Nonfiction | June 01, 2008
Featured as an Editor’s Pick, July 7, 2009:
One thing at least is certain: water and madness have long been linked in the dreams of . . . man.
For years my wife and I rented a house with people in the basement. Below us lived a string of young families, some with children, some without, willing to sacrifice daylight and good ventilation for a savings in rent. The ductwork connected our two apartments, and at night, while eating dinner and watching television, Katherine and I could hear whoever was below us eating dinner and watching television. We heard them fight, and they heard us. If I tried to shower while someone downstairs was showering or running the washing machine or the sink, the water came through the showerhead in a trickle, and ice-cold. I’d stomp my foot and holler, but it never made a difference. I lost count of the nights we lay awake listening to the mother below us trying soothe her crying child, muted there-theres and shhhs echoing from the floor. Katherine felt guilty when our son arrived and we returned the favor, but I didn’t. They had it coming.
Now, in Wisconsin, it feels strange to have a basement of our own, this shadowy underbelly of our house lurking at the bottom of the stairs beyond the kitchen. Cinder block walls, thin carpet tacked over concrete, a moldy closet filled with spider webs. And behind a folding door, the furnace and water heater, the old coal chimney, the maze of water pipes. The pipes are what I have taken to studying: their path from the main valve to the heater and away again, up and over the air ducts, into the ceiling, right through the cinder block. I follow them with a flashlight, trying to map in my mind the floor above me. Here is the bathtub drain. Here is the kitchen sink. The space is lit by a single bulb suspended from the ceiling and two opaque windows, each the size of a shoebox, looking out on the driveway. It’s the kind of dungeon-like space that frightens children, but my child is down here and is not afraid. Galen is two; he dives into the cranny between the furnace and the chimney, the lightless recess beneath the stairs. “Come out,” I say. He laughs. “Come out,” he calls back, mocking me. The whites of his eyes shine against my flashlight. He’s not a big fan of the dark. Most nights he climbs out of bed to turn on his bedroom lights and falls asleep next to his door. Down here, he stays put. Like me he is drawn toward the very thing he fears.
My fear isn’t of the dark. It’s of water. I have been warned that water is a house’s worst enemy. In Utah and the greater arid West, water is a scarce resource: it can turn the tide in state elections and carve canyons between neighbors. Where we lived in Salt Lake City, the ground was sloped and parched; it would have taken a deluge to flood it, and even then most of the water would have run downhill. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is flat and wet. Water stands in the culverts that follow the roads, oily-black strips buzzing with flies. On windy nights I can smell the algae wafting up from Lake Winnebago. Allowed to stagnate, water spawns mold, and if it finds wood, it can rot a house to dust. So I watch for it. I stand in the basement and scan the rafters, touch every shut-off valve and spigot, hoping my hand will come away dry.
When I eye a puddle beneath a duct this morning, I hope for the best-case scenario. I tell myself it’s just condensation from the air conditioner. I turn up the dehumidifier and make it to the top of the stairs with that conclusion. But then I come back down and begin feeling my way along the top of the duct until my hand detects water, a little pool in a depression in the top of the shaft. A drop falls on the back of my hand. The sewer pipe is beside my head. I look up. Above me is the bathroom. Above me is the toilet.
The ceiling creaks. I hear footsteps, Galen running back and forth. Katherine moves more slowly. She’s suffering through the early, nauseous days of another surprise pregnancy, discovered the week before we left Utah. “Are you up there?” I call out.
“Me. I’m in the basement.”
“I’m in the bathroom.”
“I know,” I say. “Flush the toilet.”
I hear the water rush down the sewer stack beside me. I cup my hand around the pipe and feel the water flow against my palm. Water drips into my hair, and I look up to see a steady drip, two or three drops per second, coming from the seam between the toilet and the floor.
The manager of my local True Value Hardware store diagnoses the problem as a worn-out wax seal, the membrane sealing the toilet to the sewer. It surprises me to learn that a two-dollar wax ring, which I can mold and pull apart with my fingers, is all that separates my family’s waste from the house. In photographs of homes ravaged by tornadoes, the toilet is often the one object recognizable among the debris-white and solitary and steadfast. I expect my toilet to be welded to the sewer pipe. I expect the toilet and the sewer pipe to be forged from the same metal, a single seamless and constant length of indestructible titanium running from the bowl to the ground to the treatment plant on the far side of town. The manager explains that toilets are held in place with only two screws, both of which fit bottoms-up into notched grooves on the flange that caps the sewer pipe; it is the weight of the toilet-and the weight of those who use it-that keeps the seal pressed tight. He sends me home with two new rings and a metal scraper, tells me to clean off all the old wax before reseating the toilet.
