the pre-sleep sentence should prove sticky enough to be around in the morning, perhaps I will prod it, and describe its unfolding. Perhaps I will write more of it. Something such as:

And so Elmora walked to the yellow door, the truth within her greater than her, and yipping out of her in anxious fingers which she pressed against other anxious fingers, nailing at nails, pressing at cuticles. This was a door which she hated now, but which a part of her, swaddled in memory and sheltered so far down from the radiation of the present, loved deeply. Its marks and dings and mail slot were extremely well-known and seeing them cast holograms of her childhood onto the porch around her. One scene came into focus – Elmora watched herself from above, saw her black bangs kipping back and forth with her waddle-walk, saw her swing the wiffle-ball bat at the door because it was yellow like the door was yellow and voila, a mark appeared where it struck, a thumbprint upon the world. The door opened for the little girl and her exceptional knock, a startled woman in a pale blue nightgown stepped out, hair and emotions frayed, and scooped her up. Voices in agitation. 

Is the world a better place now that I’ve written that paragraph? As far as the world is what takes place inside my mind, I think it is. It Feels like it is. But I could also ask, is it a better world for you? For him? For the folks who don’t know me, haven’t read it, and never will? Here is a table to offer a rough analysis for those questions:

Table 1: Is the world a better place now that I’ve written that paragraph?
Subject(s) Answer(s)
For myself Yes.
For you Up to you (I’m inclined to say yes, simply because reading is better than other, less mindful gerunds).
For him Probably (as far as the writing brings his father contentment, and contentment in his father has knock-on effects of calmness, a greater joy in life, and a more solid constitution, then surely it is).
For the folks who don’t know me, haven’t read it, and never will Maybe? (I’m pushed to say yes again, since I think we’re all better off for the existence of libraries and things-we-haven’t-read-and-never-will)

 

A concluding question and response: How much more meaning is there now, with all these possibly positives in tow? Probably more – the more-ness nested in the idea that in doing the thing one loves they do right by the ones they love, the ones they don’t, and the ones they’ll never get a chance to. A happy thought. 

II. After, in March

I was right, after all. In the months between October and now (St. Patrick’s Day), there remained a barrier to knowing him. He thumped more consistently, of course, and we saw his face in warbled “4D” ultrasound, but there was still a space between us which hadn’t collapsed until he arrived: purple, wet, screaming, head still cone-y from the journey. 

The anticipation of all those months of ‘father-soon’ built up a mighty expectation in me for the moment of knowing. I imagined I would find myself in the throes of some unknown emotion the instant he came to us. Instead, I was in shock, and in the absence of emotion which shock creates, the first feeling I felt was guilt because I didn’t yet know that I was in shock and how terrible is it to not Feel the right thing (or, worse yet, the predestined thing) when you’re supposed to? The adrenaline numbs it all, and the stark newness of the experience (of seeing a human come out of another human, of seeing so much blood leave your best friend) is more than enough to sideline all thinking parts of your brain. You are left agog, with the trusty deeper systems of breathing and heart-beating soldiering on as your mind is squeezed through a straw. 

In a few minutes, though, the Novocain is gone; a trained scalpel splits the straw down its length and you unfurl rapidly. The apprehension you feel when he is handed to you — that you must muster up an unprecedented kind of care and security to match the delicacy of this new and perfect thing — speaks to the shift that has occurred. As does the way you unthinkingly follow the nurses as they take him away from you to the little table under the warm lamps to check things and the words you Feel are, “Is he okay? Can you confirm this? Can you say it resolutely? I really need to Know it.” 

Then there is the first hour, during which your partner is very pale, very gray. They give her some kind of medicine to chew on and jab her thigh with a syringe of fixing stuff, and the doctor and another doctor are positioned down there with instruments, prodding and lifting and twisting to fix the bleeding which hasn’t stopped like it’s supposed to. 

