My son and I mainly communicate by making fart noises with our mouths. It’s a silly little back and forth that brings me more joy than is reasonable. His eyes get squinty and his face squishes up and sometimes he giggles. That giggle is the best thing in the world, a sign that he’s a healthy baby who enjoys the world.
His happiness was never a given. As I’ve written at length in the past, my son has a rare genetic disorder and suffered a hypoxic brain injury at birth. He was born in January, though it feels like decades ago. Those were sad and uncertain times. It was cold and windy. My wife and I felt doomed. We floated like ghosts through the hospital. Back then, there was little chance that our son would lead a typical life. But six months can change a whole hell of a lot, and in our case, those changes have been for the better. At Conley’s recent check-up with the neurologist, the doctor said there were no signs of the brain injury. What felt like a grim sentence during those cold windy days is of no consequence here in late summer. After we received the good news, my wife, Caitlin, held Conley in her arms and said “you healed your brain, baby!” It was a great moment. We repeat that phrase often now. It’s a reminder of how many obstacles Conley has already overcome.
The genetic disorder still looms in the distance like a blurry monster. Van Maldergem Syndrome is so rare (only 20-30 diagnosed cases in the world) that there’s simply no road map for what’s ahead. We know the following facts about Conley so far: (1) he has no ear canals, but his inner ear works fine, so the BAHAs (bone-anchored hearing aids) he’s been wearing for the past few months will allow him to hear normally the rest of his life. (2) he’s still mainly eating through a G-tube, and while he’s shown progress in taking a bottle and even eating solid foods, it’s anyone’s guess when, if ever, he’ll be able to have the G-tube removed. (3) His hands are clenched and his feet are bent slightly inward. The former will likely not respond well to surgery because of scar tissue, so his hands will likely remain as they are for the rest of his life. Which isn’t too grim of a prognosis, because even though he can’t open them completely, he has decent dexterity and can do most of the things that typical folks can do. His feet may require serial casting when he turns one. If that fails, surgery would be the next move. He should be able to crawl and, eventually walk, just fine. So there are a lot of positives. But a lot of unknowns, too. Those blurry monsters. Since there are no road maps, we’re focusing on the pavement in front of us. Or trying our best to.
As I‘m writing this at 6:34 in the morning, I’m watching Conley on the baby monitor rubbing sleep out of his eyes. An object darts in front of the camera. There’s a commotion and Conley lets out a single loud cry. I rush into the bedroom to see what’s going on, and our dachshund/blue heeler mix, Dottie, is licking his face. Like, all over his face. I’ve seen what she eats, so I know her tongue should not be anywhere near a human child. I toss her to the ground like a bag of salt and reprimand her, then I lift Conley into the air and tell him good morning and his eyes go squinty and his face squishes up. These are the small joys of domestic life. They are the heart of it all.
Do I miss the freedom of pre-baby life? Certainly. I’d be a fool not to. Who doesn’t like doing whatever they want whenever they want? Who doesn’t like being mostly selfish? I miss being able to travel on a whim without having to consider the logistics of bringing a baby along. I miss being able to eat indoors at a restaurant. I miss being able to go into public without worrying about old ladies touching our son’s face. I miss being able to write uninterrupted. I miss not having to be constantly on guard for a crying fit. I miss not having my heart outside my body. I miss laundry not being a never-ending cycle. I miss every inch of our house not being stained with breastmilk. It was splattered on the fireplace the other day. How does that even happen?
I miss every inch of our house not being stained with breastmilk. It was splattered on the fireplace the other day. How does that even happen?
But you know what? Pre-baby life didn’t have Conley, so I wouldn’t want to go back. Look at me. I’m becoming a walking cliche. BEING A PARENT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING AND REWARDING THING IN THE WORLD. Do you know how many people said that to me before I had a kid and I was just like, yeah, whatever? But it’s true. Now I say those same words to non-parents and they look at me like yeah, whatever. Sure it is. As soon as Conley was born, I gained 10 pounds, developed a bald spot on the back of my head (alopecia, I think) and bought boxer briefs that were saggy in the butt. Oh hell, I’ve become a dad. There’s no turning back now. God help me.