Katherine takes Galen to the park, and I get to work. I turn off the water, separate the tank from the bowl, the bowl from the floor, ball up a rag and shove it down the open sewer pipe to hold back the gas. I spend an hour scraping away the grayed, hardened wax, digging it out of the tile, from the underside of the toilet, away from the top of the pipe flange. I scrub the floor with 409. Then I set the screws and the rings and prepare to heft the toilet back into place. Toilets are awkward, cumbersome things. Handling them is like trying to handle a dead animal: most prefer to lift with their arms extended, letting their backs pay the price for keeping the bowl away from their faces. Katherine and Galen come home just in time to see me hefting the bowl this way, my elbows locked and my ass in the air as I attempt to thread the screws in the flange through the two holes at the base of the bowl. It’s no picnic-just a tap knocks the screws over. On my first attempt I miss completely, pushing the screws into the wax ring with the base of the toilet. On my second, I get the screws through the holes, but one comes out of the groove in the flange, which means I have to lift off the toilet and the wax rings, and reset the whole works. The third time, I get it. I spin down the nuts and slowly crank them tight, one side and then the other, careful not to unbalance the bowl, careful not to crack the porcelain. Before declaring myself finished, I kneel before the bowl and wrap my arms around it until my hands meet in the back and my cheek rests on the lid. I rock back to make sure I’ve got it moored. At first the bowl is firm. Then, just as my ass meets my heels, I hear a sucking noise, like the peeling away of the waxed-paper backing of a Fruit Roll-up. I feel the toilet give. It brings with it everything I have touched today: the wax seals, the screws, the flange, the entire top of the sewer pipe. I have broken it off. “Oh, shit,” I say.
“Oh, shit,” Galen says. He squeezes past me to peer down into the sewer pipe.
Young family, first house, plumbing on the fritz-there’s nothing new in it. Everyone has a similar story. My neighbors to the north tell me how their chimney collapsed three months after they moved in. My neighbor to the south, a divorced grandmother, has a wax-seal story to rival mine. My new colleagues at the small liberal-arts college where I teach tell me of water pouring down kitchen windows from upstairs bathrooms, basement fires, exploding garbage disposals. Even my father laughs when I call him. “When our water heater burst,” he says, “I opened the door to the basement and water was all the way up to the top of the stairs.”
But none of these stories prevents my fear of water from growing worse. After the plumber leaves, my inspections of the basement become longer and more frequent. I turn out the lights and walk away, only to come right back, certain that somewhere some pipe has sprung a leak. When Katherine and I were walking through the house before we bought it, I noticed a number of cracks in the plaster where the house has settled over the years, as well as a few soft spots in the walls where, years ago, water leaked through the siding or the roof. At the time none of the cracks looked like a big deal: a little plaster and paint and they’d disappear. Now I measure each crack with my fingertips, the distance between my pinky and my thumb, and each day I find new ones: in my bedroom ceiling, in the stairwell, snaking up the wall from the electrical outlets. I run my hands over the bubbled lappets and worry that not only did water once penetrate the shell of the exterior, but that it continues to do so. Water is leaking in right now. If I stand here long enough, I’ll see it come through.
Weeding my front garden in late-September, I notice the soil sloping toward the house, when it should be sloping away from it. A little digging unearths a line of heavy paving stones, and beneath the stones I find strips of foam saturated with earth and water and mildew. I dig out the foam and then go to Menard’s to buy dirt so I can build up the slope, and when I tell the garden associate what I found in the yard, his eye grow wide. “The last thing you want is water running toward your house,” he says. “Except for water sitting against your house.” He shuts off his forklift and climbs down, leaving the stacked palettes of gray flagstones suspended above my head. He squints into the sunlight, his three-day-old scruff and narrowed slits giving him a Dirty-Harry look. He means business. “The foam will draw water to your foundation, where it will freeze and push your basement wall in,” he says. “Big mess.” He tells me I need to dig out the entire front yard, down at least three feet, fill in the bottom with gravel and the top with dirt, separate the two with plastic, and make damn sure to slope the dirt three feet away from the house.
All I want is dirt. Can’t I just build it up so that it slopes in the right direction? He shakes his head. “At best that’ll be a patch, not a real fix. No telling how long it will last.”
It is a Sunday afternoon, and I am wearing leather shoes and dress slacks, a button-down shirt. By the time Katherine tracks me down, Galen is screaming for lunch and I have a flatbed dolly loaded with topsoil and gravel, a new shovel. My pants are smeared with mud, and the armpits and collar of my shirt are dripping. “This is crazy,” she says. The salesman shakes his head. “Not as crazy as what those people did to your house. Your husband told me about the foam in the ground. Now that’s crazy.”
I’ve heard the stories of dream homes turning into money pits, so to some degree I’m worried about the money. But Katherine is right. What started out as a diligent attempt to evade potential problems and then turned into fear is quickly becoming an obsession. It is becoming madness.
As the husband of a social worker, I have been a proxy witness to myriad forms of madness. Since we’ve had Galen, Katherine has borne a much greater professional burden than have I, often requesting the night shifts so that she can be home during the day. She sleeps with a pager beneath her pillow, ready to be rattled awake at any moment by a call from the crisis hotline, the number people call when their demons have them cornered. The pager chirps, and she answers, groping in the dark for her robe and slipping down to the kitchen to the phone and the table and her notebook. She makes notes while her callers talk and tries not to interrupt too early or too often. Sometimes she’ll advise a caller to go to the hospital, and sometimes the person just needs an ear to speak into. On occasion her voice drifts back to me beneath the bedroom door, and on other nights I make my way down to see her sitting toward the windows, nodding and scribbling, fully present at two in the morning, at three and at four. “It’s okay,” I hear her say. “You’re not a freak; you’re just going through a lot. It’s only been a few months since he died.” I try to imagine her callers sitting against their bathroom doors with their knees tucked up to their chins, or at kitchen tables not unlike ours. In their fear and trembling, they are my brothers and sisters.