She’s unaware of it, entirely, and you don’t mention it — why would you mention it? — but eventually they finish and there is a smile behind the masks because the bleeding has been arrested for now, the error corrected. Prick-spots of blood are scattered across her face, neck, and chest, her force having snapped thousands of capillaries, but worst of all is the shaking, which hasn’t settled with their surgery, and seems immune to blankets and calm-husband-words.  It isn’t until they’ve cleaned everything up (and, you don’t really hear about this part, weighed all of the blue medical sheets covered in what was inside her just a few minutes ago) that the tremors finally settle, and you move to another room. 

Two days follow, during which little sleep is had, and no shut down sequence is anywhere to be found. Sleep arrives instantly when it can. In the moment it has room enough to exist, it does, thoroughly. Once, when a nurse comes in at 3am (they come in every 25 minutes and illuminate the room in stark, sterile fluorescent light), you’re unable to get up. You stay/are stuck under the blanket which doesn’t reach past your knees on the vinyl, body-fluid proof couch and listen to the conversation between her and your wife. “I’ll come back in an hour to check on you both.” Once she leaves, you mumble from inside your fort, exasperated, “Why does she need to check on me?” 

Such a question is a sign of things to come. Half-thinking and quarter-thinking brought on by little sleep. Processing is muddled, and there is a general haze which settles over everything. Whenever sleep is had, in its quick snatches, there is a little dose of energy which makes you feel exceptionally capable. “What needs doing? I will.” But after 45-minutes, the fatigue has thwomped you again like a giant child with a giant inflatable hammer – you ought to be able to resist this ridiculous thing, shouldn’t you? This massive, obvious, simple, harmless thing? Of course, you can’t. The earth is dumped upon your shoulders, and your mind is brought into sleep again as the dirt slips into the space between your brain and your skull and the warm dark space is sleep itself. 


And so he brought himself to it, the thing which was a thousand of him packed into a stone just bigger than one of him. That is to say, it was remarkably dense, and immovable by him — being just one of the thousand required. 

This is him: tall, sinewy, tanned, adorned in good cloth and leather made from local animals by men and women who know him extraordinarily well. His name is Abarand. There is more to him, obviously (there always is when it comes to anything), but you can continue the adorning by imagining those descriptors above, and maybe these as well: primordial, second-born, grieving. 


Then you lurch back into action, somehow rejuvenated from that apparent rest, and the cycle continues in the hospital for two-and-a-half days. This strange dance of sleep and vibrant, multi-color waking, filled with total attention upon the newest piece of the universe. You have, you realize, been sailing your whole life, unaware that there was an ocean beneath you – or, rather, unaware of the depth beneath it. It’s an imperfect metaphor, obviously it is, you sleepy dragoon (as is the choice of dragoon). But it seems good nonetheless, like drunk smiles on serious folk, preferable to the truer and more accurate thing.

Whenever he wakes he is coughing, choking, on colostrum. (Though you’ve never had an arch-nemesis, you do now, and it’s a honey-like nutritious slime which coats your son’s esophagus and threatens his access to the sweet oxygen of the Earth — his rightful home). You pick him up quickly each time and attempt to burp him, attempt to be the thing which he needs, and of course the swaddle unfurls, distends to the floor, where it must be retrieved with one hand while the other, almost the same size as his entirety, presses him securely against your chest. You lay him down, try to swaddle, but it’s dark, and you don’t get the first fold quite right. And then the cloth slips out of your hand. And you try again and again, realizing that you are barely controlling the ridiculous cast of characters masquerading as useful and dependable fingers. You look over at your best friend, now watching you, equally dazed from the fatigue, but hers is no doubt double, at least (perhaps she has a deeper force inside of her to rebuff the massive toddler and his hammer of sleep?), and you tell her, “I can’t hold the blanket, it keeps falling. I don’t think I can do it.” She is there for you, and helps you, and when you return after 15-minutes of rest you help her, and you have never been closer to one another, and you both also realize that there is another ocean above you suspended in the sky, another realm of unrealized depth, and that the world is an insane place which makes less sense the longer you’re in it and the deeper you engage with its possibilities.


Abarand brought himself to it often, whenever his responsibilities carried him to its vicinity, as long as it wouldn’t interfere with getting the things he needed to and bringing them to the people who knew him extraordinarily well. But today was the third day in a row he had been here, and he thought this was probably too much, but he also knew that it wasn’t his choice how often he came, or how fast, or with what kind of Feeling. 

