For the past three days, my goal has been to free every oppressed tree in the pasture behind my house. I named the mission “Operation Tree Liberation” — uncreative, I know — and it has not been an easy objective. Thick knots of bramble have wrested control of much of the good vegetation near my house, strangling perfectly beautiful trees in a death embrace. The thorny vines wrap themselves in knots, creeping around and around until it’s impossible to tell where the tree begins and the briars end. I feel a sense of sorrow for these hardwoods, which have clearly lost their identities to an outside invasion. So with a chainsaw, a rake and a machete, I set out to butcher the bramble.
The property that I’ve turned into a killing field is 16 acres in the Fines Creek area of Haywood County, North Carolina — perhaps the most rural part of an already rural county (population: 60,000ish). Our property is roughly four acres of pasture and 12 acres of wooded mountainside, located in a narrow valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is genuine Appalachia: Full as it is with generational locals, one might even call it a holler. At night, if the sky isn’t too hazy, the stars are magnificent. The water for our house is spring-fed. A creek runs along the north boundary of our land. Cows moan on a mountainside across the way. It’s just as common to see a tractor or four-wheeler on the road as it is to see a proper automobile. We’ve lived here for less than a week, but as soon as my father-in-law (aka Papa) let me borrow his chainsaw, it was game-on: I hacked the overgrowth around an old wooden swing in our backyard. I cleared a path to the 100-year old barn that stands (wobbly as it may be) on the northwest portion of our property. Later this week, I plan to clear a wide trail that winds up our personal mountain, which we have yet to name but will probably do so soon — most likely after one of our three snot-nosed dogs.
All of this de-brambling has been therapeutic. Despite my wife, Caitlin (who’s pregnant), and I being elated about moving onto our dream property years before we thought we’d be able to do so, there’s a sadness lurking underneath. There’s something wrong with our unborn son, Conley. Or more accurately, there might be something wrong with him. We don’t know anything for sure yet, other than that he has clubbed feet. That diagnosis in itself isn’t a big deal — clubbed feet can be corrected with a brace or specialized shoes — but the clubbed feet in addition to several other abnormalities have led our doctor to believe that our little guy may have a genetic disorder. His head is a little too round. There’s potentially a bulge on his superior vena cava. A portion of his brain isn’t quite as big as it should be. The ultrasound still hasn’t been able to get a good picture of his hands — which could be clubbed, too, for all we know. This cluster of symptoms is concerning in a non-specific way. So last week, a doctor stuck a needle into Caitlin’s uterus and extracted four syringes of amniotic fluid. I held her hand and let her squeeze as hard as she needed to. She didn’t even flinch — not as the needle went in, not as the fluid rose up, not as the needle came out. “You’re a beast,” I told her after it was over. The doctor looked at me and smiled: “I hope you mean that in a good way,” she said.
Now we play a waiting game. The doctor sent the amniotic fluid to a lab for testing. Ideally, the results will give us a more detailed idea about what’s going on with our son. So, too, will the visit to the pediatric cardiologist in a couple weeks. But nothing is guaranteed. We may be ignorant of Conley’s true condition (or lack thereof) until after he’s born, when the doctors can see what he looks like and perform certain tests that can’t be done while the baby is in utero. Thus our future is uncertain. In one potential timeline, Conley is a healthy baby who merely needs corrective footwear. In another, he’s so physically and mentally handicapped that he’s unable to take care of himself in the world. There are infinite potential future timelines. What’s so exasperating is that Caitlin and I have no idea which one we’ll be living in a year from now. A dull anxiety skulks our subconscious. It’s always humming — sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly, but always present.
There have been tears and therapy sessions. For me, it’s been hard to concentrate on much of anything: even writing feels like a slog, which never used to be the case. So I’ve been meditating. I’ve been praying. I’m not religious. I don’t speak to the Christian God — not that I have any objection to that, if you happen to be a believer. My prayers have been to a sort of universal spirit: An agnostic’s prayer, perhaps. Sometimes I address my words to “God,” but when I do, I’m not envisioning a bearded Caucasian man in the clouds. I’m imagining everything that cannot be sensed: the great mover, the Monolith on the other side of the here-and-now, the grand mysterious churning of the universe that sets this future or that into motion, an entity (or non-entity) so vast that my prayers don’t even register as a fly in its face. Yet I pray nonetheless. Because what else is there to do? If you’re out there, whatever you are, just give us the strength to accept whatever comes our way. That’s what I’m getting at when I say these prayers.
