Every time something major is poised to happen life, my wife, Caitlin, and I split for the coast. This is a deliberate action. The last time something truly noteworthy occurred in our personal lives was the fall of 2019. That’s when we took an eight-day vacation to Okaloosa Island in Florida. It was my first trip to Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” — or the “Redneck Riviera,” as it’s also known — and I instantly fell in love with its white sand beaches and crystalline water. That trip preceded my enrollment in the Asheville fire academy, a grueling seven-month slog that broke me down and built me up as a new man. The struggle was worthwhile in the end, considering I now have four-day breaks every nine days, which allow for mini-vacations such as the one we’re enjoying now, on the South Carolina coast, five hours from our home in the mountains.
The mood of this trip is more subdued than our journey to Okaloosa which, in many ways, marked the end of youth: our 20s were over and we were finally settling down. I’d landed a “big boy job,” as it were, and Caitlin had a “big girl” one of her own, working for an environmental non-profit that protects the beautiful waterways of our home county. There’s a picture of Caitlin from the Okaloosa trip that I absolutely love: she’s walking barefoot on a white beach, her back toward the camera, moving gracefully toward a vast body of mysterious water.
Now here we are, a year and three months later, and the universe has been simultaneously more kind and more bitter than we ever would’ve predicted. We’re having our first baby in a month. A boy by the name of Conley Thomas. His impending existence is an example of the inherent kindness in the universe. The bitterness, meanwhile, has taken the form of the extremely rare genetic disorder he’s been diagnosed with. It’s called Van Maldergem Syndrome, and there are only about 20 known cases in the world. It has the potential to cause a whole host of problems, from intellectual disabilities to seizures to clenched hands…the list goes on and on. Hence this trip to Harbor Island, one last getaway as husband and wife before our baby bursts into the world, bringing a host of joys and challenges along with him.
It’s early January and predictably chilly as I write this from the living room of a condo on Harbor Island. Were this summertime, or even the fall, I’d be on the deck, breathing in the salty air and allowing beads of sweat to form on my brow. But winter being what it is, I’ll stay inside, watching the sunrise over the surprisingly beautiful marsh. Who knew something as ugly-sounding as “marsh” could be so moving? I can see the ocean in the middle distance, perhaps a quarter mile away. There’s a web of boardwalks leading out to those beaches, and I’ll walk them today — not with the end goal of wading in the water, but to simply stroll through the sand, the cold wind nipping my skin while the unknown looms out there, large and dark as ever.
I’ve seen a lot of wildlife recently. A few days ago, back in the mountains, I witnessed a fox sprinting across the forest. Moments later, I flushed a flock of about 15 turkeys at the top of our mountain. I also saw a snake swimming in a river at night: my flashlight caught his gleaming eyes for about 20 seconds as he slithered across the water. Then dunked his head and was gone forever. The most notable creature of all, however, was the three-foot alligator I encountered while roaming Harbor Island. I was studying a group of birds making a ruckus out in the water when my gaze locked on a scaly tail about five feet in front of me. It’s not the first gator I’ve seen, but it is the first one in quite some time. I rushed back to the condo to grab Caitlin, hoping she’d get to see it, too. But by the time we returned, the sneaky reptile had vanished. Nature couldn’t care less about human desires.
I doubt there’s any deeper meaning behind my recent increase in wildlife sightings. If anything, I think it’s a sign that I’m living more in the moment, taking time to truly inspect the living world. It certainly feels like I’m living more deliberately, although perhaps settling into my skin is a more accurate way to describe it. It’s a vague mixture of contentment and mild boredom. Yesterday morning, Caitlin and I walked through the waterfront town of Beaufort. We strolled into a local coffee shop — I ordered a cappuccino, she got a tea — then we meandered along the water’s edge, watching a seagull dive into the water for a morning snack. Then we plopped down in a wooden swing and gently rocked for several minutes, staring lazily out at the water. She rested her head on my shoulder, and in that moment I felt genuinely happy, but also a little bored. It was as though the last threshings of our youthful energies had finally dried up. Our lives are just so set in stone now, which in many ways is a good thing. We’ve never felt this secure — in our jobs, in our home, in each other — and this newfound security is such a contrast to how we spent so many years that there’s an urge to trash it all, to discard our good fortunes and make an escape. Like a couple foxes sprinting across the forest. This is the adult trap finally got us, we think. There’ll be no more wild things, like moving across the country (as we did in 2015) or working on a pot farm in Northern California (as we did in 2017). We’re no longer adulting, but full-fledged adults. May we rest in peace.