That was a true thing which others who had interred someone in the walls of the valley understood. Some of them said: “They’re already in the earth and in everything around us, so there’s no need to go to the walls.” But he still found Temerit here, and didn’t feel him in everything around him — not under his feet or between his teeth or inside his lungs; surely, he was there, on the other side of this impossible stone, where everything was damp.  

And in the worst moments he saw Temerit as he truly was — brought to a wet and bloated decomposition by the dampness in there, he Felt it in his memory and saw himself as he sat beside his best friend and couldn’t be convinced to leave. He saw on repeat the bits of Tem’s skin which were unfolding and retracting in curls and, his mind’s eye being so near the terrible wounds, Felt that bright itch in the backs of his legs to run to him and care for these injuries — to unroll the skin back to the parting places and stitch them shut; but then the mallet of truth flattened his chest and rendered him immobile and breathless, his muscles twitching while Temerit’s slowly unspooled some few steps away, just beyond the boulder, interred in and becoming, somehow, insanelyterriblybeautifully, the valley itself. It was only the soft and slow pulse of this truth and its apparent perfection – that it was all a persistent dance of retraction and reunion in endless forms – which kept Abby from annihilating himself. 


Your greatest fear has now become division, and your mind explores the various new tortures it can imagine, the worst possible paths which life can take from where it is now — in wonderful unity — into the dark and true divisions which will eventually amputate each part of your family from its happy whole. Regardless, in the present the scene is true, and its overwhelming joy cannot be overcome by the dark and gloomy wandering of the stormy dragoon-cum-poet-cum-Poe. 

You are all in bed — your wife is asleep at your side, your baby is asleep on your chest, and your cat, Potato, is in a curled slumber at the middle of it all, and you are awake, utterly astounded at these depths of life which have opened up beneath you and that your appreciation of it is only dependent on your ability to acknowledge the moment. And so they increase in tandem — the fuller knowing of the fragility and darkness of living, and the fuller knowing of the infinitely fractaling beauty of it all. As the three of them sleep upon you, you recall something Vonnegut wrote about an uncle of his who would often say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” Which, in your current context, could also be written as, 

“If this isn’t the greatest goddamn thing around, what is?” 

Or

“If this isn’t the true fucking point of it all, what is?” 

Or

“If this isn’t more spiritual than anything I’ve been told is spiritual, what is?” 

Or

“If nothing, it is it is it is it is.” (A wife-snore, your smile). 

III. Now, in July

It is a Biblical fact that the earthly body is connected to the spirit body by means of a ‘silver cord.’ When this silver cord, which is thin and elastic, is broken, the owner dies. Ecclesiastes 12 verse 6 also mentions the silver cord being broken. It may be that to all intents and purposes, a person has actually died, but the silver cord, though frayed and thin, is still attached to the body, then this is a case of suspended animation. There are many gruesome stories of people having been declared dead, and having regained consciousness later.

— The Realm of Spirits, p. 15, Hugo van den Dool, 1969


It’s July 31st, and it would be a dandy thing if I finished this essay today, or at the very least, if I could turn in a rough draft to myself and dance with it through the August humidity. Cross fingers, hope hopes. In addition to the date, here is the current location of writing:

Room 403D

Post-Operative Hall

Marlton Virtua Hospital

Marlton, New Jersey 08053

In the spirit of Meneer van den Dool, I invite you to glide into the room, to be suspended there, animate but as impotent as a true ghost (or, more simply and more accurately, as a reader).

Reader-you, see me: 31, gangly, feet extending beyond the hospital bed, exhausted by six-months of new fatherhood and a full night of adrenaline and non-sleep, the fashionable gown rolled up above my belly button as a nurse redresses the incisions held taut with stitches and glue, dried bits of blood splattered across an abdomen still inflated with surgical CO2. A line of fluids descends into my left arm, slipping into me along the inside of my elbow. Become Magic School Bus size, if you like, and explore all the more (and please zap any floating malevolence the medicine isn’t actively bursting into oblivion). See them, too, the antibiotic squadrons: Metronidazole, Cefriaxone, and the assassin-tandem, Pipercillin-Tazobactam. Conjure their shapes — intimidating, no? Iron-maidens turned out, tumbleweeds of razor-wire, indiscriminate, careening little nightmares. Know them more keenly still by juxtaposition with the fluffy X and Z things of the good Doctor Seuss – so cuddlable, their round bellies wobbling with something far happier than CO2. 