Once, in Utah, the call came from our neighbor three doors down, a young mother with a sick infant. Her daughter had been in and out of the hospital more than a dozen times in six months with hip dysplasia, a string of unexplainable infections and sleep apnea that one night caused her to stop breathing. Our neighbor, did CPR to revive her and then rushed her to the hospital. The baby lived, but the mother was afraid to sleep for fear that she’d wake up to find her daughter dead. Katherine recognized her name and the sound of her voice; she looked out our front window and saw her kitchen light on, saw the woman pacing back and forth in her nightgown, her blond hair in a ponytail. Katherine did not identify herself beyond her first name. She did not say, “Hey, it’s me, from down the street. Look out your kitchen window!” Nor did she keep looking out our kitchen window. She sat down and listened. The next day was sunny, and our neighbor was outside, pushing her daughter in the stroller up and down the block. Katherine wanted to invite her in, reveal herself, become the friend she knew she could be and had in many ways already become. But she couldn’t. It’s against the rules.
When the hospital wakes her up, chances are she’ll be going in. A patient needs a psychiatric assessment before being admitted or discharged. Psychiatrists don’t like coming to the hospital in the middle of the night, so the task is given to the social worker. Katherine dresses in the dark, brushes her hair and drives through the empty streets to the hospital. I don’t like the thought of her car alone on the road, and I’m always a little scared when she goes. I have considered calling the police to ask them to keep an eye out. Yet I’ve also grown so accustomed to the pager that some nights I dream right through it. Katherine leaves without me even turning over, and sometime later I wake up to find her already gone, to the paralyzing realization of what it would be like to lose her.
One night, just after Thanksgiving, she arrived home late and woke me up. Her eyes and the tip of her nose glowed in the moonlight through the slits of the blinds. I was stuffed still with dinner, the turkey and mashed potatoes like a weight in my stomach, but her look told me I needed to sit up, so I sat up. She had gone to the hospital to assess a patient whom the police had found at a stop sign screaming, “H2! H2!” He told her he’d been eating Thanksgiving dinner with his girlfriend’s family when an argument escalated into a fight. He’d thrown a glass against a wall and stormed out of the house, tearing off his shirt as he descended the front steps. Katherine recognized his girlfriend from high school-a disheveled but pretty blond who had once swum on the swim team. The patient wore his hair cut short and was clean shaven; with his shirt off, Katherine could see the topography of veins in his neck, chest and stomach. He was compact and muscular. Velcro cuffs around his wrists held him to the bed. He admitted to having a history of schizophrenia; he had stopped taking his medications because they didn’t do him any good-he still heard voices. Katherine said the psychiatrist could prescribe him a different drug that might work better and a sleep aid so he could get some rest. He said he didn’t want a different drug. He wanted to leave. His parents were assholes and his girlfriend’s parents were assholes and the police were assholes. Katherine asked him if he had used other drugs, and his girlfriend admitted they’d used Ecstasy. Katherine could see the muscles in his chest and arms begin to contract, slowly, like a python tightening its stranglehold. He made a fist and flexed his wrist, testing the strength of the cuff. “We’ll need to run some tests,” Katherine told him. “Draw some blood.”
“Am I going to stay here?” he wanted to know.
“We have a psychiatric unit at another facility. They’re better equipped. You’ll be a lot more comfortable.”
“Can I drive him?” his girlfriend asked.
“Ambulance would be better,” Katherine said. If she let them go, there was a good chance they wouldn’t show up at the other hospital.
“I don’t want to go in an ambulance,” the patient said.
“It’s better,” Katherine said. “Safer.” She sat back on the bed and took a deep breath before telling me how the tech came in to draw the blood and could not tap the vein with the cuffs around the man’s wrists. How the tech unfastened the restraints. How the moment his wrists were free, the patient sprang from his back to his knees in one fluid, adrenaline-injected motion, both hands reaching for Katherine’s neck. Had he made it, he could have crushed her windpipe. Fortunately, the tech stuck out his arm, and within in seconds hospital security was in the room, the patient was on his back again and his wrists were restrained. “He never laid a finger on me,” Katherine said. “But he got close enough that I knew what it would have felt like if he had. I felt the air leave his nose. I could smell the cranberry sauce on his breath.”
The euphemisms for madness in the American vernacular-“nervous breakdown,” “cracked up,” “lost his marbles”-all connote a process in which the mind breaks away from the commonsense world where the normal live and takes up residence in a country without logic, a little mental Madagascar, where change comes on suddenly and without warning, where the laws of linearity and orderliness no longer apply. The madman sees things that aren’t there. The madman chitters in a language only he can understand. The images of mental illness that pervade American popular culture-often portrayed as generally embarrassing brands of craziness-reinforce the idea: bipolars vacillate between manic rage and closed-curtain depression (Mommie Dearest); schizophrenics slavishly obey their inner voices (A Beautiful Mind); obsessive-compulsives repeat the same hand-washing ritual until their skin turns cracked and flaky (As Good As it Gets). Scroll the higher-numbered cable channels after ten P.M. and chances are you’ll come across a movie involving Multiple Personality Disorder (now termed Dissociative Identity Disorder)-a villain who is his own victim, his own evil side transmogrified into another self, the me that is not me. Even postmodern theorists Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson use schizophrenia as a metaphor for the schism between the images that constitute contemporary culture and the meanings those images, or signs, represent.