The most notable creature of all, however, was the three-foot alligator I encountered while roaming Harbor Island. I was studying a group of birds making a ruckus out in the water when my gaze locked on a scaly tail about five feet in front of me.
Why does adulthood terrify me so much? On second thought, I don’t know if terrify is the right word. If anything, it’s as though I’m in a state of mild grief, mourning the loss of a looser existence that we’ll never be able to regain. My resistance is an immature response to a normal process of life, and perhaps it speaks to a fundamental personal flaw, some deep-seated hang-up that keeps me from being fully satisfied with my admittedly fortunate lot. Sometimes I’ll lie in bed and think: Well, it’s over. Life is over. I’m old now. I had a good run. These thoughts arise, at least partially, because I’ve reached a stage in life where I’ve witnessed genuine decay: People growing old. People being diagnosed with diseases. People dying. Three folks I graduated high school with have died within the last two months. Three. I can’t make sense of it, just like I can’t make sense of my 64-year old mother-in-law being diagnosed with a degenerative disease that could kill her within nine years. Just like I can’t make sense of our son being diagnosed with a one-in-a-million genetic disorder. Just like I can’t make sense of the way my back hurts, my knees hurt, my ankles hurt. The more I try to apply logic, the more I realize there’s really nothing to make sense of: life is staunchly anti-logic, which is why so many people turn to religion as they grow older. Religion, for all its flaws, earnestly attempts to explain the unexplainable. There’s honor in that, I suppose, but I haven’t ventured down that road yet, and I don’t foresee it happening anytime soon. There’s nothing for me there, at least not at this point in my life. But it’s not hard to see why it’s an appealing life choice.
Caitlin and I were eating brunch on the Beaufort waterfront yesterday. She was looking at a Facebook memory from when she was 18: she’d posted that she was “wishing she had a crush.” She’d just broken up with one of her first boyfriends, and was in search of a hot new fling. Sometimes I miss being stupid like that, she tells me. But God, I was a mess. She recalled how she’d missed the first two weeks of college that year because her friends were back in town and everyone was getting shithoused drunk. Such a mess, she reiterates.
Isn’t this the way it always is? We know at the core of our souls that we’ve moved onto better days, to generally happier times, but some hidden part of us always pines for the past, wishes there was a way to return to dumb recklessness. There’s forever a fox in the mind: wanting to run free in the forest, wanting to crash face-first into the dirt.
Caitlin and I have been having strange dreams during our stay here on Harbor Island. She woke up genuinely upset yesterday because she’d dreamt about me hanging out with her friends, butt-ass naked, and acting like it wasn’t a huge deal. The night before, I dreamt that I fought my boss. I have no idea what we were arguing about, but he lunged across the kitchen table and started thrashing at my face. I believe the cause of my intense dreams is the Endo Bliss pill I occasionally take before bed. It’s an endocannabinoid that, when paired with a glass of red wine, turns me into a loose weirdo then gives me vivid hallucinations as I sleep. On the whole, I am pro-dream. They add a sense of mystery to life, a sense of unpredictability. Sometimes they’re meaningless — like me, butt-naked, with Caitlin’s friends — but sometimes they’re significant, evenly eerily predictive.
The night before we learned about Conley’s Van Maldergem Syndrome, I dreamt he was floating in mid-air, his arms and hands clenched. Disturbingly intense feelings of fear and sadness grew within me as I stared at him. By this point, we already knew that he might have a genetic issue, so it’s not like this dream predicted anything out of nowhere. But I do find it strange that the first time I’d dreamt about Conley happened to be the night before we received his life-changing diagnosis. I understand that this could’ve been a coincidence. But nevertheless.