Sick with an ickness, and in search of a cure,

The Lorax, two Flummox, a North Going Zax, 

One Glotz, some Fritz, 

Even (and even) a King Looie Katz

Went a-walking and a-stepping beyond Wombleclomp Wood

When a Fruzz — believe it, a Fruzz — came about 

With a sound on a stick

And holding it out

To the traveling troop, 

He said:

“Sniff (or snurf) good Zee lads I dare! 

One sniff (or snurf) will cure your everything, I swear.” 


When I was in the Peace Corps, in South Africa, sometimes I would have free weekends and I’d travel to a little hamlet in the high green arc of the Drakensberg Mountains which curl like a dragon (draak is Afrikaans for dragon) into Limpopo. The town — idyllic and sleepy, with dependable, low fog on its slopes each morning — is called Haenertsburg. There is one street which comes up from the main highway cutting through the mountains between Polokwane and Tzaneen, shuttling taxis of black South Africans between black South African places, quickly passing them through this highland of Afrikaaners and other whites — tucked away but fiercely protective, old watchful men and sturdy sons whose fingers are trigger-comfortable and who drink lots of brandy and coke. They even have a private security helicopter to annihilate violence when it snakes its way to them all the way up there, the X of its wings ripping a perfect disc in the mountain sky.

I found van den Dool’s book, orange and cellophaned and well-preserved, in the Haenertsburg bookstore (he being a local of the area whose cord retracted long ago). What amuses/astounds me is the confidence of the man. The sheer unquestioned knowledge of how things are — that of course we all have a little fishing line stretching from somewhere at the base of our necks directly into the sky. Regardless of how I feel about the truth of it, I find the image striking, and have thought about writing a story set in a world where such cords are visible and extreme care must be taken not to snap them. There are, for example, thick leather sheaths for scissors and other sharp things. Weapons of war so easily decimate the cords and since there is no hiding — ye cords are always visible stretching into the sky — they can easily be cut from a distance with a sharpened boomerang or some other such thing. So, violence hasn’t developed in our way (owing to the mutually assured destruction of any conflict), and people prefer hamlets because real cities, obviously, are a dangerous experiment. There is the occasional coup, a snipping in the night, a mortal vasectomy, though there are also fewer despots and authoritarians generally, and there is a far greater confidence in the afterlife which reduces the pride-searching of our earthly time (and in this the need for real cities and their experiments). And for fun, consider how their ceilings and doorways are constructed — are there breaks built into every roof? Lined with wool or feathers or the such to limit the weather coming in but ensuring one’s cord doesn’t get caught on a splinter? And speaking of weather, the cords must be very strong in their flexibility and stretch, if the place is to exist at all. 


There is a village which sits about a hundred feet from the edge of a cliff. At its base, waves lap at it and apply their steady, salting erosion. Eventually, the middle and higher parts fall away, and this carries on all the way up to the top where there is grass and parents who are calling out to over-curious children to stay well-clear of the edge. Even so, many children dangle their feet there, and many parents themselves first kissed with four feet a-dangling, voices a-giggling, before they had the little children who could be swept away so easily by the wind, and so suddenly brought into the boulders and the sea.

The activity of the village can be observed from afar. One sees the cords fluttering with activity in the daytime when the people go about their business, sending vibrations up the length of their wires; they rest still in the evening and reflect the moonlight so peacefully. Lovemaking is particularly apparent — two cords come close and begin their thrumming as if in conflict before settling into a movement upon one another and, being frictionless, they safely slide and twist around each other. And the passion which is put into it gives way to a commensurate disentangling, happy and giggling, as they move one way and then the other, attempting to decouple. (Passions which involve three or, heaven’s grace, four or more threads are a rarity, but can be amusing entertainment for the other villagers who watch the messy cords bobble and jump with increasing frustration as the bold lovers attempt to part ways, the morning sun glinting off their braid). 