However, the real-life schizophrenic who lunged at my wife showed me that these metaphors can have it backward. Madness may be less a fracturing than a concentration: a fixation on one thing that becomes the head of the pin upon which the entire universe must balance. The one thing becomes the Everlasting Thing: a crushing, overwhelming weight that, when it fails, results not in an explosion but in animplosion which leaves behind a black hole that draws to itself all light, hope, peace, and all difference. Madness is the overwhelming persistence of sameness; it is the absence of change. For the man in the hospital, Katherine became the concentrated figure of all the voices that had tried to control him-the voice inside his head as well as the police, his doctors, his parents, his girlfriend’s parents-and when he lunged for her neck, he lunged not at her but at everyone all at once.
Though neither violent nor controlled by voices, I have become possessed in this way by water. It has saturated every facet of my existence. When I am playing with Galen on the carpet, I am thinking about water. When I am sitting on the couch feeling Katherine’s still-flat stomach for echoes of the baby inside it, I am thinking about water. When I am in front of my classes, I am thinking about water. I watch it spiral down the sink and toilet, the invisible tornado it forms in the bathtub, and I am certain that it is somewhere leaking into the walls, that it will rot away the skeleton of my shelter until the walls collapse and the roof buckles and the kitchen cabinets crash to the floor, which too will have rotted and will fall in. I dial off the tap and stand touching it, feeling for moisture, paralyzed, hearing Galen call my name but unable to listen. When no more water drips from the faucet I go away and come back again. I stand watch and wait. I prowl about the exterior, fixated on the rainwater trickling through the gutters and soaking into the grass and flowerbeds and farther, into the pores of the basement walls, seeping through the cinder blocks, the window jambs. I feel the washing machine vibrate through the living room floor and envision it bursting open, water gushing from its seams throughout the basement, knocking out the furnace and the water heater, then ascending the staircase, consuming our shoes and coats and gloves, filling up the portal windows like a capsized ship sinking into the sea. I lie in bed and listen to the creaks in the walls, straining to detect, in the dark, the sound of a trickle, a drip in the pipes that separate my bedroom from my son’s. I run my hands along the fissures in the plaster until my palms grow sweaty and create the very water I fear. And though I know it has come from me, that I can pull my hand away and make it stop, I fear the water I leave behind. I fear I am the agent of damage, and my madness, not water, will bring the house down around us. And still I cannot pull my hand away, stop feeling for more.
How little I know of madness. How much I will come to learn.
We go in for an ultrasound. I sit in a chair against the wall, abstracted. We’ve done this before. The sonographer squirts gel onto Katherine’s belly, and, a moment later, up on the screen hanging from the ceiling appears the baby’s outline. There’s the head, the back, the beating heart, the penis. Katherine has complained that she hasn’t felt quite right, and of bleeding: the toilet paper sometimes pink, other times a brighter red. I tell her she’s just nervous because we’re in a new place; nothing is wrong. Even the doctor has told her a little spotting is normal. “See?” I say, pointing. “There he is. A-OK.” I’m doing my best to participate, to think about what’s before me, nothing else. The sonographer hits a button and the machine spits out a line of waxy black-and-whites, as well as three sepia-tinted 3-D pictures of the baby tucked against Katherine’s uterine wall, a face like the face of a tadpole. We go home and call our families and friends. “Get ready for another boy,” we say.
Two days later, on Friday morning, I am sitting in my office when Katherine calls me. “You have a second?” she asks me.
“The doctor called about the ultrasound.” She pauses, swallows. “I need to talk to you about what he said.” For the next five minutes she stops being my wife and becomes a social worker, the calm-in-all-weathers woman who has cradled the dead in her arms, dead babies and dead children, who has ferried grieving parents to the morgue and back, who has pressed tiny, lifeless hands and feet into plaster molds in order to give bereft mothers something of their lost children to take home. She takes a big clinical breath and tells me that the ultrasound revealed that the baby is missing a blood vessel in its umbilical cord; it has two when it should have three. She also tells me that cysts were found in his choroid plexus, the membrane in the brain that produces spinal fluid. It’s not a cognitive part of the brain, so the cysts won’t affect function or development, but the danger is that both the two-vessel cord and the choroid plexus cysts are markers for a genetic disease, Trisomy 18. Edwards syndrome. Like Down syndrome, which is Trisomy 21, Edwards is caused by the presence of an extra chromosome-a third eighteenth chromosome. Like Down syndrome, Edwards affects mental and physical development, with one horrifying difference: while most Down syndrome children live relatively happy lives and survive into their fifties (or longer), very few children with Edwards live more than a week. Many are stillborn and many more die within their first hours of life.