There have been other stresses, too. Right as we were moving onto this beautiful piece of property in this idyllic part of the world, my mother-in-law (aka Mama) was diagnosed with a rare disease called multiple systems atrophy (MSA). This basically means her body will shut down over time. Patients with MSA usually die by way of pneumonia, or an inability to swallow or breath on their own. Their minds, thankfully — or cursedly, depending on your perspective — usually don’t deteriorate, even as their bodies become immobile. My mother-in-law’s life expectancy is nine years. That’s nothing. She’s only 65 now. It’s been disheartening to watch her decline so quickly. She needs a cane to move about, and her speech is often so slurred that it’s hard to make out what she’s saying. Her balance is getting worse, too, making her prone to falls. I came inside a couple of days ago, after an afternoon of cutting bramble in the pasture, to find Caitlin and her sister, Meghan, standing silent in the kitchen. “She had another one,” said Meghan. “It’s pretty tense right now.” There are also night screams, a strange side effect of a mysterious disease. The past couple of mornings I’ve woken up at 5 a.m. for work, and as I walk past Mama’s room, I hear her hollering like she’s being chased by a lion. These night screams are a relatively recent phenomenon. Before they arose, she was plagued with snake-like hand movements. These came on years ago, before any of us had any idea about the underlying condition. Her arms would shoot up and sliver around as she was sleeping in the middle of the night. Papa used to joke about it. But then the diagnosis came, and the jokes promptly stopped. “It’s a bitch,” Papa told me the other evening as we sat near the foot of our mountain. “It’s only going to get worse from here. It sure ain’t going to be pretty.”
So this is what Caitlin and I are dealing with right now: a strange amalgamation of joy, devastation and nervous suspense. Having family at our new house for Thanksgiving has helped ease the stress. So has hearing people’s stories about their experiences with rocky childbirths. Our former neighbor, a nice old Christian hippie, told us about her son, who had to be medivacked to a bigger hospital immediately after he was born due to unforeseen complications. The doctors said he most likely wouldn’t survive, but he’s still here, 30-some years on, living a normal life.
Also, one of my fellow firefighters, Will (not his real name), has a daughter who was diagnosed with a rare disorder called PHACES. Everything looked fine on her ultrasounds, he said, but problems arose soon after birth: Her heart has two holes in it, and the vessels are wired all wrong, for lack of a more scientific way to phrase it. She also had a benign tumor — a cluster of excessive blood vessels — in her throat. This cluster was pushing into her trachea and causing random episodes of respiratory arrest. The growth was eventually removed without issue. And those holes in her heart should close as she develops. She had a whopping 15 surgeries during the first two years of her life, but things are looking up now. I saw her for the first time the other day, when Will brought her by the station for Thanksgiving. She’s a beautiful little girl. There’s hope for her. And there’s hope for Conley, too, as he continues to form in the strange comfort of Caitlin’s uterus. This is what we need to keep reminding ourselves: Just because a child’s development isn’t seamless doesn’t mean that things won’t work out in the end. Let’s just hope that this is the case.
A couple of days before Papa went back to Virginia, I fired up his chainsaw and cleared a thick patch of briars in front of that swing I told you about earlier. This was dense, nasty vegetation: the briars were reaching out to grab me, sinking their thorns into whatever piece of clothing they could cling to. I cursed their resilience as I hunched over to cut the bastards as close to the root as possible. It took me about two hours to finish all of them off, but when I was done, there was a clear path to that old wooden swing on the hillside. I sat down with sweat on my brow and watched the evening light fade across the mountain. It’s beautiful out here, I whispered to myself. Then I heard the wooden beam above my head crack from my weight. It didn’t snap, but the loud sound was a clear warning. It had probably been years since someone sat on this swing, I thought. So I decided to replace the rotten thing with something newer — perhaps a nice hammock, or maybe a another swing, or anything else that gives me an opportunity to lay out here from time-to-time, in this silent thundering valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains, while a weird heaviness squats in my heart like a shadowy intruder.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.