A brief accounting of what brought me into this hospital bed: On Friday (it’s Monday morning, now) pain seared across my abdomen and got worse as the day went along. By Sunday morning, it had diminished greatly, though little pockets remained. In the early afternoon, my aunt and uncle came over to meet our son for the first time. My mother cooked, my wife de-veined very many shrimp for a full hour which she did not enjoy, and my father operated the grill and produced kebabs. Around 2:30PM, I felt feverish and decided to visit an urgent care. The nurse practitioner examined me and recommended I proceed to the emergency room for a CT scan to rule out appendicitis (I had mild, localized pain in my lower-right abdomen, though I could move around just fine). The CT scan revealed acute appendicitis and necessitated immediate intervention. I was wheeled into surgery two hours later to have this swollen and threatening organ, apparently vestigial but maybe not completely, taken out of me.  


In the village a girl is sick (let’s call her Elmora) and her brother (let’s call him Temerit) is desperate to find a cure. While the generally accepted notion is that a child’s spirit is quickly accepted into the sky when the cord ascends, leaving their body to the family and the village cemetery (and, eventually, the sea) Temerit loves his little sister too deeply to accept this as an outcome of her expulsions of sweat, vomit, and diarrhea. They are not twins and are not close in age, but they Feel like twins, and share a deeper kindry than just siblinghood. Their father is not there anymore, and though Temerit has memories of him, Elmora does not, and thus there is a sacred role for Temerit to play — to allow Elmora to partly know how much her father loved/loves/will always love her. 

Elmora’s health is deteriorating, and, having exhausted every option — having gone out and found every herb or mushroom which he was told could be helpful and having consulted even the village of H. (a two-day’s walk from the cliffside, renowned for its knowledge of healing and general facts of the mortal and spirit realm alike) — Temerit knows there is little that can be done for his sister. Asleep in the next room, he dreams of climbing up his own strand into the sky, but when he gets halfway up (he Feels it to be halfway, though he cannot see the end of it) his cord snaps, and he tumbles back down to the earth, watching his line unspool before him, desperately trying to gain a hold on it to slow his fall. He awakes and falls asleep again. This time he climbs his sister’s cord, up and up, but he doesn’t even make it a quarter of the way — her condition having made her cord quite frail. He awakes again, but this time he gets out of bed, anxious for a solution. There are many stories about climbing one’s own cord up to heaven, and then unfurling slowly back down with stories of wonder and color, but these are just tall stories, and unnecessary in reality, given that one day they will all inevitably retract into the sky.

He enters the other room, where his mother is seated in the big chair next to the warm stove, Elmora in her lap, the two of them deeply asleep, and Elmora flushed, small beads of sweat on her forehead. He walks around and around the room, searching his mind for a solution. Eventually, his tired brain gives up, and he sits down across from them, the union at the center of his life which is his responsibility to maintain. When he looks up, he notices how his cord has wrapped around theirs so many times, and he has an idea, and wonders if he will wake them, for he knows how dearly they need to rest.


I’ve been placed under general anesthesia once before, for a hernia surgery in March, just after fatherhood arrived, which installed a mesh between my stringy abdominal muscles and my intestines which, as can be confirmed by any sufficiently gory medieval movie, will readily spill out of us if not squeezed and squelched firmly in place by the rest of us our strange bodies. The anesthesia takes you unknowingly and completely in a fuzz that is warm enough to hold back the refrigerator cold of the surgical theater.

When I said goodbye to my wife as they wheeled me in to retrieve my appendix, very swollen and apparently necrotic at one end, I could Feel some fear in her. Such fear persists regardless of the operation – how could it not vibrate at some level, however slight? The fact that it vibrates at all (a binary fact, true of things far more benign than appendectomies) is the warrant of fear.