Some days there’s nothing romantic about being a parent. Some days you’re exhausted, and your wife is exhausted, and the baby is fussy for no explainable reason, and the dogs won’t stop barking at every car that drives down the road, and you spill a bag of breastmilk on the kitchen floor, and you drop your cell phone and shatter the screen, and you haven’t showered or been outside in two days, and the WiFi is going in and out, and there’s a hole in your roof that no one can seem to fix, and your gutters are failing, and it looks like a bomb has exploded in your extra bedroom because you’ve been throwing all of your excess crap in there for months, and all you want to do is lie in bed and sleep for a thousand years while the world burns, but nevertheless you keep feeding your son every three hours and your wife continues to pump breastmilk like she’s some sort of robot and the dogs won’t shut up or stop following you from room-to-room, but you keep on going anyway, just limping by, because what else are you going to do? Some days it really is like this. It’s not like this every day and it won’t always be like this, but some days it really is.
Then you look at your baby. You see him smile and hear him coo. His skin is softer than you thought skin could be and he looks at you like you hold all of the knowledge in the universe. And sometimes he laughs so hard he gives himself hiccups. His laughs make it all worthwhile. Just one good laugh a day (though there are usually many more) releases enough oxytocin to balance out the sleep deprivation and the annoying dogs and the breastmilk splattered on everything. I wish I had something clever and insightful to say here, something transcendent that would subvert those stupid parenting truisms. But I don’t. The sound of my baby laughing releases a something within me that either didn’t exist before Conley was born or was lying dormant until he entered the world. It’s evolutionary advantageous, I suppose, for babies to learn to laugh so early in life. It creates a deep bond with mom and dad and makes them believe that their baby is the most beautiful baby in the world and that they’d do anything to keep them alive. Very clever, babies. Very clever.
How have humans survived? I mean, fuck’s sake. We can’t even walk until we’re like a year old. Horses and cows and other more highly-developed animals are moving within minutes of sliding out of the birth canal. Human babies, meanwhile, are helpless for a long time. They shit themselves and get food all over the place and babble mindlessly and aren’t able to do anything productive for years. This is perfectly fine in modern times, now that humans have evolved to the point where we’re essentially isolated from the dangers of the natural world. But could you imagine living in, say, a cave, or a desert, and having to raise a baby with wolves and big cats and/or gorillas lurking in the vicinity? Or trying to breastfeed in the middle of the woods around a campfire with predators in the shadows? Now that’s a hard existence. And here I am complaining about breastmilk stains. Humankind has become so pampered that we feel the need to exaggerate problems to convince ourselves that our existence is difficult, when in reality, things are infinitely better than they were even just, say, a century ago. I mean, my wife uses a machine to pump her breasts. Could you imagine being a woman and having to manually milk your tits? While a wolf plots to kill your baby? That must’ve been exhausting. And here we are, us modern humans, complaining. We’ll complain about anything, won’t we? Where do we get the nerve?
But here’s something that’s totally justifiable to complain about: Why is it that some people — mostly old rural women, sorry to stereotype, but it’s true — think it’s OK to touch your baby? In the middle of a pandemic, nonetheless. People were doing this so often, we had to buy a sign to hang on Conley’s crib warning people to stay away. But nobody noticed it, because as people see a baby, they go into a cuteness blackout and the only thing they can focus on is pinching cheeks and rustling hair. We were eating outside at a Mexican restaurant a couple months ago when one of the employees kissed our baby on the forehead multiple times before Caitlin and I registered what was happening. God’s honest truth, he brought his possibly germ-infested face right up to our high-risk baby’s forehead and placed his lips on it. The next day, Caitlin bought a mosquito net to drape over the stroller. It’s worked so far. But I know some day soon an old lady, drunk on baby-so-cute chemicals, will lift the net and go in for the kill.
We will be purchasing a nightstick after that happens.
I think about all the little things we do with Conley that have become routine but will fade with time. I think, mostly, of the silly songs we sing, the lyrics we know by heart but will soon forget. The words to most of these songs verge on the psychotic, because they were created by two stressed-out over-caffeinated parents. The first song that comes to mind is one that goes “How do you baby? Uh, uh. How do you baby? Uh uh. This is how you baby tikki tikki tikki ti. This is how you baby. Tikki tikki tikki ti.” We make Conley dance to it, lifting his arms over his head on the “uh, uhs” and batting at his hands during the “tikki tikki tis.” His reception has been lukewarm at best, but sometimes it makes him laugh from deep down in his belly
Another song I recently made up is a little diddy about bananas I call “Surprise! Bah-nah-nah!” That’s the entirety of the song. I sing it in a nasally voice for added effect. I created it when we started feeding Conley mashed bananas. Caitlin thinks it’s a perfectly serviceable tune, but doesn’t quite understand it. “What’s the surprise? Why would someone be surprised by a banana?” This is a fair point. I doubt this song will be around much longer. Most of them only have a shelf life of a week at best, and I haven’t sung this one in a few days. So unless I consciously work to keep “Surprise, Bah-nah-nah” alive, it will soon disappear.