My grandpa, may he rest in peace, used to talk about how my grandmother would have premonitions: she’d dream that someone in the family was going to die, and within a few weeks, it would happen. She didn’t know who was going to die, but she knew someone was going to die. And by God, she’d hit it, my grandpa used to say. If it happens once or twice, it’s a coincidence. If it happens multiple times, something deeper has to be going on. It just has to be.
There’s a wooden block in the living room of this condo with the word “dream” nailed across the front in some silver metal. It’s a generic-looking piece of inspirational decor, like something from Bed, Bath and Beyond. Yet it gets the point across: To truly live, we need the ability to dream. When we dream during sleep, it’s perhaps a sign that we’re leaving room in our lives for magic. In the context of waking life, however, to dream is to hope. To dream is to envision beyond our current existence. This is important, not only in terms of bettering ourselves, but also those we love. Caitlin and I spoke to our doctor shortly after Conley received his disheartening diagnosis. She told us that, yes, this sucks, and yes, it’s going to be a challenge, but we shouldn’t confine our son with a glass ceiling. We shouldn’t preemptively decide what he will and won’t be capable of. There are just too many unknowns about his disorder. The spectrum is too great. Thus we need to dream for our son, to leave all possibilities open to the universe.
Conley decided to enter the universe one day after we returned from Harbor Island. Caitlin was watching Netflix in bed when her water broke. I was at work, on a 24-hour shift. She called me in a panic, unsure of what to do. Eventually she took an ambulance to the hospital, where I met her. We were shoved into a small waiting room and remained there from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Every few minutes a nurse would scuttle past our curtain, muttering about how “every baby in the whole damn world decided to be born tonight.” So Caitlin and I tried to entertain ourselves. We listened to Stevie Wonder, cuddled on a laughably small bed. After six hours of grating boredom, we were finally ushered into a bigger room.
Shortly thereafter, Caitlin’s contractions began. And what a terrible anguish they were. I don’t know from personal experience, obviously, but they seem to possess all the hallmarks of legitimate physical and mental torture. They begin as minor cramps, spaced reasonably apart. But as birth approaches, they grow in intensity and frequency until the woman is in so much pain that she begins hollering for an epidural like a starving man for bread. When she finally receives the sought-after drug, all of the moaning and shouting and frustration immediately ceases. It’s like a switch is flipped and the woman transforms from a wild animal caught in a rusty trap to a Buddhist monk on a mountainside. It’s a small miracle to watch a person you love go from being in unbearable pain to grinning like she’s eating cotton candy at a county fair.
“Any pregnant woman who doesn’t get an epidural is an insane person,” were Caitlin’s exact words. And who in their right mind could argue that?
The subsequent hours passed in a surrealistic haze. In addition to getting no sleep the previous night, I was recovering from the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which beat me down like a disobedient puppy. I suffered the whole gamut of symptoms: chills, body aches, confusion. I drifted in and out of consciousness on a recliner beside Caitlin’s bed as doctors, nurses and specialists filed into the room, one after another, like plastic horses on a carousel. They were undoubtedly kind people, but their faces and words were an incomprehensible blur. I tried to smile and return the kindness, but I couldn’t hold my focus. So I ate and drank some coffee, hoping to lift myself into a semi-functional state. This approach, to a degree, was a success, and thank goodness, because not long thereafter Caitlin was fully dilated. Conley was ready to enter the world.
When she finally receives the sought-after drug, all of the moaning and shouting and frustration immediately ceases. It’s like a switch is flipped and the woman transforms from a wild animal caught in a rusty trap to a Buddhist monk on a mountainside.