And in this I find another part of me split by fatherhood. Before, my greatest fear was that I would die before I’d written something worthwhile. And now, this older fear has retreated into the tree-line while New Fear — that my son will grow up without me, without knowing my love for him, without a love which I feel is irreplaceable because no one could love him at my depth and vantage — stands starkly in the field before me as a grand, flaming scarecrow. All the same, Old Fear lingers in the edge of the wood, and I see him watching me with his jack-o-lantern face all black with tar, dripping, his form slipping in and out of sight; in moments of panic, he dances out from the forest wheeling his arms, squawking and barking to make himself acknowledged behind the flames and their heat1And what would it mean to truly acknowledge him? To come to his trees and sit with him? Would we break bread together? Would I clean his face? Remove the tar with patience and soap, taking care around the eyes, until I found his true skin, telling him with tenderness that I love him? Or, after some minutes of confusion at my strategy, would he lunge at me? Smother me with his tarry hands, slipping over my face from his frantic pressure, the suffocation finding me in gasps? The meaning of this digression itself is unclear to me, though it Feels right to include nonetheless..                                                                                   


Temerit slipped out of the home soundlessly, and quickly got himself on the roof, the thatched reeds offering good traction as he climbed up towards the two cords extending from the center of the home into the realm of stars. 

When he reached the threads he touched them softly, appreciating the strong but delicate silver glow of his mother’s and the pale, waning gold of his sister’s. The moon was full and added its light to their cords and to his, and as he began to walk round and round the rope above him grew thicker and brighter. He had little idea if this would work, he never knew of anyone who had actually tried such a thing, but all the same there must be something up there at the top. There was no mystery beneath him, only the good and perfect life of his sister which was to be snuffed out for no reason and which would leave him and his mother desolate, the interlocking points of their souls stripped smooth and thus hopeless for new union. The only unknown was far and away up there, in the retracting place, where, he thought, cords must sit like spools of thread in endless baskets, waiting to be woven into something magnificent and galactic in scale and splendor. His mind spun steadily with such thoughts as he began to climb, determined to discover a means to hold onto Elmora, and delay her weaving.


Coupled with the scars from the hernia surgery, my stomach is now adorned with seven pink-purple ridges of tight scar tissue. When you are young, such things bring you identity and bragging rights; when you are firmly no longer young, they feel more like proofs of weakness than badges of survival. There is little pain down there. There is, however, intense shoulder pain which feels like a really well-sharpened N0. 2 pencil pushing into the marrow, directly down into the top of my right acromion – pain from the CO2 that has yet to be absorbed or expelled. I can walk, and am less wobbly than I was last night. I haven’t slept a single minute, since waking from the surgery I’ve been flipping through my phone and occasionally panicking as blood work and test results are emailed to me and I attempt to interpret them via Google. My wife is sleeping on two chairs pushed together on my right side. She hasn’t really slept since our son was born in February and this, incidentally, is the first night that we’ve been away from him (my mom is looking after him). I wonder if she thinks about the rough delivery she went through and all the blood she lost and how they needed to do surgery to stop the bleeding; does she panic deep down and quietly like screaming into a pillow as I do when I think of such stuff? Darkly, I realize that we’d both likely be dead and our son would be an orphan already without well-staffed hospitals and medicines invented in the past sixty years. The realization settles beneath my heart, and is pushed steadily deeper by the thumping. 

The past decade has been a chapbook of almost dying. I was hospitalized twice in South Africa — once for “blood poisoning” (an unsolved mystery) and once for intestinal bleeding, spurned by a parasitic infection. A year before that, I was in a crash in southern Myanmar, near the city of Dawei, and only avoided bursting my skull open on a random, remote highway by the grace of a full-face dirt-bike helmet I had insisted upon before renting the motorbike (the renters had insisted that a flimsy, Tonka-toy-esque construction helmet was sufficient). A year after Peace Corps, I was teaching in Japan when I woke up one morning with what has since been diagnosed as reactive arthritis — a condition which will make you feel as if you’ve suddenly developed end-stage systemic cancer, the pain is in every joint, you can hardly stand, your eyes swell up with inflammation and your mouth fills with ulcers the diameter of N0. 2 pencil erasers. In this last matter, again, I was lucky, and things resolved with a short run of steroids over the course of a month (though its psychological mark is a branding I still trace my finger over, attempting to discern a glyph and its meaning). 