I listen to Katherine tell me all of this with my thumb inside Plato’sRepublic, and when she lets out a long, frightened sigh-a maternal sigh, not a clinical one-I feel my heart tighten like a fist. She has seen enough to know the difference between imagined worry and real concern. This is real. Twenty minutes before my first class meets, I feel the implosion begin, the black hole opening, the bottom of the universe spinning through a drain, pulling me down with it.
The only way we will know for certain is with an amniocentesis. In the jargon of baby-making, most know it by its shorthand: “amnio.” The waiting room is filled with parenting magazines, every table and empty seat covered with a glossy photograph of a smiling, healthy baby. We find two seats around the corner, away from the receptionist’s desk. I gather up the magazines and move them away. We sit, staring and silent, until the nurse appears in the doorway and calls our name. We follow her to the same room where a week earlier we had the ultrasound. The sonographer this time is a small woman with dark, spiky hair. Her lab coat hangs to her ankles. She tells us she’s from Reedsburg, Wisconsin, “down by the Dells.” Appleton feels like the big city to her. Kids? we ask. Three, she says. Two boys and a girl. She smiles and rolls her eyes toward the ceiling, unable to keep from thinking of them. She stops herself from telling stories and instead slathers Katherine’s belly with lubricant. “There’s your baby,” she says, excited. It’s obvious that she enjoys her job. We wonder if she knows why we’re here.
The doctor comes in, a diminutive Filipino man in his fifties, still combing the last wisps of his hair on his small round head. He keeps a hand tucked inside his coat pocket. We found him in the phone book the week after we arrived in Wisconsin but have quickly come to appreciate his unflappable demeanor and the fact that the certifications from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that hang on the wall are dated 1985. He’s been doing this a long time. He explains the risks of the amnio: infection, acidemia, a loss of amniotic fluid and, in a small percentage of cases, miscarriage. We say we understand the risks. The sonographer wraps the transducer in a plastic sleeve, which she fills with lubricant and tightens into place with a metal clamp; attached to the clamp is a small slot through which the needle will slide. She moves the transducer along Katherine’s belly until she finds a blank spot, a place where the baby is not. A dotted line transects the screen, marking the trajectory the needle will follow through the skin and into the uterus. The doctor threads the needle through the hole. “Are you ready?” he asks. Katherine nods. “Okay,” he says. “I’m going to count to three and then go in. You’ll feel a pinch and a tightness while the needle is inside.” Katherine nods again. “Okay, then,” he says. He counts slowly, one, followed by a pause, two. He retracts the needle. He gets the th out forthree when the baby’s head emerges on the screen and crosses through the dotted line, right through the needle’s path. “Of course you’d swim over right now,” the doctor says. He laughs, lightly. My heart is racing, but I’m sitting still, holding onto Katherine’s arm. For once my madness is serving me; I have learned to keep it a secret, to sit without moving, even as my mind spins. The doctor moves the transducer to a new spot and begins the countdown again, more quickly this time. He pierces the uterus and pulls back on the syringe. Katherine winces, grits her teeth. The canister of the syringe fills with a dull yellow fluid. “Good color,” he says. “Little frightening there for a moment.” We nod. I exhale. “For you, not for me,” he says.
“Now what?” I ask.
“Now we wait,” he says. “Results in ten days.”
For ten days we do not touch. Even when the desire between us is a third person in the room, an animal growling between us in bed, we resist, afraid of recommitting the act that may have created a doomed child. We have been kicking around names for weeks, but now we choose one, Hayden, aware that it is a name we might have to bury. Home after class, I sit on the edge of the bed and think about the vial of amniotic fluid-Katherine’s water-traveling by van to the lab in Milwaukee. I think of its soft amber color, its protective viscosity, its blizzard of DNA, the helix of Hayden’s existence a braid of Katherine’s alleles and mine. I can’t help wondering if I am responsible, if it is my DNA that caused the cysts and the two-vessel cord. Katherine appears in the bedroom doorway. Her eyes are wet. Without ever speaking of it, we’ve agreed not to reveal our worry to Galen. It is late October, and beyond the window the last yellow leaf flutters on the maple, lit by the sun through the pines beyond the garage. Downstairs Galen bangs his milk cup against his high chair. The thud echoes up the staircase. We’re alone for a moment. She wants to reach for me, and I for her, but we do not. Instead I lie back on the bed and she lies down beside me, and we begin to talk.
For ten days we talk like this: in the mornings lying in bed and in the evenings sitting on the couch. In the first days we conjure forth the worst stories we know. Katherine tells stories from the emergency room, where she worked with the trauma team: of the ten-year-old girl in American Fork, Utah, hit by a pickup truck while crossing in a crosswalk. She was kept alive for two days before support was withdrawn and her heart was allowed to stop and her organs removed for donation. She tells me of mothers backing over their children, babies shaken to death my immature fathers, otherwise healthy eight-year-olds inexplicably bleeding out while having their tonsils removed. I tell her about my grandmother, who slipped on her kitchen floor and hit her head on a cabinet drawer and broke her neck, and about a friend who lost his first child to a chromosomal anomaly not unlike the one Hayden may have. The ultrasound revealed it, the amniocentesis confirmed it, and his wife carried the baby for nine months, delivered her without medication and then held her until she died, just hours after her birth. It helps us to hear each other speak. We try to remind ourselves that the worst can happen and has happened to people we know. Children die and their parents survive; if ours dies, we will survive as well. But I believe we also tell these stories out of the more superstitious belief that if we can possess all the horror in the world, gather it to ourselves and identify it as part of us, then we can dispossess our own narrative of its tragedy. We can bargain our baby to health by convincing God that we have not been immune to suffering. We’ve had our numbers called. Let this one be our freebie.