Caitlin has been dreading the final act of pregnancy ever since we learned of Conley’s impending existence. “I really don’t want to do it,” she often said “Why can’t you do it? It’s not fair.” I agreed, but what could I do? My biology just wasn’t cut out for it. Yet all her apprehension evaporated as soon as the nurses put her feet in stirrups and told her to push. She showed no hesitation or fear as she grunted and howled deep into the universe. I’ve never felt so much love and respect for her in my life.
I was posted up by Caitlin’s head, offering moral support, when I saw a coarse black mass exiting from between her legs. I was shocked, because it looked more like a stool than a baby. But I soon realized, despite my delirium, that what I was seeing was Conley’s bloody, matted hair. Caitlin pushed a few more times and, viola, Conley Thomas arrived in the world, the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. The nurses placed his blue body on Caitlin’s stomach for an instant, then quickly whisked him onto a gurney for airway interventions. All 12 medical professionals in the room moved and spoke quickly, darting this way and that. His O2 levels were low, his pulse rate slow. He’s not going to make it, I thought. But then I heard him cry and everything was alright. The next moment, I was standing over him, gazing in awe at his smooth red body covered in tiny white hairs. His shoulders were strikingly broad for a five-pound premie. I thought of my late grandfather, Speed — the one married to my prescient grandmother — who in his prime was 6’6,” 250 pounds. What would he have thought of Conley’s shoulders?
“Congratulations, dad,” said one of the faces in the room. “Thanks,” I replied, maybe. It’s all a blur. And just like that, Conley was whisked away again, up to the NICU, where he’s remained ever since, and will likely remain for at least a month, until the doctors and nurses and specialists can acclimate his body to the cold, cold world after coming out of a warm, cozy womb.
“Congratulations, dad,” said one of the faces in the room. “Thanks,” I replied, maybe. It’s all a blur.
The NICU is just one floor above where we’re at now, as Caitlin and I relax in a hospital room that feels more like a comfortable hotel room. She’s been recovering well. The night of the birth, she used a wheelchair to move through the hallways. But she’s walking around today — albeit timidly, and with significant soreness between the legs. Right now, she’s sitting up in bed, pumping milk from her breasts. I’m like a damn goat, she said. You know, I thought doing the milk thing was going to be weird. But it feels natural.
We’ve been visiting Conley in the NICU as often as possible. He’s hooked up to such an array of wires that he resembles a science experiment. The breathing tube the nurses implanted shortly after birth is still in place. So, too, is a chest tube, which was installed after an x-ray discovered a pneumothorax on his left side. And just 20 minutes ago, we received a phone call from this or that medical professional telling us that an EEG showed possible seizure activity in his brain. We’re going to start putting him on medicine tonight, said the anonymous medical professional at the other end of the line. I don’t know anyone’s name here, only their voices, their faces.
But I know Conley. When we visit him, we hold his hairy head, let him grasp our fingers with his tiny hands. Earlier tonight, I sang to him a song my grandpa used to croon to me. My grandpa had a deep, booming voice, and I’ve been trying to replicate his voice for Conley’s enjoyment. I read him a story from “Aesop’s Fables,” and as the words tumbled from my mouth, I thought about how gratifying it was to finally have the little man in the world, despite the ocean of unknowns he faces every hour of every day.
The story was “The Lion and the Mouse,” and it goes like this:
A lion asleep in his lair was awakened by a mouse running over his face. Losing his temper, he seized it with his paw and was about to kill it. The mouse, terrified, piteously entreated him to spare its life.
“Please let me go,” it cried. “And one day I will repay you for your kindness.” The idea of so insignificant a creature ever being able to do anything for him amused the lion so much that he laughed aloud and good-humoredly let it go. But the mouse’s chance came, after all.
One day the lion got entangled in a net which had been spread for game by some hunters, and the mouse heard and recognized the roars of anger and ran to the spot. Without more ado, it set to work to gnaw the ropes with its teeth and succeeded before long in setting the lion free.
“There!” said the mouse. “You laughed at me when I promised I would repay you: but now you see, even a mouse can help a lion!”
As I finished the story and closed the book I felt a long way from Harbor Island. And I couldn’t have been happier.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus to New York City for no reason other than to do it.