Conley’s favorite song by far is the feelings song. We sing it to him when he’s fussy. It goes: “what are these feelings that you’re feeling inside? Because every feeling has a feeling inside. Every feeling has a physical sensation inside. Is your heart a-racin’? Are your palms a-sweaty?” And so forth. The fact that we’re usually singing this song when Conley is wailing and we’re in fight or flight mode make the lyrics seem insane. It works, though. Conley calms down after hearing it. It’s a useful tool in the toolbox.
Sometimes I think about how, one day, we’ll no longer sing to him. The day he ceases to be a precious baby soothed by silly songs. It seems unfair that parents lose this part of their children, this opportunity to be so intimate with their offspring. But that’s part of being a parent, I suppose. One day, Conley will no longer want to snuggle and listen to our strange ditties. That’s sad, but I suppose it’d be weird to snuggle a teenager while singing about bananas. So this slow detaching is probably for the best.
I never feel rested anymore. Never. Maybe being tired all the time is part of being an adult in general, but it’s especially true for parents. I don’t fully understand it, because Conley is a great sleeper. We lay him down at 8 or 9 and he usually sleeps until at least 8 the next morning. Sometimes he’ll unexpectedly unleash a single loud cry in the middle of the night just to mix things up, but most the time he falls right back asleep. But there’s never been a time when we’ve had to pick him up and soothe him in the middle of the night. And yet we’re always exhausted.
A lot of it has to do with the emotional stress of keeping a human being alive, but another factor is never knowing when the baby might interrupt whatever you were doing. This leads a total inability to focus, because in the back (and sometimes front) of your mind, you’re always thinking about when the baby needs to be fed and has he been changed and will he start crying soon and did I forget to give him his medicine this morning and and yada yada yada.
That’s why I wake up early to write. It’s the only time I can focus without having my attention fractured. In addition to the baby, we have also three dogs and two cats, all of them extremely co-dependent, so you can guess how they goes. We raised them to be needy, so it’s our fault they’re this way.
It’s 6:54 right now. I arose at 6 a.m.and hooked Conley up for his morning feed. Then I sat down at the computer and got to work. If Conley’s still sleeping when his feed ends at 7, I’ll go back to bed until his feed at 9. I won’t feel rested when I wake up, but I’ve noticed that going back to sleep, even if it’s just for an hour, will give me more energy reserves later in the day. I won’t feel good, because I’m not even sure I know what good means anymore. I definitely won’t be as irritable, and thus I hopefully won’t be unnecessarily short with Caitlin and cause a fight about something we’re not even sure what we’re fighting about. Parenting is all about managing your energy. That, and having to clean breastmilk off every surface of your house. I just don’t fucking understand how it gets everywhere.
We live about a half-hour from Max Patch, one of the most popular hikes on the Appalachian Trail. It’s only a couple of miles in total, if that, but the view up there is phenomenal. It’s located on an expansive bald, which is essentially a pasture at a high elevation. While you’re up there you can lie in lush grass and look out over miles of ridgeline jutting out of the landscape like a giant creature’s spinal cord. The view is panoramic, and it creates a feeling of omnipotence, surveying everything while everything down there has no idea you exist.
Small things can still wonder. Gods don’t have that luxury. I don’t think it’d be all that fun to be a God.
If only we could do this with life. If only we could take a short walk up to a heightened plane and stare into our pasts and our futures, maybe the purpose of it all would become clear. Maybe it would change things for the better. But there’s also a chance that such all-knowingness would spoil the mystery of life. If we knew everything, if we could see everything there is to see, then what would be the point? Maybe being small is the best thing to be. Small things can still wonder. Gods don’t have that luxury. I don’t think it’d be all that fun to be a God.
So here I am, standing in front of another drab office building, waiting to die.
So he went down to the bar and got drunk. He hadn’t done that in a couple years, since the last time he stopped drinking, but it was one of those things where he had to have a drink right away.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.