As the days pass, our stories begin to change. At first we hardly notice. The stories are still as gruesome as ever-babies born with vital organs outside their bodies, car accidents and plane crashes-except that the people we’re talking about aren’t dead. They’re alive. Katherine says that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Utah brought kids back in ways she never thought possible. Six months in the NICU, most of it in the dark, untouched by human skin to prevent infection or the transference of oil, eating and breathing through a tube, but in the end alive. We begin to see the possibility of a middle ground between dumb-luck avoidance of mishap and the suffocating darkness of our worst nightmares.
On the tenth day, the day we’re to hear about the amnio, we lie in bed and whisper to each other the mother of all come-back stories. I saw it in the newspaper years ago, the story of a twenty-two-month-old boy who had wandered away from his babysitter in Rexburg, Idaho, and had fallen into a canal. He was underwater for thirty minutes and had floated more than half a mile before the police fished him out, cold and unresponsive. Paramedics at the scene and doctors in the emergency room performed CPR for more than a half hour before finally pronouncing him dead. The boy’s mother and stepfather spent more than an hour crying over him and kissing his cold skin and saying good-bye, and when they were finished, a nurse came in and wheeled him down the hall to prepare his body for the funeral home. It was then that she noticed his chest was moving, just a little, and realized that he was breathing. He had been pronounced dead, but wasn’t. He was flown from Rexburg to the children’s hospital in Salt Lake City, where Katherine learned more details firsthand. “He was breathing on his own but then had to go back on the respirator,” she says. “About a week later he was upgraded to fair condition. As far as I know, he made it.” We practically giggle while we tell it. We kiss. It could happen. Sometimes it does happen. Every now and then someone makes it back from the dead.
The mistake we make is in believing that stories like these obey Aristotle’s rules for the unity of a plot: that they have beginnings and middles and endings and that the endings result in catharsis. Once the worst has been confronted, it will become a memory and, as a memory, its power will be blunted by the passage of time. When the doctor calls to tell us that the amnio results came back negative, that the baby does not have Edwards or any other genetic condition, I make the mistake of believing that our fears are behind us. The story is over, and I have bested my madness for good.
Through Christmas and New Years and Katherine’s birthday and Valentine’s Day, I live in the tenuous hope that Hayden will arrive without complication, which means that tucked in the closet of my heart, and Katherine’s too, is the secret expectation that complications await us. An organ, or two, or many, could still grow abnormally. Something vital might not kick on when it should. I pray, and I think good thoughts, and when he finally comes, on a wet day at the end of February when the rain is freezing and turning to snow, I watch the doctor and the nurses for signs that Hayden is okay. For the sign that all my anticipation and worry can finally subside.
Initially he’s cheesy and warm and spends his first hour wrapped in a blanket, in Katherine’s arms and then in mine, but by the time the nurse returns to bathe him, his color has turned dusky, and his hands and feet are a deep, bloodless purple. The nurse thinks he might just be cold, but when she tests his oxygen saturation, it’s lower than it should be. She hesitates to take him from us, but finally she does, wheeling him down the hall to the nursery, where he’s given oxygen and x-rayed and his heels are pricked to draw blood for tests. “Probably just fluid in his lungs,” she tells us, adjusting the prongs of the nasal cannulas that deliver air through his noise. “Should drain out in a few hours. We’ve got him on thirty-percent oxygen, which is hardly anything. A whiff. Room air is twenty-one percent. We’ll wean him down, and when he’s off it altogether, we’ll wheel him back to your room. Probably later on tonight.”
I go to sleep on a cot beside Katherine, covered by the two thinnest blankets on the planet. I sleep poorly, shivering, waking every hour to see if Hayden is there. In the morning he’s still in the nursery. “Twenty-three percent,” the nurse says, “shouldn’t be long now.” But he lingers there throughout the morning, and by lunch I accept the fact that it’s going to be another few hours. When Katherine’s mother brings Galen to the hospital, I volunteer to take him home so we both can nap. I want time to move faster. I want the world to reset while my eyes are closed. I want to wake up and call the hospital and hear that Hayden’s in with Katherine, that he’s been there all along. Despite my exhaustion, I can’t sleep and instead pass the afternoon watching the Discovery Channel. At three, the phone rings. Katherine’s voice is higher than usual and slower, altered by the Percocet she’s been given to manage the pain of tearing during the delivery. It is also altered, I understand quickly, by her attempts to manage her worry. “The doctor’s on her way in,” she tells me. Hayden’s getting sicker. They’ve bumped him up to fifty percent oxygen, and he’s still breathing hard.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s hard to say. Maybe residual fluid, maybe pneumonia. Could also be that his lungs are underdeveloped. There’s a NICU a half-hour south, at a bigger hospital. He might need to go there.”
“This place isn’t advanced enough,” she says. “There’s a storm coming, and they don’t want to risk it. To tell you the truth, the nurses here are out of their league. They’re making me nervous.”