These events, along with some others which I’ll avoid getting lost in here, have fortunately or unfortunately left me in possession of a panicked and skittered soul (or am in the possession of it, if the distinction matters). I say ‘fortunately or unfortunately’ because the hyper-awareness it imparts may have been the thing which ultimately preserved me in some of these cases. In this handful of instances, I panicked for a good reason. However, I’ve also panicked thousands of times for innocuous reasons, a daily penance for no other end than systemic fatigue, chronic stress, and premature aging. 

And in all of this there is the question of how to be a good dad — how to model strength when one feels oneself to be structurally unsound? When one is seemingly destined to be mortally snuffed out by the next sufficiently dark moment, leaving his family beached, abandoned, deserted? When one is threatened to crumple inwards at any moment and be unavailable as swaddler, shelter-maker, bottle-holder, picker-upper, model-maker-Lego-partner-star-pointer-c0-pilot-It’sokayforyoutocrylikethissoheavily,Iloveyouandalwayswill-teller? 


Far below him he could see the waves crashing against the shore. Their white strands curling into the rocks at the base of the cliff. Not far off from him the other threads sat still in the moonlight, every now and then one of them would jitter as its body, so far down below, shifted in its sleep. 

Temerit was patient in his climb and he continued it for hours. He moved himself steadily up the cord which felt strong. When he grew tired, he would twist the slack of his own thread around his foot and rest. He didn’t know how much longer he had to go, but there was little point in turning back now. He would climb until his strength gave out and even then, he thought: “I will lodge myself in the cords, and if it comes to it, I will wait for hers to retract and I’ll catch it before it’s gone. And perhaps it will carry me the rest of the way.” 


There are a number of ways this story might continue. Temerit might climb until the cords begin to converge. Even cords from far off places come to meet way up there, close to their terminus (genesis?). And there are so many of them that it forms a great strong stalk, a muscle of sorts vibrating with all the human lives of the world far below. Perhaps he’d had have an epiphany then, swaddling himself in these veins of heaven, or perhaps he’d keep climbing and find a door in the empty space and emerge into some kind of a room where a tall, rustic woman stood at something that looked like a loom. Or perhaps the village wakes up slowly and, realizing what he’s done, they all converge to wrap their cords around his sister’s to give him more purchase to climb upon. Maybe a storm tosses him from the stalk and he tumbles and something else. And something else. Until a message and worthwhile place is found to stop the writing. 

This question of finding sleep persists alongside finding the place where the writing proceeds. But in this exploration of it, before and after the moment of fatherhood, it seems more appropriate to call it a question of finding peace, stability, tranquility, foundation. What else is a mind ultimately searching for? And what else am I to do for him but offer those things as best I can?

A happy discovery to close upon: to rebuff the anxiety inherent in living (and the newly opened depths of it brought on by fatherhood), parenthood offers an ever-available antidote.  It forces you to act upon chaos (to soothe the crying child, to clean them, to feed them, to be the thing which they need) and these actions are the opposite of wallowing in one’s screaming head, which isolation allows for in abundance. And beyond the responsibility-antidote, there is a happier vial as well – the daily joy of seeing your child blooming into themselves, their movement from superposition to known position where you are together, and with each moment wondering less. Here they are, these perfect things, no doubt. 


July 22, 2023: My son may be a zombie. When you hold him close to your face and give him a raspberry he turns, rabid and toothless, the harmless searching mouth already upon your cheek, or your nose, or your chin, or whatever it can suction onto. It’s one of the first games, and it destroys fear, feelings of listlessness, thoughts of invoices, of anxiety, of the pandemic, of your fellow enraged and unhappy Americans, of the fact that you haven’t chosen godparents or written wills, completely and indiscriminately. All of it is incinerated in the war path of the gummy little maw as it devours your face.


Temerit climbed, and climbed, and climbed, and wondered about the speed of the retraction, and whether he’d be fast enough to catch her. 

 

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