In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” the baby gets sick, hurt, touched, eardrum-blasted, tweeted, and loved.
Because my baby forgot me, I take her out for three days in a row, to bond. My wife is having headaches. She has a line of itchy bumps across her waist that she thinks are bed bug bites. I try to assure her we do not have bed bugs, but I have been away, with writers, and it is easy to think I have been up to no good, with insects. The bumps have infiltrated her stretch marks. She itches and itches. She feels like throwing up. She has no energy. I try to forget that these were her symptoms when she was pregnant.
“I can’t be pregnant,” she says, reading my mind. She says she remembers now how bad it was, and she can’t go through that again. Not for nine months. Not even for three days.
She itches. The baby pinballs herself around the room. I try to tire the baby out while my wife tries to recover. Tit for tat. I think I am using that expression wrong.
I take our daughter to the Children’s Museum, to Gymboree, to the Children’s Museum again, to a playground, to Harvard Square, to another playground on the same day. She shies away from other kids. She lets them take her toys. I am not sure what to do. I realize it was better when she was the baby taking. Somehow it is easier to apologize than to defend.
Everywhere we go, people keep touching the baby, and what do I do about that? On Twitter, I tweet, I want to kick this guy in the face. What did I do in real life, Twitter asks. I say I tweeted I want to kick this guy in the face.
At the playground, a child maybe 3 years old walks up and hits my baby in the arm, then walks away. I have no idea why. I tweet that I want to kick this child in the face. What do I do in real life, I ask Twitter? I try to keep my daughter separate. I have brought her out to be social, but I realize I don’t like anyone else, myself.
How do I teach her to let her guard down? Or should I teach her to bite? This is Twitter’s suggestion. I am taking my advice now from people I’ve never met. From 140 characters who only have 140 characters to say.
During the week, I prepare a syllabus for a fiction class I have to teach. I try to think about the basics of storytelling. It comes down to the story and the telling, I want to write. But this is of zero help. What is the fastest way to get to the quick of a piece? What is the fastest way I know of to publish, I was asked recently.
Not your literal heart. I want to make a Joe Biden joke here, but I’ll refrain. I mean, what was it that cut your heart out of you? Write about that. Leave your heart outside, in the cold; give it to someone else.
I tell my students: Make yourself vulnerable. Here are the times I was my worst self. I slammed my wife’s hand in a door. I wrote an essay about it. I told my parents they weren’t my real parents. I wrote an essay about that, too. I wanted to escape after the baby was born. I can’t stop writing about that fear. I tell my students: I know some of you are thinking, what can I give up that’s vulnerable enough but not too vulnerable? Go for the too vulnerable.
When we are done with our three days out, my baby loves me again. She attaches to me, so quickly a change of pace. She comes to me instead of her mom. Just for a little while. She wants me to hug her, to feed her. She wants to be close to me, close enough to feel as if she hasn’t left another body.
Then she wants her mom again. She wants her mom badly. She refuses to eat. She runs a temperature. In my desperation for her love, I have submitted her to germs. Other children are infestations. That is how you must begin to think of them. As potential hazards.
We wonder if we should take the baby to the doctor, but we have learned: the doctor will not be able to do anything without visible symptoms. A fever is a calling card without a number. Who knows the business at hand?
We have learned there is no help until it gets so bad you become desperate for help. This is how people make money off your fears.
After the fever passes is when we go to the doctor, of course. We reach our limit, and Grace reaches her limit. She eats only four ounces of milk in 24 hours. We think she might have strep.
At the hospital, we wait for a doctor and get a nurse practitioner instead. I am sure many nurse practitioners are great. This woman laughs in our faces, says Grace is sick because of the Children’s Museum. She doesn’t bother with a throat culture until we ask for one. She says it’s hand-foot-and-mouth disease, which the baby has had twice already. We know what to look for. She barely looks. Grace has none of the symptoms, but the nurse practitioner has excuses.
We feel like fools. The throat culture is negative. We never learn. We go back to Advil. We go back to dulling the pain until our daughter is numb enough to drink.
When she recovers—no other symptoms ever show up—we take her out to meet a couple of friends of mine with kids. We end up at a Carnival parade in Central Square. We come up out of the subway to find the streets flooded with noise. We can’t get above-water. I cover Grace’s ears. I take her into a shoe shop. “Is that better now?” the staff coos.
Through the window, scantily clad people are shaking body parts I’ve never noticed before. Later, my friend says about her son, “I guess he would have seen it sometime.” We escape into a Dunkin Donuts and wait for the parade to pass. Then we meet up with our other friend.
He says he comes to this parade every year. He says he loves it, though his family doesn’t seem to. We all love each other. But I keep worrying about my daughter, her impressionable body and mind.
Sometimes she goes to music classes and stands there afraid, frozen in place, and then when she gets out, copies everything they did in class. She is always learning in fear. Fear is her most absorptive emotion.
It is the old way of parenting, perhaps: you learn not to touch the stove by burning your hand.
Then I am supposed to be taking care of the baby and she falls and slams her head against a bookshelf, literally two inches away from me. I lift her into my arms as she screams. On her forehead is an—indentation. Like when you drop an apple and you can run your finger through the rut. A clear straight line runs across her head, about 2 inches long. I scream for my wife and she comes running. I point to the line. She says it’s popped in the baby’s skull.
At first, she cradles Grace in her arms and asks where I was. I show her exactly how close. At first, I can see her struggling not to accuse me. The baby screams and screams. Imagine screaming always in the background from here on out. We have to scream over those screams to be heard.
Finally, my wife can’t hold back any longer.
I get defensive. I am afraid of being a bad father. This sort of thing could happen to her, too, I say. But my wife would have moved the books at the bottom of the shelf, so our daughter would have level ground. My wife is always measuring potential hazards.
I was listening to the radio. “It’s just bad luck,” I say, digging myself in deeper. And there is a moment in which I really think: you’ll see when she hurts herself with you. There is a moment when I think about my daughter getting hurt as a sort of vindication of myself.
“We need to come together,” I say. “We shouldn’t let these moments split us apart. We need to show her we’re together on this.”
I am a terrible father.
When my wife has calmed down, hours later, and the indentation has turned inside-out, into a bump, we talk about the traumas of our past. We know how these things last. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about not letting the baby watch TV, and she said her father only let her watch sports and cartoons. Now she hates both. Small traumas made large. She said she hadn’t put it together, about the cartoons, until just then.
We know why I have a problem feeding the baby—I remember being chased around the table to eat my broccoli, the vegetable I still most hate. I can’t get over it. Even the smell of broccoli will make me gag.
My wife, when she was younger, fell off a horse onto her head. She lost consciousness. She had to have a lot of stitches. Then her sister pulled the stitches out, and she had to get them again. Her mom became overly protective.
There, I say. That’s why you’re so sensitive about Grace’s head. I say our daughter will hit her head many more times before she grows up, digging myself in deeper.
But you see my point, I say when I think enough time has passed that she can see a point. It’s our own pasts, our own fears, that are always at work, that are digging up those deep emotions. How do we avoid passing those traumas on? Or, in our writing, how do we make other people feel those emotions? It comes down, I want to say, to how and if we separate the story from the telling.