It scares me to think that Hayden is sick enough to be out of anyone’s league, and though I have heard Katherine’s irritated accounts of parents defying doctors, thinking they know what’s best for their children by virtue of the fact that their children came from them, I cannot help but fight against the transfer. I ask Katherine if we should call another doctor. Should she call her former colleagues in Utah and arrange to have to test results faxed over? Can we drive Hayden ourselves down to the NICU? Surely he’s well enough for a half-hour ride in the car. “He can’t go off the oxygen,” she says. “Plus, the ambulance is safer . . . in case something happens on the way.”
“Safer,” I to myself as I hang up the phone and rise from the couch to shower and brush my teeth and head back to the hospital. I feel shackled by the word, betrayed by it, and more crazed than ever. All my months of worry and fear seem no longer mad but rather somehow prescient. I was right all along. It’s a feeling far worse than being dead wrong, for now every fear, even the most miniscule, feels rimmed with prophecy. In the shower the water pours over my head and neck and back, filling in my every opening-my ears, my mouth, the cleft of my rear-and I feel strangely sympathetic for the schizophrenic who lunged at Katherine. I understand his rage. I want a neck to squeeze, someone to lunge for. I beat my fist against the shower wall.
By the time I make it back to the hospital, the nursery is empty. The other babies who share Hayden’s birthday are in with their mothers, and Hayden’s bassinette sits empty, waiting for the next infant to fill it. I feel momentarily relieved by the possibility that he’s already gone, that I did not have to bear watching him go and all that will be required of me is to travel to the next place. But around the corner I find a gaggle of nurses standing outside Katherine’s room: three from this hospital and two from the next, and two mustached ambulance drivers in padded navy jackets and cargo pants. Between the two men is a stretcher with a yellow accordion-like base for moving up and down. Attached to the stretcher is a clear plastic isolette. Inside the isolette is Hayden, twenty-six hours old, stripped to his diaper, his eyes closed, his lungs retracting so hard that each breath reveals his ribcage, every last bone. He’s up to seventy percent. The transport nurse slowly tells me the name of the neonatalogist at the NICU. She waits for me to repeat the name back to her. Then she opens the porthole on the side of the isolette and tells me I can touch him. The empty hallway, the bottleneck of nurses, the darkening sky all feel too final, as though if I touch him now I might never touch him again. So I don’t. I claim my hands are cold. The drivers wheel him away, and the nurses follow. I go with Katherine back to her room, where she gathers up her things and changes from her gown to her clothes so we can leave.
I have never taken a longer walk than the one I take that night: the length of the hallway from the room where Hayden was born, past the other labor and delivery rooms, where families have gathered with flowers and balloons, past the nurses’ station, where the women who helped Hayden come sit in a line behind a window with down-turned mouths and watch us leave without him, past the empty nursery, out of the unit, into the elevator, out of the hospital. We don’t walk but shuffle-Katherine’s bag over my right shoulder, her arm looped through my left elbow, her steps tiny and painful, in pink house slippers because her feet are too swollen for shoes. The bottle of Vicodin rattles in her jacket pocket. At the car I help her extend the seatbelt-the movement required to reach across her own shoulder still too painful-and then I climb in behind the wheel and start the engine and drive. Snow is falling, just barely, transparent confetti in the street lamps, but it’s dark and the streets are wet. I keep my eyes fixed on the yellow lines. I have to remind myself to pay attention to the road.
For the next week, madness is a chair beside the isolette, the isolette beside the window, the window reflecting the stack of ever-flowing colored sine waves measuring Hayden’s heartbeat (green), rate of respirations (yellow), blood pressure (red) and oxygen saturation (blue). I watch the monitor for hours, following the nodes on the lines across the screen from right to left, willing them into cadence with my own heartbeat and breaths. If I can slow my own breathing, if I can gulp in enough oxygen to saturate my blood, perhaps I can do the same for Hayden. I lose entire afternoons to this activity, to watching Hayden’s chest fill and deflate, to the view through the window of the parking lot, the school and its whitened playground, where each day at 11:30 children spill out to run, the houses along the road leading toward the highway, the calcified green roof of the Lutheran church, the blackened windows of the defunct paper mill and beyond, in the distance, the puffing stacks of the working mills, silently feeding the gray sky with gray smoke. I listen to the hypnotic percolation of the oxygen through water, and in the course of a day I live my entire life, each event a crested wave on the monitor, each trough the thought of a world without my child in it. I watch Hayden’s chest rise and fall. I pray, and when the priest comes I talk with him and I pray with him, and when he goes I go back to the monitor. I sit with my arms across my chest and my mouth hanging open, my right foot on the heating vent. I listen to the sink running behind me, the nurses washing their hands every five minutes, every time they change a diaper or touch a feeding nipple or move from one child to another.
Only slowly do I understand that I am at peace. I am not conquering madness but surrendering to it. I let it carry me into open water, where I finally come to realize that it will go on forever. When this madness is finished, another will follow it. And another will follow that. The eclipsing worry I first felt that August morning as I watched water fall from my basement ceiling, which metamorphosed into the fear of losing my child, has become an inextricable part of me. Even when Katherine and I carry Hayden through the NICU doors to take him home, it will continue to haunt me. I will wake up and stand in the lightless hallway between my sons’ rooms, or in the basement with a flashlight, and listen to the low, murmuring voice vibrating the bones in my ears with tales of the worst.
Saturday night, and snow is falling. In the awning lights beyond Hayden’s window it looks like orange television static, dense enough that I cannot see through it. Every windshield in the parking lot is white. The nurses lean over the desk and talk about making it home when their shift is over and, more importantly, their shift replacements making it in. One volunteers to make up the beds in the family room. Another calls for roll-away cots to be brought in. A twelve-hour shift might turn into twenty-four. Hayden’s nurse comes to his isolette to check his blood-gas levels. She pauses beside me at the window, and for a moment we watch the snow together. Just beyond the parking lot, a tow-truck winches a sedan from a snow bank. “Even if I get out of here on time, I’m not sure I want to try driving home,” she says.
Katherine is hungry. I tell her I’ll go find her something to eat. She isn’t sure she wants me to. The doctors aren’t allowing Hayden to eat-he gets his calories from a concoction of fatty lipids pushed through a syringe over a thirty-two hour period-and a part of her wants to wait to eat until he eats. “That’s too long,” I say. My voice is calm. I’m happy that the weather prevents us from leaving. “You need your strength.”
The receptionist gives me directions to the vending machine; the cafeteria won’t be open again until the morning. I get off the elevator on the wrong floor and for twenty minutes wander one vacant hallway after another, every turn a turn deeper into a maze. By luck I wander into a waiting area where there’s a bank of vending machines tucked in an alcove. I buy a Snickers and a bag of pretzels and deposit my remaining change into the Pepsi machine. I come up a nickel short. I finger the coin-return trays, and find nothing. I walk out into the waiting room. A woman and a young girl sit facing each other on the couches around the corner, gazing intently into each other’s eyes. The woman is small, curly gray hair cut to her ears and petite rimless eyeglasses floating invisibly on her face. The girl is maybe sixteen, maybe seventeen, her brown hair in a ponytail. She hugs a pillow. The floor around them is strewn with duffel bags and jackets, backpacks and pillows. Snow piles on the windowsill, rising up the glass in a crescent. I ask the woman for a nickel, and she rises to dig in her front pocket. She sets the coin in my palm. A Tupperware container filled with cookies sits on the coffee table. Would I like one? “Okay,” I say. She unfolds a napkin and sets two inside, folds the corners over. I look over to the counter and see four two-liter bottles of soda, a bowl of fruit, a big tray with sandwiches. “You having a campout?” I ask.
“Hardly,” she says. “My nephew is here. Her boyfriend. He was in a car accident nine days ago. A bunch of us have been up here all week. We’re taking the night shift.”
I feel bad about my wisecrack, so I tell her my son is here, too, in the NICU. I tell her I’m sorry. “The waiting is hard.”
The girl nods, and the woman offers me a sandwich. “We have plenty left over,” she says. “The vending machine loses its charm pretty fast.” She finds a paper plate and stacks it high: three ham-and-swiss sandwiches on big, buttery rolls, three more cookies, two apples, a banana. “What’s your son’s name?” she asks me.
“Hayden. Born just the other day.”
“Aw,” the girl says.
“And your nephew’s?”
“Christopher,” the woman says.
“Captain of the universe,” the girl says.
“Of the universe?”
“He was the captain of four teams last year,” the girl says. “Football, basketball, baseball, and wrestling. He’s good at everything.”
“How’s he doing now?” I ask.
“Well, it’s serious,” the woman says. She looks up at me, and I see the worry in her face, the madness of nine days of not knowing whether the story her family will tell every time they get together, the story that will keep them together, will be a triumph or a tragedy. “The injury is in his head.”
“He’s amazing,” the girls says, not letting her finish. “Blowing the doctors away. He never lapsed into a coma, and most people with his injury lapse into comas. Today he opened his eyes.”
The woman rolls her eyes, a movement only I can see. At first I think she doesn’t trust the girl’s enthusiasm, her refusal to acknowledge the wicked possibilities still hovering over them, but then I see that I have misread the scene. The girl is talking to the woman, not the other way around. The girl is telling the story. She’s the only one myopic enough to ignore the tubes and wires and see her boyfriend’s body and brain as whole, their beautiful future together, his open eyes finding her in the room. The woman depends on this. It feeds her. And now it feeds me, too. I need the girl’s unfailing optimism, her story of defied odds and miraculous outcomes, the heat of her belief.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Aug 19 2021
On Defeat and Diego
On Defeat and Diego Alexander Ramirez Once, while I was training at the Police Athletic League in Oak Park, Diego “Chico” Corrales walked into the gym holding a trophy half
Aug 19 2021
Oil Town Overture
Town Overture Dave Zoby At five AM I smell coffee through the floorboards. Carter only drinks organic. He set up his own kitchenette down there. I hear the clink of
Editors' Prize Winner
Jun 02 2021
Opera House By Robert Stothart Everything seemed married to everything else. —Gustave Baumann, printmaker, Santa Fe Overture A mere 7,918 miles in diameter, Earth, our home together, travels a minuscule